February 29, 2016

Walking on History

View of Lisbon from Castelo de São Jorge
Sherri Gardner

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, which is one of the bigger cities in the United States, 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 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 the Eastern shores of North America. 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. 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.

A guitarist on the path to Castelo de São JorgeThis past week I celebrated midterms by traveling to Lisbon, and when the plane was making its final descent, the sense that I was in a strange land was overwhelming. Here was a place that was truly foreign. All of the buildings had the same terracotta-tiled roofs; sidewalks were paved with tile instead of cement; graffiti and street art cover almost every wall; and when walking around, you’re either going up or downhill. Lisbon was beautiful, and it exuded a feeling of incredible oldness. 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. 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. It’s a huge castle 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 while taking pictures of the city below we guessed where we thought prisoners were held. Every stone that we ran our hands across has been in place for around a thousand years. The steps we took to get a higher vantage point were used by people who predated Genghis Khan.Sherri at Castelo de São Jorge

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 within it. 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.