I don’t remember her name. I’d probably forgotten it shortly after I learned it. But she changed everything about my life by opening a new avenue I duly explored.

A bus ride I’ll always remember

A long time ago, longer than I care to remember, I met a girl on a bus. It was one of those Euro lines’ coach services, traveling from Victoria street coach station in London to Amsterdam. As I recall, it took all day and filled with crisps, sweets, and day-old sandwiches bought in neon-lit service stations; you’d inevitably feel worse coming off than embarking. As you uncrumpled yourself, you’d swear you’d never use them again. But at only fifty pounds (perhaps even less), they were by far the cheapest option to get home, so here I was. Again.

Once we stopped for coffee, I sat at the girl’s table. An older, glamorous lady joined us. All Dutch-born, the three of us quickly got into a conversation about how we survived in London. Having not particularly enjoyed being an au pair, I had found a temporary position in a 7-eleven. But stacking grimy shelves, risking hefty fines by selling cigarettes to tenacious teens, and being chatted up by creepy old men wasn’t exactly the dream job I had in mind when I graduated school.  Yet, I still only had vaguely formed plans for moving back home and going back to college. Maybe one day.

The girl, let’s call her Sam, was a student at Nottingham University and loved her life. Her face was almost glowing with happiness when she recounted some stories. The lady, I can’t remember. When you’re young, you don’t take much notice of people so much older than you. All I know is that she approved of Sam’s life choice while deftly encouraging me to stop slacking. It was an interesting dynamic. For the remaining journey, she took on the role of a caring grandmother. Looking back, I’d like to think she had a granddaughter the same age.

Sam opened up my world

Before the Internet and cheap plane travel, studying abroad was a pipe dream I never felt attainable in the mid-nineties. For one, my careers counselor in school closed that option by informing me it would cost over fifteen grand to send me to a US high school for one school year. That was a substantial sum without any credible diploma at the end of it. My parents didn’t buy into it, and so I embarked on a doomed au pair adventure and my only chance to follow my big sister to England.

After the disappointing start to my adventure abroad, this conversation offered me a glimmer of hope. If Sam could do it, why not me? Luckily for me, she was very generous with her advice. I think I may have even taken notes. She told me about grants from our government, applying to British Universities, and the best universities to go for. Before the Internet, this information was hard to come by if you didn’t know where to look.

After our intense conversations, we said farewell as we got off. We didn’t have email or social media to keep in touch, and I wouldn’t have known her long enough to suggest we’d become pen pals. Things were different then.

I never saw her since, but her advice made a big impression on me. It percolated inside my head for a while, and then I acted. I wrote letters, requested prospectuses and grant forms. About a year to the day I talked to her, I was accepted into a three-year degree course at a small college in Northern Ireland. Being the place it was, it took my parents some convincing. After putting them through my time of slacking in London, they didn’t have much faith in this venture. Looking back as a parent, I can see why they were concerned. But eventually, I wore them down and went.

My wonderful adventure

I said goodbye to my then-boyfriend, packed my hopes and dreams, and took a gamble on a new life. And it has brought me everything I was looking for: excitement, meeting new people, and above all a chance to really experience life in another country. While Northern Ireland had its troubles, its people were welcoming, kind-hearted, and grateful for foreigners visiting their beautiful shores.

Final words

Thank you, Sam-or whatever your name was, for helping me turn my life around. I guess sometimes it pays to talk to strangers.