Five years ago today, I arrived in London on a one-year student visa but with no intention of ever leaving.
I first visited England in 2003. As an undergrad at Wilkes University, I worked in the English department. I made copies and sorted mail. One day the department received a poster for a study abroad program at Cambridge, for just six weeks in the summer. I’d only just heard about Cambridge from Dr. Weliver, who studied there.
It was still a revelation to me that there were other people like me; that is, people who liked to spend lots of time reading, and to spend their time with other people talking mostly about what they have read. But according to Dr. Weliver, Cambridge was a place where writers and literateurs had been going for centuries. It sounded magical.
I didn’t have any money and neither did my family. But with the encouragement of many of my professors, I applied. I got in. I got a grant. I got on a plane. I landed at Heathrow, found a bus, and then a cab, and then walked the last two hundred yards to the entrance of Gonville & Caius College and pretty much never looked back.
It was the greatest summer of my life. I traveled all over England, studied British poetry, wrote my own travel essays, and ran up a credit card bill that was almost entirely alcohol. I swore I would return the following year at any cost.
But of course life happened. Other responsibilities got in the way. I got a job and another one, a live-in boyfriend and a dog and a mortgage. It wasn’t until I was trying to persuade my sister Maria to do something scary and wonderful, using my summer in Cambridge as an example, that I realized it had been ten years since I made that promise to myself.
I went to London in 2014 to study for an MA in Creative Writing. I continued my job remotely while I studied. I wrote a book and made wonderful friends and gained confidence in my writing. I had promised my job I would return in one year, and I did. I moved back to Washington, D.C., got an apartment, went to work everyday, saw my family and friends all the time. But I just couldn’t fit myself back into life there. I wasn’t writing as much as I wanted to, and something always, always felt off. I was there doing what I was supposed to do, what I had promised, but I was in love with London.
That year I was in the habit of listening to Elizabeth Gilbert’s podcast Magic Lessons while running. On August 5, 2016, she published Episode 202 with Brandon Stanton. He created the Humans of New York photo series. Liz’s podcast was all about helping people who wanted to do something creative find the confidence and power to do so, and she always brought on a successful artist to encourage them. Stanton’s advice was to commit to “yourself that you are going to structure your life around doing what you want to do and what you love to do, that’s the bedrock of it…you’re going to innovate as much as you need to innovate, and you’re going to work as much as you need to work, to figure out a way that you can structure your life around doing what you want to do.”
I was running up toward the Washington Monument when he said that, and I stopped and replayed it. And I decided to follow his advice. I wanted to live in London and write books. Six weeks later I had given up my lease, quit my job, and sold everything but my books and clothes. I had made the commitment, but I was absolutely terrified. This time I wasn’t planning to come back in one year. I had something of a fallback plan: My stepmom told me that if it all went to hell I could come back and live in the basement, but my father said, “No. No one comes back.” (He has six children and can’t afford to set a bad precedent.) I sobbed in the days before I was due to leave, and at the airport, and on the plane.
I landed in London on September 16, 2016, and I’ve spent every moment I could soaking up words. I take writing classes and workshops; I regularly wander Daunt Books and Foyles and work in the British Library and Senate House Library; I have had a million flat whites and eaten a million croissants while reading and writing my way through the city. The thing about England, and London in particular, is that I feel a part of it. I fit in here more than I ever have anywhere else, and I think it’s because I have been able to find people who are interested in the same extremely nerdy things as I am.
As Brandon said, I have had to innovate and work to make this possible. It took me a year to figure out what I wanted to study and to get onto a PhD program. Three years to finish two novels. Four years to publish a short story. And all the while I have been working on other things that actually pay. It’s only been in the past three months that I have 100% committed to writing and academia as a career, but my entire journey has been building to this. I would add to Brandon’s advice: you have to start someplace.
I still miss my family every day, and sometimes I wonder why I’m living in a foreign country. What is it really about London? I still say eggplant instead of aubergine, and cilantro instead of coriander. I say aluminum with too few syllables and each time I approach a car I go for the wrong side. But I’ve also learned (roughly) what Celsius actually means and to ride my bike comfortably on the left side of the road. I’ve learned all the best swear words and discovered the joy of wandering through the countryside. I’ve been to twelve new countries and all over the U.K. But most importantly, I’m writing.