“Once upon a time, on the north shore of Long Island, not far from New York, there was a very, very large mansion, almost a castle. And on this very large estate lived a small girl. And life was pleasant there, and very, very simple. But, then one day, the girl grew up, went beyond the walls of the grounds, and found the world.” – From the movie Sabrina
London at 20 was just what I needed. I was burnt out by school, by other annoying people (who were probably just like me), and by all of those mind-numbingly tedious “resume building” activities that seemed so important at the time. I just needed to get away, and I didn’t have many expectations, which is probably the best mental state to be in when you arrive blinking confusedly in the sunlight (at what should be 3:30am) at London Gatwick and have no idea which train to take to get to your new space in the attic, err… “flat”, in central London.
All at once I was crazy in love with everything. In the five months I lived there I think I memorized every crack in the sidewalk between my flat and the Thames, walking down Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross, through every park and over every bridge. I literally walked everywhere it was possible to walk in central London, accompanied only by my trusty (and rusty) CD Walkman (yes, I know it’s hard to believe, but the iPod had not yet been invented). I tried to blend in, tried to pretend like I belonged there, and I tended to mumble most of what I was forced to say in public in order to avoid being found out as an American. I am not sure that worked, but I tried anyway.
It was the first time I was really away – far away – home was like another world. The freedom was exhilarating, but being relatively alone with only one or two friends in the study program was, at times, difficult. I found Londoners to be fairly closed-off people, and it was virtually impossible to start up a conversation with just anyone in the pub. I think one low point I remember was having the flu on Valentine’s Day, lying sick as a dog on my bed in the flat, staring up at that single irritating naked lightbulb hanging down from the ceiling, mocking me with its sad, lonely dim yellow light.
But, just like our heroine in the movie Sabrina, I was on an important quest! Sabrina had Paris, I had London. She arrived awkward and misguided, and so did I. We both had things that we should forget. She went to study fashion, I went to study art. She came back home drop dead gorgeous and sophisticated, and I … well I must have missed out on that one. ☺ In the middle of the movie, one of the women Sabrina meets in Paris gave her some advice that has always resonated with me: “I came here from Provence, alone, uneducated. For 6 months, no, more than that, a year… I sat in a café, drank coffee, and wrote nonsense in a journal. Then suddenly, it was not nonsense. I went for long walks, and I met myself in Paris. You seem embarrassed by loneliness. But you see, it’s only a place to start.”
Well, I certainly did write a lot of silly nonsense in my journal. I wrote in cafes, on trains, on park benches, in pubs and even out on the ledge of my attic window. I came up with ideas for future art projects, book plots, and business schemes. I wrote down cultural observations. I sketched the trees in the park and faithfully recorded thoughts about the people I saw and met. I took trains by myself on the weekends to places I had never been. I struggled with the idea that I could be whoever I wanted to be. Nobody knew me… so who did I want to be? Maybe, just maybe, it wasn’t nonsense.
I might not have come back home looking like a Parisian model like Sabrina did, but I did come back changed. Little by little my perspective had shifted, and I had essentially decided who it was that I wanted to be, and what I believed about myself, about life, and about God. For me, London was everything at once: exhilarating, difficult, thought-provoking, heartbreaking and life-changing. It was exactly what I needed at 20, and I wouldn’t have traded it for the world.