Right now, I’m sitting at an Americana-themed restaurant, Joe’s, sipping on a flat white, just down the road from my new flat in Kentish Town. Kentish Town, London, that is, in Zone 2. I live here now.
In case you’re a little bit lost considering that my last entry was about February 2016, a lot has happened since then. Back when I had just started running my open mic, when I was working my ass off on finishing the second draft of my novel, and taking an Italian class at JCU, and teaching business communications and terrified of teaching something so totally new to me. And I had a new group of expat friends that was quickly shaping up—Glenn, Brian, Kacy, Stephanie, Emma, Nasser, Mohammad, Gabby—which meant that I was spending almost every night with them, drinking and talking and playing music and deepening our friendships so much that we became our own little expat family.
Obviously, I can’t go through the play-by-play of each and every thing that happened to me from then until now, if I want to catch us up—that would take forever. But what I can do is provide you with an important story, something that illustrates, in a way, everything I’ve learned since then—the lessons of 2016.
It begins with my arrival in London at the end of March 2016, at the beginning of Spring Break at John Cabot. A rainy, windy day, as I lit a cigarette outside of St Pancras Station, connecting to the wifi to figure out where to go from here. My last time in London, a year ago, I’d been boarding a train back to Paris, settling into my seat with a copy of Tess of the D’Urbervilles and the realization—which would make me cry—that things hadn’t gone in London at all the way I’d wanted them to. That whatever I had imagined, romanticized, was not going to happen between me and Jim, no matter how many times I went to London to see him. It was only a year ago, at the age of 26 (almost 27), and yet now, at 27 (almost 28), I was a totally different person. I had learned to be happy again in Italy, fully taking in each day and loving it, even if sometimes I got overwhelmed with work or the Italian bureaucratic system.
And this time, I wasn’t here to see Jim. I was here to see my cousin, Maria Ines, and her husband Pedro. They’d moved to London in the new year, wanting to start their careers afresh. Maria Ines is an economist, Pedro’s in coding and software, but because of the state of the economy in Uruguay, they were only able to scrape by despite their educations, and it was time for a change. A big one. They moved to London with their savings and just a few suitcases of things, and started applying for jobs. They didn’t know how things would go for them. It was a leap of faith. And right now things were hard for them—they were both working in the restaurant industry, taking orders and washing dishes and trying to understand the blurred English accent (how it sounds to those accustomed to American English) alongside other immigrants with degrees just like theirs. They didn’t know if they’d reach their goals. But they were going to try.
So I got off at the Wood Green underground stop, took in the surroundings around me. Zone 3 of London, late at night, it was quiet and not much was going on as I rolled my suitcase behind me. I carefully followed the map I’d screenshot on my phone, and then I was there, ringing the bell, and then there was my cousin Ines at the door, looking so English already in her white jumper/sweater.
“Are you hungry?” she asked in Spanish.
Of course I was hungry. I always eat when I travel. As does she. We also happen to smoke the same brand of cigarettes and get emotional the same way and love Shakira to death. That’s the beautiful thing about family. There are little things you have in common, that no one else understands, not really, on a level that goes so deep it seems to go past even what we know about each other already and into the territory of what we will eventually discover as we go on through life.
They invited me into their home, and the next day, a Saturday, Pedro went out to work while Ines and I took a bus into downtown London and went for a walk. It was a rainy day, but it didn’t matter. We walked all around downtown, talking about London and its vibrancy, how international it is and how many driven people come here. She talked about the challenge of finding work, of how her working papers were still being processed (Pedro’s an Italian citizen, so she has a right to live here but still needs a permit to work), how it was so anxiety-inducing to feel like she was always waiting for life to begin. I talked about Rome, about music, about how things were going so well for me and how I was almost finished with my novel—I’d promised myself it’d be finished before Spring Break, yet here I was, five chapters away from the end, and I had midterms to grade, too. And I talked about Jim, too, of course. Because, yes, you guessed it: we were meeting up. That night. A year since the last time we’d spent time together.
And three months since we’d last messaged. I’d asked him on Christmas if he wanted to do something in the new year, he’d said yes, and that was all—no messages, no communications, until on March 4, after booking tickets to London and Paris, I’d swallowed my pride and messaged him:
‘Visiting my cousin who just moved to London at the end of the month. Let me know if you’d like to to catch up! Can you believe it’s been a year? [airplane emoji] [British flag emoji]’
He said yes, and now here I was, walking down a busy commercial street in SoHo with my cousin as it rained on us, telling her that I had no idea what to expect from the encounter. A year for me is a long time. I’d changed so much. Now, I was about to finish my novel, I was writing new songs (both serious and comedic), I was happy, driven, taking Italian lessons, hanging out with friends almost every night, teaching at a university where I felt like I belonged, running my very own open mic, even. The image, only a year old, of an American girl in a little kitchen in an apartment in the 16eme quartier of Paris, feeling lonely, only twenty pages into her novel (and scared that it wouldn’t amount to anything), just learning to play the guitar again (and without any idea that she was capable of writing songs), constantly logging onto her phone to try to understand why there were two blue tick marks next to her message, and yet this guy in London hadn’t replied to her yet—it was foreign to me now, more foreign than any country I’ve visited.
So I had no idea how the encounter would go. I had changed. Maybe he had changed too. He’d offered to go on a ride in the country with me and I’d said no, afraid that I wouldn’t feel the same way anymore, or that I’d feel to much, and that I’d be out in the country with no escape plan. I was nervous.
“Don’t be nervous,” my cousin said to me as I re-applied my lipstick in front of the mirror in one of the fanciest bathrooms I’ve every been to in my life, in the bar where I was meeting Jim, The Blind Pig. “You look great. You look—do you know the saying?”
“Getting ready for battle,” she said in Spanish*. “That’s what we say, when the girls are getting ready to go out. To look really good for a guy on a date. You’re getting ready for battle.”
A battle. That was a good way to think about it. I gave the mirror my most smoldering look, as I fixed the final touches of my makeup, and we headed upstairs to have a drink. Because we had an hour before Jim would arrive, and everyone knows that having a drink is the best way to steel oneself for what’s to come.
My cousin left a few minutes just before seven, and there I was, sitting in the dark, sipping my drink, looking at pictures of me and my friends in Rome (ah, the pleasure of having no 3G) while traveling. Some minutes, passed and then I felt a hand on my shoulder.
“Hey,” Jim said.
I got up, we kissed each other hello on our cheeks like old friends, then sat down again. Sure, I was nervous. I could tell he was nervous, too.
We caught up. I told him all about my new life in Rome. And my upcoming travels, too, how I was headed to Paris after this to see old friends, then to Madrid in May for an academic conference giving a paper on Patti Smith’s “Just Kids.” He told me about work, how it was really stressing him out and how he wasn’t enjoying it as much as he used to. How he was thinking about traveling again, getting away. Buying a motorcycle, now that he’d just finished a training course, then taking it to the Americas and traveling through North and South America, seeing everything.
“That’s funny,” I said.
“Why?” he asked.
“Well, a year ago, all you could talk about was how much you wanted to get serious about work,” I said. “How excited you were about all the different projects you’d be doing.”
But it wasn’t just that that was different. He was different. But it wasn’t necessarily because he’d changed, I realized. As we left the first pub and went to another one, Mexican-themed, and awkwardly sat down next to each other as if we’d never even had sex before, it dawned on me: all these other times I’d seen him, thought of him, I’d been seeing him through the eyes of someone who adored him. Why had I idolized him so much, back then? It was because I was only two and a half months into my new life in Paris when we’d first met, and he was so happy and had a job he liked and a whole life in his own in London that made him seem like one of those adults who just has it figured out. It was all such an intoxicating combination to me, back then. But now as we talked, it was like I was seeing him clearly for the first time.
He was just a normal guy. He wasn’t a miracle. He wasn’t the solution to all of my problems. I’d worked through so many of them at this point; I didn’t need help from someone. I’d become stronger, and learned how to be happy all on my own (but with the help of friends and writing and music, of course, and the passing of time, and the strength that comes from starting over once in Paris and then again in Rome). So I didn’t have all these huge expectations around him now, and I could see him for who he really was. For the first time, I actually listened to what he said to me. I wasn’t going to superimpose my own feelings onto his words. I was going to listen instead, and learn that he felt lost sometimes too, that there was still a lot of life he was figuring out for himself.
By the time we arrived at the next pub, a wine bar, and split a bottle, we were finally drunk enough to be able to open up a little bit; we’d gotten past all the nervousness, and catching up, and could finally talk about more philosophical things. What the right approach to life is, what the right approach to love is. We disagreed about so much, which would have bothered me a lot in the past. But it didn’t matter to me now. What mattered was that we agreed that we disagreed, and when he asked me if I thought we had a lot in common I said, surprising myself:
“No, not really. But that’s okay.”
By the time we got the check—the pub was closing—Jim had already asked me if I’d like to come over to his place, and I’d said sure, and then we were on the sidewalk, waiting for the Uber, when we finally kissed. Pulling apart, we smiled at each other, as if agreeing on something new. Something unsaid, undefined. I didn’t need to translate it this time.
I had to leave early the next morning; Jim was driving back home for Easter; after he took me the tube I sent him the usual text letting him know I’d had a good time and he reciprocated. I felt like I wanted to see him again, so I let him know I was still around a few more days if he wanted, and he said he’d see if he could free up schedule: maybe Tuesday, if he wasn’t too busy. Tuesday, the night before I left for Paris. I kept it in my mind as something I might do, but researched a few open mics that night, just in case he wasn’t free. Something told me that he’d be busy at the last minute and that he wouldn’t be able to see me, and having seen things as such a mature person the night before, I made an effort to see them that way again and not take it personally.
I had other things to focus on, anyway. It was Spring Break; I had time, finally, undistracted, to spend hours again on my novel. Which was almost finished. So I spent most of my time the next few days writing, researching which open mics I wanted to go to, and spending time getting to know London with Ines Pedro, taking a day trip into the city and exploring it all three of us together. Getting to know their roommates, too, Sotirios, a Greek I really got along with, and a young guy Bulgarian guy, Nick**, who clearly wanted to sleep with me even though I didn’t want to sleep with him (so who I also got along with but it was kind of in more of an awkward way). One night, me, Ines, and Pedro all went to an Open Mic at a bar near Covent Garden (unfortunately, it’s no longer running, as is common for open mics in London), and I was so blown away. I couldn’t believe how good it was. How had I never performed in London before?
Every single artist who went on was incredible. JP Kadazi, especially, was fabulous—check out his music here.
I was so nervous when I already went up. I was slightly drunk. Pedro got out his phone and started to film me, and he and Ines were cheering at the end of every song. I played “One Direction (To Two Erections)” and “Poolside Romance (All That I Want).” I almost played “Baby,” but made the accident of asking the open mic MC if it would be weird to sing a song that mentions rape (mind you, role-play rape)—so instead I finished up with an a cappella rendition of “Summertime,” showing off my jazz skills. And it was so amazing after, to look up, and see everyone clapping, and know that they admired me music not only for my voice but for my song-writing and comedy skills.
English people understood my humor, even more than Americans had in New York over the summer, and by the end of the open mic I was talking to the MC and all his friends who were musicians too, and my cousin came up to me and said:
“Hey, Pedro and I are going home. But if you want to stay up with them then here’s the key. You can just take the night bus home.”
“Yeah, okay,” I said. “They just invited me to go clubbing and I really want to go.”
We said goodbye, and then I stayed at the pub a while, drinking and talking with everyone, and then we went to a club just a block away, and drank and danced all night. Every single person was so friendly, and cheerful, it wouldn’t be until later that I’d find out that the only reason anyone my age rocks out to One Direction’s “What Makes You Beautiful” (besides me and a few friends I can think of) is because they’re high on coke. I wasn’t high on coke. But I don’t need to dance, ever.
There was a cute guy I’d been dancing with a bit, a bartender from the open mic pub, and I was into him, but I didn’t feel like forcing anything, so when we got in line to get our jackets as the club was closing and he said, “I wanted to know, if you’re interested, if you’d like to go home with me?”
We hadn’t even kissed yet. I was fully impressed with his politeness.
“Yeah,” I said. “Sure. But I just started my period. You should know that.”***
So we walked to the night bus, traveled on it for an hour minutes, talking the whole time, getting to know each other. He was just finishing up at university, was Russian, but had moved to London when he was a kid, so he considered himself a Londoner. But because of a law that had been passed, he’d have to return to Russia by the end of the month, live there permanently. This was one of his last few London nights like this that he’d have.
The sex was amazing (lucky me, great sex two times in a row within a week), and I stayed the night, and when we woke up in the morning we had sex again and talked a bit, but then I had to rush off to meet up with my cousins. He wanted to know if we could meet up again before I left.
“I don’t know,” I said, “I leave on Wednesday, I might not have time.”
But it turned out that I did have time. Tuesday night came around, I was at my cousins’ place dying my hair magenta because it had been impossible to find that color in Rome, when I found out that Jim couldn’t see me that night. He was too busy with work, it turned out, and typing it out now I understand the situation, but at that moment, it really did sting. I tried to act as if it wasn’t a big deal at all as I dried my hair, then told my cousin I was going to an open mic, one I’d heard was really good out just north of Camden (in a beautiful little neighborhood I’d later learn is called Kentish Town).
“I might not come back home tonight,” I said to her. “I might be seeing someone. But maybe I can come back and we can get breakfast before I leave?”
“Sí!” she exclaimed. “That’s perfect! Have fun!”
So I went to the open mic. Felt a bit lonely there, all alone, and even when I went on stage I found myself wishing that someone I knew was there to watch me. The Russian guy, Boris****, couldn’t make it, but I had a standing invitation to come over to his place. So after the open mic I put Taylor Swift on repeat, picked up an old newspaper, and forced the time to pass as I took the underground to the end of the line. When he came to pick me up, he was carrying an umbrella for both of us, as it had started raining.
“You look different,” he said, referring to my bright pink hair, glowing anew.
We’d agreed on the classic date: Netflix and chill, perfect for a rainy night. We had sex immediately, and it was good as before—though he wasn’t on coke this time. Then he asked what I was mood to watch.
“You know,” I said. “There’s this new episode of Girls I’ve been meaning to watch, but I’ve been waiting for the perfect moment to watch it. Is that okay?”
“Sure,” he said.
It was, and it still is, the best episode I’ve ever watched of this show: “The Panic In Central Park.” I won’t go into the details too much, because I don’t want to spoil this show and this perfect episode for anyone, but my takeaway was this: by the end of the episode, one of the main characters realizes just how lost she’s been. How much of her life has been chaotic and messy, and pulling her in different directions. Sometimes she goes north, sometimes she goes south, sometimes she doesn’t even know where she’s going—but there’s something driving her and she can’t quite place what it is. But an encounter with an ex, one who meant a lot to her, makes her suddenly realize: I’ve been lost, and my heartbreak is why, and it’s time to stop being lost. I don’t know how, but it has to happen. I need to pick which way I want to go and follow it. Everything depends on this.
I felt the message go through me like lighting. It was exactly what had happened to me. Heartbreak was the reason I had ended up in Paris, and then I was always traveling, chasing different places, different passions, different people. I had told myself with conviction, especially now that I was working in a job that was a dream to me (even if it meant teaching business communications) and finishing my novel and living in beautiful Rome, that I had finally figured everything out.
But here I was, in the arms of an almost-stranger in his twin bed, his breath on my neck and his arms around me, and I felt more alone than I had in a long time. I didn’t know him well enough to tell him what I was feeling, so we watched more TV, had sex again, but I couldn’t shake the feeling, not even by the time morning came and I had to sneak into the bathroom to avoid running into the landlady who lived in the apartment too.
I would be in Paris before I knew it. Coming down with a severe head-cold, probably from the sudden shift from Roman weather to English, or maybe the late nights out, falling asleep in the hostel room to wake up a couple hours before I had plans to meet up with an old friend, Bridget, for a drink. I wanted to shower, make myself look nice for my night catching up with her, since she’d be going out of town the next day, but instead I looked up the episode again, watched it again, this time on my own terms, the sound of rain above me as I relived it alone. It was something I had to do.
I almost got in touch with my ex, that evening, my love for him that will never really go away (even though it’s more of an ephemeral, none-physical love at this point) turning into concern about him, wondering if he had been devastated by the end of us too. And how he had been devastated. But I knew it would be for the worse, to get in touch with him—what good it would do for either of us? So I closed my laptop, pulled on some tights, double-layered my dresses for the cold Paris rain, and went out the door.
Later, when my friend and I were drunk enough, she’d look at me, lower her voice, narrow her eyes, tilt her head and say:
“You know what, Elisa? You’re actually very lost. People see your life as so glamorous, so they don’t recognize it, but it’s there behind the glamor, how lost you are.”
And you know what? She was right.
But she was also wrong.
It took me a few days to process what I had realized about myself, what had so emotionally hit me to my core and shaken me, but a few days working on my novel, and of drinking several drinks and coffees with René (his comment on it all being: “What? We’re all lost!”), I learned to embrace it. It was a truth about me. But it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It was something I’d had to go through, and now that I knew it, I’d have to figure out what direction I wanted to go in. I ended up leaving Paris with my novel almost finished, banging out the last few pages a couple days later in Rome until 1 in the morning, celebrating the end of it with a run for gelato down near Campo dei Fiori, standing at Ponte Sisto, looking down at the water, feeling, more than anything, a flood of relief but of also great happiness: I had finally done something I’d always dreamed of, finishing a novel, and finishing this novel in particular, one that meant a great deal to me. Because, in the simplest terms, my novel is about losing someone, about the grief of that, and of learning, through music and writing, how to start anew.
I was happy. My life in Rome was perfect, I knew, by most standards. It was glamorous, yes, and full of music and light and friends, and I deserved to find such happiness, after having spent so much time lost in sadness and apart from myself. I could have it a little longer, and I did. I spent the whole spring and summer reveling in Rome, and traveling to London once a month to perform at open mics, and going to the US and seeing Adam and Katie and my family, too. I met men in many places, one who made me believe in love again (but who turned out to be married), one who was the best sex I ever had (but turned out to be a racist and misogynist), one who I was convinced was my future husband (but turned out to be a Trump supporter). I had many adventures: I went to Amsterdam with Helena after her inevitable break-up with George; I became friends with another writer who lives in Italy, Jordan, who eventually moved to Rome and became one of my closest friends; one of my best friends from back home, Katie, came to live with me in the fall for a few months, and we had many adventures, including a trip to Barcelona with René and Kacy.
As the fall semester came to a close, after my novel had been rejected by a few agents and ignored by most, and I became burnt out from my busiest semester ever, I could feel a change coming on. It had begun, arguably, over the summer, when I had talked to my cousin about the possibility, or maybe the moment Brexit happened and I didn’t know if I’d have a chance to do it in my life, or maybe during a visit in September to London, when I stayed with my friend Stephanie at her place and had a magical time at open mics and out in a city that I felt matched a drive and energy that I knew I had in me but that Rome didn’t. But it didn’t come to fruition until mid-November, when I finally said out loud to my parents over Skype:
“I’m thinking of moving to London. Once I finish grading a huge batch of student papers, I think I’m going to start looking for work.”
Saying it out loud was scary. It was even scarier, on a visit to London before Katie finally left Europe for good (how fast our time together had gone by!), to tell her that the real reason I was doing it was for music. I’ve always been a singer. It has always been such a huge part of my life. But it took writing a novel about music to remember how much I had been missing it. Writing is such a private experience, it’s so easy to work at it on your own and never be challenged by the world. Singing is totally different. But if I didn’t do it now, then when? One of Stephanie’s flatmates was suddenly moving out during one of my visits at the beginning of December, I overheard him talking to the landlord, and I thought: “This is my chance.”
So I’m living in London now, at the beginning of 2017. I’m looking for work, after having turned down a couple courses at the America University of Rome; I’m performing at open mics and making a website for my music, and I’m flying to New York next week to pitch my novel to agents; I’m living with Stephanie up in North London, in Kentish Town, and our new friend Kara is there too, and all together we are exploring the city in search of a new beginning.
I don’t know where I’m headed from here—but I’m not lost anymore.
*This is a loose translation, so that it captures how fabulous it sounds in Spanish.
**Name change not because we slept together but because he clearly was into me and I don’t want to publicly be a jerk about it.
***I always get my period after having sex with Jim. I don’t know why.
****Name changed, of course.