I saw countless views in those six months: picturesque, historical, famous, awe-inspiring, and beautiful.”
When I think of the six months I spent studying abroad in the United Kingdom, I often think of “Careless Whisper” played on a solo saxophone. “Careless Whisper” or “Pink Panther.” It’s actually a toss-up between “Careless Whisper,” “Pink Panther,” and Frank Sinatra’s “Fly Me to the Moon.” But to get to that bit I have to go back. I saw countless views in those six months: picturesque, historical, famous, awe-inspiring, and beautiful. But the image which pops up most frequently in my mind – six months after my return to the States – is the view I saw every day through my ground floor flat window, from the tiny single room in Loring Hall, St. James, New Cross, London, SE14 6AH.
The view is of a low barbed wire fence, behind which stretch the train tracks, only meters away from my wall. Beyond the tracks are a hill and a row of houses, made from ugly, greyish brown brick. I imagine this view could be a bit depressing to an outside viewer – someone who found the 4 by 6 print mixed in with my photos of the Tower of London and Llanddwyn Island. But it brought me a great deal of comfort. And the photograph does too. It hangs on my American wall next to a Santander Cycle Map of London. For remembering.
I was surprised by how much light came in through the clouds.”
I look at the picture and I think of the Overground and Southern Rail tracks, and the trains which rumbled past my window at every hour of the day and night. In the mornings, I would get up and dress with my curtains open, watching the hundreds of commuters roll by on their way to work. I assumed they were moving too fast to be able to see me back. It sounds a bit voyeuristic, but I didn’t do it for the thrill. It was entirely because I loathed closing the curtains again once I had opened them. I wanted to let the sun in as much as I could.
I had been afraid the weather in London would depress me. I landed in Heathrow Airport mentally prepared for torrential rain at every hour of the day. I had been told Londoners didn’t wear wellies (rain boots) – which shocked me, but also saved considerable weight in my singular suitcase. And yes, it did rain seven days per week – but the sun came out nearly every day, too. Maybe only for an hour. Or two. But the glowing orb was there most days in the London sky. And the rain was hardly ever torrential, at least not for hours on end. I was surprised by how much light came in through the clouds.
The trains rumbled past in the morning while I showered, in the afternoon when I Skyped with my mother, in the evening when I did my reading, and at night when I fell asleep pretending the whoosh of the trains was the sound of waves crashing on a beach. But in the evening there was an extra treat. At approximately 7p.m. on most weeknights a neighbor across the tracks in one of the ugly row houses would practice the saxophone. It was a lot of Frank Sinatra, but with some other saxophone classics thrown in too. For my first few months the sun was long gone by saxophone time, so I would open my window and look out into the darkness, listening to “Careless Whisper” as I read my Shakespeare. As the days got longer, I’d peer out into the setting sun, blinding myself trying to guess which window “Pink Panther” was coming from.
I never met my mystery saxophone player, but I thought about him – or her – a lot. In my fantasies it was always a “he.” We would get married and I would get my UK citizenship and we would live together in an ugly row house and he would play “Fly Me to the Moon” while I practiced my old show choir routine. His parents would come for Sunday roast and I would change everything they ever thought about “American girls.” We would do our shopping at Sainsbury’s and go for pints in the beer garden at the Fat Walrus. I would work at the National Theatre and he would do whatever it was he did when he wasn’t practicing “Pink Panther” on the saxophone. My fantasy remained unfulfilled, but I felt I had a friend in him.
His parents would come for Sunday roast and I would change everything they ever thought about ‘American girls.'”
the beginning of my time in London was in many ways, a study of loneliness.”
During the months that I lived with fences, train tracks, and row houses as my view, I spent a lot of time alone. Exploring alone, walking alone, studying alone, eating alone, traveling alone, going to plays alone. I did these things in the company of others too – especially once I made friends with locals a few months in – but the beginning of my time in London was in many ways a study of loneliness. My saxophone friend kept me company, as did the commuters on the morning train. When I couldn’t sleep at night I would hear a train rumble past and I’d know there were people awake in the darkness, just like me, only a few meters away from my window.
Returning to the United States has been, in a myriad of ways, a study of loneliness too. I try not to spend too much time thinking of the things I miss about London. I try not to hate being awake at night while my UK friends are asleep. I try not listen for my saxophone friend and the deafening sound of the trains. I try not to feel the loss of a sense of belonging – the one that took me twenty years and a 3,500 miles to find.
I try not to look at my 4 by 6 print and realize nothing about the view there has changed, however much it changed me. Nothing about the view there knows I am gone – it’s as though I was never there.