In search of fresh air

Like any bustling, modern metropolis, the city of London is a feast for the senses. Ambulances and police cars have an ear-splitting siren, louder than I’ve heard anywhere else in the world. The crowded sidewalks abound with eccentricities, from 80-year-old men in neon green leotards to fur-clad ladies exhaling cinnamon-scented fumes from their e-cigarettes. It was endlessly entertaining when I first arrived in September, affording prime people-watching on every corner.

It was, however, equally exhausting. I had misjudged just how metropolitan DC was, and assumed that I had ample experience living in cities. After all, I had grown up in an overpopulated, East Asian capital of 6 million people. My failure to realize that I had lived, in both Taipei and Washington, in relatively suburban parts, made me severely underestimate the adjustment I would have to make in London. Within a month, I started feeling a persistent sense of claustrophobia, a sensation of suffocation that barraged my senses every time I stepped out the door. I was tired all the time, worn out by the constant stimulation of big city livin’. I knew I needed an escape.

Waiting for the tube one afternoon, I noticed a billboard for ‘The Hive,’ a bee-focused installation at the Kew Botanic Gardens, and decided to take a day trip. The ride out of the city provided my first sniff of freedom; as the train emerged from the underground tunnels into the open air, I felt myself begin to relax. The sunlight streaming in through the windows lit up the faces across from me, basking the car in a warm glow I had not seen for weeks. I dipped my fingers in and out of the warm rays, watching as the passing landscape grew quieter and greener. As the doors finally slid open at Kew Gardens station, I stepped out into the crisp, late-autumn air and took a deep breath, the freshest air I had inhaled in a month.

The station opened out toward a peacefully residential neighborhood. A bed of golden leaves obscured the sidewalks, crackling as mothers pushed their strollers over this autumn jacket. The smell of pastries and roasting meat drifted toward me, and I noticed a butcher advertising freshly-made meat pies. A peppered-steak variety in hand, I walked down the street, arriving at the park that would become my much needed escape for the rest of the year.

The royal botanic gardens were a beautiful stretch of land, gardens, conservatories, greenhouses, and forest spanning over 300 acres. I spent the day wandering among the flowers, basking in the humidity of the Palm House, running my fingers through the dozen species of tall grasses, and marveling at the impossible stone-like resemblance of the lithos succulent. I sat serenely in the orangerie-turned cafe, sipping my tea as I looked across the fields, basking in the sunlight and inhaling that fresh air as deeply as I could.

I had found what I was looking for.

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