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London: 12 Years On

I can tell you with excruciatingly embarrassing details how I became interested in Japan as a teenager. But after I was a Japanophile, I was an Anglophile. And I don’t remember how I became interested in England at all. Maybe I was trying to impress someone. Maybe it was the the least foreign foreign country I could move to. Maybe all the Shakespeare and Milton and Gaiman and Lawrence and Hopkins and Woolf finally got to my head. Either way, at one point, I really needed to get over there and see what was going on.

July 2004 was my first trip out to London. I think I had planned to be there two or three weeks, which was probably the longest time I’d been out of the country on my own. I remember that the only reason I could have gone was because I had a terrific boss who let me completely forge all my time sheets. I knew she knew I was lying, but we never talked about it. There wouldn’t have been any way I could take a full course-load at school and still, somehow, put in 20 or 30 hours a week at my desk job. I wrote out completely irregular hours every two weeks: one day, I’d come in for four hours, the next, seven, the day after, six. For the few months prior to the trip my hours became more unrealistic, more erratic. My boss just signed each sheet with a smile and I still got paid.

There are a lot of personal moments I remember about that trip. The Bill Brandt exhibit at the V&A. Buying a bottle of absinthe while underage. Watching a bunch of Ealing comedies. But there are also memories of events that were larger than myself. The optimism surrounding Rooney at age 18. Portugal beating Greece in the Eurocup finals. The city making itself over for the 2012 Olympics.

After that trip, I was absolutely certain that I would move to London. It was so cool, so European. I don’t remember how that dream dissolved. I do remember London was quickly superseded by a bevy of other cities around the world, all of which were even more exotic. Instead of English, the most wonderful curse in the world seemed to be to move to a place where I could only pronounce about five words poorly. (After Japan and England came France; this would have coincided with the years I was obsessed with Paris in the ’20s.)

Like any city, London’s changed in the last decade-plus years. Where the Tube was once a modern marvel of public transportation, I saw now every spec and grime of filth and dirt, the floors sticky, the seats sopping wet. Bustles of irritated people shuffling up and down flights of stairs to stress at their next destination. Everything was loads more expensive than I ever remembered it being. There was construction, everywhere, throngs, everywhere.

Of course, I’d changed, too.

A decade-plus ago I had every single block, every street corner, every step I needed to take written down on pieces of paper that I shuffled through constantly. This time around I was much more willing to pick a direction and get lost. The modern day tourist doesn’t need to carry a map anymore: you can just pull out your phone and check directions in-between tweets.

A decade-plus ago I remember being terrified of opening my mouth for fear of someone observing my accentless talk. Rather than ask questions, I was a voluntary mute, observing how people behaved so that I could imitate them. This time around I could care less who shuddered at my laughs and heard me as an outsider. I didn’t need to fit in.

A decade-plus ago I was learning to drink in pubs. It was the first time I’d handled money at a bar and I thought that someone certainly would ask for an ID and refuse service. By now I’ve become an expert at bar etiquette. Stroke the beard. Squint the eyes. Make yourself seen and unobtrusive.

There was less tourism on this trip, less visits to graveyards, less urges to pack every moment with a new sight, less visits to shreds of land where someone stood three hundred years ago. I was more comfortable just being in one spot, inhaling all the differences between then and now. “Me. And me now.”

What hasn’t changed?

I had Danyel to guide me around this time around, too. Twelve years ago, I wrote:

Thankfully Danyel and i formed a gang to combat London’s vast museums and seedy pubs.

I had my cousin Ani to rely on as a source of comfort. Twelve years ago, I wrote:

I recall at the café we were now at that my cousins and i began discussing what it meant to be an individual.

Meeting again with both, not a single thing had changed. I’m forever grateful to have had two differently wonderful encounters in the same place. Time and space is a very weird thing.

A decade-plus later I feel more or less the exact same way I did then: on the verge of crossing the terrifyingly thrilling chasm of the unknown. I was and am on the cusp of entering the world and I wanted and want to embrace as much of it as I possibly could and can. Then and now there was and is ahead of me an immense possibility for both opportunity and disappointment.

A decade-plus later I’ve been to enough places to know now that this time around London wasn’t as revolutionary a city as I once believed. But I did enjoy reigniting that thrill of discovery. What I found wasn’t anything to behold; this time was spent looking within.

A decade-plus later I’m less willing to take risks and encounter the bad with the good. I’m not sure if that attitude is a function of age or one’s character or if it’s a proper or improper way to go about living. The older we get, the less we’re inclined to take risks. We’re less willing to be surprised, but also maybe less able to be.

But twelve years ago I would have never wanted to become the sort of person who was comfortable and situated in one place. It seemed like the best way to get into a rut was to just accept things the way they were, even though I didn’t yet have any notion of what any of that meant. What I thought I knew I didn’t. What I only sensed I now know intimately. What could have been wasn’t. But I couldn’t have known that then.