October 24, 2013

Circumventing hyperbole

Pressure to find meaning and concrete definitions in culture subverts the opportunity for quiet integration.

Just north of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London is an arch, a gateway, called Temple Bar. Its history was explained to me in a fair amount of detail, but it’s escaping me right now. The gist is that it’s been moved, in its entirety, more than once across the whole of London to get to where it is now. It’s been a gate to many pairs of places.

What do you think makes a gate the particular gate that it is? Can it be the same gate in a different place? I mean, it can, but it sort of can’t. I’m certain of that much.

It is entirely possible for me to know the name of a place or thing here, and what that place or thing is, without fully understanding how the name signifies it. And it’s not like not knowing exactly why Soldier Field is called Soldier Field. It feels as though the name is in a language that ought to be within reach of my tongue but, by some fluke, is not. Temple Bar refers to a gate. Hampstead Heath is a fieldy, park-type place. Hackney Wick seems to be a place where buses often go.

Very little here is completely illegible to me. Rather, it feels as though some things were coded differently—passed through a few filters I’ve never flown through. “Wick comes from the old Saxon word euyckke, which means ‘wheelbarrow repository,’” I imagine a good-natured tour guide saying. All of this is to say that I understand there’s a reason for everything, but also that I find intuition friendlier.

You can never stand in the same river twice. I keep trying to forcefully map this idea onto the passage of people through a gate, but it doesn’t quite work. You’ll never pass through in the same stream of bodies and mess of minds, but what about the gate? It’s the only constant—and it’s not something ol’ Heraclitus considered—a landmark, a nozzle, a threshold.

I think a lot these days about the importance of thresholds. I wonder whether they and the emotions they produce are artificial—made, rather than found or felt. In some sense, the construction of a gate is the fabrication of drama: A place of passage onward, of exposition, becomes a setting where chapters start and end, and where they seem to need to end. At the start of its life, Temple Bar stood at the place where Fleet Street becomes the Strand (this point-place is also often called Temple Bar—I did some research). Having walked across that point of transience myself, now that the gate has gone, I have to say I hardly noticed.

Though I notice plenty of other things. I think there’s a tendency here for restaurants to style themselves as “eat-all-you-can” rather than “all-you-can-eat.” To me, the former is not as much of a greasy welcome mat (I enjoy those) as it is a challenge. It sounds frenzied—like you get hit in the face with a ladle and told to save yourself as soon as you walk in; or shortly after the last seating, a hungry Sasquatch enters; or maybe the crab legs are surrounded by a flaming moat. As you can see I have a lot of stupid thoughts about this distinction, but I hesitate to extrapolate any anodyne commentary on the difference between the U.S. and the U.K., though you may think I’m within my rights to try. There’s a reason for everything, as I said, but if you walk around all day looking for them, everything becomes a reason.

There’s a compulsion—implicit in the language that surrounds studying abroad—to try and make sense of it all. It’s this language, and the expectation it entails, that turns everything—a day trip, a train journey, the odd meal—into an experience. 

I deliberately try to avoid using that word when relaying stories from afar because it reminds me of the Fremont Street Experience, a little strip of pedestrian-only road in Las Vegas (my home) full of Elvis impersonators, fuzzy dice vendors, and all manner of brightly-lit light. You go there with visitors to gawk; to say stuff like, “That’s, hey—that’s pretty good”; and then to leave quietly, your mind made to creak and heave inward by the drowsy kettlebell of a thought that that just happened. “Experience” also reminds me of IMAX and IMAX movies, which remind me of being duped into intently watching manipulative and falsely solemn explorations into nothing in particular or of importance. Needless to say, I don’t want either of these experiences (there are acceptable usages of this word, by the way) associated with picking up and picking at another culture.

When I do slip up in my avoidance of the e-word, it’s out of laziness. People seem less inclined to take me seriously when I describe my time or doings abroad as “a good time” or “educational” or “fascinating.” I find that odd, given that those are real, meaningful things to say, and that “a good experience,” in the sense usually associated with foreign travel, seems equivalent to “a good few weeks spent staring expectantly at the people and places inhabiting the world that’s happening around me.” Yet still I find myself trying to dress those first few phrases up and getting tired of it.

Why this fixation on squeezing meaning out of everything that happens in a new place by making it out to be some sort of showpiece? That’s a weird way to live—wringing each fresh-faced moment’s neck as soon as it’s over to make it speak your language. If we travel to let as many things, observations, and ideas pass through us as possible, why do we make each one suffer—suffocate—on its way through?

Something else I’ve noticed is that Londoners walk very quickly. So I’ve widened my gait.

Ajay Batra is a third-year in the College majoring in English.