LONDON – “And they say English food isn’t good.” We think we’re being hilarious, defying the widely held belief by stuffing our faces full of perfectly delicious English food. Fish and chips, bangers and mash, shepherd’s pie, with the added diversity of London ushering dishes from India, Lebanon, Holland, France, Spain, Italy…In short, you can trust me when I say that the food here is utterly divine.
And twelve weeks in I can tell you something else about it. Something we all whisper about when our friends go abroad and what all of us over here joke about, pout about, fret about, eventually decide to do nothing about.
Pounds. And I’m not talking about the currency.
At first, I tried to ignore it. Then I was justifying it – “it is my second week abroad, after all”. And slowly, slowly I couldn’t ignore it anymore. My jeans were getting decidedly smaller and belt notches had to be reversed.
As with most things, it was joked about a lot. But underneath my self-conscious jokes lay real anxiety. My lifestyle had been completely uprooted when I came across the pond. I’d climb often and do yoga twice or so a week, had an entire gym and riverside trail at my disposal, my meals were well planned out, and I had a comfortable university schedule, complete with a car, a ten minute walk from home to classes, the works.
But that kind of activity simply couldn’t be kept up here. A gym membership was £40 a month, a climbing one similar. I didn’t even bother looking at the prices of yoga classes in my posh Chelsea neighborhood.
To be fair, I did try to be active when I got past the “denial” stage. I’d do yoga from a free app on my iPhone (thanks, Starbucks!) and climb at a place that took me an hour to get to and cost me £7 each time I went.
But every time I’d have to block out time to climb or do yoga, I’d be missing out on a fun London trip with my newfound friends. It was a choice between fitness and friends. And I chose friendship. I chose experiences and sightseeing and discovery.
That choice didn’t come without a cost. As vain as it sounds, gaining weight isn’t an easy thing to come to terms with. And it’s something that we’ve been taught to fear – tainting occasions such as going to college with labels like the ever-ominous Freshman Fifteen.
But I didn’t choose to study abroad to be comfortable or to have an easy path. I wanted a challenge and I got it. Even if it is my own mindset.
As I see it, London is a town marinated in culture – it is all around. From the narrow towering town houses to the gold covered statues to the hole-in-the-wall Indian restaurant with specials on weekdays from 5-8. Culture is not merely holed up in a museum or encrusted in sculptures, it lives and breathes and, coincidentally, eats on the streets of London.
To truly live here, to call this place my home, I found I have to treat each inch and pound as a souvenir.
Because, really, it is.
What is the St. Patrick’s Day parade without a Guinness or two (or three) or a hard day of work without a biscuit to dip in my tea at tea time or a football match at the local pub without a cold pint to accompany me as I pretend to understand what’s going on? What is a stroll through Borough Market without picking up a sample or two (or three) or a day walking in the rare London sun without an iced coffee from our favorite French café or a visit to Shoreditch without checking out its frenzied food stalls?
To fret and worry and stress about a couple of extra pounds is to deny myself a true cultural experience. And while I’ve managed to find more balance here – I do try to use that yoga app after work – I don’t tie myself to it over an experience that can truly only be seized here and now and with the people that I’m with.
Friendship, culture, life is more important that an inch or two (or three). I promise.