Sunday, March 19, 2017

Adventures in Accidental Tourism

(I wrote this ages ago and I'm too lazy to adjust it to reflect that. Sorry.)

My favorite thing to do in London is get lost in it. I have been here for three days, and have managed to get lost on every one of them.

London is a big place, full of many big things, most of which I have not seen. Big Ben and the London Eye were noticed in passing. Buckingham Palace remains a mystery. Rumors about the historical nature of that large building down the street persist, but as I have passed it only alone in the dark, I cannot quite bring myself to care. It is a landmark that points toward home; that is enough for me.

I recently walked past a man dressed as a woman, complete with wigs in multiple locations. I entered four bookshops on my first day, and came across some excellent gelato. Having spent long hours squinting at street signs and praying to survive the crossing, I have come to the conclusion that both maps and traffic laws here are based more on hope than fact. I have passed six Southampton Rows now. One of them, I’m told, leads to my hotel.

Completely by accident, I have found the home of Charles Dickens. Also by accident, I have found myself at Parliament, the Tate Modern Art Museum, and five more bookstores. It is true that I have been provided with a map, but even if I was good with maps, I doubt I would use it. The lives of those who are not chronically lost must be very boring indeed.

There is a street called the Strand. It is also called about six other things, but the Strand was the most interesting and memorable of them. I’ve walked up and down it several times—straight lines are important for the easily lost, although I’ve still managed, somehow, to get turned around a few times.

The three months I’ve spent in Europe have been strange, stressful, and utterly overwhelming. There are a lot of things, I’m sure, that I could have learned in London. I could have paid some attention to Parliament. I could have actually entered the Tate. At the very least, I could have taken a photo of the plaque informing me that I was at Dickens’ house. But I didn’t. And in the four days I have left in London, I probably won’t.

I’ve learned a lot about the places I’ve seen—who lived there, who died there, what they wrote, who they worshipped, how they worshipped, who they loved. I have cried for dead men I never knew, I have walked on the graves of my ancestors, and I am tired. For three months I have known where I’m going. Today I don’t.

The sky is overcast, the light breaking through it soft and dull. The streets are dirty. People ignore me, which is a blessing. They don’t explain the history of the architecture I pass, they don’t rake their eyes slowly up and down my body, and they don’t whistle. I make up my own histories for each interesting building as I walk by, and I don’t ask for directions.

In a bookstore on a dirty, quiet corner, a woman from Topeka tells me about the weekend she just spent in the Lake District, and the week she spent in Minneapolis ten years ago. In another, three or six or twelve blocks down, depending on how many wrong turns it takes to get there, the cashier and I fangirl gleefully over the new book I’m buying, recently written by an amazing and underappreciated author.

There are a lot of ways to be lost, and I’ve experienced most of them. This endless tour of Europe has been constant structured chaos, and in the midst of it I’ve lost a lot of things, like peace, faith in humanity, and my sense of self. Sometimes when you get lost enough physically, you end up finding yourself emotionally, or spiritually, or however you lost yourself. That’s what I’m trying to do.

So I didn’t learn a lot in London. But I’ve had an even more valuable experience. Here is a city full of normal people living normal lives, surrounded by history but not yet a part of it. I don’t like to go looking for things; I only feel like a failure when they constantly elude me. Beauty is better when you stumble upon it by accident.

I’m sure there are a lot of great things for a tourist to do in London, but I can’t give you much information about any of them. For three months I’ve watched the lives of people who died a long, long time ago. This week I chose to close all the books, turn in all the audio guides, and sit on the outskirts of lives still being lived. I took a few wrong turns, I missed a few great sites, and I found some peace.

Not all who wander are lost. But I am, and that’s the way I like it.

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