London in the summer of 1971 was hot, busy, crowded and teeming with tourists. There I was, 20 years old, between my sophomore and junior years at the University of Vermont. I had just finished a six-week stint as a chambermaid at a hotel on Devon’s spectacularly scenic seaside. The work was hard, and after only one day off a week, I was ready for a real vacation—three weeks of traveling solo. I was savoring the freedom to “do my own thing.”
After visiting Stonehenge and Stratford, I took the train to London with every intention of staying awhile. But when I could not find a room, bunk or floor anywhere, I freaked out. Was I going to have to sleep on the streets?
No. And it was precisely at this moment that I made the first adult decision of my life. This choice was entirely my own, not one tempered by parents or siblings, classmates, boyfriends or well-meaning friends. I had to go somewhere. And so, in a flash, as I stood amid a bustling throng of people, I decided where. Amsterdam.
Within minutes, I was on a train barreling out to Heathrow and soon found myself in a country where no one seemed to speak English. My well-thumbed edition of Europe on $5 a Day—it really was possible then—led me to a youth hostel. After settling in, I headed to nearby Dam Square, where hundreds gather in the heart of the city. I saw a crowd of people jamming with guitars and drums. Fortunately, I had packed my flute and joined in. Suddenly, I was looking up into the lens of someone’s camera. I’m part of the scene here, I thought, even though I’m a tourist.
Without warning, a rainstorm hit and our newly formed merry band headed over to an apartment for coffee. Although we couldn’t communicate by words, the language of music had made us friends, a magical memory of my newfound adulthood.
The AARP Bulletin’s What I Really Know column comes from our readers. Each month we solicit personal essays on a selected topic and post some of our favorites in print and online. Pip Klein is a reader from Florida, N.Y.