I just realized today that it’s been months since I’ve updated anything on here. I initially started this blog to share some of my experiences and travails in the UK in 2015 while I attended graduate school. Thus the less than quippy title ‘Scones and Cream’. In short, since living in zone 2 near the Borough market in London, I have: Moved back to the US, started a job at my former Uni, lived at home, started seeing someone, moved in with my someone, adopted a furry friend, embarked on a less than enjoyable summer statistics course, grew in my job, visited old friends from London in NYC, visited family in San Diego, attempted unsuccessfully to reconnect with some of the former languages, and many more details that fall in between the routine bits of a morning french press, buttered toast, bike commutes and musical interludes that fill in my life.
Last september, around september the 2nd I was frantically and fanatically piecing together my dissertation in International Relations on China and tension between the market and the state. About a week after that chaos finally subsided I began my new position as a Program Coordinator at a Learning Community at my alma mater. Without going into specifics of the job, I can now look back almost 1 year from starting and say it was the best decision I could have made. In short, I work with an incredible group of students, helping find ways to motivate, educate and assist these students in their goals. What I didn’t expect was how much I would value seeing an output.
What I’ve seen in a year of working on a college campus is oftentimes, this place can feel exceptionally disjointed, impersonal and bureaucratic. For staff and faculty, the opportunity to talk with students, much less witness the affect you have on someone is rare. Most of us contribute to a swath of inputs, be it a one time meeting or interaction with a student. To feel that you have the opportunity to develop a sustained relationship is uncommon. In my role, I have the chance to not only see students enter as freshman but also witness and contribute to their development onto graduation. It is only now that I am realizing how much I appreciate this and how rare it really is. Beyond the tangible impact on students, I work with a fantastic team. While the college itself does at times feel like a tangled, political mess, our program has under 10 on staff and we are able to develop strong connections. I could begin to ramble about spreadsheet formulas, awkward and less than authentic greetings, on the spot introductions at giant events or any other sweat inducing uncomfortablisms of my job, but i’ll spare you for now.
Last september I was also living in my parents basement. It was as you would imagine a less than glamorous lifestyle but a practical approach to paying down some of my graduate school debt. Following that I, 1. met someone who is also working at UNL completing her PhD, 2. moved into her place and then later moved into a place together and 3. adopted a kitty who we affectionately refer to as Lucy or Lucifer for her sweet nature but unintentional, resting evil cat face. Lucy is 8, so not quite a kitten. But we both appreciate her less hyper tendencies. Although, she does have her quirks. So far, we’ve noticed, 1. a persistent licking of the blinds directly behind our heads. 2. Licking these blinds only in the evening when we are trying to sleep. 3. Exhibiting an odd curiosity that causes kitty to get very close to bathwater just to be reminded that water is foul, causing her to quickly sprint in the other direction. 4. Persistently crying. She is constantly trying to at the same time tell L (for anonymity sake) or myself a story, beg for a treat, or cry for some other to be discovered reason. Despite how different my life is, how much has changed, Lincoln is still the place I grew up (mostly).
It’s a nostalgic and bizarre feeling to be back here. I still gravitate to the places I used to go but their meanings have changed. In high school, I remember driving in circles around a roundabout for cheap thrills. In college, I sped down antelope valley on my bicycle, racing to class on some path I couldn’t really identify. Now, I have a slightly better plan but often still feel like I’m pretending to be an ‘adult’. The friends and relationships that once were are something else entirely. They either evolve as two people find ways to reconnect or they atrophy and drift further apart, hanging on a thread of memory that seems to hold together a relationship only by the things were in the past. Regardless, I try not to get lost in what once was. For this moment, this life, in all its kitties, conversations and caffeinated nights, has been incredibly beautiful.
I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of closure recently. Last month was a roller coaster of emotions. I didn’t anticipate breaking up with my partner of one year or having a family pet quite quickly pass away. Neither of these occurrences were expected or welcomed. The response was a lot of grieving, which I would characterize by emotions and actions I couldn’t control. Sporadic fits of crying hijacking my routines. Tears welling up in conference rooms and meetings at work, sniffles shed behind closed doors and drawn blinds of my office, wet drops trickling down my eyes, obscuring my view as I drove to the grocery store. I cried when I thought about what she and I were, what we are not, and what we will never be. I cried when I thought about Keith, our family she-poo, in the Vet room, lying on the table still wearing his red, winter sweater. He was looking right at me when they injected the syringe that would slowly stop his heart from beating.
I felt so many thoughts, none of which I had any ability to control. I thought about how 5 weeks ago, we were told Keith had a herniated disk. Something that, while painful, didn’t cause me to jump to the idea that he would need to be put down. I thought about how during those weeks, he would have moments of getting better, followed by many moments of becoming worse. And in my head, I didn’t know when ‘the right’ time was. I didn’t want to be the person that makes a decision to end his life because how can I ever know if it is the ‘right’ decision. I felt guilt. What if it was too soon? What if we had waited too long? What if he was in incredible amounts of pain but couldn’t express it to us, other than with a quick whimper when we lifted him up to go outside. And that space between waiting too long or acting too quickly is incalculably heavy.
The same could be said for my relationship with ‘her’. After things ended, and very much not in a way I expected, I wondered, what happened, how did we end so quickly? I started to realize that we had a very different idea of what our relationship was. In my mind, I think I believed an almost alternative reality. That we would get through the physical distance that added a wedge between not only our bodies but also our thoughts and emotions. I believed that we would survive because I had to believe that to continue to give in the relationship. What I didn’t see was how much I was giving and how I was ready to give, but my partner wasn’t. She wasn’t ready for the commitment she perceived that I gave. She wanted to experience whatever else was out there and I can’t blame her for that. Because my perspectives were gained through all the experiences I’ve had, and that has helped me to value the relationship for how I understood it.
I try to remind myself, with both of these situations that while these feelings are horrible there are many circumstances that are far worse. Situations that don’t have an honest dialogue between two people. Situations where you never have the chance to say goodbye. That was how I understood the closure my partner and I had. It may not have been how I imagined our relationship to unfold, but we expressed our feelings in an honest way, and that’s all I can ask for.
Although I couldn’t communicate with Keith, our family dog, I was there with him in the end. I stood there with my father in the vet room, tears streaming down my face, as Keith lay on the table. He looked right at me before we ended his life. After that moment, and after his small head fell back onto the operating table, I felt an immense sadness. I debated whether we had acted too soon, whether he had any idea that in an instant he would never wake up again, whether I should ever be in control of ending a life. While it was heavy, very heavy, I also felt like being there with him at the end was the right thing to do. It helped me to find that closure, which so many never get.
I might not be able to change the situation but I can change how I think about and reflect on what has occurred. I could focus on my guilt for Keith or how I miss the way she held me at night. I could choose to remember these things. Or I could focus on what we did well, and I could appreciate it as a beautiful, messy, and significant moment in my life. A chaotic chapter that may not feel like it had a very punctuated ending, but a beautiful part nonetheless.
In my struggle to find a ‘right’ time, with Keith and my partner, I’m slowly coming to this very ‘adult like’ realization that there is no such thing. There are times that we have a little bit of a warning. There are times when we can say goodbye, but there is never a right time to end a relationship or end a life. Maybe that’s something that I will just continue to realize. That this idea that life happens in neat, little chapters, where we can end and summarize things before another story begins is wishful thinking. There is no right time. Only how you manage the unfolding, unexpected twists.
I began my break by leaving London (1 day before classes formally ended), to travel to Denmark and Sweden before heading to the U.S. for my brother’s wedding. Why go somewhere knowingly frigid, traveling alone, 5 days before you go plan to get jet-lagged traveling stateside for your brother’s wedding? I’d like to think it was me being adventurous, but honestly, I chalk it up to impulse. I planned to go to Sweden to see the Northern lights, and to Copenhagen because, well, it was on the way.
The journey started at Victoria Coach Station. The bus I was supposed to climb aboard to take to one of many of London’s airports on the outskirts of the city didn’t stop for me. Thankfully my industrious partner in crime was on it and looked up an alternative route. In 30 minutes, and with a fair deal of sprinting through the tube, I was on route to the airport and finally able to catch my breath.
I arrived in Copenhagen at around 8pm. The airport didn’t strike me as anything out of the ordinary. The same coffee shops and restaurants tucked away in between busy people coming and going. I trudged along, carrying my duffel bag in one arm and small pack in the other, heading to a train to take me to the city center. Despite very few signs marked in English, I found my way. It did help that most people spoke nearly perfect English and were kind enough to help if you asked. After seeing a girl giving directions, I decided to ask. We soon found ourselves on the same train to Norreport station in Copenhagen. In between the locked up bikes sitting in the train carriage, she told me a bit about her life. She was from Sweden, where I was going. We talked about the Northern lights, about the biking culture in Copenhagen, about my background, which is American – – but more specifically, a hodgepodge of Northern and Eastern European roots, much of which probably came from Sweden. That was my first interaction with a stranger. The beginning of many small exchanges with others, which pepper and my trip and make traveling so ephemeral and beautiful.
After arriving at the station, I began walking towards the neighborhood of my hostel.
It was an area Northeast of the city, called Norreboro. When I read about it online, it was described as young and littered with coffee. It was also very multicultural, which took me by surprise. I did not think I had expectations of what Copenhagen would be like, yet without realizing it, some image of Copenhagen that existed somewhere in my mind was juxtaposed with a different reality. That’s what I saw when I walked past the beautifully decorated graffiti walls, halal butchers and people who didn’t just fit a nordic stereotype.
After about 30 minutes of walking I arrived at my hostel, complete with kitschy name, Sleep in Heaven. Like many hostels I had been to before, this one had it’s unique charms. The noticeable input of DIY furniture, the in house cafe, the range of staff personalities. All of it, housed in an industrial building in a residential neighborhood. I checked into my 8 person dorm, taking directions from the graffiti sheep, which were my navigation system to my building next door where my room was located.
Upon inserting the card into my door I was greeted by 6 Italian guys. They were from the South of Italy and were traveling for a few days. They asked me to go drinking with them as they were about to out. But as I had just gotten in, and I was traveling along, I was a bit exhausted and apprehensive, so I stayed in. A few hours later, a bit more intoxicated, they came stumbling back to the hostel.
I knew after their first question that our conversation would be interesting to say the least. They asked me where my boyfriend was, and why I was traveling alone. I replied openly that I didn’t have a boyfriend, I had a girlfriend. Then they proceeded to give me a unanimous thumbs up accompanied by infantile smirks. They then told me how it’s ‘hot’ for two girls to be together, while at the same time making it quite clear it’s not cool for two guys. It was those comments that irked me. To me, the thumbs up approval of girls wasn’t a sign of any kind of acceptance of a lifestyle at all, but rather, some exotic fantasy. That isn’t acceptance but objectification, and it only contributes to the idea that certain kinds of love are better, more natural, or more acceptable than others. Did I mention it’s a bunch of bullshit.
Despite that unsavory conversation, which continued to bother me, I slept quite well that night. The next morning, though, rather than feeling refreshed and rejuvenated from my night in, I felt quite sick. It was as if, my body realized it could relax and it just hit me. I decided to push through the feeling and go out. I was in Copenhagen after all. So in true traveling form, I walked and walked and walked. I started heading to the cemetery where Hans Christian Anderson and Kierkegaard were buried. I continued down the ethnic enclaves and roads filled with more bikes than cars. I stopped at a coffee shop along the way, ordered a cortado and sat down with a local paper, wondering if people could tell I wasn’t a local. On the front page of the paper I was reminded about my former life. On the front page of the paper was Korea was an article about the demilitarized zone DMZ between North and South Korea.
I read this and thought about my old life as a teacher in Cheonan, South Korea. It felt so close and yet so far from the tiny coffee shop I was sitting reading in off a side street in Copenhagen. After finishing my drink I walked further into the center of the city. I stopped and took photos of bikes and people, and the crumbling architecture of a city whose glory days were behind it.
I listened to the street artists, and watched the ferries pass by. Mostly I imagined. I dreamed about how people lived, what they ate, when they went to sleep, if they prayed to a god, how many people biked and took public transport.
I soon found myself at a market. I went in and sat at the bar of a restaurant with Smorrebrod, a Danish tapas which consists of some dense rye bread with butter with various little accouterment adorning the top. I got some with smoked salmon and some with pickled herring.
To me, this reminded me of my family. At home, my parents both scarfed down pickled herring and smoked salmon like you wouldn’t believe. Both of them have a love for fish and it wasn’t uncommon for me to remember them pulling out jars of pickled herring or opening tins of smoked sardines.
After a bit of food and bit of wine, I left the market with a full belly and slightly tipsy head. I walked more, this time over a bridge to an area called Christiantown, which was originally an artist have known for not paying taxes. Now it is basically a ‘green’ area in Copenhagen. I walked through, enjoying the graffiti splattered on the walls. After, I headed back to my hostel. The next day I was feeling even worse than the day before so I stayed in. That evening, I caught my next flight to Stockholm, which is was really just a stopping point to get to a place further North.
After a short layover and one night spent in Stockholm, which consisted of some hostel reservations being cancelled and me struggling to find a place at the last minute, I was relieved to be on a plane to Kiruna, a tiny town in the Swedish Laplands, which borders the arctic circle. The weather reminded me of Nebraska. Cold, windy, and much less dense than the other European cities I had visited. After catching a bus from the airport to the tiny town of Kiruna, I walked around the small town center.
There was a clock in the and a statue of wolves in the center of town, next to what looked like a shopping mall complex with an assortment of travel agencies advertising dog sledding and trips to see The Northern Lights.
After checking into my hostel, an employee working in the lobby suggested I try to watch them from the hill behind a high school in the city center. Equipped with my new information I checked into my room, napped for a bit and woke up around 8 to go see what I could find. At around 8:30 I headed toward the school, filled with hope and expectation. I perched myself atop the hill, squatted low, and stared up into the vast sky.
15 minutes passed, nothing. 30 came and went, and my fingers and toes started going numb. After 40 minutes, I thought I saw something in the sky, but it turns out my imagination got the better of me. After close to an hour, I decided to call it quits. I returned to my room a bit deflated, but told myself I would try again the next morning before the sun rises. At 4:45 I returned to the high school, going up the same small hill and sitting at the top gazing into the black night.
I’d like to say that between the next hour something magical happened and I saw the spectacular lights. But the truth is, I didn’t get to see them. Of course part of me was disappointed. After all, that was how I planned my whole trip, with this particular intention. Yet, on the other hand, I couldn’t be upset. I had so many beautiful experiences. So many memories with people and places, that I cannot be mad that one that didn’t come true. It is in situations like this, I have to remind myself how lucky I am to be able to travel at all, and have the opportunities to see the world in the first place. Yes, I got sick, I didn’t see the Northern Lights, I almost didn’t have a place to sleep for a night. Yet, take the silver lining approach and I tried to some new and some familiar food, made momentary and beautiful connections with people I will likely never see again, and walked my way across cities without any particular destination.
I thought it would be somewhat apropos to reference the last few fleeting moments of Lent term, or the second part of my year at LSE. I haven’t been as vigilant as planned in detailing my triumphs and turbulences over this last year, so I’ll have to do a very abbreviated catch up session. As it seems my life has become more and more compartmentalized into various strands, I’ll dive briefly into a few of those now.
In short, life has largely revolved around studies. I am a Masters student at The London School of Economics. I’m getting my degree in International Relations, which, when most people will ask me what that means, rather than giving some overly elaborate answer about competing methodological, ontological and epistemological frameworks that belabor and inhibit progress in IR, I’ll just say International Relations is 1) An approach to better understand the world and 2) A way to comprehend why the world and it various parts (be they states, institutions or individuals) exist as they do. That is the very, very short answer.
Now when tasked with the challenge of answering “so what will you do with that,” rather than jumping into how my lifelong ambition is to lead in the footsteps of Senator Underwood, I’d likely pause and say “well there are lots of things.” Non-specific answers are my forte in case you hadn’t noticed. 😉 Essentially a range of career possibilities are open, ranging from working in DC policy circles, to development organizations, to private sector. For now anyways, my goals remain somewhat modest and pragmatic. I want to pay off my loans in the next 5 years and find a balance between career ambitions and personal well being. Like all good Millennials, I want to make a difference in the world *cue the beauty pageant soundtrack. Part of that is through balancing my career pursuits with the intentionality I hope to bring to my relationships with others and the community I surround myself with. I also see it as happiness in the little things. Like making time for guitar, and reading fiction (not something I do now), and long bike rides that don’t lead anywhere in particular.
So that catches you up a bit on my present and potential future. I spend my typical days in the LSE library, sardined at a computer or in a desk with a swath of other students reading the day away. On a good day, a good hour, I can get a paper read in 1 1/2 hours and walk away with a clear summary, critique and possible quote to use in an essay. On a ‘less’ productive time, I could whittle that time away pining over the minutia of the essay, loosing myself in the terminology I haven’t yet grasped. Usually I’m somewhere between those two, with multiple coffee breaks sprinkled in between. The coffee and the company are really what make it for me.
Besides LSE being an incredibly international campus, I have the pleasure of engaging with peers from around the globe in a supportive and tolerant setting. It doesn’t much feel like a dog eat dog situation, which I greatly appreciate because we need to lean on each other. So Mondays and Wednesdays I have a lunch routine with the same fabulous individuals. We postulate on our futures, or the future of IR while slurping up soups or noodles. We laugh about wholly unrelated to IR subjects like weekend hangovers or birthday parties or nouveau coffee shops and bakeries around London. These moments are something I greatly appreciate. Partly because of their finality. While I can’t say I love the stresses that come with academic life, this may be the last time I get to be a student, so I’m gonna embrace it for all it is. The same goes with living in my dormitory. The more I’ve talked with flatmates, the more I realized how lucky I am to live with a group that communicates, shares cooked meals together, and just has a damn good and quite ridiculous time together.
Speaking of building relationships with people, another development has been that I’ve started seeing someone. ‘She’ is a general course student at LSE studying abroad from the US. It’s been about 6 weeks and it’s going really well. I guess I didn’t plan to even get into a relationship while here, but life happens. It hasn’t been very long but I am quite hopeful about what is to come. I think it is definitely one of the most compatible relationships I’ve ever been in. ‘She’, and I’ll overuse that pronoun to respect her anonymity, is artistic, intelligent, beautiful, funny, I could go on, but the point is we make each other laugh, I like holding her and being held and it’s going really, really well.
There’s a certain compressed element about the relationship because of where we are. Meaning, we are not in a fixed place, either of us. And often, it feels like so much of my life in London has an expiration date. But I also feel like life is something you can shape, not something that just passively occurs. So just because London will end, doesn’t mean we will. Anyways, I’ve been spending most of my free time / waking hours with her. We also had a very romantic Valentines Day weekend in the British countryside a few weeks ago. Hopefully once the chaos of the term dies down, she and I can have another holiday getaway.
Also, I spent a good portion of winter vacation traveling. To Paris, Amsterdam, Prague and Vienna and plan to spend a bit of time over this Spring break in Denmark and Sweden before heading back to the states for my brothers wedding, (I’ll save that for a future post). I traveled to Paris and A’dam with Cameron, a good friend who I worked in Korea with through Fulbright. We both came to LSE at the same time, although he is pursuing development and myself IR, we have a lot of overlap both in our academic interests and also, I think the desire to find a balance between career and community in our lives. On a total side note, Cameron, myself and another Fulbrighter also at LSE studying International Political Economy named Kyle all made Kimchi a few weeks ago. It was a testament both to how we all miss Korea and how much we miss Korean food. Part of that is the nostalgia that comes when one chapter of your life feels like it closes. While it feels like my life in Korea as a teacher is so far removed from reality, that was less than 1 year ago. What comes next is 1) more immediately a massive exam revision session lasting over 1 month, where I have a lot of preparation to do for exams and a lot of progress to be made in my thesis (also for another post).
I guess it’s the little things to focus on both to both appreciate what you’ve got in the moment and work towards something good in the future!
Three weeks have passed since I moved to London. The first was spent at my sister in laws house a little outside of London. The second, traversing the cobbled streets of Lisbon and gazing at the impressive Gaudi architecture in Barcelona. The third, acclimating to LSE, getting used to the London commute, buying the ‘new move’ essentials and getting to know my flat mates over a few pints. Next week is the start of classes. I’m feeling excited, nervous and anxious. As I settle into my life here I keep reminding myself, living in London, attending LSE, meeting people from around the world, these are all once in a lifetime opportunities that I cannot, should not, will not take for granted.
My whirlwind international adventure started two weeks ago. I left on a flight to Lisbon with an old friend, one who I’d thought the door of our friendship had sealed permanently! Kazuki and I met at Senshu in Japan. He was working on this PhD then and his friend worked in Senshu’s library. When I left Japan I wasn’t sure if we would ever see each other again because that is often what happens with the international friends. As amazing of connections as we have forged, they seem to stay locked in the country and the moment we made them. As luck would have it, Kaz is in England doing a post-doc and now I’m here for a masters. Our opportunity had not passed. We met at dawn, both of our eyes slowly opening, exchanged greetings and hopped on a flight out of Stansted.
After passing out on the uncomfortable economy seats of one of The EU’s popular ‘budget’ airlines we awoke in a new country. Life was slow, the food was delicious, and the wine was cheap. That is what I remember about Portugal and Spain. We spent our days walking the streets for hours. Finding the most famous sweet or drink and tasting it all. We stayed in places through Air b n b, cooked some meals in to save cash, and embraced our new nomadic, tourist lives. For Kaz’s life as a post-doc, it was a respite from the life of an academic. For me, it was a continued break before the storm of work from my school picks up. I can’t characterize our travels by one event. Even now it feels like a blur of events and moments. A mosaic of so many beautiful things. The pulse of that crowd at the Barcelona game as Messi scored a goal. Burning the roof of my mouth eating Churros y Chocolate at a shop on the side of the street. Laying on the beach all day in Cascais. Seeing La Sagrada Familia, climbing the towers and watching Barcelona below. Those are the flashes of a good memory.
Last week I settled in my new dorm. My flat mates are from all over the world, a small sample of the heterogenous LSE landscape. One guy and girl are from The Netherlands, one is from The US, and one from China. Everyone is relaxed and convivial and I appreciate that I’ll be sharing a space with people who can cook together, laugh together, lament our papers and tests together and feel, perhaps for the last time, in this way, like I am a student. It’s both a strange and yet familiar being a student again. On one hand, it is something I know far too well. I was a perpetually long undergraduate due to all the studying and internships abroad and essentially time i spent outside the borders of my home country. Yet, despite being in a my comfort zone of a new land, I am very much in a foreign world academically. This Masters will be more directed, more challenging, and hopefully more rewarding.
Surrounding the schools buildings is an old Sherlock Holmes shop, a pub with the name George, beautiful sprawling parks in the center of squares that everyone seems to migrate to around lunch time and traditional British buildings. More beautiful than this though is my walk home. Last Friday happened to be my b-day. A fairly uneventful day by many standards. And yet, I didn’t seem to mind the lack of cake or candles. I left campus around 8pm. The streets were filled with people, pretty standard of London. As I approached the Thames river the moon was reflecting into water. The giant ferris wheel known as The Eye, was in my gaze. Big Ben sat next to it lit up in neon hues. As I walked toward the bridge to get home, everything felt surreal. I guess that was my b-day moment. Taking in the beauty of everything around me. Making time for myself now that I’m a little older and hopefully a bit wiser to appreciate my new adventure. I wished I had a camera but decided to squeeze my eyelids shut and take a mental picture.
The festivities that didn’t occur on Friday, certainly happened Saturday. In the evening, the next day I went out for the first time drinking with two of my flat mates. Kazuki came down for my b-day to hang out. After walking around all day with Kaz, my flat mates congregated in the narrow hall of our shared floor and departed for a good local pub. Although we live south of river, we are still in what is considered central London. What that means is the buildings, the restaurants, the pubs, all have a little antique charm to them. All around my dorm are the old historic-looking pubs with names like Edwin, George and Charles filled with people on most nights of the week. We started our walking pub crawl to a place with Karaoke where I had fish n’ chips the week before. And Karaoke there was. After enduring the torturous sounds of people already completely smashed screaming into the microphone, something we were far too sober to hear, we needed a new location.
We settled on the closest pub of many to our dorm, one with a much more relaxed atmosphere. The rest of the night commenced with just four of us sitting around, talking about what I suppose people in bars talk about. Maybe a bunch of nothing. Maybe something you get very passionate about in the moment but do not remember the next day. Maybe a good laugh. Kaz left to Italy for a conference today. I stayed in and spent far too long working on my resume. And while it was productive, my class reading are somewhat more urgent and now being attended to. Tomorrow is the week again. The rest of the weekend will leave me with the bustle of the morning commute!
After a long unintended layover in Chicago, I finally made it to London. Eight hours to Heathrow compared with thirteen to Korea actually didn’t seem that bad. But when you add in the cumulative lack of sleep I had gotten in the last two days, haggard barely contained how exhausted I felt. I met my lovely future sister-in-law, drove to my new in-laws house and started to unpack my new life. My first week in The UK was filled with lessons about pub culture, meeting old friends and new family, exploring London and planning for the next country to visit.
When my plane finally touched down on the tarmac in Heathrow I was in a groggy, excited, nervous haze. Nadia, my brother’s fiance was planning to pick me up; a completely normal thing any family would do. Except we had never actually met! As I stepped off the plane my adrenaline filled nerves kicked and I made a beeline for customs. There were two lines, one that explicitly said STUDENT and one with no sign. I happened to stand in the signless line and asked an employee if students could be there. She told me it was no problem but I guess they hadn’t told anyone else in the crowded partition next to me. When I got up to the customs counter I’d expected that, for a country that makes you do a biometric scan, only provide non-smiling photos and have any necessary bank documents on hand, a barrage of personal questions was sure to come. Yet, I simply said I was here for study and the woman let me pass. Relieved, I grabbed my suitcase out of baggage claim and trudged along to meet my new sister-in-law. Thankfully Nadia’s fiery red hair was quite easy to spot as I exited baggage. We hugged, exchanged mutually drowsy greetings and chattily made our way to the car.
My first taste of English scenery outside of the airport’s industrial-sized parking garages and busy-travelers was the highway I saw as we drove through the English country to her families home. Aside from being about 7:30 in the morning and Nadia having to navigate the chaotic roundabouts and heavy-merging traffic, it was a very serene drive. Her family are very down to earth and easy to get along with. The other night, Nadia, her dad and I ended the evening with a massive jam session of Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and The Beatles. Her mum is a vice-principal of a primary school, so we sit and talk education policy. I’m enjoying getting to know all of them and looking to forward to coming back for shabbos once I’m in my dormitory. The town her family lives is absolutely charming as well. Many of the row homes look similar, yet maintain their unique charms. I loved seeing the proliferation of diagonal window designs, cobblestone walls and the brick scattered throughout the town. When I told Nadia and her mum about how stunning everything was, they looked at me like I was a bit strange; after all they were just old windows and walls. But that is the beauty of being abroad; you find novelty in what others see as ordinary.
There is an old antique church about a block from their house. Churches and Pubs are the most common social institutions scattered throughout towns in England. And I plan to experience the best of both of them. Observe the exterior beauty of the churches without having to go in, and explore the history of the pubs through having a few drinks on the inside. One of the first pubs Nadia and I went to is a mainstay of downtown Pinner. Draped on it’s walls were town proclamations from the 1300’s, along with portraits of Winston Churchill and The Queen. Fun fact: Mr. Churchill used to dictate to his secretary from the bath as well as hold meeting from there. Later in the week we found ourselves at another pub, this time Nadia, myself and one of her school friends met. The best part about this place, aside from the antique books on the shelves were the elderly women across from us knitting while enjoying their libations. That is perhaps what I didn’t realize about pubs before. It’s social first, alcohol second. Effectively, it is a coffee shop with alcohol; a place for everyone.
I visited Nadia at her work during the week, in the heart of London. I had to go in one day to take care of some paperwork at LSE anyways, so I joined her on the metro. Thankfully the tube is very easy to navigate after living in a multitude of Asian countries with complicated transportation networks. The massive escalator took us from the underground to the street level and we exited onto the crowded streets. They were filled with a mix of British Salary Men, tourists, well-dressed locals and everything in-between. We crossed the street and walked down the road through the dense metropolitan jungle. The people coalescing on the same sidewalk in organized chaos to reach their divergent tasks. Amidst the big city feel, there was a distinctly British landscape all around me. Double-decker buses zooming past us on the narrow roads. Red phone booths resting on street corners. A medley of Roman, English Gothic and influence fro Wales, Scotland and Ireland. I half expected to see the knight bus from Harry Potter.
Later in the week, I met her in the city again and instead of seeing the street images of London, we saw a view from the top. We met in the late afternoon when she was finishing up work. We decided to visit Selfridges, a large department store in a very popular district of London. We strolled along the streets, stopping frequently to take photos along the way. Eventually we got to the Oxford Circus area, which is packed with a host of boutique and high end designer stores. As the sun was setting we went into one of Nadia’s favorite department stores, bought some cakes, and took the elevator to the bar/restaurant at the top that overlooked London.
I saw a bit of London with my new sister and reunited with an old friend to discover the rest. My friend Kazuki is a friend from my days at Senshu University in Japan and happens to be a post-doctoral researcher living in The UK. We didn’t keep in contact much since Japan, but I sent him a message letting him know I’d be in The UK and we should meet up. Then, out of the blue, he called me up one day and asked me if I had any plans at the end of September. He had a vacation he wanted to take but didn’t want to travel alone. So the day we met in London, we made our plans for our next travel destination; Spain and Portugal.
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language
And next year’s words await another voice.
And to make an end is to make a beginning.”
T.S. Elliot ~
It often feels like the moment you start to ‘figure things out’ about a place, you have to leave. After two years in Korea, it had become my home. Despite being a foreigner, and often feeling as if I was looking from the outside in, the fact that I could understand much more about what made Korea tick than at any point prior was a comfort. By the end, some of what was unknown had become discernible. Living abroad with all the challenges that come with it seemed like less of a mystery, and more of a formula slowly revealing itself. Mailing a box, going to the bank, calling the doctors, speaking in a more formal tone, speaking in a casual tone. At first incapable acts, became somewhat possible. A messy, imperfect possibility, but real nonetheless.
As my language skills improved, the opportunity to live life like a ‘normal’ person became more a possibility. But I believe that language was, and is not just for speaking. The same sounds that first registered as an inordinate jumble of noise became opportunities for connections with real people. The jibber jabber turned into identifiable inflections and with it, the possibility for relationships. My Korean wasn’t perfect, but I knew it was one gateway into understanding the culture. But living in a foreign country is permeated with uncertainty and misunderstanding. At precisely the I thought understood the culture, it became a mystery again.
I remember taking Korean language classes for months culminating in one day. I walked into one of Korea’s many coffee shops and actually held a semi-believable conversation with the barista. It was a fantastic moment. I felt on top of the world. A few hours later I was brought back to reality when I jumped in a taxi and found myself completely perplexed with a few inquisitive sentences from the driver. With language and culture, even in the moments you think you understand, all you realize is how much more there is to know. Navigating the language, building relationships through the lens of distinct cultures, it all comes with it’s own enigmas. After awhile, the best advice I learned was that there is no formula to understand. Languages and cultures are living, breathing and constantly changing. That doesn’t mean don’t stop trying to understand, but embrace the idea that no matter how hard we try we there will always be uncertainty.
It has been almost two months since I left South Korea. The place I called home for the last two years. When I think about what defines my trip, what summarizes my journey, I am not left with any one moment but a collection of memories. The kinship I felt when my home stay mom stuffed fresh kimchi into my mouth for the first time. The comfortable routine I developed riding my blue cruiser with a rusty basket to school every day. Knowing I had made an impact on my students and they had changed me. Korea is a collection of memories, both the mundane moments and the crossroads, which coalesced to bring me where I am today.
I leave for London in less than 24 hours. The next road on my journey. Living in a new country, navigating a new culture, learning English all over again. I spent a lot of time weighing the decision to go to graduate school. Debt is a burden no one wants. I spent a long time thinking if this was the best decision for me. It is scary knowing if you are making the best choice, but do we ever really know? No matter how many times I weigh the decision, it’s not going to change that I made this choice. All I can do now is go forward and make the best of the time I have. Even something that doesn’t turn out as we planned is an opportunity to grow.
I am looking forward to what I’ll be studying, to living in the heart of London, to meeting people from around the world, to discovering new passions, improving myself personally and professionally, and to moving a little further in my life in the process.