It was the summer of 2004, and in less than a year the International Olympic Committee would be choosing the host city for the 2012 Olympic Games. London was one of the cities bidding (spoiler alert: it won), and the city was draped in London 2012 flags.
As a 13-year-old taking her first steps on the journey to full-blown Olympics obsessiveness -- six months removed from an Olympics-themed Bat Mitzvah! -- I was thrilled with this little detail, and filed it away in my memory, where it has remained even a decade later.
I have very few specific memories from that trip anymore, but I remember the flags and the way London wormed its way into my heart. I don't know exactly when it happened, but I know that I left the city with a slow-burning desire to go back.
Flash forward to 2011. I finished my sophomore year of college, started my junior year, and couldn't decide where to study abroad. Thanks to a bunch of AP credits and no gen ed requirements, I didn't have to take any required classes overseas and therefore had almost total freedom when it came to choosing a program. The study abroad office, bless its heart, offered me zero help in narrowing down my options. I toyed with the idea of Germany for awhile, or maybe Denmark... but then it hit me. If the Olympics are going to London in 2012, shouldn't I be going to London in 2012?
I applied to an exchange program Miami has with Queen Mary, University of London, and got accepted. I applied for a study abroad scholarship designed to fund anything but program expenses; I got it and suddenly had $5,000 on which to backpack through Europe. I applied for a student visa instead of just getting stamped with a visitor visa upon entrance to the U.K., because I wanted to be able to work... and it was a miserable, stressful process that I shed many tears over, but I got approved and my passport was sent back to me with an official-looking sticker in it. But most excitingly, I applied to be a London 2012 Ceremonies volunteer.
My plane didn't even have to touch down at Heathrow for me to know I'd made the right decision. Two or three weeks before my departure, I was on my laptop with my parents Google mapping the area around my future school. We checked out which tube stations were nearby, what the grocery store situation was, if there was a pharmacy in the vicinity... all that practical stuff. The conversation turned to exploring the city and the potential for getting lost. And I said, with complete confidence, without even thinking twice about it, "Oh, as long as I can get myself to a tube station I'll be totally fine."
Keep in mind, this was a city I hadn't set foot in in seven and a half years. And when I'd been there the first time, I was 13 and my grandparents did all the navigating. But for some reason, after just a quick glance at a tube map, I was 100% sure in my ability to handle myself just fine. (It bears mentioning that the New York City subway map doesn't inspire that level of confidence in me. Not even close, actually. And I'm AWFUL at directions and finding my way around. So believe me when I say that this level of confidence in how I would get around London was truly bizarre.)
Friends who take creeper pictures occasionally come in handy. ;)
But that premonition was completely correct. On my very first evening there I was walking a mile down the road off campus in search of a converter, completely by myself. I learned the tube map like nobody's business and felt free to wander around the city, because I'd been right: as long as I eventually found my way to a station, I couldn't get lost. It was SO freeing! So I explored and tried new foods and made amazing friends and saw all the iconic London sites (and a whole lot that are off the beaten path).
And I was chosen as a London 2012 Ceremonies volunteer. So eight years after I was a newly-minted teenager all wide-eyed over the London 2012 candidate city flags, I was a college junior with my picture on a London 2012 ID badge and my name in the opening ceremony program. And I got to walk around during the Games and see the London 2012 host city flags, displayed proudly in every color of the rainbow.
How's THAT for coming full circle?
London and I have come a really long way in our relationship. I was there as a new adult in the eyes of the Jewish community, when I thought fizzy lemonade was the weirdest thing ever, and I was there when I became an adult in the eyes of America's legal drinking age... and, okay, I still thought fizzy lemonade was the weirdest thing ever. I was there to watch the beginning of London's Olympic journey, and I was there to watch its culmination. I'm happier and more comfortable there than anywhere else in the world; being there is easy and simultaneously exciting, and I just feel like myself.
So until I get seriously wooed by a man, I think it's safe to say that London has been the big, sweeping love story in my life. And you know what? I don't hate it.