There is something inexplicably and achingly familiar about London in the springtime. The sunlight illuminates the creamy froth of the clouds above. The trees are in beautiful bloom. Petals drift all over the city, soft on the ever-present wind under a familiar, drifting network of patchwork blue. While London bustles past just outside the gates, the city’s various parks offer a bed of soft, green-space to settle on for hours and hours. The birds sing. Spread all around, there are so many different types of people enjoying the same indulgences of this amazing city. This is London.
Having already spent my freshman year navigating these familiar winding streets, I suppose there was new interest added to embarking upon my second academic year here. London is journey of course. In the midst of this place, it’s impossible to know where any of our ends lie, but it is interesting to try and manipulate the way we see in order to understand more of the huge history of this city we are all now somehow also a part of.
When I first arrived here back in 2013, something I had noticed is the distinctive nature discussion surrounding the changing British identity in London today. It is primarily England’s long history that creates this distinctively British difference, which has come to comprise this basic struggle inherent in English culture.
This struggle particularly comes through in places like the National Portrait Gallery. British portraits, with their mysteries of unachievable wealth in halos of golden light and gilded frames, obscure the past with learnt assumptions about art. There is an intentional upper-class focus and adherence of beauty, truth, genius, civilization, form, structure, status, and taste. This cultural mystification is the process of explaining away what might otherwise be evident: existence is a shared experience, something we all should relate to. Yet, much like British culture viewed from a distance — without immediate experience — these portraits are exclusive, painting the country’s past politically.
Of course, spending last year in New York City made me reassess my London experience. Undoubtedly, British culture is markedly different from any other culture I have encountered. Thus, by trying to be the unbiased student-traveler during my freshman year away, I used my study abroad experience to personally witness various distinctive nuance of British culture while studying their history of heroes, strangers, ghosts, and saints. But it was only in NYC that I began to work out the nuances of cultural difference by applying what I discovered of their cultural and social history.
From my experience here, I have learned that it is not the city that is inspiring; it is the people. It is not the portraits; it’s their faces. When you sit in an art museum, it is the idea that every subject existed, once upon a time, and that they felt the whole spectrum of human experience, that overwhelms you. They each had stories, hearts that once beat. They felt a multitude and, yet, history in color holds them frozen in one exhibition for the rest of time.
I feel like this is a feeling you get in most cities, regardless of the maps you’ve been given. Your way of seeing is constantly challenged. You swerve: it shifts. There so many places to go while we’re here, so many metaphorical final destinations we might end at. Our travel is flexible, our viewpoint is fluid.