Friendships abroad.

MARCH 2014

20140121-152655.jpg

LONDON — It’s a strange thing, making friends abroad. There is, quite literally, a ticking clock counting down the days until your only contact with these people is via Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat. It’s depressing and whenever one of us mulls over the idea, we quickly shush them and go on living in forgotten frenzy.

When I left Spokane, I’ve come to find, I left more than a city. I left familiarity and family. I left friends who knew what I was thinking with just a glance. I left behind hours spent laughing, days spent lounging, months spent trying to find Spokane’s hidden treasures.

And after 10 hours on a plane, it was all gone.

I stood in Heathrow Airport, alone and small, and felt a rush of independence. Fear soon followed. The knowledge that I knew nobody here and that nobody here knew me was enough to make me want to run back onto the plane and beg them to take me back to what I knew.

But border security already let me through. No going back now.

I waited at the baggage carousel and let the prospect of making new friends weigh me down. I mean, truly, it is a very daunting task. Fake laughter, fake questions, worrying about first impressions, then after you bomb those, worrying about how you can redeem yourself the second time around.

It was only until I was thrown into the tourist-tour-extravaganza of an orientation that I realized that I didn’t leave anything behind in Spokane. A plane ride doesn’t make experiences had and laughs laughed disappear. Those are pieces that have added to the whole of me, but surely there’s room for more. Even my old friends had to once be new.

And so, with my new pack of friends, I tromped around London taking pictures, singing songs about Stonehenge, laughing at yaks, complaining about classes, running to Waitrose to get food and drinks for late-night kitchen parties. I was building around me the familiarities of friendship.

But, as I said earlier, friendship abroad is a strange thing. I knew that the days spent getting closer and closer with them was also time inching closer and closer to another 10-hour plane ride leaving behind these new additions to my life.

I tried to think of solutions. So I looked at costs of planes. Strike one. Three-day road trip, anyone? Strike two. How about everyone just transfers to GU! OK, strike three. I felt like that mouse in Cinderella that tries to stuff as much corn into his mouth as possible only to lose it all. Fine, I know that his name is Gus-Gus. I felt like Gus-Gus.

And then I found it – the perfect solution. I was reading “The Screwtape Letters” on my lunch break at work and a piece of it practically jumped out at me: “Gratitude looks to the Past and love to the Present; only fear, avarice, lust and ambition look ahead.”

The way to love my new friends is not to live in the future, trying to solve the unsolvable and worrying about the unchangeable. Love is living with no preoccupations. Love is ignoring the tick-tock of the four-month clock. Love is singing along to ’80s songs in the kitchen oblivious to the existence of anything else in this world but that kitchen, those songs, and these people.

The friendships that I’ve made here won’t disappear after that 10-hour flight home. They’ll come out in stories and memories and pictures. And with gratitude I’ll look back on these moments, with love I’ll bring them into my present life, with love I’ll refuse to look ahead.

To love is to live.

Advertisements

London Bridge is falling down.

MARCH 2014

Flowers in the springtime on my walk to work.

Flowers in the springtime on my walk to work.

LONDON – I walked through the garden on my way to work and breathed in deeply, steeling myself for another eight-hour day. I inhaled. The usual scents of car exhaust and cold weather weren’t there. I inhaled again. Spring. Light and floral mixed with a deeper hint of forested musk. I looked around me and noticed cherry blossoms in bloom, purple sprouts peeking out of the green earth, families walking about with nowhere particular in mind.

 

It fell upon me like the first drop of spring. The beauty of it all, the innocence, the joy. It was enough to buoy me through my research-laden day and have me skipping all the way home.

 

Spring has sprung! I excitedly thought as I lay down at the end of my day. Spring has sprung! I sang as my eyes closed for another night’s sleep. Spring has sprung! I dreamt the whole night through.

 

And just as quickly, spring rescinded its floral promise as I looked out of my window the next morning to a chilly, frosted picture of King’s Road. I buttoned up my winter coat and headed out into the honking mess.

 

This, I have come to learn, is the story of London.

 

Throughout London’s massive history – dating back to 43 AD – it has been thought of as a city of contradictions. It has known both glory and shame, peace and revolt, rain and fire. And its citizens reflect this same fluidity – often combating tragedy with humor and finding beauty amid the dirt and grime of the reality of their city.

 

In my British Contemporary Culture class the other day, we watched a BBC film called A Picture of London (2012). It explored London through the centuries and found a common pattern seen in people’s reactions to the city.

 

Time and time again, beauty was found artificially – forced upon London in inaccurate paintings or romanticized writings about her. Every time the city found itself in ruins, grand plans of restructure and order were put into place. And every time, London resisted and narrow twisty streets, dark gothic buildings, and chaotic markets thrived while orderly architect’s designs withered out of sight and mind. True beauty, the film finds, is borne of the city’s unplanned and muddled nature.

 

While watching the film, I was reminded of Victor Hugo’s Preface to Cromwell in which Hugo states that “it is of the fruitful union of the grotesque and the sublime types that modern genius is born”. He means to prove that the grotesque things in life, the evil, the horrific, the ugly, are not merely parts of life – they are necessary for beauty to exist at all.

 

Without the dirt and grime and muddle of London, its beauty would cease to exist as well.

 

The picture of London is this, then: a delicate balance of the sublime and the grotesque. Beauty is at the mercy of the ugly. Had I not have smelt car exhaust and cold weather for two months, the beautiful moment of spring could not have given me so much joy and warmth.

 

This story weaves throughout London and now that I’m privy to it, I see it. Complaining about late busses makes the on time ones feel like a special surprise. Grumbling about the rain makes the sun seem brighter and feel warmer. Thinking, “Why am I not in a pub right now?” makes being in the pub that much better. Or maybe it’s just the beer.

 

Nonetheless, this story of London is still being written, and now I am a contributor. This is a city that I call my home – even if I only occupy about 15 feet and 4 months of it. It is with this in mind that I press onward, embracing the ugliness in the beautiful and the sublime in the grotesque.

 

That is what London is. That is what life is.

Same old, same old.

FEBRUARY 2014

The Cogency's office space.

The Cogency’s office space.

LONDON – Nervously, I stood outside the gated doors and collected my breath before pressing the simple white button labeled, “The Cogency”. I had been here twice before. Once make sure I knew how to get there and a few days later to interview with the team.

 

Now for the third time, I press the button. A faint ding-dong rings inside the building and after a short wait my future colleague opens the gate for me with a smile and a “You must be Mary!” And so my life as a working student living abroad in London began.

 

The week went on as first weeks most often do – the first day is overwhelming, the second slightly boring, the third you’ve got your feet on the ground, and by day four your email is full, your to-do list is impossibly long, and you’re longing for that fabled thing referred to simply as ‘The Weekend’.

 

I found that my honeymoon phase with London was over.

 

The dull grey skies that once looked mysteriously, invitingly eerie now just looked dull and grey. The Tube with its whooshing doors and ability to carry me wherever I needed to go throughout the city now was an every-person-for-themselves ordeal as I’ve had to throw some ‘bows to get a place to and from work. And my days, once so open and free, were now laden with heavy numbers that read NINE THIRTY TO FIVE THIRTY.

 

It’s funny, this study abroad thing. When I departed on the plane, my eyes were full of stars and head full of dreams and everything had a romantic air about it. When I signed up to do an eight-week internship in London, I suppose the word, ‘London’, crowded out all else. Work, I thought, surely couldn’t be the same in London – this historical, grand, beautiful city – as it is in Spokane.

 

But, to be honest, it’s not that different.

 

No matter where you turn in this world, people are people, work is work and school is school. There may be different quirks and customs inherent to each, but the essence remains the same. And while, during my first week of work, I was frustrated at this newly found principle, in retrospect (yes, a word I learnt from Freaky Friday) it is actually the summation of what studying abroad is all about.

 

Learning that people halfway across the world are griping on about work just like I am, laughing over stupid things with their friends just like I am or trying to understand modern art just like I am is a constant reminder that studying abroad does not provide us with a new life, per se, but more a new outlook upon our lives.

 

The cultural nuances that we encounter as study abroad students gives us different perspectives on how different societies tackle the same entities. This, in turn, gives us insight into what different cultures value and what we can learn from that.

 

At Gonzaga, the amount of assignments dictates that I can only look a week in advance, while here we are given one assignment that must be worked on all throughout the semester. American values are seen in the quickness and efficiency that is needed for the large workload that students have to navigate while British values of creativity and autonomy are shown in the massive span of time given to complete one assignment. Same entity, different perspective.

 

This, truly, is what is to be gained from a study abroad experience. To be able to open your eyes and see the quirks of humanity – its similarities and differences, its ups and downs, the good and the bad. And after all of that, to accept these things, add them to your growing tapestry of understanding, and be able to further observe and question and live.

 

I know that we’ve all seen it on Pinterest, but Saint Augustine once said, “The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”

 

It doesn’t have to be to London, Florence, Paris or Bangkok, it could simply be going outside your comfort zone or speaking to someone whose views you wouldn’t ordinarily hear. But it’s a step we can all make to gain a slice more of understanding in this great big world.

 

So whether you’re abroad or in Spokane, try turning the next page of the book this week. Maybe it’ll reveal a new paragraph or a new chapter or perhaps just a new sentence. But it’s all we can do to try.

Laughing at Yaks.

FEBRUARY 2014

a selfie in scottish woods.

a selfie in scottish woods.

LONDON – It’s almost embarrassing to admit, but six weeks into my experience as a student living independently in London, I am sitting in a Starbucks sipping a caramel macchiato through a green straw. Besides the accents swirling around me and the double-deckers rushing by, I could be in Spokane for all that my environment denotes.

 

In my defense, amidst all the excitement and sightseeing and new people comes a strange sort of feeling. Behind every look and conversation and walk, an uneasy buzz lingers and interrupts. It took me a while to identify it, but it is discomfort at its most disguised. Disguised because who expects discomfort whilst living out your supposed dreams?

 

But there it lies. It’s quiet and likes to surprise me at the most inopportune moments. It erodes the little comforts I’ve built around me until I’m left standing amidst all of it – surrounded by an ocean of discomfort. What else can I do but find a way off my deserted island?

 

CLADICH, SCOTLAND – We are standing on the brick platform of a dilapidated train station watching the two-car machine that we rode in from Glasgow disappear behind an old arch. It’s our last weekend before we start our eight-week internship and my three cohorts and I found ourselves in need of a relaxing holiday. So Scotland it is.

 

Feeling tired, excited, and adventurous, we roam into the small town of Dalmally – from which Google Maps said we could catch bus 497 to the even smaller town of Cladich where we could reach our booked Scottish cottage after a two mile walk. Because that sounds valid, right?

 

It only took a few moments before we realized that bus 497 would not be coming. It took a walk into a nearby B&B where not a soul was detected before we realized that this town of Dalmally is smaller than small. It took a short walk back to the train station and one last desperate glance down the tracks before the anxiety started to trickle down my spine and make me wish for the boring comfort of my small white dorm room.

 

But I remembered my earnest desire to find comfort within the discomfort and I knew that whatever was about to happen would be an adventure at best, a dreadfully hilarious story at worst. Fearing the worst but hoping for the best, my friends knocked on the door of the one sign of civilization on this stretch of land.

 

A woman answered dressed in a charmingly clashing suit of knitted attire.

 

“Ah,” She sighed in an Irish brogue, “More strays. Well, come in!” She waved us inside her eclectic felt shop, gave us tea and coffee and cookies, and called up the landlady of the cabin that we had booked weeks before.

 

A half hour later, we were stuffed full of stories and coffee and being whisked away by Sally, our matronly landlady, over the twists and turns of Scottish countryside, through the small town of Cladich, and into our chilly lakeside cottage. Sally noticed our lack of food and assured us that her husband could grab some for us in the village 30 minutes away.

 

She made us promise to head over to the pub by the end of the night, a promise we were eager to make and see through. If we’ve learnt anything abroad, it’s that a drink is always a welcome addition to any night. Or afternoon.

 

ON-THE-TRAIN-BACK, SCOTLAND – The weekend that followed was the most spontaneous, carefree, and unplanned event that has transpired in my experience abroad. After many faulty transportation, food, and directional decisions, the collective group effort to find comfort in the uncomfortable led to a discovery that is vital in life – everything will be fine. Poetic, eh?

 

But in all seriousness, we found ourselves hiking two miles this morning to catch a bus that only comes once a day to take us to a train that only leaves once a day to take us to another bus that is the only one going into London tonight.

 

Before this weekend, I would be shivering in discomfort instead of writing an article and making faces at my friends on the train right now. I would have been expending unnecessary energy worrying about things that cannot and will not change instead of laughing at yaks and admiring the scenery the whole two-mile hike to our unmissable bus this morning.

 

It took a lot of things gone awry to help me understand that things are only wrong if you think they’re wrong. Life goes on and busses are missed, trains break down and plans are changed.

 

Finding comfort abroad does not come through an impeccable knowledge of British culture, a flawless execution of plans made, or even the making of easy routines to balance out your life. Comfort abroad comes in the knowledge that you’re always going to get where you’re meant to go – broken down trains and all.

an ode to bus 49.

FEBRUARY 2014

49 to Clapham Junction

LONDON – I don’t know if this means that I’m a local or merely insane, but I have developed an actual affection for my bus – the number 49. Yes, I called it “my” bus. When I see it, I feel a very real leap in my heart as I wish it all the best on those busy London streets. It takes me everywhere I need to go – school, the nearest Tube station, the cheapest grocery store. It is my lifeline to London as I know it.

When I wait at bus stops for my notoriously late double decker, the 49 clan huddles in the wind and rain together as we wonder uselessly why it’s so late and how we wish it could be on time for once and talk about finding a more reliable bus. But the next morning, we all wait for our inconvenient number 49 and say the same things and board anyway when it arrives.

The bus – my bus – is just another aspect of rooting myself in this city. It’s a part of how I define who I am in London. My postcode is SW3 6NA, my library is the Kensington Central Library, my grocery store is Waitrose on King’s Road, and my bus is the number 49. To me, it’s more than a big red machine that takes me where I need to go, it defines what I see on the way, who I sit by, when I arrive. It is the wheels, so to speak, to my experience for the rest of the day.

It was a shock when I first arrived and had to become so adept at a public transportation system – in Spokane we solve the problem of getting from point A to point B with cars, bikes, or feet. I can’t drive a car here, riding a bike may be the most dangerous idea of all time (for me), and it would take me two hours and two very sore feet to get to my work on the other side of town. So buses it was.

Like most anything, my first attempts at smoothly riding the bus like a local were laughable at best. Scared to ride the top deck, I’d stand in the priority area for wheelchairs and buggies and anxiously stare at the screen that announces the next stop in a cool English woman’s voice. Then I’d rush to the doors too early and wait there for my stop where I’d shakily exit, glad to have “successfully” navigated the public transit system once more.

After mastering the basics of riding a bus, I had yet to learn the most important lesson of all – the culture of riding a bus. To put it lightly, it is not a social affair. Besides asking to be let out or if someone needs the priority seat that you’re in, the average Londoner prefers to sit in silence for the duration of their route. I found this custom challenging to say the least, especially when most rides that I took were with a friend or two. But after a few solitary bus rides, I understood.

The bus provides an essential part of one’s day – the ability to relax and reflect. As one of the largest cities in the world, London is understandably busy. People are always rushing, yelling into their cell phones, dodging across a car-laden street. That is, until they enter a bus, pop in their headphones or open a book, and sit for 30 long minutes in relaxation. After a day of sprinting like mad, it’s the perfect cool-down lap.

The 49 is my cool-down lap. As much as I might complain about its lateness or participate in the busied frenzy that is London, as soon as I take my seat on the top deck and hit “play” on my iPhone, I am granted 30 precious minutes of reflection back onto my day. I can sort out the jumble of emotions one feels as a foreigner, I can take a step back from thoughts of homework or responsibilities or finances, or I can just press my forehead against the cool glass of the window and watch the dramas and sitcoms and streets pass me by.

The 49 gives me a sense of identity in this impossibly massive city. It gives me a 30-minute moment to start and to end my day. The number 49 truly is my bus.