“Everything’s uglier up close.” — Margo Roth Spiegelman, from John Green’s Paper Towns
Nearly two weeks ago, on a Tuesday, I entered Charlotte-Douglas International Airport, with a green hiking backpack heavy on my shoulders and my then-boyfriend rolling my enormous duffle bag behind him. When I got in line for security and looked back, my then-ex-boyfriend waved and disappeared down the escalators. So I tried not to cry, called my mom, and moved on to the scanners and metal detectors.
The next few hours and days are a blur of strangers, poor sleep and figuring out how to get in touch with people back home. Mostly, I remember being exhausted. The thing is, I hadn’t, in the weeks leading up to my departure, yet been excited for this trip. On the outside, I think I’d prepared pretty well: following London and England travel accounts on Instagram, starting a rough list of other cities and countries to visit, buying a couple more sweaters (naively thinking that would be enough). I’d known basically since my first day at USC that I wanted to study abroad, and my friends and I had agonized over different programs in any number of far-off places. But as leaving drew inevitably closer, it became more intimidating that anything else.
Sometime around when October faded into November, I almost bailed. About a week before I left, I almost bailed again. But despite all the panic I felt over and over again at the thought of going, I went. And the first night — as I struggled to warm my chilly room and to connect to the Internet so I could get in touch with people — all I wanted to do was go home.
A week and a half later, it feels like much more than that, and yet I still can’t fully conceive of having nearly 20 weeks to go. In some moments, I still wish desperately to go home, to my cat, my bed, my favorite mugs. But things have also started to settle into place. Even without a surge of excitement or elation, it’s nearly impossible to not be enthralled with an entirely new world of picturesque side streets and charming accents. On my second Saturday in the city, my flatmate Robert took me and my Norwegian flatmate, Julie, to see London from the Shard, a half-mile tall building from which the rest of the city unfurls in a spectacular landscape.
On principle, I reject Margo’s assertion that “everything’s uglier up close,” although the view from the Shard really is incredible, particularly around sunset, when the building’s shadow plunges across the Thames very close to the iconic Tower Bridge. From afar, it’s easy to forget the things that have been hard about London so far: the stress of the grocery stores, a sometimes-frigid dorm room, missing a bus because I forget we have to flag it down for it to stop. Similarly, from 4,000 miles away, I remember and desperately miss only the good things from home and none of the daily annoyances and inconveniences. Perhaps a bird’s eye view can only be seen through rose-tinted glasses.
Perhaps when things are up close, you can see the blemishes and cracks. There are things I don’t particularly miss about Columbia — radically indecisive weather, for instance — and I’m grateful to have space from the United States’ political situation at this point. And I also wouldn’t miss the things I love if they weren’t far from me. But the fact remains that I love the things and moments and people that I do because they were once close, with all their little flaws and imperfections. Yes, my cat would often yowl incessantly while I showered or throw up hairballs, but she would also curl up next to my head on sleepy mornings and settle in my lap while I read. I don’t yearn for Columbia or USC as a whole, but rather for Cool Beans’ pasta salad and my friends’ laughs and dances around the kitchen while dinner cooks.
I miss what I love for everything that I can see and feel and experience when it is with me. In the next few months, I hope that I can discover and fall in love with London in that same way — not from afar, but up close.