Why I Travelled to Europe and What I Found Instead

I would like to say that I went to Europe because I wanted to see the world and experience different cultures, but quite frankly, that would be a lie.

Sure, those two reasons factored into my decision to go, but as embarrassing as it is to admit, I really went because I was bored and frustrated. I just desperately, desperately wanted out. I was about to turn nineteen, and some part of me felt like I had never done anything exciting in my entire life–I had never had a true adventure. I suddenly had this insatiable need for excitement that couldn’t fulfilled at home.

So I lied and gave the usual list of reasons for travel to anyone who asked why, and it worked. Cecelia was up for going–we had been talking about going to Europe together since we were fourteen–and my parents and doctors gave me the go ahead. The two of us purchased tickets, and I was caught up in a whirlwind of preparation as we rushed to pull everything together.

And you know what? I didn’t find that excitement in Europe. Not at all. I was surrounded by amazing museums, monuments, restaurants, shops, buildings, and parks; I was with my best friend doing the things we had dreamed about doing for years; I was of more than legal age everywhere we went; and there were no adults to tell me what to do and when to do it; but I still found myself bound with the same weird feeling of boredom. I could feel myself still screaming, “I WANT OUT! LET ME OUT! I AM HERE IN THE PLACE THAT IS SUPPOSED TO BE LIBERATING AND NOTHING IS HAPPENING!! PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, JUST LET ME OUT!”

And it wasn’t until I was sitting on the Tube on our last night in London that I realized that I didn’t know what “out” was and what was holding me back from getting it. I was vigorously straining to free myself from these mysterious shackles in London as much as I was at home. Some part of me felt like I needed to do something bigger, that really proved that I rapidly approaching the end of my second decade, so I dragged Cecelia to a pub one night where I drank a glass of terrible lemonade and Cecelia ate a salad. But even that wasn’t enough, and I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my morals to do anything further like ordering a proper drink. So I left London, happy with my experiences there, but still hopelessly trapped.

Then, one evening in Paris, after being embarrassingly and unjustly nasty to Cecelia following an unfortunate Metro experience, I figured out what it was: I could run away from environments all I liked, but I couldn’t run away from my own head and my self-imposed repression.

I have a list of rules a mile long, and I am insanely strict about following them. I don’t curse, and my eyes will actually skip over those words while I’m reading so that I will not say them in my head. I won’t knowingly eat food that has alcohol in it, even if it has “cooked off.” I don’t wear skirts or dresses without bike shorts on the off chance that my underwear might show. If I can’t see at least one rib without sucking in, I drastically cut back on food. I pinch myself whenever I take the Lord’s name in vain (which I do far too often), and I will just leave or pretend I don’t know them if I think the people I’m with are acting inappropriately. And the list goes on. In short, I can be a horrible, horrible prig.

I also can’t escape how mental illness has affected my life. I can’t change that I spent a majority of my Junior and Senior years of high school missing out on numerous social and academic activities because I was in and out of treatment facilities and heavily medicated. Those feelings of alienation and loneliness are going to take a long time to fade, and I don’t think that I will ever fully be freed from mental illness–I’ll only ever be able to cope better.

And what happened then continues to affect me now. This past year has been spent hanging out in a waiting room before leaving for college. It was all about coming up with productive ways to fill my time or things that numbed the shame of being left behind again. Everyone else was doing wonderful, exciting things, living on their own, being independent, and learning while I was tapping away on my computer, grading book summaries, and reading so much that I would end each day seeing double.

They came back home matured and confident, with stories of their adventures, and all I had to contribute was “so I went to this book event in the city about a book you’ve never heard of by an author whom you have probably only ever heard me mention, but believe me, it was really good.”

My life was dull and greyed compared to theirs, and I felt so abandoned and embarrassed to be unable to relate. And more than all of that, I was perpetually aware that if I didn’t find some way to prove myself in this waiting room, I was only going to be stuck in there longer. I spent a lot of time lying about how wonderful it was to take a gap year, and each fake smile and untruth made me feel even more ashamed.

Europe, no matter how wonderful, isn’t going to get me away from being unreasonably self-repressed or ashamed. That can’t be purchased on High Street in London or found below The Eiffel Tower. Even the middle of Lac Léman isn’t going to have the answer. The solution comes from within and being able to forgive and liberate myself, and gaining the ability to do that is going to be a lifelong process.

On the plane ride home, during hour three of eight, I started to think about whether the trip had been a failure in that regard, whether I was returning with the same amount of self-hatred I had before I left, and whether I should have waited to go. Was it a mistake to have gone seeking something I could have found at home?

But after a little more reflection and accidentally dumping a cup of soda in my lap, I realized that the trip had been a success in so many other regards.

Maybe I was still quite ashamed of myself, but I had climbed to the top of Le Arc de Triomphe, even though I am monstrously afraid of heights;

Ah, the weird facial expressions of someone who feels both victorious and like they are going to faint.

I ate three meals a day for nearly two weeks, something I haven’t done since I was thirteen;

I didn’t regurgitate any of the food I put in my mouth;

I only took two real breaks due to anxiety;

Feeling faint and checking my pulse halfway up Le Arc de Triomphe. It was absurdly high, and I nearly cried, but I did not hyperventilate and got to the top.

I only cried from unhappiness once;

While I don’t actually have a picture of me in tears–Cecelia is far to nice to ever take a picture of me doing that–I do have a picture from while I was crying. You’ll just have to imagine me into it–mental photoshop, if you will.

and –though I’ll let Cecelia be the real judge of this–I don’t think that I was quite as priggish as I normally am in stressful situations.

My self-imposed rules didn’t vanish like I hoped, but I learned that I can be braver and take bigger emotional risks than I truly though possible. I got to spend loads and loads of time with my best friend, and I had a monstrous amount of fun exploring London and Paris, my two favorite cities, visiting the Geneva area for the first time, and meeting Cecelia’s French family. I spoke French and managed not to make any embarrassing mistakes. I got to go shopping at my favorite at my favorite British and French stores, and I saw some amazing museum exhibits. And even though this wasn’t the first time I’ve travelled by myself, or even travelled to Europe alone, I feel like I truly proved that I can be an independent adult.

In the end, I got the things I had lied about seeking, seeing the world and experiencing different cultures, and didn’t get the thing, that “out,” I was actually searching for.

And you know what?

I am totally okay with that.

In fact, I am glad that it turned out this way.

Eleanor Does Europe: Traveling Without Expectations

One of the best things about my trip to Europe was that it was rather spontaneous. Cecelia and I had around a month and a half between deciding to go and actually leaving. I only finished printing the itinerary moments before we left for the airport. I didn’t have time to fantasize about how awesome or scary the trip was going to be. It just happened, and I suddenly found myself eating an early lunch in the garden of Southwark Cathedral and fighting off jet lag. I spent the entire trip living in now, not comparing reality to my expectations, and that was fantastic.

Yes, of course, I didn’t leave home without a very detailed document with addresses, phone numbers, websites, hours, maps, etc. and a rough outline of the places we wanted to visit and the order we planned to do them in, but it was in no way a rigid schedule. I suddenly wanted to go shopping at Top Shop and Cecelia wanted to go exploring in Hyde Park? No problem. Let’s meet at the statue of Prince Albert at seven. The prep work was only there to make life easier and more relaxed. I didn’t have to get anxious about arriving at Le Musée D’Orsay at exactly 15:00 on the 24th because we knew the hours and could just fit it in on another day if we didn’t finish the exhibit.

Our small amount of pre-trip planning worked, we saw a lot, and the trip was unquestionably a success. I got to come home a very proud independent world traveler, antsy after eight hours on an airplane, quite tired, and full of exciting stories to tell my family. There wasn’t any part of me that was upset that something hadn’t happened as I had imagined–because there weren’t any expectations I was trying to fulfill.

Perhaps my recipe for future traveling success is to fantasize less and be more slap-dash and spontaneous. There is a certain magic in just rolling with life rather than trying to force order out something so inherently chaotic. Let’s hope I remember this lesson when I travel again at the end of the month.

Eleanor Does Europe: An Introduction

At the end of May, my best friend, Cecelia, and I travelled to Europe to celebrate the end of her first year at Yale and my nineteenth birthday. It wasn’t the first time we had travelled to Europe or the first time we had travelled together without adults, but it was the first time we’ve ever travelled alone internationally and that made the excitement of going to Europe even more thrilling.

We had an amazing time, and I’m determined to get our experiences down in writing before the memories start to fade at the edges and become tired, memorized stories to be trotted out whenever traveling or Europe is mentioned at the dinner table or thought about in generalizations while staring into space and avoiding reality.

So here is the trip in words and pictures.

Let’s commence.

I’d start at the beginning–posing for a photograph in front of the airport, suitcases in hand, nervous but excited smiles on our faces–but that would be too dull. The details of the check-in counter and how I stored my carry-ons aren’t of any general interest.

Cecelia is on the left, I’m on the right.

So we’ll go in images and moments, the way memories are stored. A little bit about the way I felt on the escalators at Westminster, trying to be blasé and fit in when I actually had no idea where I was supposed to be going, sleeping on Cecelia’s lap on the Eurostar, exhausted, anxious, and happy, or looking up at Notre Dame and thinking, “Hello again, let’s keep up these regular visits because I love you very much.”

For those of you reading this in the archives, here are the links to the posts written about the trip:

Coming Soon

In Which Ella is Jet-Lagged

And…I’m back from Europe.

Today has been spent trying to stay awake until eight p.m. I have one hour to go, and I don’t know if I’ll make it. It is nice, however, to have regular internet access again, and the chance to get back into daily blogging. I’m looking forward to sharing pictures and stories from the trip. Tomorrow, I tell you, tomorrow I’ll begin.

But for now, I’m make myself take another walk around the block before collapsing into my lovely, lovely, absolutely wonderful bed.

Goodnight.

Ella and Cecelia Go to Europe: The Pre-Departure Jitters

In exactly a week, Cecelia and I will be flying to London. I am equal parts excited and petrified.

Excited, of course, because, my goodness, it’s Europe, I’m going to turn nineteen there, and I get to spend nearly two weeks traveling with my best friend. The thrill of getting to have that kind of independence and knowing that I’m quite nearly a true adult is indescribable. Plus, the thought of all of the museums and historical places we’ll visit makes me make weird excited facial expressions that have my parents questioning my sanity.

But at night I have stress dreams of dying on airplanes and having meltdowns in the middle of Trafalgar Square. They’re so vivid that I can feel the fabric of the seat against my thighs and the metal seat buckle digging into my abdomen. There’s whiplash, and I can feel myself falling, the pilot saying, “brace for impact,” and the screams of the other passengers. Or I am curled in a fetal position on the ground, tiny bits of grit digging into my face as I stare at an infinite sea of shoes and grey stone, crying. I wake up, twisted in the sheets, breathing far too quickly, and paralyzed with anxiety. It usually requires the entire one hour and thirty-three minutes of the Downton Abbey Christmas Special for me to calm back down again.

And then there is the fear that my anxiety will ruin the trip for Cecelia. Unfortunately, I get overwhelmed very easily and often need to rest in the afternoons to maintain a certain level of emotional stability. I can only close my eyes and say, “one, two, three, GO!!!” to myself so many times. Too much and I burst into tears, get unbearably haughty, or just refuse to move. And I do not want to prevent Cecelia from doing fun activities simply because I’m feeling anxious.

This trip is supposed to be all about being young, carefree, and spontaneous. We officially decided to go to Europe at one a.m. on a Tuesday morning and then immediately purchased tickets and booked lodging so that unlike the past few years, our European adventure wouldn’t remain purely hypothetical. The whole trip is supposed to be about things like me singing “I Live in Trafalgar Square” in the actual Trafalgar Square just to drive Cecelia nuts:

(Ignore the reenactment of The Battle of Hubbardton, this was the only youtube video I could find with the song.)

It’s supposed to be about sitting in a café in Paris on my birthday and clinking glasses and biking in the Alps near Geneva; and it’s also supposed to be a little bit of rebellion where we get to do things our way at our leisure and no parent or other adult can tell us otherwise.

Disclaimer: Of course, by rebellion I mean one that doesn’t involve clubbing or getting drunk. I’m as straight-laced as you can get in that regard with no cursing, caffeine, drinking, smoking, drugs, or any other morally lax behaviors. (And no, that does not mean that I am a Mormon or an evangelical Christian–I’m Episcopalian–and no, I don’t think that everyone should be required to or frowned upon if they don’t make the same lifestyle choices as me.)

Disclaimer Sidebar: In the spirit of honesty and full-disclosure, unlike the other things, I have tried caffeine before and had it occasionally between the ages of thirteen and fourteen and then once again on my seventeenth birthday. The last time ended with me getting incredibly jumpy for a few hours and then very tired. I do have a picture of my first sip from that day, however. As you can tell from the picture, I think that Coke with caffeine in it tastes funny. I have not had it since, don’t feel like I’m missing much, and don’t plan on ever having it in the future.

Say hello to Cecelia’s elbow. Sadly, that’s probably as close as we’re ever going to get to a proper picture of her on Eleanor Called Ella, so you better soak it in. It is a very nice elbow.

So I hope that when Cecelia and I do arrive at the airport next Saturday afternoon, I don’t find my anxiety in overdrive and that we’re able to enjoy a trip free from any of my meltdowns. I figure that if I truly put my mind to it, I’ll be able to successfully use my coping skills and that with the boost of regular medication and extra Xanax, we’ll be okay.

In the meantime, I will try to stop watching youtube videos of plane accidents, looking up United Airlines’ safety record, and practicing airplane and train crash positions.

Cecelia and Eleanor Are Traveling to Europe!

It gives me great pleasure to announce that Cecelia and I will be traveling around Europe for twelve days at the end of the month.

We will be visiting London, Paris, and the Geneva area.

Now, I’ve already spent substantial time in both London and Paris, but I know that there is so much more to explore, and I have never spent anytime in Switzerland.

And that’s where you come in, dear readers. I need some advice. Do you have any favorite spots in these areas? Any place that you think that we would enjoy seeing? Please leave any suggestions in the comments!

Expect many exciting travel posts in the coming weeks as we prepare for, go on, and return from our trip.

I also realize that I haven’t plugged my tumblr in quite a while. If you’re into that kind of thing, it’s also called Eleanor Called Ella.

Ella and the Wrath of the State Capitals

One would think that being unable to remember the capital of Alabama (Montgomery) or Minnesota (Saint Paul) would not cause me enough anxiety to put a serious damper on my day, but it did.

I am normally very pleased with my ability to recall American and European geography–it’s one of the few things that makes me feel really good about myself. So when I can’t perform up to standards, I panic. My internal dialogue usually ends up going something like this:

“Capital of Minnesota. What is it? You know you know this. Why can I only spout facts about the state and its neighbors that have nothing to do with the capital right now?”

I start shaking my legs, my breathing begins to speed up, and I can hear the too-fast pounding of my heart.

“OH. MY. GOD. I am an idiot, a utter and complete idiot. How do I not know this? You couldn’t remember the location of Kosovo earlier, and you only pretend to understand economics. Your grammar stinks. You even stopped one page into the decision fatigue article in The New York Times, and you clicked on an article about anti-bacterial soap instead of reading about Libya. You don’t even care anymore. You’re one of those people who just pretends to be smart.”

And so it goes until I finally Google the answer and move onto the next state, only to repeat the process when I hit Alabama twenty states later. My freak-out over what country was between Lithuania and Poland was, in retrospect, entirely comical; and my reaction to discovering that it was, in fact, just part of Russia was even more so. I should have been able to figure out it easily, seeing how I know that it is the location of Kaliningrad, an obviously Russian city.

I feel that this is a very appropriate time for me to dramatically sigh and ironically complain about just how difficult my life is.