I’d never before been to anywhere resembling Europe. My life has been mostly confined to America, land of strip malls and prairies, hamburgers and tennis shoes. When my mom asked me if I wanted to accompany her on a five-day trip to London to meet my sister at the end of a season of studying abroad, my response was, “How could I say no?” The appropriate response, given how taken I was with the land that met me. It all felt oddly homey and sort of just like I’d imagined it. We Americans seem to have a sort of collective dream of England, I think. We huddle around things like Downton Abbey and People magazine displaying photos of royal babies and Daniel Radcliffe and such, or the general obsession with British accents. Perhaps we never truly undid our ties at the Revolutionary War. Because of this, visiting London felt like visiting a big sister, in a way. Someone slightly older, slightly cooler, more put-together, but not unfamiliar.
Chicago is not too far a cry from London, really, and in that way it didn’t quite feel like a vacation. A city is a city is a city, and the fast pace doesn’t disappear if you’re only visiting. But it’s the little scents and flavors that make a city special, along with the stone and asphalt, the street names, the subway. I tried my best to relax, to let myself be a tourist, to not compare myself too harshly to cool British girls carrying flowers or coffee on the tube with sharp haircuts, smart leather shoes, and all-black outfits. My sling backpack and Birkenstocks made me feel obvious like a red check mark, but we still made our way. We tromped our way all over London, up and down escalators, round and round the squares, on cobblestones and sidewalks. I drank a lot of tea. We minded the gap. We even managed to steal away for a day for a whirlwind tour of Paris.
What was most special was being there with my mom and sister. The three of us haven’t been able to spend such solid time together in years. Special pastries, couture gowns, and the Eiffel Tower only sweetened the time, gave it a rosy tint, added adventure to our conversations. My favorite times were when we lingered. We sat long in a patisserie, we rode the big red tour bus in Paris, comfortable to sit, we wandered through gardens, loitered in shops, sought out bathrooms, and people-watched on the tube. I never felt a sense of urgency, a feeling I hate on trips. We relaxed our way through London and Paris, my sister, my mother, and I, and we liked it very much.
England and France felt familiar, yes, but not simply comfortable. Really, the whole time we were there, I felt fantastically far from Chicago and fantastically foreign. Foreign not in a bad way just in a true way. Why does that feeling have such bad connotations? Why do we try so hard to blend in when we are visiting somewhere new? I felt foreign in the same way that a country girl would feel foreign in the city, I suppose, the way Cassandra from I Capture the Castle felt when she and her sister made their way from their run-down castle in the country all the way to London to pick up some fancy old furs left to them by Aunt Millicent. (Aside, if you are a woman or a writer or a human or all of the above you should read I Capture the Castle. End aside.)
It’s good sometimes to feel a little out of place. It lets you see the world and yourself more clearly, lets you notice your silly tan backpack, lets you wonder why people far away do things differently than you do, lets you remember that there are people all over the place living whole lives that have nothing at all to do with yours. It’s easier to stay close to home but it’s also easy to forget that there are a lot of different ways to live and a lot of different places in which to try. My backpack and I live in Chicago, we fit here, and I’m glad. If I lived in London I’d probably buy a new backpack and need a few months to adjust but then I’d be glad there too. It’s beautiful, really, the way you can find a space anywhere if you give yourself time to nestle in.
I’ve been drinking more tea in the afternoons, a small thing but not unimportant, and I’d really like some window boxes like I saw so frequently there. Little things. Feeling foreign isn’t bad. Especially when you’re with your mom and your sister in a magnificently familiar and all-together grand place for the very first time.
And now some photos. First London then Paris. All the beautiful things.