Blog

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.

Christmas in the USA

The scratched and unpolished table at our cabin was cloth-less. Each of our paper plates was heaped with Christmas roast, mashed potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, and caramelised vegetables, all smothered in steamy brown gravy. There weren’t enough chairs to hold every person in my huge Utah-sized family, so we gathered lawn chairs from the patio, dusted them off and tucked them in around the dining room table.

The entire cabin was filled with a buzz of excitement and the roar of competing voices over the sound of children and dogs playing together with their new Christmas toys. Heads bobbed just above the surface of the table for those who were unlucky enough to find themselves in a lawn chair but good humour excused the lack of sophistication we collectively have as a family.

We talked about Europe and dreamed about vacations we could take together as parts of my family met up with me in England this year. The conversation was light and unbothered by the woes of day to day life. As we finished and the chatter died down, a happy and comfortable silence began to set in – the kind that accompanies full bellies and a fire slightly too warm in the fireplace. Steve, my brother-in-law and food enthusiast, briefly left the table to dish up seconds. As he entered the room to resume his place he exclaimed, “You know what?” a pause quieted the table and I turned to look at him; He was staring at his plate decidedly before stating, “I think I’m going to get some carrots”. He turned back to the kitchen with a decided air as if loudly declaring his choice for second serving of caramelised carrots was team effort and we were offering moral support. An involuntary laugh escaped me.

In that moment, I couldn’t help but adore my family for all of their quirks and personalities. There’s privilege in knowing someone so well you can say “yep, that’s Steve” and laugh, not at them, but at the special family bond that unites us in ways that we’ll never be united with people outside of our little clan. There’s a comfort that allows me to be my truest and silliest self that I only feel among this group who has known me everyday of my life.  It’s reassuring to know that I have a large group of like-minded (or at least like-humoured) individuals who have my back no matter what and that the holiday season will always bring us together in one way or another. With our non-tradition traditions like waffles with bacon cooked right in, pyjamas on Christmas Eve, and a Christmas dinner prayer that’s so long kids start sneaking nibbles off their rolls, we try our best to meet together as a family and celebrate a special time of year with people who matter to us the very most.

 

 

 

Nostalgia

 

I love when autumn awakens with crisp morning air that remains until evening falls into a cool, biting night. I love when those days fall on the weekend and are accompanied by beautiful azure skies that contrast with the burnt-orange foliage. My weekend was imperfectly perfect, just like these autumn days. Where – when you look closely at the beautiful contrasting leaves – you see that they aren’t really orange anymore and have begun to decompose.

Friday I woke up with a buzzing mind and anxious limbs. I set out early to tick off all the boxes on my to-do list. Homework, morning lecture, and a list of errands so long I didn’t know how it could all be done.

One by one, each box was ticked until I was back home. Both excited and exhausted, I waited for my housemates to get back and share a fun surprise with them. Stranger Things season 2 was released on Netflix that day and we were all anxious to jump back into the storyline.

Upon seeing an advert for a clothing line paying homage to our favorite tv show, I added “buy matching t-shirts” to my to-do list that day. When I ran to the shop in between more pressing errands, I was taken back by the amount of Stranger Things enthusiasts that flocked the isles surrounding the novelty clothing.

As I combed through each rack, I thought of the individual styles of my roommates before choosing the perfect match. It made me happy to think of them dressed in limited edition fan-wear whilst diving back into the much-anticipated series. I looked forward to talking over the new plot line and getting answers to our burning questions.

Beth’s jumper spoke to me first with a vintage print stitched together with superior quality fabric. With her birthday one week away, I decided to hit two birds with one stone. Beth would get the best jumper and Karen and I would get awesome t-shirts. A win-win all around.

After asking management to undress a mannequin for the very last Stranger Things inspired graphic t-shirt in London (possibly everywhere), I all but ran to the cash register with an absurd fear that someone was going to snatch the last t-shirt away from me. The fear didn’t subside until I carried my treasures safely home.

Barely able to contain my excitement, I showed Beth her jumper as soon as she walked through the door. The girls were happy and so gracious with their thanks. We donned our new gear and our comfiest pajama bottoms to watch the first episode. And 8 episodes later – around 3 AM – I headed off to bed.

Morning came with more energy than anticipated after our night of binge watching almost the entire series. Still in our awesome fan get-up, we congregated into our cozy living room to finish the final episode on the film projector while eating waffles. With messy hair and the smell of maple syrup wafting through the house, we hit play to conclude the latest season only 24 hours after its release.

There is a certain nostalgia born from coming of age films, especially those that emphasize the wonder of childhood bonds forged through adventure. After being transported to the 80’s through the set design and story of Stranger Things, I started remembering long-forgotten moments of my childhood; simple moments of innocence and uncomplicated joy.

I remembered little things like snuggling into my parent’s big bed to watch The Wonder Days while my mom fondly commented on the similarities between her own childhood. I remembered my little limbs tucked warmly into big, puffy coats and lace trimmed socks that were carefully folded over bulky, white tennies.

I remembered back to the days when my mustache-wearing dad called trainers “tennies” and had an orange bag in the back of his closet that was filled with relics of his past life as a white belt in karate; a short-lived hobby of his youth. I remembered my dad being the strongest man I knew and hanging on his bicep while he flexed in the kitchen.

I remembered my mom’s puff paint sweatshirts that were fashionable evidence that she was enthusiastic about being a mother; With each of her children carefully detailed in colorful paint across the chest of her white jumper. She was a true Beverly Goldberg.

I remembered over the top homemade Halloween costumes, themed birthday parties, and our awesome family van that existed many years before “mini vans” would grace us with seat belts and practical size. I remembered the smell of candles burning and clean, wood floors that would greet me as I came home from school. I remembered warm ovens and roast dinners and splashes in the pool.

For a moment this weekend, I stepped back in time. I remembered the joy found in those simple pleasures. I remembered how life could feel so full and incredibly thrilling without being constructed and manufactured. If I could go back to a time before the internet, mobile phones, and social media for just a day – if I could know all my friend’s phone numbers by heart and wind the cord around my fingers as I chat by the receiver, if I could sit at the family table next to plates of piping hot roast on Sunday afternoon, or make my way home to mom and dad when the street lights came on – if I had the chance do it all again, I would.

As I pass by the fading autumn foliage throughout this next week, I hope I remember to pause and be fully present. I hope I study the details and take mental images of the small things around me – to listen intently and speak truthfully. I hope, when the true autumn of my life is fading away, I am able to look back at where I am now with fondness, nostalgia, and a grateful heart that I soaked up every moment I could while it was happening.

Four Hours in the Library

 

If you are looking for me, I’m probably in the library. Past the busy entrance where students tap their heels quickly as they try to balance books and Starbucks cups ten minutes late to class. Past one of many never-ending corridors guarded by heavy wood doors that swing on unforgiving hinges. Past the first part of the library with noisy printers, whispered chatter, and teachers with impatience etched into every line on their foreheads. I am behind the glass doors marked “silent”.

At first you’ll feel the pressure of heavy silence hanging in the air.  You’ll notice the scent of old books as it tickles your nose before settling into a comfortable aroma of home and rain and blankets by fires. Between each row of shelved books sits a long wood table. Each table is dotted with a hand full of graduate students. I am sat at the a table run vertically straight through the library, facing giant windows that disclose the world outside.

The trees are slowly dancing. Each green leaf is matched by gold and stippled with fading orange. Through the glass and against the dark grey sky is Saint Marylebone Parish Church. Once I figured out how to pronounce Marylebone, the word echoed through my mind like a children’s rhyme “Mar-le-bon” in rhythm with no rhyme. Again and again.

I spend each Monday here for four hours and impatiently wait until I can return. The silence is comforting and these people are my people. They have enthusiasm for their futures. I can read it in their concentrated eyes, unyielding to the slightest distraction. I feel it in the silence, their minds learning and sharing information. If I could read thoughts, libraries would be my personal hell.

Sirens sing out like a far away song that grounds me to reality. Each finger on my keyboard taps frantically to convey what I am experiencing while my mind nags at me to finish the last canto of Gawain and the Green Knight. I bought it in hard copy so I could make notes in the margins and highlight my favorite parts. It’s waiting for me in Karen’s backpack that I borrowed three weeks ago. I pull Beth’s suede jacket closer around me. Gangs all here.

My mind is swirling around the information I received during an appointment with the careers advisor. The sweet Italian woman spent 20 minutes talking to me about my future. I was told to make lists and decisions and explore because my face looks twenty but I’m five years older. She was surprised at my work experience and I tried to tell her I am open to taking risks. “Someone may have told you that being a writer is pointless” her words echo through and land like a knife in my heart. How do you explain that writing is the only thing you know? “I’m willing to take risks”, I responded. I need to be a creative, I explain. Lists and more lists and another appointment next week.

The clouds are somber now. It’s as if night is falling at 3pm. The impending storm encompasses me like a familiar blanket. Last week someone said that London has the worst weather, but I’d have to disagree. The siren’s are growing louder and a plane is roaring overhead. But in this library it’s just me and the tap of keyboards and the rustling of pages and the sound of my breath.