The Illuminated Lightness of Being

Since Thanksgiving isn’t really a thing in London, the Christmas decorations here went up early. Early, like right after (or, in some cases, before) Halloween. One wonderful thing about London in the winter is that they take their Christmas decorations very seriously and I have to say that there is something magical about a whole city, especially one as huge as London, all decorated with lights and trees and whatnot. Coming up from a tube station or stepping down from a bus, you are smacked in the face with Christmas spirit and beauty.

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London has always seemed like a kind of magical place to me, so it is fun to see it transformed in this way. It’s magical for a lot of reasons, not just because of the lights, although the lights and Christmas celebrations going up all over London are certainly lovely. In my English class, which has been a terrific asset when it comes to viewing London in different ways and discussing it as an urban center, we talked about how London exists both in and out of time, in the past and in the present. London, more than any other city I know is a place where time and space seems transcendent and everything (as well as everywhere) meet.

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Back before we wrote on paper, back when papyrus was our parchment of choice, there was something called a palimpsest. This was when people would write on papyrus, which is thin and a bit see-though, then write on another piece of papyrus, and another, and another, and then stack these pieces of papyrus on top of each other. When held up to the light, you could see all the writing, a jumbled mess, laid on top of each other, and see all that was written and what came before at the same moment that you were looking at what you’d just written. To me, London is just like this.

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Buildings built on top of the ruins of buildings, new skyscrapers built on top of ancient docklands, this city is constantly trying to reinvent itself while still maintaining scars from years past. This city values its heritage, its traditions, and that makes it feel both timeless and extremely weathered. Its ability to be so many seemingly opposing things at once, that seems magical.

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Now with the entire city illuminated and sentimental as it approaches Christmas and as it approaches the end of my time here in London, I keep thinking about an inscription I read. There is a mosque in the East End of London that my roommate is doing a report on. The East End, a huge home for immigrants over the years, has seen a lot of people come and go during the last few centuries. This particular mosque has been through a series of renovations, changing from church, to synagogue, to church, to mosque. On a sundial on the side of the building there is an inscription which reads Umbra Surnus, or We are the Shadows. This inscription refers to the East End in particular, paying tribute to its rich history. But to me, this inscription speaks to all of London. We, the people in the city, and the city itself are the shadows of the people that once lived here, the events that once occurred here, the buildings that once stood here.

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During a season of so much illumination in the city, I think about these shadows, this particular magic of temporality that London embodies. I wonder if, even in my short time here, I have become part of these shadows, too. Because London, particularly London at Christmas, is something you want to feel you can be a part of.

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