Walking on History

(Written February 16, 2016)

When I first landed in London it didn’t feel like I was in a foreign country. There was no language gap to overcome, no major differences in architecture or city planning. It all felt incredibly familiar. I was raised in Chicago and though it doesn’t come close to the size of London, the rich areas and poor areas of Chicago look strikingly similar to their London counterparts.

This undue familiarity makes it easy to forget just how old London is. That the ground beneath my feet was settled centuries before pilgrims had their first thoughts about traveling to North America's Eastern shores. When living in a city that was originally settled by the Romans in the first century, it makes sense why America seems like an infant nation to some Europeans. What’s funny, or strange, or whichever adjective you’d prefer, is that I didn’t start thinking about how old London is until I visited continental Europe.

This past week I celebrated midterms by traveling to Lisbon and when the plane was making its final descent I was hit with the overwhelming feeling that I was in a foreign land. All the buildings had the same terracotta-tiled roofs, sidewalks were paved with tile instead of cement, graffiti covered almost every wall, and almost all the streets were on an incline. Lisbon was beautiful and it felt old, like a dust-covered book with yellowed pages. People have lived there since 1200 BC, making it the oldest (continuously inhabited) city in Western Europe. Perhaps, like people, cities get old enough where it’s impossible to hide the wrinkles and after more than three thousand years, Lisbon couldn’t hide its age.

During the third day of our visit my friend and I took a mini-adventure to Castelo de São Jorge. We got lost many times along the way and I tripped over every loose tile, but after an hour of wandering we made it to the Castle. It was enormous, or at least seemed enormous to a castle novice such as myself, with stones dating back to the 6th century. The Romans, Visigoths, and Moors all added fortifications to the structure until 1147 when Portugal’s first king captured it. Today, it is home to a couple of peacocks, a museum, and a café. My friend and I walked around the grounds and guessed where we thought prisoners were held while taking pictures of the city below. Every stone that we ran our hands across has been in place for more that 900 years and I kept expecting them to crumble underneath my fingertips. The steps we took to get a higher vantage point were used by people who predated Genghis Khan. Walking the same path as people I only ever read about, who lived in societies I couldn't imagine, made my head spin just a bit. 

Last night when I returned to London, I didn’t think about its history. I wasn’t compelled to research the city’s founding like I was for Lisbon. I was just thankful to be in a place with neighborhoods that I recognized and with a heater that actually makes a room warm. On the bus ride from the airport to the City of London, I was watching east London zoom past the window. The graffiti on the storefronts felt more like Chicago than Lisbon. And the swanky Shoreditch eateries were nothing like the restaurants I saw in Portugal. Once again I was just in a city. A city similar to my home, just way older. 

My trip to Lisbon was a bit of a wake up call. A slight nudge reminding me that I’m living in a place with two thousand years of history. All of the modernity makes it easy to think that I’m still somewhere like America; but underneath all of the skyscrapers is a historical legacy that’s 1500 years older than the US’s oldest city (which is St. Augustine, Florida, by the way). And I don’t know about you, but the thought of that sort of blows my mind.