For the past five days, I’ve been living in the luxury and comfort of a dusty mattress in the back of a van. It’s nearing the end of my trip, and my mom and I are driving around Iceland. My hair is in knots, I’ve been surviving on fried eggs and noodles and instant coffee and some days I can’t feel my fingers or toes.
The things we do for love.
It’s the perfect conclusion to a gratifying month of hostel-hopping alone across Greece, Bristol, Paris and now Iceland. But the city that stole my heart was London.
I’m one of many Berkeley students who jumped at the opportunity to escape America through the University of California Education Abroad Program, or UCEAP. In a fit of masochism, I rejected conventional university housing for the turbulence of $20 hostels. Even though those few weeks were full of leaky ceilings, broken elevators and sleepovers with a dozen strangers, all I felt was romance.
A summer fling wouldn’t do London justice; I wanted a full-on love affair. Everything was rose colored: the fruit stand on the walk to lecture; the first breath of fresh air after exiting the underground; a sip of cold cider in between mouthfuls of fish and chips.
I collected conversations with hostel bunkmates about spontaneous career changes, backpacking journeys and personal flirtations with London. I listened to a local from the countryside explain regional accents, traditional UK hip-hop and architectural history — all with whimsical British slang.
I had fallen in love. I sat atop Primrose Hill, nothing like Berkeley’s 4.0 Hill, rekindling old rituals; I read, journaled and painted a picture of what my life would look like in a red-brick cottage near Regent’s Park.
I glorified a lifestyle I had only known for a few weeks. Everything was sensational, stimulating and “just so different from America.” I overshared on my travel account and used “innit” and “bonjour” one too many times a day, only reminded of my college town by a $40 Uber.
That changed when the 4th of July appeared, like the memory of an estranged ex-partner. That night, hoards of students took to the streets, boasting red, white and blue in a stampede of patriotism.
I found myself outside O’Neill’s Pub in line behind a group of boys singing the Chicago Cubs anthem. The band played “Stacy’s Mom” on repeat in the background. We took pride in straining our reputation with our friends across the pond, unashamedly celebrating our independence in enemy territory. As I started to miss my first love, a buzz in my pocket informed me that Highland Park, the town I was born in, had a mass shooting that killed seven and injured two dozen others.
Calling it a sobering thought would be an understatement. I was heartbroken. Until then, I’d been blissfully and intentionally unaware of the seriousness of everything swirling above my head. Would I really have to confront my reproductive rights being threatened if I was halfway around the globe drinking strawberry cider?
Thinking of my peers attending summer classes and protests in Berkeley, I was overcome with the entitlement that I had escaped a summer burdened with tragedy. I looked around at the mass of unabashed American college students and felt the shame of my ignorance seep into my skin. My love for London had blinded me to the inevitability of my return.
Over the course of the next few days, I received apologies from strangers about a horror I hadn’t lived, pulling at loose threads on my sweater at the thought of doing absolutely nothing to help. I read emails about Londoners allying with Americans to protest the overturning of Roe v. Wade, while I sat having my third pint at Wetherspoons. And when people joked that I should simply stay, I chuckled sheepishly. I had less than a week left. The weight of home made me question the basis of my affair in the first place.
This was not love, it was infatuation; I had fallen for the best parts of London. The love I was searching for existed in the undying persistence of people who work every day to create a place they are proud to call home. The fervorous residents who give back to the community as much or more than they take.
On my last day in London, Berkeley friends invited me to a barbeque near Finsbury hosted by a dear friend of theirs. I arrived to see American flags hung everywhere, an “I <3 ‘Merica” banner, a group of good-natured Brits, a handful of Parisians and a swarm of Red Solo cups. An ironic, overindulgent twist on our 4th of July. After a tumultuous arc, my two lovers made peace: the perfect blend of Berkeley and Britain.
London you were wonderful, but I think, for now, we need some space.
Soon, I’ll be back in the states for my first summer in Berkeley. The home I’ve built – in Chicago, in Berkeley, and all the places in between – she’s my one true love. Sure, she’s got some red flags and a fair share of communication issues. But I’m finally ready to commit.