You know what I absolutely didn’t expect?
Not feeling like I belong here. And at the same time, feeling like it’s ok after all.
I don’t think I expected this. When I lived in Strasbourg, I had such a strong sense of belonging – I was strasbourgeoise d’adoption, and very proud to be. I had my favourite neighbourhood, la Robertsau (where, not so incidentally, my residence was), favourite sight, bakery, table at the Archaeology library, route to class. Strasbourg was, and still is, “mine”. I bring it up to people and tell everybody how beautiful it was.
Here, it’s just not the same thing.
So, I started wondering why. And I think I have found a few reasons.
Let me start by saying that I never expected my experience in the UK to be exactly the same as the one I had in France. I was doing my semester abroad there and an Erasmus exchange is nothing like a PhD abroad, and I knew that all along. Or at least I knew my daily life would be much different.
What I apparently didn’t realize is that being an Erasmus exchange student is much like having a favourite football team. You want to tell the world your own team (city, uni) is the very best in the world. You do realize all cities, all uni, all Erasmus experiences are the very best… but that’s the game you play. You know other people will reminisce of their own semesters/years forever, but you still think you are special.
Doing a PhD is much more about cooperation between different institutions. Now I happened to end up in a university where 99% of the other research students just have no clue of what I do: my academic sense of belonging is trans-institutional, I have found people with similar interests coming from places all over Europe.
So I was a “Strasbourg Erasmus student”, but I’m not a “London PhD candidate”. I identify with my research centre, not this city.
One other factor is that at the time when I was choosing my Erasmus destination, I just chose the most appealing option among the ones available to me (MA level, one semester, in a country whose language I had hopes of being able to speak). Once again, when I chose where I’d be doing a PhD, I looked up faculty research interests, not wiki pages about the cities. My perfect fit just happened to be in London, while I chose Strasbourg because it was the most beautiful among my options (great choice, though – their uni has top notch academics).
Another thing to consider: London is huge. After a couple months in Strasbourg, you could have placed me anywhere, I would have known where I was. Here, it’s just a challenge. I have lived in London for four months and still get confused in some central areas, even Bloomsbury and Fitzrovia! Not to mention the neighbourhoods in the South and East especially – they are just big mysteries to me. And I don’t really have that much time to explore either.
Also: London is, really everyone’s city. Sounds counter-intuitive, but it is much easier to feel like you belong to a place if you’re one of few foreigners; here, the foreigners make up a good part of the city’s population (10 million people, give or take). I have been living here for four months; it wouldn’t be bad in a small town – but here, there are so many immigrants who have spent 40+ in London, that I feel like I’m just here for the holidays. And it’s not just that; when I first visited, around my 18th birthday, I remember loving this place. But then again, so did everybody else. Everybody who visits, especially if they are under 30, will tell you this place is amazing, they had so much fun, they really want to live here. They feel it’s the right place for them. Truth is, London is hard to define that yes, it’s the right for them, for you, for anybody.
Lastly, I am very aware that I will have to travel a lot for my research.
London feels as my base. A good one, but mostly a base.
So, no sense of belonging… at least, not strong. Is that surprising? It is. Is that disappointing, sad, frustrating? Not one bit. I am still finding some favourite places. I love that there are new things (that I never even imagined could exist!) to see every weekend. And truly, I know London is “the city I work in”. But I want to be honest: it is the best place in the world to do research in my field – the best place in the world to do my job. So it’s fine. Fine, really.