It’s been two months since I’ve moved into my dorm in the pulsing heart of London, and things are finally starting to feel stable. With my drawer full of winter socks and my windowsill overflowing with various succulents and winter heathers, I’m now at the height of a second wind, a tidal wave of excitement at this year I’ve chosen to spend in one of the liveliest cities in the world. But the last two months were not without their turbulence and their lessons. Here are the most important:
1. Figuring out my priorities should have been something I did in the first month. It was a unnecessarily long time before I discovered that source of a persistent melancholy was my uncertain vacillation between wanting to see all of London and Europe and hoping to fully take advantage of a year at a world-renown social science institution. I cannot indulge completely in either; in trying half-heartedly to lose myself in one, I was denying myself the other and perpetually dissatisfied. The secret has been pinpointing the exact spot of balance so the seesaw rests suspended- intellectual stimulation seated on one end and new sensations seated on the other.
2. I really don’t like big cities. I grew up in a city of 7 million people, but lived and attended school in the Taipei ‘suburbs’. With a population just over half a million, Washington, DC hardly counts as a bustling metropolis. I’ve thus lived for 20 years under the false impression that I love big cities. But here I am, in the heart of London, five minutes from Covent Garden, sardined among tourists and shops. Sirens rip up and down my street and I have yet to experience a minute of pure silence, even in my own room. Sensory overload is deafening, disorienting, and exhausting.
3. I really like cities. There is never a dull moment in this town. If I had a dollar for every time someone quoted Samuel Johnson’s, “when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life,” I would have enough credit for my Oyster card to last the rest of the year. Although peace and quiet may be lacking, the excitement is unparalleled. However frequently I dream of the green grass, clean air, and a cloudless sky, I know that it is unlikely I will ever have the opportunity to live again in the center of such an astounding metropolis.
4. The Kew Gardens are the greatest blessing to London. My desperate search for serious foliage and revitalizing tranquility led me to the royal botanic gardens. In the enchanting hours of my first visit, I wandered through the deliciously humid Palm House and marveled at the adorable pebble plants in the Conservatory. As I parted the gentle curtains of willows in the arboretum, I realized that this was exactly what I had been looking for. You won’t be surprised that I now have a year-long membership and look forward to “Christmas at Kew.”
5. I am terribly homesick for Chinese and Taiwanese food. I did not realize just how badly D.C. had me starved. Chinatown is 15 minutes from my front door, and I fold to the temptation of hot pork dumplings twice a week.
6. Sunlight is unbelievably important. Moving from the gray skies and polluted streets of the outdoors to the harsh LED lights of the indoors has left something deep inside me aching for vitamin D. I came to London fully aware of the weather I would be suffering, but I cannot speak to the pure euphoria of a rare, blue-skied, soul-warming moment of sunlight.
7. Loneliness is inevitable but the joy in a moment of shared humanity is worth everything. I would safely assume that most students who are abroad have experienced multiple moments of profound loneliness. The loneliness of metropolitan anonymity in a new, English-speaking country probably does not compare to that of a small town in a foreign country with a foreign culture and language, but it is loneliness just the same. I find myself craving strange things I didn’t even know were comforts; the community of a campus-based university, the quiet and untainted beauty of the waterfront, a big heaping bowl of Chipotle. It doesn’t matter how much I’ve traveled or how many countries I’ve lived in, a new home will always take adjusting to.
But in the beautiful moments where I find a kindred spirit, someone with a familiar accent who is just as far away from home, someone with a new accent who enjoys a bowl of noodles as much as I do, a stranger on the tube who is chuckling just as hard at the conversation happening between us, it’s not hard to remember that I’m not fully alone on my journey. The new faces who will form a part of my great adventure lie around every corner, simply waiting for a friendly ‘hi’.