Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The uninitiated

London is a home base. Or a tourist's haven. Or a place of business. On any one day, you can travel through tons of different areas throughout this metropolitan city and encounter thousands of random people with different places to go, people to see, things to do. There really is no end to the variation.

So I decided to try on a few different hats.

For me, London has always been a place I've wanted to fit in. When I walk down the streets here I feel like I belong in some way. The same feeling isn't inspired so much by other cities, but in London everything corner feels like my backyard, every street my own personal driveway. Even the locations I haven't explored feel familiar to me.

But the study abroad experience doesn't exactly facilitate immediate integration. At least not in the way I'd like or expect. Now that I've been here for about a day and a half, I can finally understand the difference between me and most of the other people who've come by way of the same program as I did to this beautiful rainy (but currently sunny) city.

When we were sitting in orientation this morning, the man who was giving us our English Culture Integration 101 (fully equipped with random slang words and a photo of Aaron Johnson (if you don't know who he is, look up his age and his spouse) on the slide that said "What you will know about London when you've finished studying abroad") asked the crowd of doe-eyed students "How many of you have been to London before?"

Only about half the room raised their hand and he followed up by saying that those who had been were tourists visiting on holiday, but that the study abroad experience would integrate us into the culture in a way that we never have before.

Though I'd like to believe I'm pretty aware of London culture, I realize that I still fall under this category. But unlike most of my study abroad counterparts, especially those who have never been to the city before, I am here in these first few days not to slowly move from American tourist to English student, but to jump right in and fit the new demographic.

If this were any other city,  I'm sure I'd feel differently. I considered going to Paris or Tokyo, maybe even Copenhagen or Rome, for a quarter rather than London. Going to any of those places would have afforded me the chance to throw myself into a culture that is completely and utterly foreign to me. I would've wanted to play tourist at first too. Which probably would've been facilitated, if the programs in those countries do similar events to the London scavenger hunt that took place this afternoon (which visited St. Paul's Cathedral, Covent Garden, Parliament, etc.).

But I chose London. Not because I still haven't been to Parliament Square or seen the paintings at the National Gallery, but because I have seen all those things and I want to be surrounded by those things - even if I don't choose to visit them in quick succession as if I'm on a bus tour.

As I've learned after four visits to this beautiful albeit occasionally gloomy city, London is not just a tourist attraction. It is the kind of place you experience as a tourist and then realize is better when you're not a tourist. Like any beautiful and homey city, you go there wanting to visit every attraction, but you come back with an attraction just for visiting.

This morning was an easy lazy one. I woke up, got dressed, went downstairs for a breakfast provided by my hotel and was out the door in less than half an hour. Orientation was a couple of hours with a break in the middle for wandering around. We were encouraged to take the time to explore.

The British Museum. Where I ate lunch.
This is where I started to try on my hats. I walked down to Tottenham Court Road to make a stop at the Marks & Spencer there. While businesspeople scrambled around me, I stopped in the sandwich aisle and grabbed a little pre-made vegetarian lunch and walked it over to the British Museum where I sat in a garden and ate while reading Pride & Prejudice.

Little things reminded me that I was still a tourist. Like, as I was walking toward Tottenham Court Road I hesitated to cross streets when I had plenty of time to make my way before cars came toward me. And when I got into Marks & Spencer, I wandered around for about two minutes before finding the aisle with the sandwiches (they could've just put it in the very front, but no, that would be too simple).

But at times I also felt exactly like I wanted to feel. As I walked down the street I listened to my iPod and sauntered (love that word) all the way into the store, even in those moments when I wasn't sure I was going the right direction. When I briefly went inside the British Museum, I bought postcards and figured out the correct change within a few seconds of looking in my wallet (20p coins are heptagonal, for your information).

My pigeon friend at the British Museum.
And while everyone else was out doing the scavenger hunt around London, I decided to scope out the building where my orientation session will be held tomorrow and find my way back by way of the London Underground.

Even with a few missteps and wrong turns, I felt confident. And comfortable. And at home.

That's what I really want to feel. And I don't want it to take three months. So I'm starting now. Nothing can stop me now.

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