London was not my idea, but the inception of my friend and once-roomate in college. Roz was going to England after graduation, to work and live for six months; she begged me to go, because I don't think any of her other friends would. I didn't have any pressing plans besides, only to eventually earn a teaching certfication and maybe move to New York City. I lazed through an application process with the work program BUNAC, secured my passport and plane tickets, packed my bags. Roz and I departed on an inconspicuous day in June.
As if in a fog, yet in amidst the hottest summer in London to date, I carried my bags from carosel to Tube, into a cab, and onto the curb in some suburb west of the city. Roz's relatives owned a respectable flat over a market and we were allowed to stay there -- rent-free -- until we found our own place. We each had our own bedroom. There was a large bathroom and a sunshiney, eat-in kitchen. On July 4th, we sat in the open front window, watching the Bastille Day fireworks way off somewhere over Central London and drinking wine. It was lovely.
We had to get on with it, and an ad in the paper led us to Earls Court, whwere we found a furnished, basement flat right on Old Brompton Road. The flat was dark and cool, with basically one room and one queen-sized bed; The hot water and electricity ran off of meters (in the kitchen that used to be a hallway) and fifty pence coins. The bathroom had a resident long-legged spider. But the location was good, within walking distance from Chelsea and South Kensington.
If our flat was nothing to write home about, my job at the Duke of Yorks Headquarters, an old miliary establishment on the Kings Road, was even less so. Without even trying, I had put myself into a the life of a typical Londoner: living in a small, overpriced apartment, and working in a boring, gossipy office. In fact, I could have been in any American city, as well. Every morning, I piled into the body-odor-filled Tube car and most evenings I spent eating Indian food or hanging out at the pub.
I had taken to walking home from work, because I could and the summer evenings were still warm and bright. I'd look at the map, chart my course, and off I'd go. One day, I ended up too far south and west of Earls Court, so I cut up through the Brompton Cemetery; by my calculations, I would end up around the corner from my flat. I walked the long promenade up the middle and found it to be quite a soothing place. Not a living soul seemed to be there besides me.
Each trip through the cemetery was a new adventure. One day, I smelled an earthy, charred smell and saw a gravesite smoldering; I'd wondered how often and why this happened. Another time, a path up through the headstones led me to an over-eager man who stood smiling at me and it took me a bit to notice that his shorts were pulled aside to reveal his fleshy privates; I gave a short greeting and quickly backed away. On a Saturday, I donned my rollerblades and took to the macadam that looped around the entire cemetery. It was a wonderful place to exercise, if one didn't mind the death. It certainly didn't bother me and it was better than my flat or the pub.
Then I began to notice more people in the cemetery, on weekdays and week-ends. These new folks would be strolling, or pushing their kids in strollers, or jogging around my macadam track. And I began to acknowledge the seedy side of the place, the fact that some individuals needed to go to a cemetery to rendezvous and find companionship. I frequented the graveyard less and less.
Not to mention that I'd made a friend at work who had a car; he would drive me home as the dreary winter nights began. Then I began to explore places outside of London. I stood at Greenwhich Mean Time and rode a barge down the Thames from Hampton Court. I rode the M20 to Walderslade and took the railway to Falmouth, in Cornwall. I ran through a field of heather in southern Scotland and spent New Years Eve in the Lake District listening to a Pogues cover band. I felt like I was inhabiting a home conceived of in my own mind, a place so so real and so imaginary. The imagery of a Pilcher novel or a Lawrence short story was vivid and tactile.
Then my work visa expired and I had to return to the States and I felt like an outsider, again. I eventually lost my newly-acquired Brit accent and became accustomed again to the audacity of the United States. Never in subsequent visits to London have I felt that same sense of home; I'm a tourist now and forevermore. I did, however, come to find a place in my native land, via my jaunt across the big pond.
And my mind will never release the England that I've known. It'll always be a part of me. And I'll always have the Brompton Cemetery (although I let go of my rollerblades, somewhere in Las Vegas, Nevada).