Home away from home: London, Part 1

London: March 31- June 4
By EuroStar, it takes two hours and 30 minutes to get from one major capital to the next. But there’s no view of the water as you zip through the British Chunnel—a disappointment as I had at least hoped for a small glimpse, before arriving in London.

My grandfather met me at St. Pancras—my first time seeing him since my visit, last spring break. But then, I had flown in from D.C. and Papie (grandfather in French) had met me at Paddington station.

His eyes seemed to squint slightly, as if to make sure the blur in the distance was really me. I’m sure I looked ridiculous as I rushed towards him, shooting my arm up into the air, waving enthusiastically to signal that yes, it indeed was. I hadn’t seen my grandfather in over a year—I really could care less as to what others were thinking.

The stubble of the shadow of his beard grazed my face as I leaned in for the French bise (Americans greet with hugs, the French [and my mother’s side of the family] greet with a kiss on either cheek). After four months abroad in Europe, it’s a good feeling to take a trip purely to visit family. It’s the stronger reminder that Europe holds so much more than just where I chose to study abroad.
I dropped off my carry on at my grandparents’ central London home, changing the travel sweats for a day’s dress. My grandmother and I share a mutual love for shopping and within thirty minutes of my arrival, we made our way to Oxford Street’s Primark.

The best way to catch up, really, after a year away.
It’s interesting returning to London after four months abroad; I know the city fairly well, given of last spring's visit, yet, this time, I bring the perspective of having lived in Europe during my past semester.

London lacks Paris's cafe culture; the parks aren’t groomed to perfection. The people look somewhat frumpy, and at least a quarter of the population wears sneakers. No one stares, because here, it’s not a fashion faux pas. It’s a natural sense of beauty—sort of one attained without too much effort, so unlike the careful attention to detail that makes Paris, so Paris.

I’d forgotten the ease of getting around in English. Of listening to the news without too much of focus; Of not having rehearse what I wanted say when in line to return my purchases at Primark. And of the little effort it takes to read text on advertisements and bulletins around the city.

It’s amazing how much we’re surrounded by language-- and of how easy it is to overlook it when the language is that of your native tongue.
I met my second cousin Kate, Friday afternoon.

Although re-met would be more exact, given I've been told I've met her when I was a child.

She took me for tea at the Camden Town Costa Coffee; Camden Town is a rougher looking area, slightly dingy, largely hipster and known for its [if you catch it in the right light] picturesque canal. I had left, last time, telling myself it would be the last time I’d pay the area visit.

It was wonderful meeting my cousin—a woman in her early 30s, recently married and a founder of a London- based, PR company. We chatted for an hour, swapping stories of our lives and sharing stories of the family.

She told me of her grandmother-— my one great- grandmother still alive. My father has always had a close bond with my great- grandmother, visiting her each time he returns to London. And so I thought it would be special to meet her. But the visit hadn’t worked out my last trip to London, nor did it happen this time around. Kate left me with beautiful stories of the woman—her warmth and love for all. Of her vibrant sense of independence and her fascinating streak of energy and personality.

I didn’t grow up surrounded by extended family. Sure, my grandparents visited three times year and I’d see my other set of great- grandparents once a year. But we never switched homes for shabbat meals, never had family near us to join for celebrations. And so with each trip to London, I piece a part of the lives my parents left behind. Of the history of my heritage, the stories of my family—-it's a part of my background, a part of me that I've missed by growing up away from England. It's something I've always been aware of yet never sure what to make of, given for me, I've never known anything different. 

I returned home, that evening, for shabbos dinner with my grandparents and aunt and uncle-- a norm for them but an evening quite special, for me. There's always that small tinge of sadness for what I could have had, had I grown up in London. Still, I’m lucky to experience it now, 20 years later.
Papie laying the shabbos table-- they've owned this home since they got married, only renting it out once, during their 7 year stay in Paris.
I tagged along with my grandmother for Saturday morning, Shabbat services. A fifteen-minute walk from my grandparents’ home, it’s the same shul my grandmother went to as a child, that my mother grew up in and that both my grandparents and my parents got married at.

I’ve spent my life jumping between places. From our move from Europe to the states, California to Florida, around Florida, D.C. and now this temporary stint in Paris-- I’ve moved schools, moved lives, made new friends, lost others. In many ways, it's left me flexible in adapting to a new environment. But in doing so, it leaves me without too much of a connection to one particular place.

But this shul—this is a shul my family, three generations back, has a connection to. My grandfather sits in the same seat that my great- grandfather used to sit in. And my grandmother can point out where her mother used to sit, three rows behind in the shul's upstairs women's section.

Far from the home I grew up in the states, lies a place rich with a part of my family history. I find it remarkable and unlike anything I've ever grown up around.
I loved evenings with my grandparents. Papie recounted stories of his backpacking adventure through Italy—hitchhiking his way through the country, sleeping in a stranger’s car for a night given he couldn’t afford to pay for a hotel. He talked of his solo travels, of his love for the experience yet of the loneliness he felt, spending extended periods alone.

We'd work our way upstairs after dinner, the three of us preparing to settle in for the night. It was these moments that I most loved. I’d sit on the staircase, my grandmother seated on the chair behind me, the two of us running through my pictures to choose ones to send to my mother. Other evenings, I'd walk into my grandparents' room, enjoying the company as we did our own thing. And the time my grandmother went through her makeup drawer, dishing out eyeliner and mascara she no longer wanted. Of me trying it on, commenting on how well the makeup worked. Of my grandmother agreeing—and then deciding perhaps she should have it back.

I slept in my uncle’s old room, nestled in a new sleeping bag my grandparents had bought especially for my visit. For comfort, the sleeping bag was set on top of an older sleeping bag—-one for a small child and the same on I used, at age nine, when we had come to London for our Green Cards. I had slept in the same room, but at the time it had seemed so much larger. Things have a way of looking different as you grow up.

Hanging out with Mamie in my mother's old room.
The country was in midst of celebration for the Queen’s Jubilee, during my weekend visit. The event was one was of burgeoning national pride—highlighted by the two, British flags bearing the Queen’s face, posted on the front window of my grandparents' home.

My grandparents love the royal family, my grandmother raving over the 60 years of the Queen’s loyalty and service for the country. A living proof of the country's extensive history, the Queen guides prime ministers with her wealth of experience, warming the heart of the country through that smile of hers that, my grandmother likes to say, has never faltered over the 60 years of her reign.

I don’t really understand why people want their tax dollars going towards a "royal" family, when the rest of the country is suffering from an economic crisis and job shortage. But that’s just my opinion.

I went to Tower Bridge to take part in Sunday's river procession. I couldn’t see anything given I was so far away from the water, but the large screens broadcasted the boats making their way along the Thames, ending just under the bridge that I, and the hundreds of others, were standing on. I left drenched, as the rain poured down just after the Queen passed under Tower Bridge.

It had been a good visit, however fast it all went by. It never fails to leave me reflecting over what life could have been had we not moved from London. It’s strange having a connection to London, when in so many ways, I feel more American than anything else.

The passports that’s granted me passageway for my travels reads British, and the background and home environment I grew up around is also British. But my pride in my country is pride more for America, than for England. I shared the excitement for the Jubilee as an observer, not as someone who grew up with admiration for the royal figure that symbolizes my country, my heritage, my people.

I left London not any more clear of my connection to my birthplace. It’s home away from home because my family lives there. But the city itself… that I haven’t yet built the relationship with. There's no stamp on my passport and I didn't come away with a new pair of Primark traveling blue shoes, because they were out of them in my size.

And so I left my grandparents, early Monday morning. Our goodbyes were rushed given I didn’t want to miss the bus. But it’s better that way as I’m not good at goodbyes, especially the drawn out ones to people I don’t want to leave.

The view outside blurred as the bus picked up speed, leaving my grandparents and the city behind as we made our way to the airport. I’d be in the Holy Land by the evening: Home, in Israel.

(Trip to Israel: to be continued...)

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