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October 7, 2012

Caput Mundi

Well, it’s been a week since I’ve arrived, but it doesn’t feel like that.  It feels like a year and a second, all wrapped into one.

London seems to grow outward and inward each time I walk out into it, expanding as I realize how much there is to see and do here, and contracting as I realize that each street corner has a lifetime of stories already in it.

For example, this record shop in Soho.

Walking to school each morning down Kingsway, I hear English in only every third or fourth conversation.  Snatches of Polish, Arabic, Hindi, Spanish, Portuguese, German, Urdu, and Italian are not rarities, but constitute a constant sonic foundation to life in this city.  The LSE, like the city, seems to breathe in the planet’s students every year, exhaling in July as it sends them back out into the world.  Well over 45% of the school’s students are new to the LSE each year, most of them 1-year M.Sc. candidates.

Houghton Street Fair, right on main campus.

Let me tell you a brief story about one LSE encounter I’ve had.  And no, this is not the encounter with the Turkish girl in the canteen who wanted to talk all about the prospects for a Kurdish state, nor the conversation with the Swiss General Course student who wanted to talk about the parallels between Iran’s recent currency free-fall and the strengthening Swiss franc.  This isn’t even the conversation with the Yorkshireman in the pub who wanted to tell me all about Sheffield FC.  This is a conversation that happened almost entirely by accident.

Since I’ve arrived at the LSE, those “in the know” — alumni, hangers-on, fellows down the hall, etc. — have told me that the place to avoid the hustle and bustle of main campus is the Shaw Library.

To be fair, our real library is pretty awesome.

On the strength of their advice, I looked the place up online.  Sure enough, the place was beautiful: plush chairs, intimidating paintings of (presumably) distinguished gentlemen lining the walls, and a nice big fireplace to tie the whole place together.  I decided to check it out.

Friday, an uncharacteristically gorgeous day in London — I’ve decided that London is trying to unrealistically raise my weather-related expectations, the better to dash them over the next nine months — seemed like the perfect day to do it.   The Library has a roof balcony overlooking the city, and that’s where I went, book in hand.  I had just had a fantastic meeting with my advisor and was feeling good about life.  Beneath blue skies and puffy clouds, I placed my bag on a small balcony table and entered the library to explore.

It was just as beautiful as it had appeared in the pictures, and made even more so by the light streaming through the high windows.  Unfortunately, it was also filled to the gunnels with people, all far better dressed than I was, and all clutching glasses of wine and elegant plates of shrimp.  Despite my total incongruence with the dress code and general lack of knowledge about the event, my grumbling stomach sensed an opportunity.  I slipped over to the side table and procured a glass of wine and a few plated hors d’oeuvres.  Escaping, I was so pleased by my unexpected good fortune that, as I re-emerged onto the balcony, I almost didn’t notice the man sitting at my table.

He was somewhat scruffily dressed, unshaven and smoking a long cigarette.  He looked up at me as I approached the table.  Placing my drink and already-somewhat-shriveled shrimp on the table, I introduced myself.  He, too, was enjoying a glass of wine.  Hoping to avoid giving myself away, I asked what he thought of the event.  To which he replied:

“Well, I haven’t the foggiest what it is … but I make a point of getting free wine when I can!”


It turned out, incredibly, that my companion was the Director of the doctoral program in organizational psychology.  We spent the next half-hour discussing everything under the sun, from nuclear facilities in France to the street culture in Kolkata.  He had worked in industry in France, and had traveled widely and discerningly.  He also put me in touch with a few professors whose research interests corresponded with my own.  I was blown away.  Where else in the world could I meet such a person by such an odd chance?  This city, and the school it holds, is a special place.  I can’t imagine what it still holds for me.

Post-conversation, mind still racing.

A few other things to talk about, I guess.  My rent (£122.80 a week!  Oh, Worcester, how I miss you so!) covers dinner Sunday – Friday and brunch on Saturday.  It’s actually pretty good food, though, unlike Clark’s caf, it doesn’t cover seconds.  You get one huge, heaping serving of food, and that’s it.  Anyway, it means that we don’t have a settled plan for dinner on Saturday, so a few friends and I went out and bought a bunch of materials for fajitas and, splitting the cost, got a nice cheap dinner for under £3 a person.

It’s always classier to eat on the floor.

Lastly, a moment of zen in the British Museum yesterday, where along with all the relics of empire I found this funky mask.

I like the teeth.



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