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My very first trip abroad happened at what could be considered the worst possible time. Iʼd been laid off for more than a year, and after a number of fruitless interviews I was officially burned out. Then, a friend of mine announced that she wanted to celebrate her birthday in London.

There was only about three months’ notice, but something inside of me said to go for it. Iʼd recently received my passport and was eager to litter its naked pages with proof of my love for travel. So there I was with meager means, no job, and weak prospects—booking my first trip overseas.

Altogether, there were eight of us in the traveling party, meeting in London from New York, Memphis, Atlanta and Dallas to take up residence at the serviced apartments of 196 Bishopgate. My travel mates beat me there and the jet lag left them crumbled beneath their bed sheets. I, on the other hand, was feeling empowered from having navigated my way to the flat without error, using the Heathrow Express and the London Underground. I took to the streets to explore the neighborhood.

On our first night in the city, we ventured to Camden Town. After tapas and cocktails we went to see Raheem DeVaughn perform at Jazz Cafe London. I thought it was pretty ironic to fly nine hours and see an artist from D.C., but as I looked at the flyers for upcoming performances, something became very clear. Many of the artists from the golden era of hip hop (the 80s and 90s) who otherwise disappeared from the American music landscape all had gigs on the books at Jazz Café London. Lords of the Underground, the Beatnuts, KRS-One, and Large Professor of Main Source represented just a slice of the talent to come. I finally found where real music went to thrive while we bounced and bopped to nonsense on the U.S. airwaves. I was amazed at my feelings of nostalgia despite being so far away from home.

The late night led to a long, lazy morning. As evening fell, a friend of the group—an expat living in Amsterdam—told us where we could hear some good reggae. It was one of those places that had a name that you’d forget just as soon as you heard it. I had to admit, some folks in the crowd looked sketchy and my suspicions were confirmed when I was furtively offered pills and cocaine. I politely declined and we reeled for a moment in shock, but when I tell you that the “selector” played some of the best dancehall I’d heard in years, it wouldn’t be an overstatement.

The following morning, we opted for breakfast at a pub across the street. Much to our surprise, the locals were having beer and wine with their meals so we decided to follow suit. After filling up on breakfast croissants and hot chocolate with Bailey’s we headed to Leicester Square for a hop-on-hop-off double-decker bus tour. Our time in the city was limited so we needed to be discerning with our picks. Instead of fighting the crowds to tour Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London, we instead opted to ride on the top of the bus, scanning the sights and learning the lore of historic landmarks. Our route sailed us leisurely past Trafalgar Square, the National Gallery, Covent Garden, London Dungeon, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge (the landmark often incorrectly called London Bridge), the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Parliament, and Buckingham Palace. It was a photo-taking frenzy and I never felt content resting my camera in my lap for even a moment. From the open top of the bus I had a sweeping panorama of the city, draped in its usual grey and misty coat.

Each of these sights were breathtaking and inspiring, particularly to a British lit nerd like myself, but the sartorialist in me could barely stand the excitement of finally visiting Harrods. The behemoth of luxury shopping consumed seven floors and 4.5 acres of real estate. I could have easily spent the entire day there as I reveled in the opulence of the Egyptian staircase, explored countless galleries of haute couture, peered curiously into the Vueve Clicquot lounge, and practically took up residence in the shoe boudoir. I didn’t have the chance to see it all, but I did manage to buy an ornament of a teddy bear dressed as a Beefeater for my mother’s Christmas tree.

On my final evening in town we had plans to hit the Icebar, but had our hopes crushed when we learned that reservations were required to enter. As a consolation prize, we had dinner at the attached restaurant and toasted to our jolly good time in London.

By the way, I returned home to a job offer. When your instincts tell you to do something, listen.