Settling back into old routines once again in London this summer made me think about my relationship with my old life after a year living in America. Although I was catching up with friends in similar ways and places to during my time at high school, this time all of us had come back from new places and lives so different to our old ones. In spite of our new experiences, our dialogue and interactions were framed in the same ways as before. We attempted to explain to each other what we were doing in the context of our new homes and caught up on who was up to what. We were trying to pigeonhole all of this into the context of a familiar surrounding and old friendships.
I also spent a lot of time with friends from Princeton who were studying in or visiting London. Naturally, much of what we did and talked about related to Princeton and the different perspective they had on aspects of London life about which I had formed fixed ideas during my childhood. I think the combination of spending time with these two groups of friends (I did, on occasion, succeed in mixing the two) has helped me understand how college has affected my conception of home. It has shown me that my understanding and appreciation of my experiences both in London and at Princeton has been improved by my relationships with friends with new perspectives on these familiar places.
When I met up with Princetonians in London they asked me to take them out to my favorite spots, the kind of under the radar bars and cafes that only a local would know about. I was always slightly at a loss as to what to say. I realized that most of the places that came to mind did so because they were near my house, high school or had some other kind of sentimental value—not the kind of places I would want to go to if I was visiting their hometown. Even though I had access to one of the biggest and most diverse cities in the world for my whole life, I felt that I had never really lived in London as a city, instead I had merely grown up in a couple of parts of London. Having experienced what it is like to have a new home for the first time, it became easier to see the old one in the eyes of a relatively mature student. I was no longer unable to reflect on its nature because it was the only place associated with the idea of home.
Back in London, my Princeton friends, who had only been there for a few days, had gone out in parts of the cities that I had never explored. They would talk about these exciting-sounding places assuming that I had been there or at least heard of them. Instead, I was learning local knowledge from my friends who probably felt like tourists. For example, my friend Ali took me to a bar which was themed like a detective’s office—you had to ring a bell and pretend you had an urgent case and only then would they reveal the other side of an office with a secretary sitting in front a false wall. This place was literally a five-minute walk from my house and apparently very popular, but I had never even heard of it. I’d always thought my neighborhood was a boring residential one.
Another friend, Chris would tell me about his nights out in Soho, known as one of the most fun parts of the city. I would just nod and act like I knew what he was talking about even though I didn’t have the slightest clue.
There is something strange about feeling like a tourist in your own city. I realized that I would not discover London in the same way with my old friends as I could with my Princeton friends. My Princeton friends visiting London had an inquisitive and explorative mindset, the kind I thought came naturally to me because I behave that way at Princeton. By adopting this mindset, it was possible for me to understand how other people might form impressions of London and link these impressions to what they thought of me and other Londoners at Princeton. This kind of thinking was useful because it showed the extent to which familiarity with a certain place could make someone take that place for granted.
For the first time this summer, wandering around neighborhoods that were across the city from where I live now actually appealed to me more than my quiet, pretty residential neighborhood. Before this summer, my thoughts on London as a city had been dominated by long-forgotten anecdotes and opinions impressed upon me when I first looked at maps of the city, inquiring to my parents about what kind of place lay behind each post code and tube station.
My new explorations of London made me realize that it was wrong to consider all of a huge city as solely my home. It was the sometimes-banal day-to-day experiences with my family and at school that meant something in terms of how my sense of self developed. I think no matter how big or small the place where someone grows up, this is something many of us have in common. So when I say my home is London, what I associate with that statement is a set of memories that can never be replicated. Similarly—and curiously—after telling stories about and describing people at Princeton to my English friends, I’m starting to form an idea of the ways in which Princeton is also now my home.