I'm in London right now. I know this because I'm at a Starbucks and I can hear conversations in English, English, French, German, and other languages. I also know this because of the rain, which I can't escape even indoors because of a leak in the ceiling. I will be gone for the semester with my studies at St. Catherine's College (St. Catz), Oxford University.
I will be taking two tutorials, one in post-1945 art history and the other in creative writing (short fiction).
Needless to say, I'm really excited for the experience and a full immersion into Oxford life. At the moment though, I'm in London, like I said before.
What makes up a city? I enter a city like London and everyone here belongs to the city, just for a moment, maybe an hour. And then I spot my first American tourist, and I shake my head. She's wearing a bedazzled camouflage shirt and she doesn't belong here. She isn't the city. From then on my eyes pick out others like her. They walk slowly, they walk in groups, their eyes take in too much. This city is not their own. And then more: I notice others who certainly aren't American. But they too are on the outside. Europeans from the continent, who don't have the city confidence. (Is it confidence or is it conformity)? Others who are here to look and see rather than to live. I had dinner in London's Chinatown last night - is that part of the city? There is an obvious attempt at insulation here that can't be solely for marketing purposes. Yesterday morning my tube ride was filled with silent strangers, taking up their space like electrons being where they are supposed to be. They don't talk, don't interact. Worlds crisscross for a moment and then go their separate ways, to the bank or the gyro shop. These people, comfortably distanced, easily interchangeable: might they be the city? But each schoolchild and each club-goer has to return home at night. Every sullen face that walks briskly by you has a place more permanent to it than others. The street regulars return to a time of private identity before facing the city again the next day. Is there a city?
I have in my carry-on a great book that I keep meaning to write on. The author, Nicholas Wolterstorff, makes a great observation about cities. They are fundamentally shape our aesthetic experience. How much of life here is dominated by the road? In London especially, the road carves gray scars in the earth that regulate our decisions. Where we go, whom we go with, what we see. We are bound to tread the earth the same way. The car and bus (and here, the tube) are inventions to which we've sacrificed a lot of independence. You walk by a park in London and could have the thought "Oh good, my city-sanctioned nature quota." Someone decided that park was enough of the outdoors for Londoners to need. I could write about the buildings which have the same effect of regulation, but I think you get the point.
I hope to keep you updated regularly on Oxford life. I have brought some paper and materials to sketch with, but I don't know how much time I will have to make art. I'll be completing my orientation here in London this week, and then I go St. Catz on the 8th.