“A bad day in London is better than a good day anywhere else!”
I left my study abroad program in London due to the COVID-19 pandemic on March 15. At this point, almost two months after leaving London in a hurried mess, it all feels like it was a fever dream. My time in London was exhilarating, wild, and transformative. When I decided to study abroad there last September, I never could have predicted how great the people would be or how profound the experiences. From the moment my plane landed at Heathrow, gazing out on the sun rising over the city as the plane landed, I felt overwhelmingly secure and calm. I am an anxious person; I overthink and overanalyze every decision in my life. But for once, when my newfound friends and I deplaned and made our way to Regent’s University London, sitting in a black taxi cab squished between our suitcases, I was confident that this decision was going to result in the best experience of my 20 years of life.
I explored a dozen different neighborhoods in London and met lifelong friends. I went to a 1975 concert, dozens of pubs, a movie premiere, countless museums, West End shows, the Prime Meridian, and a Brexit protest. I viewed Banksy graffiti, listened to Evensong at St. Paul’s Cathedral, painted a mural on Leake Street, marched in an International Women’s Day March, watched the British Parliament in session, and walked down Abbey Road.
It truly was too good to be true.
A constant conversation about whether or not we would be sent home ran rampant for weeks until Donald Trump declared all overseas travelers in Europe should return home and self-isolate. A letter ending our study abroad came that afternoon. Chaos ensued as people tried to book last minute flights and call their families. Students ran around our campus, looking for consolation in their friends as our time in London prematurely ended. Our next few hours were spent in both misbelief and defeat, eating our last meals at Regent’s University together, and sitting in each other’s rooms, helping one another pack. Unlike the calmness I entered London with, my friends and I now collectively felt a surge of panic. We had only a few days to make up for the months ahead we were losing to this pandemic. We planned as much as we could for the next two days as we saw our remaining time with each other turning to dust.
My friends and I had this strange resolve about our last two days in London. There wasn’t time to grieve our experience—not until it was over. We took all of the possible opportunities we could to do the things we didn’t get to before. There were so many places we hadn’t yet seen, things we were saving for a rainy day that now needed to be compressed into mere highlights to do it all in 48 hours. For our last two days in London, we became tourists in the city we had just gotten used to calling home. We went to West End musicals, the Churchill War Rooms, St Paul’s Cathedral, famous London bookstores, Picadilly Circus, and the London Eye—the places we couldn’t bear to leave London without seeing. We began taking pictures at every opportunity, even at mundane places. On escalators to and from the subway and even on the Tube. On the bus during a conversation about going home. Candid moments at meals. Pictures of monuments I had walked by a hundred times but never bothered to capture on my phone. Moments we didn’t realize we would want to remember so achingly bad until we realized they wouldn’t be possible to have together after the next two days.
On one of the last days, we booked tickets for the London Eye, realizing we only had hours left to be tourists in London. We got on the Ferris wheel and looked out at London from every angle. Despite the overcast weather, we could see Regent’s Park and the university in the distance. We could see Big Ben (in its mid-construction glory), Parliament, the Tower of London, St. Paul’s, and The Thames snaking through the city. It was 30 minutes inside a bubble, cutting off all the commotion of the city and of our busy schedule we had created as we tried to jam it all in two days. We couldn’t rush through looking out at London. And so, we all stood there, gazing out at the city, taking in what we were lucky enough to have and the plethora of things we somehow missed.
I remember my last day in London vividly. My friends and I decided that we needed to slow down a bit and enjoy our last day. We found a new place to explore in Neal’s Yard and then we took a long walk through Charing Cross and Picadilly Circus, two of London’s most famous places. We walked slowly, watching the tourists crowd around popular statues and popping into random stores, taking one last look at all the treasures of London stores. In order to hit even more London highlights, we strolled through Trafalgar Square, across Millennium Bridge, and past the London Eye once again, almost as a final goodbye. We ran into a museum to find one particular painting we were told about on one of our first days in London. Then, we got brunch together and toasted to our time in London. As we sat at our table, surrounded by families and couples and friends, it felt like we had all the time in the world left in London. No one else in the restaurant seemed to fear the pandemic that was sending us home. At the time we left, the UK had not yet imposed any restrictions related to the COVID-19 pandemic, and we felt the freedom slipping away from us. We were trying desperately to lengthen our last moments in London.
That evening, we went to the Volunteer, the neighborhood pub next to Regent’s Park we spent a dozen nights in together. We reminisced about what we experienced in London. We tried not to talk about what we had missed out on, like the trips we were forced to cancel. Instead of that, we brought up the funny moments and the mishaps. We made jokes about small things, like where we would possibly be able to find Digestives biscuits in the U.S. I don’t think any of us realized how truly extraordinary the past two months had been, and how lucky we were to able to be there together, until it was time to leave.
I packed up my life hurriedly on the last night. In preparation for a 6:00 am flight, I sat in my room and dumped everything I owned on my roommate’s bed. She left the day before. Clothes both new and old mixed with ticket stubs and souvenirs were strewn across the bed in a dejected map commemorating my time in London. When packing, I came across clothes I didn’t wear because it was still too cold in England. I found postcards I was saving to send to my friends and the souvenirs I bought for my parents, meant as a gift for when we were to reunite in May. My schoolwork was mixed in with calendars and papers I had planned my European trips on with my friends in the library. I put these things in the bottom of my suitcase and shoved the last two months on top into my very overweight suitcase. Then, I went to Heathrow Airport. And I came home.
I think I held back tears until halfway through the flight. I finished watching Jojo Rabbit and I was overwhelmed with a terrible bout of regret. Regret is incredibly strong and visceral. It’s an emotion that seizes you with frustration, and then rage. I would find myself upset and regretful just by looking through photos or remembering something about London. It is hard to battle. I fought my regrets about my study abroad on two fronts. First, I was upset that I didn’t go to more countries while I had the chance. I canceled two trips before I even left London because of the “what ifs.” The chance of mandatory quarantine or even contracting COVID-19 while traveling outside of London was a real and valid fear I had, especially in the last few weeks of being in Europe. I was also angry with myself for not taking advantage of the city of London more. There were so many times when I chose not to go somewhere for an afternoon and stay at Regent’s University instead, or let myself compromise on things I really wanted to do because I felt we had so much time left that we would eventually get there. I was plagued with thoughts like, “Why didn’t we try that restaurant when we had a chance? Why didn’t we walk through this neighborhood or see this historic place? Why didn’t we try that pub or go to the comedy club?” It’s hard to fight regret, but even more difficult to live with it. I’m trying to accept this novel and unprecedented circumstance and embrace it as my own study abroad experience. Even if I knew beforehand that a pandemic would cut my time in London short, I know I would still go. The people I met, the places I saw, the personal changes I underwent are all too valuable to lose despite the pain and heartache of leaving.
For the world to heal and to save people’s lives, I know that being sent home is what was necessary. We went from the utmost freedom in the most exciting city in the world to the life of quarantine. Quarantine is a mundane and monotonous existence compared to the exciting and remarkable life I was living in London, but nonetheless important for the safety and health of myself and others. It was too much of a risk for UNH to let us stay abroad, but I left behind so much I wanted to do. I know someday that I’ll go back, even though I can never go back to the exact experience I had studying at Regent’s University with some of my best friends. I’ll never be back in London with all of the people who made this abroad adventure truly incredible and the people that I miss more than anything else in London. It’s a hard pill to swallow, but when I go back, I will be doing it not only for myself, but to honor the strangers who became my best friends and made my time in London so memorable.
This is both a love letter and a eulogy to my experience in the city with which I deserved more time. London, I hope to see you soon.