If all goes as planned, in spring 2008 I will be traveling to London with a group of Castleton students for the semester. As I work on the program, I find myself thinking about how life-changing time abroad can be for young adults. I know that my first journey to Europe nearly 30 years ago profoundly shaped my outlook on life.In the mid-to-late ’70s, I was in my twenties, living in Cambridge, Mass. and working for an art gallery in Boston. Like many people at that age, I was biding my time between college and graduate school – or whatever it was that I was going to do in my “real” future. I worked a somewhat dead-end job, drifted in and out of relationships, and passed my nights at the local jazz bars with friends.
I lived cheaply in a fifth-floor walk-up apartment, and dedicated time to developing my skills as a writer and painter. The workers across the street in Cambridge City Hall Annex were consistently curious; they watched and gestured opinions as I covered large canvases in the tiny space that served as my kitchen, living room and studio. I was grateful that they could not comment on the notebooks I filled with poetry or the novel I began, but (thankfully) never finished.
In the fall of 1978, my uncle, a successful choreographer living and working in London, asked if I would like to help restore an old stone house he had recently purchased in Provence. Let’s see, the noisy city workers across the street or a trip to London and room, board and a job in the south of France? That was not a hard decision to make.
I had already traveled a fair amount in the States: the solo rite-of-passage hitchhiking trip from coast to coast after my freshmen year of college, surfing excursions up and down the East Coast, in California and Puerto Rico, and one hot August exploring the Yucatan Peninsula (at a time when Cancun had one or two hotels and unspoiled beaches). But little in those experiences prepared me for the reality of truly living abroad – with no plan of returning to the States.
My first experience in London was hardly average for a young man with a backpack. My uncle’s circle of friends included some of the most renowned artists and performers in Europe. Spending time with them was enough to set an aspiring young artist’s head spinning. But even if I had not been traveling in such a circle, the pulse, history and sheer beauty of London would have seduced me on its own.
After about a year dividing my time between England and France, I did return to the States to attend graduate school. In 1984, I journeyed back to England and the European continent with my soon-to-be wife, Dawn, for the better part of a summer. Both of us vowed that we would not let more than a few years pass between trips. Although work, family and finances did not allow us that pleasure, we did have the opportunity years later to direct the Castleton London Semester in 1997 and explore the city in some real depth with a group of CSC students.
In the past few years, we have made several trips to the U.K and France for both personal and professional reasons.
As sometimes years or even decades have passed between visits, I have seen how London has changed over time. It is as if I have watched the city grow the way that a geographically distant uncle watches a niece of nephew mature; when you see her or him after years of separation, you notice the changes all at once.
London has certainly changed over the decades. Contemporary forms of architecture and engineering such as the Millennium Bridge remind us that this is a city that does not sit still. But one thing has not changed: London was, is and will remain by any measure one of the truly great cities of the world. No American cities (and I have spent time in most of the major ones) are really comparable.
It is not just the cultural venues, museums, and architecture and pub-life that make London unique, but it is the nearly seamless mix of a history dating back to before the Roman Empire, the strong British traditions, and the vibrancy of the contemporary European community that brings the city to life.
Without question, London is one of the world’s few true international hubs, and that status is more evident now than ever.
On that first trip many years ago, perhaps the most profound change for me was that I began to see myself in a fundamental way as citizen of the world, not merely a citizen of nation. I know that some of the students and even my own young children who traveled with me back in 1997 also began to view themselves in a similar manner.
For some students, that international sense of citizenry happened almost immediately. For others, it took time, even years before they realized how important those four months abroad were in broadening their outlooks on life and changing their perspectives on world issues and events. Given the increasingly global nature of our communities, such a vision is a necessary and powerful tool for shaping all of our futures.