Sunday, September 30, 2012

An open letter

I have spent too many days mourning loneliness. Since I turned nine and sat against the portables at my elementary school watching the boy I had a crush on chasing another girl around the playground, it has been all too clear to me that I'd always be a spectator. That girl who sits on the sidelines while other girls are chased, the one who watches movies where heroes find their damsels in distress and lay claim on them, the one who learns from seeing, but not from experiencing.

I grew up awkward, originally it was both physical and social. Eventually it became only the latter. Regardless of the situation, however, it was never in the cards for me to be a heartbreaker. I simply wasn't equipped for that sort of thing.

So it took me a long time to start dating. Almost two decades passed before I finally found a boy who'd be even willing to lay eyes on me. I was ecstatic. Then I learned he didn't actually want to date me.

I waited another half a year. Finally, I'd convinced myself that it wasn't impossible for someone to be romantically interested in me. The confidence boosted my ego enough to make me put myself out on a limb. I ended up winning over the boy I'd secretly fancied for a year. Things went well (on my side) and I set my heart on unreachable goals, getting passion confused with love and feeling the words bubbling up in my throat when I knew they were unwarranted. In time I'd learn he didn't like me all that much, and the "I love you" I felt wasn't real.

From then on I tried to be more casual. I knew that by investing myself in dating, in romance or even in boys in general, I was doing myself a disservice. I took an Economics of Gender class to remind me that a woman could be powerful and run a household. I watched Pride & Prejudice over and over again to see what real men should be like and how a strong woman turns down an unsuitable match. These were my lessons.

The catch was that I didn't seem to learn anything from them.

Even with the casual dating, I still managed to get my feelings all tangled up. And never for the right people, never at the right time. I was always too eager, too imperfect, or I'd learn quickly that I was only a rebound date. Amidst all the confusion, even I was occasionally guilty of playing the rebound card.

It took me a while to realize that even if that "I love you" from before wasn't real, it felt real enough to have distracted me from embracing present experiences.

That all melted away when I thought I'd met the right person once again. I no longer cared about that previous fascination, because I thought I'd found something more pure and more authentic. For a second time, I was run away with my feelings. I couldn't see any fault with the situation, even if it was in fact filled with errors. And I wanted to use those words again.

Through it all, I missed one absolutely unmistakable fact:

Even though those words bubbled on the surface for me, they were never even close to reaching the lips of my counterparts. In the same way I'd pushed for things to work out, I'd pushed for feelings that weren't true.

In the days afterward, it left a hole inside me where I'd always assumed love could exist and thrive.

After a long day of trying to erase the past, to forget the memories and embrace the future, I've settled on a conclusion. No boy is worth a broken heart. And even more than that, no boy is worth crying over. From someone who cries even when she's happy, this is a premise that can be hard to embrace.

An even harder one is that no boy is worth the effort.

When I woke up this morning, I didn't want to leave bed. Somehow staring at the wall and burrowing my face in my pillow felt better than doing anything. Then I talked to a friend of mine and he tried to help me. He told me that if two people really like each other, nothing will stop them from making that known. If the feelings are sincere, then there's no risk that the feelings will go forever unshared.

I didn't believe him. I still don't know if I do. And in my heart of hearts, I continue to think I will never find love because I will always be chasing it and never have it given to me in return. Like a relay race, as soon as I pass it to someone they're quick to move on and find someone else to pass it along to.

Later in the day I talked to another friend of mine, my best friend in the world. She reminded me that whenever you date someone you should always feel like you matter to them. There is no excuse for feeling unwanted. As the quote from Juno goes:

"Look, in my opinion, the best thing you can do is find a person who loves you for exactly what you are. Good mood, bad mood, ugly, pretty, handsome, what have you, the right person is still going to think the sun shines out your ass. That's the kind of person that's worth sticking with." - Mac MacGuff

I want to believe my friends. And I want to believe Juno's dad. So I'm leaving myself open to what lies ahead. Because in the bitterest of moments, the easiest solution is to say that I give up and refuse to open myself up to future experiences that could hurt me in the same way.

That would be weak. And to all the boys I've dated, the ones who've broken my heart and the ones where things just weren't right - I am not weak. I can guarantee you that you are not worth my thoughts, my tears or my concern. You never were.

To the ones whom I still believe there is potential with - the truth is finally out - if you want this girl, you're going to have to chase her around the playground. She's done chasing you.

Saturday, September 29, 2012

A lot in a day

I almost wanted to start this blog off by saying that nothing all that exciting happened today. Maybe that's because I was feeling humble, maybe because my little brain had forgotten all that transpired in the past 24 hours. But whatever it was, it was wrong. I was wrong. A lot happened today.

This morning I didn't want to wake up. And it wasn't in a looming doom sort of way, but more in a "why did I go to sleep at 1 am when I had to be up by 8?" sort of way. There's something about being in a foreign city on your own without having to take classes quite yet that makes you the laziest person of all time, and the most groggy.

But I'd already decided I'd be up early, so I stuck to my guns and opened my curtains to the sunny day while stinging my eyes in the process with the intense brightness. From my previous experience, this is not typical London weather. But it's welcome on a day that I would be trudging up and downhill and through a muddy heath where John Keats once tread.

Despite not having much planned, I knew today would be eventful. I'd either be turned down for a volunteer position at Keats House or be planning exactly when I'd be visiting there again (and again and again for the next few months).

I really had no idea what was in store, though, did I?

Now that I've built up the anticipation, you'll likely be disappointed. Possibly because you already know what happened or simply because I've made you too excited considering the level of awesomeness that you will be reading about shortly. I apologize for that. I hope that's not the case, but even if it is - know that I'm pretty excited, and hopefully even if the feeling is unwarranted you can relate in some fashion.

It was mid-morning and I was very casually walking to Keats House for my interview. The main drag in Hampstead is one of the most pleasant and beautiful streets I've ever encountered. There may be traffic - on both the road and the pavement - but it's the kind that feels homey and lovely. As I moved downhill toward my destination, I saw a woman talking to her children and fumbling around a bit. I didn't think much of it, but having a tendency to pay a bit too much attention to the goings-on around me, I looked at her face.

With just a glimpse of her, I knew her instantly. Upon further examination, it became even more abundantly clear. The eccentric clothing, the fascinatingly coiffed hair. This was Helena Bonham Carter. It couldn't be mistaken. I was walking past Helena Bonham Carter.

I tried to play it cool. I made subtle moves to try and look back at her as I passed. But trying to appear nonchalant, I kept moving.

Still, when I got to Keats House I couldn't help but bring up the incident. Within conversation, I learned that it is not unheard of to see Carter walking around Hampstead on occasion. And perhaps seeing celebrities in general in the area is not unheard of either.

But since the celebrity I was most interested in connecting with was John Keats, I focused in on my primary goal. After securing the volunteer position, I took the afternoon to walk around Hampstead Heath. I sat on a bench overlooking a pond and read The Marriage Plot. I immersed myself in the story, however distracted I became by the whistling and chilling wind that passed through my coat and onto my arms and legs.

Once I'd made it back to central London and back to my flat to prepare for what I'd planned to do later in the day, I started to become nervous. Walking past Helena Bonham Carter was one thing, but I had decided a week ago that I would be going to the stage door of a play where Matthew Lewis (Neville Longbottom from Harry Potter) and Arthur Darvill (Rory Williams from Doctor Who) would be exiting from a play I'd seen them in yesterday.

I'm not the kind of person who enjoys being starstruck and chasing people with big names. Sometimes it happens just by fate - like when I bumped into James McAvoy in London last year - but when I'm organizing it I always feel a sense of guilt. Like this is something I shouldn't be partaking in. It's too frivolous and silly.

At the end of the day, though, having the chance to go from seeing Helena Bonham Carter gallivanting around town to visiting my favorite place in all of London (Keats House) to meeting actors who play two of my favorite characters from television and film is still something worth celebrating. So much so that I've devoted an entire blog to it rather than actually creating a gripping personal essay about some issue that has been bothering me lately (I'll save that for a more depressing or uninteresting evening).

The real defining moment of my day, though, was when I was walking around the Heath and listening to the soundtrack to Carousel on my iPod. Something about the combination of the London weather, the children and their parents walking around, the beautiful untampered-with nature and the soft crooning in my ears made me feel like the world could never be better.

Even on a day when literally nothing could have gone better, it was a little sliver of a moment like that that really made it something special. And if I'm going to remember anything about September 29, 2012 - I think the strongest of those memories will be of my tears of happiness as I realized what a great moment it was.

Friday, September 28, 2012

You'll never walk alone

A note to my friend Dana: I have been too harsh on you for your hesitance about being out late at night. I haven't trusted your judgment sometimes when you're weary about doing certain things because they might jeopardize safety. This blog isn't just for you, but now that I've begun writing it, I can't help but think that I can better empathize with you. Now onto the blog itself...

It always bothered me a bit that we had to get back from the city before it got dark. Or that you didn't enjoy riding the El because you always assumed someone creepy would show up on it - either to stare at you with blood red eyes or to scare everyone in the car out of their wits by saying very loudly, "Hello everyone, I'm an ex-convict."

I gave you a hard time, saying that we'd be fine and that it wasn't necessary to be so careful.

I still believe that to a degree. Avoid going out at night and you miss out on all the beauty that it consists of. Twinkling lights, cool (sometimes frosty when we're in Chicago) air, less-crowded streets, events around town that only happen in the evenings.

But after a day and an evening out on my own, I don't feel so sure anymore. At least not as much as I was when I came to this city, assuming it was one of the safest in the world.

In the past couple of weeks, I've taken to clutching my purse a lot. I fear pick-pockets. Having seen Oliver! one too many times, I know stealing from someone's coat pocket is so easy a child could do it (quite literally, if you assume Oliver Twist is representative of reality).

I've taken to keeping an eye out as well. For myself (i.e. Is my skirt flying up? Should I put my hair in a pony tail?) and for those around me (i.e. Are there any seedy situations or people I should avoid right now?).

But most of all I've taken to being paranoid. And it's one of the greatest and most trying gifts of all time.

"Enhanced awareness" perhaps is a better name for it. That feeling of needing to make sure everything is in order and there is no chance that you or anything important to you is in jeopardy. It comes about much in the same way that wearing your heart on your sleeve does. You can't help but feel the cowardice, and you need to act on it even if it makes you look silly. Like crying when someone hurts your feelings, it's just the only way you know how to react.

This afternoon, I went for a stroll around Regent's Park. In the past week, I've realized what a comfort this place is to me. With its wide open spaces, its friendly-ish patrons, its adorable animal inhabitants and its beautiful topiaries, you half want to sit down and take it all in and half want to pitch a tent and live there. So I've gone back practically every day.

I sat down at a bench and tried to read a book. The Marriage Plot. It's "One Day with George Eliot thrown in," says The Times (according to the front of the paperback). I need romance sometimes too, even if it only comes in the form of a novel.

The guy the next bench over must have received the memo.

I looked at him once and saw that he was angrily gesturing at one of the pigeons. Being the Pigeon Queen as of late (I've learned to love feeding pigeons at London parks), I was a little bothered by this but chose to ignore it. I looked over at him again and periodically he would look back at me too.

Then he came over. He asked to sit with me and we chatted for at least 45 minutes, maybe an hour. About school, about family, about home and abroad, about being foreigners in London, about friends and values and drinking and smoking and everything else. I didn't get his full name.

What I did get was a brief comment he made in passing - some time after I'd mentioned that I didn't drink, smoke, do drugs, have caffeine or party at all. He told me "you're a strong woman."

Woman. Strong. Two words I never really associate with myself. A few years ago I went to visit my grandparents in Florida and when my grandpa insisted on calling me a young woman, I quickly corrected him and told him I am a young lady. No womanhood here. Just ladyhood. It's more sophisticated, I guess.

I took the comment as a compliment, if only because I was pleased this guy had not come up to me to chat me up and then been pleased to encounter that I was ditzy and easy. Because I am neither of those things. I am the complete opposite of those things.

Still, I backed away from him. Because at my very core, I believe I know when I want to continue friendships and romantic relationships with people. And for some reason, it didn't feel right.

And as I walked away from the park bench and left Regent's Park to go back to my room in the pouring rain, I thought a bit about the "strong woman" comment. Am I really a strong woman? What would indicate that from an hour-long conversation?

A few hours later, I found myself walking to Covent Garden. I had already scoped out the location of the theater where I'd be seeing Our Boys, a play about British army veterans who are struggling with injury and facing military injustice during their stay in a hospital.

When I walked into the theater, I was given my will call ticket at the box office and then turned away because the doors wouldn't open until 30 minutes before curtain. I walked back to Covent Garden and sat on a bench to pass the time. A man came up to me. But this one was not interested in talking to me about my family or what I'm studying. He didn't tell me about his religious or political leanings, his values or anything.

His first thought was to ask my name. And when I reluctantly gave it to him, he asked where I was from. And upon saying California, he pressed for more information. So I started lying.

"I'm from San Francisco."

"Do you have a Facebook?"


"What about an email address?"

"I don't give it out to people I don't know well." (Okay, that's not a lie actually)

"But you know me."

I turned away and wouldn't look at him again. Once he'd walked a reasonable distance away, I ran for the theater again. Though the doors to the stalls had opened, we were still not able to wait in our seats. But being in the comfort of an organized establishment made me feel safe again.

So what does this mean? How can I interpret these events toward a solid conclusion?

When I let a strange man (boy, sort of) sit with me in Regent's Park, was I being a strong woman? Alternatively, when I lied to the scamming scoundrel asking for my email address that I live in San Francisco, was I being a strong woman?

Or am I just the petite little thing who suddenly feels more vulnerable than ever walking around the London streets at 10:15 on a Friday night?

I don't know quite yet. But what I do know is that I never want to walk alone. At least not in a public space in the evening when I'm wearing a periwinkle dress with chiffon and lace. Because that may be representative of my personality in some ways, but it is not the personality I want to set forth to thieves, robbers, rapists and anyone else who asks me why he hasn't heard my accent around London before (everyone has heard an American accent, but cheers man).

The rest of the night, I walked around with a scowl on my face. This isn't typical of me, but it was how I wanted to present myself in an environment where I felt that I could be in danger at any minute if I wasn't paying close enough attention. A strong woman is well-equipped for the vices that lie ahead. And for now I will say that yes, I'm a strong woman.

Thursday, September 27, 2012

See more, explore more, experience more

There's this girl I know. Let's call her Mary. No, let's be frank. This girl is me. For the most part, this blog is about me. You knew where this was going.

Anyway there's this girl I know. This girl is me. And she has an issue with spending a bit too much time indoors. On a laptop. Watching television. Listening to sounds coming from outside the door to her room and getting frustrated because "I'm working on a blog right now!!"

She doesn't go outside much when she's at home. It's just too hot. She doesn't go outside much when she's at school. It's much too cold. There really is no in between. There really is no satisfactory middle ground to coerce her out of the comfort of her air conditioned, wi-fi enabled bed chamber.

Yeah well, she's in London now.

Some enjoy cities where warmth is constant. Where you can count on the sun every day of the year and where the rain turns roads into slick disaster zones, people into wet zombies. That's where I hail from.

Those people aren't me. I'm the kind of girl who wears skirts in freezing cold weather, when there's snow on the ground in Chicago. I avoid sun like the plague because no matter how much exposure I get, I have a perma-tan that always makes me look like I've just come back from a weekend in Barbados.

The first time I came to London was probably the first time in my life that I was ever very keen on getting out. Take me to any city in the world, and I'll always appreciate the beauty that is the hotel room. With the luxury of television, the fresh linens and clean towels with no laundry effort required, and the options of room service and maid service and every other service known to man, I've been raised to be a homebody.

London is the kind of city where sitting indoors is almost a sin. Even with the unpredictable weather and the constant need to wear waterproof shoes, there is nothing more beautiful and temperate than a London afternoon, no matter the season.

So I've taken to exploring.

And by exploring, I mean walking around in circles and pretending I know where I'm going until I find what I'm looking for.

This morning was spent at a Freshers Fair event which involved going through twisting corridors at my university and signing up for various email lists from which I will be informed about clubs all around campus. But since I was alone and not interested in all the free stuff being given out by the business partners and clubs asking me "Do you like to rave?" (to which the answer is a staunch "no"), I made my way out before lunch time.

As per my typical home-loving, bed-cuddling personality, I went back to my room to grab some food. But not before walking around the whole perimeter of my university and finding the closest Waterstones bookstore which I then proceeded to look around as if I was looking for course material rather than trying to find some pleasure reading books.

Once I made it back though, in typical London fashion I was anxious to get back out.

And let me just say, this is in no way indicative of my personality. Once I've resolved to go home when I'm in California, it usually means I'm home for the rest of the day or night. Going outside is a nuisance.

But the sky was light and blue. The wind was chilly and inviting. The pavement was dry enough for flats rather than boots. I needed to go somewhere. But where?

My view from Primrose Hill.
Around 4 pm, I decided to head back to Regent's Park. Not only with the purpose of making it to a place where I could relax and take some more photos, but to scale Primrose Hill - a spot I'd heard about but never experienced, forgetting to take the side trip a few days ago when I spent much of an afternoon at the park.

It took ages to get to the hill. I took a wrong turn and ended up walking all along the side of the London Zoo (I've really enjoyed walking along perimeters in this city, it seems), meaning I spent about 15 minutes more time and an unquantifiable amount of excess energy just to get to the spot I was aiming for.

Until I arrived there, then all of that went away. Walking up to Primrose Hill is like this lesson in patience and exercise in anticipation. The incline isn't very steep, but as you move along the paved path and occasionally glance behind yourself, you notice more and more of the London city skyline becoming visible.

Then you get to the top, and even though there are at least two or three dozen other people there, for once hearing the chitter chatter and watching all the lovers stare into each others eyes becomes less nauseating and simply part of the experience.

I threw my coat down before I'd even made it to the top. It was a slight slope, but I'd placed myself just far enough away from anyone that despite being surrounded by people, I was completely on my own. I lay down with my head on my coat and looked sideways at the skyline.

And I could tell I was making a memory.

I don't know that under any other circumstance, I could appreciate nature - its glory and even its subtle annoyances - as much as I do on Primrose Hill. Little flies flew a few feet above my head as I stared at the skyline, but whereas I might swat at them in any other park, I let them be just as they let me be.

It was as if a sense of calm had washed over me that I'd never felt before. Not even on my long strolls around my Chicago university after heartbreak had worn me down and forced me to reevaluate my life. Those days were about thinking hard and fixing things, but these days I'm all about enjoying being myself and even moreso, being by myself.

Mary is in London now. She still doesn't like the outdoors. She still likes controlled surroundings with air conditioning and a blanket to keep her warm when she inevitably turns the A/C up way too high.

But she's learning. And she's wanting to see more. Explore more. Experience more. Luckily there really is no better place to do so.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

The girl with the map in her hand

London is a wonderful, but misunderstood city. When you hear its name, you might automatically think of things like Big Ben and Parliament, the London Eye or Tower Bridge. Certainly, the image conjured up has something to do with traveling. That's how we are with all places foreign to us.

But London isn't just a city for tourists. The longer you spend here, the more abundantly clear this becomes.

I think I must have been blind to it before. I always had my dad to help me navigate through the twisting roads of the city. If he took a break to consult a map, I'd look at him with disdain and confusion. How could he not know exactly where he was going? He's a navigation guru - the kind of guy who borrows travel books from the library just so he can look at maps of the cities they describe. If you're lost in Los Angeles, on the freeway or finding a landmark, he is the person you go to for advice and reassurance.

This applies until you're in a foreign country, stranded without the ability to call Dad whenever you should need to. This is where I am now.

My first venture in London cartography came when I chose to visit a Marks & Spencer last week soon after moving into a hotel in the city. Without access to Google Maps (Wi-fi was not free in the hotel), I used my London A-Z book and searched desperately for street numbers that could help me locate the place that held my lunch.

After a few wrong turns, I found Tottenham Court Road and noticed that the numbers on the businesses had no rhyme or reason. There didn't seem to be an odd side or an even side of the street as there is in the United States. The numbers also didn't seem to match up with each other depending on which side of the street you were on. Some businesses didn't even have numbers on them, which made the process of searching even more difficult.

Finally, I found the place I was searching for, but not before I'd walked past a ton of other businesses. Unwittingly, I'd cemented both my knowledge of the location of Marks and Spencer as well as the crazy conversion scale between a London A-Z map booklet and the actual London streets. What I thought would be a short journey was actually a long expedition all for the sake of a Ploughman's Lunch sandwich.

A few days passed in between, and I'll forget about mentioning them because for a great majority of my week my dad was in town and doing the navigating once again. Once he left, though, I was back to utilizing my own sub-par knowledge of the London tube system and the compass rose to make my way around the city without getting lost at every twist and turn.

While my dad was in town, I learned that street names are not unique items in this country. Gordon Square merges into Gordon Street, and similar situations occur throughout the city. So depending on where you are, you must always be aware of the type of street your own, the part of the city your in, etc. etc. Simplicity goes out the window sooner than you might think.

In the period after my dad left, I learned a lot about how London functions for its residents - and why if I had come here alone the first few times, I probably would've bawled my eyes out more than enjoyed the experience due to the incredible wackadoodliness (I just made that word up) of the city.

When you go onto the London Underground, you are not simply a passenger on a train (tube) system. You are part of a sea. And in being part of a sea, you do not have the power as one particle of water to fight against the tide. You roll along with it and hope things go according to plan.

I've made it a point to consult a map before I ever enter a tube station in London. Without knowing where you're going in this city, you will get lost simply because you want to keep moving. Everyone else is moving, that must mean you need to move too. That's the bandwagon complex talking, not your conscience. And you should always let your conscience be your guide.

The bandwagon complex does not only apply to London Underground travels, but travels all through the city. Walking along a street, you may be tempted to cross simply because everyone else is. Or alternatively, you may choose to keep walking just because that's how the flow of pedestrian traffic seems to be moving. But not everyone is going where you're going. If you need your dad to tell you that, then you have a serious problem.

So I have a serious problem.

Over the past few days, I've had to train myself not to wander. Being from the suburbs and being a fancy smartphone user, this has never been a high priority for me. Wherever I am, I have access to information about my whereabouts. I have my dad a quick phone call away. I will never be unsalvageably lost.

Being alone in London changes all that. And aside from making you self-aware of your own appearance as a tourist, it teaches you how to nonchalantly pretend to be a local even when you barely know right from left (or which direction the cars will be going on any particular side of the street).

For the past few days and the next few, I have and will put myself into awkward navigational experiences. Just for the exercise of learning where I am in a new city. Because from now on, London is not just a place I'm visiting. London is a place I'm living. And as a living, breathing Londoner, it is my duty to learn it street by street, no matter the twists and turns and shared names.

So that's what I'm doing. And if you plan to visit me, be prepared for some roundabout travels. No matter which way you go, though, London is a beautiful city. You will not be disappointed.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

A walk through Regent's Park

It pains me to share photos today rather than ramble on and on about my experience in London thus far. After being here a week, I've learned a lot about myself and how I interact with new people, new places, new choices, etc. It's left a lot to think about. Sometimes more than I'd like to when there's such a beautiful city outside waiting to be explored sans daunting concerns.

Still, writing a blog has been a good outlet for the disappointments and excitements that I've felt throughout the experience. Without the chance to put fingers to keyboard, I think I'd feel a lot less content with how things have gone since I arrived at Heathrow what feels like ages ago.

I'm going to experiment with something in this blog that I've never done before. Rather than just narrate the photos with little captions, I'm going to try to write in between them about what I was thinking about on my walk through Regent's Park today. I spent about an hour and a half making my way around the perimeter of this London landmark, so I had quite a bit of time to myself to think about life. Hopefully I can illustrate that with a modicum of clarity.

The moment I walked into Regent's Park, I was met by an Indian family consisting of several children on scooters and bicycles. They were followed by hoards of squirrels and pigeons. Unwittingly, I'd assume. It wasn't like a scene out of The Birds or anything. But it was obvious to me that I would not be the only living being within the confines of Regent's Park today. And to be honest, that was fine by me. I needed the company, even if it was indirect.

I started off going in an easily traceable circle through the park, but realizing that the more interesting locales were toward the center of the map, I decided to explore in a way that might endanger my sense of direction, but ensure a more beautiful experience. Walking through these gardens of topiaries and fountains, I felt myself enjoying the experience of being alone. Though I've spent much of my time wishing I could settle into a group of friends in London as easily as I have in other educational experiences, getting to experience this place on my own terms was something unique and wonderful.

Whereas I might not pause so much with the companionship of others to take photos of the sky or the trees around me, when I'm by myself I will spend a few minutes in one location snapping photo after photo. The experience goes from uncomfortable and awkward to soothing once attention is no longer paid to the people around who eye amateur photographers like they might a papparazzo.

Eventually, it feels like I'm alone with my camera. Almost like my eyes are the camera. Have you ever tried to take a mental picture? Like when you physically stop, stare at a scene and either make the motion or think in your head that you always want to remember that exact image? Well that's what I did. Except in this scenario, I really had a camera. And I really could capture the moments.

I kept walking past couples sitting on park benches. They either lay tangled in each other's arms or touching each other's hands in some fashion. Ordinarily in these situations, I'd feel lonely and desiring of love. But instead I focused myself and my camera on the man in front of me who also walked alone. It made me feel better, and happy that even in my relationship-less existence, I am not alone.

I started to think about how London itself is like a distant lover to me. I visit with him (I guess cities are usually referred to with female pronouns, but because I am female and I like men, I will call London a boy) every year or so, remind myself why I've fallen so madly in love, then back away for months at a time only to return with my feelings renewed and hopeful. In this case, absence really does make the heart grow fonder. And even when I'm alone in London, I never really am because London is my reason for being.

Around the bend and heading north, I started my way next to this pond surrounded by cement on one side and a wooded area on the other. Birds gathered along the shoreline and sat in groups. I marveled at their camaraderie. Even geese stood happily beside pigeons squatting on the gravel. There was an aura of calm over this whole section of the park. No matter how close I got to these birds, they never flinched, never cowered. As if finally we'd found a way to commune with nature without intimidating it - man, the one species with the power to destroy all things, at last interacting with another species without the six-inch rule.

The entire experience of wandering through Regent's Park became this sort of blur of varied experiences and locales. As I moved past the water, I headed into an area with green fields and people walking their dogs. There were statues set up near soccer goals and open spaces that reminded me of college campuses, but in these places businesspeople rather than students would lie in the grass on their backs wearing suits and leather shoes. Even in the middle of a work day, time can be taken out to feel the cool solitude of a London park.

There's this belief that when you're in a romantic place - and I believe Regent's Park is a romantic place - you end up wishing you could have someone with whom to share the experience. But while I was wandering, my thoughts went to pets - how I missed my own, how I wish I could purchase a dog for the duration of my stay in London. The companionship between master and hound was evident as the dogs snooped through the grass, then anxiously ran back to their owners, free of leashes (called "leads" in the UK), but somehow tethered to their caretaker.

As much as I had wished I could find an animal to share my time with, even more I longed for the childhood days where running around a park introduced games of the imagination into my life. I still use techniques of the creative mind from my earliest days in adult life. Anyone who purports to have matured out of their childhood or adolescence, I personally believe, is lying to themselves.

Around the corner from this group of children - who are visibly dressed in suits and shirts with ties, however a few minutes later were running around the park and pushing each other to the ground - there was a playground where I endeavored to take my childish tendencies and put them to proper use. Climbing onto a swing set, though, I was soon met by odd glances from a couple who had wandered into the playground for a picnic. My self-consciousness took over, but I soon recovered.

Even without my childhood, I maintain this sense of wonderment just through the experience of walking around Regent's Park. The trees form canopies above me and the clouds move more quickly than you can imagine with strong winds pressing them forward, but all I can think of is how I feel more close to nature and more close to my city - a bond that can't be broken or altered as easily as interpersonal relationships might.

As I rounded out the experience, unaware that it was coming to an end but somehow clairvoyantly anticipating that I would soon be arriving back where I started in my journey through Regent's Park, I came upon a gazebo. It was unassuming, made of dark wood with a lone bench inside. Rickety and worn from overuse compared to its counterparts which line the gravel on the designated walkways of the park, the bench quivered when I sat down on it. It had names and letters etched into it, indications of lovers who'd stopped there or perhaps activists who felt strongly enough to put knife to wood.

I took a moment to reflect on my feelings walking through the park. After an hour and a half, my feet were not in pain. I was not aware of any troubles in my life. I had not checked my phone since I'd started my revolution. I was cut off from reality, but still sitting right in the middle of it all.

Taking my poetry journal out of my bag, I opened it to the most recently inscribed upon page only to realize that the last time I'd written in it was nearly a year ago. Celeste (what I've named my poetry journal) had gotten me through some of the roughest times of my life, but after I'd started to recover I'd neglected her. So I wrote a poem, as both an opportunity for expression and an apology.

It was only fitting that I reopened a previously well-used journal in a place where I have renewed myself and my healthy sense of wonder for the world. You never imagine that a walk in a local park will turn into a chance to reflect on your own status in the world.

But I think that's why I love London. A little walk down the street may consist of so many twists and turns, so many moments of confusion, that you can't help but think about anything and everything. In this case, for me today, anything and everything was beautiful.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Getting used to this

There's something wrong with the shower. I don't know why it happens, how long it's been going on, or why no one else has mentioned it to the maintenance staff (knowing how lazy I am, I will probably refrain from doing so as well). All I know is that it's not normal.

However, it is tolerable.

I'm lying in bed with my hair wrapped in a towel and the base of my laptop resting on my right leg. It's nice and cool in my room, but the washroom is still filled with steam I'd imagine. I didn't ask for this steam. I didn't instigate it. But it just happened. Because our shower is wacked out.

If you ever happen to use our shower (which you might, if you happen to be a friend of mine who is visiting London), be forewarned: the temperature you set it to will not remain consistent. I learned this the hard way when I became frustrated with the lukewarm water coming out of the spigot. At full heat, it still would not satisfy my needs.

But just wait a few minutes and voila, you have the temperature you're waiting for. And then it goes away a second later. For no apparent reason, our shower likes to have momentary outbursts of scorching hot water during what is otherwise only a warm cascade.

If you've gotten this far in tonight's blog post, then I'm assuming you're waiting for the explanation. Why is this relevant? Why do I care? Are you just prolonging an explanation of a shower to fill up space?

Well I have an answer to two of those questions.

Many of my experiences over the past week have been filled with little bits of frustration and feelings of dissatisfaction. Like arriving at the hotel with all my study abroad companions and learning that everyone I was interacting with and becoming close to was going to the other university just outside of London. Or like finally having free days without the imposition of orientation sessions, and then being saddled with massive wind and rain storms all through the city.

But even so, I vow not to complain. At least, not with any level of true anger or prissiness. Because when I look at where I am, where I've come after years of wishing, things are on the whole pretty wonderful.

As of late, my greatest concern has been my inherent lacking ability to create any more cliques. In middle school, high school, even college I've always been able to find a niche group with whom to set up shop and trust in all capacities from practically day one. There was never a moment once I got to any of these new situations where I became incredibly worried that I wouldn't find at least one person to hang out with regularly.

But every day my mood fluctuates on this topic while I'm here. I constantly worry about not creating enough lasting friendships to make London feel worth it.

By focusing so much on that - the figurative "scorching hot water" of my UK university education - I'm ignoring the pleasantness that is the rest of the experience - the lukewarm water that is satisfactory in temperature.

Look outside my window and you'll see the beautiful lights of a city. I'm on the seventh floor of a building of student accommodation filled with flats upon flats, and sometimes the height of my living quarters can seem daunting. The lift ride may take a few more minutes than average, but when I look past my window sill and I can see over the apartment buildings nearby, I can understand why even the most obnoxious of situations can have their positive upshots.

When I came here I was looking for perfection. I wanted a room with a view, but I wanted it on the ground floor. I wanted a single, but I wanted it in a flat filled with English people who I could potentially become best friends with. I wanted to socialize, but I wanted the freedom to spend my nights in rather than out or to eat dinner in my room rather than out on the town or in my kitchen.

Always looking for these compromises has to translate to appreciating what I have even when I don't have it all. At the moment, I've met quite a few of my expectations. I've made good use of the city thus far, begun to call it home in many ways. I've experienced the quiet of my room and the bustle of its environs, but I haven't gone excessively outside of my comfort zone in the area of socialization.

If I'm ever going to look at this experience for what it is, then I'm going to have to accept that the beacon of a hypothetical I'd set for myself is never going to be met exactly. I will never quite hit the nail right on the head when I daydream. But striking something slightly different could actually be a good thing.

The shower isn't perfect. I haven't found exactly what I want quite yet. But I can't rule anything out, and if I'm smart I'll let that be enough.

With classes starting in a week and already a few plans made for before then, I'm sure things will be getting more interesting. If they don't, I promise to use hyperbole to hold your interest. Until then, get used to this, the notion of acceptance.

Sunday, September 23, 2012

A loner's tale

It's a strange thought that you can begin your day with one outlook and end it with a perspective that is completely turned around. But as of this moment, that is what has happened to me. For that I am more thankful than I have been in quite some time.

What happened, you might ask? Why the change of heart? If you'd read yesterday, you might have sensed my hesitation at starting to live on my own in London, in a flat with a bunch of people I don't know all too well, at a school where I haven't yet formed a clique of friends on which to fall back on.

Well if you sensed that, then you're very perceptive. Because that is, in a nutshell, exactly what was running through my mind last night as I typed out a hesitantly hopeful piece of personal narrative.

Today rolled around just as any average day might. I woke up early, but then proceeded to return to sleeping almost immediately when I could barely open my eyes. My dad and I had breakfast together and soon we were heading to my university accommodation. This was the moment where I'd transition into the life I'd be living for the next few months, so I had to make it count.

In the beginning I didn't do a very good job. I got into my room and spent an hour hanging out with my dad and putting things away. For all I knew, there could be no one else living in the flat and I might not discover it for a few days or weeks.

When my dad was just about to leave, I had to transition into survival mode as quickly as possible. I have a tendency to overreact to goodbyes, and in this case I felt even more depression at losing my one lifeline to the world beyond my thoughts.

For the past few days, I've felt like all I could look forward to at university this term was loneliness. Despite seeing dozens of friends and distant acquaintances return from their study abroad experiences with photos and friendships, for some reason it didn't feel like those were in the cards for me.

I'm not necessarily a loner, but I do play one on TV. By that I actually mean I do a good job of putting on the façade of the comfortable loner when I'd much rather be interacting with humankind.

The first time I ever considered going to college back in the states, for some reason I imagined myself all on my own. All my images of college consisted of me walking around with leaves turning shades of yellow, orange, red and brown and falling off trees all around me. No friends appeared in the daydreams, no work, no reading materials, no entertainment. Just leaves falling and me frolicking. It was definitely a dream because that is just not how things work in the real world.

I've tried once again to put myself into that mindset this summer and early fall. Now that I'm going to a new uni in an all new country, it's my job to acclimate not only to the culture but to the social life. The students in this accommodation are either freshers or study abroad students, which means they're all looking for friends. But even if none of them become close friends with me, the point of this experience is to frolic through falling leaves, not force my presence upon some random mates at a club or a pub.

If I wanted to, I could choose to believe that. But after what I've done today, I'm going to choose not to.

It's not as though I've come to some incredible revelation about making friends and experience life at university afresh and hopeful. But I have discovered that by just saying "yes" sometimes (when the timing and the experience is right), you open yourself up to things that you probably wouldn't have if you only allowed yourself to daydream about frolicking on your own.

My afternoon was spent re-meeting my flatmates who are in my study abroad program. And after reuniting with my precious internet for a brief stint, the afternoon turned into a shopping expedition and an opportunity to learn how to cook myself food.

Finally, in the evening I got a chance to meet my first real British people. Not in the sense that I have never interacted with someone from the United Kingdom before, but because this was the premiere opportunity for me to talk with Englishmen not as a tourist visiting  their city, but as someone who is going to be sharing the same study schedule as them and walking around the same Student Union.

This morning I woke up but didn't want to. Consciously, this was because I was massively tired. But considering I'd had a full night's sleep, I might trust my interpretation of a subconscious trying to keep me from facing my one true fate - trying to make friends in a city, a country that is foreign to my own.

Then I defeated my subconscious. And I discovered that being a loner shouldn't be a goal, but that it also shouldn't be something to avoid. I loved the time I had today to myself - to reconnect with family and friends in some ways and to just relax on my own in others. But I also enjoyed getting to meet new people with whom I'll be sharing the next three months of my life.

Maybe it's excessive to say that little situations and odd turns of events have altered my worldly perspective for the better, but when you go from dreaming of being alone to believing you can make friends, you know you've sparked something in yourself. At least I have.

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Mind open, moving in

I didn't want this day to come quite yet. For the past few days, my experience in England has felt almost like every previous experience in this country. In other words, it felt like a vacation. Through even the most trying circumstances (i.e. registering for courses), I had the one crutch that could keep me sane and remind me when to eat my meals - my father.

Tomorrow, he leaves on a plane back to sunny California. The vacation portion is over, but where will I be? Still in England. As if I've been left behind, the plane having departed without me. I must have spent too long in the security check because there really is no other explanation for why I'm sticking around here..

Except that I chose this. And I'm not ready to start blaming my decision on anyone but myself, because if anything I have ridiculously hopeful expectations for the rest of my time in England.

Every day since that first day I flew into London Heathrow and got on a bus full of American students planning to study abroad in what I consider to be the most beautiful city in the world, I kept telling myself that this wasn't the make or break moment of my experience. I wasn't interested in becoming best friends with the American students here. In fact, that was the furthest from my concerns. I'd be happy to get to know other people from my home institution while they were abroad with me, but creating a clique that was composed of entirely fellow Americans felt limiting to me.

So I've gone on with this lone wolf temperament, waiting for my dad to come into town and spending all my other time introducing myself to new people but also using quite a bit of the freedom to sit around in parks and explore the city on my own terms and by myself.

I'm not a "by myself" kind of person in general, but for me London is the kind of city where loneliness is quelled by calm and quiet comfort. I like walking around without having to go see a spectacular tourist site. I enjoy the only thoughts being my own sometimes, at least when London is the place where I'm alone with them.

Tomorrow, though, comes the first day of being on my own for real, yet in the situation where I should no longer plan to maintain that title. It's time to not be "alone," but to be surrounded by people.

What if I can't find people, though?

That's a crazy thought. I'll be surrounded by people. I live in a flat with four other humans. I share two washrooms with them (only one of them has a shower). Surely I will run into people. And there are also halls, and other blocks with many other flats with their own residents. I will never be truly alone.

Is it really a problem to be alone though? This is what I haven't settled within my own mind yet. Despite enjoying my time relaxing and taking things in on my own, I can't help but feel like the next step in my study abroad journey is to make a long-lasting and valued group of friends. I need people whom I can count on to be available should I want to go see a West End show or go out to dinner. Doing those things on one's own can be a sad experience, but with friends they can be some of the best.

Where do I stand now, then? I guess on the cusp of my transition into university life in London, I feel moderately at peace. Though I'm watching friends settle into their universities in their own ways, I recognize that every experience runs at its own pace. It's not my fault that I haven't "clicked" with any group yet, and it doesn't mean that won't happen in the future. Plus, with four courses on my schedule, a few clubs and societies on my list of potentials and tons of European voyages cluttering up my calendar for the next few months, I will likely be so preoccupied that I won't even have time after this week to worry about lacking friends.

And by then I probably will have made some great ones. And who's to say I already haven't?

There's so much left to experience, so I guess I'm just responsible for keeping my mind open at this point. It's all I can do.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Happy birthday to me

Most people spend their birthdays partying with friends. Or partying in clubs. Or partying in whatever way they best enjoy partying. Well that's what I did today too. But I did it in my own way. And I did it with my dad. And it was great.

You'd think with the difficulty I'm having at keeping my eyes open this evening that I'd had some crazy raucous adventure of an afternoon and evening. I just slept periodically through the new episode of QI: Quite Interesting on BBC2 and if you were guessing, you'd probably assume I spent the early night pubbing or clubbing. That's what people do in England right? That's what everyone else is doing.

I may have turned 20 today, but in every other way I was still acting like a teen. No wait, a pre-teen. No, a child. Or a toddler, maybe.

While I have no lessons to learn or teach with this blog - I'm probably too lethargic to think of any morals worth writing about - there is certainly a bit to tell. So here it goes.

The past few days have had me staying over at my dad's hotel. While my study abroad program provided accommodation for the first few days of my London studies, when I discovered that an internet connection would cost an arm and a leg (among other factors), I was quick to switch to a hotel that I already knew and loved. Plus, staying with my dad was a must. No explanations necessary.

This morning as per our usual arrangement, my dad was responsible for waking us up to start the day. We had planned to be up around 6:30 am to get down to breakfast and be on our way to Watford Junction where we'd pick up a coach (bus) to the Making of Harry Potter tour at Leavesden Studios.

But Dad woke up at 7:15 am. So we jumped out of bed and proceeded to freak out.

Making a weird face, ready to let you into the Great Hall.
Still we made it in time and managed to be part of the first group of attendees at the tour - I guess the first tour starts at 10 am. My dad being the oddball that he is blurted out to an employee at the tour that it was my birthday and I got a badge (pin) saying "It's My Birthday" as a souvenir from the tour. Later, I was given the chance to open the doors at the Hogwarts Great Hall (the first stop at the tour) because turning 20 is, despite being a moment of lost innocence, an opportunity to "open doors" (punny) to new experiences, I suppose.

We spent around three hours wandering through the tour. We saw the Great Hall, set pieces, costumes, props, special effect animatronics, mock-ups and a million other beautiful installations along the tour. This included walking down Diagon Alley, visiting Harry Potter's home as a baby, Number 4 Privet Drive and making our way across the beautiful wooden bridge from the Hogwarts grounds.

It all sounds silly and childish, but as someone who has spent more than half her life loving the HP films and books, and as someone who spent a good year and a half being utterly obsessed with all things Harry Potter (around age 12 or 13), resulting in her subsequent obsession with the country of England and the city of London, this entertainment franchise serves as an important aspect of my two decades of life.

Much to our surprise, they happened to have Butterbeer at the Harry Potter tour (a treat we both tried a couple of years ago when The Wizarding World of Harry Potter opened at Universal Studios Orlando). And at the very end of the tour I walked away with a Deathly Hallows keychain.

So after that, we came back to London via train and then we partied.

Partied and partied...

Actually we got back to the hotel for a lunch of cornish pasties and I napped. And I had to keep forcing myself to wake up because I would not could not waste a birthday sleeping in a hotel.

The rest of the day is kind of a blur because it was such an odd whirlwind. My dad and I walked through Victoria, the area of London where we stay when we're in town. We visited TopShop and I was less than enthused. Then we stopped by House of Fraser and I discovered the wonder that is department store shopping in London.

As we left the store, we were met with our first real rain of London along this trip thus far. Though we'd felt a slight drizzle at Leavesden, this was the kind of rain that washes the memories off the sidewalk of life (à la Woody Allen). Luckily I'd serendipitously purchased a pair of Hunter wellies from House of Fraser and there was a Boots nearby at which to purchase a lovely sturdy new umbrella.

Earlier in the day we'd picked up a Cadbury chocolate cake from Sainsbury's, so when we arrived back at the hotel in the evening to eat a dinner quietly in our room, we were able to sum everything up with some Birthday singing and a knife at the center of the cake subbing in for a candle. I "blew out" the knife and thus christened my 20th birthday.

This may not have been what others would consider an exciting way to celebrate an anniversary of birth. Sure, there are clubs all over this city. And there are pubs for celebrating and going mad. I could've even traveled to some other area of Europe for a wild time. But after two years of spending my birthday without family, and specifically without my dad, I can't think of any better way to have spent this personal "holiday."

I'm ending the evening sitting in bed while my dad watches Rob Brydon host Would I Lie To You? It's a simple end to a pretty simple day. But it's the best way I could think to have spent my birthday this year. Wouldn't trade it for anything. Goodnight.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

No easy fix

There's no such thing as a simple fix.

Yesterday I went to the T-Mobile store to try and get a new SIM card for my iPhone. I had already heard that I needed to unlock my phone to enable the company to put in a new card, so when I asked the employees for their help they referred me to a sketchy place across the street.

I walked to the sketchy place across the street and asked for their help in unlocking my phone, but when they asked who my provider is and I said Verizon, it couldn't be done. I walked away in sadness and shame for having not fixed this issue back when I was in America. But that is beside the point.

When things seem to be going well, it doesn't necessarily mean they aren't. But it also doesn't necessarily mean they are. And vice versa.

The next step was to walk into another phone provider who arranged that I will have a junky little phone for the next three months with unlimited data and text as well as 300 minutes of talk for the same price as the T-Mobile offer and significantly less hassle.

Out the door in a few minutes.

So why am I telling you this story?

Well for the past few days, a lot of my experiences have been filled with little annoyances and things getting in the way of simplicity. But that doesn't mean they haven't turned out well.

I used to think that in a competition between the United States and UK, the battle for supremacy in organization (or organisation if we're going with the British spelling) would always go to the latter. The stereotype would indicate that United Kingdom is the more sophisticated of the two countries, so it would logically follow that things in this country tend to be more smoothly run than the equivalent institutions in my home country.

Well, I thought that until I arrived at my university.

Note: For the sake of privacy, I'm not going to write the names of my university at home or in the UK, but for the sake of clarity I'll call my British university "uni" and my American college "college".

The first step when getting to uni was to go to an international student orientation. We'd been given an address and asked to arrive there at 9 am. When we got to the building, there was no one inviting us in, but a huge line of international students had accumulated outsides. No ushers stood around telling anyone where to go, so until about 9:15 we waited impatiently to be led in.

That was only the beginning of what would continue to be a pretty wackadoodle introduction.

After our initial orientation sessions were over with, we were introduced to a registration website that is supposed to assist us in registering for classes. But in the interest of making things as unnecessarily complicated as possible, the website has the production value of something out of the 1990's. With error messages galore and pages linking to other pages in the same window, forfeiting previous submissions, it becomes almost impossible to navigate.

As the instructors began their tutorial on how to use the website, they went quickly through the motions only to be met with red X's and confused looks from their already confused audience. Trying to write notes and keep a tally of every step, I found myself getting lost in the tone of one of the instructor's voices. She would say "yea" as a confirmation after her statements, and with each successive word I'd become more distracted and less aware of the functions of the registration site.

I guess I didn't realize that the very next day I'd have to figure it all out for myself.

Today was my first day meeting with the History department, my main department at uni. They finally gave us the courses we'd been registered for, despite not giving us the chance to register for the ones we'd initially hoped for and then following up with a list of alternates that were random and (some of them) undesirable. Then they sent us on our way to chase down the other department heads and ask for their permission to take electives in their respective subjects.

I complain a lot about my college's registration system. In fact, everyone does. And there are many problems with it. But if we're talking about absolutely insane methods, then the award would have to go to my uni. Because it's one thing to have to email professors for permission to take their courses way in advance, or to register for classes at an unreasonably late time and have missed the opportunity at taking all the ones you wanted. But it's another to have to chase down actual human beings and beg them to let you take a course. And then you still have to enter it online?

But that isn't the only catch. When you finally have entered the courses into the online registration system, you will only be notified officially of whether you're registered or not once they have been checked to make sure there are no overlaps. Because they don't let you know when the classes will be taking place until you've already registered.

This is a topic I could complain about for paragraphs more, but I won't. Because like the phone situation, after a few meetings with other departments I feel pretty confident that things will be working out some way or another. Despite the difficulty of getting everything squared away, at the moment they seem to have not fallen apart entirely.

Still, this is reason to question my own internal stereotyping of the British people. Assuming that the façade of sophistication indicates a better ability to handle organization is presumptuous. Because all in all, my transition into an American college was a lot more structured than anything involving my uni.

Despite this, though, I've had a great last couple of days. And I'm still excited about what's coming up next. And after that. And so on. Because there's so much left to experience. Even if there are no easy fixes, that doesn't mean there aren't any at all.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Hello Pidgy, Hello Daddy

Today I met foreigners. And fed pigeons. And saw my dad.

I could just end this blog with that, but I think I'll expound just for consistency's sake and because I feel like it.

I woke up this morning after having only two hours of sleep. When my roommate returned last night from whatever it was she was up to, I had just gone to bed but was still in that dreamy netherworld between wakefulness and sleep. The way I described it to my dad was that moment when you go from thinking about something real to creating fictional situations out of the thought and suddenly you're dreaming. But instead of continuing to dream and thus sleep, I kept snapping out of it.

With only two hours of what was essentially an early morning nap, I wasn't exactly refreshed, but I had to get going.

I ate a quick breakfast, making the mistake of mixing a fruit cocktail in with my baked beans (fruit cocktail and baked beans for breakfast... only in England, eh?) and ending up with all of my savory food tasting like sugary syrup. Then I set off for my university in London. The first time I've even made it close to campus.

While I still haven't gotten a chance to see the main quad that my school is known for, I was finally acquainted with that feeling of being a student at the university. The past two days have been filled with little activities all with fellow American students, but in this first venture to the area that directly surrounds the campus which I will be spending the next three months at, I felt at home. For the first time.

Though I would've liked to meet more people at my international student orientation, the couple I did meet were enough to make me feel positive about my forthcoming experience in London. The first was a Canadian girl who I could easily have assumed was American, and who complained herself that she's always correcting people who believe she's from the States.

We spent a couple of hours together in orientation sessions talking about our programs of study and all that we'd experienced so far in London and in regards to UCL. It was interesting for me to get to know someone with whom I don't have any background relationship. Many of the people in my study abroad program at the hotel are students at my home institution, which means we often end up talking about Chicago rather than London. It can be a bit comforting, but getting out of the box and meeting people from completely different backgrounds has been even more incredible.

A few hours later I took a walk back to my hotel, grabbed a sandwich from Pret A Manger and ate lunch in Russell Square. When a pigeon came up to me, I clandestinely threw him a piece of bread, then immediately regretted the decision when a bunch of other pigeons came barreling toward the poor thing and tried stealing the bread directly out of his mouth. Survival of the fittest, my butt. This was thievery.

Anyway, I soon warmed up to the other pigeons once they stopped attacking my original bird buddy. And thus the lunch was a success.

But the best part of my day was getting ahold of my dad on FaceTime and planning to meet up with him later in the day. He'll be here for the rest of the week and it is such a relief that I cannot even imagine what I would've done had he not been around.

Even though London has been wonderful to me these past few days, extraneous factors have put a strain on my relationship with it. Living situations, difficulty in communication and occasional feelings of loneliness have put a damper on what is otherwise the most wonderful thing to happen to me for a very long time.

The way I see it, this is still a city that can do no wrong. But at the moment I'm still trying to shape the social atmosphere in which I dwell so that it does no wrong too. Or at least so I can work along with it.

Thing is, I still haven't met a single British university student. But that's my next step. Tomorrow I'm back at international orientation, but by next week I'll be hobnobbing with hundreds of more people. With that, things are looking up.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The uninitiated

London is a home base. Or a tourist's haven. Or a place of business. On any one day, you can travel through tons of different areas throughout this metropolitan city and encounter thousands of random people with different places to go, people to see, things to do. There really is no end to the variation.

So I decided to try on a few different hats.

For me, London has always been a place I've wanted to fit in. When I walk down the streets here I feel like I belong in some way. The same feeling isn't inspired so much by other cities, but in London everything corner feels like my backyard, every street my own personal driveway. Even the locations I haven't explored feel familiar to me.

But the study abroad experience doesn't exactly facilitate immediate integration. At least not in the way I'd like or expect. Now that I've been here for about a day and a half, I can finally understand the difference between me and most of the other people who've come by way of the same program as I did to this beautiful rainy (but currently sunny) city.

When we were sitting in orientation this morning, the man who was giving us our English Culture Integration 101 (fully equipped with random slang words and a photo of Aaron Johnson (if you don't know who he is, look up his age and his spouse) on the slide that said "What you will know about London when you've finished studying abroad") asked the crowd of doe-eyed students "How many of you have been to London before?"

Only about half the room raised their hand and he followed up by saying that those who had been were tourists visiting on holiday, but that the study abroad experience would integrate us into the culture in a way that we never have before.

Though I'd like to believe I'm pretty aware of London culture, I realize that I still fall under this category. But unlike most of my study abroad counterparts, especially those who have never been to the city before, I am here in these first few days not to slowly move from American tourist to English student, but to jump right in and fit the new demographic.

If this were any other city,  I'm sure I'd feel differently. I considered going to Paris or Tokyo, maybe even Copenhagen or Rome, for a quarter rather than London. Going to any of those places would have afforded me the chance to throw myself into a culture that is completely and utterly foreign to me. I would've wanted to play tourist at first too. Which probably would've been facilitated, if the programs in those countries do similar events to the London scavenger hunt that took place this afternoon (which visited St. Paul's Cathedral, Covent Garden, Parliament, etc.).

But I chose London. Not because I still haven't been to Parliament Square or seen the paintings at the National Gallery, but because I have seen all those things and I want to be surrounded by those things - even if I don't choose to visit them in quick succession as if I'm on a bus tour.

As I've learned after four visits to this beautiful albeit occasionally gloomy city, London is not just a tourist attraction. It is the kind of place you experience as a tourist and then realize is better when you're not a tourist. Like any beautiful and homey city, you go there wanting to visit every attraction, but you come back with an attraction just for visiting.

This morning was an easy lazy one. I woke up, got dressed, went downstairs for a breakfast provided by my hotel and was out the door in less than half an hour. Orientation was a couple of hours with a break in the middle for wandering around. We were encouraged to take the time to explore.

The British Museum. Where I ate lunch.
This is where I started to try on my hats. I walked down to Tottenham Court Road to make a stop at the Marks & Spencer there. While businesspeople scrambled around me, I stopped in the sandwich aisle and grabbed a little pre-made vegetarian lunch and walked it over to the British Museum where I sat in a garden and ate while reading Pride & Prejudice.

Little things reminded me that I was still a tourist. Like, as I was walking toward Tottenham Court Road I hesitated to cross streets when I had plenty of time to make my way before cars came toward me. And when I got into Marks & Spencer, I wandered around for about two minutes before finding the aisle with the sandwiches (they could've just put it in the very front, but no, that would be too simple).

But at times I also felt exactly like I wanted to feel. As I walked down the street I listened to my iPod and sauntered (love that word) all the way into the store, even in those moments when I wasn't sure I was going the right direction. When I briefly went inside the British Museum, I bought postcards and figured out the correct change within a few seconds of looking in my wallet (20p coins are heptagonal, for your information).

My pigeon friend at the British Museum.
And while everyone else was out doing the scavenger hunt around London, I decided to scope out the building where my orientation session will be held tomorrow and find my way back by way of the London Underground.

Even with a few missteps and wrong turns, I felt confident. And comfortable. And at home.

That's what I really want to feel. And I don't want it to take three months. So I'm starting now. Nothing can stop me now.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Compassion is patient

Unrelated side note: Walked along the Thames at night. So pretty.

Looking back at where I was a day ago is really strange. Getting on an airplane is a whirlwind experience in itself, but flying for nearly 10 hours trapped in a cramped seat next to a window that you have to keep closed, keeping your eyes open so that you don't have to remove your contact lenses for which you forgot the case that keeps them safe for us, is absolutely ridiculous.

I felt like I was on some ridiculous sitcom where Murphy's Law became reality. All that could go wrong most certainly seemed to go wrong.

While I got through security without a hitch, when I got on the plane I was almost instantly reminded that seating in airplanes is not made for human use, but rather for people the size of babies or the munchkins in The Wizard of Oz. I am a tiny 5'3" and I still couldn't fit my legs comfortably in front of me. Throughout the flight I had to constantly adjust.

And it was no help that the man sitting next to me literally looked like he could've been related to Hawaiian singer Israel Kaʻanoʻi Kamakawiwoʻole, also known as "IZ." His arm took over about three inches of the minimal space I had in economy and his body heat made the already uncomfortable high-70s temperature in the aircraft feel more like an unreasonable 85.

Throughout the experience I just kept thinking how unhappy I was. How unlucky I was that I had been pushed into this seating arrangement for 10 hours. Going to London is supposed to be a fun, comforting experience for me. But the first time I leave without my dad by my side, I sit next to the one man on the plane who is over 6'4.

About three or four hours into the flight, though, I was reminded how I can be pretty selfish sometimes.

The man who was sitting next to me got up in the same innocuous way that anyone retreats from their seat when they need to use the restroom or stretch their legs. But minutes passed. And continued to pass. And so on. Until I realized that he hadn't been back to his seat for at least a half an hour.

I asked the girl sitting on the aisle seat whether he was okay. I thought maybe he'd taken a spill or something and the news hadn't traveled to the front of Economy class yet.

Then she explained to me what the real problem was. He was feeling claustrophobic. He felt bad about taking up so much space. He felt uncomfortable.

Suddenly my discomfort meant nothing. The girl who was sitting on the aisle went up to the man and offered that he take her seat instead and the rest of the experience was cool and comfortable. But it wasn't lacking in guilt. Because for the next several hours all I could think about was how I had been so terrible to this man - treating him like he was an inconvenience to me when he deserved my kindness.

These have nothing to do with the blog, but Westminster Abbey at night.
The thing about London is that it gives me this expectation of perfection. I expect my seats going into the country to be wonderful. I expect my experience once I arrive at the gate to be simple and worry-free. I expect to get through the public transportation to my hotel without any problems. If one of those things goes wrong, I feel like my whole dream of perfection is unraveling and I feel sad.

But I don't feel as sad as I feel terrible for being so self-centered.

When I did land, I tried to be as cordial as I could to the man who switched his seat. When we made our way to the hotel where our program participants would stay before going to their respective schools in the United Kingdom, even if things were bothering me in any way, I sucked up my discontent and tried to be a good person.

It's been a long plane ride. A long wait for a bus. A long bus ride. A long orientation. A long few days. But it's been filled with reminders of compassion and patience. If I have those two things, then I'll be settling in in no time.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Almost there

I don't usually compose these blogs in the middle of the day. At 11:30 am, I haven't done much that's worthy of writing about. Sometimes I haven't even done anything of interest at 8 or 9 pm, which has been quite the dilemma for me as of late.

This is when things change.

In a few hours I'll be on a plane to England, so the interesting things are on the horizon rather than just past. At the moment I have nothing to write about that will capture even the slightest amount of interest.

This morning has consisted of packing and unpacking and repacking and so on and so forth. I've helped my dad set up his new laptop computer. I've showered and done my hair, forgotten to eat breakfast and fully charged much of my electronic stuffs. Except my camera, which having just remembered, I will go charge now.

[Brief interruption while I plug in my camera battery charger.]

For the next few months I'm going to be abroad. Definitely in England, probably all throughout Europe. At any particular time I could be traveling, because my real goal while overseas is to see as much of it as I possibly can. When I'm at school near Chicago, I rarely get the opportunity to step outside of the mile radius that surrounds campus, save for the few afternoons a quarter I go into the city. It can be stifling. London will not be stifling for me, because it is a hub from which I can go anywhere. I'm just a train ride or an airplane away from whatever I desire.

For so many days, I've dedicated this blog to personal essays. I will not stop doing that. It is one of the few things in life that keeps me sane. It reminds me that even the most mundane situations have lessons to be learned. Neglecting to write thorough introspective blogs would mean losing a part of myself that I've gained in the past year.

But soon these blogs will become something more interesting. At least, I hope they will. Though the next few days may continue to be less than thrilling - what with orientation and the craziness which will ensue and therefore force me into complacency as a writer - I am hoping to make this a place for study abroad journaling that will not only recount the exciting experiences I hope to have, but will also ground them in the way that I try to ground everything I write.

I don't know where I'll be in 24 hours time. I will be in England, that's for sure. But what I'll be experiencing on the inside and out is beyond my comprehension. What I do know is that I'm excited to share it all.

The past several months I've been able to sit down at my computer every single day and crank out something worth reading. Even if that only means it's worth reading back to myself, this blog has meant something to me for every day of the past 241.

That won't be changing any time soon.

Expect frequent updates. Expect daily updates, actually. The content may be changing slightly, but the reliability certainly won't. I'm excited to keep sharing.

Au revoir, mes amis. Next time I write you, it will be from the most amazing city in the world.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Nothing can stop me now

I'll explain why this is relevant at the very end of this post.
It's the last day before I leave to do the single thing that I have dreamed about for years and years. Tomorrow in the late afternoon, I will board a flight all on my own, and around 10 hours later that flight will be landing in the city that holds my heart and soul, my past and future. I'll be in London.

I wouldn't be surprised if this sounds extremely exaggerated. When it comes to London, that's how all my thoughts are. They're extravagant and hopeful and filled with longing. They're more daydreams than anything, however substantiated in actual experience they may be.

The first time I went to London, I went in without any preconceived notions. All that existed was my love for Harry Potter and a desire to travel. I wanted to see the world again (the last time I'd been out of the country was seven years before when I'd been to Paris) and to discover a culture unlike my own - though slightly similar as well.

That one trip set the precedent for the rest of my life. For the next several years, it wasn't that I was making trips back to London every dozen months or so, it was that I was traveling back and forth between my two homes. My literal home in southern California and my figurative home in England.

All that kept me sustained when I wasn't visiting the country was the belief that I would always return. When my dad and I got back to America, we would rarely waste a moment without planning a new trip out. We'd caught the London bug.

Since that fateful trip in 2007, I've made it my goal to go back to England not just for a couple weeks at a time, but for an extended period. Hopefully forever.

Tomorrow, I leave not for forever. Not even close. Three months may seem like a long time theoretically, but in reality it's the same length of my summer vacation which has seemed to pass by instantaneously.

But the adventure I'll be taking is significant all the same. It marks the first time I'll be left on my own without the crutch of my telephone with my dad on the other end. For the first time, I'll have to take responsibility for my own actions because there won't be someone a phone call away to fix things for me. Maybe an email or a wi-fi connection away, but certainly not accessible on a random street corner when I need directions to Covent Garden.

I'm scared out of my wits.

And to think, this is the one place in the world that I feel the most at home, the most safe. But even now on the brink of change, I feel like the weight of the world is on my shoulders. I can't even imagine how I'll feel when I get there.

This is my last night at home in my bed for the next few months. It's my last night in the room I've known for the past six years (since my sister moved out and I inherited it). When I get back, the layout will have changed. All my stuff will be in boxes and I'll be moving back in as if this is an entirely new place rather than the spot I've lived in for more than a quarter of my life.

I can't help but look around and feel like I'm on the brink of a monumental change. And while I trouble myself with petty things outside of this blog that I won't bother to mention, when I really think about it - the things worth troubling myself over are still to come. There really is so much to come.

And I'm excited. Even with the nervous anticipation, the butterflies in my stomach and the painful ache in my heart at walking away from home for three months, I can barely contain the endorphins that are practically shooting out of my brain.

This may be the most frightening transition of my life thus far, but in my heart I know it's the most wonderful too. So I christen my new motto, the phrase that will keep me going for the next three months (or at least the next day or two): Nothing can stop me now.

Note: I am deriving the phrase "Nothing can stop me now" from the song of the same name in the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint-The Smell of the Crowd, which I consider a quintessentially British-sounding tune sung by Anthony Newley who was also responsible for the music of Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory. Listen below.