The magic of Canterbury: a tribute to my three years as a student in the city

Claudia Sofia 14 April 2021

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of InQuire Media

Image courtesy of Chris Beckett on Flickr

It was in the second year of my Literature degree that I most felt the magic of Canterbury. I began to embed myself more within the city, feeling an overwhelming sense of awe at its ancient, medieval beauty as I rode by the Westgate Towers on the doubled-decker UniBus. I would close my eyes for a second and try to absorb the present moment, to take it in; to take in moments where I was seized by an overwhelming sense of pride that I get to study here; in a beautiful, bustling city.

In my third year, with the lockdowns, it felt as though the magic of Canterbury had been emptied out. The ability to go to a café, study, stare out of the window, get the bus, attend a meeting on campus and do it all again the next day was gone. Such a small thing. The bustle and busyness that makes the city come alive, making our day-to-day a historical re-enactment of sorts; making pilgrims of us all, a three-year-long pilgrimage to find ourselves in the city. Life on the cobbled streets of Canterbury makes me feel alive, present. I treasured making the most of it by going from place to place, and making that coffee cup last as long as it possibly could; drinking it by a windowsill overlooking the ancient city, as it gets darker in the study area of a creaky café.

For the majority of the final year of my degree, there was no such dynamic experience. There was only my bedroom, the living room, the kitchen. Going on casual walks through the city centre is not enough. Looking at empty, ‘closing down’ shopfronts is not enough. Looking in at the places we once wore out, where we once wore ourselves in, from the cold hard street was not enough to make me feel like a part of Canterbury like I once did. Staying here over the lockdowns, I have felt myself become a ghost in a ghost town.

…It can be said that Canterbury has been a ghost town since before the pandemic: living people have long been made ghosts by those with roofs over their heads, who turn away from the pained faces of those to whom Canterbury has long been a ghost town. The homeless population of Canterbury who sees the empty shopfronts we frivolously mourn the loss of as temporary shelter; to those who cannot wander in and out of shops without raising suspicion; to those who cannot buy a coffee and sit by a window and read Frank O’Hara. Walking by homeless people young and old, men and women, I felt like we had all failed them. Like our privileged lives are a sham, like little matters until homelessness doesn’t exist in the UK anymore.

Up and down the city streets, fellow human beings continue to suffer into the night while I sleep cosily in the student house I am lucky to be able to afford.…

I am at least glad to be spending the final year of my undergrad in the city, as many students haven’t been able to return. I am in the city but at the same time, I feel like I am not. Going back and forth between my house and my boyfriend’s house, with whom I’ve formed a bubble, barely feels like living in “the city”. You can live in four walls anywhere. Yes, this is Canterbury. These are four walls in Canterbury. The ground beneath my feet is Canterbury. But these four walls all-day, every day is not Canterbury.

The student experience was reduced to a husk of what it once was. All that was left was the academic side of it. What’s been missing is the bustle of life in the city centre and on campus that is so exciting to feel yourself to be a part of, floating along the waves of the student day-to-day, buoyed by the ripples your close friends, course-mates, professors, absolute strangers make around you. To feel connected to other students through your common goals, shared pains, budding minds. Lockdown university has felt like trudging knee-deep in a pool of stagnant water.

The student experience is meant to be a balancing act of reading, making friends, connecting, studying, exploring the ins and outs of the city, going on adventures, writing, going to talks, going to socials. The combination of all of these things is what gives one’s university years the title of “the best years of your life”. But now, it feels as though if you didn’t make it the best time of your life before the series of quarantines started, you’re hardly likely to make it that now.

I can still find joy in my course and the passion I have for my subject and achieving good grades. I will be able to look back at this period of my life and be proud that I did okay, considering everything. Though that’s quite the accomplishment, it’s hardly any consolation for all the quiet hours I’ve spent living alone in my student house in awkward silences with myself.

I could have made a lot more friends this year, I could have become best friends with people I never met. I could have finally mustered up the courage to compliment the blouse of the cool girl in the second-hand shop with the tote bag. I could have made stronger bonds with the friends I have made, could I have been in the same rooms as them.

Being a student is about feasting on life with our hungry young minds, hearts, mouths and livers, but we’ve been sealed off from the feast by red and white tape: stay at home, only touch what you intend to buy, keep 2 metres at all times.

It’s so infuriating to have so little control over the situation. Life is about making the best of the circumstances you are dealt, and admittedly, it could definitely be a lot worse. But it could have been so much better. We can hardly get back all the time wasted confined to four walls now by rushing to pub patios and downing as many “Pig Fuckers” as we can to make up for the lost time.

In the first week of teaching of my course, the head of my school told a room of fresh-faced bookworms that we should take time to sit at cafés and just be present and enjoy the books. She told us to pause and enjoy our degree, enjoy reading. Fortunately, I have had some such moments: I’ve gotten to sit in worn-in leather armchairs with a different book in hand every week, sweetly intoxicated with the smell and taste of strong coffee, taking in my book, taking in my surroundings, taking in life itself. But I want more of it.

Such treasured moments of elation and pride. I never thought I’d be able to afford to come to university, yet I had done it. Here I was, here I am, on borrowed money and borrowed time— borrowed time because this the only time in my life when I’m not expected to have a job or contribute anything more to society than lining the pockets of my university. Such a precious time, a precious opportunity. I wish I could remain a student forever.

The bustle and life of the city was a life-giving force. I felt cushioned by the fact I was going through the trials and triumphs of “studenthood” with thousands of other people in the same city, at the same university. The lockdowns have broken those invisible ties that link us all through our common purpose, as they were stretched and yanked to all ends of the country and the globe as students were encouraged to move back home for the holidays only to later be told they could not return. We’ve had to spend this academic year in stuffy rooms, alternating between sitting at our desks and lying down in our beds; “the best years of our lives” spent in isolation.

Unable to explore the city’s interiors, I resigned myself to exploring untraversed landscapes. I began to go on sunset walks through Westgate Gardens as far as the earthy path would take me, then cut through the outskirts of town through to Dane John Gardens and beyond. I became a flâneuse, becoming intimately acquainted with the city as I wandered through it. It was a welcome respite to realise that I could still feel connected with this beautiful place when I was limited to its exterior; that I can still wear my self in the city; that the city can still feel like my home.

…But when the sun sets, I am faced with the hard fact of my gender. Because I am a woman, I must be a flâneuse, my relation to the city must be defined by the dangers that come with being a woman within it. Wandering at night makes me vulnerable on streets venerable by day…

With restrictions easing, life is returning to campus, to the library café, to Canterbury’s streets and its outdoor seating areas. It doesn’t even feel weird, and you’d think that it would. You’d think I’d have become so accustomed to living as a ghost, but it almost feels like it has always been like this; like I didn’t take my four modules confined within four walls. Camus said that ‘after a while, you could get used to anything', but I don’t think any of us have truly gotten used to living this half-life: if we woke up tomorrow and the virus had been eradicated miraculously overnight, mingling, leaning in close and hugging close friends would come naturally.

The magic of Canterbury lies in the interactions we have with and within it; in the moments when we feel present; made to feel alive under its spell. The pandemic diminished its magic by forcing us apart, but it did not extinguish it. It couldn’t. Its magic is inexhaustible, so long as we continue to wander through its streets, connect with one another under its canopies and expand our minds, up late to finish the reading or an essay, under its roofs. We can’t take back all the days we spent confined to our rooms, alone but we can seize opportunities to create more magic for ourselves and those with whom we share the city as it welcomes us once again.

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