the first time i went to london, it was 2006. i was 20 years old, a junior in college, there for four months thanks to a study abroad program in english literature at kings college. i’d never lived in a city before, and everything excited (and terrified) me.
kings was in central london, right in the heart of it, but i’d stupidly (or perhaps rightly) picked a dorm 20 minutes by tube from the hustle and bustle. situated atop a grassy knoll of sorts, the hampstead dorm had looked quaint and entirely british. i was sold from the moment i saw photos.
2006 was nearly pre-social media. instagram had yet to exist, and facebook had barely activated the photos feature, so i captured my stories in pages upon pages of emails (many of which my parents kindly printed out and saved for posterity). i had no internet in my dorm room, so when i wanted to check or send email, i walked next door to the student center, a brightly lit, harry potter-esque building with chesterfield couches and large wooden tables. i’d find a spot at a table or, if all the tables were taken, on the floor against the wall, and cue up my skidmore.edu email client.
from there, i’d sit for hours, tapping away on my keyboard, capturing my life abroad in a blue and white message box. i wrote about how crowded the tube was, how the trains were simply too small for the number of people who had to ride on them, and how, thanks to a lack of air conditioning, i’d ended up with my head up against someone’s stinky armpit more than once. i wrote about my classes in literature, how i’d walked by the home of dickens on a seemingly average street, how i’d discovered a new drink called a snakebite (1/2 cider + 1/2 beer + a shot of blackberry liqueur).
i wrote about my dorm room, which was large and sun-drenched and came stocked not just with a large armoire, but with a small sink, at which i could wash my face and brush my teeth in the privacy of my own space (showers were shared). i wrote about the view from my window, how i could see the red shingled rooftops of the rich and the possibly famous at morning, noon and night.
my time in london was, in so many ways, my first true adult experience. sure, college had meant leaving home, but it was london that truly took me away from what i knew. at skidmore, i lived in a small, liberal arts bubble, surrounded by people much like myself, in a town much like the one i grew up in. london was the opposite of saratoga springs: it was loud. it was dirty. it was beautiful. it was filled with people speaking english in accents so thick i could barely understand them–and also with people speaking languages i’d never even heard before.
it sizzled with energy, it vibrated with life. the streets of london were old, older than anything i’d encountered anywhere i’d ever been in the states. the students who shared my classes barely paid attention in class, but somehow managed to ace their exams come reading week. every afternoon, they’d head to the university bar (yes, the bar run by the college. this blew my mind.) for a couple of beers before heading back home for the evening. the british were polite and austere, but come evening, they tumbled out of lively pubs, smelling slightly of fish and chips, their cheeks pinked by alcohol.
in london, my friends and i strolled along the thames with an open bottle of grocery store white wine. “drunk birds,” an old man shouted at us as we passed, “the birds are drunk!” (birds means women, over there). we ate cheap indian food along brick lane, consumed bowl upon bowl of edamame at wagamama. on saturdays, we took the tube to notting hill and perused the rows of antiques along portobello road. once, i purchased 2 faux fur coats for 10 pounds (a steal!). i still have them; they sit in my coat closet, untouched. i can’t bear to get rid of them.
on weekends, we’d drink too much and steal away in the night to the gardening club in covent garden, or walkabout, an australian club where i once let a british soldier stick his hand down my pants in the women’s bathroom until the security guard rapped on the door and ordered us out. i often took absurdly expensive black cabs back home to hampstead at 2am, or rode the double decker bus up finchley road all on my own.
london sarah was something college sarah hadn’t yet figured out how to be: free. free to skip class every so often, because everyone else was doing it, and go exploring. free to stay out too late and drink too much and still get up the next day and do it again. free to be alone–truly alone–in a way she’d never been before. free to board a plane at 3am to a destination unknown. free to hop into the car of two unknown men along with two friends in the bermuda triangle of vienna and hope she made it back to her hostel safely. free to walk las ramblas in barcelona at 11pm. free to sing karaoke in dublin along with a crazy old man. free to get her first ever fully body massage in prague following a particularly grueling day of exploration.
in oh so many ways, my time in london is what led me to new york. london taught me how to live abroad, sure, but more than that, it taught me how to live, period–both alone and with the humans around me. it taught me that it was okay to be scared, and even more okay to do it anyway. it taught me that i didn’t need to go to the supermarket with friends; i could go alone. it taught me that i didn’t always need to speak the language, i could go anyway. it taught me that seeing the world–the world outside my own, the one that is so very big where i am small–was a magical, beautiful, heart-wrenching thing, and that i was lucky to be able to do so.
that’s not to say i didn’t get homesick. that i didn’t miss the comforts of america, and my own bed, and my family and my friends. that’s not to say i didn’t wish things were easier, that i didn’t sometimes cry alone in my dorm room, wishing i’d never gone so far from home.
but god, was it worth it.
and so was going back, 12 years later. in so many ways, i am vastly different from the sarah who saw london for the first time. for one thing, i’m a grown woman, not a college kid trying to figure herself out. i’ve lived in new york for ten years, and have traveled extensively since leaving college a decade ago. but i’m still me, and good lord, did the same old me feel ALL THE THINGS walking the streets i walked all those years ago, this time with a smartphone that did oh so much more than send texts tapped out on a tiny keyboard.
i arrived in london on tuesday morning, may 22nd, and had approximately 3 days there before i took off for italy. i did my very best to make the most of it, spending time with family (my mom’s cousin lives in hampstead, and kindly offered to let me stay there during my visit), strolling as many streets as i possibly could, eating all of the good indian food (this was my fave), splurging on tea at sketch, going to platform 9 3/4 (obviously, had to), catching up with my old coworker, and more.
so, let’s have a look, shall we? there are a lot of photos here, so be warned. think of it as my visual diary.
at the tail end of my trip, following a long weekend in italy and nearly a week in nice, i boarded a plane back to london, and spent one last afternoon/evening in the city before flying back home to new york. the following photos are the ones i snapped during my last evening abroad, back at artist residence (but in a different room!) and exploring the pimlico neighborhood once more.
i’m oh so thankful to have the means to travel–to go back to cities i loved in my twenties and see them through the lens of my thirties. london, you were a dream, and as always, i just can’t quit you.