"And from the shelter of my mind
Through the window of my eyes
I gaze beyond the rain-drenched streets
To England where my heart lies."
~Simon & Garfunkel, "Kathy's Song"
A melancholy Monday, indeed. Somehow, it seems befitting that as I'm waking up back in New York, jet-lagged and wistful from having spent a blissful week in London, the rain insists on tapping the window pains and bouncing off the metal of the air conditioners, creating a tinny symphony as a backdrop to my day.
Seventeen years have passed since I was last in England. A lifetime, really. I've fallen in and out of love with people and living situations, with jobs and hobbies. I've married. I've divorced. I've watched my family grow and shrink. I've moved to New York, a city I've come to love, into a neighborhood that reminds me of London. Whatever has happened in my life, my love for London has remained a constant. Finally, I was able to travel across the pond, as they say. Or as I like to think of it, to travel back home.
What is it about this tiny country, with all of its quirkiness, that so endeared itself to me? When I was 19, I flew to London to visit a college boyfriend during his semester abroad. That was my first international experience, and I suppose it felt to me like an awakening more than anything else. I was instantly entranced. I was independent for the first time in my life, really. There were no cell phones then. There was no social media. Nothing to connect me to my life "stateside". I had to rely wholly on myself to navigate JFK and then Heathrow airports, to get through immigration and customs, to find my boyfriend at the airport. And then...oh, London.
I have always been in love with British literature; nothing made me feel more alive than devouring EBB or the sisters Bronte. There was Shakespeare, obviously, but so too was there George Eliot, Tennyson, Chaucer, Austen and Wordsworth. Wandering through London's winding streets, its white-washed, unified facades guarded by intricate wrought iron fences and decorated with blue plaques that proudly declared that this is where my favorite authors lived, wrote, and died: my soul felt utterly fulfilled. Happy. At home.
I was bowled over by the ardent beauty of this city; everywhere I turned, teeming flowers spilled from their pots and window boxes. Grass grew finer here; lush gardens and parks divided city blocks and if you turned down a street with the word "Mews" in its name, it was as if you were stepping into a children's book of diffused light, pastels and secrets that begged to be heard. I reveled in walking down the streets and hearing five different languages in my ear; I was astounded at how many types of food there could be on one block. For a girl who grew up in a homogenous, small town in Connecticut, London seemed to me the epicenter of the culture for which I'd been starving.
Two years later, after applying to several study abroad programs and working three jobs while maintaining a full time college student schedule, I once again boarded a London bound plane to study in Kensington at Richmond College, The American University in London. I had made my dream of living in London a hard-won reality.
My time in London imprinted upon me an indelible mark: even after almost two decades, I could still smell the morning breeze on Gloucester Road and feel the rush of air that precedes an oncoming train in the tube station. I could see the light filtering down through the street and bleaching the red brick of Gloucester Road station; I could taste the flat white coffee from my favorite neighborhood deli and coffee shop. I could see the flowering trees on St. Alban's Grove and could feel in my rib cage the pulsing house music that seemed to permeate central London. I could even still feel, if I really concentrated, the lightness in my chest that seems to break open the deepest part of me to reveal my truest, most content self when I am there.
I guess my love affair with London comes down to this: when I am there, I am simply, unequivocally me.
After seventeen years, London is no less magical to me. I was thrilled to discover that some of my favorite small businesses were still thriving. That flat white coffee from the deli? I stopped in for one on the way to eat my lunch in the sunshine of Kensington Gardens. The house music still bounces off the narrow streets of central London. Portobello Market is as vibrant as ever; the vintage clothing blows in the chilly breeze that carries the smells of smoky kebabs. Languages from around the world compete with the amps of live bands and in Notting Hill, Ed Sheeran covers carry out onto the perfectly manicured curbs, where neighbors and friends gather for a pint (or three) at their local pubs.
Being able to revisit all of my old haunts, this time with the man I love--who also holds a deep affinity for London--and to discover what about the city has changed and all that remains worthy of marveling...all of this has reminded me that while you can love your life and feel fortunate every day for where you lay your head, there is nothing like connecting with a place on a spiritual level to remind you of who you are, and where you want your life to take you. Or rather, where you want to take your life.
I know where I am meant to take mine.
"Whoever lives true life, will love true love. I learned to love that England. Very oft,
Before the day was born, or otherwise
Through secret windings of the afternoons,
I threw my hunters off and plunged myself
Among the deep hills, as a hunted stag
Will take the waters, shivering with the fear
And passion of the course."
~ Elizabeth Barrett Browning, "Aurora Leigh"
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