I recently visited the “Late Turner – Painting Set Free” exhibition at the Tate Britain. For those unfamiliar with the London museum scene, the Tate Britain—part of the Tate network of galleries which includes the world renown Tate Modern—is dedicated to the display of historical and contemporary British art. Perhaps of most interest, the Tate Britain houses a substantial collection of the works of J.M.W. Turner, an artist who for me and many is the epitome of British art.
Turner is widely known for his picturesque landscape paintings. Following the landscapes of Claude Lorrain, Turner expands upon the landscape tradition by contemporizing these paintings with British significance. For instance, in his painting Crossing the Brook (1815), Turner paints a stunning view of the river Tamar in Devon. While the Claudean formula situates classical or mythological subjects within a golden age of sorts, Turner creates an English Arcadia by placing his subjects within the English countryside. This stunning painting uses framing trees to direct the eye along the river and onto the young girl crossing the brook (see featured image). This is very much a figurative crossing. The same year Turner painted this was the Battle of Waterloo. In this light, Turner depicts a war-weary Britain following the Napoleonic wars. His painting can be seen as nationalistic in the way he promotes the ideals of the countryside. While Britain remains affected after the years of war, he elevates the landscape as to promote Britain’s prosperity during this time of crossing.
For me, Turner represents another kind of prosperity for Britain. The late Turner exhibit largely focuses on his works after 1830, those that are often argued as early impressionist pieces. It is often said that Turner is a modernist. He incorporates the arrival of the modern age in his naturalistic paintings. For instance, in many of his works he examines the effects of modern technology—particularly the steam engine—and how modern technology collides with the natural world. His late works show the ways in which he begins to experiment with the medium itself. Turner uses color in ways that most of his contemporaries did not. With flurrying strokes, Turner takes a more abstract approach as he uses colors as symbols to reflect the larger ideas at play in his works. By the end of his life, his works embrace an even more abstract form. While many believed this to be a sign of his senility, many argue that Turner paved the way for impressionists to come.
The prosperity that Turner represents for me is one of intellect. As I’ve mentioned in my previous posts, I am constantly taken back by the opportunity I have had to study in Bloomsbury—a neighborhood for producing such famous literary figures like Virginia Woolf and Charles Dickens. These British writers were truly of their times, while possibly being ahead of their times as well. Turner fits right into this company for me. His innovative, insightful work exceeds that of his contemporaries as he works to elevate art’s role and comment on the times, while looking towards the future.
While struggling to adjust to NYU my freshman year, I found myself wishing I had looked at more universities with enclosed campuses. I had many friends at small liberal arts schools befriending other students easily, interacting with faculty on the daily, and feeling a strong sense of shared community. That was not at all the experience I had, and it really took me a while to accept NYU’s idiosyncrasies. Though I debated transferring my sophomore year, I stayed because I realized how much I value the incredible opportunities NYU has to offer—be it the wide variety of classes, a strong selection of professors, and the many possibilities that come with studying at a Global Network University.
For me, NYU London is the polar opposite to NYU Washington Square—in ways that perhaps decrease some of the desires I had my freshman year. While NYU London may not have an enclosed campus in which all buildings are located on the same grounds, most of NYU London exists within the Academic Centre—6 Bedford Square. This converted Georgian House used to belong to Lord Eldon (Lord Chancellor), so as you can imagine the design is quite sophisticated. The ornate spiral staircases, gold-painted chandeliers, grand draped windows, tall mirrors, and intricately framed artworks dispersed throughout the building add character in ways that truly create a wonderful academic experience. Located in the heart of Bloomsbury, this characteristic is a reminder of the many famous literary figures who have written in this neighborhood.
As the home to most NYU London courses, the Academic Centre provides a consistency that makes it extremely easy to befriend other students as you often run into each other in the lounges, halls, computer labs, and other study facilities. But perhaps my favorite aspect of the Academic Centre is the way in which the faculty is so approachable. Most of NYU London’s faculty members and academic staff have offices within the building, so should you ever have a question, problem, or complaint, the solutions can most likely be provided on the premises.
As mentioned in a previous post of mine, I was housed in the outsourced dorm about 30 minutes from the Academic Centre. Nido King’s Cross is an international student housing dorm open to anyone attending university in London—with the 2nd and 3rd floors reserved for NYU London students. Though I hated my tiny studio room (way too small for two people to share) and the long walk to campus proved to be a nuisance at times, I have to admit, the student lounge at Nido is awesome. This lounge made Nido quite the social dorm. Because one can freely drink in the lounge, people from other dorms would often come over on weekends to share a pint—or two. Not to mention, the location at King’s Cross is a perfect seeing as there is always a bus or Tube line that will get you to your destination—and even the Eurostar should you want to go to Paris! I have to say, Nido is not for everyone. Not that it’s exclusive, but rather many people hate the accommodations so much that it entirely affects their experience. Should you desire an apartment style dorm with quiet study facilities, a quiet location, and a shorter walk to campus, I would say Byron is the way to go.
I was actually amazed at all of the opportunities offered by NYU London. At the beginning of the semester, the student life team allotts each student 100 credits to use towards cultural outings, day trips, and other festivities. I would say, even if you don’t know whether or not you can make these opportunities, make sure to use all of your credits once the appointments open up. These events fill up fast! Once scheduled, there are always waitlists should you need to cancel for any reason. And often times, you might need to cancel, because when the appointments open up, most students don’t know whether or not they will be going on weekend trips. On that note, I would say, wait to plan any weekend trips until the end of the first month. I find that students at NYU London tend arrive with intentions of travelling every weekend. This is not realistic! For one, travelling that much is exhausting. Two, save your money as you will need it to last the semester. The exchange rate is particularly unfavorable to Americans. Third, just because you’re studying abroad, doesn’t mean you’re on vacation. I found the classes at NYU London to be equally is a challenging, if not more. Make sure you look through your syllabi and plan ahead as much as possible.
Lastly, I would highly recommend getting involved with the societies at UCLU or ULU. These are the student unions of the universities nearby. The highlight of my semester came when I first befriended British students. My abroad experiences truly became broader and have since developed some wonderful relationships that I plan to continue upon returning to the States. I found that NYU London began to feel like an American bubble abroad, and it was not until I broke out of that bubble, that I truly felt as though I had immersed myself in British life.
In general, make the most of your opportunities and don’t waste any time.
Yesterday I went to see the final installment of The Hobbit trilogy. The adverts for the film promote the hashtag #onelasttime and heavily emphasize the film as the final journey into Middle Earth. Having grown up with The Lord of the Rings trilogy being my favorite movies, yesterday felt especially significant. I can’t imagine what it must be like for Peter Jackson and everyone involved in all 6 films. For 15 years, Middle Earth has consumed the lives of many. Though I certainly have less of an involvement than the cast and crew, these films still hold a very special place in my heart and to say goodbye is not easy.
While I should have been studying for exams and writing final papers, I spent much of these past few days watching the first two Hobbit movies on Netflix, so that I would be prepared for the screening. I had been invited by two of my British friends who I will most likely not see for a while, so added to it being the final Hobbit movie, I knew I had to take time away from finals to attend this showing. After saying one last farewell to one of my British friends after the movie, I walked home and contemplated my experience. On this walk, I connected the dots—that is, I realized how perfectly timed this movie’s release is with my current circumstances. Seeing The Hobbit last night felt like a perfect culmination of my time abroad.
For one, the movies are very English (and British) at times. No doubt, The Shire is heavily influenced by the quintessential English countryside. Not to mention, all of the characters in the films have British accents. While watching the movie with my British friends, I couldn’t help but feel extremely connected to this characteristic of the film. In fact, the two friends I was with come from a very rural part of England. I could certainly see the generosity and kindness of Hobbits shine through them during my time abroad.
But perhaps the most striking epiphany occurred for me during the final scene of the movie. SPOILER ALERT: The story comes full circle. We end up at the Shire again as a scene from the first Lord of the Rings movie plays out. For me, this moment was beautiful. I couldn’t help but relate this experience to the end of my study abroad. It’s the end of a chapter—or rather a book. A lot is coming full circle—I am returning to the States and will embrace a familiar lifestyle. While it is a goodbye, I know that I can always revisit this experience. I’ve already started re-watching The Lord of the Rings trilogy since coming home from the cinema…
Underlying all of this was the matured eyes I had in watching the film last night. The last time I watched the full LOTR trilogy was my senior year of high school. As a senior in college, it was interesting to note the ways in which I looked at Middle Earth differently. While I experience a strong sense of nostalgia, I also know how necessary it is to move forward—how experiences change us, and hopefully, we can grow from these experiences and carry the lessons learned in our journeys ahead. My journey abroad has been one filled to the brim with so many different kinds of experiences—happy, sad, adventurous, stressful, overwhelming, tiring, exciting, and so forth. In the same way Bilbo (and Frodo) return to The Shire with changed eyes, I too will return home with a new perspective. So much factors into my new outlook, but above all, after experiencing so many different lifestyles and communities abroad, I think I have a better sense of how I want to live my life.
On a final note, this class has been extremely beneficial for me in coming to realizations. In addition to the assigned readings, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed reading the posts of others, as I often found your ideas to be extremely potent and applicable. I wish you all the best in your travels ahead!
About two weeks ago, I woke up one morning face down on my bed after a night of heavy drinking. Still in my clothes from the previous night, I walked to the bathroom, looked in the mirror, and cringed at my bloodshot eyes. I’ve always had a slightly droopy left eyelid (proud to have ptosis…not really), but that morning, I noticed something unusual. My upper left eyelid appeared to be experiencing some sort of spasm. It slightly twitched as I peered closer into the mirror. Then I noticed that my left eyelashes had some white crust at the tips—what looked like your typical morning eye crust. Oddly enough, some had gotten on the tips of my left eyebrow as well. I immediately turned on the faucet, as to rinse my face of its grossness. But after a quick cleanse, I realized that it wasn’t crust at the tips of my lashes. Turns out, some of my hair follicles had lost pigment at the ends. They had turned white! My heart sank in this realization. What could be causing this?!
I quickly Googled all of these symptoms. If you’re anything like me, you know better than to use WebMD, but if you’re anything like me, you use it anyway. I refused to wait to schedule a doctor’s appointment, only to be told that it’s all psychosomatic. I could have some sort of disease that only bloggers and web ‘doctors’ would be able to diagnose.
Unfortunately, eyelid spasm mixed with white eyelashes did not constitute a formal diagnosis according to my thorough scientific research. Still panicking, I phoned home like I always do when I experience such neurosis. I believe I get this quality from my step-mom—really my dad’s longtime girlfriend of over ten years. So I called her, because only she would understand my frenzy. She sympathized and proceeded to present a possible—more rational—explanation for my ailments. Perhaps the acne medication I had been using bleached my hair? Since returning from my trip to Iceland over Fall Break, my skin has been wildly undisciplined, much to my dismay. In attempt to calm my ‘fun’ breakouts, I must have unknowingly caused a few hair follicles to lose pigment. And the eyelid spasm—she said she experiences those all the time when she’s stressed, fatigued, and flat-out overworked.
Of course, everything was only noticeable to me, but I couldn’t help but magnify such ailments. What could I do to reverse them? They came at the worst time in the semester—right before my final papers, presentations, and exams took off. Added to this stressful time was the fact that my Gallatin rationale and booklist had been looming in the back of my mind. I had put it off for so long that it came to represent something larger than itself. Not to mention, throughout this period of overload, I had run out of money and had really started to stress out over all the expenses that come with living in London. If indeed, these symptoms were results of stress and anxiety, how could I reduce such feelings?
As I mentioned, the night before I made these discoveries, I had gotten drunk with friends. I knew going into that night that I had tons of work to do, but I justified my drinking; “It was my friend’s birthday, and part of being abroad is enjoying the social life as well,” I told myself. But drinking only made matters worse. It dug a further hole in my wallet, I didn’t keep up with my skincare process when I went to bed that night, and it just made me feel like shit the next morning when I woke up to my new facial findings.
As much as I wanted to think away my new problems, I knew they would not disappear over night. But in recognizing my eyelid spasm, I began to see that I have neglected caring for myself while abroad. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my exciting, new experiences, but there were simple things I could do to make my experience all the more better. Since this realization, I’ve slowly started to take the steps towards a healthier lifestyle. I started exercising again, I’ve attempted to eat healthier, I’ve slept more, and I officially submitted my rationale & booklist for the December 1st review cycle. In regards to the money situation, I still feel stressed, but I’m doing my best to be frugal when it comes to groceries, food, and all the necessities. The holidays are coming up, and I know that they will probably swallow my wallet altogether, but I’m trying to let go of some of the feelings I associate with money. Money comes and money goes (I like to think).
As I write this post, my left eyelid continues to spasm. While it is certainly annoying, and probably something I should get checked out if it continues to persist, I’m hoping that over time, as I continue to relieve myself of stress, anxiety, and fatigue, it will get better.
P.S. The photo shows me with a stuffed beefeater bear. This recent picture captures some of the feelings I have experienced in these past few weeks.
I had always wanted to study abroad via an exchange program of sorts. To immerse myself in the student body and culture of a university within the United Kingdom has always been a strong desire of mine. I was very eager to befriend Brits and experience British culture first-hand, after many years of being an anglophile—with a particular interest in the British music scene. Because I transferred into Gallatin quite recently, my only options for study abroad were NYU approved programs. Originally, I felt as though this requirement of transfers limited my opportunities, as it prevented me from pursuing an external study away program at a British university. Seeing as NYU has no partner universities within the UK, my only option was to study abroad at NYU in London. While I knew my classes and student accommodation would consist primarily of Americans abroad, I was persistent in my wish to befriend locals and experience British culture from the perspective of those who call Britain home.
Of course, I was very happy to make new friends within the NYU community. My dorm is quite social, and during the first month or so, I formed some wonderful relationships with new friends. It was great to explore the city with NYU students from a shared perspective in which everything was new and exciting. However, I quickly felt as though I got sucked into an NYU bubble abroad. Oddly enough, some drama had infiltrated my new circle of friends. This frustrated me, as it became a distraction from the reasons why I came abroad. I realized I had yet to befriend any locals and felt as though my experience in London was more American than I had hoped.
My abroad experience became broader the day I met Jess. At the end of September, the NYU student life team encouraged us to attend the welcome fairs hosted by the University College London and University of London student unions (to which NYU London subscribes). At the first day, which consisted of many club sign-ups and freebies, I became overwhelmed by the long queue that was inescapable once inside the disgustingly hot building that hosted the fair. By the time I was close to finishing the designated route, I could not wait to leave, even though I had yet to establish any meaningful student connections. Then, I ran into Will, a friend from NYU in London. Together we made it out of the long line and enjoyed some free food outside. I told him that I had a desire to meet some local students, though I did not know how to go about doing so. He said, “Just say hi”. And from there, he turned around and literally said “hello” to the girl right next to us. That girl was Jess, a native of Norwich currently studying at UCL. Taken slightly off-guard, Jess chuckled as she made fun of herself, “Sorry, you caught me staring off into space!” In the conversation that followed, I learned of Jess’s music-loving, free-spirited, and kind-hearted nature.
Jess was eager to exchange contact information, and the next night, I found myself with her at a jazz club, drinking pints and enjoying each other’s company. That night, I realized that Jess is a friend to keep. She wears her heart on her sleeve, and it is so easy to have honest conversation with her. She introduced me to some of her friends, and soon after I made some other friends at UCL whom I have introduced her to as well. But Jess will always be my first British friend—the person who indirectly showed me that perhaps I was a bit naïve in my desire to befriend Brits. I placed so much importance on breaking out of my American bubble abroad that I began to equate my inability to befriend locals with my feelings of insecurities in social settings. Yet in befriending Jess, I was reminded of the importance of honest human connection that exists outside the realm of cultural differences. I no longer think of Jess as my ‘British’ friend, but as a friend I intend to keep.
If “the first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it” (Rudyard Kipling), then Iceland takes the cake, because as soon as you step off the plane in Keflavík, the island’s slightly sulfuric smell is impossible to miss. That is, unless you are unable to smell (I don’t mean to be ableist).
While certain areas are more potent than others, the smell of sulfur finds its way into most daily activities. Be it the soft smell that emanates in the shower and faucets or the strong scent at tourist sites like the eponymous Geysir and the Blue Lagoon, “everything in Iceland smells slightly sulfuric,” as my traveling mate and I remarked on our recent trip over Fall Break. Given that Iceland is volcanically and geologically active—with volcanoes, hot springs, and lava fields galore—this characteristic is rightfully so. Though it is possible for one to get used to the smell and not notice it after a while, to me, the smell is a constant reminder of the many wonders Iceland has to offer.
During the first few days of my trip, I kept finding myself describing Iceland as “unreal”. “The landscape is unreal! The sky here is unreal,” or literally, “Iceland is unreal.” But after a while, I started to question my word usage. Though “unreal” is informally used as incredible or amazing, the word can also imply something that does not seem real. And though Iceland has many unusual features, it didn’t seem right to call them “unreal”, because they are perhaps so real. I quickly adapted the word “surreal”, though maybe this word does not encapsulate my feelings towards Iceland as well. What Iceland provided me with was a reality check—an opportunity to pause, take a step back (while moving forward), and recognize the many possibilities in this world.
Driving Iceland is a must. For one, there are no public railways in Iceland. Unless one has access to an Icelandic horse (I wish!), road is the main mode of transport. In fact, Iceland really only has one main highway—the Ring Road (or Route 1). The Ring Road runs around the entire island, connecting Reykjavík, the only city with most of Iceland’s inhabitants, to the rest of the country. The sights along the Ring Road are remarkable. Endless farmland filled with Icelandic sheep (which apparently outnumber people in Iceland) quickly turns to snow covered mountains, large glaciers, mossy lava fields, steaming geysers, black sand beaches, and coastal cliffs. And of course, there are an abundance of incredible waterfalls along the route. Though at this point it might seem a bit cliché to do, the music of Sigur Rós provides the perfect soundtrack to road trips in Iceland. From fantastical orchestral sounds to aggressive electric guitar chords, the tremendous variety of sounds across Sigur Rós’ discography matches the wide array of spectacular landscapes and ever-changing scenery. While driving, Sigur Rós’ Icelandic music has a way of making you feel like you’re flying, while grounding you at the same time (I’m rolling my eyes at these descriptions, but really, the experience can be quite powerful).
Because my travel buddy, Jenn, and I went to Iceland in November, we knew we wouldn’t have the endless daylight that finds its way to the island during the summer season. In direct contrast, the sun rises late and sets very early in autumn and winter. But what the summer months lack is the natural phenomenon that is THE NORTHERN LIGHTS. After failing to see them (due to cloud cover) and losing $50 to a tour bus excursion, Jenn and I realized, we would have a better experience road tripping by renting a car. This was the best decision, because little did we know, we would have a rental car for 24 hours even if we just intended to day trip! On Jenn’s last day, after returning from a night of concerts at a music festival called Iceland Airwaves, I asked the front desk what the likelihood of seeing the Northern Lights was. They said there was a pretty good chance, but it would be necessary to drive outside of Reykjavík to escape the light pollution—seeing as dark, clear skies provide the best setting to see them at their fullest. Lucky for us, we had the car still! With our hostel mate Michael, we jumped in our tiny Yaris and drove north in search of this natural wonder. While Michael and Jenn intensely peered out the window, I sat in the driver’s seat focusing on the road. “That looks like it could be something,” they remarked while looking out the right side of the car. But unfortunately, I really couldn’t see what they were pointing at, because I was on the left! They said it was very faded though, and I should keep driving. A little upset I couldn’t see what they could, I looked out the driver’s seat window, and excitedly yelled “Look!” The sky to our left was filled with green Northern Lights. We caught them at a very intense moment. Though Jenn and I kept laughing at the way our tour guide consistently used “dancing” to describe them, they really do dance across the sky. We pulled over, got out of the car, and in the cold dark night, marveled at the mesmerizing lights.
You really can’t capture the Northern Lights on camera. Most popular photos distort the images by adjusting for long exposure. While this can provide beautiful images that show the movement, the camera will never be able to truly capture the sensations provided by the Northern Lights. The lights can be quite ephemeral and translucent, so the best way to see them is with the human eye. I admit, I tried taking photos on my iPhone, but quickly gave up. Once again, this wonder found in Iceland provided a reality check. This rare opportunity, brought me to live in the moment, allowing me to forget all the thinking and planning ahead that usually dominates by thoughts and experiences.
Though the Northern Lights have no scent (at least, I think so), they reflect the notion of Iceland’s “slightly sulfuric smell”. They uphold Iceland’s powerful effect. Iceland reveals the many possibilities out there, brings you back to the moment, and causes you to perhaps question the life you have been leading.
In prepping for my trip I watched a BBC documentary special called “Volcano Live, Iceland Erupts”. In it, an Icelandic guide takes the host inside a volcanic fissure, explaining that they are in between the North American and Eurasian plate tectonics—the two continents. She asks, “Does that mean effectively what we’re doing is standing in a kind of no man’s land between the two?” To which he cleverly (and rightfully) responds, “We are in Iceland.”
Originally meant to be a travel guide, Three Men in a Boat follows a trio of friends’ journey down the river Thames, turning author Jerome K Jerome’s guidebook approach quickly into a farce. In fact, it is widely known that Jerome did not intend for humor to infiltrate his story set on London’s famous river, but the book grew to be funny naturally, and so he just went with the flow (pun intended). Perhaps this fact perfectly encapsulates the three men’s journey as well—their trip certainly does not going according to plan, but this is what makes the story so rich, wonderful, and of course, hilarious. (Disclaimer: Please excuse the lack of embedded quotes; These passages are just too clever to shorten.)
Perhaps my favorite moment and that which provided the most takeaway for me occurs at the end of chapter 12—directly following the infamous scene in which the three friends fail miserably to open a pineapple tin, because they cannot find the knife to open it. Never did something so appealing become undesirable so quickly. After tossing the tin, the narrator, Jerome himself, steers further along the river. He marvels at three fisherman:
“As we drew nearer, we could see that the three men fishing seemed old and solemn-looking men. They sat on three chairs in the punt, and watched intently their lines. And the red sunset threw a mystic light upon the waters, and tinged with fire the towering woods, and made a golden glory of the piled-up clouds. It was a an hour of deep enchantment, of ecstatic hope and longing” (129).
The elderly fishermen almost mirror the three men themselves—Jerome, George, and Harris—foreshadowing the beautiful passage of time met with an everlasting camaraderie. Jerome further takes in the moment:
“We seemed like knights of some old legend, sailing across some mystic lake into the unknown realm of twilight, unto the great land of the sunset” (129).
He absorbs the wonder of travel, an experience enhanced by sharing it with his close mates. But as mentioned earlier, this is a story in which accidents happen:
“We did not go into the realm of twilight; we went slap into that punt, where those three old men were fishing…. We had knocked those three old gentlemen off their chairs into a general heap at the bottom of the boat, and they were now slowly and painfully sorting themselves out from each other, and picking fish off themselves; and as they worked, they cursed us – not with a common cursory curse, but with long, carefully-thought-out, comprehensive curses, that embraced the whole of our career, and went away into the distant future, and included all our relations, and covered everything connected with us – good, substantial curses” (129).
Just as Jerome was taken back be the unexpected awe brought on by his travels, he is equally caught off-guard by the unexpected crash. Neither the former nor latter instance was planned—and though they convey seemingly different experiences—they share an underlying component: When things don’t go according to plan, we live most in the moment. Jerome gives equal attention to both experiences, because they equally absorbed him in an unexpected fashion. In this way, he embraces life’s most overwhelming moments.
While most of this story does not take place in London, but along the Thames from Kingston to Oxford, this idea rings true to my experience here. London, to me, appears to be a city designed without much of a plan. Obviously this is not fully true, but in coming from New York—a city with a strict grid surrounded by two rivers lacking bends—London seems to have an abundance of surprises around each twist and turn. In walking the streets, I am constantly taken back by the unexpected—be it stumbling upon a graveyard/park at dusk or discovering a pop-up market on a Sunday morning. It is these experiences—fully unplanned and unexpected—that have influenced my experience here in London most. When things don’t go according to plan, whether good or bad, by living in the moment, we experience life at its fullest.
On my walks to the NYU London Academic Centre, I have the joy of passing through Russell Square. Russell Square is perhaps my favorite park in London. On any given day—be it cloudy, rainy, sunny, or windy—the square offers an open space with a simple, yet appealing landscape. The open grass offers a comfy place to lay down on sunny days, the benches are perfect for people watching, the trees bring with them quirky squirrels, and the ever-changing fountain exists in the center of the park, as if to gather people around the garden’s heart.
I usually enter from the northeast corner. Upon entering the garden’s gates, I can often hear bustling conversation from the café in the square. Opposite the café, pop-up bookstands frequent the slightly curved walkway, reminding passerbys of the neighborhood’s rich literary history. It is not until I reach the center fountain, though, that I feel the full effect of such a wondrous open space. From there, the panoramic view of the park reveals the park’s success as a ‘third place’. As Ray Oldenburg writes in The Great Good Place: “the leveling, primacy of conversation, certainty of meeting friends, looseness of structure, and eternal reign of the imp of fun all combine to set the stage for experiences unlikely to be found elsewhere” (43). As passerbys converse on the benches, tourists marvel at the spurting fountain, dogs run to retrieve thrown balls, jogging clubs lap the perimeter, and children play on the grass, I can feel the leveling effect of the third place. Russell Square provides a “neutral ground where people gather and interact”. Social equality is promoted by leveling the status of guests, thus the park becomes a true public and ‘open’ space.
Directly across from the NYU London Academic Centre lives another park: Bedford Square. From outside of Bedford Square’s gates, it is clear the garden square is a well-groomed and functional open space. There is a peculiar desire that seems to overwhelm my experience of Bedford Square—my desire to make public the central garden. With its locked entrances and tall gates, Bedford Square exists as a private garden square only open to the residents of the homes that border the park. Though NYU in London shares a key that can be loaned out to students, the park is certainly not ‘open’ to just anyone.
Like Russell Square, Bedford Square is a garden square in the Bloomsbury district of the Borough of Camden. For those unfamiliar with Bloomsbury, it is quite the ‘posh’ neighborhood where the likes of many famous British figures—including Lord Eldon, Virginia Woolf, J.M. Barrie, and Charles Dickens—have all taken residence. With quite well-to-do neighbors, Bedford Square is open primarily to those who can afford to live on its ‘posh’ borders. For this reason, Bedford Square is not a third place that functions as a leveler in the same way other third places do. Because the park-goers are all of a certain status, the promotion of social equality is not an apparent characteristic of the third place.
In theory, private parks sound like excellent examples of third places. Only open to its nearby residents, one would think neighbors frequent Bedford Square and interact with each other often. Whereas Russell Square tends to welcome those who do not know each other and possibly will not interact, a private garden perhaps promotes a stronger familiarity amongst its visitors, thus providing the proper foundation for relationships to form. However, there is a strange characteristic of Bedford Square that deters me from favoring the idea of private parks: I rarely see anyone actually in the park!
Oddly enough, most of the people I see at Bedford Square are those sitting outside of the garden’s gates. With very few benches surrounding the park, there are often many people eating lunch while sitting on the ground. Knowing that there are most likely many empty benches within the gates, I can’t help but recognize the irony.
Because Bedford Square is private, it will never fully achieve the success of other third places. It will never work as a leveler, and it will never live the lively life that Russell Square does. That is, at least for now. Open up those gates, and perhaps Bedford Square will welcome a new, more democratic, life.
“A mere experience may be mystified, but a touristic experience is always mystified and the life contained in the touristic experience, moreover, presents itself as a truthful revelation, as the vehicle that carries the onlooker behind false fronts into reality. The idea here is that a false back is more insidious and dangerous than a false front, or an inauthentic demystification of social life is not merely a lie but a superlie, the kind that drips with sincerity” (599).
I apologize in advance for appearing to contradict my post from last week. I just couldn’t help but think of my HOST family experience while reading MacCannell’s writing. This essay has really helped me articulate some of the strange feelings I experienced on my trip to Lyme Regis last weekend.
For those who did not read my post, NYU London arranges HOST family visits for students who would like to experience British life outside of London. Through an organized program called HOST UK, students are given an opportunity to stay with a British HOST family for a weekend and essentially experience the family’s local life. At the info session held at the beginning of the semester, the representative stressed how our stays will most likely see the likes of local pubs, British home-cooked meals, British television, and Sunday church visits. As evident, the program is designed to transcend the tourist experience in pursuit of authenticity–that which British life truly consists of.
While I am so grateful to my HOST couple in Lyme Regis, Sally-Jane and Richard, I couldn’t help but feel as if something was awry during my visit. From the get-go in interacting with Sally-Jane prior to my stay, I could tell Sally was very eager to welcome me into her family and home. This certainly made me feel more comfortable as she offered such generous hospitality. However, upon arriving, I realized the extent to which we were putting on an act. While we did ask each other questions in attempt to know each other better, to some degree, we acted as though we were already family. Not once did we mention the program itself that arranged such a systematic visit.
As the weekend went on, I felt more and more strange as I saw how Sally-Jane designed the weekend schedule in such detail. Everything was planned to a tee. Friday night, I was to go with Richard to pick up fish-and-chips from the local “chippy”. While we waited for the food, we were to go to the pub across the street and enjoy a pint of cider. The following day, I was encouraged to wake up early and go with Richard to pick up the locally grown eggs from the farm shop. Saturday night we would devour a home-cooked meal made of famous British steak-pie and Eaton pudding. Sunday, I would play pool with Richard and his friend who came to visit. And while Sally-Jane prepared one final feast, I would be one of the “lads” down at the pub with Richard and his mate.
While I do feel as if I somewhat experienced this “back door” notion, I couldn’t help but recognize how such authenticity was staged. While I was certainly a tourist in Lyme Regis experiencing its many fronts, Sally-Jane wanted to me to experience their British lives as part of their family, but in doing so, presented me with a false back. Though her plans “drip[ped] with sincerity,” I could not escape the feelings of inauthenticity and artificiality. While it was easy for me to get over the staged British meals and outings, it was difficult for me to avoid the strange feelings in attempting to embrace the idea of the HOST family.
As you might tell from the weekend schedule, much of the planning was geared towards me spending time with Richard while Sally-Jane embraced her role as wife. I think this is due to a few reasons. Sally-Jane and Richard met online 9 years ago, and because they were older (Sally-Jane having been married previously), they never had any children. Because of this, Sally-Jane likes to host students, seeing as it rounds out their family dynamic. While I believe Richard enjoys the experience, I think it is Sally-Jane who wants to give him the experience more than it is Richard who pursues it. It was this intentional pursuit on Sally-Jane’s part that left me feeling odd at times. I could recognize what was occurring, and so, I attempted to fulfill a role that felt inauthentic to me. I felt as if I had to play a part, and though it stemmed from the best of intentions, it created a false reality.
While I thoroughly enjoyed my weekend with Sally-Jane and Richard, I think the actual problems occur once the false back disappears—once our relationship no longer exists in such a constructed reality. After I left, Sally sent me an email inviting me back at some point again in the semester, and even offered to lend me the house in the near future should I want to bring my family to Lyme Regis. Through her language and diction, I could sense Sally’s loneliness. While Richard still works a full time job in a nearby town, Sally has the home all to herself, and I can tell it gets to her. She longs to cook the meals that she told me she only gets to cook when she hosts students. She even admitted to me that she wishes she could cook such meals regularly, but that it doesn’t make any sense given that it’s just the two of them. Their daily lives are not as eventful as she made them out to be that weekend. In recognizing this, I can’t help but feel sympathy for Sally-Jane. I am somewhat glad I helped fill that void she feels, but it was only temporary, and perhaps it only perpetuated the cycle. With the HOST program completed, our relationship is now that which we choose to pursue. Now that I’ve taken a step back and am no longer obliged to participate in the HOST program, I will attempt to pursue a more authentic relationship—founded in honest communication, as opposed to staged discourse.
As I write this post, I sit on a train heading to London. I’ve spent the weekend in Lyme Regis, England—a quaint sea town on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset. For those unfamiliar with the book & movie The French Lieutenant’s Woman (set in Lyme Regis), this coastal town has a population of fewer than 4,000 people. Lyme Regis is not only situated on a breathtaking cliff-side coast, but the town also lies just minutes away from the quintessential English countryside that comprises most of Dorset. While I had little prior knowledge of Lyme Regis, I was drawn to the Jurassic Coast due to my strong obsession with the hit British television series, Broadchurch. As seen in the featured photograph, the famous cliff from Broadchurch, located in the small seaside town of West Bay, is a reminder of the powerful sights that live where land and sea meet. Carved by years of sea breeze and ocean waves, the Broadchurch cliff shows the truly remarkable capabilities of the sea.
This weekend trip offered me a brief inside-look at British life outside of London. Though London often comes to mind when one thinks of England, many argue that London is not representative of the rest of the UK. London, a truly international city with an abundance of immigrants and a wide array of languages spoken, can highly contrast British life outside of the famous city. I’ve been told that in order to experience “true” British culture, it is necessary to spend time immersed in other parts of England. For this reason, NYU London arranges for students to stay with host families in greater Britain, if desired.
The British couple I stayed with this weekend is testament to the strong passion British coastal inhabitants have for the sea. For that matter, the entire population of Lyme Regis appears to reflect this notion as well. I arrived in Lyme Regis just days after my host family, Sally-Jane and Richard, camped outside for two nights and two days in order to secure first pick at 13 ‘beach huts’ set aside for locals to rent. For those unfamiliar with such structures (as was I), ‘beach huts’ are literally little sheds often found on beachfronts in England. As Sally-Jane said, these ‘beach huts’ are “home away from homes” for many residents of Lyme Regis. While the town council provided ‘beach huts’ come furnished with only two beach chairs, the Lyme Regis residents furnish and decorate them to fit their desired beachfront life. Sally-Jane and Richard’s hut even has a tiny gas-powered stove to heat tea, coffee, and cook little meals. They often spend many full days sitting in their beach chairs, reading and enjoying the sounds, scents, and close-up views of the sea. With the convenience of having everything they need for the day already at the beach, the lucky local residents who rent ‘beach huts’ go down to the beach as often as possible, celebrating many holidays and days off in the peace of their seaside homes. Sally-Jane and Richard know most of their ‘beach hut’ neighbors—all of whom seem to share the same outlook: there really is nothing quite like the sea.
Having lived primarily in two crowded and often overwhelming cities, Los Angeles & New York, I am quite captivated by the peace and serenity offered by the sea. While home for winter and summer breaks, I always make sure to visit the nearby beaches and watch the sun set as often as I can—which is certainly not as much as I’d like. When in California, I do make an effort to travel up north about once each school break. The drive along the Pacific Coast Highway is unlike anything in the world to me. I often finding myself wishing I could just settle down in a seaside town and experience such quiet life year-round. But I know, given my schooling and desired career path, I will most likely stay in cities for the years ahead. In fact, my concentration includes “the modern city” in its title, so clearly I am drawn to the influences of modernity, urbanization, and all that comes with city life. But still, I can’t help but long for the quiet and transfixing sights and sounds of the sea, as I often find myself overwhelmed and highly critical of the cities I live in.
In her essay “The Docks of London” published in The London Scene, Virginia Woolf examines the relationship between sea commerce and London. Woolf visits the London docks on the river Thames and imagines the life of the ships at sea. She notices “a curious change [take] place” when the ships dock. “They no longer have the proper perspective of sea and sky behind them, and no longer the proper space in which to stretch their limbs. They lie captive, like soaring and winged creatures who have got themselves caught by the leg and lie tethered on dry land” (6). For a moment, she magnifies the constricting nature of the seemingly disorderly city. Urbanization, fueled by consumer desires, has taken control of the land, paving over the earth that once lied beneath.
Though her descriptions seem to appeal to my strong tendency to criticize city life, Woolf delves deeper into this curious relationship, and a noticeable shift occurs. When one makes his or her way closer to the city center along the Thames, “one hears the roar and the resonance of London itself” (9). “This is the knot, the clue… here growls and grumbles that rough city song that has called the ships from the sea and brought them to lie captive beneath its warehouses” (9).
Perhaps her most poetic examination comes in the form of a fungus. Woolf notices a cotton, wool-like growth that appears in the trading warehouses; “It is a fungus, but whether lovely or loathsome matters not; it is welcome because it proves that the air possesses the right degree of dampness for the health of the precious fluid” (13). Our consumer desire for functional products, encompassed in the image of trade at the docks, leads Woolf to conclude, “use produces beauty as a by-product” (13).
Though Sally-Jane and Richard purchase much of their necessities from local businesses, as Lyme Regis has yet to be infiltrated by chains, Woolf’s ideas to me were most illuminated in the glow of their television set. As I experienced a further glimpse into British culture by watching the BBC and ITV with Sally-Jane and Richard, I realized that as much as their lives are influenced by the sea, they are equally so by the city. These programs that Sally and Richard depend on, be it for the weather, the news, or other forms of engaging entertainment are all born in London. The consumer desire to receive these functional programs has proven to benefit their lives and allows them to engage in ways that are only offered as a by-product of cities. As much as urbanization is a fungus growing out of our needs, there is beauty in the by-product. It was quite remarkable to see how much these programs help Sally-Jane and Richard in their day-to-day lives by the sea. They bond over a shared love of their favorite entertainment programs, they maintain a sense of the world around them by way of news programs, but perhaps of most importance, weather programs give them updated reports on what to expect when down at their beloved ‘beach hut’.
So as I sit on this train approaching the city, I can hear “the roar and resonance of London itself” (9). I am like the ships from sea being called by “the rough city song”. I am excited to return to a way of life driven by our human need for functionality and use. Seeing as the other part of my concentration is “Film & TV”, I am perhaps more excited to one day take part in producing these programs that Sally and Richard so thoroughly enjoy and depend upon.
Woolf, Virginia. “The Docks of London.” The London Scene. London: Daunt, 2013. 5-15. Print.