London is a big city, but it also feels so small at the same time. Despite the city’s expansive public transportation system, many Londoners prefer to walk and my fellow study abroad students and I were encouraged by our program leaders to walk as much as possible and take buses instead of the Tube. From my first day in Notting Hill, I have gone out of my house and walked around the busy main street in order to shop, go grocery shopping, go out to dinner with friends, or just to go for a walk. So when we were given the activity from Becoming World Wise, I was actually excited.
Slimbach says, “Our actual entrance into the community requires that we venture out to observe every day life, interact with strangers, and slowly absorb an alternative reality…Space changes utterly when we experience it on foot. We can stop at a place, focus attention on a particular person or object, wander, and ask questions to discover clues about something we desire to know or understand.” Walking is a learning experience while abroad, and in this “walk-able” city, I have learned so much. Even just walking up to the main road of Notting Hill Gate and exploring the different stores, restaurants, and parks has shown me so much and has helped me feel more connected and truly at home.
For this activity, I tried to pay extra attention to my surroundings as opposed to the passive way in which I sometimes view my surroundings while commuting to my university or running to the nearby Tesco Metro to grab some groceries. The streets are always busy here, meaning there is always noise; buses, cars and motorcycles out on the roads seemingly 24/7, police and ambulance sirens, people walking and talking, dogs barking, construction noise, all of the sounds of a big city. Although our area is more residential than other parts of London, living near a major road always leads to noise, and with 8 million people living in this city noise is pretty much inescapable. The smells you come across vary as you walk down the streets. For example, my housemates and I have come to learn that our corner usually has a particularly foul odor, which may be in part due to the fact that there is a sewer nearby. For the most part, the smells consist of a variety of foods that are being made in restaurants ranging from small, probably family own places to chain restaurants like KFC and the ever-so-popular Nandos. But what really captivates me most about my neighborhood are the sights.
London is an extremely diverse city and, although I may not be too familiar with my neighbors specifically, especially my neighbors like Stella McCartney, I’m always seeing people from various ethnicities, ages, economic status, etc. coming in and out of the Tube station that is on my corner, getting off of those famous red double-decker buses, or just walking by me on the street. My hometown of New York City is also very diverse, so being around so many different kinds of people makes me feel right at home. In addition to the people, my surroundings never cease to amaze me. I’m surrounded by row after row of beautiful Victorian houses, and even though most of them remain residences, some of them have turned into schools or hotels, and you never know what to expect as you walk by. Just down the road from our house is Hyde Park and Kensington Palace, and I am always astonished at how close in proximity we live from royalty. The way the old and new seem to effortlessly blend together in this harmonious way is something that I will always love about London, and it is what I think makes it such a unique place.
As I finished my walking activity, and as I continue to find my way around my new neighborhood, I feel more and more connected to this place. The stores and restaurants are becoming familiar to me. I’m beginning to memorize the Tube lines that go to my street and where they make their stops. I’m beginning to see familiar faces at grocery stores and on public transportation. I’m feeling more and more at ease every time I venture out of my door. I know that with every step I take, London becomes more a part of me than it did before. I can see why Slimbach says walking is a teacher, because I have learned so much and I am becoming absorbed into my new culture.
The travelogue I chose to read was My Love Affair with England by Susan Allen Toth. Her memoir depicts decades of travel in England, which began when she studied abroad at the age of 20. Although she is much older than me and everything she writes about takes place between 1960 and the early 1990s, I could still very much relate to Toth and her thoughts and feelings about traveling in London and falling in love with the city. Toth has traveled to England as a student, on her honeymoon, as an escape after getting divorced, on various trips with her second husband, and with friends. She says that although she has been to other countries in Europe and they have so many things to offer, she never feels the desire to go to those countries like she feels the desire to go to England.
The chapter about her summer abroad was one that I most related to and therefore liked the most. In it, she talks about the image of London and England that she had formed before going there and how her fantasies about the country and the city impacted her greatly. Toth says, “But I remind myself, this is what the city looked like in 1960 – or perhaps more accurately, this is how I saw it. The London I had come to explore did not include factories, working-class neighborhoods, or most places outside the range of a standard guidebook…I will never really know how much of what I absorbed that first summer in London was influenced by what I expected to see. From the beginning, my relationship with England was an inextricable tangle of imagination and reality.”
Looking at that section of the book through the lens of a Rite of Passage made me think about liminality and how in order to successfully go through that stage we must push aside our preconceived notions about a place and be open to finding a new perspective. We must learn as much as we can about the culture we are entering to truly become a part of the community and successfully move through the liminal stage. I, like Toth, had built somewhat of a fantastical image of London and England from books, television, movies, and my past trip here. But now that I am here for study abroad, I know that this isn’t the city or country of my fantasies. I am learning about all of the issues that Americans aren’t usually aware of and I am making my way towards becoming a part of this community. Over time, Toth seems to do this as well, forming new perspectives on England and London during her decades of travel. This was why I felt so connected to her and some of her stories throughout her memoir, and other anecdotes just made me want to visit some of the places she described and try some of the things that sounded interesting to me. I learned a lot from Toth and I am going to take that knowledge with me moving forward.
This is a photo of a row of houses on Portobello Road, which is not far from where I live. The houses seem to stand out even more since they are so brightly colored against the dull, grey skies of a typical London day. It’s little places like these that remind me that there are always hidden gems to be found and that even in a seemingly dark, dull place there is always a source of joy and brightness. Some people may think of the usual tourist spots when they think of London like Big Ben, St. Paul’s Cathedral, etc. but now that I have been here for three weeks I am beginning to define London not by the tourist attractions, but by cute narrow streets and eccentric places like these houses and areas of town like Camden and Shoreditch. As time goes by I hope to find more and more places like this to truly make London my own.
Slimbach, Richard. Becoming World Wise: A Guide to Global Learning. Sterling, VA: Stylus Pub. LLC., 2010. Print.
Toth, Susan Allen. My Love Affair with England. New York: Ballantine, 1992. Print.