When it comes to grand expectations, my standards for certain choice cities started out ludicrously high. Undulating up in the stratosphere, really. I remember being thirteen, on the precipice of my inaugural visit to the Big Apple. It’s difficult to describe my excitement; imagine a cocktail of tween infatuation and the seconds pre-start gun at the Olympic 100-meter dash. Yes, I was a dramatic youngster. And also: is anything else called a “dash” ever taken seriously (besides by emphatic grammarians)? You picture Usain Bolt, all muscled machismo, and then that word… dash. A sudden image of granny and Rachel Ray.
But even that description doesn’t fully encompass the real jubilation with which I boarded that flight. Books, magazines, Hollywood, suburban boredom, Saturday Night Live all sloshed around in my conscious and unconscious, creating a nascent identity that pegged NYC as the epitome of cool. New York City had culture, it had class. There was Broadway, there was the MET. Skyscrapers, taxis, pushy vendors, tough accents, glitzy hotels.
Cosmopolitan high school boys in turtlenecks: Oh Big City, I’m home!
Still, even with such an impossible pedestal, New York City easily exceeded my wild visions. For one, it was much bigger. Buildings, buildings everywhere. You could let the concrete and crowds encase you in anonymity’s free embrace. And for a girl who was shy and nerdy amongst her peers, stuck in a small-town fishbowl, the deep sense that I could be the badass wanderer I felt destined to was the single greatest feeling I’d had to date. And then my mom, sisters and I discovered an entire floor at Macy’s dedicated to teens, the kind of coveted space no self-respecting Colorado department store could fathom giving away to ungrateful teenagers. With the kind of luxurious apparel I’d only seen… well, I’d never seen it, to be honest, never seen anything like it. Pure bliss. The King and I was duly glamorous, especially with 5th row, center aisle seats my uncle bought minutes before showtime. The kind of magical purchase that was just standard here in Manhattan.
The energy of the city though, that’s what most impressed upon me. You could feel the pulse through the sidewalks, pushing you along, faster, faster. All that ambition, the striving! Incredible, intoxicating!
And I’ve never fallen out of love with it.
What other city could possibly compete? Well I tell you, I had one in mind. A metropolis even grander in size and scope, much older and far wiser. The land of history’s greatest poet, modern theatre, 60s rock and roll. Equal claim to architecture, art, culture and crowds of New York, but with the epic bonus of being foreign, an ocean away, a magical island city where the English language took on lyrical brilliance.
My first trip came at 15, on a youth group missions trip. I don’t recall much evangelizing, as we spent most of our time at a YWAM base, trimming hedges and generally cleaning up for the small community there. Proselytizers, we were not; more like a neighborhood landscaping service. I’d gone on this adventure with two of my school buddies, Anna and Rachel. All three of us were more than willing to do some yard work, as it culminated in daily walks to the town square where one could witness these fascinating British people buy and sell croissants and flowers. Things got even more interesting when local high schoolers showed up. Out of the larger gang, two individuals stand out: Tom, wearing a black leather jacket that somehow wasn’t trying too hard, and Elisabeth, who I assume was his girlfriend, an exact Evan Rachel Wood doppelganger. Somehow, we ended up talking with them. I have no idea what the conversation was about, though I’m sure Anna, Rachel and I felt compelled to share that we had come to England for spiritual reasons. Whatever the topic, Tom and Elisabeth remained unflustered throughout our interaction. They were beyond the influence of Britney Spears babydoll talk or Varsity Blues macho bluster. Tom and Elisabeth were smartly understated, and their replies came calmly measured.
Such easy maturity was astonishing. I had a fairly immediate crush on Tom, and wondered where Elisabeth bought her tailored, black clothes and if they’d have a more generous size to accommodate my American figure. If the boot-cut jeans and flannel button-downs we wore had ever been fashionable in Great Britain, that time was clearly over.
Of our week in England, we spent only one day in London. As any rational, conscious person whose seen it can attest, one day is enough. I remember Trafalgar Square most vividly, the gaping size just flooring me on the spot. It was a gray day, and the myriad tones that color can exhibit abounded, from the ground stones to the statues to the sky. I remember the lions. The gargantuan beasts sat majestic, seemed ancient, placed there to stoically witness the doings of mankind below.
This was the moment I definitively recognized history, and that I was standing as part of it. You’d think that revelation would have arrived along with me at the Statue of Liberty, but I was too young then. Plus, it was deathly cold on an open-air ferry in the middle of November. The only eureka experience during the ride entailed my understanding of true fury, directed at my parents for foisting such misery upon me. I thought a quick punch to the face and the ensuing escape into temporary oblivion would be most welcome. And so, that seminal epiphany of the grandeur of humanity and one’s small but noble role within it came to me there, in Trafalgar Square.
Tourist attractions are routinely dumped on by in-the-know, authentic travelers. But I cherish them. And it doesn’t matter how many picture you’ve seen of Big Ben or Buckingham Palace – they can’t relate the feeling of taking it all in, reality-style. Such monuments become commercially ubiquitous because of their extraordinary history, master craftsmanship, exuberant luxury. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve loved dives, loved them for as long as I’ve known what that word meant. But there is no chic, secret must-visit site in existence that can compete with Westminster Abbey or St. Paul’s Cathedral. How would you hide the dome or keep that kind of gothic genius under wraps?
Thus, our young church group walked past the key sites, walked hours on end to be sure we didn’t miss any pass-by opportunities for snapping photos. I wandered awestruck at the difference between New York and London. The younger city was all tizzying excitement and dazzle: you think of Times Square, the Empire State Building, Radio City Music Hall, and all the skyscrapers vying for the highest place in the sun. London, then, made sense as the elder, less flashy sibling. Its structures were sensibly five – ten stories high, solid. Their adornment was symmetrical – even columns, cornices with simple-swoops, perfectly-spaced rectangular windows. And though the streets were just as congested and sidewalks just as crowded, the hushed manner of British movement stood in direct opposition to the constant honking, yelling, hawking bustle of New York. It was fun, but it was all feeling, whereas London gave one the impulse to be pensive, to think, to consider.
London was ergo a serious city, and by then I considered myself a serious sort of person. And so I felt I’d found my place in the world. Thus, when the opportunity arose to study abroad there during my junior year at the University of Denver, the answer was yes.
But between fifteen and twenty are five turbulent years of growing up, and I worried my affection was perhaps just hormone-addled tripping. It wasn’t. Here in London, life was all possibility, all the time. Morning walks in Hyde Park were followed by coffee and British talk shows. Sometimes, there were fascinating classes on British literature to attend, taught by one of my favorite professors (shout out, Dr. McNees), attended by the kindest, most interesting and harmonious groups of 20/21-year olds that have ever graced (ahem) a country studied abroad in by Americans. Other times, we were off to The Globe theater, instructed by its learned staff, somehow permitted to perform on that sacred stage for a small gathering of friends and a final grade. Certain nights entailed scoring dirt cheap theatre tickets; others, a simple meetup at the local pub.
A certain confluence of factors contributed to London’s perfection. For one, we were there in autumn, living just a few blocks from Hyde Park’s glorious display of fall ornamentation. More importantly, I was in a state of total freedom. We all had cell phones, but not only were they less invasive than the devices of today, but we felt unattached enough to forego the things altogether. Thus, when I left our apartment on Edgeware, no one could get a hold of me. This felt slightly disquieting for the first week; after adjusting, pure bliss. London and me, that’s it. Wherever I wanted to go, whether by foot, bus, tube or taxi, no one and nothing but my tiny bank account could interfere. The twenty of us from DU bonded quickly, especially the nine living in our small apartment complex, as the rest of the rooms were inhabited by Notre Dame students. I didn’t meet all of them, but the few elevator encounters were enough to ease any lingering remorse over being wait-listed by their admissions board. Arrogant, aloof, drunk, drunkenly racist, if I had to summarize in five words or less.
Best of all, London remained the properly serious city I’d remembered. In that time, I’d lived considerably more, though I didn’t drink or smoke pot or sleep around. Like a true nerd, I loved classes, my literary studies homework, late-night philosophy lectures and later-night intellectualizing at Washington Park bars with friends who weren’t quite so opposed to imbibing. But London made much more sense for my studious approach than the Delta Gamma Sorority house where I’d spent my sophomore year. All of the DU students studying abroad, besides me, were uninvolved in Greek life, and were expectedly more studious and inclusive. They showed up to class, homework done and discussion-ready. They put in extra effort at memorizing their Shakespeare lines and researching for our site visits, my very favorite assignment. We toured Charles Dickens’ downtown home, the suburban house where Keats passed away, trekked north to the moors where the Bronte sisters lived, and wonderful so ons. At each stop, one student was responsible for a presentation surrounding the history and importance of the site.
I chose The Ragged School Museum, the sole trip that took us to the east end, where the director and I filled everyone in on what deplorable conditions for the children of factory workers existed in the 19th century. The dilapidated warehouse where we now stood was opened in 1867 to provide meaningful activity for the little ones who otherwise would run “ragged” around dirty, dangerous streets all day. My take on government was solidified by the circumstances of The Ragged School’s opening. While Parliament quibbled over passing legislation for compulsory education, Thomas Barnardo looked at the filth and destitution of London’s most needy and just did it, opened the school. The inimitable power of the individual at work, handily beating bureaucracy’s sluggish politics.
As should be obvious, London allowed me to indulge my nerdy side, night and day. Pubs closed at 11:00 for crying out loud, the tube shut down at midnight, a fact we realized too late upon emerging from Fabric around 2:30 AM. A beginner’s mistake, we didn’t venture out for early morning clubbing again. You were practically obliged to be an adult now.
With British accents. Everywhere.
But what about all the other cities? Could they all be as dreamy?