My First Solo Visit to England

After I graduated from Webb Schoool in the spring of 1954, before beginning Duke in the fall, I traveled to England as an exchange student, hoping to learn more about English literature, poetry, and religion. I was particularly interested in learning about William Blake  another troubled manic-depressive soul like myself, who I identified with strongly and who has fascinated me all my life.

To get to England I sailed on a student ship, the Arosa Kulm and returned on the Arosa Star. It was lots of fun, but very different from the luxury liners I had sailed on before with my parents.  We sailed from the port of New York. This was the first time I was traveling so far away from home alone. I was excited and anxious. What adventures lay ahead for me? I was to be placed in an English family in Plymouth in Devon. I enjoyed the English lifestyle very much. Thus began my lifelong love affair with England.

The ship stopped first in Plymouth, before proceeding on to Southampton, and I disembarked there.  After a brief orientation tour I was  placed in an English family, the Milligans,  in Plymouth. They lived at 3 Tor Close, Hartley, Plymouth, Devon. My foster father  was a city counselor. His daughter was named Barbara. I did not find her very attractive, but she soon developed a crush on me. This made things awkward.

I enjoyed living in England very much, though I had some difficulty learning the language and the customs, so different from ours in America.  Once I went into a restaurant, sat down and asked for a napkin I got no response from the waitress;  so when someone prompted me to say “Serviette.” naively I said, “Serviette, may I have a napkin please?”  Everyone within earshot laughed and I learned that the English call a dinner napkin a serviette.  This incident got reported in the local paper but in the newspaper version of this story I was transformed into an ignorant American sailor. 

Before we left England, our  group made a week-long cycling tour of the Cotswolds.  During this  cycling trip I became romantically involved with an American girl in our group,  Carol Stevens, a young woman from New York. She  was bound for Smith College in the fall. I  later  visited her in Northampton.

We spent our  last  week together in the U.K. in London. Before we left England I had my first visit to Covent Garden Opera House. I did not take Carol there, however, but another  young woman that I had dated  in Los Angeles while in high school, Jennifer Hopkins.  I thought that I was in love with her.  It was our group’s one big night out. I had paid a lot of money to get tickets to see Margot Fonteyn dance Swan Lake.  Afterwards we went  to a swish night club for a late night supper and dancing. I was VERY disappointed when Jennifer only gave him a cold kiss good-night. That night I discovered that for me a warm heart is more important than cold beauty.

I returned home aboard a student ship, the “Arosa Kulm.” Return journeys are seldom as exciting as the journey outward bound.  On the ship Carol and I had became lovers. I was so excited by this  first affair that I tore  my  high school ring off my finger and threw it into the ocean, swearing eternal love and fidelity to Carol. She, more prudently, kept her ring on her finger.

Ah, youth!  We got caught in a storm and were at sea for 10 days. I got seasick and vowed never to set foot on another ocean liner. Carol and I  parted ways in New York. She went North to Smith. I went South to Duke. The European trip had been an initiatory journey.  I had left America a callow youth and returned a young man.

Author: john staude

I am a writer and a teacher, specializing in the arts of biography and memoir writing.See my blog at

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