Confession: I’ve been putting off writing this post for a few days.
I guess I’m not ready to accept that I’m leaving soon. It seems like only yesterday I stepped off the plane from Philadelphia, unpacked my big blue suitcase, and placed that thing under my bed- and now, in a short time, I’ll be pulling out that hefty bag out once again to repack everything (well, everything plus a few extra souvenirs and Cadbury chocolates).
This semester has been absolutely incredible, full of ups and downs, highs and lows, times of utter bliss and complete stress, but I wouldn’t have traded it for the world. From getting to intern at a fringe theatre in a picturesque London village out of a storybook (my coworker Claire has recently bookmarked this blog on her office computer- Hi Claire!) to sitting atop the hill from which Saint Peter preached in Athens, I have had so many amazing experiences over the past few months, ones that I don’t think I will ever be able to explain in words to my friends and family back home.
Prior to leaving America, I made a bucket list of over fifty things that I wanted to this semester, which consisted of fully realistic ones like going to the White Cliffs of Dover and taking the Beatles Abbey Road picture to some totally improbable ones like meeting Eddie Redmayne and David Tennant. Well, at this point, I’ve completed about half of the items (after adding some more), even a few of the crazier ones like watching a Sherlock filming and meeting at least one Harry Potter actor (Last Monday, I got to see Imelda Staunton bring the house down with her rendition of “Rose’s Turn” in Gypsy).
I think making that bucket list was one of the best decisions I made before studying abroad. But I’m not gonna lie: at multiple times this semester, I got very overwhelmed at the daunting task of trying to complete every solitary item in these couple months. It was actually my mom who helped me put things into perspective; during one particular Skype call, she said, “You’re young. You still have your whole life ahead of you. This won’t be the last time you’ll be in London or even Europe. You’re gonna come back one day.” So, as I prepare to head back to the States, I try to keep that idea in mind. Therefore, this isn’t goodbye, it’s just a “see you later”.
I will see the friends I’ve made here when I get back to New York, and, boy, do I look forward to all of the slow-motion running and major attack hugs that will commence on Washington Place in September. I will have all of the pictures that I’ve obsessively saved on my computer to show people that, yes, I did actually cook a full meal from scratch in Tuscany. And, most of all, I will have those snapshots in my mind of all the seemingly trivial moments that made a huge impact on me: lying in the middle of the Palazzo Vecchio on a bright sunny day, listening to Downton Abbey writer/creator Julian Fellowes tell me about how he would craft the movie version of Al Jolson’s life, seeing Jane Austen’s actual writing desk, and so much more.
In the words of the great philosopher, Tigger from Winnie the Pooh, “TTFN, ta-ta for now.” Thanks, NYU, for giving me this great opportunity to study in one of the most wonderful cities in the world.
And, London- this won’t be the last you see of me.
The last time I wrote a list for a post, it seemed to go over really well. So let’s do another one.
Top Seven Things To Get the Most Bang for Your Buck While Studying in London:
1. London is a walkable city, even more so than New York. Maybe it’s the beautiful ancient structures still standing in the midst of a busy metropolis. Maybe it’s the wide layout of the city. Or maybe it’s the fact that there’s actual elbow room between you and the person walking next to you. To this day, I can’t say what it is for sure. But take time to walk around London and find out for yourself.
2. That being said, public transit is really helpful. However, you sometimes get that dreaded “insufficient funds” light flashing on the turnstile when you forget that you were out too late to top up your card the night before. And, sure, weekly/monthly passes are convenient, but they can get very expensive. One way to alleviate the stress in your mind (and your wallet) is to apply for a 18+ student Oyster card. Not only is it free to do, but you get 30% off weekly/monthly passes as well as some discounted rates for the trains. It’s definitely saved me a lot of time and money, especially since I’m at work most days of the week.
3. If they’re not already free, most events/museums/tourist sites have ‘concessions‘, which are special discounted rates for students and seniors. Take advantage of them. Use them. Abuse them. Treasure them.
4. Theatre kids: always talk to the box office about cheap tickets and flash your NYU ID. I’ve gotten West End theatre tickets anywhere from £5-£17 without having to rush at an early morning hour just because I am a student. And the National Theatre will do £15 season passes for students so you can see all of their amazing shows. Not exactly a student-specific deal, but the Globe also sells £5 tickets to be a ‘groundling’ and stand in the yard to watch Shakespeare.
5. Fun fact: so when you come to NYU London, you are given the option of getting a (free) University College of London ID card [n.b. UCL is the school that NYUL is affiliated with in London]. Make sure you get that card. Not only is it a great back-up in case you drop your NYU ID (exhibit A: me), but having a student card from a European university will also help you out big time in the long run. For instance, a lot of the major sites in mainland Europe (ie, the Parthenon) will allow you to enter for free if you have a European student card.
Your student card truly does wonders, my friends.
6. Okay, this sounds kind of weird but this is perhaps the best piece of advice that I personally can give to students planning on studying abroad in London: become a member of Historic Royal Palaces. For those of you who don’t know, HRP is the umbrella organization that runs some of England’s most famous attractions (eg. Tower of London, Hampton Court Palace, Banqueting House, etc.). Registering as a member costs around £40, but that initial payment gets you a special little card (known affectionately as ‘the Henry card’) that will grant you free entry into all of those attractions for an entire year, for free, and for as many times as your delicate heart desires (and, trust me, those admission prices add up). My roommate and I both got Henry cards and, because of that, we have been able to go to every attraction at least once without having to spend extra funds on admission. Not only that, but the card gives you 10% off on souvenirs and food on the grounds. On days when we’re bored, we sometimes decide to visit the Tower on a whim, or, because of our membership, we have access to exclusive opportunities like taking a rooftop tour of Hampton Court Palace. Basically, the Henry card has allowed us to constantly live out our Disney Princess fantasies for a fraction of the cost of a tiara.
7. Spend money on things you actually want to spend money on. There’s no one way to have a study abroad experience, so if you’re not doing everything that other people are doing, don’t feel obligated to change your life or empty your wallet just to fulfill what you think you should be doing during your time away. Wanna go club hopping in different neighborhoods? Great. Feel like jetsetting to a new European capital every weekend? Awesome. Enjoy waiting outside at 10am for cheap theatre tickets? Cool. Want to take walks around London during your free time? Sweet. Have the urge to run around English castles pretending you’re a princess? Same.
The thing is, you’ll get the most out of your time here if you spend the time, energy, and money doing things you really want to do. Sure, I’m all up for trying new things and having new experiences, but don’t feel pressured to do something just because you see other kids Instagramming about it. You do you, because your study abroad experience is about you and what you want to get out of your time in a new place.
Wearing my iPod earbuds, I step off the escalator of the Underground and look down at my phone- 10:30pm. It’s been a long day. Work at 10:30am- Class at 2pm- Show at 7:30pm; pretty much my typical schedule these past few weeks. Rushing around to catch the transit and scrambling to find semi-quick, semi-cheap, and semi-healthy(ish) meals in the midst of all this running around has thoroughly exhausted me. I walk through King’s Cross Station and pass all the shops that have closed their doors, all the travellers waiting for their 11 ‘clock train, all the tourists taking their last few pictures of the Harry Potter trolley before the workers move it back into the store. I head towards the door. My feet ache, my head aches, my stomach aches, and I honestly can’t wait to get to my room, put on my pajamas, and eat some late-night pasta while watching Netflix.
But something changes when I walk outside and look around and suddenly I want to linger around here for a little while longer. There’s just something magical about walking by King’s Cross late at night (yes, New Yorkers, 10:30pm is considered “late” for the British folk). To me, the King’s Cross exterior at night is like a beacon of warm light- maybe it’s the glow of the clock against the dark sky- maybe it’s the way the trees are lit by the heat lamps- maybe it’s the glimmer of the stone benches seemingly set aflame by the underlighting along the ground. Or maybe it’s St. Pancras, towering over the cityscape and illuminating the small outdoor King’s Cross park area.
Whatever it is, I always feel calm and peaceful here- it’s my “Great Good Place”, to use the words of writer Paul Theroux. Even when I’m trudging back to my room after a tiring day, I walk through this tiny part of the city and somehow my body and soul feel a little bit lighter. I find myself drawn to the stone benches and I climb on top of them and stare out at what lies before me. As I look at the main tower of St. Pancras, I feel both so little and so tall at the same time because I, too, am towering over the people walking on the ground, but still small compared to the vast buildings surrounding me. Add in the music of Sia or Daft Punk or whomever is providing my daily soundtrack, and it’s like I’m in a deep introspective scene out of one of those indie movies- it sounds pretty cheesy, I know, but, in that specific moment, time freezes around me and I feel like I am standing on the precipice of something truly great.
I have been recreating this experience for the past week or so now, desperate to squeeze out a little more magic out of London before I leave in a few weeks. It’s funny because, even after all these months, I still get that quick flash of realization that I’m actually in London when I’m looking out at the city in front of my eyes. It’s a resurfacing of that initial giddiness that I had when I first arrived, as if it’s all a dream. I’m glad that it’s still there and that the hustle and bustle of London hasn’t taken that joy away from me.
And then I think about my life back in New York, about how many days I drag myself around from place to place and just don’t appreciate the beauty of the city, about how hard it is for me to feel that magic after these past few years of the city bringing me down. It’s the wonder and awe that I feel atop those benches that I want to bring back to New York with me. I want to rekindle the romance I once had with the city streets as a first-year. In a way, London has been like my marriage counsellor, helping to put the spark back into my relationship with New York City as I prepare to begin my final year at NYU.
Last week, I talked about the good times I had on spring break: eating pizza and gelato daily, making new friends, learning how to make a moving keg, etc. But, in light of this next topic, I figured I’d explain a little about the logistics of our crazy and wild ten day excursion.
Yes, I did type that correctly: ten days. And, for those of you who recall my posting last week, you’ll remember that I said we went to six cities. Six cities in ten days.
We clearly didn’t realize what exactly we were getting ourselves into.
Our trajectory went something like this: we took a plane from London to Milan, a train from Milan to Venice, a train from Venice to Florence, a train from Florence to Rome, a plane from Rome to Athens and then back to Rome again, and then finally a plane from Rome back to London. Our schedule was so tightly packed that the slightest delay could have ruined our entire break- and don’t get me started on the constant anxiety we had about (god forbid) missing one of our bookings.
For the most part, besides that perpetual pit in my stomach fearing the worst, everything went smoothly in our travel itinerary. Somehow or other, by the intervention of some higher power or mystical being I’m sure, not only did we make each train and plane on time, but all of our hotels/Airbnbs were easy to find and close by.
Well, that is, all except for one.
Let me paint the picture for you- after a relaxing three day stay in Florence, we had just gotten off the train in Rome and began to head to our hotel: the Hotel Laura. (Note: we were only staying in Rome for the night in order to catch a cheap plane to Athens at 6am, then fly back to Rome a few days later to really enjoy the city.) According to our smartphone maps, the Hotel Laura is only a ten minute walk away, which is fantastic because we are all tired and have heavy bags and want to get a good night’s sleep before our early flight. We make the trek to the hotel, climb the stairs, and go to the check-in desk, only to have the receptionist look at our confirmation sheet and tell us that we’re not booked there. Turns out, there are two Hotel Lauras: this one near the train station and the one we booked in Ciampino. Our Hotel Laura, though close to the airport, is actually over an hour away from this other Hotel Laura. And, if that wasn’t already enough, we had to take a subway and then transfer to a regional railway train before walking another ten minutes to get there. So, after some grumbling and general noises of frustration, we end up finding the right subway station and getting off at the main train station in Rome: Termini Station.
For those of you who don’t know, Termini Station is perhaps the most terrifying place for a tourist to be in Rome, as it’s where pickpockets and scam artists run amok. At any moment, a person could come and slip your wallet out of your bag (or, in some cases, cut your bag off your body and then run like hell) as you’re trying to weave in and out of the crowded platforms. And, there are men stationed at each ticketing machine to “help” you figure out how to get where you need to go, only to then demand money or pinch your stuff. It’s such an issue that there’s a warning that pops on the ticketing machine screen before you purchase your tickets alerting you to only ask for help from uniformed station employees.
Needless to say, the hour or so that we spent navigating Termini Station, purchasing our tickets, and then waiting for the train was completely nerve-wracking. Besides the blatantly obvious language barrier, we stuck out as lost tourists, so we attracted many of these ticket booth hounds while we were deciphering the train schedules. They hovered around us and kept pestering us to ask them for help, some even trying to work the machine for us and then expecting us to pay them for their “services”. We pushed them away and made a beeline for the track once we had our tickets in hand. After another fifteen minutes of guarding our stuff on the track, we finally made it on the right train, and, forty-five minutes later, we found our way to the hidden entrance of the correct Hotel Laura.
It was an evening of utter stress and confusion and fear that ultimately led to us getting to bed at 9pm with pizza in our bellies before waking up and beginning the travel mayhem all over again.
Every time I return to Italy feels like I’m coming home. There’s this surge of familiarity that hits me as soon as I step onto Italian soil and I suddenly feel comfortable in what other people might call a foreign land. Do I know any family members that are still living in Italy? Unfortunately no. Are my Italian language skills exemplary? Not by a long shot. But, still, I think there’s something in the air here that takes away the “stranger”-ness in me and allows me to really bask in the culture of the country of my ancestors.
Since it is currently prime tourist season in Italy, the streets are a sea of strangers, all coming from different places speaking in different languages, but all trying to find those major spots like the Piazza Colonna in Rome, the Duomo in Milan, the Ponte Rialto in Venice, or the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. I am at the present moment on spring break, backpacking around Italy and Greece with some friends and, in the midst of running to those big sites, there are those quiet moments sitting along the Venetian docks or just meandering around the streets of Milan that allow us to really feel at one with the city; that we somehow belong, at least for the few days that we’re there.
So, needless to say, we’ve interacted with a lot of fellow travelers in the past couple of days, but I wouldn’t exactly call all of them “strangers”. Simmel talks about that weird sense of openness and intimacy that comes with these kind of on-the-spot relationships, the freedom of sharing what would usually be considered secrets between only the closest of friends. I have actually lost count of how many “fast friends” I’ve made during this trip. I’m a very bubbly extrovert (I have the Myers-Briggs test results to prove it), and, for me, when I feel at all uncomfortable or if things get too quiet, I’ll usually just chat up the person nearest to me- even if I have never met them before in my life.
Because of this weird quirk I possess, I’ve had some pretty unusual experiences involving these quote-unquote strangers within my current travels. In Venice, my friends and I ended up sharing a gondola ride with a super-friendly family from Hong Kong with whom we took many group photos and then asked for our Facebook information so we could try to meet up when they’re next in New York. During our first meal in Athens, these UMass Amherst boys who sat behind us began asking us questions about what to do in the city, and, not only did we spent the entire lunch trading college tales, but we also traded Facebooks and we hung out later that day. Athens also featured new companions like the nice jewelry store owner whose shop we visited every day and who gave us cheaper prices each time we came back, as well as the aunt who ran up to me in front of the Parthenon to say that she has the same Target skirt that I was wearing.
In Florence, we had the most amount of these instant relationships. For example, while taking a cooking class on a Tuscan villa, my one friend and I became close with three newly engaged couples- one of the wives was very eager to have her husband learn all of the tricks in order for him to share in the kitchen duties. We also met a woman who has been backpacking around the world for five months, a man who was supposed to go to a wedding in Rome but it was cancelled so now he’s just on an impromptu holiday, a group of college girls desperate for the unlimited wine, and a group of middle-aged women who shared that same sentiment. We particularly bonded with a couple from New Hope, Alabama; the husband, William, owns his own American grill there and he and his wife were taking the class to help improve the menu at his place.
Our fondest memory of William and his wife, and perhaps the highlight of our entire trip as well, was during the meal when William announced that he wanted to tell all of us college kids something very important, something that he said “would probably save our lives one day”. We immediately stopped talking and attentively listened to what he had to say, thinking he was going to tell us how to fix a flat tire or hot-wire a car in case of emergencies or some other useful life lesson. Instead, he tells us about the time he and his college buddy turned his car into a moving keg by filling the anti-freeze container with grain alcohol and then rerouting the hose to pour the alcohol directly into a flask in the passenger seat (please don’t ask me to explain the mechanics behind this).
The moral of the story: talk to strangers. You’ll learn a lot of weird things and have some pretty amazing experiences.
American New York Times journalist Sarah Lyall begins The Anglo Files: A Field Guide to the British with a David Letterman-esque “Top Ten” list about the top ten signs that she had finally adjusted to living in Britain after marrying her English husband Robert. Lyall’s book is like a crash course in the British psyche, delving into everything from Mrs. Thatcher to hedgehogs and how they reflect British values, traditions, and ways of life. As an American woman with an English husband and two daughters born and raised in London, she has a unique perspective on British life. She is a foreigner who has come to live in the UK as an adult and has since immersed herself into daily activities as if she herself were a native. The Anglo Files is both a field study and a personal memoir, with valuable tips and points embedded into seemingly random anecdotes. So, as a way of conveying this information in a Lyall-approved manner (also in honor of Letterman’s upcoming retirement). I’ve decided to structure this article like a “Top Ten” list with some explanations as well. Here we go:
Top Ten Things I Learned From The Anglo Files:
10. Despite what you may think, Brits are actually quite loud and obnoxious. Lyall talks about how obvious it is to “spot the Englishmen” when they are abroad, especially in mainland Europe. When it comes to their beloved football, British people make themselves heard, drunkenly and disorderly screaming and yelling and chanting for their teams as if the players can hear them through the screen. I’ve heard far too much from drunk Brits on the Tube.
9. Class is still totally a thing. Lyall highlights this messily intertwined issue of class and education here in the UK and how a Brit’s schooling can ultimately come to influence that person’s future career (i.e. why every major party leader in Britain went to some posh boarding school like Eton or Harrow). Even the way a person speaks can bar them from climbing up the ladder. I know this is all true in the US as well, but, the extent to which it’s apparent in the UK is pretty scary.
8. They believe they have a “duty” to look after Britain. It’s as if the Queen has bestowed an OBE upon every single UK citizen and charged them with protecting their land. Some see this duty as upholding tradition; others as inciting change. You’ll find supporters of both stances here in the UK and, at times, like Lyall says, clashes between the two can get quite ugly.
7. Regardless, change is difficult for them to embrace. Sure, they talk all about “inciting change” all they want, but, when it comes down to it, most would rather stick to tradition. As Lyall points out, as much as everyone is fed up with the practically useless titles like “Earl of Sandwich”, they’ll never do anything about it because Brits love to live in the past, and change is hard. So why waste the energy?
6. Being verbally boastful or arrogant is very un-British. You know how people like to think that Brits are always super polite and humble? Well, not exactly. Most of the time they’re just manipulating language to give themselves a subtle pat on the back or give you a back-handed compliment. Lyall states that, for the British people, self-satisfaction is teetering on their worst nightmare: being American.
5. The British know how to laugh at themselves- sometimes rather harshly. As someone who works in London, I’ve had first-hand experiences of what Lyall write about regarding British humor. A lot of the time it’s self-deprecating and, to the untrained ear, it can seem quite mean, especially when they make fun of you. But, it’s just the way Brits know how to laugh; nothing personal.
4. Brits know how to differentiate between “a trickster and a hero”. The book illustrates this point with the story of how the British people laughed and threw eggs at David Blaine when he did his big hanging over London Bridge illusion, which is a pretty dated notion nowadays. So let’s update it with a more contemporary reference: Honey Boo-Boo. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had my British coworkers ask me why that family is famous. And I tell them: I honestly don’t know. I guess having fame-less celebrities is an American thing.
3. They LOVE their animals. There’s a well-known story that Lyall recounts about “the hedgehog people” off the coast of Scotland, who back in 2003 fought back against the government to prevent a widespread extermination of their beloved creatures. The Queen has her hoard of corgis that follow her every move. Brits just love animals, definitely more than they love humans.
2. The British lack of enthusiasm can be attributed to lack of light. The book compares the British “moodiness” with “the perky American enthusiasm” and sunlight as the root cause of both dispositions. And I have personally found this to be true. Some days I do feel that “natural melancholy” when the London sky is gray is cloudy (Lyall also talks about how one in fifty Brits have diagnosed Seasonal Affect Disorder [SAD]). But mostly, I hear my coworkers praise me for my bubbly personality and optimism because, even when I’m a little down, there’s still something about my inherent “Americanness” that they seem to recognize.
1. “London is a very big place.” From Highgate to Waterloo, Edgeware to Cockfosters (that’s a real place, I swear), every section of London has its own unique character; I’m still finding new places each day. Even Sarah Lyall is still learning more and more about London as she explores it more with her husband and children. I guess it goes to show that maybe you never really stop being a tourist, that there’s so much more to learn about than you ever imagined.
I know this post is pretty late for this week, but I wanted to wait so I could post about my experiences this weekend outside of London. Like many of my fellow travel writers here, I too feel like I’ve spent most of my time talking about one specific area and I want to branch out. So, in this post, I will be talking about someplace different: the Scottish Highlands.
NYU London partners with the HOST program to set up weekend homestays for interested students, who then are paired with British families to spend a couple of days getting to be a part of their daily lives. My trip was this weekend, and I stayed with Val and Pip, a couple living on a croft in the Highlands, between Invergordon and Alness. For those of you non-Scots, a “croft” is the Scottish term for a small farm; Val and Pip’s croft, for instance, has around ten sheep, fifteen chickens, and a bunch of fruits and vegetables (for comparison, larger Highland farms have thirty plus sheep roaming around). So, living on a farm in the middle of the rural Scottish Highlands is not only totally different from Central London but, as a perpetual urbanite, it’s pretty much as far out of my comfort zone as I can possibly be.
There’s just something about Scotland that is so tangibly magical, as if everything around you might disappear in the blink of an eye. It doesn’t seem real- the gorgeous mountains, lochs, and forests outside the window looking like illustrations from a fairytale book. Every rock, every sheep, every tree, every hill seems to have a spirit within them, like the mists roll through the Highlands breathing life unto the land. I know this must sound completely crazy, but, whether it’s the bright blues and greens, the hidden valleys, the ancient stone castles, or the unpronounceable town names, there’s this sense of the mystical in the Highlands.
More than that, the Highland people have this dual-fold understanding of what it means to be both of the land and of the world. Saturday night, Val and Pip invited some of their fellow crofter friends over for dinner, and they mostly spoke about the upcoming lambing season (aka when all the baby lambs are born), their mutual struggles getting subsidies for their crops (something about distinguishing between acres and a unit of measurement I had never heard of called a hectare), and how the weather has been affecting their animals. Unlike in London or New York, where pop culture and the media dominate everyday conversation, people here in the Highlands discuss what is important to their community: the land.
And life there is just simpler in general. Most of the food I ate at Val and Pip’s house came directly from their own farm (including the most delicious shepherd’s pie made from one of their sheep)- we spent a rainy afternoon playing board games in the conservatory-and most of our days were spent driving around the Highlands looking at the gorgeous landscapes (stopping along the way at a fourth century castle ruin, a lighthouse on the coast, and a manor that faced out to the North Sea)- activities right out of an episode of Downton Abbey. But, at the same time, the Highland people aren’t ignorant of what’s going on beyond their shores: they know exactly what’s going on in pop culture, modern technology, and current trends. For instance, Val spoke a lot about how she’s loved Hunter wellies before they became fashionable with “those young hipster types”- her friend Allison made a Despicable Me minion joke during dinner- and Val has developed a knack for cooking Indian-inspired dishes, especially ones with curry.
Just because the people live simply and more isolated doesn’t mean that they close themselves off to the rest of the world, and that duality is what makes the Highlands so fascinating. As I took one last look at the scenery walking towards the plane, I found myself taking a rather long breath, hoping and wishing that I could keep the Highland spirit within me long after I leave the UK.
I must warn you all from the get-go that I am by no means an art expert. I can barely draw a stick figure that isn’t totally lopsided and all my knowledge of George Seurat stems from that one scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off and the Steven Sondheim musical Sunday in the Park with George.
But, while I personally am not an art aficionado, my roommate very much so is. Unlike me, she can easily distinguish between a Monet and a Manet as well as narrate the entire history of art from impressionism to pop-art. So, this past weekend, while we were procrastinating on an essay (yes, fellow NYU Londoners, that essay), she decided to take an impromptu trip to the National Gallery in Trafalgar Square. And, with this article assignment in mind, I happily tagged along, hoping to gain some deep artistic insight from her more cultivated genius.
Despite the discrepancy in our artistic knowledge, however, my roommate and I act the same when viewing pieces in a museum: we’re the kind of people who laugh at the strange facial expressions in Renaissance portraits,attempt to strike similar poses to match the towering marble statues, and go on a scavenger hunt to find the most muscular baby Jesus in the secular art room. We make up stories (complete with dialogue) about what the people might be thinking or doing in the pictures.
However even though I’m not an expert at determining aesthetics, I couldn’t help but something interesting about the landscape paintings, so, while my roommate ogled over Vermeer’s lighting techniques, I decided to take a closer look at those landscapes.
Take a look at this picture:
And this one:
Notice anything similar?
Maybe it’ll be more apparent once I show you these other paintings.
Here’s this painting:
and another one:
Here’s what I saw: a stark contrast in color. In the first two pictures, the overall effect is pretty much a mass of gray, muted tones, and whatever those buildings seem to be blending into the foggy abyss. In the second group, however, the skies are painted bright blue, fluffy clouds are rolling by, and you can clearly see everything that the artists are portraying: the gondolas on the water, the animals in the marketplace, each individual person going about their lives- everything single detail tells more of the story.
You might have guessed by now that what else distinguishes the two groups of paintings is location: the first group (Charles-François Daubigny’s St Paul’s from the Surrey Side and Claude Monet’s classic The Thames below Westminster) shows views of the London cityscape in respect to certain famous landmarks like St. Paul’s Cathedral and Big Ben, while the second group (Francesco Guardi’s Venice: The Punta della Dogana and Jan van der Heyden’s A View in Cologne) shows areas in mainland Europe like Venice, Italy and Cologne, Germany.
So why the big difference in color?
Why paint London like a grey blob and paint these other places like Edenic paradises?
The answer lies in attitudes.
What are the stereotypical views of London? Gray, foggy, rainy- not exactly the more picturesque sounding place, now is it?
Compare that to what we think of when we hear about places in mainland Europe: rolling hills, sunny weather, meadows of flowers. Even Alain de Botton talks about how much the English themselves had this obsession with Italy and they all flocked to places like Rome and Naples for holiday. He further contends that the reason for this mainland mass migration also stems from, you guessed it, the overabundance of Italian landscapes featured in the art collections of British aristocracy.
So, in this sense, art and travel seem to have a sort-of symbiotic relationship where one feeds off the other. To quote de Botton: “And insofar as we travel in search of beauty, works of art may in small ways start to influence where we would like to travel to.”
I’ve lived in big cities all my life, so I guess I’m pretty opinionated when it comes to those people we refer to as *gasp* tourists. Back home in Philly, one of my favorite pastimes is to drive by the art museum and laugh at all the out-of-breath tourists running up the Rocky Steps a la Sylvester Stalone. In New York, you can always spot the tourists by the giant fold-up map that they are turning every which way in an attempt to get to Central Park. And now I can even pinpoint the tourists here in London: the people who roll their giant suitcases down the street instead of simply taking the Tube- the people who stand in the middle of the escalator instead of to the right like everyone else does– and don’t get me started on the selfie sticks.
So, as a perpetual city-dweller, I can be sometimes a bit snobbish when referring to the tourists, as if they were a species completely separate from my own. I most certainly have adopted the term as, what MacCannel refers to, “a derisive label for someone who seems content with [an] obviously inauthentic experience” because I live in these places and I know these places (“Staged Authenticity” 592). Philadelphia is so much more than the Rocky Steps, cheesesteaks, and funny accents- it is a city with a rich history of music that can boast such children as Gamble and Huff, Frankie Avalon, Christina Perri, and The Roots; a place where independent business owners are able to thrive and young families can get their start. New York City is so much more than Times Square, $1 pizza, and Soho fashion models- it is a place where people of all genders, sexualities, and even dietary restrictions can find a sense of belonging and live their lives to the fullest; a haven where lovers of the arts can bask in the glory of all the culture that’s just outside the door.
And, as I am learning, London is so much more than Big Ben, afternoon teas, and bowler hats- it is a crossroads of all different peoples and backgrounds. For every fish and chip shop on a street, there are two more Indian restaurants that make probably the best curry I have ever tasted. It is a city where, even more so than New York, you can walk down the street and hear a wide array of languages being spoken. It is a hub for students, with a different university situated on what seems like every corner in Central London. It is a place where the past meets the present, where centuries-old castle walls face tall skyscrapers on a single city block.
And, while we like to make fun of the selfie-stick porting tourists, we have to remember: we were once in their shoes, some of us more recently than others. But, why is it that all tourists seem to flock to the same landmarks and foods? It’s all based in stereotypes, our preconceived notions of what MacCannel calls “the inauthentic” or “staged authenticity”- not unlike the Ben Franklin impersonators cavorting around Independence Hall or the Tudor-era costumed performers strolling around Hampton Court Palace.
Therefore, we should make a distinction between the typical tourist (the ones with the desire to only see the big, flashy landmarks) and the curious wanderer (the ones with the courage to go beyond the confines of the guidebooks and really get to know what life is like for the people there). And, yes, though we may look down on the former, we are all inevitably going to be those wide-eyed, camera-flashing gawkers at some point during our time abroad. But, we are different from them because we are not just visiting temporarily- we are studying, working, and making lives for ourselves in these new cities.
So, if you haven’t already, now’s the time to make that transition and start exploring new areas of your study abroad site. For instance, one thing that I love about interning in London is that I get to pass through sections of North London that I probably would have never seen otherwise. And Highgate Village, where my internship is located, has become one of my favorite parts of the city.
We’ve already made a big leap outside of our comfort zones by just even being abroad- what’s another few steps to be actually (not artificially), in MacCannel’s words, “at one” with the city.
I originally decided to read Anna Quindlen’s Imagined London because, in the Amazon book description, it mentioned that Quindlen is a Philadelphia native, like myself. However, as I began to delve into the pages of her book, I soon came to realize that she and I have a lot more in common that just that.
Imagined London is a look at the famous world capital through the eyes of a bibliophile, comparing the city as described on the pages of classic novels with what she experiences first-hand exploring the streets. Within the first few chapters, she confesses that, in her mind, she felt like she had often visited London in reading the works of authors like Charles Dickens and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle; in her own words, “…I had been [there] in my imagination before I ever set foot in England.”
And I totally get it. She recalls her first “visit” to London while “…sitting in a chair in a suburb of Philadelphia”; as someone who went to school in a Philadelphia suburb, I can definitely identify with that image. My own love of reading was fostered as I curled up with a book in my favorite place in the library: the bay window overlooking the hills behind the school. It was there that I used to sit for hours reading Harry Potter and Peter Pan, gazing out at the world beyond and imagining what was out there. It’s nice to know that I have a kindred spirit in Anna Quindlen.
Quindlen relates her travels with the authors and the stories associated with each location. For instance, she compares her view of the beautiful park area surrounding the magnificent St. Paul’s Cathedral with what Charles Dickens describes in Little Dorrit: “….a square courtyard where a shrub or two and a patch of grass were as rank… behind it, a jumble of roots”. She talks about the district of Bloomsbury, haven for writers like Virgina Woolf and William Makepeace Thackeray and, today, home of the campus of NYU in London; the Gandhi statue photographed in this section is the centerpiece of Tavistock Square, which I walk through every day when I head to class.
She even offers some criticism on the stereotype of the constant fogginess looming over the London sky, an image perpetuated by writers like Dickens as well as Austen; in Pride and Prejudice, Mrs. Bennett laments the excess of people in the city and the ever-gray and bleak weather there. Quindlen, conversely, finds herself enchanted by the light in the city, which has “…a silver-gilt quality that renders the atmosphere serious and expectant.” And, even though I’ve experienced many an English fog in my time here so far, I tend to go with her on this one. With the weather getting more mild this past week, I’ve been taking every opportunity to bask in the sunlight; it may not be sunny California weather, but at least there’s not six inches of snow on the ground (sorry, New York).
That’s what I enjoyed most about reading Imagined London– how much I could relate to Anna Quindlan’s relationship to the city. I saw a lot of myself in her; besides the Philadelphia connection, she and I share a love of travel, Tudor history (I too memorized the order of Henry VIII’s wives before age thirteen), and, of course, reading, Just like her, I seem to correlate the places I go around London with passages from some of my favorite books. Even after all the time, I still can’t help but goofily smile every time I pass by Platform 9 ¾ at Kings Cross Station (always). It’s because I, like Quindlen, am seeing the city through the eyes of a reader, falling in love with London one chapter at a time.