I left London as I entered it, in the hushed morning dark of a chilly Friday, the daily bustle just starting to build as I moved through the awakening streets. There was less wonderment this time. This city, once unknown, was now, if not completely, at least somewhat familiar. I learned London piecemeal, borough-by-borough, neighborhood-by-neighborhood, streets once disparate slowly beginning to weave together. As I made my way to King's Cross-station in the cold dawn of December 6th, my understanding of central London came less from the map in my pocket, and more from the map in my head. The last weeks in that city were quick. School responsibilities, as they often do, took precedent, but I found myself having time for the small things. For me the allure of London came less from the things to do or see anyway. While those things enhanced my experience, in the end, it was more just living there, experiencing daily life, looking, at least to the casual passerby (before I opened my mouth and spewed Midwestern accent over everything) like I was just another person living on the heaving back of this beast of a city.
Looking up the Tiber--Rome
With this attitude in mind then, the lasting memories of my final weeks in London are simple things. Things like stopping mid run on Waterloo bridge to gaze west down the Thames at a bloody sky, darkening like ink through parchment over Parliament, or walking along the same river at night, seeing my breath for the first time that autumn, the water swirling to our left as we walked east to Blackfriars Bridge. Things like raising a glass in the pub around the corner, or wandering through Sainsbury's for the last time, McVitle's Digestive biscuits and pre-made chicken tikka masala nestling in my basket. It was the life of the city, the small things that stayed with me. The art and the sights and the food and the people are all wonderful, but it's the atmosphere I will long remember.
So, as I sat on the train station headed to Luton airport for my absurdly early flight to Rome these swirling vestiges of the experiences of a lived-in London were what I remembered.
I left Chicago expecting to find a London shaped after my interpretations, what I found was a London shaped after itself, and this is entirely a good thing. It has been an immensely fulfilling and interesting experience to patch my personal imaginings of London over its vibrant and varied reality.
I found a London spiced with the colors, language and culture of all the world. I found a London of regal antiquity and brash modernity, often on the same block. I found a London entrenched in its traditions, be it a midday pint or a walk in Hyde Park. I found a London that inspired so many characters throughout art, but also learned that the London those characters inhabited was created itself. I have found a London of sprawling beauty, unapologetic frankness, stupid traffic patterns. I found a London of learning, of museums, of art, of music, of history, of buttoned up courtesy, of rain, of digestive biscuits.
The rest of the journey was grand, but different. Traveling to places is obviously different from living in them, and that burgeoning and often surprising comfort and familiarity that sneaks up unawares after living in a place for a while is missing when you're just passing through.
Bellagio, Lake Como
First, I was amazed at how intuitive traveling in modern cities has become. Even without a word of French, (aside from a hastily mumbled and horribly pronounced variations on 'je n'parl pas lu francais') I was able to navigate the metro and (somewhat) the streets. Second, Europe has gradually attained a further association for me aside from the cultural, artistic and linguistic normalcies and it comes in some form of: "no Wifi." Which makes navigating decidedly more 19th century than 21st.
This, in a way, is nice however. It's easier to feel the city, to rub your hands over its grooves and whorls and unique varnish, to feel out its subtleties when you are stumbling around hopelessly lost.
Paris is the ideal city for this. Wandering lost in Paris is unlike anything I have ever done, and I've wandered around hopelessly lost in plenty of places, including several times in a single class building back at Chicago (a time I was woefully late for a first creative class comes to mind).
In Paris being lost is a joy. There is a different smell around every corner. Baking bread, and cheese, and pastries. Fresh fruit and vegetables sold on the street corner with vendors yelling back and forth to each other, some singing or whistling. Restaurant boats on the Seine. Stacked history housed in ornate graves sprawled, among skittering amber leaves in Parisian cemeteries. Paris, is diverse as well. In just one corner in Chinatown I saw three continents represented. Signs hung from storefronts read in French, English, Hindi, Mandarin.
In a way, to the uninitiated observer, Paris seems like a monument to a European ideal--a diverse, sophisticated, beautiful city. And, from the art, to the cafés lining the Seine, to the lights that fog everything in a nostalgic glow, it's tough to argue with this.
I don't know if this is actually true, as I only spent three days there. I don't know how much of this atmosphere is fabricated for the thousands of tourists that flood the streets, the tourists that speak in rough tongues and anger Parisians. But walking through the streets, awash in gilded wonder, I couldn't help but feel that, even if this was just my naïve interpretation of a place I had hardly been, the Paris I was able to see and that I loved was the part of Paris that the world loved, and will always love despite the endless flow of people through it and the resulting sheen of tourism.
In the end then, my time in Europe was an exercise in balance. Balance between tourist and local, American and European, traveler and student. Regardless, for a first time traveler abroad, it was an eye opening and inspiring experience.