Saying “I have 10 days left in London,” and believing it are two very different things. Thus is the dilemma my friends and I face in the coming week between now and our inevitable departure from the U.K., from each other, and from the sense of familiarity and comfort we’ve worked so hard to create for ourselves over the last three months. It probably won’t feel ‘over’ or even ‘approaching over’ until I get off the plane in Pittsburgh at 9:10 pm EST (2am U.K. time! I’ll be so fresh!) and see my dad for the first time in three months, after which I’ll either faint or go into a catatonic state. I’ll let you know which one transpires.
When I first got here, it took about two weeks for it to actually feel real. The earliest signs that I was in (or even approaching) a U.K. life were as follows: the constant rotation of 5 energetic British flight attendants on Virgin Airlines, when a cashier at the campus bookstore went “That’ll be eight pounds forty pence please,” in what I’ve come to know now as a posh accent, and standing on the Waterloo Bridge in the rain with my dad, eating a sausage roll and watching double-decker buses drive past Parliament over and over. Even then, these all felt like isolated events; Pittsburgh still seemed like a four hour Greyhound bus away, and my return to Hopkins was surely right around the corner.
Half the battle in my adjustment process was getting a simple lay of the land. Where was the nearest grocery store to my apartment? How cheap or expensive was it in comparison with the other grocery stores nearby? Which bus line do I take to school? Do I even need to take the bus, or is the walk manageable with my course schedule? Is there a London version of Alloverstreet, or is it all just bougie galleries filled with designer-clad people named things like “Theodore” and “Cordelia”? Do I take the Victoria line southbound or northbound, or the Piccadilly line, or the Bakerloo or Jubilee?
This was an everyday string of questions for about two or three weeks, after which we finally started classes, and my brain switched on after a five month hiatus to the tune of a different education system and an equally important expectation that I balance school with exploring London as much as possible. Luckily for me, managing both aspects of my experience here was greatly enhanced by the — I’ll say it again — lucky group of friends I made from schools all over the U.S., whose study abroad vibes were similar to mine. You need people who are down to make the most of an entire day with: class, homeworking, exploring, more homeworking, eating, and exploring again, without petering out or second-guessing or being opposed to simply wandering around. By the grace of Queen Elizabeth II herself, I found my people early on, and again in the middle.
In conjunction with the interesting docket of classes I’ve been taking at UCL and the blessed assortment of good pals I’ve made, there’s just London in itself: London doin’ London. It’s funny to reflect on the things that once felt so alien to me — people scowling down at their phones or feet or upwards at the line maps on the tube, the word ‘queue’ in lieu of ‘line’, the general lack of filter coffee (let alone good filter coffee), hearing at least 3 different languages being spoken when I walk down the street (or sit/stand/eat/breathe pretty much anywhere in the city), and, of course, the extreme hustle & bustle of pedestrian traffic that I used to suck at navigating each day on my walk to school. The other day, a group of musicians started playing jazzed up Christmas songs on a very packed Victoria line train to Warren Street Station. While in America, the entire car might clap or sing along, my fellow Londoners seemed to bore holes into the tube floor or their newspapers and phones, desperate for the spectacle to end. Maybe three people clapped; a few of us (myself included) awkwardly smiled at each other to at least acknowledge what was happening. When the music stopped and the performers moved onto the next car, you could literally feel the tension lift — everyone might as well have collectively sighed in relief. It might technically be what’s stereotyped as ‘standoffish’ British culture, but at this point, it feels like home.
The ease with which my friends and I move through the city now only feels like an accomplishment when I really stop to think about it. To us, we’re just living — we’ve gotten much better at it through consistent exploration and willingness to see what’s out there, even if in the end, the neighborhood we stumble upon isn’t the most interesting, or the cheapest. I didn’t realize how deeply a map of London has been ingrained on my brain until my best friend (who is studying in Berlin right now) came to visit me, and I took her around town like some off-brand tour guide. We didn’t do the London Eye, but we did do scones with jam & clotted cream at the V&A, a pub night with the aforementioned UCL pals, a Portobello Market/Notting Hill walk through, and a bunch of other little things that feel more local to me now than my old high school does in Pittsburgh or Hampden in Baltimore. Which is DRAMATIC, I know. But my brain and heart are rooted here in a way I definitely didn’t expect, especially considering that my friends and I all thought we’d be exhausted and ready to come home by finals week. In fact, it’s just the opposite: we’re all loath to leave.
But that’s a good thing, right? If we weren’t loath to leave, then maybe that says something about how much we got out of the experience. Or maybe it doesn’t, and I’m just trying to rationalize my borderline menopausal emotions about getting on the plane next Saturday. All I can say is, London has left its mark on me and helped me grow in ways I didn’t expect. (Double cliche infraction!!!) But really. I never thought I’d want to come back here for an internship (which I do — Summer 2017 prospects are in development), let alone to live after graduating from Hopkins (which I might — graduation is so close, but so far away! But still so close!). With the daily busyness and stress and weirdness and newness and funkiness and backpack-filled-with-everything-I-own-at-all-times-ness of being here, I rarely get a moment to stop and look back, so I guess this blog turned into a very cheesy blob of retrospection. I’ll stop here & post some small nice moments that I’ve recently had, chocked full of cliche & London goodness. But make no mistake: I will be back *said hopefully, not ominously*.