With a history dating back to Imperial Rome, London is one of the most influential cities for art, commerce, education, entertainment, fashion, tourism, and research among dozens of other highlights.
This past May, a small group of Penn State Altoona students flew across the pond for an eight-day experience immersed in the city’s history and culture.
Laura Rotunno, associate professor of English, and Douglas Page, associate teaching professor of history, led eight students through the city’s various literary and historical sites, expanding upon class readings and discussions students had in preparation for the trip.
On the first day, the group took a walking tour as an introduction to the city, taking in the sights, sounds, cultural diversity, and infrastructure. “I mostly noticed the architecture and how beautiful both the extremely old buildings and the very modern ones were,” states Devin Poplin. “I appreciate both styles, but ultimately prefer the looks of the old buildings.”
Other students were equally impressed with the architecture and the expanse of time it encompasses. “Every restaurant I ate at or store I shopped at, I knew some commercial establishment had stood there in the same spot for a few hundred years,” states Braidon Lape, a chemistry major who had never traveled outside of the United States before. “I touched a wall built by the Romans millennia ago. I saw a pub built before Queen Victoria was even born, a Roman temple dedicated to a mystery cult, and a high-rise that houses a bank still being built. It’s surreal when you stop to consider who else has passed by the same areas you were standing in.”
The crew visited landmarks such as St. Paul’s Cathedral, the British and Bishopsgate Libraries, the Globe Theater, the Tower of London, and Windsor Castle. By touring the British and Natural History Museums, along with the Victoria and Albert Museum and the Museum of London, students realized that they don’t simply house collections of stuff, but rather show the mindset and culture of the city and the forces that shaped it.
“Our group was curious, always asking questions,” states Rotunno. “Those questions led us to try the specially made ice cream at Windsor Castle, made from milk from the Queen’s own cows. They also led us to learn about the process of becoming an archivist at Bishopsgate Library and Archive. A trio of students were inspired enough to apply for library cards so that on their next visit to the city, they will be able to use the British Library, and another group of students started a list of other sites they want to visit on subsequent travels.”
Other highlights for the group included a trip to the Globe Theater and the Tower of London which houses the Crown Jewels. On free time, some students chose to visit the iconic Abbey Road, most famous for its use as cover art on the Beatles’ Abbey Road album.
Rotunno says visits to these sites show students how London and England have had an influence in many countries around the world as well as have been influenced by the world. “Those influences are noticeable by London’s diverse population, peopled by immigrants and their descendants from various former English colonies.”
“One of the biggest things I learned from this trip was that London is not, and rarely has been, completely a British place,” says Zachary Bloom. “It’s a global city with people from many places, creeds, and origins. London is ever growing and changing. It’s truly an amazing place among its steel and concrete.”
“Various cultures seemed to shine through in multiple ways in London,” adds Lape. “I heard at least a dozen languages spoken and twice that in accents and regional dialects. It’s a massive melting pot with cultures from every corner of the world. I ate a ton of food from every culture I could, and I tried to learn bits about every country I came across. I think the trip did a wonderful job broadening my understanding of the world and offering new points of view about international topics.”
Rotunno hopes this trip is the first of many international experiences for students. “When we leave our comfort zone, we learn more about our own strengths and weaknesses and discover how adaptable we can be.”
“I cannot overstate how much the London trip helped me grow as a person,” states Lape. “Being exposed to so many cultures has shown me just how much variety there is in the human experience.”