When it comes to absorbing knowledge, Oxford students are as porous as humanly possible, but overall we are highly insulated in a bubble. One thing that struck me when I first started traveling was how isolated I had been from proper adults in the real world. The deeper I slide into the quicksand that is my twenties, the more reluctant I am to admit, let alone declare, that I am one myself. So it was kind of fascinating, even exotic, to hear the table of five middle-aged men talk shop behind me in the pub at the lobby of my hostel in London.
Then the night before my flight out to Prague, I caught People’s Question Time, the twice yearly session that allowed the public to directly express their concerns to the mayor. I went because I knew there’d be questions on housing, a topic that I had spent lots of time on in my modern architecture tutorial, but the breadth and the direness of issues addressed absolutely confounded me. Coming from DC, I am no stranger to gentrification. But having spent the past seven months in a university town with a more or less homogenous population, I have long become desensitized to the real struggles that many people face day in, day out.
Traveling, however, shatters that sheltered life, because being on the road means incessant exposure. Of course I relish in pretending to be local, but there is no other way. When in Rome. If living alone, like Durga Chew-Bose’s achingly exquisite essay attests, is the repeated practice of self-portraiture, of reinforcing – choosing to reaffirm – one’s contour, then traveling is an equally committed act of self-erasure, of dissolving into the undulating waves that one constantly pushes against only to accelerate the rate by which one disintegrates. I had become so unaware of myself that I forgot to shave (I was in Paris then, so ça m'est égal).
But something does remain or at least temporarily coagulates, and not just a heightened sense of self-consciousness due to hyper vigilance. My advisor back home likes to say that people are fields of interacting forces, which sounds to me too absolute a denial of fixed subjectivity. Still clinging on to the comfort of materiality, I would like to think that we are palimpsests that, started off tabula rasa, are constituted by those indelible traces. Would the impressions from this trip, this year studying abroad, last? I can only find out until the next journey begins.