As a History student who has mostly studied early modernity (that is, being primarily concerned with kings, queens, the establishment of the rule of law, and changing attitudes to theories of knowledge and governance), I don’t tend to see the machinations of modern industrial societies as natural. Urban spaces are vastly complex; modern industrial and post-industrial governments and democratic forces are unwieldy and unstable caprices – peace, organisation and prosperity lie precariously upon humans’ naturally lawless propensity for chaos and disruption.
If young British people, growing up in a relatively peaceful, intricately-constructed and stable society, are prone to forgetting that social and environmental human structures are malleable and by no means permanent, memory yields different conclusions for former Soviet states – not least for Poland, on the stomping ground between Axis and Allies during World War Two. After doing some thinking about the anti-Semitism that had been debated during the NUS referendum in Easter term, I wanted to find out something about my own ancestral links to the Holocaust and the persecution of Jews in Poland.
Sometimes upon travelling, our ambition to ‘broaden our horizons’ sinks into that Western, individualist notion of ‘finding ourselves.’ A sort of personal pilgrimage to discover the ‘self’, a conception of personality that we rarely remember is at least partially an idiom of US-European modernity. Sometimes travelling does something very different: rather than handing personal growth on an exotic platter, remote from beige parochialism, it can teach us to critically reflect on what we take for granted. In my case, those beige edifices and architectural relics of a Gothic past, housing that culturally-contingent educational elitism I’ve become so comfortable with, became a surprising object of reflection against my original intention.