Lost and Found in Translation: How to Be Abroad in London

Everyone is abroad in London. And how could you not be in this perpetuum mobile dream of a city? It’s place both wonderful and strange, a place of deceiving familiarity – you know London and you don’t: they do have clocks here, but time flows differently; “The world is your oyster” becomes “Your Oyster is your world”; people live in squares; buildings have first names but not surnames, and so do bikes and tube lines; blue plaques mark that Lenin and Jerome K Jerome lived on the same street; cars look as if they are driven by sheer will rather than drivers, until you remember that they do things differently here – left is not right because their left is our right, but you’d better look both ways before crossing anyway. It’s a jigsaw puzzle of simultaneity, showing people from all kinds of “elsewhere” waiting in lines to get on giant red buses to everywhere.

Some are not more abroad than others. I used to believe the exact opposite, that there are such things as “degrees of abroadness” influenced by factors such as where you’re from, where you’ve been, where home is, and where you went to school. Say your name is Irina, born and raised in Iași, Romania. Applying my theory of abroadness in this purely hypothetical situation, you wouldn’t be the “abroadest of them all” when arriving in London at King’s, but you wouldn’t be “home” either. Well my theory is wrong, there are no degrees of abroadness. Whether you have previously studied in English or not, come from “big city doom” or “small town gloom”, how much you enjoy English breakfast and milk in your tea, none of them matter. George Orwell was here, but this is not Animal Farm. London is such a distinct universe, and so is University – we are all equally abroad here. That’s all there is to it.

You will become a regular visitor of the Lost and Found in Translation bureau. All kinds of things will be lost in translation, starting with your name which will never sound like your mother pronounces it. All kinds of things will be found as well, tiny moments and revelations which will let you in on something bigger. One of your firsts is that Somerset House is not King’s College, but you are now part of a conspiracy to make the world believe it is. The first thing I found in translation was the certainty that everything will be all right because on this one October afternoon Aretha Franklin comes on the radio and this Ryman sale assistant turns the volume up and starts singing along to “I say a little prayer for you” pointing at me. My list continues with hash browns, staring into the eyes of my favourite author at the British Library, walking out of the BFI and into the rain at night with the Taxi Driver soundtrack in my head and heart, friends who are crazy enough to throw elevator parties and wise enough to tell you that “we are all melancholic at times, but at least we get to be melancholic while watching the view on Waterloo bridge”; my list continues still. The list of things you find in translation is a divider whose arms spread further and further apart as your London widens.

Some things will also remain exactly as they are, even in translation. Bits and pieces from home will find you: you might start watching movies from your home country and fall in love with traditional dishes that you’d never wanted to touch. What you keep in translation will wrap you up, sometimes as a blanket, other times as an armor. “After you first leave home, that’s when you start feeling a strong connection with it” –  as overheard wisdom courtesy of a bookseller in Notting Hill goes. You’ll meet people from your “elsewhere” with whom you will exchange untranslatable puns, food sent by your parents, and with whom you will share anger and banners as you protest in front of your Embassy against injustice at home. Maybe “abroad” is not that far from home.

Abroadness in London is, I believe, a privilege. We get to be ourselves in the greatest “elsewhere” there is, studying the maps, the blue plaques and our course notes with equal focus, getting closer to our own “somewhere”, one Oyster tap at a time.

Photo Credits: Irina Anghel

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