“The gentle reader will never, never know what a consummate ass he can become until he goes abroad.”
Before I left for my international adventure, I knew I would have to blog about it, and I had no idea how I was going to do it. Three weeks and 5 countries later, and I still have no idea where or how to start with this blog post. As I continue writing I realize that after starting with a phrase like “international adventure,” I owe my readers an explanation, lest I sound like that worldly Facebook friend you secretly hate. *ahem*
A few short weeks ago, I boarded a plane to England, where I was to take a two week honors course entitled “Traveling and Telling: Mobility and the Art of Narrative,” taught at Magdalene College at Cambridge University by Oklahoma State professors. As evidenced by the title of the course, we spent the middle weekend of the two weeks traveling to a different country, in my case Barcelona, Spain, and then returning to write about it in narrative form. As if that weren’t pretentious enough, after the course my girlfriend and I spent ten days on our own visiting Paris, Dublin, and London. To keep the amount of content manageable (and to build the dramatic tension), I have decided to break the trip down into parts, and write separately about each part of my trip– sorry, adventure.
I’ll start off with England, where I spent both the beginning and the end of my journey. I spent more time in England than anywhere else, and it served as sort of a cultural vestibule to Europe, its culture being similar enough to the United States’ that it was easily accessible, but different enough that it was still clearly a part Europe. The first part of my English experience consisted of the two weeks I spent in Cambridge, and the last part of my trip was a day and a half in London before our flight out. Our stay in London was during the Olympics, and was a truly unique and multicultural experience. Actually, it was mostly a chance to pay too much for Olympic souvenirs and walk too far for Olympic atmosphere, but it was an experience nonetheless.
-My first impression of England wasn’t a good one. After getting past the surly customs guy at Heathrow Airport and a 50 minute subway ride through a rainy, thoroughly graffiti’d and dingy-looking London, we made it to King’s Cross Station to board our train out to Cambridge. After a 9 hour flight and a 50 minute subway ride through a rainy, thoroughly graffiti’d and dingy-looking London, my bladder was on its last legs, but I couldn’t find a bathroom anywhere save for the one that cost 30 pence to use.
There’s not much warmth to be had in a country where it costs 30p for a wee.
-On the train from London I was struck by how quintessentially English England was. This may seem like an odd thing to say, but rarely does something look exactly how one pictures it. The landscape was made up of hedgerows, rolling hills and rows of identical, slightly warped-looking townhouses, straight out of Harry Potter. It was like I was on a movie set, designed to look exactly like England.
-Cambridge, a college town so steeped in history and tradition that using the phrase “steeped in history and tradition” seems almost mandatory when describing it.
-As I walked around in Cambridge and London, I found myself very conscious of my foreignness, and my perceived global perception of Americans. I felt like I had the stars and stripes glued to the back of my head, and that everywhere I went I had to apologize for my American. When ordering in restaurants, or talking to cashiers I felt like I had to preface everything with “Ah yes, sorry for my American but can I get an English breakfast tea?”
-My concerns weren’t entirely unfounded either, I don’t know if they hated Americans, were just having a bad day, or didn’t care enough to falsify their friendliness, but a lot of the waitstaff and service employees seemed excessively surly and in many cases what I and my vague sense of Southern Hospitality would call downright rude.
-Going to England without a rain jacket is like going to the moon without a spacesuit, except instead of your eyeballs getting sucked out you’re just wet and uncomfortable the entire time. It never quite rained rained, it just violently drizzled every day we were there.
-Driving on the left freaks me out.
-A lot of things in England were incredibly logical and efficient, like their shower design and public transportation, but others were apparently so comically rooted in antiquity or tradition that they defied even the most basic sense of the word logic.
Faucets. Why in the world would you need one faucet that spouts scalding hot water, and one that dispenses ice cold water in the same sink? Neither is comfortable for hand washing, and they’re too far apart to mix them to a nice medium warm.
Also, British outlets are way too large to be practical, it takes a four foot power strip to power a basic computer setup, why does that make sense?
British money doesn’t make any sense either, I’m sure it has some historical significance, but the size of coins seems to be arbitrary. Two pence pieces are massive, pound coins are small, ten pence pieces are larger than a pound, and nothing seems to make sense except for the composition of the coins themselves. American and Euro coins at least roughly correlate size with value, with the larger coins being worth more than smaller ones. Normally this nonsensical sizing wouldn’t be a big deal, but because there are no bills there smaller than a five, transactions are extremely coin-centric.
-Time in Cambridge is measured in centuries rather than decades, and prices are measured in weight, rather than money.
-British Pubs are awesome, enough said.
-British food was extraordinarily bland. I appreciate subtle flavors, but the Brits can’t handle spiciness. I guess their stiff upper lips are too sensitive? Not even the Indian food was spicy enough. To survive, I had to buy some Tabasco from the grocery store and carry it around with me like a flask.
-The more time I spent in England though, the more I grew to like it, its quirks, its history, and its stiff upper lips. Despite the effect it had on my bank account, England is a place I could see myself one day, sipping some English breakfast tea, writing and minding my own business in a coffee shop on an undoubtedly rainy day.
P.S. It took me way too long to post this. Pictures are coming soon, but if you can’t wait you can check (most of) them out on my Facebook page.