On one of our first expeditions outside the London city limits, we visited a 2000-year-old Roman bath house. Within was a museum full of Roman artifacts excavated at the site of the bath house over the years, such as old coins and stone busts and even an ancient skeleton. As I strolled through the exhibits with my trusty audio guide in hand, one artifact in particular stood out to me the most: tucked into one corner was a Roman soldier’s headstone.
According to my electronic guide, each soldier would pay a special tax to the cover the expense of a proper burial and final resting place if he happened to die during battle. His fellow soldiers would take the money allocated for the unfortunate event and have his name inscribed forever into the stone. This struck me as interesting at the time, because the soldier, once dead, would no longer benefit from the knowledge that his body was in a proper grave as opposed to fallen on a battlefield. But the notion of honor in death was so powerful that people were willing to pay for it. I think on a larger scale, there was a great comfort in knowing that even after death, they wouldn’t fade into obscurity forever—their names would be preserved behind them. As I’ve continued to learn and travel and experience this semester, I am beginning to recognize that perhaps the intrinsic longing to leave a mark in our memory lives within each of us.
The second time this thought struck me was on a trip to Abbey Road Studios. Space was limited for this field trip, so only four of the students in our class were able to go on the tour, myself included. Once we squeezed in a photo on the famous crosswalk between bouts of traffic, we turned our attention to the studio gates. Sitting just in front of the studio was an alabaster wall topped off by a wrought iron fence, covered head to toe in graffiti. But it wasn’t street art from a can of spray paint, it was hundreds of thousands of signatures and drawings and Beatles lyrics written in marker or pen. The wall, one of our teachers told us, is repainted white about once per month because the graffiti fills up every crevice of blank space so quickly. Apparently, the site where so many beloved British musicians have recorded their songs instills visitors with the desire to prove they caught a glimpse. They rush to sign their names to a stone contract that says “I came, I saw. I was here. I am real, and I am important to this world.”
We were no exception. The four of us were all too eager to scribble our names into the first slice of remaining white space we could find. Ultimately, our tiny contributions won’t matter. They will be swept away by a paint brush, washed white again as soon as this cycle of graffiti comes to a close. But much like the Roman soldiers who came 2,000 years before us, we knew that deep down that we were shouting our names into emptiness and we didn’t care. It was still important to us to leave something of ourselves behind.
When I come home from this incredible, life-changing semester, I will bring many things back with me. Thousands of pictures. Dozens of souvenirs. Countless memories. But I hope, in some small way, I will also leave some small impact behind when I go. There is a part of my soul that longs to leave her mark on her temporary European home, even with something as simple as a soft smile and a kind word. I hope that somehow, London will remember me as fondly as I remember it.