Taming Firenze: Manchester, So Much To Answer For

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This is going to be a really difficult blog post to write for many reasons.

The first is that I did not expect to like Manchester as much as I did. And I don’t know why I liked it so much. It could have been the people. It could have been the beer. It could have been the red brick buildings offering temporary relief from the stale yellow Florentine neighborhoods.

The second is that this was my last trip of the semester. And in a very short period of time I will be going home. Or at least back to America.

The third is that it made me ask myself a lot of questions (more to come on that one).

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On the surface, it pretty much appears that all I did in Manchester was go to pubs and drink beer. While this is true, it was a lot more than that.

Real English pubs, as my cousin Ryland pointed out, are nothing at all like the so-called English pubs you’d find in America. They are not plastered with Union Jacks or Beatles posters or football (soccer, that is, in American) jerseys. They are warm, cozy bars with nooks and corners and soft light. They are quaint. They are quiet – well, not always.

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At the second pub we went to, Peveril of the Peak, I started to realize that I was not in Florence anymore; in fact, I wasn’t anywhere familiar anymore.

The night life in every place I’ve been to has been very different. In Italy it’s about picking up chicks. In Budapest it’s about bad dancing and strong liquor. In America it’s about looking cool on Instagram.

In Manchester it was about having fun. No pretenses, no costumes, no disguises. People of all ages came together at their favorite pub to drink a couple pints and laugh the night away. It was riding the rolling evening waves until the sun set and morning hit.

And when the wave eventually crashed on shore and broke into tomorrow, we hit the streets early to finish up a tour of Manchester.

We walked around the canals, taking in the rich, industrial history of the small city. The old brick buildings and gritty shadows of an industrial past reminded me of North Eastern Ohio: the abandoned train stations, the old factories, the working class spirit that still resonates under the occasional patches of cobblestone streets.

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We also made our way to John Ryland’s Library, a library straight out of the Harry Potter universe.

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After our morning in Manchester, we hopped on a train to Liverpool, where we went to – you guessed it – another pub.

We also explored the cathedral (the newest church I’ve visited all semester) and the Harbor area. And we saved time for some Fish and Chips.

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The highlight of Liverpool for me was the Cavern Club. The Cavern Club is a literal hole in the ground club with live music and lots of history.

Though the real Cavern Club technically does not exist anymore, the bricks from the original foundation were dug up and reused to rebuild the historic club.

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After a few hours in Liverpool, we headed back to Manchester, then to Stockport for one of my favorite experiences of the semester: a night at a Labour Club.

Britain’s Labour Party is a center-left political party with roots in socialism and a heavy focus on the rights of the working class.

This particular night at the Labour Club was a celebration for the newly elected Mayor of Greater Manchester, who happened to be the Labour Party’s candidate (which is lucky, considering they planned the celebration before his victory).

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What I saw at the Labour Club was something that I’ve been missing for a very long time: community. And despite being an “arrogant and ignorant” American, I felt welcomed; I felt like I could have belonged.

During one of the musical acts, I scanned the room. In the soft, purple glow from the stage lights, I saw hopeful faces illuminated. An older crowd, I saw tired eyes and weathered skin. I heard the hushed flutter of conversations, of reunions, of good news and bad. Husbands and wives held hands. Sons and daughters squirmed impatiently in their seats.

One woman in particular caught my eye. As the performers sang out a traditional English folk song, as their harmonies ribboned out toward the audience like the delicate strings of smoke from a June-time campfire, this woman sang along. Warmth radiated from her eyes. She bobbed her head lightly to the gentle crackle of the beat. In her, there was passion.

And that’s what I understood most from the crowd at the Labour Club. A strong, unifying sense of passion. I understood this from Tom who had been been volunteering there for hours and still managed to stay long after most people had left the party. I understood this from Vincent, a bookworm and traveller with an endless supply of curiosity.

The men and women there are dedicated and kind. They want change and they want to take action. They care about each other and they care about their country in a collective way that the competitive, individualistic America could never comprehend.

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At one of the pubs I visited with Ryland on the first night, we talked a little bit about what we missed from America. Without thinking much of it, I started listing off the places I’ve found myself missing most: Target, Chipotle, Wawa, Chick-fi-la. He quickly stopped me. “No, you’re thinking of stores,” he said. And he proceeded to show me pictures of a specific spot on the West Coast – a spot unlike anywhere else he had ever seen.

In that moment I realized that I had not thought about what I was actually missing. There’s no spot of coast that has my heart more than any other. No patch of woods. No city that I could never replace. There’s nothing special or extraordinary about the way Americans treat each other. We are not always kind, not welcoming. Nothing in America has so deeply lodged itself within me that I could never leave.

Speaking to my brother after this, he offered me a piece of wisdom:

“You can still explore the culture, art and history from a different perspective when you’re somewhere else. You can learn to cook the food you miss, you’ll find stores to replace your favorites. The sun, stars and wind are common to the entire world. Geography, climate, people, lifestyle. To me, those are the biggest things that make a place unique.”

When we travel, we spread ourselves apart. We barter with the borders we cross, leaving pieces of our minds and hearts in exchange for reminders of their cultures. It is in our nature to search for home where ever we leave our footprints.

The world has become small this semester, but my heart has become crowded. Crowded with the words from Dublin writers, the paint strokes from Florentine artists, the stories from Berlin’s past.

In that cozy pup in Manchester, tucked away in a corner, balancing my pint on a table precariously rocking on an unusually slanted floor, I felt, for the first time in a long time, that home was closer than I thought. So close, in fact, that I will be able to find it anywhere and everywhere I go.

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