You know that happy place you have, the one you retreat to where no one else can find you or invade because you’ve fortified it so well? I have two. The one you can see is Regents Park in April of 2008 on a bridge that no one else was crossing. It instills a peace and pervasive pleasantry that I can’t explain whenever I see it.
I’d be lying if I said London was the land of my ancestors. Technically England is the land of my ancestors. Even then it’s not entirely true. I’m a quarter English and half a dozen parts of European descent; an American mutt of genetic proportions. But regardless, the moment I stepped off the plane in Heathrow in the spring of 2008, there was a sense of kindred air that I was breathing. I still had relatives living within the city limits and the accents were the most beautiful thing anyone had ever heard. It was all of a blur at first, between the jet lag and left lane driving, but a debonair and urbane blur that no one really minded being swept up in, myself included.
(Ironically, I’m drinking cheap whiskey and listening to The Format as I’m writing this. This is exactly what I would do with my work on our 16th floor flat in London. It felt very Hemingway and I thought I was simply the bees’ knees – writing in London and gazing out over the northwest rooftops near Paddington, Hyde Park just a 3-minute song away.)
It’s hard to sum up the entire experience, so I can only offer clippings, like a newspaper portfolio. It’s not necessarily all of my best memories, but some of the most poignant, the ones that stand out in groups and in solitude, in heat and cold, travel and at home, spiritual and secular. To make it sound like I left my childhood behind and grew up in that city would be both melodramatic and accurate. There are a lot of experiences that were birthed there that naturally lead to you growing up. Anyone who has studied abroad can identify with this.
The biggest of these, obviously, was related to the fact that the drinking age in England is 18. Those of us who were a mere 19 years old when we came over were elated to find that supermarkets carried wine in grocery stores, along with every kind of liquor we had seen in the movies or heard about from our older friends. The cheap whiskey and scotch over there was my first attempt to grow up – because nothing says being an adult like drinking a $6 bottle of scotch. My parents didn’t think too fondly of it when I told them, but what did I care? I was an adult, a miniature traveling person who could travel to any number of countries on a whim if I so desired. If it seems like a rebellious line of thought, I assure you it wasn’t.
Another transition was the simple act of riding the Tube. You would be amazed at how daunting it can be to step onto a train car that whips underground to transport you from home to work and back again. But once you have a grasp of how it works and what lines to take, you become at ease with it. It took about two weeks for me to arrive at that point of ease. It remains my firm belief that part of me was imprinted on that underground line. I found myself grumbling with fellow travelers about the 9:13 Circle Line car making me late for a morning meeting or giving directions to tourists on which lines to take to get to certain theatres. One of my favorite parts of the day was riding 30 minutes to my internship on the Hammersmith & City line and splitting my time between reading Harry Potter and learning to solve a Rubik’s Cube.
Flying out of the country moved me even farther. I was dating a girl at the time who was in Spain, so I flew down to Sevilla a couple of times to visit her. We wandered around the city hand-in-hand, marveling at the architecture, conversing like the art professors we thought we’d become after 64 days in European classrooms. It became routine after a while to hop a flight to Ireland, Italy or Portugal for a few days. It’s a simple standard that you grow used to, like pulling on a fresh pair of socks every morning. You book your flight, show up in the security line and jet off without calling anyone to let them know where you’re going. The freedom that ensued from that was such a tremendous boost to my confidence and ego, something my parents later confided in me that they never expected to do. I was the homebody, the mama’s boy. And mama’s boys don’t jet-set across Europe. Without meaning to, I had shed the translucent skin of my youth and started to emerge. Part of that emergence came on a clear April day in Regents Park as I gazed out over the water and cloud-speckled skies, wondering if I ever had to leave and if a career would allow me to return. Such imaginative thoughts, although unrealized at the time, birthed in me a desire to simply go. Move without ceasing. They call it the travel bug. I call it a revival of my soul.
Coming home broke and homesick was entirely too exhausting and entirely too worth it. Some of the phrases I picked up while idling on the streets of Edgware Road and Marble Arch still stay with me. That upward inflection at the end of non-questioning sentences meanders in, as well. But above all of that, a sense of independence and desire. Each time I see that tulip over that river, I see myself – blooming into an English spring, emerging into the bright & fresh world.
Written by Seth Palmer.