That Time I Spontaneously Flew Across the World for a Dead Rock Star

I was nursing a devastating breakup when I suddenly found myself in Switzerland, trying to talk my way into Freddie Mercury’s birthday party. It was the best decision I ever made.

That Time I Spontaneously Flew Across the World for a Dead Rock Star

I was dripping onto the carpet of the casino after running through the rain, adrenaline pushing me through. I’d been awake for over 24 hours, but I had never felt more alive.

It was September 2016; I was 23, and alone in Montreux, Switzerland. Earlier that afternoon, I’d crossed the globe from my native Toronto for Freddie Mercury’s 70th birthday party. Incorrectly, I’d thought that donating to the Mercury Phoenix Trust when I got there would mean automatic admittance to the party, where people from over 30 countries would celebrate while listening to nothing but Queen and basking in our collective love of the front man who gave the world the six-minute masterpiece that is “Bohemian Rhapsody.”

I’d looked forward to this trip for months. It was my solace, the crux of my happiness following an earth-shattering heartbreak. I had spent most of 2016 crying over somebody I’d spent roughly the last four years running to. I felt like I couldn’t be alone. I was 18 when we met through a mutual friend. Things went well with him, the person I’ll call Adam, at first. There were inside jokes, good conversations filled with exactly what I wanted to hear, trips to foreign places, and time spent with our mutual friends that made everything feel perfect. I was the dutiful girl sitting in the stands and cheering at his sporting events. In return, he was always the first person there when I needed him, for fights with my family and at my cousin’s funeral. We planned our lives together and started to talk about our future, something I hadn’t done before. I found myself putting a lot of pressure on Adam — who was 20 at the time — to help me figure out who I was and who I wanted to be, and things went south quickly. He was fighting his own internal battles and wasn’t equipped to handle mine. He started lying to me and our friends and treating me badly, isolating me from the people I cared about. I didn’t know how to stand up for myself, do things on my own, or how to define myself as a person unless someone else was helping me do it, so stayed as our relationship deteriorated.

I didn’t know how to cope when we finally broke up. I was terrified that I was fundamentally unlovable. The breakup left me with no understanding or acceptance of myself, no clue what went wrong, and a nagging feeling that I wasn’t good, capable or smart enough. I was afraid that, without him, no one could guide me to become the person I was expected to be. I was a shell of a person and, at the time, it didn’t seem like anything could change that.

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Alone in my childhood bedroom, surrounded by Queen paraphernalia and other band trinkets, I found myself Googling Freddie Mercury, trying to comfort myself with details about a person who made no apologies for being who he was and overcame staggering adversity in the celebrity world. His legendary voice was wafting through the room when I found a website advertising the party. There was no better way, I figured, to find myself than honoring the musician I admired most. I found a $500 round trip, booked a plane ticket, found myself a place to sleep after the party and, a few months later, set out to chase Freddie’s spirit.

Left, me standing outside the Queen Studio Experience in Montreux, Switzerland, September 4, 2016. Behind me are a bunch of signatures and messages to Freddie. Right, the Freddie Mercury statue overlooking Lake Geneva in Montreux, Switzerland. Fans of the singer and group gathered around on September 4 to sing Queen songs.

Nearly everyone at my Montreux hostel was there for the event. I heard chatter about picking up wristbands — something I hadn’t known I needed. I felt my heart plummet as fellow hostel guests told me that the wristbands had sold out months before I’d even booked my flight. I tried not to cry from exhaustion and disappointment that I wouldn’t be able to celebrate my idol. They tried to console me by taking me to the statue of our fearless leader, a bronze sculpture of him in a particularly energetic pose overlooking Lake Geneva. Strangers of all ages and backgrounds circled the monument and sang “Radio Ga Ga.” We could feel Freddie Mercury’s presence, a feeling I had hoped would cure me of the sorrow over my breakup — or at least the sorrow of missing out on the party. But it wasn’t enough for me. I felt compelled to go to the museum, the room above the casino where the man born Farrokh Bulsara recorded his last ever vocals before he died of AIDS in November 1991. The studio was immortalized, and visitors were allowed to sit at the sound booth and alter a chosen Queen song’s bass, vocals or whatever else. I didn’t want to change a song I’d loved since I was a child, so I asked the sound engineer just to take a photo for me. He saw my tears forming, and we got to talking.

It turned out that the man who took my photo wasn’t a sound engineer employed by the museum: He introduced himself as Justin Shirley-Smith, the man who’d produced Queen’s last few albums. And he became my savior.

Me in Queen’s recording studio, where Freddie Mercury recorded his last vocals. Justin Shirley-Smith took this picture for me, sparking our conversation.

In tears, I told him that I’d come from Canada, and that I didn’t have a wristband for the night. I was alone, I said, and that’s why I needed him to take the picture for me. I just wanted to take a photo to send to my father, to share the moment with him. I had, after all, learned about Queen from him. Still crying, I told Justin about the flight, long layover, second flight, train ride and walk to get there, the suitcase full of Queen T-shirts waiting for me back at the hostel, and the love and reverence I had for a man who’d died before I was born. Justin quieted his voice so that only he and I could hear and offered me a VIP wristband, if I could pick it up at the casino before the party began. He’d set it aside for me, he said, prompting me to quickly change from tears of hopelessness to ones of pure gratitude.

I ran back to my room, about 10 minutes from the casino, and got ready. I changed from one Queen shirt to another, and tried to shed any appearance of my fatigue. It was pouring rain and my phone was dead, but I didn’t care. I had to get to the casino an hour before everyone else to pick up the wristband and have first access to the party, thanks to the VIP status bestowed upon me by Justin Shirley-Smith.

I couldn’t fathom the broken person I was finding such fortune. How would I articulate to everyone that, despite everything I had gone through, September 4, 2016, would go down in history as the pinnacle of my very existence? Again, I ran through the rain back to the casino, but the raindrops pounding my face pushed me to use the back door, which was closer than the official entrance to the party. That’s how I found myself dripping onto the carpet.

The party was a blur. I remember rubbing shoulders with Queen’s management team, with Freddie Mercury’s sister, Kashmira Cooke, and telling Justin that even my wedding day would pale in comparison to this one, that he had bestowed on me an honor I couldn’t thank him for (I, like Freddie, have a flair for the dramatic). I hid in the corner of the room as I stuffed a beer bottle, purchased by someone far more important than me and bearing Queen’s logo, into my bag so that I could smuggle it home and showcase it proudly on my shelf. I remember spending way too much money on merchandise for my dad and me, and thanking my lucky stars that I had come to Switzerland alone. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have asked Mr. Shirley-Smith for a photo. If I hadn’t, my travel companion would likely have been more responsible about the wristbands, and probably wouldn’t have been up for that museum trip. And, if I had brought someone, they definitely wouldn’t have matched my intensity in worshipping Queen.

Me with a new friend and Jim “Miami” Beach, center, a member of Queen’s management team, at the party in Montreux on September 4

But, on that night, I was free of all of the burdens I would’ve felt if I wasn’t by myself. For the first time, I realized that being alone equaled autonomy, a freedom to chase my own dreams and define who I was and what I wanted on my own terms. It meant allowing myself to be selfish — not having to compromise on something that was important to me. It meant not having to submit to someone else’s emotions and have them dictate the day. It meant doing what I wanted and not feeling guilty about it. Free of a relationship, a companion or any expectation, I was finally given the space and time to understand what it meant to be unapologetically myself.

The next morning, I went to breakfast and was greeted by several people I recognized from the party. As they all talked about where their trip would take them next, I remembered that I had no plan. I had no place to stay, no city to get to, and no itinerary. All I had was my suitcase and a train pass. If not having a plan had worked for me thus far, I reasoned, I’d roll with it. And so, I decided then that I’d visit Lausanne, a short train ride away. I’d figure the rest out as I went along.

My spontaneous adventure brought me to Coco Chanel’s grave in Lausanne, to ogle bears in Bern, and to a group of Canadians in Zurich, where we overtook the bar reminiscing about the homeland. I met a fellow Freddie Mercury partygoer in Lucerne, after having a local take me to a viewpoint that showcased the entire town and some of the mountain range. And, accidentally, I found the house in old-town Geneva where Frankenstein author Mary Shelley used to vacation, and fell into a lovely conversation with an American couple about classic literature. That week in Switzerland, I felt, for the first time, completely unburdened and free. I trusted my own instincts. I was at peace.

A view from a mountaintop in Bern, Switzerland, right before sunset during my journey through the country in 2016

Equipped with the confidence and self-assurance my week in Switzerland gave me, I left my Toronto suburb in August of 2017, chasing a lifelong dream to move to New York City. I missed friends’ birthday parties and family functions, and wasn’t there for a lot of the important stuff. I was in my tiny apartment’s kitchen when I learned that my dad had been hospitalized for heart problems, and in a Manhattan classroom when I learned he needed emergency surgery. But, by and large, I was happy. I had proof that I could think on my feet, and that luck was, at least in some capacity, on my side. I knew that as long as I was listening to my heart, everything would turn out in my favor, and have let that lesson learned in Switzerland guide me ever since.