England is more home than home… but also way more exciting, and slightly scary. And I haven’t even been to London center yet.
On a side note, I had my first crumpet today… here it is:
I know I’m technically in the honeymoon phase right now, but even though I didn’t understand the way the roads worked, or often what people were saying (in my language, mind you), I felt a strong affinity with the United Kingdom as soon as I got there. I hardly felt that I had traveled any distance at all, or that I had only gotten closer to home.
Part of this could be because American culture is just everywhere. I think my sense of American Exceptionalism was bruised by seeing Coca Cola advertised on the sides of all the buses, as well as Doritos, McDonalds, and even KFC for sale in most chain stores. It seems that old Rammstein song is very true: “We are living in Amerika – Coca Cola, Wonderbra.” This Kingston is more like my old haunt of Kingston NY than I would like to admit – it was a wake-up call to realize how much the American market has taken over.
…But then again, there are delightful things that are different about it. Generally speaking, everything’s older. The houses are all in better condition, cozier, made of sturdy brick or old stone and mortar. and there’s more densely packed history here than there even was in Kingston or my home of Hurley NY, two primary destinations for old stone houses in my state.
Things are also smaller and cuter almost all the time here! The streetlights are on little poles! The radiators are paper-thin compared to those in the US, the toilets, sinks, and bike lanes are all smaller, and all the cars on the road are itty-bitty compared to the hunkering American monsters that eat up our roads. I love the sight of so many Mini Coopers pooting by. I love the red public telephone boxes on each street. The only thing I’ve really noticed that are bigger here, are the double decker buses, and the imperial pints you can order at the pub, as long as you’re over 18. Fun note – I have already been carded twice so far, something I’m not complaining about since I’m 25 and have been legally able to drink for four years in the States. So go me!
There are foxes everywhere, and in our area of London there are way more parakeets than you’d think there’d be! This is due to a classic film shoot decades ago, where a small number of ‘keets were released into the wild, after which they multiplied ravenously. The Thames is inhabited by a million billion swans, and there’s also an expansive park nearby with deer and badgers and other creatures, which makes me feel more at home coming from a rural community.
Public transportation here is both more comprehensive and more irritating – You can catch a bus from wherever you are (or close by), and bus fare is paid with just one nuzzle of the oyster card on the panel, but you’d best plan up to a full hour ahead even if you’re just heading across town – because these buses are often late. At least in this suburb of London. I have yet to try the subway, but the double decker buses are very exciting to ride because of all the “humps” (crosswalks) they have to go over, and how fast the drivers drive (apparently they do not need to have a special license to drive them!). It’s like being on a very large, ungainly land speedboat.
Brits seem more conscientious of the environment, and also not. For instance, at Sainsbury’s and most chain grocery stores, they charge 20 pence per plastic bag (these are pretty durable for re-use) at the checkout. But as my boyfriend (also studying abroad through the same program) and I walked down his suburban street, we noticed a small, ransacked heap of garbage (most likely towed by a fox) laying on a lawn for two days, and no one picked it up. It reminded me strongly of my homeland.
Some prankster back home told me that all of the stores in the UK sold only health-food, and as such I would never find an American equivalent of a health-food store. I’ve found that Sainsbury’s is much like any Walmart or Shoprite, with mostly non-organic food and a few organic products with jumped-up prices. And I went to my first health-food store today, and they were not nearly as comprehensive as the one back in Kingston NY. So there – America is not the only “unhealthy” place in the world!
In the United Kingdom, I noticed, value judgements are placed on things in the most official manners in order to control the public. For instance, this sign illustrates the deep scorn reserved only for pigeons, making sure you know exactly what to think of them:
I quite like the pigeons myself. But I haven’t had a sandwich stolen by one yet.
Some things they have here that (for the most part) they don’t have in the Upstate New York:
-Lemon Curd at an affordable price
-Of course the Double Decker Buses
-A Million Accents
-Super Cheap Playstation Games (Dennis got Arkham Asylum for 4 quid!)
-Fresh Fish and Seafood
-Subsidized Theatre (CHEAP TICKETS, especially for “Youths,” 25 and under! My dream!)
-Wine, Beer, and Spirits for sale in the grocery store!
-Many more options for different kinds of Asian, Carribean, African and South American Cuisine
-Calling Hookah “Shisha” (I almost accidentally ordered this at a Lebanese restaurant, thinking because of the fruity “flavours” that Shisha was a drink)
-1 pound and 2 pound coins (I can pay for a cup of tea with just one coin! So cool.)
-Lots of women openly and shamelessly wearing hijabs! It seems to me like they are very unselfconscious compared to American women wearing the same thing, – I may be wrong, but there’s much less of a stigma here. Makes sense, since even London’s Mayor, Sadiq Khan, is Muslim, and there’s no Donald over here)
-So many mysteries – like what, exactly, is “Chip Butty?”
-And WAFFLEMEISTER (…just …waffles. everywhere, with sweet and savory amazing things on them)
I think for me, the easiest thing to get used to was the currency. Lucky to arrive in the wake of Brexit, when the Pound is not so strong against the Dollar, I’ve just been adding .30 to each pound I spend and I understand how much it really costs to live here. With proper budgeting and affordable rent, it’s manageable, though this first week I have both invested and splurged. I will definitely have to cut back and cook at home more. Also, I was amazed and delighted to find that there are FREE CASH WITHDRAWAL MACHINES, which I just don’t understand why in America we have to pay to get our own money, and here I just stick my American bank card in, and it withdraws and converts my money into pounds at no extra cost (except perhaps a few cents of a bank fee). What is life!!! Here is more evidence of splurging, when Dennis and I bought “Snogs” (frozen yogurt) and proceeded to… well, you know. Eat frozen yogurt next to each other in front of EVERYONE.
Oh yes – lodgings. My lodgings situation had to change last-minute (AAAAAAAA) due to “unforeseen circumstances,” so I was assigned new lodgings that became available five days after I had booked tickets to arrive (AAAAAAAAA), thus I had to stay at a B&B for five days before I moved in – a strain on my budget. Luckily for me, Dennis’ landlady, Meow (yes, that’s her name, and it’s wonderful like her), was incredibly kind and offered to put me up for a few days until Dennis’ roommate moved in (Ahhhhhhhh…) and so I had free lodgings for three days, then two days of the totally charming B&B (first time I used skeleton keys in a practical sense!), and now I’ve finally moved into my new room (Yusssss!!!!!).
I feel that I really lucked out. I absolutely love where I get to live, my landlords are friendly and accommodating, and my neighborhood is rife with foliage. Nearby is a game park full of deer, and I woke up this morning to the clip clopping of hooves from horses that live right down my street. Not only is it beautiful, but they have a lovely dog and four chickens! So I will never be short of animals to talk to!
To top it all off, I’ve included a picture of me, my boyfriend, and our friend Hannah (or as we jokingly call ourselves, Harry, Ron, and Hermione… okay, so that’s just what I call us, but never mind). All of us come from the SUNY New Paltz theatre department. I feel like we’re lucky to have each other to bounce off of whenever a hiccup comes along the road (and there have been a few). So far we’ve hung out a lot, but I think we’re all eager to branch out soon and make other friends as well at the university. Classes don’t start for over two weeks, and I am super eager to see what classes are like in the UK!
If I learned anything from this first crazy week, it’s this: Do not freak out. Everything’s okay. Things will seem totally up the wall. You will most likely worry about things. Stress is normal, you’ll get used to this brave new world. Sooner than you think, you’ll start looking the “right” way before you cross the street. And if you are in a situation where you’re not sure what’s next, don’t worry, because there are many kind people in the world who are willing and happy to help you. You are less of a burden than you think. You will come out okay. I’m stunned by the kindness of people I’ve countered in my first few days, and I have confidence that once classes start, I will make so many more friends and never, ever, ever want to leave this incredible place.
One thought – I wonder if, when we experience and see the world in a slightly different shape, we stop taking for granted an existence that is not so different than our own? Suddenly, we become aware of what we have ignored for most of our lives? Could it be that only by seeing the world “slant,” as Emily Dickinson would put it, do we appreciate the poetry of life and look closer at things that are, deep down, very familiar to us? What if humans, even in their delicious differences, are actually just different colors emanating from the same ray of light?