For weather, circumstance, or both, there is usually one summer that firmly stands out in memory. For many of my Irish friends, that summer is 1995, when Ireland enjoyed an unusual run in warm, sunny days and summer afternoons were filled with swimming, ice cream, and tending to sunburns. For me — among memories of wonderful childhood summers of traveling widely from Alaska to Wyoming — the summer that stands out as a turning point is 2006, the summer before my senior year of college. (The New York Times is currently running an excellent series of articles on summer vacations that impacted a writer’s life, including this one by Sara Novic, that inspired this post.)
The summer of 2006 was divided into two distinct parts: the first half of the summer studying writing in New York City and the second half studying history in Oxford, England. My college summers were normally spent working — retail, waitressing, nannying, at my local library — but during the summer of 2006 I had saved up enough money to spend my final summer before graduation figuring out what kind of adult I wanted to be.
Growing up in New Jersey, New York City is a looming figure, a spiny skyline that after dark, when driving along Route 3, glows in the distance. Manhattan was a recurring character in my childhood; school trips to Lincoln Center, family adventures to the theater district, and when family from out of town visited, sightseeing trips to Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty. When High School hit and “the city” was just a cheap train ride away, I started to explore with friends. I went to the Met for the first time, donating $1 to enter (still, the Met has a “suggested donation” and you can pay as you wish to enter). As a 16 year old, I tasted my first avocado. I was introduced to regional Mexican food. I discovered that I had a reliable internal sense of direction, with no knowledgable teachers or parents guiding the way.
For college, I considered New York City, but ultimately traveled south to attend the University of Miami. By the summer of 2006, age 21, creative writing major, I was ready to spend some time in New York. I was accepted into the Summer Writer’s Colony at the New School in Greenwich Village. Instead of shelving books at the library for the summer I would be attending seminars given by those same writers, workshopping my own writing among talented students, and exploring the city streets that so many writers I admired had called home.
I lived at my family home in New Jersey and commuted into New York City each morning on an express bus. At Port Authority, I took the subway downtown to 14th Street, and walked two long avenue blocks east to 6th Avenue. I read books of poetry while eating plain bagels from Murray’s, wandered through the tall stacks of the Strand bookstore with new friends, and killed time between classes people watching and journaling in Washington Square Park. I got my first glimpse at what a writer’s life could look like, through my varied and passionate teachers. If a workshop ran late in the afternoon, we would sometimes move the group to a nearby bar where the purchase of a drink, in the Spanish tradition, included a hearty snack (lesson 17 of summer 2006: writers are frugal). My work was criticized thoughtfully, I was exposed to writers that I was unfamiliar with, and long summer evenings were spent debating the books I read on the bus in the Lincoln Tunnel.
Barely a week separated wrapping up in New York and arrival in Oxford. I flew to London, my one suitcase weighed down with the required reading for my history classes. I lugged that suitcase through the airport and found the bus going to Oxford. In this pre-smartphone and Google maps era, I followed a paper map to find the entrance to Exeter College, my home for the rest of the summer. I remember struggling with my book-heavy suitcase just to get into the front door of the college; then came the cobbles within and three flights of stairs to my room.
The summer of 2006 in England was unseasonably warm, which made the dorm rooms in Exeter almost unbearably hot. I had a lovely corner room with a big window and a sink in the corner that sputtered out only luke warm water. I soon realized the English don’t share the American fondness for ice. I began dreaming about a huge glass of water filled to the top with ice.
In Oxford, our days were spent in three ways: in classes, reading, and exploring the city. Friendships with a range of international students quickly formed, and when we weren’t writing papers on turning points in modern Russian history, we explored the city’s botanical gardens, covered market, and the other gorgeous colleges that make up the University of Oxford. By night, we sipped our way through the city’s classic pubs, clinking glasses of insanely priced gin and tonics (the dollar to pound conversion was a bit punishing for a student’s budget), and dancing to late night cover bands (every night always seemed to end with “Hey Jude”). We ate our meals at long tables in a historic dining room that looked straight out of Harry Potter. We spent our weekends climbing aboard the train and visiting nearby landmarks like Stonehenge. We went to the ATM as often as necessary, and decided to worry about our bank balances once we returned home.
I never spent a whole semester abroad, but I imagine if I had, the effect would have been similar. Spending significant time in a new place — especially a place outside the borders of your own country — has one overwhelming result: the realization of how big the world is, how many interesting people there are to meet, how travel makes us get to know ourselves in a way that might not be achieved if we just stay home.
At the end of the summer of 2006, I returned to Miami for my senior year of college. But a seed had been planted. All college seniors spend their final semesters wondering what’s next, trying to figure out the right steps once the familiar rhythm of school no longer dictates your schedule. Many of my friends were applying to graduate school or law school, securing first jobs or internships in their field. I was looking at maps. Plotting a course through Europe. Saving up my pennies. My best friend from college and I decided that our next step was Europe, a year abroad to do with as we pleased.
Without the summer of 2006, I’m not sure I would have chosen to travel after graduation. Without a year in Europe, I wouldn’t have met my now husband, lived and worked in Ireland, or found my way into writing about travel.
10 years later, I’m a freelance writer. I’ve lived in Manhattan for the last 6 years. Right now, I am procrastinating working on a major newspaper travel story by writing this blog post. My opera singing neighbor is warming up his voice nearby. The garden on my small balcony is blooming. There’s a fresh pot of coffee in the kitchen. Summer 2016 isn’t turning out to shabby, either.