Habitualization devours objects, clothes, furniture, one’s wife and the fear of war…Art exists to help us recover the sensation of life; it exists to make us feel things, to make the stone stony.
– Victor Shklovsky
The students hated them. Had they never seen a building before? They looked idiotic, staring in awe at the Gothic architecture, taking pictures in front of Blair Arch, impeding our paths to class. They came from many places- a couple of states away, a time zone away, half a world away; they came for different purposes- a few years until college age and already dreaming big, stopping by the area on route to vacation, scholars of architecture, U.S. history, admirers of knowledge, education, or prestige. There was no one mold, one encompassing reason for these human beings to be here, invading our land, using our terrain as a vacation site, assuming that just walking on this campus meant they knew about this place. They didn’t understand that the campus was more than pretty buildings, trees, and “lucky” students– that behind these walls were living, breathing stories of people not unlike themselves. That underneath the perfect and the prestige were toilets that needed flushing, an alarm clock still ringing, an all-nighter pulled, an essay draft turned in last minute, doubt about the future. The students hated them because apart from the increased inconvenience and crowding, they viewed us as indigenous specimen at a a zoo exhibit.
The one commonality among the tourists was their profound knack for noticing the beauty in everything. They would point to a brick in the building and admire the shade of red, enter an old rundown classroom and declare, “how antique!”, and photograph even shrubbery.
“Excuse me miss, could you take a picture of me by this tree?” An elderly man stands hopefully, holding his camera with both hands. “Oh sure, I’d be happy to,” I reply, noting that the tree’s bright yellow hue during the spring is a huge favorite among tourists. I hold the camera delicately and attempt to capture the essence of the tree amidst the rest of the landscape. Snap. Snap. And a third. Snap. Just in case.
“Here you go,” I smile; his enthusiasm is infectious.
“Thank you, miss.” He looks at me again. “You know, I came from England to visit a couple of areas in America, and this campus was one of them because I love being around you young people. So much spirit, perhaps a bit stressed for my liking, but so much potential and energy.”
I smile again, mentally formulating a courteous response. “Well thank you, I’m glad you’re enjoying your time here. What’s your favorite building on campus?”
“Oh I love Firestone library–” I smile again…of course he chooses the library. “– really, the amount of knowledge and resources you kids are exposed to, amazing. So amazing. Appreciate it. You kids now are very lucky.”
“Yeah, we’re definitely lucky,” I reply, hoping to terminate the conversation soon and head to lunch.
“You know what, I’ll send you some pictures that I took today. You’d like them a lot,” the man rummages in his duffel bag and pulls out a memory card. “They were some good pictures, some good ones.”
“Sure, here’s my email address,” I tear a piece of paper from my notebook and scribble on it quickly. “It was great talking to you sir.”
That night, I check my email, curious as to what photos he would send. “You gave a random tourist your email?” my roommate says disapprovingly. “It’s just my school email, besides it would have been rude to just say no, and maybe we could use the pictures to decorate our…” my voice falters. “Oh my god.”
“What? Don’t tell me he sent nudes.”
“No, my god, these are breathtaking. This old geezer could be a professional photographer if he wanted to,” I look at the photos, mouth-opened in awe.
“Maybe that’s his retirement plan.” My roommate replies, “Or plot-twist, you just gave a famous British photographer your email address.”
I do not hear her comment; the photographs have entranced me. The buildings look tall, beautiful, majestic. There is an aura of mystery, a touch of pride, and an overwhelming sensation of security. The photos remind me of my first days as a freshman, when the campus was a fresh piece of territory and I could spend time outside doing nothing but enjoying the view. Even studying in the Firestone library felt like an out of body experience.
So this is what the tourists see, I think to myself.
The next morning, I pass by a group of tourists photographing Blair Arch. I look at the stately stairs leading up to the broad, sweeping curvature– it was beautiful. I see it now. I see it. I wave to the tourists and smile, they wave back enthusiastically.
There is beauty in seeing this world through the eyes of an outsider.