London is enormous – it’s probably the biggest city I have ever lived in. Despite that, it is very well connected with public transportation. The opening of the new Elizabeth line in time for the Platinum Jubilee celebrations makes the city more accessible than ever. It is considered normal to have a 40-minute to an hour-long commute to work—which initially seemed like too much for me. However, I had an hour and a half commute from home to work for my first two weeks here. Looking back, those few weeks were exhausting, but I am happy I got to experience a part of London that is further out, has different characteristics, is full of charm, and is surrounded by more nature. On my morning walks to the tube, I would see kids in their school uniforms walking to school together, sometimes unaccompanied by adults—they are given immense freedom and responsibility from a young age! This amazed me because they don’t have school zoning in Lebanon, which means it would be impossible for me to walk to school, let alone take public transportation to school, when I was younger.
Living in Beirut, cars are the most common way of getting around. The city is not very walkable, and public transportation is not the most reliable. That said, even with traffic, I would never need more than 20 to 30 minutes to reach my destination, and I never had to worry about adjusting my plans because the distance I needed to travel would be too far. During my long London commutes, I filled my time on the train by reading the book The Ministry for the Future (a highly recommended science fiction novel about a future world caused by climate change, one that might not be too far from our reality). It seemed only right, considering Hounslow—where I was living—is directly on the flight path to Heathrow airport, one of the busiest airports in continental Europe. This meant that during the day, thousands of airplanes would fly over my house, every few minutes, creating a lot of noise and air pollution in the area. It’s also interesting because London is experiencing a historic heatwave at this moment, although it doesn’t feel like one to me because I’m used to living in hot countries. It’s fascinating to see the amount of care devoted through different mechanisms at the office to keep everyone cool and through different train station signages, reminding everyone to stay hydrated and stay in shaded areas.
Speaking to people in one of my mother tongues is an amazing feeling; it’s an instant connection to a person and a unique situation that is amplified while in the diaspora.Sarine Gacia Vosgueritchian
After moving closer to my workplace in Clerkenwell—a walking distance, in fact—many opportunities opened up, and I’ve embraced walking as my main mode of transportation. I’ve been exploring different areas in London, each having its own identity that changes from day to night. Despite my denial about the bad weather here in London, some days can be sunny and pleasant. In those days, I never miss an opportunity to have lunch out at a park with my colleagues. One of my favorite things about the area of my workplace is the abundance of street food stalls at food markets such as Exmouth market. Being a diasporan, it’s always nice to find someone whom I can interact with through a common language or culture. One time, we approached a Moroccan street food stand, and I was happy to be able to speak with the owners in Arabic. I shared my time in Morocco with them and told them how I loved the food in Fez and Casablanca. The reaction I got was amazing; they were so excited to be able to share language and food with someone who was also aware of their cultural practices. Similar encounters have happened in my time in the US as well, thanks to the fact that the US and UK—especially the cities I’ve been in—are international melting pots. Speaking to people in one of my mother tongues is an amazing feeling; it’s an instant connection to a person and a unique situation that is amplified while in the diaspora.
Another meaningful exchange happened when I attended an architecture studio open house last week as part of the London Festival of Architecture. I was speaking to an architect about my background, and a girl from the crowd overheard me and approached me later, telling me that she’s also Armenian! Armenian-American novelist William Saroyan said, “when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.” This quote has been ingrained into my head ever since starting school, and it is true. We spoke to each other as if we were long-time friends, sharing our London experiences and discussing our future goals.
My identity being connected to two countries and cultures, Armenia and Lebanon, has enriched my London experience immensely. The fact that both these countries have many diasporans and are close to the UK geographically also means that I have found more friends and acquaintances in the past two months than in the year I spent in the US. The feeling of seeing a friend after two years is irreplaceable.
For some reason, when I tell people I’m Armenian and Lebanese in the UK, more people understand me than when I tell people the same thing in the US. I think I can express myself more freely in the UK. I attribute that to the scale of the city being widespread, short, and dense, but also to the more relaxed lifestyle here compared to the US. People in the UK work just as hard as those in the US, but at the same time, they value work-life balance, social life, and free time. London is a high-pressure city, but there are also simple and easy ways to reward oneself, from taking a walk in nature, having a picnic at the park, or doing something culturally and artistically stimulating like going to a gallery or attending a concert or a theatre performance. These are things that I have missed out on in Boston, and although events like these exist in the US, they’re not as close as I want them to be because public transport does not make them accessible. So, I am relishing my time here by exploring different parts of the UK with quick train rides—absorbing as much as possible before returning to MIT. And thanks to MISTI UK, I can explore the different aspects of my identity abroad and how it has helped me connect to other people and places in various ways.
Sarine V., a graduate student at MIT Architecture, spent her summer as a Research & Urban Design intern at Hawkins\Brown in London.