I scrubbed myself clean of expectations this time.
For last time, circumstances had prevented Paris from getting its fair shake. I had been 16, new to Europe, carted there on a high school trip, then carted around France in a big old bus. No country should be seen in this way.
This time, unshackled from an unnatural connection to an American tour group, the city was free to come alive. And it did.
People call Paris the “City of Light and Love.” It’s a tourist-friendly slogan, to be sure, slapped across oversized T-shirts and flyers advertising discount walking tours — “Just meet me in the alley over here, beautiful, I’ll show you the way.”
But the city embodies this moniker, as opportunistically as it may have been chosen, in what seems like a deep and natural way.
Outside the tourist-drenched areas is a city of artists, intellectuals and painters. It’s a city of PDA. Hearts chalked on the sidewalk, people kissing on the Metro. It’s a city where an entire bridge has been devoted to lovers, who write their names on locks, fasten them to the bridge and toss the key into the Seine. (This concept has been aped in countless European cities looking to model themselves as “romantic getaways.”)
I know I don’t need to tell you this, Shaun — you know. We were there together. We shared many “Paris moments” on our trip — one that, we remarked time and again, we’d probably repeat exactly if we returned to the city with lovers.
But I guess this correspondence has become more than a letter to you — it’s a love letter to Paris. From an American girl just trying to get her bearings, thanks for a great six days. See you again soon.
. . .
I also want to write about expectations, but I’m going to take this in a slightly different direction. The week after I left you and Paris, I took a trip to Amsterdam. My expectations were the obvious: drugs and prostitutes. I’m not going to talk about that first because my mom reads this (hi Mom!), but I do want to talk about the Red Light District and how it totally turned my view of prostitution on its head.
I grew up, as most in the States probably do, seeing prostitution as a completely black and white issue: Prostitution is bad. The girls are being exploited. The men who visit them are perverts and pigs. I was totally comfortable with this view, and it made perfect sense to me. I grew up in a household that promoted strong feminist ideals, so the idea of a woman selling her body to make ends meet was horrific to me.
In Amsterdam, however, the view of prostitution is completely different. In the Red Light District, the sight of women in bikinis dancing behind windows was totally normal, even at 2 in the afternoon. The Red Light District itself wasn’t at all what I expected, either: Besides the prostitution windows, it was also filled with apartments and restaurants and even, mind bogglingly enough, a daycare. Not exactly the seedy underbelly of Amsterdam that I was imagining. By night it looks different, of course: There are more girls in the windows (about 300 prostitution windows exist in Amsterdam right now) and the streets do indeed glow with red lights. But the streets aren’t lined with just men looking for the best six minutes of their life (which is, we were told, the average amount of time a customer is with a prostitute); it’s also filled with normal citizens going about their day.
What really struck me, however, was the way the people of Amsterdam view the prostitutes. Our tour guide was quick to point out that they were independent business women: They rented out their windows, made their own hours and decided what clients they would and wouldn’t see. They didn’t see themselves as victims, and didn’t want anyone else to either. That’s something I’m still trying to wrap my head around, but in a good way. This is the first time I’ve seen something in another culture that’s making me question my own views. And that’s what study abroad’s all about, right?
Since last time we talked about traveling, maybe we should talk a little about what we’re doing when we’re actually staying in our areas. Before getting to Newcastle, I imagined that it would be full of tiny, dark little pubs — you know, a little run-down maybe, but with a lot of character, packed with people ordering pints and yelling over whatever football game was on TV. These exist, sure, but they aren’t as prominent a part of the Newcastle social scene as I thought they would be. That’s because, to my horror, I learned very quickly that anybody who’s anybody here goes clubbing.
You know how “Jersey Shore” is the plague of N.J.? Well, here they have a show called “Geordie Shore.” That’s right, Newcastle has its very own version of the guido culture, right down to the fake tans and ass-baring skirts. Basically, it’s the Seaside Heights of England. How lucky, I traveled from one N.J. to another. I wasn’t going to let this reputation deter me, however. I was going to master my fear of being surrounded by sweaty, drunken twenty-somethings. By God, I was going to go clubbing.
There’s a very specific going-out ritual here. First, everyone pregames at a bar called Victoria 22’s. They have a drink deal where, for just £5, you can get three trebles. A treble, I’ve learned, is a drink with three shots of vodka in it. Now, I’m a very little person. Two trebles get me what you might know as “white girl wasted;” three trebles would probably get me dead girl wasted. So, armed with enough alcohol to make me forget how much I really hate clubs, I went to a local club called Riverside. It was dark, it was packed and there was a smoke machine; needless to say, I was worried.
It was fun, sure. I like to dance as much as the next drunk person. However, after my ass was grabbed for the third time, I was done. I don’t know if this is a club thing, or a Geordie thing, but if I get touched one more time when I’m out I will burn the club to the ground. (Can I threaten arson in print? I’m going to do it anyway.) And so ended my English clubbing excursion. Hopefully your social experiences are a bit more grope-free.
. . . . .
I know where you’re coming from — I’ve been getting used to new routines (of a grope-free variety, thankfully!) as well.
Classes here are one-on-one meetings with professors. Students write essays between sessions and discuss the essay with their professors (called tutors) during a weekly meeting (called a tutorial).
One of my tutorials follows a similar schedule each week. The class is contemporary British history, and the tutor is about 75 years old. He holds all his sessions with students in his flat.
Every week, it goes like this: I take the bus to his flat. I arrive and ring the doorbell at exactly 1 p.m. If I do this before 1 p.m., he always tells me to come back in a few minutes. Usually, even if it’s at exactly 1 p.m., he tells me to come back in a few minutes anyway.
When I get inside, he offers me tea. He fusses around in the kitchen for a little while, asks me how I am, and complains about something that needs to be fixed in his house. He has a lot of stereotypically British characteristics: the dry sense of humor, the use of “British understatement.”
After he’s fixed the tea, we sit at a table in his living room, and I read my essay out loud. We talk about the essay for about 40 minutes, and then he gives me my next topic.
That’s about it. The process sounded incredibly formal when I first heard about it, but I’m realizing it’s a lot more laid-back than I had thought it would be.
And my professor, for all his (admittedly charming) fussiness, has an unstuffy side, too: He’s writing a book about Bob Dylan and ’60s counterculture.
Shaun Fitzpatrick and Emily Brill, two of last semester’s editors, are exploring England. Follow them and see where their travels take you.
I never planned to fall in love while in the U.K. Long distance relationships just never work out. But the heart wants what the heart wants … and my heart wants Edinburgh, Scotland.
Having done some travelling by this point (some of it with you), I’ve gotten to see a couple of different cities. None of them, however, hold a candle to Edinburgh for me. For the most part, I’m not a city person. The people are rude, the food’s too expensive and I never feel clean (I’m talking to you, N.Y.C.). Edinburgh, however, totally changed my perception of what a city could be. Sure, it had all of the conveniences of a big city — except instead of glass and chrome, it had classic European architecture and, oh yeah, a freakin’ castle. In one city, I was able to see an original copy of the First Folio, the café where “Harry Potter” was written, and more museums, galleries and historical sites than I could wrap my head around, and while looking at the famous rolling hills of Scotland in the background.
But you might be thinking that all cities have cool stuff to offer, right? Maybe, but how many times can you say that you’ve been in a city where people were actually legitimately friendly? For the most part, the Scottish were some of the nicest people I’ve met, especially in a big-city atmosphere. They were always helpful and willing to talk, even if we were just stupid American tourists.
So what about you? Did you find your true love yet?
. . .
Like you, I grew up with a troubled relationship with cities.
I’m from rural southern N.J., so my initial reaction to the “concrete jungle” — be it N.Y., Philadelphia or D.C., the first three cities to which I was introduced — was a combination of awe and fear.
I’ve been trying to consciously mold myself into someone who likes cities over the past few years. I’d like to live in a city one day, so I hoped my country-mouse fears — “Oh no, my neighbours are people and not trees now; that must mean they want to rob me” — would give way to a cosmopolitan outlook and genuine appreciation of urban life over time.
Each time I’ve gone into N.Y.C., I’ve inched further out of my shell. I’ve started to walk faster, think faster, whip out Yelp to appraise nearby restaurants faster. (It’s nice, when asked, “Where do you want to get food?” to not need to respond apologetically, “Well, there’s only one restaurant within 20 minutes of here…”)
But even though I’ve started to enjoy my trips to cities, my reaction to London caught me off-guard. I loved it.
Something about the city instantly captivated me. It could have been the street art, swathing walls of shops in Shoreditch. Or the outdoor markets in Notting Hill. Or the sense of respect for the past, but urgent grounding in the present in South Bank. Or the multiculturalism and chaos of the West End. Maybe even the Underground. (Was I once nervous about taking the subway? It hardly seemed that I had been, as I tapped into the Underground terminal with a borrowed Oyster card and newfound nonchalance.)
When I left London, I missed it. I craved the buzz of activity, the onslaught of people and the things to do. I planned a trip back the next weekend. When I returned, my reaction was the same.
I didn’t need to try to enjoy my jaunt to the city. I just did. I didn’t need to make pains to feel comfortable. I just did. And I left having found the sense of appreciation for city life I had always searched for — without even looking for it.
It might have been London that did it. But I’m reminded of something a man told me the second day I was here. I was eating lunch in a crowded café in Oxford’s covered market with a British couple. They were living in New York — she, an NYU professor; he, a banker — and were back in Oxford on a business trip. He asked me how I liked N.Y.
“When I was younger, I was always afraid of it,” I said, honestly. “But now that I’m older, I’m getting used to it, and I kind of like it.”
Shaun Fitzpatrick and Emily Brill, two of last semester’s editors, have just landed in England. Follow them and see where their travels can take you.
After months of waiting, worrying and packing, I’ve finally arrived in Newcastle upon Tyne. I’d like to say that I entered the country with dignity and grace, shrouded in that aura of mystery that comes from being a world traveler. Because that’s what we are now, you know: world travelers. Sophisticated women who are perfectly at ease jumping on planes and trains and other rhyming forms of transportation, speeding off to adventures unknown.
Except there wasn’t anything very sophisticated or worldly about my travel experience. Actually, I’m fairly confident that I looked terrified to the point of nausea during the entire 14-hour ordeal. I almost ended up on a plane to Poland at Heathrow, and looked ridiculous trying to lug suitcases heavier than myself throughout Newcastle International Airport. To top it all off, I wasn’t able to buy bedding the first day and spent the night using my jacket as a blanket and my stuffed Lorax as a pillow. Not exactly sophisticated.
Newcastle doesn’t look very similar to the brochure. In fact, my first impression of it was “WHY IS THIS PLACE SO GREY?” It’s an odd mix of really traditional-looking buildings and random steel, blocky contraptions. It’s like it couldn’t figure out whether it wants to be Pittsburgh or Hogsmeade, so it decided to become some sort of unholy offspring of the two. But I’ve been exploring it a bit more and I’m not as horrified as I was when I first got here.
Glad to hear you’ve made it safely. I know right where you’re coming from (and not just because we both flew out of Philadelphia) – getting here was far from a smooth process for me, too.
Now that I’m beginning to get settled, I’m starting to explore my mid-size English town, and I keep running into two things: history and dubstep.
Oxford seems to have an uneasy relationship with its history. (The same cannot be said for its relationship with dubstep – more on that later.) To embrace it fully is to shoulder responsibility for thousands of years of imperialism, but to deny the presence of the “old world” is impossible – it’s everywhere, from the buildings to many people’s attitudes. This statement would have sounded far-fetched to me a few weeks ago, but I didn’t know then how much effect fortified 16th century castles and the presence of a monarchy had on a place’s atmosphere.
This has been the strangest part of the U.K. to me so far. Walking through the U.S., you aren’t confronted with the past. It’s a “new” place. This is the “old” world, and I’m still adjusting to that. Tradition and formality are important here. This can occasionally translate to stuffiness and reliance on arcane rules.
But not always. I’ve met a lot of people who buck that trend, and I’m finding that like all cities, Oxford has a colorful side. It’s not all grey skies and cathedrals. I bet you’ll find the same is true about Newcastle.
Which brings me back to the dubstep: It is very much a thing in the U.K. I hear it playing on the street, in stores, in cafes. I’ve traveled thousands of miles, and I can’t escape the drop. (But, really, was I looking to?)
Stay safe, and keep me updated.
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