Gettin' There: Chapter One
Illustration by Izzy White
As life itself does, it started with the body. The physical move from a warm and casually familiar place to a much colder one filled with grey indiscernible shapes and a lot of confusion - of which a few recognizable voices were trying to appease. My cosy nest had been carefully constructed over nine consecutive years under the bright sun and heavy tropical rains of Hong Kong Island. My nest was a confetti, a speck of colour on the large map of the world. Its vibrant cries in hundreds of languages and messy streets were lullabies to my daydreams. I navigated its temples and skyscrapers with the ease of a chimpanzee in the comfort of the jungle. It was safe. It felt good, and from my high-rise view-point, the world, unconsciously so, seemed like an exciting and quite similar place.
Again, the first to set foot in London was my body. My mind was racing through lavender fields in my native Provence and my heart was buried somewhere in a Cantonese coffee shop. Talk about a messed-up sense of identity. So here I was, all leggy and awkward with my huge coat and my stomach twisting in directions I never knew existed. I was eighteen and yet my hand struggled to let go of my mother’s as she left for the train to Paris and her own exciting new life, which seemed to be, for the very first time, estranged from my own. My eyes, tired from crying, couldn’t get used to the bricks and wide streets beneath the grey skies that were so far removed from the narrow roads and sinuous mountain paths of my tropical city. London was far too big for how tiny I felt at that moment.
The first to get there was my body and I have to admit that my mind took its time. The hostility I felt around me was shaped by a sense of floating: I wasn’t really there and would soon come back to the humid landscapes of my childhood, to the blue corridors of our high school that had heard me complain and laugh so many times. It’s tough, if not impossible, to see beauty when the only thing you have with you is an unfamiliar physical sensation. My mind wasn’t quite ready to stop tanning on Cantonese beaches and I left it there for about six months. These six months saw me cry in Museums where I found relief and the longed-for sensation of belonging somewhere. They had me drown in centuries-old fiction and hide behind piles of research and self-induced academic pressure.
However, without me noticing it, they also had me go for walks in tiny mews and along unknown canals that I regarded with the intrigued suspicion of a child presented with a big, somewhat scary but inviting new toy. They saw me discover the joys of the pub and the delicious cynicism of British conversation until one day, it wasn’t just my long legs and bushy hair that acclimated to London’s drizzle, but my weary mind too. It had finally caught up; I was there to stay and if my heart still wasn’t ready to truly open up to grey cobbles and the weird English obsession with tea, my mind was there to at least register and accept them. It got there around Easter and gave me a bit of time to revel in this new feeling of knowing that I was now a part of this London town and that this wasn’t just a coffee break on a long drive, but a real honest-to-god long stay that would only further shape my international-self.
My mind and body had reached a nice point before I left for summer, and truthfully, I did not believe anything else could join them. After the hardships of the year, this betterment seemed to be more than enough. The thing with life and growing up is that the surprises pile up in a strange, sometimes delightful and sometimes truly nasty mount. But the real surprise that was awaiting me when I came back to London at the beginning of this academic year was a truly pleasant one: My heart, my little drama-queen, over the top blood-pumping organ, had arrived with me and was excitedly expecting the returns of its pals, my body and my mind. It wasn’t fully in love yet, it still isn’t now, but it’s there for feelings to grow into something that might become a ferocious love and that, for now, has me excited and ready to let my affection for this city transform into something bigger.
I am no spiritualist guru and this separation of the different entities of my being is mostly to tell you that getting there completely takes time. This process is far from over for me and writing about the strange oddities of British city life in this column will be just as much a part of the process as calling my mother last year and crying so much that even my dog got worried.
I am looking forward to bringing up the quirks of London and maybe ending up truly, whole-heartedly getting there.