LONDON — I write this column from London, where I am spending six days between classes, giving several presentations on my books and current research. And indulging in a bit of nostalgia.
Three decades ago, I was ending a seven-year stint here doing my graduate studies at the London School of Economics. I never intended to stay that long, but that’s just the way it happened. London had many extraordinary advantages, but by the time I finished my Ph.D., I was more than ready to return to the United States. I was tired of being an expatriate — never quite belonging, being on the outside looking in at politics and society. I was fed up with living in unheated flats, where my hands were often stiff from cold as I typed my dissertation on a creaky portable typewriter. I had had enough of the miserable food and the gloomy weather — it was often overcast and drizzly with dusk arriving at 3:30 in the afternoon in winter.
London itself was drab and inhabited by the British, some immigrants from the Commonwealth and a few hardy Yanks. (And immigrants from Britain’s former colonies were almost all working class.) Arriving there from the Continent — which was dynamic with economic and social change – always felt like entering a rest home. And the LSE itself was a bit Dickensian — the library was one of the richest in the United Kingdom but try finding anything in it — there were no computers, no Dewey Decimal System; books were classified in dingy basements according to how large they were and when they arrived. There were not enough seats in the drafty old reading rooms for students to sit and study. Some read their books on the steps or sitting on the floor. The nice thing was that I knew this existence was temporary; I would eventually return to the U.S.
London has changed dramatically since my student days. It is much more colorful, with lots of shops with fresh vegetables and fruits, awnings, chairs and tables outside. There are many more immigrants and experts from the Continent and the East today, giving the town a more cosmopolitan flair and more dynamic air. The children of immigrants now sound English and many more of them are in high-profile, responsible jobs in the public and private sectors — despite the evident difficulties of some in feeling part of this society. The food is much better, or at least more diverse. Even the weather is brighter — less gloom or at least, so I am told. And LSE has been greatly modernized with a library full of computers and space for students to work.
The improvements in LSE are a result of the British government putting more money into higher education and university administrators learning to use American fundraising techniques. A lot of the visible changes in London are a direct result of Britain joining the European Union. Indeed, London feels to me much more like a European city than it ever was when I lived here. The government is still stand-offish regarding the Continent in a lot of political areas (e.g., exchanging the British pound for the Euro, supporting the U.S. in Iraq, and many other moves by the EU that Britain decided to ignore) but it is a lot more part of Europe than it has been for a thousand years. I have always thought the special relationship with America that British politicians have dreamed of since they lost the Empire was illusory and that Churchill got it wrong when he said if it came to choosing between the U.S and Europe, “each time I shall choose the open sea” — meaning, of course, the U.S.
It is hard for a visitor to gauge how deep the changes in appearance and ties with Europe go. A lot of London — the old buildings, the Underground, the Thames — is much the same as it has been for many years. Maybe the way the English think about their identity — now encompassing peoples from many lands — has changed. I would have thought that impossible when I lived here. I am not so sure now. Immigration, integration and identity are some of the really challenging issues facing most of Europe today. It takes a lot of conversing for foreigners to understand where things stand — and some of those conversations need to be outside of capital cities, in the countryside, where ideas and norms typically change more slowly. I wish I had the time.
I can’t help thinking of how I have changed too. Going back to a place where you lived and worked many years ago is like looking at yourself in a mirror from the past. I don’t have to put up with the cold; I am no longer an expat or an outsider; I don’t have to count my pennies so carefully (even with the very high prices of London today). But I realize I have come to miss some things about London: the pubs which are really the community spaces — in effect, the neighborhood living rooms — where you can causally spend time with your neighbors are a tradition that we sorely lack in the U.S.
Surprisingly, I realize also that I miss the gloom. Overcast, rainy days when evening gathers early, encouraging that interior reflection necessary for efficient thought and writing — at least for me. There is far too much sunshine in Washington, D.C. (and now, unbelievably, in London as well), to spend days and days in front of a computer.
I guess you cannot escape some of the things you learn — or unconsciously absorb — when you are a student, which is surely one of the most intense periods of your life. My education and life in London will always be a part of me, often in unexpected ways.
Just as what you take away from Georgetown will always be part of your life.
Carol Lancaster is an associate professor of politics and the director of the Mortara Center for International Studies. Behind the Podium appears every other Friday.