The First Week

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.  DSCN5948Churches 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.  DSCN5807Later 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.

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The picturesque red phone booths. This particular one was locked, so I didn’t go in.

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.

My friend Kazuki, being a goofball. :)
My friend Kazuki, being a goofball at the Covent Gardens.

The Decision to Go

“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.