I stood at the entrance to the airport security line, saying goodbye to my parents. Adrenaline, nerves, and happiness filled my 16-year-old body, wide awake at 5:30 a.m. As my parents gave me last-minute advice and instructions, I clutched the sturdy strap of my expensive black shoulder bag, a strap which had a steel wire buried somewhere inside it to prevent thieves from cutting it off me. This bag held regular travel items—lip gloss, tissues, sunglasses, and my family’s only digital camera. I could also feel a thinner, smaller strap running underneath my clothing, leading to a slim zippered pouch containing my passport and money that I tucked into the waist of my pants. Both the black bag and the concealed pouch had been my parents’ idea, meant to ensure my safety from nimble pickpockets. My best friend, Nicole, was exchanging last-minute words with her own parents. I could see the strings holding her own concealed pouch poking out the back of her shirt collar. After hugs and exclamations of “Call us as soon as you can!” and “Take lots of pictures!” we entered the security line. Soon we were airborne, traveling to England to begin a month-long tour of Europe.
We met our large university tour group the next day. The tour, organized by George Wythe College, a small, private liberal arts school that catered specifically to homeschooling families, had attracted George Wythe College supporters of all kinds, and some of their friends—young George Wythe students, hopeful future George Wythers like Nicole and myself, and many homeschooling families with kids of all ages. There were many teenagers around our age in the group—some accompanied by one or two parents, others with a friend, still others completely alone. The members of our group came mostly from Utah and Nevada, as well as a handful from Alberta, Canada.
Our guide, a redheaded Yorkie with a strong accent and crooked teeth immediately led us on a long walk around the streets of London, where we heard the bells of Big Ben and St. Paul’s Cathedral, tried to catch the eyes of Buckingham’s stoic soldiers, and watched the setting sun glint off the Thames from the London Bridge. The day culminated in classic fish and chips and an exhausted Tube ride back to the hotel.
I had waited so long for this day—for this month of wonders—and its arrival seemed unreal. Over the last year, Nicole and I had scrimped and saved our money from our part-time jobs, pored over countless historical novels, biographies, films, and travel websites, and conversed giddily during many late Friday nights as we clutched our travel itineraries. No one in my family had ever been to Europe, and I felt both thrilled and stunned by the gift I had given myself. Unsure of how to express my culture-shocked joy after that first day, I wrote tritely in my journal that the day was “pretty much amazing,” and “I took some good pictures.”
I pulled my camera out at every opportunity. Among images of iconic art and architecture, my pictures recorded the progress of my first true romance with Jake, a 17-year-old Canadian in our group. He was a good-hearted, rather goofy, and respectful boy, who spent a lot of time studying and thinking about the world like I did. Our mutual crush sparked atop the Eiffel Tower, where our friends talked us into pretending to kiss each other for a shocking picture. Still strangers to each other, we shyly approached each other and posed quickly, then laughed loudly as our friends whooped and clapped. We then chose matching frames for our photo from the gift shop at the bottom of the Tower, tucking them away to put on our shelves at home. The next day, many people pulled out their cameras as Jake presented me with a red rose on one knee, his beret cocked romantically, his eyes still a little shy. From then on, we were nearly inseparable.
After Paris, the next two weeks of our tour took us to Lucerne, where the lake was so clean and smooth, Jake and I could see our shadows reflected on the water’s surface in our pictures; to Florence, where I beheld The David with fascination, barely remembering to take pictures at all; to Rome, where Jake held my hand for the first time and we began pulling a little closer to each other when posing for photos; to Barcelona, where I stopped taking pictures.
After a morning wandering around Las Ramblas with our tour guide, Nicole, myself, and some other girlfriends split off into a shaded, busy market. Our senses were assaulted as people haggled in richly rolling Spanish over fragrant herbs, fresh flowers, rainbow walls of flawless produce, and butcher stalls with pig heads smiling at us. I usually took care to keep my steel-wired bag closed at all times, but the scene distracted me. I saw a tempting stall perfect for a picture and reached into my open bag where I grasped everything but my family’s camera. The empty space felt like a violation, and I instantly knew I had been pickpocketed. My heart thumped against the cord that still held my wallet and passport safely under my shirt, and hot lumps seized my throat and stomach as I told Nicole. My friends watched sorrowfully as I resisted my tears and impulsively purchased a very expensive artisan chocolate shaped like a hedgehog. I ate it on the spot, swallowing the lumps down with it, only somewhat consoled.
The tour went on to Madrid, to Toledo, to Morocco. A month after I returned home, Jake sent me a photo disc, along with a package of my favorite Kinder Bueno bars and a picture of our fake kiss, in just the right size to go inside my blue Eiffel Tower frame. Among over 1,000 images, I discovered his disc contained a video of us rushing down the Eiffel Tower stairs as we laughed and yelled crazy things, the bouncing camera focused mostly on me. About 8 years later, Nicole realized she had not shared a copy of all her images with me, and sent me a disc as well, where I found pictures of us puzzling over mysterious modern art in the Luxembourg Gardens, touching the London Bridge in the sunset, and riding camels in Morocco. I no longer remember what was on that other camera, really. My friends’ images—and perhaps their memories—have become mine.