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What Will I Say When They Ask Me: "How Was London?"

May 28, 2007


IT IS THE SURREALITY OF THIS EXPERIENCE which permeates me now. I am in the library. Read: I am supposed to be studying. One more final exam on Thursday, and then it is homeward bound for me. (Don’t get me started on the idiocy of the English education system…I finished classes 2 months before my first exam…)

In the last couple of days, I find myself feeling utterly overcome by a profound sadness at leaving this city behind, to the point of paralysis. And then, just as swiftly, I emerge with a sense of mobility which is beautifully stimulating, after so many months of suspension…even stagnation. You see, I have never had so much free time as in the last 5 months. One would think that this situation would be one of supreme liberty. Except that it isn’t, in a modern world of instantaneous knowledge, perpetual motion, and burgeoning technologies. To stand still as a human being in the present (perhaps especially in the “developed” world) is akin to that moment in evolutionary history, when fishes first shimmied onto land and made their gills breathe gaseous oxygen. In other words, we are at a junction.

There is no doubt of the cultural relativity of this aversion to free-time. In France, it is illegal to work more than 35 hours a week, in London I see advertisements daily which encourage Londoners to take long weekends, and more vacations. In Japan, and in China, work and school last through all of the light hours of the day, with extras, such as language classes and music lessons, designated to the time after dinner and before sleep…vacations are a symptom of weakness.

I don’t think it is sad that I crave structure. I don’t believe in nostalgia for a time in which people worked less, and whittled more. That is a near-impossibility in the world we live in now. (It is not a devolution in which we (humanity) participate, but just a sort of constant metamorphosis through history… )

These last 5 months have actually been surprisingly productive for me. (On the whole. At first, I experienced a complete loss-of-voice and creative power because of being completely uprooted upon arriving here in January.) After that, I wrote a lot, sporadically, and devoured books quickly and insatiably. I spent hours in museums, drifted through parks, took trips, probed for new music, wrote postcards, took photos, painted, sketched, and created clothes…

All of this creativity, though, was tempered by the threat of days “wasted.” I am not one to rise early, if I have no destination at which to be. I crave structure, as an individual, and as a product of my cultural and familial heritage. There were days where the plethora of entertainments and choices laid before me in London were paralyzing. Jean-Francois Lyotard alludes to this in one of his works…the idea that too many choices is a kind of prison in which the modern person finds themselves. We suffocate under the weight of infinite freedoms.

So, how will I answer the question: “HOW WAS YOUR SEMESTER ABROAD IN LONDON?” Undoubtedly, the answer will change with the audience, with the passage of time, with stepping off of that plane back on American soil, with regard to how much of an answer is actually desired… But the answer will be something like this: people should do this. It suspends your reality for a while, to the degree that is possible.

My experience was by no means average. I will not tell other people to study abroad, or not to. I will not tell them what it is “like.” I can’t pretend to know what they will get from it, where it will fall in the general trajectory of their lives, what it will do to them… (Is it contradictory, having made this declaration, to know that I will in fact answer some of these questions in the course of polite conversations? At least I cannot see myself answering them, or indeed describing “my” London, without tempering it with the obvious…this was my experience, through my eyes, my ears, my hands, my nose, my mouth, my brain, my heart, my soul…)

Maybe I am even less inclined to provide a stock description of Study Abroad, because I was not a part of an American program…I simply entered a foreign university, without a study abroad program, amongst students who are here permanently. They have established social networks. I found myself in the position of a transfer student who would not stay. It is artificial, to break into a three year process, and exit it again, bypassing the beginning and the end. For some people this breeds a kind of freedom which will make the 5months they spend abroad into the most fun time of their lives. For others, (and I fall into this category), a natural inclination to solitude and intensity, will reap a very powerful interaction with the place itself–with the city–rather than with the acquaintances acquired.)

The process of living in a foreign country for a finite amount of time, parallels so many other experiences more common in our culture. It is like entering a university community, knowing you will exit it. So, to my friends who have just graduated, I feel an nth of what you feel. I am excited to go home; I am tremendously sad to leave London. Mostly, it is as if I am wearing my nervous system outside of my skin. Everything is overwhelmingly pleasurable and painful, at once.
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