It was the first time I had flown anywhere by myself and as I sat on the 10+ hour flight to San Francisco, looking forward to my new adventure: a move abroad. The excitement was almost too much to bear. Now thirteen years later, and while I enjoy solo travel abroad more than I ever thought, my adult anxiety always creeps up on me and sticks around until I reach my final destination and settle into my accommodation. But when I was younger, that fear of the unknown didn’t even cross my mind. Here’s a little story about how I left my hometown just north of London and escaped to the West Coast of the United States for eight months, when I was 19.
In the Beginning
I was on my way to work abroad as an au pair for a family and their three children. I didn’t know anyone in California. My only backup plan if it all went wrong was to head to Atlanta where I had family. I stayed in the United States a total of eight months, and never left the Bay Area. Looking back, this seems like such a waste. But back then I wanted a break. A break from my school, my life, my family and friends. It meant that I threw myself into a new, temporary life pretty swiftly.
I met a couple of au pairs on a tram near Fisherman’s Wharf about four days after arriving and found myself with a huge network of womxn in a similar situation to me. With their help I was quickly able to figure out what things to do in San Francisco during my spare time.
I spent my working days with the kids, helping out around the home and wandering the sunny streets of Berkeley with my headphones on during my breaks. On the weekends I would pack a bag on Friday evening, say goodbye to my host family (I was living with them across the Bay in North Berkeley), and take the BART into the city and not come back until Sunday evening. The friends I clung to were the ones who wanted to go out each weekend and dance and flirt with guys.
Making New Friends
My new friends were happy to let me crash at their apartments and hang out with them for most of the weekend. We would go out on Friday and Saturday night’s and spent the daytimes reliving the fun from the night before, hanging out at food courts and doing a bit of shopping Downtown. While that all sounds great, like I was living my own real-life TV series, the reality felt very different.
See, balancing those relationships and being part of the group we had created played on my existing insecurities. I clung onto the weekly routine which meant that I would go along with my friends’ plans, not always getting to do what I wanted or even thinking about what I wanted to do because I didn’t want to lose the friendships and end up not having a place to spend the weekends.
Over time I started to feel like I was missing out on the things the rest of the group were doing and I felt like I didn’t really fit in anymore. The truth is, I’ve never fit in well with groups of girls or womxn. I never seem to understand or ‘obey’ the unspoken rules that go along with girl ‘squads’. And once I started to feel alienated I wasn’t secure enough to just let it go and do my own thing — so while the other au pairs went on regular weekend trips to discover a new State or area, I stuck to my routine despite how unhappy it actually made me.
Years down the line I joined my local Girl Gone International group in London and became inspired by how many women travelled to discover new countries so often. I realised I could do it too. I am self-employed and work remotely most of the time. So what was stopping me? And so I began to book small trips to new cities for three or four days at a time; I’d always seek out cheap flights and cheap apartments or hotels to stay in.
I rarely gave myself a to-do list while on these trips. Instead I preferred to discover each place at my own pace without anyone slowing me down or rushing me. Some things haven’t changed since that first solo adventure to California, though. The feeling of discovering a new city with its own culture still excites me. Just as all those years ago the things that stay with me from my trips are the architecture of the buildings, the transports systems and the light. Each place has its own light — the light is always different.
The light, the buildings and the feel of San Francisco thirteen years ago and the fact that it was the city that let me escape my old life, even if only for a short while has meant it always holds a special place in my heart. Even though I may not have been quite myself while I was there, if you gave me a visa to move back to the Bay Area I would leave tomorrow.