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The View from my Window – a London essay February 28, 2012

Posted by markgeil in Travel.
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There are no raindrops on my window, but there should be. It’s raining outside, and cold and windy, because this is London, and it’s February, and gentlemen need a good reason to wear a cap and a tweed waistcoat. Even without raindrops, though, my view is distorted by the ripples in that grand leaded glass that seems just right for a building like this, a building that’s 250 years old.

This is my office, for two weeks at least. There is a marble fireplace, and16 footceilings, and that stately window. Outside there’s a courtyard with an old clock that always reads one minute past two and dormant ivy scaling stone walls. And more stately windows, returning the gaze of my own, of capricious sizes that suggest floors between floors.

This was all built for some chap called the 2nd Earl of Bessborough because he needed somewhere to put his sculpture collection. Someday I shall commission a Palladian villa be built to accommodate by CD collection. Now, since it’s been taken over by Roehampton University, this old villa houses students and lecterns and books.

There are books in this office on shelves that no one could possibly reach without an extension ladder. There are books on anatomy and physiology, nutrition, training… and one at the end of a middle shelf called “Football: The Beautiful Game”.

I’m tucked into a corner desk among two other professors during my visit, working at a computer that feels so dissonant. Seems I should be sipping tea and reading Shakespeare or listening to Handel. Part of travel is testing the stereotypes, which is why travel is good for you. I love the fanciful notion of old Britain, and I always hope those stereotypes prove true. For this trip, so far, so good.

I flew directly over Ireland on the way here, but the Emerald Isle was safely sheltered under a thick canopy of clouds. Finally descending through the clouds, I saw old houses in rows with little gardens, soccer and rugby fields, and grasslands where royalty surely once hunted deer. I saw the River Thames, partitioned from above by bridges far more opulent than their utility ever demanded. It was all so very British. I was delighted.

On the way to customs, aboard the moving walkway, we proceeded past a wall-sized poster of a beefeater and I saw a little girl turn, salute, and declare “Hello Solider!” in the most charming British accent I’ve ever heard. On the ride from Heathrow to the campus I saw foreboding stone walls that once separated a convent from the rest of the world.

And then I saw my office, with its crooked floors and ancient character.

I used to imagine I would find a part of myself in England, a chunk of my true character inhibited by my New World environs. When I studied for a month at Oxford I threatened to buy myself a vestigial walking cane and embrace that inner Englishman. There I’d be, a pretentious young American with his walking cane and his pocket watch traipsing the cobbled streets and feeling quite at home.

I’ve come to realize that I’m no more British than I am Chinese, and that’s okay. One can appreciate, and even participate in, a culture without the need to feel any ownership of it. I think it might even be better that way. The need to intimately identify with a people or a place can set you up for disappointment when the connection is lacking, and that disappointment can be a robber of rich experiences. So now I happily fling myself into a culture with little regard to how removed I might be from it by station or history. And it is that new rich experience that affects and shapes me.

Oh, but I do love England! And every now and then I become utterly foolish and disingenuous and ask a question of a merchant in my fake British accent. I am content, though, without a walking cane, to traverse the cobbled streets and gaze out the stately window on a place that is not home, knowing what a great privilege it is just to visit.