London has a smell. I’ve heard people say that places have certain smells, and I’ve heard that smells are a catalyst of remembering. But, you wouldn’t know that London had a smell until you left it, and then came back.
Upon arrival in London for my six months abroad, I was in no way thinking about the smells I was experiencing. I was worried about making friends, not falling asleep on my suitcase waiting for the IFSA Butler coach to pick us up and bring us to the St. Giles Hotel, listening in for the British accents around me, and did I mention making friends? It was mostly simple things like this that I experienced within my first few moments in London, followed by six months of new, enlightening experiences, self-growth, and more smiling than I have ever done in my lifetime.
Leaving London was the hardest thing I have ever had to do—although I’m not complaining if that’s the most difficulty I’ve had. Having gone back and forth from home in Brooklyn, New York to college in the middle of nowhere, New York, I hadn’t spent more than two months in one place in almost three years. My sense of self and where I belonged had been warped; oscillating from home to college meant that I hovered in a vague embodiment of who I was, not being able to firmly stand for my own identity. London changed that. I was able to put my unremovable roots of Brooklyn on hold and suspend the temporary but practical commitment to Hamilton College and find home in a place that was neither home nor school. I became confident, striding down the pavement in Central London, no longer needing the help from my navigation app on my smartphone and listening to music. I was one of the millions of people in the city and I was not an outsider. When speaking about my time abroad, I always tell people that I “conquered” London—not because I beat it, but because I learned it. I learned its nooks and crannies, its quirks, its humor, and the social and political environment that drives its peoples’ passion. I had never been able to move somewhere and start from scratch. In this sense, London is my home. It is not the home of my family, my friends, or my primary education. It is mine, and I had to leave it.
I couldn’t stay away for long. The summer after my semester abroad, I saved up all my money to fly back for winter break and see my city. This time, getting off the plane was emotional for different reasons. I had to compress six months into just two weeks, and I wasn’t sure what approach I should take: experience all the sights, sounds, and tastes of all the places I loved again, or work hard to learn London under an even smaller lens. I took the Gatwick Express into the city and watched the landscape pass as it rumbled beneath my feet. The tiny brick houses with white trim, placed in lines and designed to look uniform flew by me, but still I wasn’t in my city. It was only when I got to Victoria Station and stepped out of the train did it hit me. The smell I didn’t realize was so burned into my nostrils and my brain and my memory. The damp, city smell that moves slowly as the crowd hurries by was the most welcoming embrace the city could give me. I only smell it for less than a minute before I become accustomed to it. But, in those few seconds, I know I’m home.
Finding things to do was surprisingly hard, only validating that I did my semester abroad right because I did so much. Most of my destinations involved food I love and can’t get in America, as well as some old favorite locations. I went to Borough Market many times during my semester, but only had one chance in my two weeks to go back and taste the food that makes it unique. There’s a stand that’s towards the edge of the market that is my ultimate craving: a grilled cheese stand. Yes, that’s right, when I fly across an ocean and go to my favorite market, I’m going for a grilled cheese. It may seem ludicrous, but this is the best grilled cheese I have ever had, and probably will ever have. It’s the perfect bread, the perfect amount of butter to brown it, the perfect crunch when you bite into it, and the perfect blend of two kinds of molten cheeses and some sautéed onions to cut the richness. Chomping into it is an ethereal experience, and it embodies everything that I love about Borough Market; it does simple foods, like ice cream, sausages, pastries, cheeses, and curries, extremely well.
I also had to go back to Primrose Hill and Regent’s Park. In my mind the only route to Primrose Hill that is worth considering is walking from the canal in Camden Town. Camden Town is possibly the busiest place in London, apart from Portobello Road Market in Notting Hill on a sunny Saturday. Camden is unique. Its streets are filled with tourists, locals, guys with colored mohawks, and giant building decorations that extend above street level in the shapes of planes, Converse sneakers, and even body piercings. Camden Market is nestled somewhere in the chaos, surrounded by a cloud of incense and booths crammed with trinkets. There’s a stairway that can sometimes be overlooked by the throngs of people, and once you go down it everything is suddenly silent compared to the noise above. You are just feet from the canal as you walk beneath grand stone bridges. This is my favorite place in London. A lot of the city is about juxtaposition; buildings that are hundreds of years old are directly next to shiny buildings with chrome and glass reflecting the sunlight. The canal is a quiet secret below the modern noise. A sign vaguely directs towards Primrose Hill, and I begin to climb the steady slope into the park. I remember telling my mom when she visited not to look at the scenery to her right until we reached the top. Of course she did, ruining the surprise, but still the beauty of London spread below radiated across her face, curling the corners of her mouth into a smile, despite not even being at the top.
I was shown Primrose Hill and Regent’s Canal by a local, and since then I have sat atop it for hours looking at the jagged skyline of the Gherkin, the Shard, the London Eye, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. It was atop Primrose Hill that a friend first asked me just a few months into my semester, “Do you want to move here?” The pause was calculated, but the answer was yes. London is bathed in history and the people love it so openly in a manner that ascends over New Yorkers’ arrogance over the city’s cold, hard Manhattan. Everyone has a quiet camaraderie that makes them approachable. Sure, the city is one of the most expensive in the world, but with the welcoming pub culture everyone is equal when the sun comes out (on a rare occasion) and warms the metropolis enough for a pint outside.
The two weeks I spent in London over winter break were emotionally draining. During the day I was the happiest I had been since before I left, but at night I was plagued by fitful sleep and anxiety. How could I do this to myself again? The loss of control over when I leave is like falling down a slope with nothing to grab onto. I only had so much time to balance my old favorites with new endeavors. Facing decisions like discovering Cambridge for a day trip over going back to my favorite restaurants or the Tower of London for the third time was always putting me in a state of cognitive dissonance. Two weeks wasn’t a lot of time, but it kept my dream alive.
I belong in London. My friends see it, my family sees it, and never in my life have I been faced with such a lofty dream that presents countless challenges. Studying abroad in London gave me a lot; it helps me in the smallest ways still even a year later. Just last semester I had a job interview with a man in Boston who just happened to be British. But, I also gave myself to studying abroad. I took it by storm, I did it without any regrets, and in doing so I formed my identity and my direction in life. I learned that it’s okay to find a home that may not supposed to be your home, regardless of the hurdles in order to live there. Studying abroad allowed me to dream. Returning to London allowed me to take a rare, second look at my personal journey; for without returning, I wouldn’t have noticed the little things like the smell that welcomes me home.