The semester I lived in London, I fully believe, redirected the course of my life. And a piece of that is study abroad syndrome, I'll admit, where a summer-camp-phenomenon takes over your life at a college level and is therefore deemed "formative." There was certainly some of that.
Still, I think part of it was magic, too. The summer before I left to study abroad, I was living in Florida, and it was a hard, lonely time. I'd put to rest some final thoughts of childhood, and given them a good cry; but had yet to replace them with anything, leaving gaping holes exposed to long stretches of hot, humid days and quiet, boring nights. And while looking forward to a big adventure that following semester, there was a little fear that it would only intensify those feelings of loneliness, arriving in a big city, with foreign customs, knowing no one. Instead, the opposite happened. I was swept up into relationship with some of the best friends I'd ever known--they are still my dearest friends to this day. I fell in love with the orderly, bustling rhythm of the city. I filled in all those holes with the realization that, though they'd been a part of my youth, they were never really a part of me. London gave me new things to put there instead.
As an adult, I am nostalgic for my childhood in Indiana. Some of my sharpest memories are of how the air felt in the summer or the songs the katydids sang in my backyard at night, and how we'd sit out there, silence between us, but the bugs screaming. I remember driving down country roads at reckless speeds, which is just the manifestation of that invincibility you're sure you have when you're young. Then, what seemed so normal a part of me I had to escape it, is now something I remember with a dainty fondness, like scenes from a beautiful movie. And when I go home, it is happy to remember, to see old familiar faces and reminisce who we were once upon a time. That part is like a secret club, surrounded by the only people who knew me then, and it's comforting; but it doesn't fit anymore. For better or for worse, I grew up and out, and going home is like trying to squeeze into the worn sweatshirt that was my favorite until a growth spurt.
The first time I visited London, I couldn't have imagined I might one day live there for a short time, I just knew I loved it. The second time I visited London, it was a temporary home. The third time I visited London, I was afraid that going back to it would be like going back to my childhood town, that I'd get there and want so badly for it all to feel the same, but the sleeves would be too short and the colors would be faded.
Except that didn't happen. It was still like home on that third visit--and maybe it looked a little different and I looked a little different, because those things happen with age; but you can grow with a thing you love as it changes, too. Certainly the city has loved me in that way. The fourth time I visited London, we took the girls with us, and new parts of its magic were opened up to me because it loved my children like it loved me. The girls still speak of it like a place they know well.
Those sentiments had not changed, this last time we passed through. There were dinners with old friends and strolls down familiar streets. My body turned instinctively through the Underground labyrinth. My mouth recalled the jargon of shops and markets, my hands and feet the etiquette for parks and sidewalks. We walked through the Selfridges Christmas Shop, and it didn't feel like visiting an old, cinematic memory; rather a tradition, revisited again and again.
When leaving a friend's house at the city's early dusk, I walked further than I needed just to hear my shoes on the sidewalks and see the golden glow shining inside the homes and shops. My heart ached a bit for a place that felt so like home, but isn't. For a moment or two, I let myself dream up the life where I lived there still. I realized that there are some places that will only be for me for a period of time--the actual place itself closed inside the pages of that chapter where I placed old friends, memories, wounds, and lessons. But some places will be like the Neverending Story, and even if I can't always be in it, I will always find pieces of myself there.
I think it was the perfect way to end our travels abroad. It was an adventure coming to an end, lending itself to an uncertain future; but a reminder that some stories are told without stopping--sometimes you just set them down for a little while.