Learning from nature: the trusting transition from season to season

Eternal Sunshine of the Spokane Mind

Mary Zakheim

Learning from nature: the trusting transition from season to season

On Saturday morning, I planned to go to yoga with my high school friends who were in town for their university’s spring break. After a quick realisation that my car was not willing to go along for the ride (okay, so my service lights have been on since the road trip back from my own spring break two weeks ago), I decided to take a walk downtown despite the windy conditions and disappearing sunny skies.

As I strolled down the Centennial Trail, I began noticing that the tree branches I have become accustomed to gazing through were suddenly bursting with floral buds – pink, white, yellow and green collided in a beautiful dance with the invisible wind and pale blue sky. Branches fluttered in the wind, greeting my trail fellows and myself with a colorful wave, welcoming us to its new show – the floral performance of a new season, of a brave march out of winter, of spring. I responded to the greeting with a smile and a sniff of the bright dance of fragrance – and a quick appreciation to the city that had just the other day forced layers of sweaters and scarves upon me.

Then it all sprung upon me like the first damp rains of spring: the natural and sudden transformation of the city from its parade of frigid, bare branches to its warm, budding ones. It all seemed so natural, that the trees and bushes and river would change with the seasons, unresisting to the call of the conditions that pressed itself upon their willing demeanours. Of course, I began to think of myself in terms of these trees that I so lovingly admired as I continued my ambling walk downtown.

In a mere six weeks, my season will change. I will walk down an aisle, receive a piece of starchy paper, move a bundle of string from one side of a hat the other, say goodbye to the people who have surrounded me for four years and head off into a new and completely unknown bit of my life. Already I have proven to be most unlike the trees, whose willingness to change baffled me as I passed each one proudly displaying its new purpose and aesthetic. Like most human beings, I find change to be a frightening prospect when I first find myself in its presence. As much as I try to embrace the idea of it, the stark contrast of how my life will be the moment my comfortable fort of structure and friendship and community is dismantled is quite unsettling.

Is the eventual course of our lives spoken for by forces much like nature? Or are we the sole deciders of our fate, as so many high school slogans like to tell us that we are? Are we meant to be like the trees and birds and rivers, whose lives flow in tandem with its environment: migrating in the winter, sprouting leaves in the spring, flowing mightily in the summer, trading in greens and pinks for oranges and yellows in the autumn? Is there a metaphorical river that we reside in, floating in, swimming with, flailing in or swimming against with each stroke forward into our lives after the four years of structured peace that our university has to offer us ends?

I’d like to think so. I’d like to think of our lives much like rivers: a sprawling and watery map, with a decisive beginning, a larger ending and a million ways to get from the start to the finish. Each decision pencils in a new snaking creek or wild tributary to the river’s plotted points – and there we are through it all, either accepting the variation in direction and swimming along with it or flailing at the quick currents of change, preventing us from reaching our next turn as the forces of nature intended.

It is certain that we will all spend parts of our ride swimming and flailing and floating and resisting, we are humans, after all, and have much more artificial worries to stress out about than trees and birds and rivers do. It is with this knowledge, however, that I plunge forward into the upcoming twists and turns of my watery map – a much needed reminder each time I catch myself comfortably floating along or catastrophically floundering about, that life is better spent accepting change than anticipating and fearing it.

Let us swim onward, then, to exciting twists and unanticipated turns.

working title.

Is the magic of studying – or even being – abroad a feeling that we ourselves produce?

Last year, I got my first tattoo, cut off all my hair and gallivanted around Europe for a semester. And now I’m walking through slush. A year ago, I daresay that I would have marvelled at slush – how magical, how wonderful, how positively incredible slush is! At least when it’s in England, eh? Indeed, as forty-eight percent of Gonzaga students know, the aftereffects of returning home from time spent away from our beloved campus carries back with us quite the harrowing feeling.

Our lives, or more our Facebook feeds, were once filled with exotic locales and daring adventures. I could wake up one morning and walk beside the Thames, if I so desired. And then post it to Instagram and smile as people across the pond expressed their jealousy and wish to be where I was. And now I am that person across the Atlantic, gazing at pictures of faraway friends and wishing that I were there too. I realized soon enough that this was quite the sad picture I was painting for myself, and as I walked through the decidedly dreary Spokane slush, I began to wonder if slush was really that different a couple thousand miles away.

After many very scientific studies, my colleagues and I have concluded that slush is actually much the same no matter the location. I admit, when I first heard the results, I was aghast. Why, then, did it feel so much more satisfying to splash through the sludgy substance with glee and enthusiasm over there while I manage to bear a striking resemblance to Grumpy Cat over here?

After another slew of backbreaking research, I have come to find that because we are expected to have fun every second, minute and hour of our lives abroad, we become our own self-fulfilling prophecy. We have told ourselves in anticipation over and over again that the coming five months will be the most exciting of our lives, that it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, that fun must be had at all times or else that opportunity is being frivolously wasted. And as a result, we end up finding joy in slush and rain and cold weather merely because we have forced ourselves to do so. Which brought up another intriguing question: why aren’t we doing that here, too?

Going abroad isn’t necessarily about the city that you’re going to, but the experience that you’re expecting to have, the things that you can learn, the people that you can meet. This might sounds crazy at first, but honestly we can do a lot of that here, as well. Shocking, I know.

To be clear, I am not discouraging going abroad – I had a hoot and a half over there – but more, I am questioning how those of us who are not currently engaging in the pleasure of gallivanting around a foreign country can see Spokane, or any city, as a place where just as much discovery, magic and enchantment can occur. This column intends to address this question throughout the semester – investigating how everyday life can turn into the same highlight reel that the folks across the pond are producing.

My initial instinct is this: to be able to view every day as one filled with magic, one must first believe that it is possible. And I’ll take my first step by eyeing the slush around my car as a splendid opportunity to test out my new rainboots. I’ll let you know how it goes.

You can’t be what you can’t see

Why living and working abroad is important

LONDON – As my loyal readers (my dad and my cat) will know, I have spent the past eight weeks working at an arts marketing firm in Southeast London acting as an intern and second pair of hands for the five person crew.

Since being brought on mid-February, I’ve had the opportunity to live tweet the launch of a UK-wide project, draw up a consultancy brief for an up-and-coming client, offer my views on event names and attend meetings for large-scale projects.

And to think that on my first day, I was stressing out about messing up their tea.

Before I came abroad, I thought I’d pieced the puzzle together. Everything seemed to line up – what I wanted to do, where I wanted to live, how my future would probably play out. It was neat and tidy and, in my mind, there was definitely a pretty little bow on top.

That was, until I started work at The Cogency. Led by two powerhouse women, the five person arts marketing company takes on projects that a huge corporation would cower over. But “I can’t” simply isn’t in The Cogency’s vernacular. Except maybe, “I can’t resist another cup of coffee”. Seriously, the coffee is overflowing there.

As you can imagine, it was a pretty intimidating office to waltz into.

But quite contradictorily, I was suddenly laden with the thought of “I can’t” after my first harried week of work. I’d never worked in the arts before, much less in arts marketing, much less in the arts capital of the world! How am I supposed to know how to advise clients on what they should and should not do? How is my view valid amidst my dedicated and intellectual coworkers? How is some 21-year-old small town American undergraduate qualified to be working and living in London?

And what if I mess up their tea?

However, I signed a contract that solidified my eight-week commitment in cold hard legality, so I ignored my feelings of inferiority and allowed myself to become a part of The Cogency team – eliminating “I can’t” from my vocabulary and thoughts.

And now here I sit, finished with my time at The Cogency and wondering where I would have been had I had the freedom to walk out of the door. Probably back where I was before – thinking that my puzzle was perfectly arranged, painting glue over it to seal it in all its puzzling perfection.

To work abroad is to shine a light on a darkness that you didn’t even know was there.

After my time at The Cogency, my puzzle pieces are scattered about – lost in unknown imaginations and possibilities. And that’s just the way I like it. If I’ve learned anything from my time here, it’s that there is no possible way of nailing down fate.

Every plan and vision and idea is just a human attempt at making sense of the real confusion that is the future. It’s only natural. But the real fun rests in the knowledge that you shouldn’t even try to figure it out – you’ll probably end up restlessly searching for invisible pieces while the reality sits in front of you, waiting to be put together.

My semester working in London has left me more confused than when I came. I don’t know where I want to live or work or travel. I don’t know what I want in the next year or five or ten. And I don’t think that I should be trying to find that out.

The future will always be the future but the present only happens once before it becomes the past.

So I’ll be happy with my constantly ruined puzzle, piecing things together only to have them scattered again. It’s like a game – one that rewards those with patience, open mindedness and not a bottle of glue in sight.

Friendships abroad.

MARCH 2014

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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.

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.

how can i fit in here?

FEBRUARY 2014

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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.

feeling fashion backward amongst the fashion forward.

JANUARY 2014

Luella's Guide To English Style

LONDON – I bought a new coat today. Some call it peer pressure, I call it assimilation. You see, in London they do this thing called style. It’s chic and cultural and… completely foreign to me. And this is coming from a person who once called herself stylish. That is until I landed in London and my eyes were opened to a fashion phenomenon.

Here, fashion and style are not mere compilations of clothing – they are an extension of one’s very self. People use their style to tell a story to their city. Stories of history, rebellion, society, monarchy and art are visible as pieces from haute couture houses and charity shops alike march down the centuries old streets.

And it was in this setting that I found myself. At Gonzaga, going to school in a black trench coat, jeans and boots would be little cause for alarm. In fact, some sweatpants-clad soul might even ask why I’m so dressed up today. In London, I might get asked just how late I overslept.

To my first fashion marketing and merchandising class, I wore a prim green dress with a plaid shirt layered over it – my version of classy meets edgy. My professor referred to me as “Checkered Shirt Girl” (a disappointment, indeed, but certainly not as bad as “Stripey”, the girl in a striped shirt behind me).

Some may take offense at my professor’s words, but I see them as a cheeky reminder of just how important fashion is to the English. It isn’t something us casual Americans can simply “do” – no, instead we must watch and learn. To study abroad in Paris, one must learn French. To study abroad in London, one must learn Fashion.

So I grabbed the book my housemate’s mother had given me for Christmas, Luella’s Guide To English Style, and set out to learn. It took many park benches, coffee shop visits and late nights reading in bed, but two weeks and 326 pages later the book was finally finished.

And what did I learn, you ask? What any proper British bird would know from birth – that English style is as much a part of English culture as any overly photographed landmark in this city. It is a tradition in and of itself. The quintessential British traditions of irony, dark humour, class and satire shape and guide the London wardrobe through those formative years of adolescence and required school uniforms into the defined and individualized style that adulthood brings for the Londoner.

While in American college culture we may scoff at this kind of focus on something as “petty” as fashion – preferring to ace our tests in yoga pants and North Faces, thank you very much – it is worth exploring the reasons why fashion holds such high esteem in English culture to gain a more complete awareness on the issue.

Fashion as an industry began in Paris, where designers – then called couturiers – were hired to create new styles for nobility to wear. The first recognized couturier was an Englishman and from the 18th century on, fashion became a staple of European life. How shocking it was for Europeans when, in the flurry of World War II, American designers stole the spotlight from the inventors of fashion and became leaders of style in the 1940s and 50s.

Not ones to let Americans tell them how to dress, the English commanded attention in the 1960s by subverting fashion-as-they-knew it and made style a two-way street – quite literally. Designers were looking to the youthful streets for inspiration and standout Brits like Mary Quant and Zandra Rhodes reclaimed fashion as a for-the-people and by-the-people entity. Fashion became individualized for the English, a way to tell others who you were and what you stood for. It was both political and personal – a statement made via plaid miniskirts and collared dresses.

And so it still stands to this day. The importance of fashion to the English is more than a vapid obsession, it is a part of their history and culture. Every day, Londoners open their closets and continue the tradition of style as a personal mode of self-expression. London is my home now. It is where I sleep and ride buses and miss buses and walk around and study and live. I am living its culture. So I bought a new coat today.