Monday, May 23, 2016

London: "Oh the memories!" edition

Last year when Sam got invited to teach art workshops in London and Berlin, he asked me if I wanted to go with him and I immediately said "Are you kidding? YES!" I spent a semester abroad in the BYU London Centre seventeen years ago, and I've always dreamed of going back. I dreamed of going back before I even left! "Someday I will come here with my husband," I would say to myself, every time I wandered into some part of the city I particularly loved. (Of course I also said to myself, "Someday I will come back and study at Oxford," and we know how that turned out.) Still…London! I couldn't believe we were going to be so lucky.

So I was totally excited, and I couldn't stop thinking about it, but I then spent the next ten months worrying. Who would watch all the kids? What if baby Theodore still needed me? What if something went wrong? But thanks to our hugely awesome mothers, the solutions gradually presented themselves. Sam's parents agreed to take the girls, and my mom said she'd have the boys. By the time Teddy turned one in February, I allowed myself to believe maybe this really was going to work out after all. Living in London before had felt like such an important time for me. It was the first time I really lived on my own, and had roommates. (Girls! They're so weird! I only have brothers and living with forty girls was SO strange.) I made some awesome friends. And I felt so grown-up and independent. I loved going places by myself—concerts, recitals, museums. Walking home past lighted windows at night. Even just riding the tube and letting the city and the people wash over me. "Remember this," I must have told myself a million times. "Don't forget how it feels." 

But I did. Not all of it, of course, but looking back at that time from NOW, I thought I might be a whole different person. And I started feeling nervous that maybe I wouldn't be brave and independent anymore, maybe I wouldn't know my way around. All those fancy, cosmopolitan people would look at me and know immediately I was just a mom from a small town who didn't even quite know who she was without a gaggle of children around her.
Well, that was silly, of course. I knew it was. But I also knew Sam would be busy doing work things for part of the time, and I might be on my own a lot. I was excited and also scared about that. I wrote to my friends and my brothers and tried to get ideas about what I should do with myself and how I should spend my (limited, so limited) time! I made spreadsheets and entered addresses into my phone and scrolled around on Google maps and I felt a little better.
I thought these tall snowy mountains (Iceland, maybe?) out our plane window were so cool. I kept having the song "From Greenland's Icy Mountains" run through my head, which is bad because I don't know that song. Only that first line. I don't even know what it is. A hymn or something.
The flight over was so strange, just as I remember it being strange when I went before: you fly through the night and the sunrise and suddenly the new day is there before you even know where you are. You're so tired and so confused and you can't let yourself sleep—I remembered that, at least—DON'T SLEEP till it's night again! That first day I was there in college, I remember one professor giving us directions about crossing the street: "Usually you look left, look right, look left again. But now you have to look right, look left, look right again"—and I was so tired, my head literally ached trying to follow what he was saying. 

Anyway, finally we were there smelling the cigarette smoke and hearing the city noises and feeling that heavy air. We took a taxi to our hotel and then went out walking, determined to stay awake. We were right by Kensington Gardens, just across the park from where I'd lived before, and as we walked I felt my brain slowly waking up, remembering.
We went past St. Mary Abbots, and stopped at a Lebanese bakery and got some sort of cheese pie, and then we crossed the street and there was Kensington Palace and the daffodils and the clouds, and I was home.

I don't know why. It's not like I was a REAL resident there for that long, and I'm sure anyone who actually lived in London would think I was still a tourist, and I'd forgotten so much. But there was just…something there. Like a reconnection or a settling-in as my two selves merged, and I felt suddenly whole, like, "That's right. It WAS me, all those years ago. I had thoughts then and I still have thoughts now, and even though my life is so very different I'm still ME, and this is a place where I found so many parts of ME. And here we all are, together at last." Ha! It probably sounds funny, but it made me want to cry and laugh all at once.
That's me running by the Albert Memorial when I was in college. And looking down the same path now.
Sam and I went through Kensington Palace (interesting exhibits with old clothing, toys, etc.—I never went there when I was a student) and then walked through the park and toward Palace Court, my old street. I was afraid I wouldn't be able to find the way, but there it all was: the sidewalk where artists used to sit and sell their pictures, the grass where Beth and I lay studying and being accosted by drug dealers (okay, that only happened once), the bricks and the rows of school kids in uniform, and then that familiar row of houses and wrought-iron:
London Centre, then and now
Front porch of the Centre. My running friend Ally is a famous author now.
We walked down the street to 27 Palace Court and rang the bell, and the housekeeper let us in to look around a bit, though of course not up to my old room on the sixth floor (one hundred steps up, or was it 120?). It had been remodeled and felt different but familiar, and then some of the current professors came in and asked us if we were the parents of one of their students—which was a strange feeling. The kitchen had had a little cooking area added, and the old dumbwaiter was gone. The mantle where our letters used to sit looked the same, though, and the sort of stuffy, unused feel of the formal living room remained.

After a while it felt like we (I) ought not to just keep standing around saying, "Oh wow! I remember this!", and we had a schedule to keep, so we walked back to our hotel and some of the dreaminess faded and I felt like a regular person again instead of a ghost. But the next morning I woke up early and laced up my running shoes and went out into the morning rain alone, and again the time warp hit me.
This time it was the feel of that indistinct rain on my face, rain that seems to materialize like magic from the air without falling perceptibly past you first (and the Rush lyrics in my head, same as they always were: "Are they oblivious to a soft Spring rain, like an English rain, so light yet endless from a leaden sky?"), and the smell of the wet grass, and the shiny empty paths cutting like veins through the park, and my own feet running. I felt suspended, hazy. I felt sure that each breath would wake me from a dream.
Everything was there, unchanged. The heavy wet grasses and the winding grey river and the whitening, lowering sky. The bluebells and the swans and the statues and the lady walking four dogs.
But this time I had a phone (and thus, a camera!) with me. How strange to remember the time when photographs had to be hoarded jealously, eked out and deliberated over. So many things I never captured on film, but they were there in my head, waiting.
The neat rows of buildings behind the hedges and flowers.
Blossoms. Steeples. Gates.
I was so convinced by the familiarity of it all that I became overconfident and got lost running back to the hotel (thank goodness for GPS—another thing that was as yet undreamed-of last time I was there. It would have brought me SO much peace of mind and saved me so. many. retracings of steps finding my way home while running back then!), and it reminded me that I didn't actually belong in London: I had another life and another home. But every morning when I went out again into the grey dawn, the illusion returned and I was nineteen again; alone, brave, expectant, wondering what life would hold.

5 comments:

  1. Oh I'm so glad you got to do this. It made me feel my own little homesicknesses and yes, I get that, feeling complete when this old part of you could finally be together with now you. Also I think you have inspired me to find more bold color to wear. I want to not always dress . . . muted. And Allie Condie (Condy?)? I'll be! I've read the Matched series, and Daisy has probably read others of hers besides.

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    1. I think I stuck out like a sore thumb there, as everyone knows that sophisticated people in big cities only wear black and grey. But I do love bright colors. :)

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  2. Well, this is just wonderful.

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  3. I can't describe how happy and how reflective this post makes me! Thank you thank you for taking me back in spirit! You are such a beautiful writer—I teared up a few times. I think I would have felt just the same—our teeny tiny London Experience is really nothing, but it's such a huge piece of who I became. It was such a pivotal point in my life. What if you hadn't gone? 😱 I am so grateful for that experience and your friendship, which might have been the best part of the whole trip for me—because it has lasted the longest. My dear Armaund, i will always remember our fun trip to the North Country. (in the middle of the night? How bizarre!)

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    1. Yes. Me too! I'm so glad our friendship has lasted! I thought about you and Beth seriously ALL THE TIME while I was there. I could almost feel you there with me. :) Someday!

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