I haven’t yet met a princess or prince, but I do see the Queen everywhere; her face is on all the money. Her portrait even appears on the stamps I use to send postcards. I once got lost while cycling through London and only recognized where I was once I arrived at her home. Most of the major landmarks in London have some sort of political origin. Big Ben is part of the Houses of Parliament, where the legislative body convenes. Coronations and the royal weddings take place and are memorialized at Westminster Abbey. The changing of the guard ceremony takes place outside the Queens official residence, BuckinghamPalace, and from the London Eye you can look out over all of the politically significant historical sites.
Even though the history of Britain and it’s landmarks focuses on the monarchy, anthemic renditions of “God Save the Queen” are sung as the national anthem at most sporting events here, and, as highlighted by her recent trip to Australia, the Queen is still head of state of many parts of a once massive and imperialistic empire, the dregs of monarchy that persist are not of day to day consequence.
The government officials that youth protested against this summer during the London riots were the democratically elected representatives and their appointees, not the monarch. They were angered by police compliance in phone hacking by the press among a mirage of other issues, some of which are relevant to me as a student; tuition rates and other fees were increased as the government tightened their belts in reaction to the economic crisis. As the Arab Spring makes a return waft, the Occupy London protestors don’t make mention of tearing down the monarchy either. Since people are concerned with where power for immediate action lies, it’s the Prime Minister and Parliament that people resent during difficult times. As a figure head, the Queen only has diplomacy and negotiation as tools for influence. The royal family’s significance lies primarily in upheld heritage and tradition. The monarch works as a sort of symbol. They have faith in their country and fate. So if the monarch persists, “England prevails.” Maybe, that sense of long term linage surviving is why the royal wedding of Prince William captivated such a large television viewership and street presence earlier this year. That’s the main difference between the politics here and in the States. Our younger nation has a tradition of independence and pride in the land of the free, while the United Kingdom’s traditions result from their own unique beginnings.
As President Obama highlighted in his historic speech before Parliament this May, we do share a lot. The US and UK relationship is interesting. According to the ever changing terminology, we have an “essential relationship” and a bond as “the nations most willing to stand up for the values of tolerance and self-determination that lead to peace and dignity.” So it deemed important that in order to cooperate, we work together and reach an understanding among each other. Studying here is helping me understand more about this country as well as provide me the opportunity to discuss the reality in the States with my classmates. Since I’ve been here, I’ve become increasingly aware that movies, news, and television impart an image of America, New York especially, as a “country replete with well-to-do people with no particular concerns for the future, a country seen from the outside as a utopia to be desired with heart and soul, a land of opportunities for those who felt they were denied the same in their own countries” which is how Ismail Salami described the depiction the ninety-nine percent movement hopes to deflate.
The news tends to only report the theatrical and eccentric. So I wonder whether or not youth here are actually politically active or if the riots were a fluke swift uprising. I’ve been asked to comment on my encounters with the political active students I have met at university. And you know what? I haven’t made the acquaintance of any. The only engaged voter I’ve encountered here is the Green Party supporter who frequently raises his hand in my Environment course. Maybe it’s the drinking age. Maybe they don’t feel a sense of control. Maybe they feel disaffected as many American youths do. Perhaps, they’re just relatively content and therefore only stirrup when caught in movements like the riots that hit London a month before I did. I’m bloody close to where those were, but I never hear any of the British students mention anything about them or their purpose. Although student organizations exist on campus, they don’t have many members. The only time I’ve ever heard any conversation about how the Labour is dealing with being in the Opposition or how the Lib Dems are doing in Coalition with the Conservatives is from my friend Bill who lives in Delaware and happens to major in political science. Hence, I don’t yet have a real sense of what future the British will demand of their politicians, of their relationship with the US, and of their role in global politics.
Traveling should be more that getting from point to point. I find it easy to treat travel as a valuable journey no matter where the destination is. When there are exotic locations, different cultures, and a few obstacles thrown in the mix there’s a quest at hand. Such has been often been the case for me these days.
Traveling on any quest entails exploring as well as being away from home. I have a need to see the world for myself. I fight for the window seat. If there is significant distance between two stops, there’s something significant to see along the way. I know imagining Big Ben coming into view while crossing over Westminster Bridge from the top floor of a double-decker bus is not the same as the first hand experience.
Traveling allows one to experience new surroundings and forces one to reflect on those passed. It has all the ingredients for making new memories and revisiting old ones. My fondest childhood memories are rambling up and down the East coast with my family. It never really mattered where we were going. All really I remember of trips made at the beginning of autumn is starring at the changing colors of the leaves on the side of the road. As I flew over Great Britain for the first time, I saw sheep pastures and golf courses. I’ll always remember the view and rejoice in the felling of wonder that I got from flying over the vast Atlantic and then reaching a new land.
Traveling’s hardships teach lessons of vigilance just as sight seeing imparts history lessons. It typically involves long hours with cramped leg room exhausted being worried about the tales of passports stolen from sleeping rail passengers, the possibility of a car breaking down in the middle of no where, or the swarms of pickpockets waiting for innocent tourist. My family has a habit of writing to check that I am still constantly vigilant of these situations. I’ve learned not to keep my wallet in the back pocket. These worries will never keep me from venturing though so long as I get to occasionally look out at passing cow pastures and eventually arrive at a historically fascinating and mysterious place such as Stonehenge, where I went this weekend. Yes, “Traveling is a brutality. It forces you to trust strangers and to lose sight of all that familiar comfort of home and friends. You are constantly off balance.” Maybe, it’s just me, but this harsh description of travel by Cesare Pavese tends to remind me that exploration is a rush. As someone who has always had wanderlust to spare, but few opportunities to go for a while, I am now excited to extend my comfort zones and more than willing to spend time searching for the right tickets, filling out the paperwork, and mapping the best route. I’ve realized that leaving my comfort zone to travel is going to be worth the risk and effort most of the time. I like that the scenic route learned on one trip becomes a comfort zone next time returning or going in the same direction is possible.
Traveling is a means for first hand experience to replace imagination. I have yet to hear of there ever being a shortage of pictures of the Roman Baths, Stonehenge, or Big Ben. Yet, most everyone visiting these sight has a camera in hand. As a tourists I get walk on hallow ground and touch the water from ancient springs. The first hand perspective is a very thrilling personal experience that matters to travelers and motivates us to travel the distance. Saying to yourself Am I really here? Did I make it all this way? Yes! I am seeing this up close with my own eyes! This is awesome! is such a rush. I love being overwhelmed by these thoughts. I arrived in England. The first weekend I went to Cambridge. Then I did London, Bath, and Stonehenge. I want to go still even further in order to feel a sense of progression. So, today I booked a flight to Oslo, Norway with friends I met here. I expect weekends in random cities like Oslo will sustain the thrilling feeling of realizing how far I’ve made it. Maybe I sound crazy. However, I know I cannot be the only one I know who keeps maps just to encourage pondering how I made it to a far away land and where I’ll go next.
Traveling is a choice. Pavese said, “nothing is yours except the essential things: air, sleep, dreams, sea, the sky – all things tending towards the eternal or what we imagine of it.” I think “essential things” includes choice; the decision to travel is yours as well as the decision of what to take with you, so long as it’s a limited amount of baggage though.
Traveling accomplishes goals and results in a sense of awe upon reflecting on the road traveled and reveling in the sense of everything being new and different and special. That’s why I support indulging wanderlust when the opportunity arises. Especially since sometimes the chance and time to are fleeting. One day the trekking up hills sights on the other side is done with and then it’s time to passing stories and luggage along to grandchildren, just as my grandmother did to me just before I left for Europe.
Tea and crumpets are a somewhat antiquated tradition and I am rather settled on coffee and toast. Battenbergs are sort of sugary cake treats also meant for tea time of which I eat my fair share. I have yet to tried meat pies here, but have heard good reviews. Pub food varies quite a bit, but the atmosphere of a pub caters to a perfect lunch break from sight seeing. So, as far as I can tell, “fish and chips” seems to be the most reliable option and the most popular English dish for probably that reason. At first, I only ordered the dish for the sake of it being a staple food, something you can get anywhere over here. Now, I am a fan, which surprised me since I would never have ordered fish fried as such in the states. You can even eat it riverside beneathLondonBridgewhere the above picture of the sign was taken. I may get used to being away from New York delis. I’m even slowly getting used to thinking of French fries as “chips” and chips as “crisps.”
September 17th – Take off is exciting.
It is difficult to believe this is really happening. The realization that I am about to go to Europe for the first time and living and studying in the United Kingdom for five months is only just starting to hit me now. I am sitting in an airport window sill near the departure gate, pressed up against the glass, and waiting to board. From where I am sitting, the 747 plane I’ll be boarding is clearly visible. I arrived quite early at the airport. Since doing so, my body is pumped with adrenaline as I am thrilled and nervous at the same time.
It has been difficult to prepare to move somewhere I have never been before. I completed piles of paperwork. My passport, boarding pass, and other essentials are stowed in my carry-on. I already changed some money into pound sterling. I even checked my bicycle so that I’ll have a way to explore campus once I am there. My need to reassure myself that I’ve prepared as much as I can is beginning to wear off. It will be morning in England by the time I get there.
September 18th – I woke up in London today.
I have only been here a short time, but I am amazed with this country already. Quaint houses, green fields, and small cars driving on the opposite side of the road surrounded me soon after the bus departed from the airport. I was quite jet lagged as it was difficult to sleep on the plane and I lost five hours due to the time zone difference. The thrill of being in a new place, of exchanging my remaining dollars for pounds, of the introducing myself to the other international students, and of getting the keys to my “flat” however kept me awake.
September 19th – Tea and crumpets is not my thing.
I gave them a shot at the welcome reception the “uni” had for us, but afterwards went shopping at a nearby mall for a coffee machine. I want to give their customs a chance, but I will not be adopting that one anytime soon. Some of my flatmates and I decided to buy other kitchenware together as well since there are no meal plans here, just a kitchen I will have to learn to use.
More and more people are moving into the on-campus housing. I am meeting so many people from all over the world in such a short time span. The experience is quite exciting. There are no British people in my building yet, just a Canadian, a Cyprian, an Italian, a Spaniard, a German, and two other Americans.
Today, I got a chance to explore a bit more. The scenery is most obvious difference. There are wind turbines and lush green grass all over campus. Houses look just like Privet Drive. In fact, quite a bit of the area looks like a Harry Potter sets. The infrastructure is different than back home. Instead of intersections there are circle loops that the cars drive around. I believe they’re called roundabouts. Along the same directions as the roads and roundabouts are separate bicycle and pedestrian pathways. After getting over some initial confusion, I’ve found the set up rather appealing. It seems convenient for the drivers, cyclists, and pedestrians. In addition, the center of the circle is usually a well landscaped area that improve the appearance of everything. Bike and walking paths that are better planned, separated from roads, and therefore safer are something I have wanted to see and advocated for back in the States. I’m so glad that the airline let me take my bicycle free of charge. There are also plenty of covered shelters for bikes and paths that go under roads. When you do have to cross a road, there are signals and better defined crossings for both bikes and pedestrians. I really am so psyched to pedal around getting to know all the unfamiliar spaces. I’ve heard that in central London, you can rent a bike off the racks station all over the street for something like a £1 per hour. New York only just passed its first transportation bill that included these kinds of complete street provisions. I would like to see more of this aspect of England back home. Maybe we could trade for New York bagels? I certainly am going to miss them. None the less, this trip is working out to be well worth the sacrifice. I think I’m really going to enjoy my stay here!