My PhD in London
I landed in London five years ago today at 7 o’clock in the morning.
Eight hours before that, my mom dropped me off at the airport. It was the afternoon in Washington D.C. We’d gotten too close to the airport too early and spent an hour drinking iced coffee in a furniture shop in a strip mall somewhere in Maryland.
My mom parked the car at short term parking so that she could come inside with me. We spent a long time hanging out just before the security check and took this photo:
I was wearing blue nail polish. I had a flight playlist prepared called boatride. I bought one of those masks that covers your eyes. I kissed my mom goodbye, turned away and started sobbing.
I was pretty afraid. I had only ever been away from home for months at a time. I had always lived my life knowing that I could come home and stare out the half moon shaped window in my childhood room. What’s more, I’d never been to London (or the UK for that matter) and was going there mostly because some boy I kissed in Spain told me that London was a great place and that I had to check it out¹.
For the first year, I was living in a flat with very few windows and no living room with seven other people, four of whom didn’t speak English and several of whom I never even met.
My bedroom had two whole walls in it that were covered with moldy spots that got all over my clothes and shoes. My roommates taped KEEP OUT OF OUR CABINETS signs on what were, I suppose, their cabinets in the kitchen. I didn’t understand how to get the heating to work and I spent my nights wrapped in a blanket, eating rationed Belvita biscuits and hoping that none of my roommates came home².
Despite my flat being close to uninhabitable, I spent my days and nights out around the wealthiest people in all of the UK. Just like in college, everyone I met had at least one secret about their life that made them extraordinary.
Being an ordinary international student whose parents weren’t the CEO of anything but book club made me feel self conscious. I spent a lot of time buying clothes that would make me fit in with the fabric of Kensington & Chelsea. I wanted to look like I’d always lived in a city and like there was nothing remarkable about London to me.
That couldn’t have been farther from the truth, though. Everything about London was so new that anything blew my mind. I would take photos while still walking and think Genius, I must post that.
An example of that is this photo, taken in Notting Hill:
There was no time for interesting captions or stopping — I had to keep walking around and soaking in the architecture and the way that everything was so British. My friend Amanda and I would mimic the checkout computer when it said Thank you for shopping at Waitrose and talked endlessly about all of the small differences between us and them and this and America.
I went home once during my first year in April, to attend my one year college reunion. It was during this trip that I learned how other-worldly home feels when you’re not around it very much.
I never thought that the place where I grew up could feel as foreign as London did when I first arrived. But since living in London, every trip home is one long throwback.
Every trip home is remembering what the grocery store looks like and how nice it is to get a free sample while ordering American cheese at the deli counter. Every trip home is remembering what my childhood home smells like and what it feels like to wake up and know that my mom is downstairs drinking coffee. Every trip home is turning on the TV and still remembering what gameshow or daytime television show I should watch given the time. Every trip home is being astounded by how many people will come up and talk to you at the post office and at the grocery store and on a night out. Every trip home is remembering how bad I am at binge drinking.
When I landed back in the UK, it was time for me to begin my dissertation. In only seven months, I would have to move back to the US unless I could get a work visa. Around that time, I would often tear up imagining what it would feel like to be on the tarmac, sitting in a window seat, watching Heathrow get farther away from me until I lifted off of England for the last time.
I decided that I couldn’t leave so soon. So, I went to a job fair and walked up to each and every booth, irrespective of what the company did, asking if they had internships. Most people said no or asked me what I wanted to do with my life so I’d say databases or something and run away, but the representative for MOO said maybe. I came in for a meeting with the CTO.
“We’ll give you a shot, and if it doesn’t work out, we’ll just fire you,” he said.
“That sounds reasonable!” I replied. I was on my way:
Before working at MOO in Shoreditch, I hadn’t been more east in London than Oxford Circus.
I didn’t think the hipster trend existed outside of America or that there was another option for going out in London other than nightclubs with table service. I thought that everyone in London drove luxury cars and spoke with their lips curled up like Hugh Grant every time he said “oh right”.
I was ecstatic about having gotten London all wrong and spent the next couple of months eating at hip east London food establishments and replacing all of my uncool, west London clothes with a whole new “hipster” wardrobe.
I moved to Angel into a flat above a discount martial arts supply store. I made new east London friends and spent most of my time drinking pints outside or inside if it was raining. I would wake up early on the weekends, still drunk, and go on invigorating runs around Islington:
That’s how I spent the next two years: working, drinking and eating. Buying clothes and going on runs and learning how to be a better software engineer. I loved where I worked and the people who worked there and was happy to rock up to MOO every day, make some toast and code.
I’d walk the same beautiful walk back to Angel afterward, past the hairdressers and vintage shops and cycle shops on Amwell Street. I fell into a routine and enjoyed many pretty moments of my very pretty young life.
Around year three, my life started to feel unsatisfying.
Coding for one year felt like an experiment. But, the second and third year passed and I was still a software engineer, unsure of whether it was what I should be doing and unsure of whether it made me happy. I wanted to try new careers, but couldn’t because I was sponsored to live in the UK to code.
I’d also fallen into the trap of endlessly wanting some new thing — I was desperate for the thing that would finally make me feel cool and complete. I had a closet full of unwearable clothes, a bathroom full of once used face masks. I spent my life getting coffees and getting beers and getting food, but not getting very much out of it.
I started to get really anxious. I spent a lot of my time wishing I was back home in America. I missed the freedom that comes with being from a place and was jealous of people who could do whatever job they wanted and still live in the country that they were living in.
I fantasized a lot about leaving. I fantasized about moving to Los Angeles and living on the beach, going on runs, listening to Childish Gambino and falling in the sand at the end. About pushing my foot down on the accelerator of my car, belting out Amy Winehouse as I moved west, away for the weekend on a trip to the desert³.
Even though it was my choice to live in London and work as a software engineer, not being able to try different professions or take a break from professional work made living in London feel like a prison. It was frustrating that I had to choose between coding and living in my favorite place or doing whatever I wanted in a bunch of places that I could only dream about.
Despite my fantasizing, I still loved London and was desperate to stay⁴. So, I changed jobs. I figured that a new job would test my interest in software engineering and I hoped that my anxieties about what I should be doing with my life would fade softly into the background if I had something more pressing to pay attention to.
In April of 2018, I started working at Bulb, a green energy provider. At the time, Bulb was a super hip, fast-growing start up full of young people. It’s offices were in a very beautiful shared working space called Second Home:
Since joining Bulb, I’ve made some new friends and started working on figuring out what I actually want to do and whether I can do that in London. And in the past year, I have done a lot of things that have made me feel like a new Alex.
I lived in five different flats, which taught me that everything you buy is something that you have to throw away or carry with you in a reusable grocery bag to the next flat that doesn’t have space for it. I started taking improv classes, which taught me that you can be funny when you try to be. I got a tattoo, which taught me that the moment that you get something tattooed onto your skin, twelve better ideas about how the tattoo should look come to your mind instantly. I started skateboarding, which taught me that falling a distance you’d happily jump isn’t so scary. And I went on a ten day silent meditation retreat, which taught me that five dragonflies can land on your sweater at the same time if you stay still enough and that the longer you stare at a curtain, the more interesting it gets.
Nowadays, every day feels like a gift. I don’t worry so much about what it is that I’m meant to do or where it is that I’m meant to be and instead focus on doing things that make me happy.
Five years in, I still miss home a lot.
I would have thought that it would get easier to be away from home as the years went by, but it actually gets much harder. I can’t help but worry that time is slipping away and that my friends and family are getting used to my absence.
I worry about all the time that I’ve missed — all of the big things like weddings and graduations and Christmas parties and all of the small things like two hours at the mechanics with my dad or laughing with my mom after a confusing experience at the post office or walking into a high school reunion with my brothers.
I miss the life that I didn’t but could have had, living my twenties somewhere in America. I think about the places that Alex would have gone and the things that Alex would have done.
Living abroad has made me far more patriotic and far more nostalgic for home and my childhood than I ever could have been if I lived in America. I listen to a lot of country music because it reminds me of home, even though I never listened to country music when I lived at home. I drop myself on Google Maps onto the street where my brother used to live in Philadelphia, under the train tracks, and take a 360˚ tour⁵. I throw American parties and sing Bruce Springsteen on the guitar and often daydream about walking around Target and striking up a conversation with someone who is also waiting to buy a drink at a bar.
I know that if and when I do move back to America, it will be amazing for the road trips and for the salad bars and for seeing my family and my old friends and places I’ve never been like Utah. But, I won’t love it as much as I love the UK in a lot of ways.
I love it here. I love Pret a Manger and the grandness of Heathrow airport:
I love cycling to work, past architecture that seems straight out of Brave New World: old schools with boys and girls entrances and dystopian brutalist buildings and glassy skyscrapers and shoddy looking council estates, all right next to one another on every road. I love taking the train out of the city to Brighton and hurting my feet on the rocky beach. I love the trees on the coast and the way that they’re bent out of shape from the wind.
I love every single pub: the ugly ones and the nice ones, the ones with entrances from a walking path, the ones with big back gardens with bright green grass. I love pints and Yorkshire pudding and custard. I love sitting outside of a pub even though it’s cold, under a heater in a beanie, listening to a waterfall fall and looking at old stone walls.
I love the funny PSA posters on the tube and the way the train announcements sound. I love cycling past rows of terraced houses, with palm trees and big open windows and stairs leading up to the front door. I love secret back gardens and big, open parks and how you can wear the same clothes every single day of the year here.
And I love all of the people who are from here and who aren’t, who have made my last five years so wonderful and unique, who have filled my weeks and my years and my brain and have made me feel at home even though I’m technically here all alone.
Today marks the end of my fifth year in London. Some people get a PhD in an academic subject after graduating from college. It feels like I got a PhD in the UK instead.
I can drive on the left. I can geographically identify people by their accent and I know the temperature in Celsius. I know British English spellings, twenty four hour time and all of the tube stops on the Piccadilly line between Manor House and Barons Court.
I also learned about the limitations of being an expat. I know that I don’t play on the same field as my colleagues and friends. I don’t have my parents car to help me move or my childhood friend’s sofa to crash on for a month when things fall apart. I had to learn the streets signs and how to rent a flat and where to buy things cheap and all of the life loopholes that you know when you grow up somewhere.
In many ways, I’m grateful for these challenges. It’s fun to need to learn a new country’s handbook. I would move to another country just to experience this newness again somewhere else. Life is best when the mundane, standard world and its contents feel unbelievably interesting.
So maybe one day, I’ll move somewhere else. But even if I do move home or elsewhere, I always hope to come back, because London feels like home now.
I don’t post many photos of the UK on my Instagram anymore. I suppose this is because it doesn’t seem new enough to me. But I still take photos every day, because every day I see something new and beautiful. Oftentimes, the beautiful things are now my friends and the things that we see and share together. I’ll end this love letter to the last five years with some photos that remind me that I am insanely lucky to be living my life in this wonderful city.
- I chose to go to London to do a masters program because of a twenty-seven-year-old British boy that I met outside of a bar in Madrid. He had thin, brown hair that made the shape of a wave and a curled-lip smile, one that I would find dozens of times over in Chelsea. New York is New York, he said. Paris is Paris. But London… London is London. Of course, there were some other reasons that I was going to London. The main other reason was because I was attending a masters program in computer science. The second reason was because my friend, Amanda, was also going to be in London doing a masters program that year. The final reason was because, of all of the choices of places that I could have gone to do a masters program that year (Chicago, Seattle, London), my dad told me he’d most like to come to London.
- The rent for this really bad flat was almost as much as I pay now for my paradise in Dalston and provides evidence for the hypothesis that all twenty two year olds living in foreign countries will get scammed.
- I wrote about it here.
- Even though I can always go back to the US and do whatever I want, it feels unusual to me that I don’t have the same liberties in the UK that I would have in the US and I’m desperate to change that. Perhaps selfishly, I hate that I can’t be exactly who I am in a place that I like the way that other people around me can and I want to change that for good by getting citizenship. There is a feeling of hysteria that lives in a person who is restricted by borders. Having my liberties (voluntarily) taken away for the last five years has given me a lot of respect for people who can’t choose where they live or what they do and live their entire lives with this feeling of hysteria.