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  • Andre Lamartin

On Travel

Modesty makes you travel. The modest refuse to believe that their world is the world itself. Only the modest realize that no single place can contain the vastness of life and the enormity of a human being. We set out to discover new lands, only to discover a new self. Traveling is not merely an education of our senses; it is an education of our selves, an affirmation, and reassessment of our most deeply held ideas, beliefs, views and feelings. Modesty never pays for your travel tickets, nor does it cover your meals and stay, but make no mistake: modesty is the best travel agent in the market today. One that your thirst for existential answers can slake.

Upon my graduation from Law School in Brazil, modesty convinced me to move to London. The past decade left me broken-hearted and deeply disillusioned with relationships, the country and the legal profession itself. When a lawyer questions the fair administration of justice on a systemic level, the time has come to face his demons, selling his soul to a Kafkaesque system he cannot change, or exorcising himself. Unable to change a reality I battled the previous years, the choice was to passively accept a system I could not change, and in so doing change myself, or retain my personal integrity and relocate to a distant land in search of a new hope. This required the modesty of acknowledging my myriad past mistakes, and the certainty that a bright future resided far away from the source of my travails. Being an EU citizen and having been educated in American schools most of my life, London was the only logical choice for a new home. Relying solely on my personal savings and money borrowed from relatives, modesty convinced me that only by traveling to London would I find myself, securing a future unlike the disappointments of the past few years.

Leaving my family members was an extremely difficult decision, but one seemingly warranted by dire circumstances that provided for no other viable alternative. The day my family drove me to the airport, the general disposition was relatively somber. When relocating to a new country means leaving your loved ones behind, an integral part of yourself never arrives at your destination. Only the many unanswered questions before me focused my attention on the path ahead. My move to London was a solitary quest, unassisted by anyone who lived in my final destination. There were many hurdles to overcome at a stage in life where greater stability was merited, but not forthcoming. Within the confines of my personal life, the move was comparable to executing the invasion of Normandy: I would first have to secure a beachhead from which to project power. A temporary two-week stay at a simple hotel in Victoria gave me a foothold in the city from which to make final housing arrangements, but what a nightmare that turned out to be.

There are countless advantages to living in London, but renting a flat is definitely not one. Demand is exceedingly high, and so are the prices asked. Out of a list of fifty properties selected, forty-eight were no longer available by the time I had a chance to visit. My final selection was more of an imposition dictated by fate and circumstance, than a freely made choice. Though it was considerably more expensive than I had hoped for, the price was reasonable for the central location, if not for the size of the flat itself. My new home was located near Hyde Park, a central location reasonably close to the City where employment opportunities were available and a daily commute was logistically feasible. Finding employment and securing all the necessary paperwork to legalize my stay was a pressing concern that proved to be considerably less challenging than originally expected. Much to my surprise, by the end of the second month, I was settled.

Disregarding the lessons of the Napoleonic Wars, I scheduled my landing operation for the winter, arriving at a time when the weather was considerably colder than my previous tropical experience. But despite the perennially overcast skies, and the intermittent light peppering rain, the temperate climate proved much more welcoming than expected. The same is true of the city itself. Winter notwithstanding, London welcomed me warmly, showing me a respect and civility that Brazil had previously denied me for so many years. The subway system, referred to as the Tube, provided the requisite urban mobility that my native city had never furnished me. For the first time, my right to come and go as I pleased was fully enforced, not only because of the accessibility of public transportation, but also because of public safety itself. Police officers did not carry weapons, and were always approachable, attentive and helpful. The second shadow that usually accompanied me through the streets of my native city finally vanished. Only now could I experience the same feeling once had in the US, walking down a street unconcerned about being violently accosted. Moving around my urban setting was no longer an act of valor. Unable to pacify the streets of my old neighborhood in Brazil, modesty left a warzone behind.

Every subway station was an interstellar wormhole defying the laws of geometry, providing the shortest distance between two points in London, albeit not in a straight line. Public transportation was reasonably cheap, accessible and dependable. London was divided into zones and a magnetic Oyster card purchased to provide access to the subway system, buses and even boats. A high-speed non-stop train called the Heathrow Express connected the airport to my neighborhood, covering the distance in only 15 minutes. Delays were extremely rare and the public transportation system abided by strict daily time schedules, allowing every citizen to plan carefully his journey and daily commute. All Londoners took for granted was a newfound right to me, described not in travel brochures, but introduced by modesty, who taught me an important lesson about my new city.

In London, citizenship was not a farce. My rights did not simply exist on a piece of paper; they breathed the fresh air of real life. Taxes paid funded high-quality public services that were actually available to citizens. What seemed like an ordinary facet of human life for many was a novelty for myself, only previously experienced in the US. The sprawling subway system covering the vast expanse of the city, rendered cars optional, if not obsolete. Some people I met referred to London as organized chaos, but only the lack of a proper frame of reference would support such a view. There was nothing chaotic about London by Brazilian standards. The organization of the city allowed its citizens to plan their lives accordingly, something untenable in my prior tropical experience. This basic ability to plan my life was a newfound sense of empowerment, previously lacking in my world, but also introduced by modesty.

The mazelike tropical bureaucracy that had been the bane of my existence for so many years was now nonexistent. Signing a lease, opening a bank account, securing a job, paying taxes, applying for a public library reader´s pass, obtaining a national insurance number, registering at the public health service, these were all tasks expediently accomplished, without any undue stress of any kind. While tourists took pictures of Big Ben, the real historical legacies of true importance were largely intangible, but omnipresent in the daily life of Londoners.

The appalling sight of destitute families panhandling on the streets was effaced from view, if not from memory. Though a few homeless individuals were occasionally seen, a social welfare system provided them with a modicum of assistance they would never have in certain tropical paradises. One of my homeless friends explained to me that the government provided him with Council Housing, only a bedsit, but a warm one at that. Amazingly enough, they were distributed throughout the city and this man, who was mentally ill and had difficulty maintaining a job, lived in Central London, sharing the same living space as others whose income was incomparably higher. The government also provided him unemployment benefits that allowed him to have a decent, albeit frugal existence that spoke of a human dignity read about previously, but not seen in the vivid colors of a destitute human being´s eyes. This basic human dignity was another friend modesty introduced me.

A National Health Service was also available to all citizens, providing high-quality medical care, though my employer also supplied private medical insurance. I never required its services, but simply stopping by the local clinic to register was such an expedient process, scarcely could I believe the level of organization and civility. If sickness were to inadvertently strike, the presence of a compassionate democratic state was always close behind. Having studied for five long years in a law school, only now was the concept of citizenship entirely clear to me in ways no law book could possibly explain. Personal experience educates the mind in ways books sometimes cannot. The theoretical perfection described in the vacuous words of my Brazilian law books rarely survived the unforgiving journey to reality. Now, the law described in statutes was the law of the land, breathing the fresh air of true democratic freedom and greater social justice. If modesty had been the author of my previous law books, perhaps the reality described would have been the one seen on the streets, not the one admired only in dreams.

On the topic of dreams, London provided the same oneiric wonder while I was still awake. After all, London was the cosmopolitan capital of Europe, if not the world. All cultures and nationalities represented, creating an iridescent, variegated international community that almost precluded further travel, for the world itself came to your doorstep. This was heard on the streets in the alluring sound of mysterious foreign languages. It was tasted in the never-ending array of restaurants serving dishes from the far reaches of the globe. It was learned from the exposure to different worldviews and cultural perspectives shared by the expatriates, immigrants and visitors met along the way. The only prerequisite to enrich my world with their unique life perspective was the requisite modesty to listen, question and learn. The countless special individuals I met in London immeasurably contributed to my experience, but recounting the many tales of friendship and camaraderie would infringe upon their privacy, precluding further exposition. Suffice it to say, their words and acts of kindness remained an integral part of the human being I am today.

Living in the world´s greatest cosmopolitan environment also realized the lifelong dream of having a vibrant cultural life. Whereas before my cultural appetites were primarily satiated through music, cinema and books, now an endless world of exciting, new possibilities opened up before me. More importantly, admission to all museums and art galleries was free of charge, another great democratic equalizer deservingly exalted. The National Gallery housed a collection of over 2,300 of the best European paintings in existence. Having visited it incessantly, my personal favorite is “Samson and Delilah” by Peter Paul Reubens, not only because of its vivacious intrinsic beauty, but also for personal reasons. The National Portrait Gallery was a historical lesson, despite my acerbic disappointment with the lack of a John Lennon portrait, an unforgivable omission that befuddles the mind. Tate Modern was a disappointment for reasons explained long ago, but the painting “Yellow Islands” by Jackson Pollock intrigued me for almost an hour. The notion that an artist can create a work of art simply by channeling his stream of consciousness, completely unaware of his precise motives, but still generate great meaning perceptible only to others, though not immediately to himself, was a troubling realization. It strains the bounds of artistic interpretation, almost invading the hellish realm of utter relativism, which is personally unacceptable to me.

There were so many museums repeatedly visited that describing anyone in any meaningful detail would demand its own individual account. Suffice to say that nowhere else in the world can the legacy of the 19th century Pax Britannica be better observed than in the British Museum. It houses the Rosetta Stone, first discovered by Napoleon in Egypt, allowing hieroglyphic script to be translated into Greek and deciphered at last. If memory serves me correctly, the British Museum houses the greatest collection of Egyptian art outside of Egypt. Apparently, this remains a source of tension between the two countries, given the Egyptian desire to repatriate some of the pieces, questioning the way obtained. The same could probably be said of Greece, given the museum´s collection of Parthenon sculptures. However, what impressed me most was the sculpture of Thalia, one of the muses of Apollo, dedicated to the arts and sciences and dating back to the 2nd century AD. Discovered in the ruins of a public bath in the city of Ostia, one of the poorest cities of the ancient Roman Empire, there is no special wing of the museum devoted to it, nor any especial display. Hidden in the vast, mazelike array of chambers of the British Museum, it serves as a reminder that beauty, simplicity and humility can always go hand in hand and that they can be found where we least expect. Another lesson modesty taught me.

To describe in any meaningful detail the operas, concerts, ballets, musicals, symphonies, recitals and many other cultural experiences would require vast pages, not to mention that this was cursorily done at the time. However, the theater deserves special mention. Being a lifelong movie fan, attending the theater was never a possibility given the cultural limitations of my world. All this changed in London. Several of the plays staged in Broadway were also staged in London, in addition to what the West End had to offer. Actors previously seen only on the silver screen now proved their mettle in live performances before my eyes. Calling the experience surreal would be an understatement. The Elephant Man, Twelve Angry Men, Closer and Photograph 51 were some of the plays that stayed in my memory. Nicole Kidman, Bradley Cooper, Al Pacino and Tom Cruise were some of the actors seen up and close. The Globe Theater, with its seasonal Shakespearean performances, also had a commanding presence in the city. Absolutely none of this was envisioned when I first set foot on London, but modesty never ceased to reinforce the same lesson: there was much more to the world than the bounds of my prior life allowed me to experience.

Of the musical concerts in memory, one deserves special mention. Attending David Gilmour´s concert, the guitarist of Pink Floyd, was a particularly transcendental experience because his music was the soundtrack of various moments of my life. The decision to come to London itself was influenced by the song “Time”. My brother secured tickets for the show during one of his visits and we went together. The Royal Albert Hall was located at walking distance from my home, so reaching the venue was completely stress free. We stood in close proximity to the stage and, for approximately two hours, time bowed before the regal power of music and I was transported to various moments of my life I always hoped to relive again. A time when the future of the world was never foreboding and every question had an answer taken from the bookshelf. To this day, I cherish the memories of that unforgettable night. The solos of my favorite guitarist and the lyrics that described various moments of my life, have both kept me company. Never had I entertained the possibility of fulfilling this childhood dream, but modesty had opened the doors I did not know existed, revealing a new world that once experienced, forever changed the colors of my previous one.

Vibrant colors were also seen in the gardens so evenly distributed throughout the parks of the city. Despite the air pollution, which remained an unfortunate problem, London has more parks than any other European city. This speaks of proper city planning and not the chaotic urban sprawl I grew accustomed to. The parks provided much more than scenic moments of relaxation and exercise. They were a form of preventive medicine, sparing Londoners from the grayish architectural tone so typical of any metropolis while relieving stress. The cherished moments spent on Hyde Park are memories not to be easily disposed of. The peace experienced on the parks of London contrasted with the stress experienced in the main park of my native city in Brazil. There, crime was a pervasive concern and drug dealers imposed a reign of terror that significantly curtailed the reach of the law. Relaxing under such circumstances is a practical impossibility and parks, which are theoretically public, are privatized by criminals. None of this took place in London.

Finding a new self in this new city also meant rediscovering my relationship with God. Despite all the praise that London deserves, living away from your family is never an easy experience. Starting a new life alone in a new distant land required divine assistance, and it was always forthcoming. During the week, I attended St. Helen´s church near my office, and on Sunday, I attended All Souls Church. The sermons were always enlightening and immeasurably contributed to my understanding of the Bible. I even enjoyed singing the hymns, despite not having the slightest singing ability, always an unfortunate limitation. Occasionally, I also attended St. Martin in the Fields church on Saturday nights, but only for the music recitals and concerts. Above all, these churches were a source of great hope that helped me deal with the stresses of daily life, despite living alone and distant from my family. In many ways, I found almost everything I needed in London, even a rich religious life.

I moved to London because I refused to believe that the confines of my world in Brazil were the limits of the world itself. Modesty had convinced me to travel and rediscover myself. My native city could not solely contain the vastness of life, lest the concept of citizenship and social justice be nonexistent. The enormity of a human being is never entirely contained within the bounds of one city, for the limits of a lifetime are not the limits of a city´s walls. In setting out to discover a new land, I also discovered a new self. One that breathed the fresh air of a democratic governance, providing important public services, guaranteeing public safety and ensuring a modicum of social justice. One that had a rich, vibrant cultural life so incredibly cherished. One that had friends from all over the world, bringing so many foreign lands to my doorstep.

Moving to London was never merely an education of the senses, it was an education of myself, an affirmation, and reassessment of my most deeply held ideas, beliefs, views and feelings. Much of the world that I so longed to experience in Brazil was fully realized before my eyes in London, proving that my firmly held precepts were not imaginary ideals; they could be realized in the world. As a Londoner, I felt a sense of belonging that had previously eluded me in my native city, where the local reality remained so foreign to my beliefs, despite the unrelenting passage of time.

Then one day, modesty paid me an unexpected visit once again. We sat down for a long conversation, taking a view of how I had been educated in life, the responsibilities I had before me, and what purpose I now served in the world. My love and admiration for London was a matter of public record, but important existential questions remained unanswered despite the move. Torn was I between a city I loved, and other lifelong concerns that remained unaddressed. This is an unfinished chapter of my life, only understandable in the future. Though we may choose to believe that we always write the stories of our lives, every character needs an author. Though modesty took me to London, it remains to be seen whether it also convinced me to leave. The decision certainly broke my heart in many ways, but no one ever said the road traveled by modesty is not beset by hardship. If life proves me wrong, and modesty knocks on my door, I may have to travel once again. If not to discover a new land, at least rediscover my former self.

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