Well acquainted

Two months into this whole experience and it’s weird to think that I’ve actually grown accustomed to living in London. When I first arrived, everything was so new and daunting. I never knew where I was, where I was going or what was going on. I was stuck in a place of confusion and awe.

Don’t get me wrong, I still get lost and I still get confused sometimes, but the difference is that I’ve become more sure of myself. No matter where you’re going, surroundings and people may change, but you still have yourself. It all becomes easier and the overwhelming feeling subsides the more time you spend in a place.

I often think about this when I’m on my way to class. I wake up and quickly get ready to head to the Tube. I walk amongst all the commuters on their way to work, school, etc. I no longer need a map to know where I’m going, so I put my headphones in and listen to music as I wait for the tube to come. I’ve started to realize that amongst all of these people with I travel everyday, I’ve never seen the same person twice.

I get off the cart I strategically chose because it’s closest to the exit I need to go through to transfer. Even though I’ve transferred multiple times, it still feels like a journey. The Underground is intricate, filled with twists, turns, and stairs. When you know where you’re going and you don’t have to constantly check a map, you start to notice the amount of noise that surrounds you. People talking in different languages and volumes, the musician playing, hearing “Mind the Gap” in the distance. Sometimes I pause my music to listen to the sounds around me. They may never be the same, but they have a particular beat to them.

All of this has become familiar. Commuting is always hectic, but it’s oddly calming when it has become a part of your routine. The transition was hard and I still miss home, but for now, London has become a new home for me.

Gentri Gone Global

Gentrification is a huge issue in most cities in the United States, such as Chicago where I grew up. It is the process in which neighborhoods mainly consisting of people of color and working class people slowly begins to become a place that young white hipsters occupy. They begin to buy up all the properties and create new, pricey businesses, turning the original neighborhood into an “up-and-coming” area that young whites instantly flock to as the rent is cheap. Once they start to change the neighborhood, more and more white people with money come in and it no longer is affordable for its original inhabitants. There is also a cultural impact as the character of the neighborhood that is strongly tied to the inhabitants’ cultures slowly begins to vanish as they are forced to move. Gentrification affects a large amount of neighborhoods in the states, like Pilsen in Chicago or the South Bronx in New York.

Similarly to these cities in the states, London also has a large gentrification problem. I’ve spoken to multiple local people about this as I’ve been trying to find places in the city that have more Latinx people and culture. My extensive research lead me to an organization called Casa Latina located in Camden, one of London’s borough’s. We met up and spoke casually as I asked her about the events and work that the organization does. Eventually she asked, “Where do you live?” To which I responded, “In Southwark, an area called Borough.” She smiled and said “Ah, yes! That’s right next to Elephant and Castle. They have a lot going on there. They’re having a lot of issues with gentrification. You can check out an organization called Latin Elephant.”

This didn’t necessarily come as a surprise to me as this is an issue in most major cities. I still felt sad because I knew that Elephant and Castle was predominantly Latinx and was only a 10 minute walk from my dorm. I had walked through there in hopes of finding Goya products to cook with (spoiler alert: I found none). There were multiple bodegas, Latinx food stores, and even a Dominican barber shop. I had found a Mexican brand I see at stores at home and bought it from a woman who spoke to me in Spanish. I became really interested in learning more about the area and talking to more people from there considering it’s so close to where I live, so learning more about their gentrification issue hurt.

Upon further reflection I realized that as a student and being in student accommodation close to the area, I was unknowingly helping to contribute to the gentrification of this neighborhood. When I initially researched London, this was something I hadn’t even thought about researching. I hadn’t even thought of it until I talked to people affected by it like one of my friends who said that him and his whole family have to move because they want to tear down his building and replace it with an unnecessary tube station that will only make a commute 10 minutes shorter.

I wonder if other people think about this while they’re abroad. It’s easy to get caught up in the tourism and fascination throughout Europe. It’s easy to forget that London may go through the same difficulties that communities back home face. A thought that also crossed my mind is if it’s necessarily my place to help or speak on the matter as someone from the outside. The least I can do is learn about it and learn more about the communities that surround me instead of just focusing on how much I can experience in the UK. It seems that study abroad students, at least the ones I’ve spoken to at my university, can get really caught up in the exploration aspect of being in London and Europe without much willingness to connect to the large varieties of communities that exist there. That’s only part of the experience of being abroad.

All a city has to offer

One of the reasons I decided to study abroad in London is because it’s a large, vibrant city. I grew up in Chicago and had never really imagined myself in a small town until I was accepted to Cornell. Coming to London is like going back to familiar roots, but the major difference is that I’m now an adult and don’t have anyone to answer to. I can really do anything I desire and I have a lot more to choose from here.

There’s always something going on in London and more importantly, there’s always something going on that coincides with my interests. I can spend all the time I want planning, but everything all of that can change so suddenly. My second week in London, I didn’t have any huge weekend plans and mainly spent my Saturday reading. That night, my friend texted me a screenshot of a tweet by Noname, a Chicago rapper we both love, saying that she was about to perform in London.

I hadn’t seen anything about this, so I immediately looked at the event on Facebook to confirm. When I looked at the time she was performing at, it was already too late. i was devastated until I saw a post about an After Party. It turns out that Noname was performing again on Sunday night at a Jazz Club in Camden. I bought a ticket and went the following night. It all happened so quickly, but I was so happy.

I thought I wasn’t going to see her perform anytime soon whether I was in London or Ithaca. She hadn’t mentioned she was performing in London at all on her Twitter, so it was a huge surprise. Seeing her was like having a piece of home as a lot of her work references Chicago. This could only happen in a city like London, which has so much to offer. It may take some digging, but there’s always something out there for someone to see or do. It’s exciting and I’m glad to be back in the urban vibrancy.

Far from home

One of the biggest ongoing news stories around the world has been Donald Trump. The guy was just inaugurated a week ago and it would seem that everything is already up in flames. Every marginalized group is under attack and it’s sickening to witness. Whenever I received a New York Times notification on my phone this past week, I prepared myself to feel anger and disappointment before I read it.

Trump is just a single representation of everything people in the United States pretend doesn’t exist like racism, sexism, xenophobia, etc. He’s a figurehead for what already existed, but his presidency has lead to even more fear and distress in marginalized communities.

Being on the other side of the Atlantic while all of this is happening is very difficult. I can’t physically be there to emotionally support my friends, to organize, to fight back, or to make sure communities have the resources they need. I’m constantly reminded of that not only as I consume the news and media from the states, but also when the topic is brought up here in London. It’s a global issue and a global fear, so people here talk about it constantly as well.

On the morning of the inauguration, one of my classes was meeting for the first time. Right at the start of class, my Canadian professor brought up the inauguration. She explained that political context matters as we began studying experimental/avant-garde theatre for the semester. What we’re going to read was often written in opposition to the political climate at the time, so she felt it was necessary to acknowledge the political era we’re currently living in.

As an English major who focuses on writing and literature by marginalized communities, there’s no escaping the reality we’re all experiencing. When you’re living in the states, you can sometimes forget what the country you live in might represent to the rest of the world. Being in Europe while all of these horrors are unfolding emphasizes the importance of acting as a global citizen, but also makes me wish I was home to help. For now, I’m searching for more ways to work with communities in London and help people back home from where I am.

Making mistakes

As I began classes this week, I found myself in a cloud of confusion. To no surprise, going to a new institution is like being a freshman again. The only difference is that at almost 21 years old, I thought I was done feeling like a freshman. I thought being an adult meant I was sure of myself and couldn’t get lost or confused, but every transition comes with feeling small and unsure. Even though I’ve been attending a university for two and a half years, that doesn’t mean I can walk into any institution of higher education and know exactly what’s going on. Everywhere comes with its own culture that you cannot really predict or prepare yourself for until you’re there. Despite knowing that, its hard not to feel stupid when you don’t know exactly what’s happening around you or what to do.

I came to this realization as I was sitting on the floor outside of one of my seminars. I needed an ID to get into the hallway, which is a level of security I’m completely unaccustomed to coming from Cornell where we have buildings unlocked 24/7. I needed wifi and couldn’t find anywhere to really sit in the building, so I figured I would just outside my seminar until class started in half an hour. I realized that the hallway was empty and there was no one else around. I was working on an application when I looked at the time and looked up to notice that I was still alone in the hallway. The clock said class had started 2 minutes ago and no one had come near the seminar room. I quickly panicked and looked up my schedule on my laptop to make sure I had the right room. I was in the right place and was confused that no one was there yet. I slowly closed my laptop and put it in my bag as I stood up. The professor wasn’t even there so how was I supposed to get into the classroom?

All of a sudden the professor walked towards me and asked “Is anyone in there?” as she scanned her ID and opened the door. I had no idea I could open the door the whole time I was sitting on the floor. When she was opening the door, I felt the words “Oh…sorry…” escape from my astonished mouth. I felt so inept for not trying to open the door and panicking about being in the wrong place. Despite that, I had to remind myself that it wasn’t that I wasn’t intelligent, it was just dealing with something I had never experienced before.

Sunset on the Thames January 17th, 2017 by Sarah Zumba

The first week or so I had so much anxiety going out to new places, even though everywhere is new for me here, and interacting with people because I was afraid of doing something wrong and being perceived as unintelligent. It was a fear of feeling embarrassed because I was figuring out the world around me, which ultimately doesn’t make any sense. I am in a new environment filled with unfamiliarity, if I went the entirety of the next six months without making a mistake I would deserve an award. I’ve now reached the personal conclusion that living in fear of making a mistake is not really living.

 

Runs on money

After being in London for a week, my sleeping schedule is back to it’s normal mess and I’m less intimidated by the Tube. Learning to live in a new country is a process, it doesn’t just happen all at once. In fact, I think I’ve just reached the point where I’ve come to terms that I’m not going to be in the states for longer than two weeks. This isn’t a small vacation, it’s living and studying some place new. Something in particular I’m finding difficult to grasp is how prevalent wealth and class differences are to me here.

Now I could be interpreting what I’m seeing wrong, but as I’ve been taking in London this past week, it’s hard not to notice the importance of money. This is common throughout the world, but for some reason I feel its presence significantly more here. In the city I grew up in and other cities that I’ve visited like Manhattan, I don’t feel the same luxurious vibe as I do in London. Sure, there are certain areas of every city that I feel like I don’t have enough money to even walk through, but everywhere I turn in London feels like I’m strolling through the Upper East Side in Manhattan or the Gold Coast in Chicago.

Everyone is extremely fashionable, but usually in professional or business casual clothing. You quickly walk with the crowds across the street and you notice that everyone around you is wearing a dress coat, a large scarf and some kind of dress pants or clean cut dress. Everyone has the same aesthetic with slight variations. Maybe it’s because I’ve spent most of my time in central London where business professionals work, but even in the downtown area of Chicago where there are people who work in business everywhere, you can still find people who dress outside of that standard.

The lack of difference in apparel might seem minuscule and unimportant, but given my American context, it’s hard to ignore the class implications that clothing symbolizes. People who dress in designer clothing and always look ready for a business meeting are often those with money, which is not something I’m used to being surrounded by. It could be an aspect of the culture here that I’m not accustomed to. All I know is that I feel like I stand out when I go places because I don’t look the same as these people, not only due to my ethnicity/race, but also due to the clothing I wear. I don’t usually wear dress coats because they aren’t warm and I’ve never thought much of it until being the only one in my cart on the Tube wearing a puffy coat. It serves as a physical reminder that I probably don’t have as much money as any of the people that live here.

To be able to live in London comes with a high price tag. At one of the orientation events, one of the presenters said that our budget in London should be about £1000-£1500 a month, which is $1200-$1800. When I saw that number on the large lecture screen, I felt my stomach drop and nearly choked. They didn’t specify what that budget really accounts for, so it could very well include rent, which would make it a little less scary. I don’t really spend $1000 even within six months, excluding rent, or at least I aim not to. I’m truly struggling to wrap my head around the cost of living.

I’m sure there are other people in this city and at my college who share these feelings on the presence of class. I’m looking forward to finding these people in hopes of feeling more comfortable here and possibly having them explain class issues in London from their own personal experiences.

 

 

The Plan

The week I leave to London has finally arrived! A few months ago London was just an idea and now, in a few days, it’s going to become my reality. I don’t think I actually thought about how close I was to leaving until I was on the phone with my banks to put travel notices on my cards. At one point the customer service worker asked when I was leaving and I said “I leave January 5th,” to which he responded, “That’s a Tuesday right?” It took a moment to process until I corrected him saying “No, it’s Thursday. This Thursday.” Once that slipped from my mouth, it’s like a lightbulb went off in my head as the person talking on the phone became quiet mumbles to my distracted brain. Thursday is a little farther than Tuesday, but they’re both within the same week to my shock. I had been planning for this moment and now it’s here.
Believe it or not, moving to an international country for six months will really make you think about the importance of planning for the future. Hopping on a plane and saying “Well, I’m going to hope for the best,” just doesn’t fly when you’re leaving the country, no pun intended. You have to look at how much baggage you can carry without being charged an obscene amount of money, make sure you have adapters for UK outlets, have a plan on how to exchange currency and the dreadful list goes on.
There’s more to this than just flinging my body across the Atlantic. For many who study abroad, myself included, this is probably the first time we’re venturing far out of reach from our families. When I moved to Ithaca, NY for college, it was a huge deal not only for me, but also for my family. I packed everything into the car and left the friends, family, and city I knew so well behind. Leaving the first time is always a big deal, which is probably why freshman such as myself do the typical freshman thing and overpack. By the end of the year, more than half the stuff in my closet and drawers hadn’t even been used. In a way, packing everything you own into a car to the point where you’re haphazardly in a seat is not just a safety threat, but a way of coping with the transition.
That being said, the move from Chicago to Ithaca is a lot smaller than Chicago to London. I’m no longer 18 years old and I’d like to think I’ve become more of a minimalist despite my inability to walk into my room without tripping over something. Part of growing up and being an adult is to at least pretend like you know what you’re doing, so the six page checklist/to-do list I made is like a prop used to represent my responsibility. Despite that, I’m still making sure I don’t get caught up in the future and forget to enjoy the very little time I have left at home.