I think about my year in London, maybe not as frequently as I used to, but I still do — like that one time while I was driving to work, and it started drizzling, then a song I used to listen to on my tube journeys played on my car radio, taking me back to that moment in time when I was thousands of miles away from home.
Everyone deals with leaving behind people, places, and things they love differently. Some avoid everything that remind them of it; some think of it fondly and talk about it with other people to process everything; some decide to return realising they simply could not part with it. There is no right and wrong in this.
As for me — well, I deal with it in many ways; I talk about my experiences, I spend time with friends I met there, I write my experiences in my journal, rarely sharing them. Sometimes I’d find myself writing about a strong memory twice. Despite having archived my experiences through pictures, I want to hold on to the emotions I felt through words: the gentle waves of the sea at sunset, how tired my legs felt after a day’s worth of walking, the anticipation of waiting for a loved one to arrive at the tube station after days of holing up in my room writing, and the calmness one can feel sitting under a willow tree by the river.
Perhaps that’s why I keep writing about it in my journal, rewording my experiences every time to keep drafts of my experiences, a collage of honesty— so that one day, when my memory fails to remember the smallest details I hold dear — I would always be able to return to my words.
It has almost been a year since I left London. I still talk about it, I still write about it — all of which I do fondly. On rare occasions after coming back I would have the desire to return to that time and place — this usually happens when reality feels stagnant, when I acutely feel the pressure of hands pushing me into a box that doesn’t, has never, and will not fit me.
I suppose I miss being untethered. Don’t we all?
I made a trip to Cornwall last year with a friend and while she was hiking up the scenic hills of St. Ives, I decided, on a whim, to take a boat ride to Seal Island. I had always loved the sea, but I never thought I’d actually do this alone. I think we took our safety for granted on the boat; it was cloudy — it was certainly about to rain — and the waves were quite strong, but none of us wore life jackets. A young man threw up into the sea, unable to take the motion. I passed by hills where hikers were making their way up, and then there was only the grey sea that stretched out for miles; St. Ives merely became colourful dots. There was nothing to be afraid of, really. Still, I texted my boyfriend that I was on a boat, just in case. “I hope I won’t have to swim,” I halfheartedly joked.
I loved that experience because being out in the middle of the sea reminded me that the world is vast and there are still so many things unknown to me. The scale of what I’ve experienced in life is small compared to the sea that stretched out beyond me. It’s exciting and scary at the same time; there is never one thing to be felt with an experience.
Recently, thanks to a friend’s recommendation, I finished Rebecca Solnit’s memoir ‘The Nearby Faraway’. A quote of hers left a mark on me:
I talked about place, about the way we often talk about love of place, but seldom how places love us back, of what they give us. They give us continuity, something to return to, and offer familiarity that allows some portion of our lives to remain collected and coherent. They give us an expansive scale in which our troubles are set into context, in which the largeness of the world is a balm to loss, trouble, and ugliness.
I’m all too aware that often, when I talk about my year abroad, I’d use the phrase “This is what I did”. It’s always me doing things — which isn’t wrong, but I’d like to take a pause from that and think about what the places I visited during my year abroad gave me: they taught me lessons in being brave to make lone journeys with the possibility of getting lost, as hard as it is.
They gave me the chance to meet people who I can’t imagine took this long to meet and befriend. I wouldn’t have been able to meet them if it weren’t for the places that I went to, and for that I am grateful. London, in particular, gave me the chance to flourish; to read everything I used to have no time to read, to hear out various perspectives, to write, to take risks while doing all of this. It was a place to run to when my mind was bogged down by the rigidity of academic work. It was also a place — the right place — to fall in love with someone.
Was London home? What, really, is home? I don’t have an answer for that yet, but as Solnit puts it:
Distant places give us refuge in territories where our own histories aren’t so deeply entrenched and we can imagine other stories, other selves, or just drink up quiet and respite.
It rained heavily on my last day in London. I said good-bye to a few of my favourite haunts; Wellcome Gallery, where I used to spend hours writing, my favourite coffee place, and finally, Southbank, a favourite place for a stroll, good conversations, and reliving memories of an earlier time when everything felt new. As I crossed the Millennium Bridge, I looked over the river, expecting the distant cityscape I was familiar with, but the rain and clouds obscured my view. I wish it had been sunnier; I wish it had been a happier farewell.