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Following a Fairy Tale, Part 1

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He leaned over, and kissed her on the balcony. Millions of people watched. I was there.

The moment lasted only seconds, but my journey to Buckingham Palace, where I saw Prince William embrace his new bride, is quite a long story. As a young woman, I had grown up watching Disney princesses marry their Prince Charmings, but soon these beloved childhood films would define my adventure into adulthood.

Merriam-Webster defines a fairy tale as “a story in which improbable events lead to a happy ending.” There is no greater summary I can give of my journey to the Royal Wedding.

My decision to study abroad and follow a real love story, a British romance which had fascinated Americans for almost a full decade, helped me break out of the Disney bubble I had been stuck in for too long.

*****

Growing up in upstate New York, I never went far without holding my parents’ hands. I was comfortable in my surroundings, and therefore I didn’t feel the need to explore. Riding down the street with my bike was a road trip, and, like many young girls, my means of escape was dreaming of princes and castles. Unfortunately, my Disney films, along with my pink princess blankets, were my only connections to the British monarchy. Prince William was just another movie character.

By the time I reached high school, I started to let myself leave the comfort of home, but taking the bus to school seemed to be the bulk of my autonomy. For most of my life until then, it was someone else in the driver’s seat, and I was perfectly fine with that. Passengers never have to worry about directions.

*****

If the shoe fits, wear it. My Nike sneakers weren’t exactly new, and they did not quite fit me as well as Cinderella’s glass slipper fit her, but they are memorable nonetheless in that they were on my feet as I embarked on my first solo trip and stepped into the real world.

It was my junior year, and I knew I had to start embracing a new kind of independence. Soon I would be a senior and searching for colleges, so any preparation was helpful. I decided to embark on my first independent trip in the States—eight hours on an Amtrak train.

I was ready to taste my first real bit of freedom, but not without my irrational reservations. How would I carry my luggage all by myself? What if there aren’t any seats left? What if the passenger next to me is a recently released convict? It didn’t take long for me to laugh at these initial fears. Sitting peacefully, enjoying the ambient sounds of the train gliding over the tracks beneath my feet, and anticipating each scene out of my long and narrow window, I was proud of taking on this new experience. Besides the young boy behind me screaming for most of the trip and occasionally kicking the back of my seat, the ride went smoothly.

It wasn’t until college, however, that I would discover what it really means to be self-sufficient. My decision to study abroad not only allowed me to experience a new culture, but its real significance came from the fact that it allowed me to travel. Really travel.

England seemed so far away—it always had. There was no way I would be able to see Big Ben up close or walk along the Thames River. Prince William, now smitten with his girlfriend Kate Middleton, a commoner in Britain, still seemed to be an imaginary, too-good-to-be-true character.

Even after I was accepted into my study abroad program in Lancaster, England, I found it hard to picture myself in such a distant country. All the paperwork was done, but I was convinced something would keep me from going.

I remember the day a friend sent me the exciting news. Suppressing screams, I read that Will and Kate would marry on April 29 at Buckingham Palace, during the time I would be studying in England. I entertained the idea that I could actually go to the Royal Wedding. My mom, even though she was excited for my chance to go abroad, had her doubts about my royal hope. “You think with a million other people there you’re going to be able to see anything?” Never failing to be a realist, she insisted on mentioning the improbabilities. But that didn’t stop me from dwelling on the slight chance I might get to see the celebrated couple in real life.

*****

Flight 112, Gate 5, Seat 35C—the numbers for my magic carpet ride. Unlike Jasmine, however, I didn’t have Aladdin to guide me.

I felt lost in the sea of arrivals and departures in New York City’s JFK airport as I searched for the correct gate displaying my destination, London Heathrow. Hoping to take a rest, I walked through the food court with my blue and gray Eddie Bauer backpack in the hopes a table would clear up, but of course there were no seats anywhere. At least I had less baggage to deal with after checking my forty-seven-pound blue suitcase back at security.

Having finally found an empty chair, I had time to reflect on the kindness of the employee at check-in who, after noticing my trepidation and inexperience with flying, talked me through exactly what I would face at the Heathrow airport upon arrival.

“They’ll stamp your passport. Then, you’ll walk through usual security. Don’t worry, you should have plenty of time to make your connecting flight.”

She answered all of my remaining questions, and then handed me the check-in baggage receipt with a reassuring smile.

I reached my gate and was ready to board my first overseas flight as I stood behind a nicely dressed young man in a tan suit coat and brown leather shoes in New York City’s JFK airport—an outfit much too stylish, I thought, for a young American male. It wasn’t until the fashionable young man spoke into his cell phone with a British accent that I finally let myself believe it—I was going to England. I WAS GOING TO ENGLAND. The land of tea, scones, and Orlando Bloom!

I was next to walk through the gate when the same check-in employee from earlier ran up to me, handing me a brand-new ticket. Concerned by my earlier hesitation, she had taken the time to switch my seat, print me a new ticket, and find me in the sixteenth largest airport in the world. The new seat would allow me to depart the plane sooner and therefore get through international security more quickly. After witnessing her compassion, I began to wonder why I was so afraid to travel by myself. People are willing to go out of their way for you if you just ask.

My flight from JFK to London Heathrow gave me many firsts. It was my first plane ride more than two hours, my first trip overseas, my first taste of becoming an adult. Soon I would be in London. LONDON. I had to keep reminding myself that the city would no longer just be the setting of Mary Poppins, but a real destination.

I had just finished Ratatouille on my personal British Airways TV, not quite ready to let go of my Disney persona. But, I was in the same country as Will and Kate, and I somehow knew they were becoming even more real.

I don’t know what I expected, but Heathrow didn’t seem much different from JFK. The boarding times were displayed, travelers were running through the airport, passengers picked up their checked luggage, etc. Some lined up by the currency exchange station centered in the middle of the airport, and several others crowded the souvenir shops scattered throughout the ground floor.

I did not see my connecting flight to Lancaster listed on the display screen, a realization that caused my first panic attack. Did I miss my flight? Am I lost? How do these British airports work? I asked someone why my flight was not on the list. Expecting to hear a British accent, I was surprised when the older male calmly explained, in an American voice, that the airport doesn’t list the flights until it gets closer to boarding time. This was just the first of many questions I would ask locals in my travels through Europe.

I used to be nervous to even call someone I didn’t know on the phone. Even hearing my parents ask if I would like to call for a pizza delivery would immediately cause butterflies to flutter in my stomach. Walking up to a stranger for information was out of the question. As a child, I successfully learned to avoid store employees and was determined to find items myself—even if that meant searching through every aisle. In a foreign country, however, I discovered how quickly I needed to get over this fear. I could not afford to waste any time in my travels, especially in Heathrow.

My flight number, thankfully, soon appeared on the display board. Having found the correct gate, I could now relax for a few minutes and look out the window at London for the first time. Foggy – just like in Mary Poppins.

Eventually, becoming familiar with my new surroundings, I made it to Lancaster University— my host campus and new home for the next six months. I congratulated myself for having successfully mastered the world of flying.

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