Friday, September 3, 2010

On London (and a rough start)

The journey to London had not been easy. In fact, things started getting hard even before I left. There was the matter of various health issues (including an unpleasant and far from poetic infection on the toe and some bloody procedure that accompanied it the day before my departure), losing my wallet (and quite a bit of extra cash aside from that, and mysteriously a single slipper), and a seemingly endless stream of things to get done before I rushed off. September first went by too quickly, and instead of the joyous sendoff I envisioned with all of my friends, farewells came as one small thing after another. My last few hours in New York, after the panic of the week before, the boyfriend and I had a lovely dinner at Balthazar, then we rushed home (where the car service was already waiting outside), to stuff my last few belongs in my suitcases, and it was off to JFK, where there was hardly enough time for anything except a seemingly too short, tear stained goodbye.

The process of landing, immigration, suitcases and waiting for the NYU bus didn't make anything easier. Weary, jet lagged, sick from the plane, all I could remember were the luxuries of New York. The journey to the residence took forever (interspersed by spells of sleeping and not), and when I arrived, the tiny room with its twin bunk beds (sans bedding) and lack of storage space seemed hardly welcoming. The next two days weren't much improvement: everything was daunting, expensive, intimidating. Practical issues abounded, and the constant stream of introductions and reintroductions and the company of NYU students simply made me feel like I was repeating Freshman year. It felt like everything I had built up in New York had shattered, and I was helpless, small, desperate for approval. I hated it. Hated the sickening essence of being locked in this bubble I was so ready to leave behind...hated the lack of excitement and the slow climbing dread I felt.

Bloomsbury, where I'm living, is a beautiful part of town, and though full of charming buildings at every corner, quaint shops and discoveries, I was far too focused on all my problems to notice any. I walked past Russell Square endless times to run errands, but still hadn't stepped inside the delightful park. I headed off with strings of NYUers to places I didn't really want to go, not thinking, not noticing. My suitcases sprawled across my tiny room, unpacked, daunting. I was in terror of being run over on every street, looking right and left and back each way again, convinced of my inevitable doom. The British accents I heard around me only reminded me of the American accents that imprisoned me everywhere else.

What did it take to wake up? An email from my boyfriend (every reminder of him brought more tears, my comfy apartment, the familiarity of New York)? A breeze that stirred me just so, to look up, and notice, and remember where I was? At some point I stopped to take a deep breath. I took a walk. It was a small thing, pointless, really, but it was that: buying four tangerines from a fruit vendor on the street for a pound, stepping into an unfamiliar grocery store and marveling over the tea selection, staring at titles that were still familiar in a bookstore, looking at intricate churches and architecture, French windows, little red flowers in pots on windowstills, the green of the parks, the slower pace of London. I took a breath and remembered why I was here. Remembered London's history, culture, beauty, all that was waiting. The British friends I'd yet to meet, the familiarity I'd yet to achieve. I took it slower, soaked it in.

It's the night of day three, a Friday night, and I've made it through unpacking, through buying a few necessities, sleeping through orientation, stumbling through lunches, and had time to explore a bit, finally, the way I should have been. This afternoon I stopped by a sidewalk cafe to have a somewhat proper meal: English tea and a croissant (and it seemed entirely likely that that'd be something I survived off this semester). And walking through the narrow streets, I noticed the buildings, heard piano music coming from behind delicate white lace curtains at a room on a lower level, passed through bookshops, narrow alleys that seemed too historical to exist now, in between modern shops. I stumbled into a discount bookstore where every book (including an array of classics I'd been meaning to read) at £2 each, and then, found the British Library. Where I found the literature collection that took my breath away, and standing in front of those glass cases, beneath which, the exquisite handwritten manuscripts of Jane Austen, Virginia Woolf, Oscar Wilde, Chaucer, Shakespeare spread...the history of literature so close, I trembled and remembered exactly why I was here.

When I wandered back to my room I was in a far happier mood, floating on the discoveries I was making on every corner, delighted that I could find my way back at all. This evening my roommate and I went out for dinner (tip for future travelers: don't ask for still water but for tap...water will cost you £3 and make you want to die), and another walk that took us to Soho, Oxford Street, and the nightlife seemed marvelous, the shops energizing, and the city so alive in a way different from New York. Every pub on every street looked packed, and though the long stumbling walk back was not as fun, London shines a new light, and I can hardly wait to make its proper acquaintance.

Next week, classes start. I'm hoping desperately NYU's program upholds London's rich intellectual tradition, and if not, I'll seek elsewhere. Next week, I've arranged to meet a few locals (through lots of proactive attempts at socializing with strangers online!) and might, perhaps, get better at knowing how to cross the streets. I expect to be taking my books to plenty of these parks outside, and I'm giddy already envisioning the rest of London (and Europe) to discover.

PS: do you live in London? Around there? Drop me a line please! I'd like to be friends.


  1. Why on earth are you associating with NYU students abroad? Don't spend another second with those assholes! There's nothing better than exploring on our own (as I finally got to find out this August...)

  2. You'll do great, Laura!
    If you could make it in New York, London should be a great experience.

  3. Reading your post made me full of nostalgia. I, too, did not have a smooth start in London (thought it was probably slightly better, I did have mattress), and I lived in Bloomsbury as well. I still remember the Russel Square station quite well. London is expensive, but it's such an amazing city. Enjoy it while you are there (as I'm sure you will!). You will miss it without a doubt.

  4. You've arrived at the perfect time - London (especially Bloomsbury) is at it's most beautiful in the autumn. If you're the kind of writer who likes writing groups that take frequent breaks to be massive geeks, let me know - ours is always open to new members!

  5. Are you still in London? I'm guessing so. Hope you're enjoying it more now. Get exploring and find some new friends, maybe try and find out where the British London students hang out and get into their groups - you'll learn a lot more and it'll be far more fun for everyone involved :)