During my first hours in London, the city felt culturally flat and familiar; as I wandered the streets, I did not find myself gaping at the people and shops around me. Besides the unfamiliar flow of traffic, I did not feel challenged by the streets, but rather at ease traversing the new territory. Within my first 12 hours in the city, I was asked for directions, a feat I did not accomplish at Princeton for three months.
To my relief, this false sense of comfort quickly wore off by the end of my first week in the new city. As I looked beyond the familiar green awning of Starbucks or the miraculously identical smell of Subways everywhere, the city, which had at first felt trite, innervated me with its culture steeped in history and its vastly different pace of life.
Submersed in the world of rowing, I worked as a member of London Youth Rowing, a sports charity teaching through athletic training and working to break down the barriers of rowing. I had the opportunity to meet rowers and professionals from all over the world and experience the oldest rowing race in the world, the Doggettís Coat and Badge Race. The race, beginning in 1715, is a competition between six apprentice Watermen, stretching over four miles along the River Thames. The winner of the race receives a lavish red coat and large silver badge, and foremost national prestige and a lifetime title. Simultaneous with this historic race, LYR held the second annual on-land rowing competition between students new to rowing. LYR, in accordance with the London spirit, has employees from all over the world united by a common love of rowing, discipline, and equality.
On the bank of the Thames stood the families and supporters of the apprentice Watermen, the teams of eager, young students competing in their culminating rowing competition, Prince Phillip, and LYRís international staff. All parties were celebrating the same history and championing the same historic values as laid by Mr. Thomas Doggett himself, just in diverse ways. The new rowers proudly wore their medals, the Watermen defended their familyís name, LYR staff honored tradition while forging new ground, and Prince Phillip demonstrated how both age-old tradition and innovations were integral to both the sport and English culture. The 299-year-old race coincided with the second year of the national indoor rowing competition seamlessly, and with each handshake between Prince Phillip and the winning novice rowers, the two events amalgamated, confirming the interdependence of Londonís history and progress. At this event, I saw that history of England and London is not limited to the confines of museums, but rather lay at the foundation of everyday life in the city.
Everyday life in the city also followed a different pace from the world I was accustomed to at Princeton. A bit like getting off a moving walkway and shocked to feel the stagnant ground beneath your feet, at first life in London took surprising halts in its bustling pace. On my first day of research with a highly accomplished and successful bio-mechanist, the entire research team, patients included, took a two-hour tea break. At first I sat down with my Twinings tea, perched at the edge of my seat ready to hop right up and hurry back to the lab. But we just sat. After 45 minutes I stopped secretly checking my watch and slid to the back of my chair, feeling at ease with the newly stationary ground beneath my feet. Afternoon tea was a priority. Although under the guise of relaxation, I found that difficult questions and thoughtful responses surfaced most often when posed around the small table with the porcelain mugs balanced between our fingers.
My initial impression of London as a city without its own culture was not completely inaccurate, but widely misguided. The London that my grandfather, and even father, knew was much more homogenous. Today, the city has withheld its strong history while welcoming in people and cultures from all over the world. When prompting a new friend and lifelong Londoner what is his favorite English food, he proudly retorted that he does not have one. To him, the beauty of London culture and cuisine is in its internationality. The initial familiarity I felt with the city stemmed not from mundaneness, but rather from international awareness that has made London a home to many cultures all built upon the same historic background and adapting to an English pace of life.
~ Rachel Rosenblatt '16
© 2014 Princeton Traveler