It ends with the long haul on the Piccadilly line. Twenty-three stops, Heathrow-bound.
A handful of commuters filtering out at each stop, returning to their 'another' London day. I had no another days remaining; the visa expiry in my passport was uncompromisingly stamped hard and definitive.
Alessandro Barrico wrote, "It's a strange grief to die of nostalgia for something you never lived" and that's exactly how it felt to leave London. Severed, incomplete; a beautiful home you simply can't belong to anymore.
The youth mobility visa is an antipodean rite of passage for many twenty-something Aussies like me. But as is the way of the current UK visa laws, I have no recent ancestry link, and so after two years to the day, my time was up.
Living in London is an incredible experience. My two years were the most messy, thrilling, best of my life. I arrived on a one-way ticket, with a suitcase full of curiosity for the big unknown; with shoulders heaving from giant sobs and the silhouettes of my closest caught steadfast in my vision, like when you stare at the sun for too long. I stepped through the International security gates and left every constant behind.
Arriving in London, you can choose your own adventure, and live many different lives, but one is non-negotiable: you'll live on the edge of experience. No matter good or bad, it's all heightened. London steals, and crushes, and floods your heart. You cry often, not in sadness, but in moments where you're just really in it; utterly eclipsed.
London is a strange world where you can buy sandwiches at the chemist, and wine at the supermarket. It's a vibrant, chaotic hub; a swarming melting pot of culture, yet it can be a lonely place. London is a purposeful contradiction. Alive, charming and impossibly infectious.
Rootlessness is uncomfortable, but standard. Life is transient. You're constantly somewhere between welcoming, bonding and letting go, overlapped with timelines of arriving or disappearing friends. Homesickness dismounts you with no apparent trigger, but mostly, missing loved ones becomes a dormant throb rather than active longing.
It's entirely possible to love and hate London with ferocious, equal intensity. On good days, you're invincible. Because you're there, and you're living your dream. On bad days, you want to tumble over the edge of the world: frustrated, perplexed and fiercely clutching your Vegemite jar. Tomorrow, you'll rise, determined to endure.
Six months in, you start to connect dots. After one year, you find flow. You're on a first-name basis with staff at coveted coffee spots, and returning from weekend trips you have a distinct feeling of 'home'.
The proximity of venturing to different cities is something that anyone hailing from remote Australia could never take for granted. With just my camera and wayfarer spirit, I ventured to different European destinations on more weekends than I did not. Every cent earned that didn't go to rent went to wandering strange and wonderful cities: Copenhagen. Helsinki. Lisbon. Sardegna. Istanbul. Reykjavik. Paris.
Approaching two years, on the precipice of (truly) belonging, you have no option but to leave. Hello, visa exile. I had always assumed I had more years spread before me. HR had stressed that sponsorship was a simple procedure. As it turned out... not so much. At one point, I wrote to a lawyer in desperation, "There just isn't any alternative option available, is there?" and she replied, "Haha- yes there is! Get married!"
Living in London gave me the chance to learn quickly, feel intensely and see with greater perspective. Being far away from everything you've known does that. I'm much the same now, yet expansive. A more lived, worn-down, beamed-up version of my pre-London self. Grateful for the world; awestruck by its beauty. These parts of me, they will stay.
But in leaving, there are parts of myself that had to remain behind. There are parts I could only ever find again by going back. And that's just the thing: I have no way to. My London-me, and what I had to offer, reached limit. Unable to become; unable to go further, simply because of the bureaucratic process.
It's small moments of the everyday that I'll miss. The exceptionally happy conductor at Bank station, and dewy mornings at Hampstead Heath. Acoustic nights up the crooked staircase of the Stoke Newington flat. The Mecca of Borough Market: piles of rainbow chard, cheese wheels the size of tables and paella in pans you could bathe in.
I'll miss gliding along the DLR and gazing up to Canary Wharf skyscrapers; trying to understand the subtleties of my lover's jazz in my ears. I'll miss the endless stretches of time alone, feeling and unfeeling; the comfort of anonymity. Pimms and sun-soaked siestas at London Fields. Cartoon-like black cabs, squirrels and foxes. Soho on sticky summer nights. The abundance of blooms at Columbia Road Flower Market, my happy place. Nights out in underground speak-easys, and the Friday night rush to Heathrow for adventures.
On landing in Adelaide, the first thing I noticed was how sweet the air is. The sheer spaciousness of sky. I gasped at the stars; I'd forgotten about those. Life here is simpler.
Returning makes you feel permanently in-between. Not all here, not all there. A duality; a chasm between two parallel lives that cannot coexist.
Some weeks on, London very much feels the world away that it is; yet achingly close. I'm so far from where I belong, yet right at home. Or, so far from home, yet right where I belong. I can't even be sure.
There's a potent Portuguese word, with no direct translation in English. Saudade: profound longing for an absent something; love that remains for something that will never exist again.
This is what it feels like. I can't think of a better way to describe my London calling.
Dear visa man, you can take the girl out of London, but you cannot (ever) take London out of the girl.
(Image above taken by Caitlin Carey, all other images by author)
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