On my third day in Bilbao, another girl from the US who was traveling with friends asked if anyone knew where the kitchen was in our hostel. When I pointed her in the right direction, she flushed red. “I didn’t know you spoke English!” she blurted, probably remembering the personal details she’d discussed with our dorm-mates the night before right in front of me. I shrugged. Never had any opportunity to use it before, I suppose.
That’s the moment when I realized just how much I’d learned traveling this past year, because there’s no way I get to that level in Spanish without total immersion. (Trust me. I took French for seven years and my entire vocabulary is Je m’appelle Catherine, un roi, une loi, une foi, and, like, the lyrics to “Mon histoire.”) School gave me the foundation, but going out there and living it is where I really learn.
Living in London was amazing for that. I can say without question that “roamschooling” in London (as it were), I learned far more outside the classroom than in it. Self-guided study using the resources of the place in which you find yourself basically describes my educational approach. (As a story of my life, mind you, not as any sort of educational model or advice. I’ve been a really lucky kid in that my parents were able and willing to invest in my education in this way as their top priority, and I’m really grateful for that sacrifice and how rare its possibility is.)
Being a foreigner is a huge learning experience, to start. Whenever I introduced myself and the other person responded “So, American or Canadian?” it was a lesson in identity politics. (If I wanted to have a pleasant chat, I was Canadian. If I wanted them to help me get shit done, I was American.) And the entire process of getting a student visa, getting stopped for extra questioning at every flight, and measuring new friendships in time left until the UK Border Agency would kick me out of the country was an insight into how immigration works. (And I had it good.)
Not having a phone all year taught me to get to know my surroundings extremely well, and combined with not having access to a car I got really amazing navigation and geographic skills. (To the point where being exactly on time and where I’m supposed to be with a thorough knowledge of the surrounding one-mile radius is my thing. And so when I am late people give me hell. And it is hilarious.)
I learned a lot about contemporary British politics (the name of a class I was taking at the time, ironically) around the tables of the pub-café of the hotel next door to my church. Every week some question of Orthodox governance was really about multicultural Britain and the tension between history and ministry. I also learned a lot about the particulars of Canadian history from the priest, the nuances of local football from the poor Queens Park Rangers supporter, the phenomenon of casual racism from the Jamaican-British law student, and the classist victory of an Essex boy pulling out a Cambridge student ID from its holder. And of course I learned a lot about the Church by becoming part of it that year.
Watching the FA Cup with the Ghanaian-British security guard, taking my visiting cousin and his friends out for an Arsenal game, and risking an F by wearing a Szczęsny jersey to a Tottenham fan’s class were all their own lessons in #how soccer explains the world.
Running into – literally running into – the Rosetta Stone in the British Museum on my way to school, scouring the archives of the Wiener Library for the study of the Holocaust, spending hour after hour in the National Gallery, listening to the crazies at Hyde Park Corner, staring at the wonders in the Science Museum…these experiences speak for themselves.
It was a matter of soaking in what was all around me. Charles Dickens lived on my street. My building got bombed in the Battle of Britain. I barely had to try. And that’s the great grace of a great city, but you don’t have to roam to roamschool, at least not the way I see it. I did this in my hometown, getting to know local history by interning at the museum in my neighborhood, walking up and down each block until I noticed the little lessons like the laugh in “South Union Street” and “North Lee Street.” The 1700s bricks off the river must have been some sort of shipping warehouse, and that hill would be a great spot to mount an invaders’ defense. Listening to the construction workers speak Spanish, the travails of the homeless women on the main drag, and the idle chatter of the lawyers at the local bar let me in on the secrets of how the city runs.
I love school. It just looks a little different for me. I think that’s what I’m missing this year. I’m spending so much time in the classroom, it’s starting to get in the way of my education! And that’s my own prerogative to fix it, and I will. But I guess I’m just really missing London today, like I am every day, the way you miss a best friend you didn’t know you needed around the way you do, or maybe this is the “missing” people talk about in all those ridiculous hipster text posts about tu me manques when te echo de menos would make more sense. I miss the way that city set my curiosity on fire. I tried so hard to make this post about anything else, but that’s the truth.
I miss roamschooling a little, but mostly I miss roaming.