A Year Since England
It's finally June!
Which means it's been exactly one year since I hopped on a plane with three carefully weighed suitcases and a backpack; wide-eyed and nervous about moving to England for the rest of the summer.
If I think about it hard enough, I can remember sitting at the terminal at O'Hare, I can remember exactly how the twists in my stomach felt, the anxiety bubbling when I just couldn't swallow it down. I remember the death grip I kept on my unmarked passport -- save for the full-page "exchange migrant" visa stuck onto page three. I remember the guy who spilled his coffee a foot away from me, remember the relief after checking my stuff over to make sure it didn't spill on my bags before an eight hour flight.
Armed with CHVRCHES' newly dropped album, Love is Dead, the overnight flight was kind of surreal, at least retrospectively. Eventually, I made it to England, stuttered through my minute-long immigration interview, and hopped into the car with a guy who had my name on a sign. I remember getting dropped at my flat, I remember being the only person there, I remember the shock of being alone in another country far from home finally hitting me right then and there. I remember calling my mom over WiFi in tears, probably no later than 8am Chicago time, suddenly convinced I'd made a grave mistake.
Man, was I wrong.
I cried my eyes out, ate a snack leftover from my flight, and promptly took a nap. In fact, I nearly missed my orientation party because I hadn't set an alarm, but I ran out and caught up just as they were rounding the corner.
But only a couple hours after my rough start, I was comfortably seated right along the Thames, sipping a Guinness and watching the sunset glitter over the river for the very first time. We had three tables pushed together and I quickly found my crowd, bonding over beers and pub fries courtesy of our program.
Rotherhithe is a weird little neighborhood with lots of twists and turns. None of us had our SIM cards set up yet, save for one kid who still had a day left on his international plan with maybe half a bar of service. We barely knew where we were going or how we'd get home, but finally I felt the most safe, the most okay, since I'd arrived. We found one of London's Street Feast locations; we managed to get a couple more free drinks and I managed to snag a free chicken burger (I never get to call it that anymore, let me have it for this blog post, okay?). We took a lot of pictures, we wrote down our Facebook names in an iPhone note, and we promised to make a groupchat once we got home.
After that the days kind of blur together. We had professional sessions, our first time at Primark, our massive group Tesco Extra trip. I practiced my commute to my office, just on the border of City of London. There's a Costa in the next building over so I sat there and had a flat white and a (what I would soon deem an inferior) croissant. I remember being so upset about the lack of aircon (again, let me call it that here while I'm my memories!) everywhere, I remember wowing all my flatmates and new friends with my Amazon Now orders, just like I do back home in Chicago. Game changer, grocery delivery service.
I learned a lot, cried a lot, laughed a lot. I had long days at the office, longer nights once I'd come home. I went to so many concerts, festivals, and met the coolest people along the way. I had some deep heart to hearts, went through some key moments in my life. I made London my home, carved a place for myself there.
But it's been a year since then, months since I've been back Stateside and returned to my normal life. It's been a year since I set out on the greatest adventure of my life, a year since I left behind an old me the second I stepped on the airplane.
I'm a year out, so what did my experience in England mean? Was it just a glorified vacation? Did I bring anything back into my life at home, or did I just return to the mundane? Do I even keep in touch with anyone I met over there?
Easiest question first: I keep in touch with so many of the people I met abroad, and I can't imagine my life without them! Some long returned to Australia, some back in their college town across the US, some still in London, where they've always lived and always been. Friendships are still friendships, and there are more than a couple that I can't wait to see again, to cry and laugh with again, to see the concerts on our bucketlists with again. We support each other, even miles and miles away. There's something about that shared experience that can tie you together, and sometimes those are the few people who will understand exactly what you're going through.
And for the rest? The one thing I can say with 100% certainty is that I came back a changed person. It's not as dramatic as it sounds, but it is important. I came back confident, I came back independent, I came back comfortable with myself and feeling so much more in control.
Little did I know that my experience abroad would prepare me for one of the hardest periods of my life. It's crazy how sometimes everything bad can happen at once. I had a lot of family stuff to deal with, I was stabbed in the back by my then-best friend. I had to go through the grievance of losing one of the most important relationships in my life, I had to deal with the whiplash of someone going from "future maid of honor" to "actively trying to torture me in any way she can manage". And honestly? I don't think I would've survived it without the strength that I learned in my time abroad. I don't know if I would've been able to stand up for myself, I don't know if I would've believed in myself and my decisions enough, I don't know if I would've been able to see my self worth and know I wasn't being treated fairly. There was no way for me to know my life would get sent into such turmoil, no way for me to know that I was actually preparing for something; but life's kind of funny like that, and fate gave me the tools to keep on and carry on.
The girl I was exactly one year ago today isn't here anymore. She put up with stuff she shouldn't have, she didn't believe in herself, she let other people rule her and take advantage of her. She didn't know what she was worth, didn't know what she was capable of.
And I'm not saying that my time in England built that up automatically. Again, there were a whole lot of tears, a whole lot of phonecalls home and facetime session with my childhood friends. Some things were already set in stone -- my strong support system among friends I've known for years, among my sorority, among my family. But the lessons I learned -- the ones learned the hard way when I had the opportunity to stumble through life in the UK -- those set a foundation for me to stand on and hold my ground when I needed to. It gave me my footing. It gave me hope.
I can never fully put into words how much my abroad experience meant to me and I can never explain why it was important for me to have this experience. I am forever thankful for my parents to living out the American Dream and being able to provide me mine, to provide me this experience and make me a stronger woman. I am forever grateful to have had this opportunity and to have it shape me as a person, to have it forever a part of my life.
I will always be indebted to London, UK, to 12 Patina Walk, to Holborn Gate. I will always be indebted to the nameless pub around the corner, to Nando's, to the 318 Bus Stop at London Bridge Station. I will always be indebted to all the places and people and things that were so important to that part of my life, and to what all of them together mean as a whole.
One year since England and I can say with as much confidence as ever that it was the most important period of my life. Even still. So thank you to England for giving me what I didn't know I needed. Thank you to England for giving me, well, me.
1 June 2019.