Experiences, not things

Nothing beats seeing London for the first time.

Except maybe seeing it the second time.

The first came during a family vacation in 2007. Fresh from my college graduation and still bearing that the-world-is-my-oyster glow, my parents, sister and I hopped on a plane across the Atlantic. It was my first truly international experience. (Sorry, Canada; you’re our lovely northern neighbor, but I don’t count Toronto. Plus, you’re all so nice and I didn’t experience any culture shock. So.)

Arriving at Gatwick Airport around 6 a.m. local time, we immediately experienced the joy of being barked at in a British accent, having to throw ourselves on a busy commuter train and the shock of seeing a woman’s unclothed torso in a city newspaper — but it was no matter. I was too distracted by the “Mary Poppins”-esque buildings sailing past our windows to care much. The sunrise was just beginning to bathe the towns in pinks and golds. I sucked in a breath. I felt . . . away. So far away. From my world, my life, my worries. It was like I’d stepped out of a Megan-shaped skin for a much-needed break.

That joy was a drug.

And it’s why I travel. Why I’d rather empty my checking account on experiences instead of possessions. Why I’ll likely never have a McMansion or a fancy car or a housekeeping staff. (That and, you know, I’m a writer. I’m not exactly bathing in cash.) But that’s not important to me. I don’t need a Coach bag for each arm, don’t need fancy shoes or expensive hair treatments. What I need is my passport, my camera, my man and a plan. I’d rather be out and experiencing life than watching it on my expensive television. I’d rather be elsewhere than wandering my expensive house, trapped and anxious as a caged animal.

When I returned to England to see a friend studying abroad in 2009, I worried London might have lost some of its shiny-slick appeal. But I was as excited to get away then as I had been years before — and that was my first solo trip, the first time I’d gone anywhere alone. When Stacy met me at Heathrow, standing in the international arrivals area, I almost cried. It felt like a turning point: a before and after. I will always remember her face, that hug.

The details of that trip can’t be separated from my emotional responses. I can’t recall the cute British hot-dog vendor in Hyde Park without remembering the thrill of being single for the first time in my young adulthood. When I went home days later with a numb toe, the pinched nerve from too much walking in flip-flops was a bonus souvenir — and I nursed it proudly.

And I still can’t listen to Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” without remembering that terrifying, amazing moment of riding back to Heathrow Airport alone — save my iPod. And giant suitcase stuffed with English candy, London piggy banks and snowglobes. I chose that soundtrack specifically for that moment: the song I wanted to play me home.

I bought my plane ticket to England and the return fare home. But that pure moment? The euphoria of being 24 at that specific time and place? It couldn’t be purchased. It wasn’t for sale.

“Buy experiences, not things,” financial editor and expert Jean Chatzky told USA Weekend. “Spending on experiences makes people happier than spending on things. Things get broken and go out of style. Experiences get better every time you talk about them.”

And that last bit is probably why I write, too.