I remember how I felt that morning when I landed at one of the UK’s most prominent airports in Gatwick. A flying time of 48 hours is no small feat. I had left Australia 2 days prior – the cheapest flight was definitely the way to go, or so I thought. Travelling alone was difficult, but I was grateful for the short-lived friendships I had made on the plane with the two guys that sat in the front row with me. It had all been easy up until then. Spending three months in Melbourne with my oldest sister was like being home away from home but I had now landed on royal soil and the nightmare was about to begin.
I could hardly lift my backpack off the floor – it was just so heavy. My hand luggage weighed almost the same. As I tried to walk briskly to the train cabin at Gatwick Station, the cramping in my back began. Relief soon came, when I met Caren (an Aussie) in the train cabin I got onto. We were heading out towards Victoria Station, the blue line on the underground map.
She took one look at me and asked: “Is this your first trip to London?” “Yes,” I said desperately with sweat beads running down my forehead. She could sense the panic and fear unreservedly. “Where are you going?” she asked. “I’m off to a hostel in Queensborough Crescent in Bayswater,” I replied nervously.” It was then that my moments of complete overwhelming fear were replaced with the deepest sense of gratitude. “I’ll drop you off at your hostel. I live next door in High Street Kensington.”
I cannot begin to tell you how Caren made me feel. A celebratory moment of the universe’s kindness had just seen me right in one of the hardest of times. I will never forget Caren and the kindness she showed me. The only condition to her dropping me off that day was for me to do this kind deed to someone else in the future. “Pay it forward,” she said. “After all, that is how I was introduced to London some 12 years ago. Kindness will go a long way.” Her words struck me as we waved goodbye and as I stood on the roadside curb outside my hostel. The treacherous back pain had suddenly returned as I turned around and headed towards the hostel door.
I cried continuously for those first six months in London. It was one of the hardest things I had ever done, leaving behind anything safe and familiar and entering into the world of loneliness and many unknowns. I originally just wanted to see six months through. I was too proud to return to my sunny Johannesburg hometown in under that time. I wanted to avoid any remarks about failure and folks saying: “We knew she would never make it.”
And so as I persevered and focused on the good things, weeks eventually turned into months and months eventually turned into years.
I have many incredible memories of my time in the UK – the house I lived in Neasden with 27 antipodeans and 1 toilet and bathroom or the van I bought with 3 Kiwis that I had never met before, to travel around Europe, or the many late nights spent in pubs on my £10 pound drink allowance for the week.
It was also in London where I came across my first corporate job. When I started out, it wasn’t exactly glamorous. Licking envelopes for a small real estate agency called ‘York Estates’ put me on the first leg of my corporate career. It was purely due to sheer determination to be the best ‘envelope licker’ in the world that my next temp assignment arose. I went onto being a receptionist, PA assistant, conference assistant, travel booking agent and then finally to the esteemed position of an executive PA.
I know for a fact that it was here that my love for workplace learning began. I soon gathered a proficient understanding of different industries; saw the effects of leadership and culture and the importance of team and drinks after work. My brain was like a sponge every Monday morning as I walked into my new assignment for the week. It is also safe to say that my love for human capital, talent, employee engagement and the power of a positive attitude was also formed during my London days.
I can honestly say now, that as I look back and recount all my different experiences over the years, including being a full-time waitress and bartender, nothing was a waste. Each encounter added to the next as life’s experiences moulded and shaped me not only as a person, but also as a professional. Part of my development has been acquiring my degree from the University of Life and as each module unfolded so too did my experiences and my understanding of the world.
I suppose the message I have for anyone reading my story is one of patience, dare to learn, explore and celebrate the different circumstances and experiences you find yourself in. Nothing is by chance, for every situation makes us better and stronger for it. I wouldn’t change anything from my hippie days in London. My lessons on the universe’s kindness and the tapestry of life’s experiences have been one of the greatest assets to my journey of life-long learning.
I hope you take a moment to sit back and learn from your different experiences but most importantly, celebrate your beautiful life and all that has been in it and all that still awaits you.
Here’s to the University of Life!
Follow Ursula on Twitter or email her on Ursula@talentalks.co.za