What makes a place memorable?
A place may be architecturally beautiful, its urban design may promote connectivity and a sense of gathering, it may include natural elements that trigger the primal senses, and its uses may involve activities that we consider integral to the human experience: food, shelter, drink or worship.
The formal elements may shift, but they alone are not what makes places great. The two key ingredients in my mind are time and people—more in quality than in quantity. You may live in an apartment for years and never find that it feels like home. Or, you can spend a few hours—or minutes—in one place, and you’ll remember it for a lifetime.
Eleven years ago, I had such an experience during my first journey to Europe. In fact, yesterday would have been my wedding anniversary, and I can still remember vividly the Mackintosh-inspired registry office in Gretna Green, Scotland. Coming from Arizona, it seemed that the entire town, perhaps the whole country, was picturesque. Imagine a tiny, green burg with quaint shop-lined streets in the town center, equally quaint guesthouses, a small train platform, and endless pastures of green dotted only with sheep and their lambs, and an occasional stone wall or brilliant field of yellow rapeseed.
That entire trip provided a key turning point in my life—not only as my entry into marriage, but as a broadening of my world view—it sparked my desire to see other countries, experience how other people lived, and understand my European roots. The experience proved to be a catalyst for my desire to later return to Europe, twice to Italy and once to France.
Countless moments of reckoning occurred throughout the journey. Traveling via train over two weeks from London to Edinburgh and back, I heard more accents than I had in my whole life from people talking about things for which I had no concept: the European Union, random terrorist bombs on the Tube, Parliament, AbFab. I saw priceless works of art, examined historic relics from all over the world, and explored buildings and neighborhoods that had only existed for me in textbooks or my favorite stories from British Literature.
In spite of this rich texture, I can distill all of these experiences to one pivotal moment and one memorable place: the threshold at Westminster Abbey. True, the materials and design of the cathedral are awe-inspiring on their own, and the history of the place is immense. It’s impossible to ignore the sense of reverence that descends immediately upon entry.
For me, it was the magnitude of how many people had walked over that threshold before me.
I only considered it for an instant as my foot brushed over the stone, but I remember taking note that hundreds of years of feet scuffing over that stone had worn it down. The feet of penitent people, people looking for guidance, people who had no hope, people who came to get married, people who committed horrible acts and sought forgiveness, people who wanted their children to be blessed, people who came to mourn the dead, people who were interested in touching history.
This place—over time—brought them all together, and for a few moments, it drew me there, as well.
That step made me feel small and insignificant, yet also part of something greater. I, too, arrived in search of something, and—whether I knew it or not—I left a seemingly harmless scuff of my shoe on that stone. Later, I reflected on the fact that I was part of the human erosion and imprint upon Westminster Abbey. You may not be able to see my presence, but a piece of my spirit is there. Hundreds of years from now, another young woman will walk over that stone, and the impression will be a bit deeper because my invisible footprint will have helped to make it so.
Such an act is indicative of how we effect our environments and each other every day. We shape other people and places in ways we cannot imagine, and often cannot see; at least, not immediately. I could never have believed that my foot on an old stone could ever mean anything—but, it turns out, it was my first step into a larger world.