Sketches of a place
Elizabeth Prater | Monday, September 4, 2023
You can identify a senior who studied abroad very quickly because they will bring it up within the first five minutes of any conversation upon returning. I am no different.
Spending the spring semester in London reignited a passion for travel that had been dormant for the past few years. During my time in England, I had the opportunity to explore the different towns within the U.K., but I also visited friends in other countries on the weekends.
However, as I concluded my stay, I found myself with a longer list of things I wanted to see than when I initially started. I lamented that I didn’t taste curry on Brick Lane, explore Battersea Park in the warmer months or revisit the Victoria and Albert Museum.
Even though I believe I acquainted myself with London to the best of my ability, I felt that the longer I got to know the place, the more I realized I didn’t know much about London. It’s as if the Dunning-Kruger effect took hold, and I overestimated my initial knowledge of the place.
When you first arrive in a city, it is typical to rely upon “must visit” lists curated by friends and strangers through blog posts who are self-described “wanderlust.” While these are helpful guides, I’ve found that my favorite parts of London were the ones I accidentally unearthed.
Quaint courts on Fleet Street, underrated squares in Bloomsbury and an antiquarian bookshop on Charing Cross Road were some of my favorites that I discovered while walking in my daily life.
These spots were treasured places of mine that I showed friends and family as they came to visit. But every time I discovered a new favorite spot, it only left me wondering how many of these places were out there. How much uncharted territory was left to discover?
I verbalized these remarks to my mom, to which she responded by describing visiting a place for the first time as an initial sketch of a piece of artwork. No matter how much we see of a place during our initial interaction, a city will appear to us like a sketch. It isn’t until we revisit a place that we can fill in a more complete picture.
Perhaps the things we observe upon our first visit are conditional upon time-sensitive settings or are jaded by recent experiences. Frequent exposure and maturity may help to grapple with the “essence” of a place.
I took a class during the Spring semester called “Unreal City,” whose goal was to explore the psychogeography of London. One of our assignments revolved around an exercise exhibited by Georges Perec’s “An Attempt at Exhausting a Place in Paris.” The French writer took three days to observe local Parisians, cataloging the mundane instead of merely the monuments or listable attributes of the city.
For example, even by a popular plaza, he describes the people who take to the promenade, such as, “a blind man coming from rue des Canettes passes by in front of the café; he’s a young man, with a rather confident way of walking.”
I rather admired this approach to getting to know a city. In my psychogeographical quest, I spent three days observing people in Borough Market. I witnessed familial disputes, first dates and British students taking a break from classes. Observing the changes in vendors and the varying patterns of the week helped me grow familiar with the circadian rhythm of this agora in London.
Every additional day I spent observing, I felt like I was slowly shading a more complete picture of the city. I noted in my class assignment that I doubted that “three days of observation or ‘exhausting a place’ can reveal the nature of that place or its people. Perhaps it’s best to leave it on the note of wanting to return.”
When I think of my time in London, I can’t help but consider the past three years at Notre Dame. As I enter my senior year, I am eager to get a complete picture of the place I have made my second home.
I wonder if living off campus for the first time will help me notice little things on campus that are special to me. Maybe the brevity of time will make me savor the present moment.
T.S. Eliot says in “The Waste Land,” from which the class “Unreal City” borrows its title, “April is the cruellest month.” And as I think about my upcoming last spring on campus, I realize its bittersweet nature: the world begetting future life and scenic growth, and my friends’ and I’s chapters at Notre Dame concluding, “mixing memory and desire.”
I spent my study abroad looking at art galleries and chefs d’œuvre, only to await my unfinished sketch back on campus. One day I hope to gain a fuller picture of London, but for now, I’m making the most of the landscape I have in front of me.
Elizabeth Prater is a senior at Notre Dame double majoring in Marketing and the Program of Liberal Studies. She is interested in the cultural implications of analyzing classics and literature under a contemporary lens. When she isn’t writing, she loves playing the violin, hiking in the Pacific Northwest and offering unsolicited book recommendations. Elizabeth always appreciates hearing from readers, so feel free to reach out to [email protected] or @elizabethlianap on Twitter.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.