They say a memorable aspect of living abroad is realizing how your own country compares to the rest of the world. And they’re right. Studying in London has given me an incredible vantage point from which to judge and analyze America. Confronting the assumptions I held in the US is especially interesting. For example, when comparing post-college plans with a new friend here (originally from Lebanon, moved to the UAE, now lives in London), I mentioned how I’d like to take a year off before grad school. His facial expression divulged a little incredulity, some amusement, a pinch of envy, and a whole lotta enthusiasm: He said something like “You Americans and your gap years!”
He went on to explain that here (meaning in UK and his culture), people go to uni for one area of study and then get a job afterwards. But Americans have liberal arts colleges that enable us to learn oenology in addition to our majors, we have colleges who worship their sports teams (at QM you have to pay to join a sports team- they’re not funded by the school), and we have a little something called Spring Break that fills many a Brit’s imagination with ideas of every American student stampeding to Florida to do the thing that probably 10% of us actually do.
I think that a lot of factors cause Americans to hang out in an adolescent state of mind much longer than the British. But to veer back to my point, travel educates you about new places and where you’re from. It’s all about reflection. And that’s why reading Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charley”, an impeccably chosen recommendation from Mary and Hug, is unmeasurably enriching my London experience.
I’m worried about this moving into high-school-English-teacher territory so I’m keeping most of the book’s meaning inside the book and not splayed out like a massacre of literature for all to see (was that passive aggressive?)
Anyways, the book follows Steinbeck, who is on the cusp of entering a new era that seduces some into excusing themselves into old men. He rejects this call of the man-child (see what I did there?) and instead turns his eyes to the American roads on a journey through the states. He does it to reacquaint himself with his homeland after living abroad for a few years, but moreso to discover the a country whose distinctive people, ways of life, mannerisms, and landscapes create the vivid, undescribable mosaic of American culture. He embarks just as the 1960s are beginning. I’m only about halfway through, but whispers of that era don’t seem to enter into the book much.
As the title suggests, Steinbeck brings along his canine pal Charley. The way that he describes his companion is heartwrenchingly dear, especially when he dually anthropomorphizes and condescends him. Charley acts as a liaison for introducing Steinbeck to characters he meets at roadside stops. And much more.
The reason why I’m talking about this book is because it’s given me so many new angles to compare experiences across time and space. It’s a reverse culture shock teaser. I can relate and reflect on Steinbeck (1) rediscovering America, and (2) when he’s undergoing momentous change in his life, and (3) at a revolutionary time in history.
I love knowing that he’s driving by default on what are modern “back roads” but in his time were the typical routes. There’s a section where he writes of the horrors of the highway. I feel for him. There’s another poignant moment where he realizes that “when we get these thruways across the whole country, as we will and must, it will be possible to drive from New York to California without seeing a single thing”. It’s so sad because he was right: that time is now. This prediction was true in more than just the literal interpretation: we’re often so focused on getting from A to B that we bypass beauty. You can fill in your own heard-them-all-before examples here but before I finish, one last interpretation. Picture-taking.
We see artsy graffiti: click. Busker playing a spunky song in a tube station: record it. Where’s the joy in leaving something beautiful where it came from and having your memory of it be enough? Why must we nervously take and photograph things we know we won’t bother to look at let alone appreciate much after the fact at the cost of breaking the beauty of an unscripted moment? I’m all for documenting memories but can’t your own knowledge that you saw a pretty thing be enough? To this end, I’m stating why I’m leaving some of the most amazing pieces of London in London.
I guess this is leading into facebook/ insecurity/ fomo etc. territory. I guess I’ll digress.
But ok to finish, if you appreciate lyrical writing, vivid imagery, and having your heart busted out from really sad but beautiful depictions of change and a romanticized America, try out “Travels with Charley”. This book has made a real impact on me and my entire study abroad experience. Bam.
In other news, I recently went to London’s BOARD GAME CAFE! Went on a Wednesday afternoon/evening, and by 7 pm, the place was packed! Enjoyed a Hackney cider and some jenga all while feeling the hipsterness coming at me from all angles. We finished with some very Anglocentric Trivial Pursuit that left both the American and the Portuguese at a disadvantage. All in all, very fun. Worth a visit if you still can’t shake your love of board games (honestly why would you ever dream of such blasphemy?!)
And finally, on the academic studying circuit, for all your synapsid, Cambrian Explosion, and zygapophyses-related queries, you know who to call!