LONDON – I have been in London for four weeks now. A month. Hard to believe, right? This is a strange time. It’s that time where I think I’ve been in this city long enough to understand what’s going on, but I still feel somewhat out of place. As if I’ve walked into my house and all my furniture is moved an inch from where it was. It’s not enough to startle me, or for me to even realize right away, but it’s enough to make me notice how my usual bubble of a comfort zone has vanished under the nonstop London rain.
My new friends and I joke that it’s like freshman year all over again – we’ve all been thrown into a new environment complete with new people, a new place and a new protocol. Lots of newness. But it’s not very shiny or fun to unwrap. It’s a hesitant pull each time we receive a present from our new town, unsure if we want to know what’s underneath. It’s usually irritated stares from Brits on the Tube as our infamous “inside voices” echo throughout the silent cabs, the discovery that pedestrians don’t have the right of way here or the ever-present knowledge that we are living in the most expensive city in the world.
So I return to my freshman year. How did I find solace then, in that bumbling and confused sort of time? When wearing my lanyard around my neck was somehow a signal to the greater population of my ineptitude and trekking through the Logan in packs of 20 garnered the taunting yells of “Freshmen!” from the older crowd (but really, not that much older). I learned quickly that there were certain ways of masking my youthful identity from the more seasoned of students.
The solace that I found, however, did not come from passing myself off as an older Bulldog. The joys and laughs of freshman year came from the people I was around – my hallmates and roommate and even those people that hold the door open so long before you’d naturally reach it that you have to run to receive their intended kindness.
I learned freshman year that finding comfort amid the cloud of uncertainty comes, not from the desired shedding of your freshman skin, but from the people-to-people connections that you make. My experience became defined by the people I surrounded myself with and not by the first-year label stamped upon my forehead. And the more I laughed and cried and lived, the more the big red “freshman” sign disappeared and the more the Gonzaga community became my community.
So it is here. In London, I have become only too aware of the big red “American” sign plastered across my face and clothes and accent. It’s hard not to feel out of place and lost (especially when the streets twist and turn for no rhyme or reason). It’s tempting to ditch my comfortable American garb for black tights, a black dress, and a pair of heels – if only to fit in here. And while fitting in is not a bad thing to desire, fitting in if only to fit in is.
Trying to become the culture that you are thrown into is a completely natural response. It is why freshman stop wearing their lanyards around their neck and start going out in smaller groups. But this sort of trying rarely leads to true assimilation. Culture is much deeper than what people wear or how they speak or what they look like. Culture is who people are.
Discovering London has been a lot like freshman year. I thought the key to being a real Londoner was to quiet down while riding the Tube, look right before crossing the road, and order my coffee with “skinny” milk, not “nonfat”. But the times when I’ve felt most at home here are not the ones where I am mimicking, they are the ones where I am living. The ones where I am discussing current events, asking genuine questions, even complaining about the hour-late bus with the people around me.
It is in those moments that the big red “American” sign dissolves under the London rain and home is here and I am a part of the culture because I am a part of the people. That’s what I found freshman year and that’s what I’ve found here. A home. And all the rest will follow.