In the spring of 2000 I was an exchange student from Penn to King’s College London. During my hiatus from I wrote a bi-weekly column for The Daily Pennsylvanian. The following was published at the end of April, as my second and final term ended.
Nearly 17 years later, I am experiencing the same mix of nostalgia, love, and uncertainty. As Salinger wrote in Franny & Zooey “There are no real changes between eight and 80.” Here’s to the never and ever-changing self.
As James Joyce no less said, “It is dangerous to leave one’s country, but still more dangerous to go back,” words that resonate more to me with every day that creeps toward my dreaded farewell to England. It doesn’t seem so long ago that I was staring from the window of a 747 down on a grey-green smudge of island and thinking — half in panic — I live there now; I’m going home. Then, in September, thinking of London as home was an exercise in abstraction, like visualizing myself as a plant.
In a way it was terrifying, surrounded by 18-year-old first-year students, all as adrift as me. Mercifully, the common-sense British attitude toward alcohol meant we spent the first fortnight getting rolling drunk together, which greatly accelerated the bonding process. There were still moments of sober anxiety, though, sitting looking at the dirty cream walls of my room wishing they enclosed a more hospitable space.
From being surrounded by love and friendship in Philadelphia to being utterly alone and unattached in London was a shock. Sometimes I despaired of ever finding another circle of friends. Not having had to make friends for the better part of two years, I was sure I had forgotten how to, at least I couldn’t remember what had worked back when I was a freshman.
To be honest, I still don’t know how it happened, but suddenly I’m as inundated with companionship here as I ever was at Penn. Which has a lot to do with my burgeoning dread of the day I get on another transatlantic flight.
How do you leave people you’ve loved, fought with, partied with, worked with, stayed up all night smoking and talking-with? I’ve done it once before, so I ought to be able to answer that, but I can’t. It makes my heart almost burst to imagine saying goodbye, so I try to pretend it won’t happen.
Instead, I concentrate on living, and every day find myself more in love with a life that I’m going to have to leave in a matter of months. The smallest daily routines are rife with flashes of magic, like taking a double-decker bus into central London and rumbling past the postcard-perfect scene of Piccadilly Circus. Or taking a break from lectures and wandering to Victoria Place to munch on sandwiches as you gaze across the Southbank skyline from the Tower Bridge to Big Ben.
And there are the bits that don’t make the guide books: standing in Trafalgar Square in the freezing cold at 4 a.m. with a nascent hangover, waiting for a night bus; stumbling into kebab shops at 2 a.m. for a lethal dose of Turkish cuisine; arguing with minicab drivers; going to the gym and seeing Rupert Everett doing crunches; or sitting around on a Friday night trying to work out whether or not you can afford a pub or if you’ll have to go out for some cheap wine instead.
What is also rarely mentioned in the Rough Guide is how lovely British people really are. Five months working at a pub has given me an unparalleled opportunity to observe the Brits in their natural habitat, and I can safely say that their reputation for being snooty, superior and generally “up their own arses” is almost without exception undeserved. Sure, some are obnoxious jerks — Chelsea Football Club fans for example — but the vast majority are laid back, friendly and unfailingly courteous.
Another facet of England’s considerable charm is the refreshing safety of even its largest city. I will never forget walking down the street one day and spotting a poster advertising that day’s Evening Standard, “Man killed in ‘drive-by’ shooting” was the headline — complete with apostrophes. Awe-struck, I just stood there, gaping at the words, trying to wrap my head around the idea that in Britain drive-bys are so unheard of they still deserve quotes.
Sadly, though, the clock is ticking, and unlike Joyce I don’t have the option of staying happily exiled. So, for now, I’ll brace myself to return to grubby, lovely Philadelphia, and the wonderful friends I’ve made there. Hoping only that I won’t find the return too dangerous and that someday, when I’m home again, I’ll look back on my final year at Penn with as much gratitude and delight as I remember my first year in London.
Your turn: Dig out an old notebook and share a story from your younger self.
Don’t have one? Start one!