I’ve wanted to live in England since I was nine. A fourth-grade unit on Medieval Times had my brain filled with images of sprawling hills and stately castles, my imagination spurred on by myths of King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table and the Sword in the Stone. Years later, my fascination with the country shifted focus, my world orbiting around the bands that called England home, my chunky, 120GB iPod classic (AKA my pride and joy) filled with tracks by Arctic Monkeys and The Vaccines and Spector and Palma Violets. England has occupied a fair chunk of my mind for much of my life, and I’ve always been content to let it take up that space.
In order to satisfy what felt like an empty space in my chest, I chased England with all I had. I read a lot of books, daydreaming about settling in the capital. I bought countless Union Jack branded items, covering my bed in cushions and carrying around a London-themed tote bag that I bought at a Topshop in Chicago – a pilgrimage I only made because it seemed to me like the coolest store I could ever shop at. I painted watercolour pictures of the skyline. I wrote quotes in the margins of my notebook, my favourite one being Samuel Johnson’s confident declaration that “When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.”
Eventually, at eighteen, I got to visit London for the first time. Part of me worried that I had romanticized it all, that it wouldn’t live up to my expectations, that I had built up false visions of its glory. The week I spent there, though, was life-affirming and glorious. Days were spent in museums – a morning at the Tate Modern on my own, moments passed in front of pieces by Guerilla Girls and Joseph Beuys, an afternoon at the V&A, a few hours wandering through the Natural History Museum. I drank a lot of coffee from Monmouth, wandered the South Bank and checked off all the tourist destinations. I dragged Abby to Brick Lane because I was desperate to go to Rough Trade East, and both of us were terrified when a street poet stopped us on the sidewalk and asked us to buy one of his poems, insisting that “it’s only poetry, love.”
I didn’t think I’d get to come back so soon. After that trip, I knew that London was where I wanted to set my life up, but in my head that was still five or ten years away. When the opportunity to apply to study at the University of Leeds – which wasn’t London, but was definitely close enough – came up, I hesitantly took my chance. Applying was daunting and I was never confident that I’d be accepted, and then my acceptance was a bit of an ordeal and it took me a while to believe that I was well and truly going to spend five months living in the country I’d always dreamed of.
Reality didn’t set in until I was days away from leaving Canada. Although I knew, deeply, that I was meant for this and that I desperately needed the fresh start that was being offered to me on a silver platter, fear began to dominate my thoughts. I never considered calling it all off, but I did mull over what would happen if I chose the safe option, if I stayed safely in Ontario, where I spent mornings on the couch with my mum watching interior design shows and drinking copious amounts of tea, where I could easily cuddle my baby sister and go for a drive with Abby just so we could sing along to Dua Lipa and MUNA and Taylor Swift, where I could meet up with my friends and go record shopping or out for dinner or spend an hour browsing the racks of BMV. Fear is consuming and untruthful, though, and I managed to quell it long enough to board the plane.
And I am so unbelievably happy that I boarded that plane. Hours later, I arrived in Leeds feeling sleepy but nonetheless electric. Our taxi wove through the streets and I tried to accustom myself to driving on the wrong side of the road. It was almost dusk, the sky turning powdery and thick, and the buildings that surrounded us were unfamiliar and caught me in a perpetual state of awe. I spent my first night in my tiny dorm room with dining hall pizza and Netflix, overcome with happiness at the fact that I was doing all the things I normally do, but I was doing them in England.
It took me a few days to settle into life in Leeds, to get used to the thrum of a new city and the heartbeats of new people. It took me longer to figure out the winding streets and the arcades and the paths around campus, and for a while it felt as if the outside world was mirroring my inside one: jumbled and confusing, but still, somehow, completely connected and perfectly laid out.
All I wanted from Leeds was the fresh start I had been longing for for nearly two years. I wanted to figure out how to let go of the excess weight of broken friendships and people leaving without explanation, the layers of missed connections and fumbling feet and a voice that couldn’t always figure out what it was meant to be saying. I wanted to learn. I wanted to be far away from all the things I’ve always known. I wanted to see the world up close, to let unfamiliarity settle inside my bones, to become comfortable with an unclear future. I got all of that. And I also got a whole lot more.
When I look back at the past five months, it’s a blur. Day trips and plane rides and coffee dates. Long conversations and afternoons in the park alternating sips of a gin and tonic and licks of an ice lolly. Staying up late to write, pinning new quotes to my bulletin board, seeing movies and going to gigs and walking streets that I’d only ever seen in the visions I weave behind my eyes. Museums and art and laughter and meditation. Brunch and books and ticket stubs. An endless list of things that made this all feel like the best decision I’ve ever made, a truth that seemed to reveal itself over and over again.
There were big moments and little moments and in between moments. A four-hour bus ride back from Oxford, Laura and Emma and I getting to properly know one another for the first time, the three of us the loudest ones on the coach but without a care in the world. A failed hike three-quarters of the way up Arthur’s Seat, a narrowly missed panic attack and Laura’s hand around mine as she led me back down, the most reassuring thing I could have asked for. Brianna and Laura and I blasting One Direction, singing and dancing and laughing as we packed Brianna’s suitcases on her last day in Leeds, dragging out the entire act so that we wouldn’t have to part before we were ready.
There were moments that left too soon and moments that will stick around in my memory forever. Groups of us sipping coffee and conversing for hours on end and then a few of us heading directly to meditation society, always the kind of afternoon that I wanted to stretch on into eternity. Emma and I in the Picasso Museum in Barcelona, reunited after barely a week and a half apart, tripping over our words as we spoke over our audioguides in an attempt to catch each other up on the events of the days that had passed while we were in separate countries. A night when my heart felt like it was about to fall out of my chest, Emma and Laura barging into my dorm room armed with Pimm’s and biscuits and chocolate, a couple hours passing as we yelled cathartically into the ether, none of us knowing that I’d wake up the next morning with life feeling like it had righted itself.
There were moments that felt unreal and moments that felt like life was very, very close to my body. Abby and I sitting on the side of the Seine at golden hour, armed with a bag of croissants and pain au chocolat, a string quartet slinging melodies through the air as a haphazardly gathered choir sang along. Laura and I in the Tate Liverpool, the pair of us standing in front of the first Jenny Holzer piece we’d ever seen, staring at Truisms in awe as we read all the truths scanning themselves across the marquee. A trip to Durham Cathedral and Alnwick Castle, my heart overflowing as my eyes flitted over the familiar outlines of Harry Potter filming locations, my mind weaving visions of Snape’s black cloak billowing through the halls and of Hermione glaring pointedly at her defiant broomstick, urging it to float up and into her grasp.
There was music, and lots of it. My body packed in with dozens of others, watching Harry Styles from the pit as he sang and spoke and danced, my arms raised and my voice loud and my heart on fire at the fact that I got to experience such a thing. Harry again, less than two weeks later, Abby and I standing in awe as he played ‘Sweet Creature’ under a whirling disco ball, our arms outstretched as we held out a flag we had painted, the fabric emblazoned with Harry’s irrefutable mantra: Treat People With Kindness. Four days passing, and then I’m at the front of Alexandra Palace, and The Vaccines are in front of me, and there’s confetti in my hair and the biggest smile known to mankind on my face and I don’t have any voice left but I’m soaring and the night is glorious because I’m finally seeing my favourite band play a show. And then, the beginning of June, London glowing as Patti Smith graces the stage, tears in my eyes and rivers of adoration and devotion dripping from my skin.
The thread that connects it all, though, is the people, many of whom I now refuse to live without. Friends who know how to mend broken hearts, who give spectacular pep talks, who won’t turn down a brunch date or a walk into town for a slice of cake. Friends who are as ridiculously romantic as I am, who know how to find the light, who say what needs to be said no matter what the sentences look like. Friends who are thoughtful and loyal and protective and empathetic. Friends who are on my side and who show up and who are exactly what I needed – and still need. The moments here, the joys and the aches and the confusion and the blind searching, they wouldn’t have been the same without the people I got to share the hours with, and I won’t ever let that go.
Later, after exams were done and life in Leeds had lulled, I ventured out on my own. Two weeks spent gallivanting around Europe, moving from Milan to Budapest to Prague to Amsterdam. I went to a lot of museums, slipping the tickets between the pages of my journal to keep forever, physical representations of the memories pressed close to my wordy explanations of them. I saw pieces by Frida Kahlo and Van Gogh and Warhol. I stood for ages in front of a photo by Patti Smith. I saw my first Koons and I fell more in love with contemporary art than I could have ever imagined and I laid on the floor of a gallery in Amsterdam along with a dozen other museum-goers, all of us gazing up at the silken flowers that fell close to our faces before retreating back into their metal shells.
I took a daytrip to Crema, watching the Italian countryside roll past me through the train windows. I wandered the streets in search of the doorway and the newsstand from Call Me By Your Name, my mind an endless loop of Oliver’s voice repeating Elio’s name over and over again as if it was a prayer. I sat in a café on a canal in Amsterdam, sipping a cappuccino and eating a fresh stroopwafel and writing, stopping periodically to gaze out of the open window, to take a moment to feel the breeze dance across my face. I got stopped in the streets of Budapest by a stranger who asked me if I was an artist, and I managed to get out a “yeah, kind of” before walking away and wishing I had said that I was an artist through and through, no “kind of” required.
I laid in a lot of parks, often armed with gelato and a book or my tattered leather journal, taking refuge from the busy cities in favour of finding the sun. I made myself put my phone away, not even stopping to take photos, choosing instead to commit the rooflines and the rivers and the crowds of people to memory, locking them inside my mind forever. I walked through castles and cathedrals and ossuaries, I stopped by fountains and statues in city squares, I wandered through markets and bought fresh fruit and pastries, I lingered in the light when golden hour hit and I admired every sunset. I focused on all the little things that we use to build up our lives, and I reminded myself how important those little things are.
My flight home from Amsterdam was delayed by three hours and I didn’t get back into Leeds until five in the morning, but returning to England felt like magic. I had been awake long enough to watch the sun set and then rise again, and I looked out the window of the coach as we moved through Manchester and Bradford and then Leeds, feeling completely at peace. I was exhausted and my limbs felt like they were moving through honey and I silently begged my Uber driver to stop speaking to me as he drove me back to my dorm from the station, but I felt happy nonetheless. This experience hasn’t always been easy, but I’ve always been able to find that happiness, and I don’t think I’ll ever lose it.
Leeds became a lot of things for me all at once – a resting place, a place to reinvent myself, a place where I felt like I could draw out all the parts of me that I’d been waiting to show to the world. I feel like a completely different person than the girl who first set foot here five months ago. I’m more confident. I’m braver, more willing to take risks and to speak up. I spend more time with the people I love and I pay attention to how it feels to be alive in any given moment and I write as if my heart is constantly on fire. The life I want and the life I’m living don’t feel so different anymore, and I don’t think that would have happened if I hadn’t had this experience.
It’s an odd thing, building a life that only lasts five months. One with little to no foundation, one sewn out of scraps of things that feel familiar and things that are completely new and things that fall somewhere in the middle. I often felt like I was fumbling through the dark with nothing to hang onto, but I always managed to find the light at the end of the tunnel. My time here feels soft and slow, as if it has bloomed across my skin like a purpling bruise, but it also feels pummeling and quick, like a freight train barrelling through barren countryside. It’ll swirl through my veins for a while, this city, and I don’t really think I mind that.
Living here has been a dream, one I’ve chased for a decade and finally managed to catch between the tips of my ink-stained fingers. And the thing about realizing one dream is that all the rest of your dreams suddenly feel closer. All the times I’ve told myself “I want to” or “maybe someday” or “I wish I could” have been left in the past and replaced with “I’m going to” or “I will” or “I’m working on it.” I’m making a conscious effort to have a hand in my own life, to fill my days with things that mean something, to own up to my choices and my words and my actions. I don’t want to leave it all up to the world anymore. I want to leave it up to me.
I’m going to come back. Probably not to Leeds, but definitely to London. That doesn’t even feel like an option anymore. It feels like a must, something I have to do for myself if I want my future to play out the way I see it in my mind and feel it in my heart. This country will always mean something to me, always be the place where my soul settles instantly, always carry a certain magic that I haven’t managed to find anywhere else. There’s no way I can leave forever. Not when England brought me lifelong friends, not when it wrote my dreams on my skin in permanent marker, not when it cleared my vision and showed me the way forward, even if the way forward is only a couple steps for now.
This is the ending of a chapter. One that feels like it was written too quickly, crammed so full that it’s started to overflow, words and sentences and paragraphs trying to crawl out of the pages and reveal themselves again, bringing lessons and knowledge and emotion with them. But I have to shut it anyway. I have to step onto the next blank page and move into something new. And, despite the sadness that comes along with leaving, that somehow feels alright. England will always be here. Always calling my name, always tied to my heart, always showing me more and more of who I am and what I want. And, sooner rather than later, I’ll answer it. And my answer won’t have a time limit. My answer will sound like forever.