Tuesday, October 2, 2012

The London of late

In a short amount of time, I've had an unfathomable amount of new beginnings. I moved to a new country and in a couple of weeks I'd learn that a new accent wasn't all I'd have to contend with.

As soon as I arrived in Great Britain, it became abundantly clear to me that I was a paradox. What do I mean by this? Well, at the same time that I occupied a space in the country as a social anomaly, in my school and even in my city (London), I am as normal as blueberry pie (to steal a quote from American lyricist Oscar Hammerstein II). Because as often as I hear a British accent in this country (and reliably swoon as if on cue), I also hear an American shouting in blaring and nasally tones from behind me on the tube. I'm alone in this place, but there are also a million of me.

I guess this has been hardest to grasp when I'm sitting on my bed in my flat. Though I'm surrounded by fellow Americans (they're literally right next door), I'm also incredibly alone in my premier European journey, alienated from the general population of drinkers and partiers - people who have "fun." What they like to call fun.

Many of my first days have been spent exploring the city like I would a foreign land (bad simile, considering it is a foreign land, but I digress). When I go to the park and put down my coat to lie on while I stare at the clouds, I'm the only in my own little world. Even surrounded by other people - locals, tourists, what have you - I've put myself in the position of, as Ralph Waldo Emerson might put it, "Self-Reliance."

Today I went to Victoria, an area of London I've come to call home due to frequent visits and an undying love for the local Sainsbury's (a supermarket chain) of the area. When I boarded the tube to get to this area, I felt a sense of calm at going to a place I knew so well. I enjoyed that the errand was mine alone to run. I took my time searching through grocery aisles before heading bak to my nouvelle maison near Bloomsbury.

Alone, but surrounded.

Before I got back to Bloomsbury I stopped by Argos, a store where you search through a catalogue then queue up while waiting for an employee to retrieve your purchase from the stock room. The cashier asked me for £12.99 and I determined that I would make correct change. This was a learning curve, considering that among the many confusing cultural transitions between American and British life, there is also the occasional incidence of memorizing new things: new slang, new consumer products, new addresses and phone numbers... new money.

I stood in front of that cashier for at least a few minutes too long . I rummaged through my change purse looking for 20 p coins amidst the British pennies and random American dimes and nickles I'd unintentionally left in to test my own patience.

After enough time had passed that she'd memorized the top of my head as I rifled through my wallet, I came up with a close-enough £13 to satisfy myself and the cashier. Not exact, but a penny off was certainly satisfactory. And as I sat in the queue waiting for my purchase, a sleeping bag for my friend Dana who will be coming to visit on Thursday evening, I couldn't help but think how perfect everything was.

That I was in this city of beauty, culture and history. That I had made it here on my own, assimilated without anyone's help (except my dad, who was of tremendous aid for the week he was here). That even without any stable friendships quite yet, I'd made this into a place worth living. It gave me all the faith in the world because at the very heart of this experience was an American girl, out of her element, proving she could take on anything.

Maybe that's a bit of an exaggeration. I know I haven't made strides toward world peace or entered this university on the path to becoming a Rhodes scholar or anything. But for me, the act of living, eating, traveling, seeing, learning and just being on my own has been a previously inconceivable experience.

Tonight and today, I went to class and to society meetings. I met all new people, introduced myself half a dozen times as that girl from California who goes to university near Chicago. The people I met did much the same, characterizing themselves by their names, their origins and their past.

To be honest, I'm no longer interested in the past. A couple of weeks ago, all I could think of was that I was returning to London, that I would be seeing what I already knew and loved. But London has become something else for me now. It's turned itself into a comforting, almost parental figure, guiding me into the world in a way that nothing, short of my mom's passing and my subsequently strong relationship with my father, has ever done before.

And I welcome it.

When I meet fellow Americans wandering this new landscape much in the same way I am, I can't help but wonder whether their experience is comparable to mine.

Have they faced the struggles of loneliness? Have they experienced culture shock despite being in one of the most closely comparable nations to the United States? Have they taken this opportunity to find out who they become when they're left virtually alone to struggle with finding their way?

I can only hope that the answer to these questions is yes. Because for me, if anything could be the icing on the cake to being in London, it's the chance to discover a part of myself I've never explored before. That's what I'm doing. Quite truly.

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