The plane touched down at London’s Heathrow airport, early, about 8 in the morning. I got up out of my seat and stretched my body after a long plane ride. I grabbed my overhead luggage, and bid a quick farewell to my annoying seatmate, who thankfully I would never have to see again.
I stepped off the plane and just took it all in. I was here, in England, all by myself. I could hardly believe it. Shortly after that, the elation wore off, and sheer terror set in. My mind became of jumble of anxious thoughts.
What am I doing? Why did I come here by myself? I don’t know anybody! What if I get lost? What if I get homesick? What if, what if, what if? I continued to curse my decision to travel solo, all the way through security and baggage claim. I was living my dream, but I had no idea it was going to be so scary.
I was going to be staying with a friend of a friend, a woman whom I had never met before. I had no idea what she looked like, and had only talked to her on the phone once. This experience was entirely new for me. As I dragged myself sleepily through the long hallway, and down into the greeting area, I scanned the crowd for Joyce, and spotted her almost immediately, as she was standing there smiling, holding a cardboard sign with my name on it. She was about 75 years old, and I immediately liked her, even though I hadn’t officially met her yet.
My luggage trailed behind me as I made my way over to her. I was scared, I missed my parents, I missed my friends, but there I was.
“Hi, I’m Megan!” I smiled as I held out my hand.
“Well nice to finally meet you Megan, would you like a cup of tea?” was her immediate reply.
As a person who never turns down tea or coffee, I agreed, and we made our way over to the airport diner.
“You must be exhausted after your plane ride! You sit here, and I’ll grab us some tea”. She shuffled her way up to the counter to place the order, and was soon back with two steaming cups of tea. I thanked her profusely and slid down in my chair. My body was tired.
“Well”, she started, “I think we should hop on the train, go back to Reading, unload all your stuff, then we’ll do some sightseeing!”
I sat there wondering how this woman could possibly have so much energy when all I wanted to do was sleep, but I liked her plan and we decided to spend the day in Windsor. We took the train there, and spent the day touring Windsor Castle, eating scones and clotted crème and getting to know each other.
As it turns out, Joyce had travelled all over the world by herself, and she still took a trip whenever she had the time. Back in her flat, her fridge was covered, absolutely covered, in magnets from all the places she had travelled too. There was hardly a spot of white left on her fridge. Well, I thought to myself when she told me of her travels, her flight in a Concorde jet and her hikes across Thailand, if she can do it, so can I. Here she was, my travel mentor, all wrapped up in a little old English lady package. I thanked fate for bringing us together.
We spent the next several days touring around London, and she never let me pay for a thing. I tried to pay for her dinner once, but she wasn’t having it. She started to call me her travel good luck charm, because we saw things together she had never seen in her life. The opening of parliament happened to be on the day we visited Buckingham Palace, and we got to see the Queen. A boat was passing through the Thames while we visited the Tower of London, and we got to see the Tower Bridge open. She was telling her friends about our adventures for weeks!
It was soon time for me to leave with a tour group and take a whirlwind trip around Europe. She made me promise to call her when I got back to London so she could come to the airport with me. She dropped me off at my hotel and was then on her way. As soon as she walked away, that familiar feeling of homesickness started to crush me, and I missed her terribly. She was one of the nicest people I have ever met in my life, and it felt like I had known her forever.
My tour of Europe went by in a flash, and I came back to London with new friends and tons of new stories. I rang up Joyce to tell her I had returned safely, and we made plans for her to meet me at the hotel the next day.
The next morning, me, my new friend Jess, and my old friend Joyce set off for the airport. I made the mistake of eyeing two stuffed bears that were dressed up as an English cop and guard respectively, and before I knew it she had bought them for me. They still are sitting prominently on my bookshelf, and every time I look at them, I am reminded of her, and of my first solo trip.
Soon I was back in Canada, and had resumed my normal, “boring” life. Joyce and I wrote to each other, and I began to think of her as my surrogate grandmother.
Four years after my initial trip to Europe, Joyce came over to Canada to visit. She stayed with a friend, but I went over to visit often. I took her out for Chinese and Thai food, and showed her around my hometown. I was so excited to show her the same kind of hospitality she had shown me. She was here for about a month, then she went back home to England.
A couple years after that (and countless letters in between), I found out that Joyce was sick, and she was not going to be getting better. She had no children, but tons of friends, so she was well taken care of. Joyce died last year after getting diagnosed with cancer, and there is no doubt in my mind she went flying straight up to heaven.
Joyce was one of those life changing people for me. She was a kind soul, and you couldn’t help but like her. She had a total lust for life, and it was contagious. She fed my love of travel, and she encouraged it.
It is because of her that I know I can go anywhere by myself, and be alright while I am there. I don’t think I ever thanked her for giving me that confidence. If I didn’t have her as a role model, I wouldn’t have seen half the things I have seen in my life. She remains a wonder to me, and I will always think of her as the person who almost literally gave me wings.
So now my fridge is slowly starting to become cluttered with magnets of all the places I have been, things I have seen, adventures I have had. It is my little shrine to her, my jet-setting grandma.