Travel Essay: I landed in Heathrow Airport, London three days before the start of my university’s program. As I got off the late-night train from King’s Cross to Nottingham Station, I saw that this seemingly small city, while quite tiny in comparison with London, resembled a bustling, vibrant metropolis. The city streets were decorated with shopping centers, street performers, food vendors, and aged pubs. A gigantic, brightly lit Ferris wheel stood proudly in the city’s center, adjacent from the large, marble Town Hall. In the evening, passersby and families would eagerly board the ride, indulging themselves in a panoramic view of Nottingham’s night skyline. As I attempted to register the new and complex sensations of the city, a medley of emotions seeped into my mind. Shifting gradients of bewilderment, enthusiasm, nervousness, and impatience flooded my thoughts. I was on my own, let loose in a foreign space without any clear direction or planned itinerary. I was free to forge a new pathway for myself.
I wandered about the streets, making my way in and out of popular landmarks and pubs, being as amicable as possible to anyone I encountered. Groups of tourists greeted me warmly, other international travelers conversed energetically on music, culture, and personal stories, and, thankfully, locals reserved their judgments until after our conversations. From this wide array of voices and personalities, I began to explore new aspects of my own character. As I moved from Nottingham Castle, to Belles Tavern, to the City of Caves, I found that the people I met made deeper impressions on me than the places themselves. From this wide array of voices and personalities, I began to discover new aspects of my own character. I was astonished by the openness and transparency of these people. Signs of the protective barrier that many of us unconsciously erect when speaking distantly with another human seemed to be absent from the body language and dialogue of these foreign folks. Each person was individual and different, holding a separate set of values, interests, and mannerisms that distinguished them from the man or woman beside them; and yet, each one was dynamic and exciting.
Despite their friendliness, I felt like a bit of an outsider. Not so much because I did not know or understand the people surrounding me—each of their characters were made beautifully plain by their expressive attire and distinctive behaviors—but because I lacked a holistic familiarity of my own character. It was a rather eerie experience. While I spoke on subjects that engaged me—literature, film, politics, food, music, and Last Week Tonight with John Oliver—there was a certain degree of emotional reserve in my speech. Individual voices from Greece, Turkey, South Africa, Australia, and China all demonstrated the remarkable ability to empathize, exchange, and intimately interact with each other’s personal cultures and biographies. While I lacked the unabashed confidence to disclose my family history to the amiable strangers around me, I listened keenly to their stories—expressing a desire to learn and understand each personality in full.
As pints were poured and the evening darkened, our discussions shifted from cultures to sports to art to drunken recollections of our families and friends. Always, at least one of us knew nothing about the subjective world of another. The formal rules of rugby were followed by a basic introduction to the Afro-Caribbean genre of calypso music, and then by the latest basketball statistics of the Golden State Warriors and foremost writings of Ernest Hemingway. It was as if the gamut of world cultures had been condensed, collated, and seated at one table. I left Belles Tavern with a newfound comprehension of this space. I felt very naked walking back to my flat that evening; as if the structured castles of my identity had been torn down and discarded by some enigmatic force, leaving heaps of sediment and refuse in its wake.
I paused at a hillside overlook just outside of The University of Nottingham’s campus. A potent moonlight illuminated the expansive vista of cinnamon colored rooftops that extended out into the far reaches of my vision. The world suddenly felt very large, open, real, and wonderful. Like many ambitious youths, I had left home with the assumption that the metamorphic experience of travel was consistent with checking places, exploits, and landmarks off a fabled bucket list. I think it is truer that one must work more diligently to crack the inner casings of his or her own sheltered identity to feel real change. It takes profound courage to open oneself up to the vast unfamiliarity that dwells beneath the surfaces of our expectations and desires. While it sometimes seems that a perfect portrait of our futures rests so elegantly in our imaginations—depicting a quintessential relationship, lucrative career, ideal family, or sensational lifestyle—often, what we actively need most in our lives is either unknown or placed plainly before us. We are all investigating the exotic spectacles of our outer worlds, with the hopes of providing much needed clarity and enrichment to our inner ones. Through travel, we learn that our happiness is not planned; it is subject to circumstance and choice—how we react to the contingencies of everyday life. Usually, the sincerest joys come from unexpected, foreign places. I anticipate that I will not fly home with that sculpted, righteous identity that I so boldly imposed upon myself before leaving, but, hopefully, by then, I’ll have gathered a little more of myself than I left with.
BIO: Dante Fresse is a writer and filmmaker, and a recent college graduate of Bucknell University. https://dantefresse.wixsite.com/productions
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