Thursday, July 28, 2011

london, ten years later - Part 1 (or, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?)

Earlier this month, I tagged along on Kathy's business trip to London and Munich.  When I was an undergraduate, waaaaay back ten years ago, I studied English Lit in London for a summer (which yes, was a strange option for a Math major, but it was my way of reconciling what I was good at (math) with what I loved (Virginia Woolf and Shakespeare)).  Because she was there on business, I had a lot of time to bop around on my own.  The first day, I slowly made my way from the City of London to Bloomsbury.  When I studied, this is the area of town where I lived.  I knew where my dorm was, but this was not actually the target of this trip.  Instead, I was trying to find Virginia Woolf's house in Bloomsbury.

When I went to London to study, I met a group of women, at least one of whom has remained a lifelong friend.  One of my most vivid memories of that trip was sitting in her dorm room one afternoon talking about why we came.  All of us had chosen, rather than getting a summer job or banging around East Lansing, to pack ourselves up, spend a bunch of money, and go to London for the summer with a bunch of strangers.  The love of literature alone is generally not enough to send someone on that type of journey, and we were no exception.  The question posed, then, was whether we were running away from something or running to something.  For me, it was a bit of both.  I felt a little lost, as I have felt for much of my life.  I wanted a break from my family, my rather intense group of friends, and I wanted the chance to push myself out of my comfort zone a bit and live with anonymity and autonomy.  I wanted, in a way that only a 20 year-old with a certain disposition can, to find myself.  (Of course, in an environment where someone made me breakfast and dinner 5 days a week and planned fun outings to Vita Sackville-West's gardens and The Globe.)

And so, ten years ago, I was jogging in a park in Bloomsbury at noon on a Sunday.  As my sweet, sheltered, midwestern self was rounding a corner, I saw something I had never seen before (or since, for that matter). I saw a guy tying off his arm and shooting something into his vein with a needle.  In the middle of a park.  In broad daylight.  On Sunday.  I tried to act like I hadn't seen anything, but when I reached the next exit, my legs carried me right on out of that park.  One block later, I was face-to-face with Virginia Woolf's house.  Since I was, at the time, reading Mrs. Dalloway and living in London, this seemed rather serendipitous to me.  I don't know why, but I had a sense of being in the right place at the right time.  I felt found.  The moment was not exactly life-changing -- I was still me.  But it did create some subtle shift, or opening, which allowed me to recognize things about myself that I had previously ignored.  It was like someone said to me, remember why you're here.

So that's why, when I arrived in London, I set out to find Virginia Woolf's house.  I figured that if her ghost (or at least her house) gave me a nudge then, she could give me a nudge in the right direction now.    After about 45 minutes of aimless wandering, just when I was about to give up, I came across this:

And suddenly, I was on the right track.  I walked, and wandered.  I came across Virginia Court and a parking garage or some such thing named Woolf.  Following an alley that I thought would lead me in the right direction, I came out onto this street, which looked vaguely familiar:

I realized, after spinning around for a bit, that it looked familiar because it was directly across from this:

which is the dorm that I called home during the summer of 2001.  I had, unwittingly, stumbled right on my old block. I hadn't found a piece of Virginia Woolf's history, but I had found a piece of my own.  Which, again, reminded me why I was here.  Ostensibly, to tag along on a business trip and give myself a much-needed break from being a full-time parent.  But in reality, to start to put the pieces together a bit and figure out WHAT THE HECK TO DO WITH MY LIFE.  Which really, I have always wanted to involve books.  Heavy, weighty, old books.

I never did actually find Virginia Woolf's house.  It was on one of the many blocks in Bloomsbury that look similar, and I didn't have the energy, the time, or the inclination to walk each one and read each plaque.  Still, I found some comfort walking the steps I had walked 10 years earlier, and in knowing that nearly 100 years ago, Virginia Woolf stepped out her front door, and saw the streets and parks that I saw as I wandered around Bloomsbury looking for her.

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