Last week was my study tour with my Core Course to London. We spent six days in the city, touring historic areas and museums and eating some really good food. As a destination, London was such an amazing experience for me, since it has captured my fictional imagination since I was a child. From Harry Potter, Doctor Who, and Downton Abbey, to Oscar Wilde, Shakespeare, and Charles Dickens, probably at least half of all literature and media I have ever consumed is based in this country of England, which centers itself around this one ancient city. Overall, it was a very conflicting experience for me, and I’m going to do my best to summarize the highlights and work through this experience below.
We left Sunday morning on an 8am flight. In order to make it to the airport on time for our 7am meeting, I had to leave my homestay in Hökarängen at 4:45am, taking two trains and a bus in order to get to Arlanda on my SL card. Obviously I was extremely tired the whole day, but I couldn’t afford to pay extra for the express trains so this was my best option.
After getting to London, we took the underground to our hotel. I was actually surprisingly underwhelmed with the underground. It is an amazingly elaborate system, but the platforms and hallways are narrow, and the trains are more like trams on some lines. It definitely wasn’t what I had always pictured when I read about it (like in Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere), but it was really fun to be able to take it wherever we wanted within the zones that DIS paid for on our passes. I was even able to take the iconic double-decker red buses one day on my own.
The hotel itself was nothing extraordinary, but it had a fantastic breakfast, and I was lucky enough to get a room to myself, since there was an odd number of students and I was the only non-binary person. This was actually really beneficial to not getting overwhelmed on this trip, since I was able to be alone for the majority of the night if I wanted.
All of DIS’s study tours are made up of culture visits and academic activities. Since we were a literature class, it was difficult to distinguish between these two things, but for the sake of this post, I’ll include in this section everything that did not have an actual lecture as part of it.
The first thing we saw was Richard II, performed in the inside theatre connected to the Globe. The cast and directors were entirely women of color, and the performance was truly amazing. This was the first time in my life I saw Shakespeare performed professionally, and only the third time I’d seen any kind of professional theatre, so I really could not have asked for a better show.
On Monday, we took a bike tour of historic places connected to the royal family, including Kensington Palace, Hyde Park, Buckingham Palace, and Westminster Abbey. This was an amazing tour, and it was like I was in a dream, or like I was visiting an imaginary place. I can’t describe the amount of history I felt in that place, like it was tangible. It actually reminded me a lot of the week I spent in Paris on exchange in high school with the way the air felt, and the emotions I experienced looking at these places.
Our other culture visits included the British Museum, the Whitechapel Gallery, a Charles Dickens themed tour, and high tea at Fortnum and Masons, which I’ll talk more about later.
Our theme for this semester has been looking at the “other” in different genres of literature, and analyzing how they are portrayed and constructed. Our most recent unit has been on urban space, and we’ve focused on Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens, The Buddha of Suburbia by Hanif Kureishi, and NW by Zadie Smith, all of which take place in London. So, our academic visits continued this theme of understanding how the “other” is constructed, specifically in urban London.
We had a walking tour of the East End, London’s historically poor immigrant district (and home of Jack the Ripper), where we read poetry and excerpts by those who lived and wrote about the area. Another visit was to the National Portrait Gallery, where we were each assigned the task of finding a portrait and analyzing how the artist portrayed their subject and how the inclusion of that painting contributed to an intentional construction of a cohesive national narrative and identity. The final museum was the Victoria and Albert museum, where we toured the exhibit on the evolution of British fashion, and we learned how fashion serves to create division in class and gender, but can also be used to subvert those same systems.
Our central academic visit was to Grenfell Tower. The tower, which functioned as low-income housing in the west London neighborhood, burned down in 2017 due to construction oversights, and 72 people died due primarily to a lack of fire safety standards, like fire exists and sprinklers. Today, the tower is covered, and there are makeshift memorials set up by the community. The purpose of the visit was to see how this bureaucratic oversight was intentional to save money, and it resulted in the deaths of people considered “other”, namely poor people and immigrants. This visit was extremely emotional for me, and it leads into my overall views and takeaways from this trip.
As a whole, I enjoyed the trip. It was an amazing opportunity, and I loved the visits and exploring this city I’ve always dreamed of seeing. I feel the need to say this first, because there was also so much on this trip that I didn’t particularly enjoy.
The entire trip felt extremely confusing and incongruous from a personal perspective. Since DIS was paying for the majority of our accommodations, I was able to really enjoy the nicer parts of being a tourist. However, the things DIS didn’t pay for were incredibly inaccessible for me, which didn’t have a huge impact on my ability to enjoy the trip, but there was something odd about eating a four-star hotel breakfast and expensive lunches and then buying crisps at the convenience store for dinner.
Which leads me to the biggest thing that made me feel incredibly “othered” by this experience. I found it in very bad taste for us to center our entire academic experience around the impoverished and the suffering, and then at the same time spending extravagant amounts of money on things we shouldn’t, like the high tea at the bougiest place I’d ever seen in my life. It’s difficult to feel like we are learning to understand the “other” when we are existing among the elites. Even the disparity between paying 58 pounds (about $75) per person on this high tea “culture” experience but not providing transportation reimbursement to the airport didn’t make sense to me.
This was especially difficult for me, because these poor people we were studying are not my other, they are my people. The elites and the wealthy and the academics are “other” to me. I learned very quickly on this trip that I will not ever be able to fit in with high class academics, despite my career goals to be one of them, and frankly I don’t want to be like them. I don’t ever want to lose my connection to where I came from–the child of rural, working-class Minnesota, or even further back, the descendant of the rural Swedish peasantry. However, this means conceding to an existence in between. I thought I had learned how to do this already during my two and a half years at Haverford, but this trip in particular has truly brought to light that I haven’t.
But honestly, this disparity has forced me to learn what is important to who I think I am. Maybe I’ll never remember to put my napkin on my lap at a restaurant or which fork to use or where to get the best dry martinis in whichever European city, but I’ll also never stop identifying with the people I know, who I come from and belong with. I know now that I’ll never leave them behind, no matter how much of the educated elite I end up spending my future life around. So maybe this wasn’t the intended result of this tour, but it is what I will remember about it for the rest of my life, and for that I’m very grateful.