It’s been nearly five months since I arrived home from London, and I still vividly remember my last morning. I left my flat around 6:15am, the wheels of my two gigantic suitcases rolling loudly on the pavement as I walked a few blocks to Paddington Station to catch the Heathrow Express train. The morning was cool but bright since it was the end of May. I was alone. At any given time I’d have to look twice before stepping off my doorstep in order to not cause an accidental collision. Rarely were the streets quiet – I remember struggling at first to adjust to the constant buzz of traffic, occasional sirens, horns, and general commotion. But that morning was perfectly quiet. Starbucks, Costa and Pret-A-Manger, usually revolving doors of people, were dark, and metal shutters covered the various luggage, memorabilia, and money exchange stores as I made my way down the street.
Let me take you back to where this all started. I’m from a leafy green suburb in Cleveland, Ohio that hardly stands in comparison to London for a multitude of reasons. For a small Mid-Western city, Cleveland has always had an impressive art and cultural scene and most recently millennials have expressed a renewed interest in downtown.
But for much of my life, my experiences in an urban environment were fairly limited to the occasional sports game, meal, or museum visit. I rode public transportation sporadically at best. Shaker Heights attracts many families with its strong schools, small parks, and homes with character; but I found that much of my life spanned a fairly small radius in a relatively homogeneous area. I lived just two blocks from my high school. When I moved on to college, I decided on Colby College in central Maine. While I loved the idea of a small liberal arts school in a rural part of the country that I had never experienced, I later craved an opportunity to practice independence, a new challenge, and a little more excitement. That was when I decided to embrace the thrill of studying and living in one of the largest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world, London.
IFSA then presented me the opportunity to spend a semester living in a neighborhood I had not only never heard of, but one in which two distinct cultures intersect. Edgware Road is a bustling stretch of real estate that has a distinctive Middle Eastern character, palpable energy, and a bit of grit – like the stench of last night’s shawarma on the pavement or hookah smoke from the cafés. Honestly, at first my surroundings felt over-stimulating and a bit disorienting; I would walk past signs that were in Arabic first and then English and overhear conversations in foreign languages. I soon learned to embrace the moments when I felt like an outsider, such as when I’d wear shorts jogging down to Hyde Park amid many floor length skirts and covered arms. As the months wore on, I gradually felt like just another Londoner confidently maneuvering the streets.
A typical night out with my friends might start out at the pub called The Green Chapel for a few beers and then end with Shawarma from the famous Café Helen a few blocks down. Edgware Road really comes alive at night; the streets become filled from outdoor café seating well into the early morning hours. I found that both cultures value socializing immensely. My friends and I adopted a weekly pub night as our own ritual. On Tuesday nights, we would make the short walk over to The Victoria, a pub in Notting Hill. Perhaps as ode to its name, the walls are covered in dark wallpaper and paneling. The first night there we all felt a little out of place because we were both the youngest group and the only Americans. But before we knew it, the Pub’s manager was joking with us and invited us to return for the next week’s quiz. I think Americans have this stereotype of British people as being a bit stiff and cold, but I found there is a casualness and openness to the British culture which I didn’t expect and genuinely admire.
London’s diversity pushed me outside my comfort zone in the best way possible. I adopted a kind of confidence and security by first learning my neighborhood and then moving beyond to other pockets of the city. I got to thrive within my own culture, British culture, and Middle Eastern culture all at the same time. From this one experience, I learned more then I could have ever imagined and saw a depth to London that I feel some never get to see. It truly felt like I was in a unique artery in the heart of London.
Katherine Smythe is a student at Colby College and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at University College London in London, England.