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  • Writer's pictureSarah Zawacki

On Leaving London

It was an outcome I’d resisted for years. I was packing up my room in London; I was leaving. People used to ask me what I would do after finishing my PhD, if I planned to go back to America, and I always responded without hesitation that I would stay in London. If I had any choice in the matter, I would stay.

As it turns out, I didn’t have any choice.

There was a time back in the late spring of 2018 when I thought I might pull off that ultimate victory of securing a work visa, only to have that hope beaten down by an onslaught of visa requirements. Like so many others before me, I fell victim to immigration policies spearheaded by a Home Secretary (and now Prime Minister) who believes that to be a citizen of the world is to be a citizen of nowhere. Under a conservative government that defines an immigrant’s worth solely on the basis of salary, there was no way that I – a charity worker – was going to earn the £30,000 per year that would win me that golden ticket, that coveted Tier 2 employment visa. Even when I expanded my search and found worthy jobs doing ethnographic research in low-income communities or supporting mental health awareness campaigns, the job postings cut me out of the equation before I even started: we are unable to sponsor work visas at this time.

Eventually I stopped fighting. I let my student visa run down its days. I sold my chest of drawers and my bedside table. I filled those blue Ikea bags with my clothes and books, and I took load after load to the charity shop. They’re just things, I told myself. My remaining possessions eventually fit into two overstuffed suitcases, and I paid £117 in overweight baggage fees – a reasonable price, I told myself, to cart home the remnants of five years of my life.

The route to Gatwick took me through the quaint neighborhoods around Victoria Park, one of those areas where London feels like a village. I’d first become aware of this area years before, on a bus from Stratford back to my ramshackle flat in Whitechapel. It was raining, and through the fogged windows of the bus’s upper deck, I saw a lone figure with a black umbrella and a long black coat walk the diagonal path through Well Street Common. I was struck. It’s not very often that you encounter these moments of maximum poetry, and even though the person with the umbrella was probably wet and cold and cursing the fact that they had to walk home in the rain, I felt in that moment that this was the perfect place, that to live here would be to finally crack the meaning of London. And one day I did live there (or at least within walking distance from there). For a few blissful months I lived at the pinnacle of what London can be, before it was stripped away.

The day I landed in Chicago was one of the coldest on record, and it seemed like a portent of things to come, but I couldn’t say what. My parents drove me back to Michigan in near-blizzard conditions with near-zero visibility, and at that point the symbolism was clear.

But still: I was an American back in America, and if I was going to believe that old fallacy we know as the American Dream, every avenue was open to me. I decided to use my newfound visa-free status to move to New York, which ranks even slightly above London in my personal mythology. I rented an apartment in Brooklyn, where I can see the literal Empire State Building from the end of my street, and in my entire apartment search, no one asked even once to see my passport. This condition of no longer being a foreigner still takes me by surprise. I feel like a tourist who can’t shake that Londoner’s habit of being way too deferential on public transport, but I’m learning. Last night, for example, when I was getting on a bus to go from Crown Heights to Williamsburg, the driver immediately launched into an explanation of how I need to buy a ticket from the machine next to the bus stop before boarding the bus. I flashed my pre-purchased ticket, saying, “I’ve already got one,” in a perfect American accent.


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