My essay was published in Carolina Passport. Here it is, if you’d like to read it.
London, Abridged, by Claire McNeill
There was a moment on my flight into London when the plane curved hard to the right and hung in the air. Then it rotated, slow, and in the windows the city grid appeared and slid past beneath us, panning over the Tower Bridge, the Eye, Parliament. The Thames wound a silky green ribbon through the roads and spires below, brown rooftops peppering the gaps. It was a whole minute of held breath. Enthralled with the view, I was still, absorbing the city that would soon be mine, already feeling things changing. The plane turned up to face the hazy sky, horizon indistinguishable, the city quiet beneath us, and we landed.
It feels like a thousand times I’ve paused now, unsure how to answer the simple, “How was it?” The tacit, “Great, I loved it,” usually suffices, but there are oceans beneath that answer.
There is no full response I can give — no summary or cute quip — that conveys the entirety of the experience of spending four months abroad.
I loved London. I really, really loved it. It almost came as a surprise. People talk about Paris like stepping off the metro platform is a transformative experience. What I knew about London was far less. But I fell in love with the city instantly, with its low-lying streets and cloudy days. There’s a sense of wildness in the unrefined parks and millions of brown homes, dusted with an old charm. It lacks the flashiness of American sharp lines and model homes but instead possesses a sense of age to it. And with that age comes a sense of comfort. I felt like myself there, like all my various parts were at ease.
London is a city of richness and history, and it’s one of layers. It’s easiest to remember the city by the tube map, the multicolored cross-stitch of sorts that I memorized on what felt like a thousand sweaty, crowded, fluorescently-lit rides. I see the city by the map – disparate zones and colors and rhythms somehow linked together, fitting together, even when the differences are wild.
Consider the contrasts: the grit and glitter of Camden Market, against the artisan cheeses and cakes of Borough Market, against the wild beauty of the sprawling heaths to the north. There are the clubs — from bluesy and intimate to pulsing, bright and hot — and the jewel-toned National Gallery, the pastels of Portobello Road, and the regal façade of Buckingham Palace. It goes on: weathered roofs in Fulham, opulent storefronts in Kensington, tourists in Trafalgar Square, and sleek lines at the Tate Modern, which faces the ethereal dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. All these pieces should be fragments but instead they’re sewn together, fluid, forming one London.
At first, I was constantly looking around me, weighing how things felt, slipping into a new mode of attentiveness. I had a heightened awareness of even the smallest differences. Soon, though, the city became home. American accents made me do a double-take. My hour-long commute became normal. British tabloids, fuchsia lipstick, “mind the gap,” red buses: all of it became my everyday.
Still, though, certain moments struck me. I especially savored the cold days in December, my last ones in London. I’d take the long way to class so I could walk across the Waterloo Bridge in the bitter, thin air, absolutely alone and so very alive. From the middle I could see it all, the whole city, and there was always a shift inside me, some heavy weight in my lungs as the wind sliced hard across the bridge. It was a feeling of total autonomy, of disjointedness and belonging all in one, of understanding and, most of all, gratitude.
And that feeling of gratitude, as I finished my classes and travels in a blur, said my goodbyes and took three flights home, is what remains. Gratitude for being able to go, gratitude for having gone, and gratitude for coming home.