So, back to it again. Spring Break has been a really welcome step back from the desk, laptop, and essay writing, however I can’t help but feel that I’m a little bit behind on blog writing. I’ll do my best to jump back up to speed, and hope my brain can keep up with my fingers.
I don’t know how the rest of you spent your breaks, other than Karen – who mentioned spending time with her kids, eating delicious traybakes, and nice long walks – but mine was definitely split into two halves. The middle weekend, from Thursday to Sunday, consisted of a flying visit to St Andrews, in order to move out of my rented house, (we cancelled the lease early in order to save on rent, when we found out everything was going to be online). [side note: this counts as an “exceptional circumstance” and is a valid reason for legal travel.] When I say “flying” visit, I really do mean it. As the crow flies, St Andrews is around 370 miles from my childhood home, yet, this equates to just shy of 500 miles in car travel. As such, we always find it best to leave around 5am, in order to successfully miss the rush-hour traffic of the M25, M40 (around Birmingham), and M56 (Manchester-way). Even so, from door-to-door, it takes about 9&1/2 hours to reach St Andrews.
As my mother has told me on numerous occasions, we could have flown to Canada, India, or even Cuba in the time it takes us to drive up the country. To do that journey twice in the space of four days, resulted in around 20 hours of travel time…otherwise known as a lot of time to think.
Alongside moving out of the house, it was nice to be back in St Andrews, albeit very briefly. I managed to make time for a blustery walk along East Sands, and being by the sea was life-giving. It was also very strange. I’m aware than a year ago now, we embarked on this strange adventure called “lockdown” – and a new realm of vocabulary entered our lexicon, and I fear, will not leave for a very long time. This wasn’t how I’d anticipated my university experiencing unfolding – especially not spending an entire semester studying at home. In an attempt to avoid feeling like the past four years had been erased, and that I was back sitting at my desk in preparation for my A-levels, I did a bit of furniture rearranging back before the start of semester. It seems to have worked…so far. I just hope I can keep the motivation up for the remaining few weeks.
Anyway – I have digressed (apologies). The main reason for this blog post/ramble, was sparked by the notion of travel, and how it has changed throughout time. This, I believe, is intrinsically linked with communication. I don’t presume to speak for my peers, but the majority of us have grown up in the “communication age”. The first mobile phone, ‘pay as you go’ contract was launched two years before I was born, and (random fact time), in 1998, the first downloadable content was made available for phones, and this was ringtones – something that led to the mania of “Crazy Frog”. (That song alone, feels like a throwback to primary school discos.)
I still remember flip phones, sliding ones, the craze that was blackberry’s, and the good old Nokia ‘brick’. But our communication ability has been intensely widened, to the point it’s pretty much instant. If the pandemic had occurred 20 years ago, it would have been a very different experience. No Teams calls, no Zoom, no FaceTime, and with only 16% of the UK population having mobile phones, most would have been reliant on email… or a telephone call from a landline (with dial-up internet.)
Sorry – I got side-tracked again. The point I’m trying to make is, that, for many of us, we cannot imagine life without the internet. Instant communication is what we have grown up with – it is the norm. And the same applies to travel. 2021 is the first year in my life that I haven’t travelled outside of the UK, having been fortunate enough to travel Europe frequently in my childhood. It’s not a “big” deal to go to Canada, or the other side of the world – we can get there in under 10 hours, instead of the months it would have taken in the past.
Does this lack of understanding for “time” hinder our study of history? Do we take for granted the ability to pull up a web browser, type in a question (or even just one word), and almost instantly receive millions of hits?
In the reading for Week 9, Bernhard shared his latest draft for the book he is working on. In it, he talks about Paris – and the presence of a number of international figures. For people such as John Quincy Adams and Benjamin Franklin to be in Paris required a larger feat of travel, time, and thought, than it would today. There were only the beginnings of air travel emerging – something he mentions in the trials of the Hot Air Balloon. And while the scientific and industrial developments of the past few centuries have occurred at a staggering rate, it does not do to forget the primacy of history – of the reliance on shipping routes for sharing news, and for the slower pace of life.
I came across this interactive map, another piece of digital history produced by the University of Richmond’s Digital Scholarship Lab (if you haven’t heard of them, I highly recommend their work). In it, they provide a way of exploring the rate of travel from New York in 1800 – putting into visuals this concept of time and length of travel.
The reason this has landed in a blog post? I believe this is crucial to our study of the transnational. When we’re trying to identify connections, tracing routes of communication, or movement of people, we need to keep an awareness of life before the “instant”. In my reading of works about the life of refugees, this is at the foreground. They cannot just jump on a plane and be whisked away to some far-flung country in a handful of hours. Rarely can they utilise a car, instead, often relying on their own legs. In Mexico, where many refugees seek to ride ‘The Beast’ – a cargo train, by clinging onto the roof or undercarriage, they’re risking their lives for transport that is not scheduled or reliable, but something which they may have to flee at any moment, for fear of being caught.
There is danger in becoming too comfortable with the modern. With what we know to be true, and possible – and assuming that is the case wherever we go. Whether we’re studying refugees, the spice mix of Garam Masala, the Jute industry or the films of Bruce Lee, we are searching for links, communication, and travel. They are at the heart of the transnational approach. And so, with the awareness that our “normal” is still very, very new, we may be able to better understand the contexts which we are studying.