Something I’ve been thinking about a lot recently is the strange position students going abroad occupy within their new country. A question I’m really growing frustrated with is “So, how do you like England so far?” But it isn’t like I can complain about that. I’ve taken to asking other general course students here, “Do you feel homesick?”, or “How are you finding England?”; it seems like an almost natural lead in to conversation, to ask how one feels in this new place. When people tell me, “Good”, or “I miss my dog”, I can empathize, but I also hold so much respect for those who can shrug and say, no, they’re doing great right here and right now.
As I spend more and more time here, what brings me the most comfort is routine. The idea of going to classes, going to societies, going grocery shopping, even doing laundry makes me so happy. This sounds incredibly basic, and banal, I know. But what seems to counteract my homesickness is a double-edged sword. Arriving here, in a place I’ve never been, there is such a strong pull to dive into it with bravery and unmitigated excitement; do new things, meet new people, see the sights. To some extent, I feel like I’ve done that. I’ve found museums I love, neighborhoods that feel like home, and people who are absolutely fantastic. But London is a “tourist city”: it’s big and bright, even if the underground closes at 11:30 pm. And that is an aspect I simply haven’t delved into.
I find it almost disingenuous to act as a tourist, to take pictures of the Thames and stare at iconic buildings. Not because these things are shameful in any way, or strange or unheard of. But in my mind it breaks with my idea of being self assured and at home. My parents came just this weekend to visit me. They were so excited to see London, overjoyed at the prospect of tea and Big Ben. As soon as they laid out their plans, which included me in all the sight seeing joys, I couldn’t help feel a weight in my stomach. In New York, “tourist” is a special class; those who gawk up at buildings and don’t swipe their way into the subway correctly. As pompous as it sounds, to be that person here, to fulfil that identity that I’ve been separated from for 19 years of my life, made me so uncomfortable. That’s one of the problems of moving from large city to large city. I find a desire to make it known that I am not lost here, I have been to places like this before! Especially in New York where a premium is placed on people who walk fast, have something to do, a place to go. It’s a high strung city with a culture of being constantly busy, and that is very hard to break out of.
I think the best way to reconcile these feelings is in something my wonderful Sarah Lawrence College academic adviser (we call them dons), Marie said to me as I was about to leave for London, about her own experiences, coming to university in New York. She told me she would venture out little by little, in this city that intimidated her, carving a path for herself through the couple blocks that surrounded her routine, then moving outside of that, slowly but surely. In my year here, I want to live as a resident, to be collected on the streets and know where I’m going. But that requires just a little push to move outside the boundaries and participate in the culture of London without falling into the kitschy side of it. I staunchly promise I will not take a red phone booth photo, or one of me and an unsmiling guard at Buckingham Palace. Those poor men. Come on guys, they’re trying to look composed.