Wow it’s the last post. To be honest I’m going to miss the private, yet openness, of this blog. This semester, and overall year, has been one of the most exciting, adventurous, and blessed experiences I’ve ever had. I’ve explored so much of Europe in a short span of time, learned so much and read so many books (over thirty), grew as a writer, developed thicker skin and the ability to feel comfortable being on my own, and have been exposed to so many different cultures. I still feel like there is so much I can do in London. I wouldn’t have mind spending a year here, and am going to try to squeeze as many more sites/experiences out of the remaining two weeks I have left.
This Blog has been the platform for me to contextualize my thoughts and experiences. I’ve kept a travel journal since I went to Paris for the first time in 2012. This blog made me think about ideas I wouldn’t have normally thought about, like my daily routine and what it feels like to be an outsider. I appreciate this, because I will be able to look back and see how I developed over time, and remember my experiences vividly. For me, writing is one of the strongest ways to access memories and emotions. Pictures are great, but the emotion attached to them is what I never want to forget. I wish I could take this course back in NY, because honestly when I first came to NYU, and even now, I feel like I was living a studying abroad experience. NYC is so different from my past homes: Rochester, Port St. Lucie, West Palm Beach, etc. In New York I felt like I was constantly challenging myself.
Being a RA. Being a RA while abroad has been an interesting and wild roller coaster. Certain parts of the experience I loved, certain parts I could live without. Now that I’m reflecting, RA-ing took up a good amount of my time and really shaped my experience. I planned nearly ten events this semester, I’ve gotten to know my residents at Byron pretty well, and just feel equipped to tackle being a RA at Second Street (will anyone be living there?). So yeah, I struggled at certain points, but overall the experience was novel and I will never forget it. There’s so much I could say about this, but I will save this for a post on my personal blog.
Academics. Jesus take the wheel. One course is trying to slay my chaste GPA. My classes were reading and writing intensive. I knew this coming in, and I did my best to keep up with readings and make the effort to improve my writing. That said, the academics at NYU London are actually difficult. The professors have different expectations, the classes meet once a week, and the work load is different. Some people are doing great, while others struggle. I dropped a course this semester (first time) and considered taking another course pass/fail (I resisted, but the temptation was new to me). I usually have this fear at the end of the semester—I tell myself that this is going to be my worst semester—but with having non-NY professors for the first time, I don’t know what to expect. I’m going to have faith though!
The only other issue I have with NYU London is the fact we don’t take classes with British students. I repeatedly asked myself, what is the point of studying in London if I ‘m just going to be studying with American students? It’s an issue I had to deal with for a couple of weeks, and the conclusion I came up with is that I could either do what I normally would do back in New York, or I could do it in a new country, surrounded by a different culture. Still, I wish NYUL gave us the option to take classes at SOAS or ULC in the spring.
I’ve caught the travel bug from being here. The day after NYUL ends I head to Florence to take poetry courses. After that, I have a couple of days off and then head to LA to teach some creative writing courses at LMU. What I’ve realized by going abroad, is that the world is as small as I want it to be and nothing is impossible. It sounds cheesy, but it’s like I’m slowly discovering these superpowers that I’ve always had, but never knew existed. That said, I’m already planning next year’s January term, spring break, and summer trips! When I go back to NY I feel like I will have such an enhanced sense to explore. I already have my NY bucket list for my last two years of Uni, and I want to approach NY how I approach London—a big opportunity to explore and grow.
Lastly, thank you all! I have loved reading your posts and comments, and learning about the experiences of other NYU students abroad. I appreciate your insight and tips, and plan on utilizing them as I visit the places you’re studying. Cheers and Blessings to an insightful semester!
I was looking forward to this post. Since being in London I’ve had so many amazing experiences, but I’ve also had my fair share of obstacles. I came up with over thirty tips, but have reduced them to eighteen (sorry guys haha).
- If you choose to come to London, ask yourself why, and what you want to accomplish. I didn’t realize until a month into the program that I was taking classes with all American students. I realized cultural immersion was important for me, and I wasn’t experiencing that by being surrounded by other NYU students. That said, the professors are British/international so they act as a peephole into the culture.
- Consider academics. London’s courses are a huge reason why I chose to come here. The literature courses were up my alley, and being able to study in the city/country that has shaped literature in such an impactful way was exciting. That said, the academics at London are really intense—surprisingly so. It was on par if not harder than my NY courses. I read about 1 book each week for 2 of my classes, and my classes were writing heavy. It’s a meet-able challenge, but some of my courses have really difficult graders—which is nerve-wrecking as we come closer to the end of the semester.
- Choosing where to live. I suggest choosing Byron or Guilford, because they are NYU owned dorms. They’re cozy, the community is accessible, they’re close to campus, and are spacious.
- BUDGET NOW. Students ideally should know a year in advance that they want to study abroad and thus should start saving. Minimum amount of money to save, excluding flights, travel costs, documents fees, etc., would be roughly 3000-4000 dollars. Plenty of people enjoy their time with less money than that, they either eat very basic meals and travel a lot, or travel very little and live comfortably in London.
- Eat out less. There are many cheap options for lunch in London. The free curry guy next to SOAS (School of Oriental and African Studies which is next to the senate library): Hare Krishna (Monday through Friday afternoons). There’s 3 pound lunch deals in all of London grocery stores (a drink, a sandwich or salad, and a snack). The residential events plan a lot of events that provide free-and sometimes extravagant—food as well. As a RA I made sure most, if not all, of my events included a food aspect. Cooking in bulk is also a great way to save money as well.
- Get out of thee NYU bubble. The NYU bubble goes from Bedford square to King Cross. London is so big, don’t get trapped. Try to visit a new neighbored each week. Go to a museum, a royal park, a pub, a tourist icon, etc. The time flies, and now that I have less than a month left, I’m rushing to do all of the must-do things before I leave.
- Sign up for student life programs—on time. The student-life hub planned amazing event this semester, and they really enhanced my experience at London. I took trips to Dover and Scotland, saw Swan Lake and Phantom of the Opera, and even went to see Stonehenge. They give you 100 credit points to spend, and you can use them as you please. Some of my friends went on chocolate tours, took a trip to the Harry potter Studio, went on volunteering trips, curry nights, and much more.
- Join a student club at UCL (University College of London). Their academic schedule is different from ours so do this immediately when you arrive. NYU didn’t give us our passes till March, which was really late. I say try to go to clubs even without your student pass. It’s a great way to meet locals and they’re fun. I went to a Writer’s Society in April, but it was their last meeting before going on break before finals.
- Pack warm. London doesn’t get a lot of snow, but it’s pretty cold until the beginning of April. Currently it’s around 50-60 degrees every day. Hopefully by May we will have 70 degree weather.
- If you’re an international student make sure you have the right visa. I’ve had friends who couldn’t travel outside of the UK, because they didn’t get their Schengen visa. Be diligent with documents such as these, and prepare for the cost. I had to purchase a Tier 4 visa which cost over 500 dollars (it’s so you can work).
- Go to markets. London is market paradise, and I’ve been to ten London markets so far (I think I’m going to make a post on my personal blog about London markets). The food is generally cheaper, and you find amazing things. Vintage dinosaur earrings, roller skates, fried Oreos, Scottish eggs—heavenly.
- Make sure you get a credit card or a debit card that won’t charge you heinous international fees. Chase is rude. They charge you over 4 percent of your purchase when used internationally, and they charge you 5 dollars when you deposit cash. I joined the NYU federal credit union before coming to London, and it was the best decision I made. They charge less than 1 percent and don’t charge me to use any atms.
- Consider a student Oyster card or a national rail card if you plan on using public transportation in London or England frequently. It adds up rather quickly. Instead of the tube I would either take long walks or take the bus (front seat on the top gives you an awesome view of the city).
- That leads me to say, chose courses that have field trips. I believe all of the courses are required to have one field trip, but be smart and choose something you wouldn’t/couldn’t do at home. The students in the Modern Drama course got to see a show or performance every week. My Shakespeare courses has gone to about 6 Shakespeare productions. The architecture and art courses do a lot of museum trips and walking tours. That said, you may get tired of trips, but just think, when you can do this again?
- Utilize your RA. You may feel independent and self-assured, but the RAs are there for you through thick and thin. NYU London is like a school bus. We are all on the NYU bus and everyone is constantly getting off of the bus to travel, do things on their own, etc. The RAs are the chaperones on the bus, and for those who are on the bus they point out key sights and foster companionship and community. You may get off the bus frequently, but they will always be there to support you when you get back on. To put this another way, develop a relationship with your RA because they are the ones planning events for you. I had students come up to me and say that they wanted to do laser tag. A couple of weeks later we went to a bunker near SoHo, played laser tag, and got gelato—all on res life. So my point is, res-life is there for you; utilize them to the fullest extent possible.
- Volunteer! One of my most rewarding experiences was doing the Shine Project. Each week I would go into a primary school—year 6 (age 10-11)—and assist in the classrooms. I adore the students, even though I only see them once a week, I feel like I’ve developed some great friendships. The British school system has a lot going for it—at least from the outside looking in. NYUL does a great job providing you with resources and programs to join. I have friends who worked in donation centers, tutored, fundraised, etc.
- Don’t buy your books before coming to NYUL. Byron and Guilford have huge recycled libraries. Students who don’t want to take their books home leave them in the lounge libraries for students to use next semester. There’s over hundreds of books; I was able to get nearly all of my books (and I needed nearly 20) from the library.
- Afternoon tea, Sunday roast, and English breakfast. Don’t leave without trying all three!
My moment of bliss is when my body forgets its nature.
That it’s oppressed.
My body is free when my skin stops trying to be so whole
And my bones stop being chains
And my legs act like wings
And I fly.
My moment of bliss, and incidentally my second New York Moment, happened when I went on an impromptu run to Regents Park a couple of weeks ago. I was tired of dreaming about exercising and decided I actually was going to do it. Back in New York, running was a way for me to distress, get some cardio in, and be free. Free like I don’t remember what I got on my last paper. Free like I’m going so fast people seem to be standing still. Free like my skin was purging itself of sweat and dirt, and stress and the things it holds when it thinks no one is looking. Running has always been a good time for me. It doesn’t happen often though. I have to fit running into my schedule and no matter how many ample free blocks of time I have, there’s always something else I could be doing—it usually ends up being social media. That said, when I do run, it’s a novel experience. And because I try to run to places I’ve never been, I see uncharted territory in unrestricted ways.
It was a chilly Wednesday morning that felt like a Friday. I have no classes on Wednesday so it is usually my day to either catch up on HW or to explore. I got dressed in my sports gear, stretched, and bounced out the door listening to Big Sean and Drake’s new album-back to back on repeat. I ran behind Byron Court onto Gray’s Inn Road and began running towards King’s Cross. After confronting the confusing main road I found the street named York Way and ran up it. After a few strides I found what I was looking for. Regents Canal. This canal was a god-send, because without data services I have no way of knowing where to go—and carrying a map on a run is annoying. So the canal was my guide to Regents Park. I just had to go down some stairs and run along the narrow path till I reached the park. By this point in the run I was already out-of-breath haha. I trotted slowly passing glass houses, boats, and swans. As soon as I picked up energy I resumed running, but then I was hit by waves of Teriyaki chicken, French fries, and fried baked goods. I was passing Camden Market. This was a surprise actually, because I didn’t realize that Camden market was so close to Bloomsbury. I usually take public transportation to so I’m still unfamiliar with places in relation to each other. After walking through the market and going to a book store to find Harry Potter (recently started the series) I realized I didn’t bring my wallet and left the market haha. The run continued. I passed a Chinese pagoda looking restaurant, more feral creates, cafes, graffiti, and elder couples strolling. I ran under bridges and over cobblestone patches. I kept running till my eye caught wild birds behind a cage. After seeing a peacock, I realized I was passing the Regent Park zoo and it was time to get back on the main road to enter the park.
The park passed me in colorful detail. Fountains, endless rows of neat green lawn, tulips, blossoms, weeping willows, and fresh petals surrounded me. There were statues and tennis courts and even palm trees. I saw students reading in the grass, families capturing photos near the picturesque lake, and like-minded runners absorbing the beauty.
All of this was blissful—yes—but it was not my defining blissful moment. It was when I was running home, and I realized I was in a new area surround by pristine Georgian buildings and the monotonous hum of street traffic. It was as I was running back along Marylebone road to Byron Court, and I realized I knew where I was going and could point out some land marks. It was as I was dodging people on the street and they didn’t bat an eye as I flew across the sidewalk. My blissful moment, and like my NY moments, happened because I realized I carved a natural space for myself in the city. There’s bliss in that. There’s bliss in leaving your comfort-zone to find a new zone of comfort.
I should have saved my post for spring break for this week—haha—but netherless I have plenty of struggles to share. I think the most burdensome struggles I’ve had to face was my travel bookings and the subsequent financial strains. By the time I return to the states, I will have traveled to eight countries, including England (currently writing this from Wales). As exciting as traveling is, it’s taxing physically, emotionally, and financially. My wallet thinks I hate him.
My first big lost was for a trip I haven’t been on yet. I’m going to Madrid for Bank Holiday in May, and I ended up finding a good ticket for about 60 pounds. But I ended up buying the wrong ticket, so I had to pay another 30 pounds to change the ticket. So I ended up paying about 90 pounds for a round trip ticket. Then I planned on taking a one-day trip to Paris via the Eurostar which cost about 60 pounds. Unfortunately, I booked my trip on the Wednesday that I have registration (this week). I have my priorities straight, so I canceled the trip (hopefully this is the first year that I get all of the classes that I want). The third struggle, and the most devastating, was for Prague. I was supposed to go one weekend in the middle of March. Unfortunately, I ended up having to cancel the trip, because I was unable to get the weekend off from work (and I found out the week before—I put in the request at least a month prior). Instead of losing the entire ticket (over 200 dollars) I was able to switch it to the last weekend I had left (the weekend before finals). I’m preparing a funeral for my GPA—haha. And lastly, as I mentioned in my last post, I went to the wrong airport when I was going to Athens so then I had to pay over 200 dollars to get a new ticket.
So roughly I’ve wasted about 600 dollars on careless mistakes. I’m glad I’m writing this, because just seeing how many mistakes I’ve made really puts into perspective what I won’t do next time. I’m glad I’m traveling a lot, but I also wish I wasn’t traveling as much. Planning is stress and I feel like I don’t know enough of London. With the couple of weeks I have left I’m trying to do as much exploring as possible, but it’s hard! London seems much bigger than Manhattan, and just finding enough time in the day to focus on HW, work, and Me is a task. Plus I’m on the water and cracker diet now. All of the frivolous mistakes I’ve made really put a dent in my budget, and I think it’s one of the biggest travel trials I have—surviving! I’ve recently started cooking big pasta meals that will last me three days, eating the 3 pound lunch combos from Tesco and Sainsbury, and have been eating the free curry from Hare Krishna about three days a week to get by. If I learned one thing, it’s not to overcommit and less is always more—forsure. I don’t see England being my last time going abroad, so I definitely have some tips for myself in the future.
In the past week I have encountered many “strangers” and have been regarded as a stranger myself. It was spring break for NYU London this past week and I decided I was going to go backpacking on my own through Athens, Greece and Interlaken/Bern, Switzerland. Being on my own, and encountering new people, has really shaped how I view myself while abroad.
In Athens I was a stranger to the locals. I did not know anyone, didn’t speak Greek, and did not know my way around. I also looked different. The amount of black people I saw during my entire four days in Greece was less than 10 (and if subtract the NYU students I crossed paths with, it’s even less than that). So by default, I was an “other” based on my skin color. Two of my black female friends told me that when they went to Athens they asked their Airbnb host if they would look like tourist if they walked around with a map. He told them that they would look like tourist simply because of their skin color. This idea of being an “other” started with appearance and set the foundation for how I viewed myself and others while traveling.
Rewind to the day before I went to Greece, I had an overnight layover in Barcelona (it was an unexpected layover). After walking through the city at two in the morning looking for a hotel to sleep in, I ended up asking a guy on the streets for directions. He ended up stealing my phone. I laugh about this situation now, because everyone I’ve met told me Barcelona is notorious for this, but I believe it was my “otherness” that made me a target. I had a map in my hand and was walking around aimlessly. The guy saw me, did a double take, and then came up to me speaking barely recognizable English. Looking back, I realize there was something about me that looked “strange.” I shouted tourist and foreigner! That’s one way that being an other can have a negative affect—you become a target—but other cases of being a stranger bonded me to new people.
In Athens I stayed in a very lively hostel. After a long day of exploring I went to the rooftop bar to have a drink, and possibly socialize. In minutes I met a pair of travelers (young adults on a short holiday) and we kicked it off. We bonded over the fact that we were strangers to this new country, and that we were traveling, young, spoke English, and came from similar backgrounds (one lives in London now and the other works in Frankfurt). It was with these strangers that I spent most of my time. We went out to local restaurants, took a trip to cape Sunio to spend the day at the Temple of Poseidon, and just spent time getting to know each other amongst the ruins and streets of Athens. If we were in our respective homes, would we have spent so much time together and grown so close? I don’t think so. They were eager to meet new people, and the idea of fully engaging with a person you just met is something I think is unique to strangers who travel. While we—strangers—may be outsiders to the societies we immerse in, we join a new community of travelers who have the same desire to explore and have fun.
It was in Switzerland that I had an uncomfortable realization of how “strange” I was. Interlaken is a tourist city, where half of the population during high seasons is made up of tourist. I saw more South Korean tourist then I did Swiss people. And I was constantly reminded this by the amount of stares I gathered as I went through the city. Walking into a train turmoil, getting on a bus, sitting in a restaurant, all of these situations merited about half, if not all, of the room to stare at me. From locals, I thought it was understandable, I saw even less people of color in Interlaken than I did Athens. But the tourist were the ones who really “otherized” me. I had multiple groups of Koreans ask me for my picture, because they claimed they didn’t see many black people back in their home country. I was not only seen as a stranger, but also as a novelty by these Korean tourist, who are also strangers to the country themselves. You would think that since we are all tourist in this new country, we would all bond over our similar situation, but no. There are levels to “strangeness” and certain factors separate you from certain groups regardless of how much you have in common. This is a reflection I wrote on FB about my experience:
I’ve become much more aware of my identity as a black male since leaving the US. In Switzerland, I’ve encountered many Asian tourist and my interactions with them have been unsettling. I feel as though I get stared at by 1 out of every 3 people I pass (when people break their necks to look at me I feel justified in saying this). One Korean man, who spoke very little English, came up to me and asked if he could take a selfie with me. When I said why, he just said, “cause you so handsome.” He was obliviously lying, and after further questioning him, he told me he and his friends don’t see many black people in Korea.
I think it’s problematic that people can be so sheltered, but the real issue is that certain cultures are so sheltered and homogenous that when they meet people who don’t look like them they treat them as a novelty instead of a human. I’ve heard all of the stories of black/POC expats who go to various Asian countries to live/work and experience the same thing. But to experience it for myself, for the first time, is eye opening. As a potential Japanese expat myself, it really makes me doubtful of joining a society where I will be viewed as an “other” to the point of objectification. Gives me something to think about, but for now I can only educate others and be the change I want to see.
BUT Switzerland has been amazing, and I don’t want to go back to London haha
These were the tip of my “stranger” experiences. I met many people, successful retired travelers, business men, tour guides/chefs, a guitar playing masseur, a young Swiss students, etc. We all bonded because we shared something similar, our desire and action of traveling. Even if they were locals, they understood that I came from a background that still had many similarities to theirs, and by recognizing this a relationship blossomed.
For my second book I chose Sketches by Boz by Charles Dickens. Like Virginia Woolf’s The London Scene, this collection of essays depict London and it’s people. Dickens lived right around the NYU London area in Bloomsbury (one of the houses he lived in is one block away from my dorm). In his writing he includes streets, places, and parks that I pass on a daily basis: Coram street, St. George park, islington, the British museum, Russell square, etc. The 56 essays were published in news papers and other publications individually over a span of three years (1833-1836). The Sketches are divided into three sections, “Our Parish,” “Scenes,” “Characters” (non-fiction) and “Tales” (fiction).
If you read my book-1 blog post you may thinking, why did I chose another scenic, essay formatted, 19th century book. I had a few reasons, besides my personal goal to indulge in British literature, there’s an appeal of the picturesque and realistic depictions of London that writers from a different time period present. Large cosmopolitan cities demand vignettes. The small moments that give the city breath and depth is an integral part of writing in a large city. For example, Dickens says in the essay “The Streets–Nights”: “In the streets of London, to be beheld in the very height of their glory, should be seen on a dark, dull, murky winter’s night, when there is just enough damp gently stealing down to make the pavement greasy, without cleansing it of any of its impurities; and when the heavy lazy mist, which hangs over every object, makes the gas-lamps look brighter, and the brilliantly-lighted shops more splendid, from the contrast they present to the darkness around” (119). He takes a very small particularly mundane part of the city, and gives it life. Fog, rain, and darkness is a common part of London. And as dreary as it is, the dark, abandoned streets, quiet enough to hear the wind rustle the bushes, beckons reverence. Dickens contrasts this particular moment in London with the previous chapter that focuses on the streets of London during the day, which is loud, crowded, and lively.
The chapter, “Making A Night of It” under Characters was brilliant. It was one of my favorite chapters, because it depicts male relationships and the alcoholic culture of the time period accurately. And even more, it parallels a lot of the pub-culture that I’ve witness while in the UK. The chapter talks about two friends, Damon and Pythias. “They lived in the same street, walked into town every morning at the same hour, dined at the same slap-bang every day, and revelled in each other’s company very night. They were knit together by the closest ties of intimacy and friendship” (they essentially were bros). The narrative then shifts to what they do at night: drink and have fun. sherry, whiskey, Havanas, all the pleasures of life are exploited by their whims when the sun goes down. They get drunk, and go to a pub, and get into a fight with men and women, and end up with huge pecuniary fines for they did. The chapter was very, average-Saturday-frat-gathering, and what surprised me, was that they were piss-drunk by 8pm! I’ve noticed everyone starts drinking early hare in London, and get drunk really early as well. Yesterday as I walked near the West End at 7pm, I walked pass pub-after-pub that were so full people had to stand outside to drink. Dickens depict a similar cultural trend that persist, and reinforces how strong tradition and culture is. This wasn’t the only chapter that had alcoholic references in it. Actually, in nearly every essay/chapter that involved people after evening time, alcohol found it’s way into the story. One family mentioned in the chapter, “The Dance Academy” ended their day at a dance with more dancing on tables and bounties of alcohol–that lasted till 6am. I knew before coming to London that alcohol was a big part of culture, but now that I’m here, even more so. I do think it’s a point of contention, because I was watching the O’Brien show this week, and there was a heated debate on if the A&E should admit drunk people, which left a lot of the British audience crossed (the argument was, if people go out and get drunk, why should our tax money go to caring for them, and pumping their stomaches?). Good point, and I think that this was telling since it was on day-time television.
The fact that the 19th century London that Dickens depict is still very similar to the 21st century London speaks to the traits of the city and it’s people that our embedded deep into the culture. To answer my early question, I chose an essay-styled books, because with big cities like London and New York, they demand vignettes. You have to get down to the nitty gritty details to really visualize and feel the essence of the city. This book was distributed by chapter weekly to the local community. It was popular then, and the conclusion I can draw from this is that in a large city, people want to see its inner workings and their own lives reflected back at them. It’s one of the ways we build community.
A poem I wrote as I was on the train back to London from Edinburgh, Scotland:
Cashmere, whiskey, Scots.
Night: loud chants; Day: bag pipes
Wool, haggis, kilts, stone.
Scotland was the peak of Arthur’s seats, the panoramic view of Ben Nevis, the corridors of Edinburgh castle, and the low murmurs of voices in eclectic cafés. It was kilts and the lingering scent of whiskey in front of crowded pubs. It was rows of cashmere shops, and aged stone buildings. It was sheep and ponies who grazed on soft brown grass. Scotland has been one of the best experiences I’ve had since coming to the UK. Opposed to Scotland, I see a range of cultures, identities, and aesthetic representations in London. To pin down the Genius Loci of London would be to take a star from the sky and name it the universe. It’s definitely possible to define the spirit of London (the intersection video of the East End does a great job of capturing the vintage, hipster scene), but I’m reserving my opinion of London until the end of the semester. It was in Edinburgh that I felt I captured the essence of a peoples in such a short span of time.
My weekend trip was packed. Some highlights: danced at a Ceilidh, climbed Arthur’s seat (an over 800 feet crag), explored Edinburgh castle, learned how whiskey was made and tried my first glass (and bought more of it than I should have), and visited the Elephant House. Even though I only stayed a weekend, I feel as though I had a good taste of the spirits of Scotland. First, kilts are a thing. I saw a number of Scottish and Irish men sporting plaid colored kilts. When I went dancing at the Ceilidh (traditional Gaelic social gathering) I was captivated by these huge guys twirling around in kilts with their female partners. The only people who were perturbed by the number of men wearing kilts were the Americans I was with. With that said, tradition and nationalistic pride is strong! It’s so strong that some of the students in my group were kept up until 3 in the morning listening to Irish guys cheering after the Ireland versus Scotland rugby match (40-10). Sport culture is huge. The narrow streets of new town, Edinburgh were flooded with people standing outside of pubs. Drunk men and women stumbled about at around 9pm, and the group I was with on the night of the game was approached by multiple men spewing random rugby facts and best places to eat. Quite nice.
I could see what Scottish style consisted of as I walked down the Royal Mile. Apparently cashmere can be made into anything, and plaid is the default pattern for all garments. During the day, I stopped in the middle of a plaza on the royal miles and looked around me. Nearly everyone had on a lamb wool scarf, or some other hat or glove made out of cashmere or wool. I also noticed a lot of women who wore cashmere from head to toe (very similar to the women in the NYT east end video). Whiskey, the water of life, and the dew of Ben Nevis is also a big part of Scottish culture. I went to a brewery near the mountain Ben Nevis, where I learned how whiskey was made (basically just distilled beer). Whiskey is really strong, and I even got to try Whiskey with the ABV level of 76% (do not suggest for the weary). For the Scottish, however, alcohol is a large part of the culture. The pubs came alive soon after the sun went down, and even in between dances at the Cediliah the bar was steadily occupied. Whiskey permeated into much of the food too. I had whiskey flavored chocolates and there were whiskey flavored meat pies. I grew pretty accustomed to the scent by the end of my trip.
The last, and surprising, revelation I had about Scotland was the strong literary scene. Off of the royal mile there was a road oozing with literary genius. The Elephant House, where Rowling started the Harry Potter series, served great food, and I got a view of a grave yard and the Edinburgh castle (which influenced part of the series as well). Next door was a Frankenstein themed bar, which showed Frankenstein films and had a spooky interior. Even the cocktails had a twist–Blood Mary Shelly—haha. Across the street was a large modern-looking library and a Scottish museum. It was inside of the Elephant House, however, that I realized how strong the writer scene is. I paused my picture snapping to look around the café and saw so many people typing and writing. There was an older man slowly writing in a small book, pausing occasionally to look around, a younger man typing away on his laptop, chugging what I assumed to be coffee, and a pair of women were arranging papers over their tabletop as if it was a puzzle. I was mesmerized! Not only is Scotland rich in culture, but it continues to be propelled by the far and near history that surrounds its people.
The spirit of Scotland is one that is immersed in its mythical history, and abounds in the pride of its culture. The spirits are made up of pride, the sublime of nature, traditional foods (like Haggis), and marvelous landscapes.
In London, art is everywhere I look. From the Russell Square Hotel, to the Tate Modern, to the canal on my way to St. Andrews (a primary school I volunteer at). What makes London so unique is the hodgepodge of aesthetic and historical elements that define the city. London is also home to many different art forms (like literary)–especially the Bloomsbury NYU area. A block away from my residential hall is the Charles Dickens Museum (and his place of residence); Virginia Woolf lived in Bloomsbury and thrived with the Bloomsbury writer group in this area; the British museum is right behind the academic center; I pass more than five parks/gardens on my way to class; and gothic, neoclassical, and Georgian architecture blend into each other—block after block. The awe that London produces isn’t in the sky-scraping of its buildings like NYC, but it is in the layering of historical significance and the conglomeration of so many identities that create the British identity.
One of my favorite museums I’ve visited since coming to London is the Tate Modern Museum. It’s a large, multistory building with the ground level resembling a warehouse. The art is quirky, experimental, but also captures different epochs of art like surrealism and reality. Although there were multiple floors, I still wasn’t able to see everything. My favorite painting was by the artist Barkley l. Hendricks. In his painting Family Jews: NNN (No Naked Niggahs) he depicts a naked black man on a couch with vivid prints and colors around him. The man himself, is posed “femininely” (a common motif of his work). He depicts the black experience in a way that produce new ideas and critiques the way we think about “black” concepts. I really enjoyed this piece, because it was so provocative, different, and needed. The black experience in London is very different from America’s, so I think it is essential for me to explore this new identity as much as possible, and art is one of these avenues.
Bill Viola’s Tiny Death mesmerized me. Tiny Deaths is a video project projected on all four walls in a dark room. You enter and are immediately immersed in a world where shadowy figures, including your own, disappear and reappear. You can’t see anyone else around you, which adds to the eeriness, and it produces this external sense of being. Everyone was trying to avoid bumping into each other, but since I’m me, I took this as a chance to scare someone. Outside of the video room a teenage girl stood looking into the darkness trying to depict what was going on. I walk straight out of the room towards her, with my arms pointing out, and she screamed. It was that dark. I would like to go back to the room, because there was something mystical about not being able to see yourself and others, but knowing that you’re there. Existentialism, surrealism, and realism, were ideas that the Tate conveyed through different art mediums.
The most stunning part of the Tate was the view at the top. There was a café with a view of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the surrounding London scene. The group I was with had afternoon tea, and enjoyed the manmade beauty that London boasted. I’ve only been to the Tate and British museum (making my second visit this week, because it is so incredibly large), but art is all over London. In my classes we study art mostly through Literature. We read about the natural beauty that landscapes and the picturesque produces (English romantic and gothic novels), and by reading these works I’ve grown a love for mountains, cliff, etc. In chapter 7 Botton says that art can “influence where we would like to travel.” I definitely agree, because ever since reading Frankenstein and seeing pastoral and panoramic depictions of Victor and his creature’s adventures, I want to go to Switzerland (and will be going for spring break). Likewise, the Greek columns and sculptures in the British Museum only reaffirm my plans to explore Athens (which I will also be going). My point is, art (and I mean all sorts of art) inspire the desire for more art and beauty—it’s a wicked cycle. Knowledge is at the root of it all, and even though I travel out of England to satiate my desires, London itself is teeming with so much more art and beauty for me to fall in love with. The same can be said for other big cities, the mere fact that ideas and necessities collide and blend together in the streets, make for a constant aesthetically appealing experience.
I think it’s important to realize that tourist look for the authenticity of a city as if it is a secret. I think that authenticity is always presents as we enter a new city, because authenticity is life—which is unavoidable. MaCannell’s essay brought up some points that I would like to deal with.
First, I think the idea of traveling being a pilgrimage comes with its pros and cons. Pro, a person can become more open minded as they travel; con, there is a sense of entitlement that the culture of a place must be shared with you. With that said, I understand the reason why we search for the back places. If you’re going to spend time in a place you want to feel as though you’ve gotten the essence of it. London, as I mentioned in my last post, hosts its secret parts inside of homes—-behind closed doors. My encounters with English people in public places have been very superficial. The times where I learned about British culture, or had conversations that were completely unique were when I was in private places with locals. This includes café, poetry café, work—-any intimate setting that is slowed down from the fast-pace spped of London. I’ve done a lot of touristy things since being here, and I think I could spend the rest of the semester doing tourist things, but I DO want to leave London feeling as though I got an essence of the place.
MaCannell quotes Boorstin in his essay about active travelers, “The traveler, then, was working at something; the tourist was a pleasure-seeker. The traveler was active; he went strenuously in search of people, of adventure, of experience. The tourist is passive; he expects interesting things to happen to him. He goes ‘sight-seeing.’ . . . He expects everything to be done to him and for him” (Boorstin 1961, p. 85). I think it is so easy to go through a new city, and let things happen to me passively. The lights and fast pace vibes of London makes it easy. There are so many tourist “traps” (not all are traps) that the desire to go searching for something deeply English is unnecessary. With that said, I’m glad I read this because I realize I’ve already gotten into the mindset of what can (X) city give to me. Instead of being, what can (I) get out of the city? Who does what in this relationship is important for getting into the essence of a city.
Macannell said that false back spaces are even worse than just staying in the front. I think the idea goes back to the idea of a tourist “trap.” A tourist trap robs you of an experience that could have been native ad authentic. It takes advantage of earnest hearts and the natural curiosity that tourists have. However, I think created back spaces can work well. When I went to Borough market, the vendors had an organic atmosphere about them. They arranged their cheeses, fishes, and produce in ways that looked like a kitchen, or as if it was just harvested. This coupled with the outdoor environment made for a very authentic experience. I didn’t feel cheated at all, because this was real people trying to sell their produce,even though they were obliviously constructing their stalls to speak a certain narrative. If they had dressed as medieval vendors and tried to entertain me with jest and other theatrics, then I would have felt uneasy—it still would have been cool to see though haha. Still, I’m going to try to take a back-space mindset with me as I travel—-getting off the beaten path.
Since I’m studying English literature, and I’m currently studying in the birth place of many great writers, I decided to choose my blog books based on local writers who have brought London to life with literature. So for my first book I chose The London Scene by Virginia Woolf. This book is a compliment of Woolf’s essays regarding her love of London and critique of human nature.
The six essays in the book take us from the docks of London, to the large encompassing domes that grace cathedrals, to the dirt and dust of large mansions. In each essay, Woolf paints a picture of what London is: a conglomeration of thoughts, identities, and desires. All of the thriving and dying aspects of London are propelled by human actions. I will highlight three of the essays that resonated with me.
Oxford Street. This is a very busy street that has many shops, restaurants, and other everyday necessities. It’s a lot like Broadway. Here, the time-period of when Woolf wrote this essay becomes apparent. She speaks of vendors selling knick-knacks, penny goods, and parcels. Now these enticing bargain-centered vendors, intent on making a profit to survive, are replaced by large chain franchises. River island, Primark, and Starbucks all attempt to lure in consumers. Woolf doesn’t stop at the chaotic nature of Oxford Street. She also focuses on the buildings. She says, “The charm of modern London is that it is not built to last; it is built to pass… We do not build for our descendant, who may live up in the clouds or down in the earth but for ourselves and our own needs. We knock down and build as we expect to be knocked down and rebuilt. This is an impulse that makes for creation and fertility.” Oxford Street, for Woof, shows how Londoners are caught up in the aesthetic appearance of things. The transient mentality that modernity urges is not sufficient to last, but to simply meet the current needs. While this view is dismal, the opposition is that London will always change, and thus grow, as long as there are people with needs to sustain it. I see it today, in the peak hours of afternoon, as people rush to stores and lunch, and the sidewalks of Oxford Street are a river of moving people.
Abbeys and Cathedrals. St. Paul’s Cathedral dominates the London skyline. It is a place of grandeur in its vastness, but also in the remnants of people it holds. While the cathedrals and abbeys of London demand reverence, the people it holds does so as well. London’s deceased, Woolf states, are loud because of their persistent need to be remembered. They don’t create places of quiet and rest, but of reverence and longing for more than what life can offer. Regarding the virtue of the dead inscribed the interior of St. Paul, Woolf says:
One leaves the church marveling at the spacious days when unknown citizens could occupy so much room with their bones and confidently request so much attention for their virtues when we–behold how we jostle and skip and circumvent each other in the street, how sharply we cut corners, how nimbly we skip beneath motor cars. The mere process of keeping alive needs all our energy. We have no time, we were about to say, to think about life or death either, when suddenly we run against the enormous walls of St. Paul’s. Here it is again, looming over us, mountainous, immense, greyer, colder, quieter than before. And directly we undergo that pause and expansion and release from hurry and effort which it is in the power of St. Paul’s, more than any other building in the world, to bestow.
Ironically the dead demand so much when they are dead, when life is such a struggle for the living. Places of rest turn into burdens (but also reminders of hope). Westminster Abbey is also a burial ground of reverence, Woolf states, but the bodies here are of poets, robust men, and geniuses, and even though the sharp Gothic architecture suggest a dark abode, it too is full of constant noises. The only places that is quiet, restful, and undemanding, she says, are the parks where the tombs have been pushed aside, and kids play on top of dead bodies, and couples have picnics. “For here the dead sleep in peace, proving nothing, testifying nothing, claiming nothing save that we shall enjoy the peace that their old bones provide for us.” The underlying message of this essay is that in cities as grand as London, solitude and rest are needed and are found not on the demands of the past, and hope of the afterlife but on the bones that silently support the progression of mankind—presently.
Portrait of a Londoner. This was one of my favorite essays. She focuses on an older woman who stays in her house and watches the world pass by. She invites guest, serves tea (because this is economic and begs conversations), and gossips about London as if it was a small village. Woolf’s message about Londoners, in general, was this:
The delightful thing about London was that it was always giving one something new to look at, something fresh to talk about. One only had to keep one’s eyes open; to sit down in one’s own chair from five to seven every day of the week. As she sat in her chair with her guests ranged round she would give from time to time a quick bird-like glance over her shoulder at the window, as if she had half an eye on the street, as if she had half an ear upon the cars and the omnibuses and the cries of the paper boys under the window. Why, something new might be happening this very moment. One could not spend too much time on the past: one must not give all one’s attention to the present.
This paradoxical way of looking at the past, but also looking to the future, is one I feel encompasses London. Something is always happening and something will always happen, so conversing about what is going on is necessary to contextualize London and feel part of the community. While the woman Woolf describes in this essay seems insatiable, because there will always be something new for her curiosity to indulge in, I think her hunger for conversation stems from a need to have community. Talking about what’s going on in one’s said community is a way to build bonds. This is why I think afternoon tea and pub culture are such a large part of the fabric of London.
The London Scene enhanced my understanding of London, and connects to my blog post about trying to make friends. The heart of English culture is behind doors, inside houses, pubs, and cafes. It is in these places that the conglomeration of London collides and falls into context. At times, Woolf’s depiction of London seems to be conflicting, but I think this is purposeful in illustrating the complexity of the city.