“If you want a child to learn how to swim, throw him in the water. If you want a child to learn how to live, send him away.” This was one of my father’s most favourite sayings. I guess, I’ve got to feel lucky that that wasn’t the approach he took while teaching me to swim. However, the second part was implemented just as promised. At 17, shortly after graduating from high school, I was sent to London to study. This is how my journey begun, from a Ukrainian town to one of the world’s largest cities, from a confused adolescent to finally finding my own two feet.
Sunlight was falling through an opened window, broken by shapes of old acacia trees, and hot summer air was slowly sipping through, trying to heat up the room. The building was old, built during Stalin’s era, with thick walls protecting against heat in summer and cold in winter, but that was no match to the scorching summer breeze, so common in August. I was packing my suitcase, getting ready to exchange this Ukrainian summer for a mild and foggy (or so I thought) London’s weather. I went to England only once before, when I was about 12, together with a group of other kids attending a short language course during winter break. We stayed in a tiny coast side town called Worthing. I was placed with a host family, who lived in a small house almost at the end of the town, right by the sea. It might have been a wonderful location, if it wasn’t for the fact that it was February and I had to brave that freezing wind filled with sea salt every time I went out for about half an hour to get to the language school.
That trip was pretty special as all of the students went down with flu, spending half of the time trying to get well and the other half – exchanging tips on which medicine worked the best. Even though my host family had two small kids, they didn’t have a thermometer at home. When it was clear that I had fever, the man of the house courageously went to a nearby pharmacy and bought this totally useless device, pointing out how generous he was to buy that for me (he kept it later, so it wasn’t a present, in case you are wondering). After confirming the fact that I indeed had high fever, a phone call to a GP was made, and the good doctor’s advise was to drink a bottle of cold Coke, which should fix the things. I somehow doubted that innovative approach, but decided to give it a go, seeing that another heroic trip to the pharmacy for some paracetamol would be a deal breaker for the delicate English bloke. It did help with the fever. However, next morning I lost my voice somewhere and was unable to find it for a couple of days.
You can see why my mother felt a bit apprehensive about sending her daughter to a land of curious customs, but my dad was dead set on this plan. There were several destinations that we discussed. Kiev, Ukrainian capital, was not chosen for it being too close and, probably, not different enough. Moscow was perceived as a city full of temptation and danger. As I studied English at school, next came the English-speaking countries. USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand were dismissed for being too far away and that left UK. The final choice was London (for it, obviously, did not have any of that temptation and danger to be worried about).
I was signed up to attend a Business English course, which was supposed to help me with business studies later on. I was destined to become a successful business lady with a diploma to prove it. It was my parents’ choice, but if you asked me to tell you who I wanted to be at 17, I, honestly, wouldn’t have been able to answer that question. Of course, I had my own childhood list of desired occupations, ranging between a ballet dancer, a teacher and a war-time nurse. Yes, not the every day nurse, but specifically this war-time variety, who would be crawling across fields, helping out fallen soldiers. You see, I spent a lot of time with my granddad, watching his favourite movies. During his lifetime he was a marine in the army, a fire fighter and, later, a forensic scientist. I’m surprised, I didn’t dream of becoming a superhero fighting crime with him as a role model. However, none of those career paths seemed realistic and, as I had no idea what to do myself, I happily went along with my parents’ advise.
My father was going to accompany me to Kiev to put me on the flight to London, while my mom and my sister were saying good bye to me at home. After promising to be a good girl to my mom and giving a cuddle to a 5 year old sister, who I mostly considered a baby rather than a sibling (it happens to you after you change diapers and sing lullabies on a number of occasions), off we went, away from my home, my family, my country. Was I scared? Maybe a little. But most of all I was excited! So many new beginnings, new people to meet, new places to see. I was ready for this adventure. And having a thermometer and some paracetamol in my bag only made me more determined.