When I was 17, I travelled to Europe for the first time. It wasn’t geographically the farthest I’ve ever been away from home – I think that would probably be Croatia, or somewhere in Italy. However, it was without a doubt the most out of my element that I’ve ever been, and a huge journey of the emotional variety. It was during my Senior year of high school, just a few months before I was to move away to New Orleans for college. It was also the longest I’d ever been away from my parents; it was all kinds of “firsts.”
It took almost a year of saving to purchase my tickets for the school trip. The trip was the brainchild of my favorite teacher, Mrs. Cutler, who was my advisor on the yearbook staff, the advisor of my quiz bowl team, and also my English teacher. During my Junior & Senior years in high school I spent on average four hours of every school day with her. All the kids in the photo were among her favorites, so taking us away on the trip of a lifetime was really not that big of a chore for her. She tried to lead a student group every year or so, if she could scrape together enough kids to make it happen. The trip was expensive for us “country” folk, and only a small group were able to afford it. Luckily, I waited tables, and EVERYONE in my small town knew that I was saving up for a big trip, so I got extra tips, and a small collection, plus some additional last minute help from my mom’s secret rainy day fund.
We were chaperoned by Mrs. Cutler, her mother-in-law (also Mrs. Cutler), and couple of the students’ older brothers who were hardly old enough to be “in charge” of a bunch of horny teenagers who suddenly found themselves legally able to drink. Still, we were a good group of kids, and though we certainly broadened our horizons, we didn’t go mad and abuse our freedoms.
During the trip we spent two days in London, a day or two in Wales, and about seven or eight days touring Ireland. Everyone who was over 18 and under 40 went out drinking on the first night in London at a club for younger adults (basically an 18+ club, but there were younger people there). Since I was 17, I was too young to drink, but our tour guide talked the doorman into letting me in under her supervision. I had a sip of a beer, but was experiencing major culture shock and really didn’t want to get in trouble anyway. It was enough for me to be around all of these people with “funny accents” and get to see how very different everyone was. Being from the middle of nowhere, I didn’t realize at the time that a lot of the behavior I noticed wasn’t just different because we were in another country. A lot of what I was seeing was also because we were in the city. I was just overwhelmed with it all.
By the third day of the trip, we were in Wales. We’d done all kinds of stuff, like go shopping in London (a dream come true for me), visit grand architecture, step back in time to learn about the beheadings at the Tower of London, all the silly touristy stuff that a teenager could ask for. But heading to Wales was a whole different story. To begin with, my cousin/best friend Amy was also on the trip. She was a party girl at the time – we were pretty much complete opposites when it came to walking on the wild side – and the trip to Wales was not good to her. She was massively hung over. It was one of the saddest bus rides ever. She’s a very fair-skinned redhead, and during the course of the bumpy road trip she started to turn the most excellent shade of green.
We stayed overnight in Mold, Wales, at a conference center/wedding venue that had the most excitingly 1970s bathrooms I’d ever experienced up to that point. Everyone was tuckered out from our time in London, except for Mrs. Cutler and a couple of my nerdier friends who’d been good little children and stayed in for the last couple of nights. So after dinner, when almost everyone went to take it easy in their rooms, I went down to the pub to have a pint with Mrs. Cutler and a couple of the other kids, plus our bus driver. Can’t remember his name but he was such a lovely man, very funny and relaxed.
I wish I could remember more of the night, but I guess that’s the best part of the story. I got tipsy for the first time with my high school English teacher in a little Welsh pub! The conversation at the table was great, and we just kept talking and drinking, until at some point someone brought me another beer, and Mrs. Cutler reached for it. She made the pretense of trying to take it to “protect me,” but it was a classic move, where she actually just wanted to drink it, herself. We argued good-naturedly over the beer for a minute or two, until she just gave up and ordered her own from the barman. Both of us were a bit hung over the next day, but it was definitely one of my favorite memories from the trip, and probably of Mrs. Cutler. This tiny little lady, always so chic and effortlessly classy, dropping the facade for a second to chain-smoke and toss back a few pints. I loved the juxtaposition, and how much fuller she became to me after that moment.
There were so many more great moments on that trip. What we saw opened my eyes, and changed me forever. It was the beginning of my insatiable love of travel, as well as my addiction to historic architecture and visiting good museums. I had never been inside of a bar before my trip, and by the time I was done, I had learned enough about them to have a strong preference towards tiny, dimly-lit pubs – no loud, food-less bars for me. While staying in a particularly fancy hotel in Ireland, Mrs. Cutler taught me how to use all of the silver in my place setting properly – a HUGE and utterly indispensable lesson. I got to pet a sheep, and hear Robbie Williams on the radio before anyone else in eastern NC had even heard his name. I bought handmade woolen socks, and visited my first monastery.
But it was the beer with Mrs. Cutler that sticks with me most. She passed away a few years ago, and though I hope she knew how important she was to me, I guess I’ll never be certain. She was the reason that I went to college, instead of straight into the Air Force after school. Moreover, she was the reason I went to a GOOD college, and studied exactly what I wanted. She might even be the reason that what I wanted to study was the exceedingly odd choice of medieval art and architecture…it was her major in college, too. Though when I made the choice it was more about taking the easy road than taking a well-traveled one. I simply got A’s in medieval-themed classes without trying. Maybe it was Mama C’s doing, or maybe we just had a lot more in common than a 17 year old could comprehend. And maybe that’s why it was so easy to grab a beer with a teacher, because she was also just a friend.