I love to travel because when I leave the airport, breathe in the air, and take in the sights and sounds of an unknown city, the world is new again. It’s like life has begun all over, and I’m a child once more, exploring everything with fresh eyes. It’s like the start of a new relationship- when your partner is still mysterious and everything is uncertain. There’s that same all-consuming desire to explore, uncover, reveal, understand. The same inundation of the senses.
There’s a novelty that you experience while visiting a new place that cannot be replicated.
But visiting a new country and living in a new country are two very different things. It’s like being friends with someone versus living with them. You can never truly know if you’re a compatible living partner with someone until you actually share an apartment. And in the beginning, there’s always that honeymoon stage with your new roomie, when everything is going great and you’re both really hitting it off.
I feel that London and I have gone straight past the honeymoon stage and onto our first fight. Our relationship still needs some finetuning.
London is, obviously, not an American town. But London is not a European town either. In the places that I’ve visited–Italy, France Spain–there’s a similar flow of things. But in England, it’s so different.
Rhythm of traffic
Take traffic for example.
They drive on the wrong side of the road. Okay, I can work with that: helpful arrows on the street tell me where to look. But their driving has no rhythm to it like in Italy or France. When the light turns green, the Brits blast off like madmen. That their traffic lights flash yellow and red before they turn to green is a testament to British precision. But some drivers put their foot on the gas as soon as they see that precursory yellow light–even as people rush to make it to the other side. There’s no timing the footsteps of pedestrians crossing the street. In fact, several times, I’ve seen cars speed up as if to force people to move faster.
In Rome, they drive exceedingly fast, but they drive like pros, weaving around cyclists and breaking just in time to let granny and a gaggle of tourists pass by.
In Orléans, France, I knew the dance of traffic so well I could cross the street at a red light with a trolley approaching on one side and a car coming in the opposite direction.
Here in London, I live in constant terror that I’ll be hit.
Then there are the cameras that are everywhere. Everywhere. When my cousin and I were driving to my dorm on move-in day, there were traffic cameras every 5 yards or so in the highway. When we arrived into the city, they were on every road and intersection. When I pointed this out, his response was that in England, “They believe in informed choices. If you’re caught going over the speed limit on camera, they can fine you because it was your decision to do so.” However, it seems to me like the overabundance of cameras fosters an environment that restricts choices and assumes distrust of the people.
The average Briton is caught on camera at least 300 times a day. While walking down the street, I sometimes feel as though I’m in an open-air prison.
All of these cameras, and the seemingly excessive security measures that are enforced, contribute to make me feel less safe, ironically. I feel like the messages that city officials are sending is, “No, we don’t trust the people of London. They’re crooks.”
Even the LSE has stringent security measures. To get into the library, students have to swipe their LSE card at a metal-and-glass entry gate. To leave, first we have to walk through theft detectors. Then, we have to swipe our cards through the exit gates once more. And to take out a library book, you can’t simply swipe your library card. You have to enter a library pin as well.
Now take banking as another example. For online banking, you need a little gadget called a PINsentry. You stick your debit card in the PINsentry, which looks like a little calculator. First, you type in a secret number code onto the device. Then, it flashes you an 8-digit number, which you have to type onto the online banking webpage in less than 60 seconds to access your account. (I sat through the entire PINsentry demo at my new bank with my mouth wide open in disbelief.)
I constantly feel like I’m in an Angelina Jolie spy movie with all of the top-level security that’s involved in simple day-to-day tasks. I sometimes want to laugh at loud. Like Wednesday, I was routing around in my bookbag for my student card so I could swipe open the electric gate to the New Academic Building. The security guard was watching me, and I could tell he was monitoring me. Which is hilarious because the most dangerous thing in my bag is my umbrella. I know it’s just his job, but it’s just so bizarre.
At Georgetown, the only academic building that had security was the Library. We had to show our student card to a guard at the door. That was it. As far as I know, no security breaches ever occurred because we didn’t have metal gates at the entryway or top secret library pin codes.
It’s a lot of adjusting to make, living in a city with so many cameras and surveillance measures. It’s like being with a jealous lover who monitors your every move, silently judging you. And the funny thing is, I never felt this way about London until I started living here! Whenever I’ve visited in the past, I’ve never given the cameras a second glance–mainly because I didn’t notice them. I was so caught up in the newness of the city, in satisfying my curiosity and seeing its landmarks.
I like to see new places because life becomes new. But, as in love, the thrill of novelty can do two things. It can fizzle out until the embers of passion die off. Or it can ignite into a blaze of a deeper, stronger understanding. Time alone will tell how my relationship with London will grow.