Study Abroad Column: On the Meaning of “Place”

Lately, my mind has been preoccupied with the significance of “place.” Two weeks remain in my study abroad experience in Manchester, England. Before coming here, England was an idealized place in my mind, a place home to great works of literature, gallons of tea and mesmerizing accents. Now, Manchester has become a place with a sense of familiarity attached to it. It has become a reality, a place so real that I know it will hurt me to say goodbye. I have adopted a love for this place that I have come to inhabit, for the artsy sense of fashion characterized by Doc Marten shoes and boots, colorful baggy pants and jean jackets. Manchester is a place with a rich history of hard workers. The Industrial Revolution began here. It’s a “City of Culture” (a recently declared City of Literature) with the historical John Rylands Library and a variety of ethnicities and stories that characterize the people here.

One of my courses at the University of Manchester is “Contemporary Irish Poetry and Fiction,” and we have learned that a defining feature of postcolonial Irish literature is the concept of place and displacement. Many of the characters in the novels we’ve read have internalized a lot of the historical struggles that took place in Ireland in response to imperialism and tensions with England. Many of the stories talk about being uprooted from environments that used to be home; journeying through different places and finding yourself. Places such as Manchester are powerful because they put your past into perspective, occupy your present and inspire you to think about the kind of future you want. They tug at you when you’re about to leave, and they give you glimpses of what your life could be like if you stay just a little bit longer, if you’d live here for even a few years. 

I think I used to believe in the power of one’s own mind and thoughts, specifically creative expression, in shaping one’s life. But it is only through traveling that I have experienced firsthand the power of place and external environments in creating one’s identity. Places can be permanent or transient. I came to Manchester in September expecting to occupy a place for a long period of time. Living in England for a semester has been filled with so much color, activity, travel, fun, diversity, art, music, questions, answers, tears and laughs within a short period of time. Manchester has forced me to explore different places although I’ve remained primarily in a single geographic area, on a single main street. 

Manchester has been a demanding and electric place; it hasn’t ever really turned off. It is always on. I am always on; always saying yes, always exploring a new area or meeting a new person. Paradoxically, many of us in the group find it hard to devote time to ourselves, even though I think we’ve had more free time than we’ve ever had at Colgate. But at the same time, I think that this semester allowed us, or at least myself, to see and feel a part of ourselves that we never previously knew. Whether I was leaving Liverpool looking out the window and listening to “The Long And Winding Road” by the Beatles, walking through the streets of Manchester incessantly encountering homeless individuals or sipping mulled cider in the middle of the Manchester Christmas Markets, these places and conditions took a hold over me. They made me feel both content and curious.

When I travelled outside of Manchester, I visited places that told stories. Being able to keep a journal and reflect on those travels was a necessity. Without the outlet of writing, it would be difficult to process the impact of these places on my identity. Writing allowed me to characterize each place I visited and immortalize what it felt like for me to be there. Alnwick, Bath, York and Whitby were places that exposed me to a vast, countryside England. Paris was a place defined by sunsets and architecturally romantic beauty. London was a royal place that asked me questions around every street-corner and left me needing to return in order to answer them. Dublin was a place that felt comfortable and filled with large, home-cooked plates of food. Writing allowed me to be creative about the realities I was living, and I would highly recommend anyone studying abroad to keep a journal.

Even though I will have to leave Manchester soon, I know that I have undoubtedly internalized all that I love about this city. And I find comfort in knowing that it is not a place I will have to part from for long.

Contact Allegra Padula at [email protected].