Life changing moments: how many have you had?
These transformative events – these life-defining instances – can come in an assortment of shapes and sizes. Some are phone calls: “you’ve got the job! When can you start?” Others arrive unexpectedly: three matching symbols on a scratch card. Some come even as small as a thought; that very moment you decide to stop wrestling with a difficult decision and resolve to act on it: time to leave your job, leave your home, leave it all behind.
If you’ve had one of these moments, then maybe you’ll understand the term ‘flashbulb memory’. The theory goes that startled by the significance of the event, your brain reacts like hysterical paparazzi; firing its flashgun in order to capture the moment in dazzling technicolour. From remembering the texture of your resignation letter, to what music was playing as you booked that one-way flight, flashbulb memories are uniquely detailed and ever enduring; front-page tabloid memories in a sea of otherwise everyday news.
Casting my mind back over my own catalogue of flashbulb memories, one in particular stands out.
In it, I am washing my hands in a white porcelain sink; foaming bubbles of Molton Brown’s Black Peppercorn hand wash filling the basin. Overhead, I can hear classical music playing – the Flower Duet by Lakme chiming gently throughout the public bathroom. I’m wearing a soft grey jumper and a pair of now loose fitting jeans – the last few months of anxiety resulting in a now superhuman metabolism.
Drying my hands on a soft white towel, I stop to listen to an announcement echoing outside in the terminal. “Will all passengers on the 11.15 BA flight to Washington DC, please proceed to gate B32”. Adrenal glands firing, my heart begins to pound. Nervously smoothing down my jumper, I take one last look in the mirror – I’ve gone a funny shade of grey. Taking a deep breath and tucking my hair behind my ears, I pick up my bag and find my passport. It’s time to go.
Now, on the face of things, my moment in the sun might seem a little lacklustre. I’ll be the first to admit that it is, well, a bit anticlimactic. I’ve not just split up with my good-for-nothing lover, strutting away with an Aretha Franklin soundtrack playing. Nor have I just closed the front door behind me One Last Time, before relocating to the tropics of the southern hemisphere. No, my special memory takes place within a public toilet at Heathrow Airport. And my life-changing decision? To take a holiday.
I know: I can almost hear your gasps of surprise.
Let me set the scene a little more. Just four months earlier, on a hot summer’s day, Claire and I had decided to start a travel blog. Ironically, however, I had left the country just a handful of times in the previous five years; the prospect of travel now wholly terrifying thanks to a looming panic disorder, and a persuasive irrational thought that if I stepped out of the country, I may never return (illness, accidents, illicit crime to blame). Of all the blogging niches I could have chosen, travel was perhaps the most unlikely of choices. I found a trip around my local Tesco store challenging enough, let alone exploring frontiers new.
Yet on that one hot July lunchtime, I had decided to become an imposter. I would force myself to be someone I wasn’t, in order to become someone new: new countries, new people and new cultures helping me along the way. I, the travel-fearing travel-blogger, was going to fake it till I made it.Yet to be travel bloggers, we’d need travel content. We had already recycled so much material that all that remained were photographs from the late 1990s. Would photos from the 1998 family holiday to Lanzarote do well on Instagram, we wondered. Unfortunately, it seemed it was time to bite the bullet, book a flight and leave the country. This realisation came as something of a surprise to me; something I hoped might not happen. I reminded myself of a woman I’d recently seen on the television; she’d told her midwife that she didn’t want a baby anymore, despite being in the latter stages of labour. Incredibly anxious at the thought of leaving home, I told my friend my worries. “What would make you feel better?” she had asked. “If there was one thing that would make you feel calmer about travel, what would it be?”
With an almost genetic aversion to risk, my life until that point had circled three main concerns: is it safe? Is it familiar? Will I be able to get home? Far from yearning for unpredictability or surprise, I gloried in the predictable every day: the comfort of a cup of tea in an unfamiliar country; a glimpse of a familiar store in a new city; a reassurance that home was never far. “Well that’s what you’ll have to do, then,” my friend had replied pragmatically. “Seek out and take with you those places, people and things that make a strange adventure feel familiar. Take a little bit of home with you”.
And so it was that on the 14th December 2014, I nervously left for Washington DC. It was a new city, yes, but also home to my older brother – his house a little piece of home in an otherwise sprawling metropolis. Wearing my soft grey jumper, I sat in the taxi to the airport with my arms wrapped around my legs. I was incredibly nervous. Having not left the country successfully for many years, and still adjusting to a new medication to calm my feverish adrenal glands, I struggled to visualise myself enjoying Twins That Travel’s maiden voyage. Our inaugural trip was surely doomed to failure. Could we not instead pioneer a new form of travel that took place solely within the confines of London’s M25?
Watching the frozen fields pass by, I almost convinced myself to turn back.
Eventually, the signposts for the airport became more frequent: Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 now visible on the horizon – the world’s gateway to Britain. My stomach clenched. Driving towards the glittering building, I watched as my fellow passengers poured out of buses, taxis and cars: each careful custodians of their own pieces of home – their suitcases. I stepped out the taxi – my legs stiff with tension – and headed towards the entrance, following the crowds and their cases. Unbeknownst to it, Heathrow Airport was about to become the place where Claire and I not only had our first rite of passage as travel bloggers, but a place that would also bear witness to my very own flashbulb moment. In and amongst the chaos of departures, the buzz of travel, would I turn around and run? Or would I become the barefaced imposter I wanted to be: Laura the Travel Blogger?
Once inside, the experience felt entirely surreal. I passed through security in a stunned daze: was I really going through with this? What if I didn’t come back? Where were the exits? Noticing that my breathing was accelerating, Claire intervened. “Let’s do something to distract you – something familiar”, she declared. In the midst of that thriving, busy terminal, I needed to seek out a little piece of home.
Walking into WH Smith, my ‘flight or fight’ response was distracted: the smell reminding me of childhood. As a kid, we only had a handful of shops in our town, one of its most prized retail outlets being this British institution. I’d spend hours inside browsing comics, pencil cases and books. On that overwhelming day in Heathrow airport, I therefore did exactly that: my anxiety replaced by concentration as I browsed through recent Best Sellers and bought – for no real reason – a new pen. Inside Fortnum and Mason, the theme continued; union jack bunting and Christmas decorations reminding me of visiting the London store with my Mum a few years back. As announcements for missing passengers rang out, I concentrated on picking beautifully packaged British tea to take as gift to my brother. Walking outside, I was vaguely aware of a brass band playing in the distance, members of London’s Salvation Army Band filling a small corner of the airport. As the chorus of “Oh Little Town Of Bethlehem” soared upwards, people stopped to listen: each in a now comforting limbo half way between home and their next destination.
Whilst I’d imagined the airport to be a trigger for my anxiety – stern routines and restrictions worsening it – it seemed in fact to be calming it; preparing me for my journey with all that was familiar: a cup of tea and a new book.
Now inside a small restaurant, I sat quietly with my book and listened to the conversations taking place around me. Nearby, an older couple were arguing over whether or not they’d given the plants enough water before they’d left. “Would Julie pop in and water the clematis, do you think?” On another table, a family debated which theme park in Florida to visit first, before quickly moving on to the topic of who would need new school shoes once they got home. Sat alone, a girl my age was video calling her Mum. I realised (with some surprise) that nobody was panicking or stricken by a fear that by leaving, they might never return home to all that was familiar, comforting or safe. Instead, conversations were a mix of new adventures and old routines; of leaving home behind and of coming back – the realities of travel.
With now only a few moments left before needing to board that inaugural flight, I climbed the stairs to a quiet public bathroom. Inside, I stood washing my hands in a porcelain sink; a famous classical duet playing above me. Overhead, I heard the gate for my flight called. I was nervous – of course. In the last few years I’d barely ventured beyond a twenty-mile radius of home. But as I smoothed down my top and picked up my bag, I was more happy, positive and determined than I’d been in a long time. Here, in the middle of a Heathrow’s inconspicuous bathroom, I had the chance to choose to be someone new; to make a new flashbulb memory. I could depart England a homebound neurotic, and return an ambitious travel blogger.
‘Imagine a terminal as a portal to a new version of yourself
a new light pouring over a new sunrise
remember that as you depart at the start of the horizon
standing at the tarmac mouth of the world’
Once on the plane, I thought about the trips I used to take as a kid. Referred to as ‘residentials’, they were aimed at increasing our independence and self-esteem. Predictably, I would be incredibly nervous on the day of departure, fidgeting on the coach as I watched the parents line up stoically outside. “We’ll be right here waiting for you when you get back!” they’d shout. “You’re going to have a great time!” On one occasion, someone’s Dad brought along a hanky – a union jack emblazoned on it. He waved it heroically in the air as we left; saluting us children as we were shipped off to camp. It was all very British.
Looking back at Heathrow airport, I realised it was these buildings, filled with their shops and smiling staff, that had become our adult equivalent of the waving parent. Ready to send us on our way with reassuringly familiar mementos – a packet of Werther’s Originals and a broadsheet newspaper – they are a reminder that travel doesn’t have to be unfamiliar, alien or unnerving. Instead, and as our parents showed, it can mean being sent off with a firm hug and a stern demand to ‘enjoy yourself’. You’ll only return stronger, happier and more confident.
One week later, on December 21st, I landed back at Heathrow airport; my inanimate parent stood just where I left it. The sky was a reassuring grey and frost covered the barren branches of the trees. Seven days after my own flashbulb moment, I was home: a camera full of photographs and one of our first travel blogs written. Washington had been incredible – a trip of firsts – but that wasn’t what stuck with me. Instead, it had been that very moment in the toilet to make the decision to leave, my flashgun blazing, and with it, this very moment of arriving home in Britain: braver, more confident and happier than before.
As I’ve come to realise, these are perhaps the best bits of travel.
‘Sit in the warmness of arriving home
shed the hue of ‘tourist’
you’re back in your endz now
one of the locals’
This blog post was written to support Heathrow airport’s new campaign to celebrate life and travel in modern Britain. My own story aside, it’s fascinating to see what travel means to others. To support the campaign, Heathrow has teamed up with critically-acclaimed spoken word artist Caleb Femi, who has written the beautifully crafted poem: A Tale of Modern Britain, to celebrate British culture against the backdrop of arrivals and departures at Heathrow. I’ve included snippets of the poem throughout, but you can watch the full poem below.
What does Britishness mean to you in 2018? We’d love to know in the comments below.
You can also follow the conversation on social media using #LHRxCaleb.
This blog post is in collaboration with Heathrow Airport but all opinions (and stories!) are our own.