440 days ago I stepped off a plane at London’s Heathrow airport.
I had nothing with me except (quite literally) the clothes on my back and 4 suitcases. I didn’t know a soul in the city .. or country.. or continent for that matter. I had absolutely no clue how this would go. All my careful planning had led to this moment where plans were useless. All that was required of me was to step off the plane and into the risk. Into the fear and the unknown.
I had never felt so simultaneously thrilled, terrified, wary and delighted all at the same time.
And London welcomed me with open arms.
I lived through my first London autumn (the best time of the year, hands down). I figured out which would be ‘my’ grocery stores, pubs and route to school. I learned how to wander – aimlessly, completely – and to look up. I forced myself to be ok with doing less, striving less, pushing less. I invested in a church community for the first time in my life. I realized that sometimes the city would just be too much and I’d have to run away. I learned how to avoid the parts of the city most people associate with London and embrace the lesser known parts. I learned about the heart of this city. A heart of diversity and movement, constantly in transition and embracing of change.
And it’s the small moments of the everyday that I’m going to miss the most.
Quiet sunny afternoons at Hyde Park and walks through Chelsea. Walking into church and knowing where our Connect Group would be sitting. Spending way too much on overpriced coffee at instagrammable cafes. The resolute strength Londoners exhibited after back to back to back terrorist attacks. Walking the streets of Kensington and not hearing English once in a mix of French, Spanish, German and Arabic. Nights spent in the wee EC flat giggling, planning our next trip and dreaming about the future with Albs. Walking back from Alpha on chilly rainy Spring and warm Summer nights.
Blurry eyed early morning trains with Pret croissants and coffee to the English countryside. The Thursday night after work rush to Heathrow or Gatwick for an adventure. Returning from weekend trips with the distinct feeling of ‘home.’ Foregoing clubs or pubs for sunsets on Rich’s rooftop in South Ken. Chasing all the nerdy Harry Potter themed things in the city. Waving at the barber smoking his morning cigarette outside his shop on my way to work every day. Gazing up at Harrods, Big Ben and the Royal Albert Hall from the 2nd floor of a double-decker. The long stretches of time alone, the comfort of anonymity after a lifetime of living in the Midwest.
The best thing was getting to live through all sorts of days. It wasn’t a trip or vacation impacted by the weather or a heightened pressure to have the most amazing of times every day. I got to settle in and have boring rainy days and perfect autumnal days and everything in between.
I read once that there’s a potent Portuguese word with no direct translation in English… Saudade: a profound longing for an absent something; love that remains for something that will never exist again.
That’s the beauty and the curse of an experience and period of life like this. What makes it so great is exactly what will make it never to be again. It’s not something that can be replicated, only remembered.
Just like travel changes you, so does living outside of your home country for any extended period of time. It can make you rethink everything you thought you knew about yourself and how the world works like nothing else can. It certainly had that effect on me. I wouldn’t go so far as to say I’m a completely different person than I was when I left Minnesota, but some pretty significant changes have occurred.
Perhaps these changes would have occurred anyway, but certainly it is your experiences that shape you more than anything else and I have had those like never before over the past year and a half. I’d like to think that I am a far more sympathetic, empathetic, less self-absorbed but more sure of myself person than I was before. For whatever I was before, I consider myself now to be a slightly less new, yet much improved version of that, thanks at least in part to my European expat adventure.
Fellow Midwesterner Shauna Niequist wrote, “My goal upon returning to real life after lake life is to keep my summer heart – my flexible, silly, ready-to-play, ever-so-slightly irresponsible heart” and that’s my only goal, really, in returning to the States. That I keep my London heart.
Living in London gave me the chance to learn quickly, feel intensely and see with greater perspective. Being far away from everything you’ve known does that. I’m much the same now, yet expanded. A more lived, worn-down, yet more understanding version of my pre-London self. Grateful for the world; awestruck by its beauty.
These parts of me, they will stay.