Beautiful Ugly

The other day, I was wandering up to the seventh floor of the Graduate Center (which is just about the tallest building on the whole of campus) with one of the students from my Resources for Research class. She hadn’t seen the view from the top of the structure yet, and as we reached the viewing balcony, we stared at the Central London skyline jutting up in the distance. She then asked me how I was liking the city so far. I praised it for being beautiful and diverse and full of history (sounding strangely like some sort of travel brochure; Join the adventure! Fill up your camera roll on your phone and empty out your pockets!). However, she surprised me by replying like this:

“Actually, I’ve always thought that it was kind of ugly.”

When she said this, my reaction was that of genuine surprise. Many of the Londoners that I have met express the same feelings about their city that they do about their football team—a deep, unwavering pride. Nevertheless, it got me thinking about what my general impression of this city that I am now living in actually is. Is there anything that I’ve noticed to be actually ugly about London?

The more I thought, the more I came up with things about London that I would categorize as not beautiful (though some might disagree with me):

  1. The color of the sky almost every day, which usually resembles the color of the glue that I peeled off of my hands when I was in kindergarten. And, just as constant as the rain, there are the high costs of almost everything (except museums, which are wonderfully mostly free).
  2. The constant noise of the sirens, the traffic, the undergraduates that insist on performing karaoke at one in the morning (although that last one might just apply to college campuses in general).
  3. The way Regent’s Canal, which lies outside of my kitchen window, becomes occasionally choked with duckweed and, with its arrival, an eclectic collection of bottles, bags, and other assorted “rubbish.” There aren’t many garbage cans around on the street as you walk, so the pile-up of trash does seem inevitable in a multitude of places in the city.
  4. The musty smell that somehow exudes from old buildings. Elisa and I have discussed this one, and we’ve compared and contrasted the distinct smells of both of our flats.
  5. The streets can be crowded and hectic too. Apparently there are bicycle/moped thieves that will snatch your phone right out of your hand if you are walking too close to the bike lane?! (Don’t worry, I tend not to walk around with my phone out and I stay aware of my surroundings. Don’t tell my parents to come and make me go back home just yet).

However, there are a lot of things about London that I would argue are beautiful:

  1. There’s art and literature everywhere. They have an amazing theatre district (and the Old Globe). There are whole tourist attractions dedicated to novelists and their characters (The Sherlock Holmes Museum, any place affiliated with Harry Potter). Some flats have blue plaques above them to describe what famous author, artist, or philosopher once lived there (also, did I mention the free museums?).
  2. The aesthetics of the old British pubs, restaurants, and bookshops, many of which look like they’ve jumped right out of Pinterest pins. In fact, they are better than pins because you can go inside and actually buy the food and admire the rows of titles before you. That is all not to mention the web of Sunday markets that sprawl across all edges of the city.
  3. The green spaces that house hundreds of birds, such as geese (like the ones that parade near the canal outside my aforementioned window) and even swans (like the ones I saw with my dad in St. James park.)
  4. Ninety percent of the buildings or sites that you visit come with a prepackaged history that can span hundreds or even thousands of years. All of that comes with a sense of being in a place where people of great fame and contributions to the world have been before you. Plus, some of the architecture is sublime, like many of the stained glass windows in the cathedrals.
  5. Just walking down the street, you might hear English, Spanish, Chinese, Urdu…it’s like playing a dozen films at the same time, but all of them are in different languages and the dialogue of all of the characters blur together in a colorful blend of sound.

So, what’s my conclusion? Is there really any way to reconcile the beauty and ugly without giving up this exercise altogether?

One possible solution can be found in one of the books I’ve read since my program started, called An Acre of Barren Ground by Jeremy Gavron. The author of this novel includes a chapter on the way that the landscape of the East End was reshaped after World War Two. Apparently, from what I’ve learned about the conflict in London during this time, the East End was hit harder than the West because of its reputation as a center of industry, which the Axis powers wanted to target. The bombing that resulted from the air raids caused the East End to become pockmarked with rubble and holes from where the explosions went off. According to Gavron, however, seeds, through hitching rides on railroad systems and drifting on the breeze, were able to take root in these divots, eventually sprouting up to form plants and flowers.

The green of new shoots juxtaposed with the gray desolation of war feels like a nice metaphor for the East End and London itself—the crumbling old coupling with the shining new, the corruption with the culture, the graphitized walls with the million-dollar paintings. London, to me, seems to be a city too large and too caught in a state of constant change to ever be categorized as just one thing or another. Rather, it lives on in a way that allows the beauty and the ugly to both exist, side by side.

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Leaving the Hobbit Hole

One of my favorite things about The Hobbit is that it does not begin with a dashing hero that immediately embraces challenges of the quest ahead of him. Rather, it starts with a short, hairy-toed protagonist that must be slowly coerced and even guilt-tripped into having an adventure. In fact, it is obvious that Bilbo is very attached to his home, as you can read from the first sentences of the book:

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.”

Tolkien takes the time to describe the place where his main character lives because it reflects who Bilbo is as a person: someone who leads a simple but enjoyable existence. His worldview is quickly shattered, however, with the arrival of a horde of hungry dwarves and wizard with a twinkle in his eye that hides his shady ulterior motives (honestly, I love Gandalf, but who just barges in on someone with a small army of dwarves and then springs the task of “burgling” a dragon’s horde on them?)

The reason that I’m taking so much time to talk about The Hobbit is because I feel like Bilbo Baggins’ experience is a good analogy for the way that I feel now that I am just a few days away from going to the U.K. Granted, the end goal that I am facing is quite different from the one that the characters in the novel are up against. I am going to finally get to experience a place that I’ve always wanted to visit before and I will be able to attend a great university (as an added bonus, my path should be delightfully free of trolls). However, like Bilbo, I am reluctant to leave the coziness of my home and the life that I have known since I came home in December behind. If starting a postgraduate degree wasn’t scary enough, I just had to add to the thrill by attending a school in a foreign country, didn’t I? As time moves by and my flight grows closer, I have been spending more and more time thinking along these lines: Why did I make this choice? It would have been so much easier to stay close by! I don’t even know the metric system!!!

As all of these worries start to bother me, though, I think about this quote: “There is nothing like looking, if you want to find something.” The point here is that if you want to go out and discover something new, sitting around in the land of comfort and routine isn’t going to help. That was certainly the case when I went to California in 2013, and I’m willing to bet that I’ll have a similar experience in London, with its cute little bookshops and its short train ride away from the place where Tolkien wrote those famous first lines.

I’m off to start my unexpected journey this upcoming Thursday. Wish me luck as I set out across the pond for the year.

Journey to the Past

Recently, my grandmother proposed an interesting challenge to me. She told me that I had relatives that immigrated to America straight from England; namely, her grandparents. She also had names, addresses, and locations that matched what she knew about her grandparents’ lives in England. However, there were some big gaps in the information that she had, as she hadn’t asked them much about their lives back in their home country when she was young. I did have some old newspaper articles describing their lives in Wisconsin, carefully preserved in laminate. With the birth dates and records that she provided me, I went on a history-fueled scavenger hunt to give me some clues about some of my British family members.

I started with the smaller tasks rather than their more herculean cousins; I found out what the mysterious “E.E” that made up my great-great grandpa’s middle names stood for (Ernest Edward, as it turned out). I located their Ellis Island immigration records from 1910 and 1913 and was rewarded with pictures of what their ships’ mythological-sounding names were. Then came the harder stuff, by which I mean sorting out who my great-great-great (whew, that’s a lot of greats) grandparents could be from a slew of other Williams, Samuels, Anns, and Sarahs. After a number of hours on the computer over a couple of days, I uncovered an entire line of people dating back to 1760 on my great-great grandfather’s side. It just so happens that some of my ancestors were christened in a church where Charles Dickens would wander the pews and pluck names for his characters from the gravestones (how’s that for an interesting fact?). I especially laughed when I found out that the place where my great-great grandparents grew and worked was a mere 22 minutes from the place where I will be studying in the fall. Other facts that I found were sad, as many of the old churches were ruined in the bombings that arrived with the war that my great-great grandparents likely moved to America to evade.

As I riddled out the names of more and more people, I gathered bits and pieces about the jobs they had, the parishes where they worshipped, and even where they might be buried. Parts of the research were frustratingly difficult to carry out, especially because it is hard to trace a maternal lineage due to the name changes that come with marriage. Even so, it was strangely comforting to me to sort through all of these photocopied documents and ship manifests. When I arrive in London in September, I no longer have to think of it as a completely foreign landscape. I can view one street as the former site of the teahouse where my great-great grandmother was a manageress. I can see the docks as the place where my great-great uncle eventually was shipped off to the Boer War in South Africa. It makes me feel safer to know that I came from such courageous people. After all, my great-great grandma sailed across the Atlantic by herself to start a life in a new country. I never chalked up bravery to be a quality that I have in excess, but who knows…maybe it’s a family trait?

Words for Wandering: A Traveler’s Vocabulary List

In my humble opinion, one of the most awe-inspiring things that human beings have developed is language. In fact, people have created 7,000 dialects of 2,700 different languages worldwide. Over 231 languages have now been declared to be “dead,” and every 1-2 weeks, another dialect or language meets the same grim fate. There are even over 200 artificial languages, which are tongues that were created for books, movies, and television floating around. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings accounts for either 12 or 13 of them (depending on which source you believe). In summary, whether it is of the written, spoken, or signed variety, language is an entity as complex as it is vital for human survival and happiness.

Although I only speak English, some Spanish, and a few phrases in Gaelic that I learned from Celtic Thunder (don’t judge me), I collect interesting words, both from languages that I am familiar with and from ones that I can’t even guess how to pronounce. Lately, as I’ve been starting to plan my trip to London, I’ve been paying special attention to the words I’ve compiled that revolve around journeys, travel, and locations. Going to a place that you’ve never been before is almost always a fascinating experience, and going to an entirely new country when I’ve never left the U.S. before comes with the kind of feelings that are difficult to express. Luckily, with the help of a few languages, that process becomes much easier. Here are some of my favorite words relating to places and travel, in no particular order, and how I relate to them:

  1. Resfeber (n.) Swedish for the nervous feeling before undertaking a journey, where anxiety and anticipation tangle together. For me, this always manifests as the nausea and sweaty palms that I feel sitting in the airport as I wait for a flight.
  2. Dépaysement (n.) French for the disorientation felt in a foreign country or culture, the sense of being a fish out of water. When I tell people that I am getting my master’s in another country, and they inform me about how certain practices are much different across the pond (like measuring things in grams rather than pounds and the concept of afternoon tea), I get a fish out of water feeling.
  3. Fernweh (n.) German for “farsickness,” an ache for distant places or for travelling. I am trying to assemble a bucket list of things to do while I am in London, and seeing how amazing all of the sites will be makes me long to be there so that I can start experiencing it.
  4. Occhiolism (n.) The awareness of the smallness of your perspective.  The same emotion swept over me when I stood on top of the canyon walls in Zion National Park, as I realized that I was just a small speck in comparison to the vastness of nature.
  5. Wasuremono (n.) Japanese for forgotten or lost things, as in an item left behind on a train or forgotten at home. Whenever I packed up to go to Concordia in California, I would always leave something behind that I really needed and I always took something with me that I never used. It’s like an irritating exchange process.
  6. Akihi (n.) Hawaiian for listening to directions and then walking off and promptly forgetting them. As someone who is notoriously bad at giving and taking directions (cue me getting lost in the neighborhoods of Sun River, OR), I hope that I get better at this as I learn to navigate East London.
  7. Videnda (n.) Latin adoption, “what is to be observed,” the things that should be seen or visited, especially because they mark the character of a person or place. Whenever you see a picture of Big Ben, the London Bridge, or a double decker bus, people think of London. Those are the kind of touristy things that I am looking forward to doing unabashedly. You’d better believe I’m getting a photo in a phone booth while I’m overseas.
  8. Coddiwomple (n.) To travel in a purposeful manner toward a vague destination. I did this a lot with my tour groups in NYC, as we would make great time in getting to an area like Greenwich or Brooklyn Heights, but once we got there, we would take our time strolling around, heading to no place in particular.
  9. Cynefin (n.) Welsh for a place where a person or animal feels it ought to live and belong, where the nature around you feels right and welcoming. Whenever I came home from break and my plane would land in Portland, I would see all the endless green of the trees and recognize my cynefin.
  10. Smultronställe (n.) German, literally “place of wild strawberries”; a special place discovered, treasured, and returned to for solace and relaxation; a personal idyll free from stress and sadness. When I was younger, this used to be the swingset in the back of my house where I would swing all of my stress away. Now that I’m older, I hope I can find a place of wild strawberries in the U.K. (actual strawberries not required).

So whether you have forgotten your toothbrush in a different state or are getting lost in a tangle of streets this summer, I hope that one of these words can find a home in your own vocabulary.

—Lauren

Credit to Wordstuck, Lingualinx.com, Migratingmiss.com, Buzzfeed, and Edudemic.com for the words and language facts.

So Our Story Begins

Cap Edited

 

There are some things that live unwaveringly in the realm of the expected. The ingénue on the other side of the screen walks down the dark hallway where the killer lurks, despite our groans of “Oh my God, what are you doing? Don’t go down there!” The marinara drips onto our brand new pants approximately forty-six seconds after we’ve changed into them. The item that we ordered from a sketchy-looking website arrives from China two months later and with half the quality that we had hoped for, right on schedule.

Other things, however, work in the exact opposite way. When my drama club and I walked into the small, off-Broadway theatre and took our seats in the front row, I thought that I knew what to expect. I had read Peter and the Starcatcher when I was in elementary school and I had adored it. Consequently, I thought that there wouldn’t be much about this production that would surprise me. Then the actors brought out a set of ropes and with a few twists and stretches, the ropes transformed into a ship. A number of household items, from rubber ducks to lemon juicers, molded the cast members into mermaids. It was like a child had constructed the show from what they could ransack from the house when their parents weren’t looking, but, strangely, the script spoke with a twinkle of maturity in its eye. My attitude shifted from wariness to the kind of incredulous joy that leaves your jaw unhinged until the house lights come back up. The expectations that I had built up around what I believed that this show would be were erased in snaps of color, whimsy, and, best of all, the kind of writing that adheres to the back of your memory.

Years later, when I received my mortarboard for my college graduation, I wanted to channel that same sense of unexpectedness into my cap’s decorations. That challenge led me to think about what quote I could use to condense my three and a half years of constant reading and writing with the idea of moving on to something else. I thought about using something from Walt Whitman or Emily Dickinson, who are two of my favorite American poets that I studied in school (you can fit the entirety of Leaves of Grass onto a grad cap, right?). I even considered taking something from a newer book, like The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, which I had written a twenty plus page paper on as part of my literary theory class. In the end, though, I went for a line from one of my favorite plays, which was based on a piece of literature that captured my childhood and my adulthood into a single speech:

“When I was a boy I wished I could fly. Out the window and over the trees…then loop de loop and up to the stars. Eventually, of course, we dream other dreams. We change. We grow up. It always happens. Nothing is forever. That’s the rule. Everything ends. And so our story begins.”

As I walked across the stage at graduation and then returned to watch all of my best friends do the same thing, I came to understand that endings are one of those things that lie in the universe of the expected. Even if things don’t end the way that we predicted or in a way that we don’t like, endings are always there, waiting for us. But this doesn’t mean that these pre-programmed endings don’t come with a trace of unexpectedness. For instance, I would have never guessed a few years ago that I would talk to a girl from Russia about anxiety and Hamlet, or that I would make friends that would recreate an episode of Chopped in our kitchen or perform the Avatar: The Last Airbender theme song in their living room with me, or that I would be accepted to graduate schools in London of all places. I know that I will leave nearly everything that I am accustomed to at an airport terminal in a couple of months and I know that I will fret over the process of making new friends and adjusting to life in a new country. All the same, it is the things that I don’t know that will happen, all those small unexpected things, that make me sure that going to the U.K. is the right choice for me.

Everything is coming to an end.

And so my story begins.