I left London two weeks ago. The goodbyes were quick but sentimental — one last night in our favorite pub, hugging and wishing each other luck, making promises to visit. I love having friends all over the United States, and the world, after this experience.
London cuts deep. I’ve wanted to come to this city my whole life — for the literature, the architecture, the museums, the history — but I left with much more than that. On a personal level, I left with friendships I’ll always value and a better adaptability and understanding of myself. On a broader level, I encountered the stresses that a city like London, once the center of the Western world, faces today. I confronted several post-Brexit protests, a strained National Health System, a royal family facing irrelevancy, and a nation scrambling to figure out what to do with itself. What does it mean to be English when no one in London truly is?
I recently read the book Exit West by Mohsin Hamid, a remarkable new novel shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize. He writes, “Everyone was foreign, so in a sense, no one was.” Much of London’s Englishness has been molded and adapted to fit the narratives of those from far away. I heard more diverse accents and foreign languages than I did English ones. I love London for this globalism. That’s when the city truly comes alive.
I grew up in Chicago, which I used to put on a pedestal as an epicenter of diversity. But really, London is the most ethnically and culturally diverse place I’ve ever lived. I barely began to grasp that, barely immersed myself enough in these four months to truly make valid observations.
In a Contemporary London Literature course I took this semester, we discussed how London is a living, breathing force that envelops those who come upon it, offering a different life to everyone. But London, as I’ve come to realize, has many more layers today than it did in the days of Arthurian Romance or Sherlock Holmes or Dickens.
“Without borders,” Hamid continues in Exit West, “nations appeared to be somewhat illusory, and people were questioning what role they had to play.” I hope London, whether as a lover, a friend, or enemy, extends an empathetic role amongst an era of border-building. What a remarkable experience to try and grasp my own identity within a nation that’s struggling to do the same. I’m excited to return one day to this old friend. Although I don’t want London to change from the way it is right now, I’m excited for this city’s future. London’s strength is its adaptability. So, I’ve learned, is mine.