An Expat in London


The following essay was written in my creative writing class last week. The prompt was to write on something we complain about and to practice writing about a moment in time, an experience that encompasses the theme.


30 minutes. That’s how long it takes me to get home from South Kensington. I’m standing by the single carriage door with my back pressed against the plastic divider; the only barrier keeping me from the multitude of bodies stuffed inside the small space. At my feet lies a heavy, over-sized, environmentally-friendly shopping bag. Prepackaged food from the refrigerated section of the grocery store is now sweating with condensation against the thick, recycled fabric.

The train continues on with its familiar rhythm and my mind follows it. I think of my first time visiting London as a child. We spent two days in the city before exploring the rest of the country. It was my first time traveling outside of North America. I was a tourist, one of many American tourists that traveled together in a large bus. We stopped at all the iconic sites and I bought a book about Anne Boleyn at the Tower of London gift shop. I think of that summer and how differently I saw the city through my child-like eyes. Suddenly I’m ripped from my train of thought as the driver slams the brakes too hard. My sticky body hurls forward, pinning me firmer against the divide.

Anticipating the hottest day of the year, I’m wearing my lightest blue sundress. The sweltering June air gathers in the underground tunnels and fills the carriage with steamy heat. My dress is clinging to my legs and sweat trickles down the spine of my back. I had been excitedly awaiting warmer weather for 10 months, only to find myself suffocating in the underground, feeling faint and wondering if this is how it all ends.

The hot, humid air of this region of the world used to signify that we were on holiday. Humidity was alien to me. I didn’t like the way it hugged my body. Every time we ventured out of the desert to new territory, my lungs were forced to drink in the water that hung in the air. Yet, it meant gelato and aching feet from hours of walking, discovering. It meant history and learning. The memories now just flickers of light; a relentlessly hot summer day in Spain, seeking refuge for my weary legs underneath the shadow of the Eifel Tower, walking over uneven cobblestones and imagining the feet that trod before me.

The sunshine, although making the general public happy as its rays mercifully kiss the wet London streets, causes daily commuters to act more irritable. When the temperatures rise, the tube turns into the devil’s armpit. The rush of hot air through the underground station feel as though it is the very breath of a dragon; moist, heavy, and intense. The heat intensifies everything. A toddler’s scream pierces my ears, a boisterous group of teenagers make me feel anxious, and the sound of someone loudly chewing crisps knags at my patience.

I try to drown the sounds with a few deep breaths, only to inhale the metallic and dusty scents of the windy tunnel. I crave an ice-cold drink, knowing perfectly well that my diet coke is always as warm as the room it’s served in. My feet ache, they are red and swollen. I wish I could sit down. But these feelings; the clammy skin, the aching feet, the heat of a European summer, used to signify something else. They used to be tied to excitement and discovery. They used to accompany familial memory-making and gift shops. I struggle with the comparison of then and now.

Finally, at my stop, I rush to escape this hell of heat and bodies and sweat. The doors roll open with their usual creaks and moans. I hoist my heavy bag onto my sore shoulder, already rubbed raw from carrying it this far. Making my way toward the door, a middle-aged woman with pink cheeks and short, sweaty hair matted to her forehead urgently enters the carriage. Her body collides with mine with such force that I almost fall backward under the weight of my bag. From the wall of impenetrable, sweaty bodies, a hand grabs my waste to steady me, I think of the sweat seeping through the delicate material of my dress and shy away out of embarrassment.

The woman, with her over-sized backpack is still determinedly squeezing herself into the carriage, blocking the exit intended for my escape. Decorating the straps of her backpack are pins, “Mind the gap”, “Keep Calm and Carry On”, and a round button of the British flag. I feel my brow hang heavier over my eyes. My cheeks blaze crimson from exertion and anger as I vehemently push past her and explode into the station seconds before the doors close.

My impatience bothers me. My mind and heart pulled apart and guilt fills the space between. This is not my home and I have no more right to be here than the woman with her tourist pins and eager smile. I think of my Anne Boleyn book tucked safely into a box at home and now stored under my childhood bed, in my old bedroom that has changed and evolved as the years have brought us apart. It no longer smells like me.

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