I woke up the next morning via my iPhone alarm and quickly discovered the gut-wrenching happiness of the devilish “Marimba” ringtone is just as painful in foreign countries at 7am as it is in America. Though I could have slept for another ten hours and barely got out of bed without throwing my phone out the window, I did notice myself noticeably more capable of human life than I had been the previous day. My host mom is not so much of a morning person, so she left me cereal and an English wheat biscuit concoction on the table. While I ate and cleared some of the fog from my brain (it was stubborn, like a fake kind of fog that sticks to you and stinks and makes you think you’re going to get cancer from breathing it), a few things started to sink in that I had unconsciously noticed about London and its people at first glance throughout day one.
Firstly, English people seem to eat jam with everything. Breads and biscuits and cereals and crackers and cakes and scones and HOLY JAM! We Americans are just not big jam people. We do the occasional peanut butter and jelly and perhaps some of us will eat jam or jelly on a good piece of morning toast, but that is the extent of it. Our jellies are fun little packets with which we can play whilst we wait for our food. Here, you do not play with your jam. You eat your jam. You always eat all your jam and you always eat jam. It is a national obsession, one I probably will never fully understand.
Additionally, the construction signs in England are different than ours. Instead of reading “ROAD WORK AHEAD” in obnoxiously bright orange, they look the same as other signs on the road, just simple red signs with little bathroom figurine dudes digging things. I’m not quite sure how I feel about this. While I would say they’re less noticeable and therefore the drivers could be less informed and more reckless whilst driving through construction zones, I don’t think Londoners could ever possibly drive less recklessly under any circumstances. It’s a good thing I was sleeping for a good bit of my trip on the day of my arrival, because I think I may have otherwise had a heart attack.
First of all, as I’ve previously established, these people drive on the wrong sides of the road. Secondly, the roads are about three inches wide. This is a slight exaggeration of the tiny space, but if we got a few McDonald’s regulars from America to come down here and walk the streets, I promise you there would be an issue with two-way traffic. The next problem is that everyone who lives in London and owns a car is absolutely insane. I shouldn’t say that. My host mother owns a car and she is quite nice. But, as I later found on the tube (London’s underground rail system), Londoners don’t have much concept of personal space – for your person or your car.
I suppose the final point of insanity I find with London streets is that pedestrians never have the right of way. Ever. In America, you walk across the street with the mentality, “What’s that fast-approaching car going to do? Hit me?” Perhaps you do not do this, but I most certainly do. And I am most certainly correct. The drivers slam on their brakes and give you nasty looks as you stroll your way through the crosswalk lackadaisically. Here, you will die. You will land on a London driver’s windshield like a pesky bug and he would continue as you laid in the road and got run over by all the cars behind him.
But there were other, more subtle differences I was noticing as well. For example, most people here do not run the air conditioning in their vehicles. This is fine by me, as windows down is my preference in America as well, but it was a curious observation my brain seemed to note.
The showers are also different. One student said her shower was truly a hose and that she experienced the What a Girl Wants-style scene her first shower, the hose thrashing about the room spraying water everywhere. Another noted she didn’t know what to do with the hose and experienced her first shower here in an awkward standing/sitting position. Luckily, my host mother has her shower hose secured in a clip on the wall, so my shower experience after the water on is very much similar to the one I’d find in America. Turning it on, though, is far more clever than any system I’ve seen in the States. On the shower, there is one lever to turn the water from hot to cold and another lever to turn the water on and off. With this, I don’t have to run out of the shower or stand back while I try to turn the water from hot to off, passing by “can’t feel your toes hypothermia cold” or “let me scald your skin hot” in the process. It may seem silly, but this makes quite a lot more sense to me. It was like my hygienic self felt enlightened upon my encounter with this English shower.
I contemplated these clearly life-changing, keystone concepts while I readied myself and made my way to the East Finchley tube station, a twenty minute walk from my temporary home Hampstead Garden Suburb. I should note now that the street signs in London are very much unlike ours in America. There are no poles or green markers anywhere to be found. Instead, white plaques decorate streets’ corner buildings and modestly proclaim street names. Sometimes. In central London, these labels, if they are there, may be three stories up. They also may be on the random brick walls enclosing flower gardens. They may also be on little picket signs in said flower beds. They also very well may just not be on that particular corner. In short, making the trek to the tube station was quite the experiment.
But I braved the crazy drivers and made it to the station, finding buying tickets and locating my train much more user-friendly than navigating London streets. I felt obnoxiously excited climbing aboard for that coveted first tube ride. There were no seats available at the 8:30am departure time, which somehow made me even more excited. I got to stand up on a speeding train and hold onto a pole whilst the movement jostled me about and I shared intimate personal space with strangers. How thrilling! Needless to say, I have since overcome my maiden voyage’s excitement. Also needless to say, the poor locals on their ways to work were absolutely ready to stab me. As we were later told in an orientation session by a local, “If you smile at us and we do not smile back, please do not be surprised. It’s the morning. We’re going to work. We do not want to see happy people.”
As I controlled my urge to jump up and down with amateur glee at the sudden stops and turns and lurches of the massive snake of steel I rode, I turned my attention to the “Londoners” surrounding me. I put Londoners in quotation marks here because, as an American, I expected to come to England to find a million hot British guys sitting around talking in their captivating English accents about football and rugby. Really, though I have met a few of these men, they are few and far between in London. I think I heard more Spanish and Hindi on the tube than I did English – with or without the accent.
American cities and colleges brag about their diversity. My home institution certainly fits right in with this stereotype, advertising to prospective students its commitment to diversity and passion for creating a diverse student body. Even after I got to Ursinus, I found the school hosted diversity talks, diversity dialogues, diversity focus groups. The only problem is, we live in a town that is 90% Caucasian, our school is predominately attended by students who are white, and our campus was built from the pages of a 1950’s white American Stepford Wives magazine. I love my school. Having the privilege to be part of Ursinus is what led me to the brilliant opportunity to experience what I currently am. I understand “building diversity” is not an easy feat. But I had no concept of the word until I arrived in London.
In London, people of all nations, religions, and personal backgrounds and walks of life come together in one place and live harmoniously. Granted, Londoners aren’t big on casually smiling at one another walking down the street or making conversation while waiting in line for the escalator at the Leicester Square tube station, but they don’t hate one another for who they are. Two men who may have come from warring countries, who may have hated one another had they met five hundred miles east of London, can sit down next to one another on the tube and nothing is said about it. That is diversity. That is magic. That is London.
I found the CAPA Education Center on Cromwell Road in the Kensington and Chelsea area of London accessible and splendid. After our morning orientation sessions – which were all horrible because they were given by Americans with no accents – we were sent out on a scavenger hunt for a few hours of the day. We were split into teams and sent on our ways on a quest around the neighborhood. I would tell you how many city blocks we walked, but city blocks don’t so much exist in London. This city has a more curvy, make-no-sense, no-outlet-here kind of street layout. It’s charming, but a bit confusing for a London rookie.
Along the way, we came across a Whole Foods Market (where I had the worst burrito of my life but saw some of the most amazing produce in the world), a charming old church, a children’s play area, and a children’s school. Apparently, every small child in London has a cute little push-scooter he or she rides along, so, at the schools, they have massive parking banks for all the tiny scooters. I may or may not have stalked the tiny children on their tiny scooters with my camera. Nasty looks ensued.
While we were scavenging and hunting, we stumbled across a beautiful park. I should say now that both the day of my arrival and my first day in the city were beautiful, as far as weather was concerned. 75 degrees Fahrenheit and blue, sunny skies found many shocked locals sunbathing and reading in this park. And then I saw a squirrel, so that was the end of the scavenger hunt for my group. We ventured back into this park and did some exploring. We came across a wonderful gazebo that looked very royally built, a garden oasis that could take your breath away, and the most adorable little tea spot that looked very posh. And then we “stumbled across” it.
Kensington Palace. There it stood, with the gates covered in a memorial of Princess Diana, as her death anniversary was just a few short days ago. The ground floor included an elaborate gift shop, restroom signs with figurines dawning crowned jewels, and Princess Diana’s personal effects. I felt like a moron stumbling into the home of one of the most beloved women of England, but being there and letting it all just sink in was an experience unlike any other.
After we handed in our pitiful completion of the scavenger hunt, we decided it was time to finally make our bodies believe we were in London. First stop: the pub. Devonshire pub is just a short walk away from the CAPA center and, since it’s painted purple, it seemed like the perfect place to go for our first legal drinking experiences. The bartender recommended a perfectly smashing wheat beer for me, Franziskaner Weissbier, and it is now my favorite beverage. At least for the next three and a half months. Or until my beer money runs out.
We then made our ways to the classic “Big Ben” site at the Tower of London and Houses of Parliament, where I literally jumped up and down with a friend as the monument came into sight. We played the “tourists in a phone booth” game and took a million and four pictures before we all realized that jet lag is a real life problem and we were spent from our days of exploring. The tube ride home was marginally less exciting that evening, and bedtime came early once again.