During my first year of college, I saw a play written by my Spelman sister Pearl Cleage called What I Learned in Paris. In it, a wise and blunt woman named Evey recalls what she learned during her time in one of the brightest capitals of Europe. After spending what wasn’t enough time in London, I feel a lot like Evey; bolder, wiser, more confident. I guess that’s what happens when you get dropped in a foreign country for any length of time. One year ago, I stepped off the plane at Heathrow and began the first of six glorious months in what fast became my favorite city in the world. In many ways, my time studying abroad was everything and nothing like how I’d imagined it to be. In many ways, I approached my semester in London with an enthusiasm and zeal that some would argue I should have had when I entered college. Both presented me with new opportunities to reinvent myself. Both times, I did neither. Not to say that I stayed the way I was. One is never the same after graduating college or seeing a new part of the world. I believe that I became a more authentic version of myself. I know for a fact, that this had everything to do with being thrust into an environment that was completely different from the one I had known. To be clear, the U.K. is very different from the U.S. Anyone who says different either has never been or is very unobservant. After spending six months in there, I can definitely say I took away more than just a few souvenirs. I spent the majority of my days in class at Queen Mary University of London, studying the development of the English novel and the learning a new definition of what it means to be Black. When I wasn’t nose-deep in my reading, I explored all the cities of London and Westminster had to offer. In what is arguably one of the most multicultural locations in Europe, and maybe even the entire world, there is a great deal for the mind to take in. The lessons I took away were certainly not what I thought they would be. But then again, that’s the point of travel isn’t it?
Leisure does not Equal Laziness
The first thing I noticed when I was in London was how relaxed people were. I mean “have a beer on your lunch break and still go out with friends when you’re off the clock” relaxed. This no doubt has to deal with the social nature of the culture. I’ve been a work horse my entire life and, up until I hopped across the pond, I rarely ever allowed time to be idle. My grandmother always used to tell me that “idle hands were the devil’s playthings”. Nothing could be farther from the truth in the London. There, idle hands leave room for sumptuous eating , curious wondering, and luxurious napping in any one of the city’s major parks. I could often be found on any random Thursday, under a tree, with a book in one hand and a cup of tea in the other. When I wasn’t doing this, I behaved like a stereotypical English Major and lost myself in a bookstore for hours on end. When I wanted to do something stimulating, I would wander through the city and look at every plaque and monument, imagining all the history that one statue or another commemorated. A nerdy thing to do I know, but I learned a lot more on those days than I ever did in the classroom. I sometimes surprised myself with all the ways I could fill up an entire day, without even trying. That’s the real beauty of living in a city like London, you never really know what you’ll end up doing.
Shallow Pockets still make for a Great Time
While it’s never fun being broke, there are still a lot of fun things to do in London when your funds are a little tight. For me, this often meant running around to all the museums, the majority of which were free. My personal favorite was the Victoria and Albert in South Kensington, a stone’s throw away from Will and Kate I might add. Some nights, when you don’t have the cash to bar-hop with your friends, you can go to an exhibit opening or discussion with a local artist and meet a ton of people who you wouldn’t have otherwise. If you’re lucky, like I sometimes was, there may be a free glass of wine involved. There is a load of free stuff to do in the city. The days I was broke with nothing to do were my favorite. My imagination really ran wild, even in one of the world’s most expensive cities.
Prejudice and Hypocrisy are any and everywhere
Unlike some of my fellow Americans, I would never presume to judge the character of an entire community based on the actions and opinions of a few. And I’m sure many of you know that there will be strong opinions of misunderstood cultures no matter where one resides. As a young woman of color, it was more the hypocrisy that shocked me than the prejudice. I suppose it’s because I often find that the ignorant people in my life are proud to be so. At least they’re upfront about it. I had two wake-up calls during my time in London. The first happened just three days after I had landed in a pub. Coincidentally, it was right after the Charlie Hebdo shooting. I had the misfortune of listening to a woman drunkenly explain how disgusting she felt Muslims were and how she felt they all needed to be converted. I was in shock throughout her diatribe. Then there was student, who I will not name, who once proudly stood in front of me and proclaimed how racist my country’s government was. I could not disagree because based on my experiences, past and present, he would be right. What I found problematic was this child’s insistence on calling another student a terrorist. It was not because she had ever hurt anyone or entertained associating herself with a “terrorist” group. It was simply because she was Syrian. Even if he apologized and said he didn’t mean it, I couldn’t help but think he did. Especially since it wasn’t the first time he and his other Nordic flatmates cracked that joke. I suppose that in the back of mind, I figured that London was this forward-thinking multicultural capital where racism was next to impossible. I was right to a degree. But it’s like I said, prejudice is everywhere.
Fall In Love
This is something I swore that I would do from the beginning. One of my older Spelman sisters told me, “Fall in Love in London”. I did just that, in more ways than one. I know she meant for me to go abroad and do what most young girls dream of doing which is getting involved with a cute guy and having some whirlwind romance that you can tell your grandchildren about when their parents aren’t around. I’d heard many a story about a classmate who had gone abroad and found a guy. And while that kind of love is nice, and thrilling if you can find it, it’s not necessarily the kind of love you should look for. When I say fall in love I mean fall in love with where you are, physically, mentally, spiritually, etc. Romantic love should be the last of these. I fell in love with London and the people in it. From Brixton to Camden, Mile End to Notting Hill. I like to think that for six months, I was in a relationship with the city. I also fell in love with myself. I mentioned how I became a more authentic version of myself while I was abroad. I love this woman. She’s fearless and bold and loving and brilliant; and I’m lucky to have found her. I won’t lie, there was a paramour for a time. He was an interesting part of that growth and discovery. I’m not sure how different my experience would have been had I not spilled my coffee on him that one day. It’s one of those twists of fate that you can’t you can’t really question. You just have to be grateful for them.
I loved my time abroad, more than I could put into words. There’s something fulfilling and freeing about completely leaving behind all that you know and settling into a foreign environment. It’s one of those things that everyone just has to experience for themselves. I’m not saying that everyone should go to London, but it’s definitely a place that’s worth adding to your list.