Across the Pond

27 Jan

In case you somehow weren’t aware, I’ve been in England for nearly a month. I haven’t posted a blog update since my arrival because it’s been a busy few weeks. But now it’s time to recap what’s happened so far.

The voyage here from the States and my initial arrival were far from seamless. I don’t think I’ll ever fly with Continental again (after the return journey, of course). First of all, my plane from Manchester to Newark was two hours late. Initially, I was told that I wouldn’t make my connecting flight, and would have to take another flight the next day. This made my blood boil, especially because I would miss out on all of the welcome events and moving-in assistance at Sussex. The thing that really made me mad, though, is that the Continental employee at the desk told me that this particular flight was always late. If it’s always late, then why the heck do they advertise the earlier arrival time?!

Eventually, it looked as if the plane would make it in time for me to catch my flight to London. This brought my stress level down, until the plane actually arrived at Manchester. Then, we were told that the plane had to wait even longer for its clearance to take off. At this point, I was stressed to the max. If I took the flight, I would run the risk of getting stranded overnight in Newark (of all places… *shudder*). However, I found out that there was a later flight from Newark to London that night (why didn’t they tell me this the first time I asked?), so I took my chances.

It looked as if I would still make it in time for my connecting flight, until I noticed that the plane seemed to not be descending towards the city. Holding pattern. By the time the plane was able to land, I had maybe five minutes to reach my connecting flight. Fortunately, it was in the same terminal, but if you’ve ever been to the Newark airport, you’ll know that the terminals are massive. I had to walk very, very briskly (if I ran with my bags, I would’ve gotten tired out before I reached the other end of the terminal). I suppose that the moving conveyor belts helped a bit, but I got to the gate a couple minutes before they began boarding. Nothing short of miraculous.

That was a wonderful relief. Apparently the flight to London had also been delayed a bit. And once we got on the plane, there were more issues – technical difficulties and the like – so we were at the gate for quite some time. Annoying as it might be, I was remarkably relaxed, considering how franctically I had tried to get on this plane in time. Nonetheless, I think I’ll reserve my patronage for a different airline next time.

Two English people sat next to me on the plane (from somewhere oop North, judging by their accents), and with all the cute English accents around, I was finally able to think about where I was going, rather than the process of going there. Unfortunately, there were a few more difficulties ahead yet. I had forgotten to recharge the batteries in my camera, and so I wasn’t able to take pictures from my window seat. And I had three great opportunities to do so:

1) flying over Manhattan at night, with the huge skyscrapers and all the lights (including Christmas colours on the Empire State Building); 2) approaching the sunrise over the North Atlantic…the sky was a bright, bright orange over a sea of clouds…really beautiful; and 3) flying over England. The early morning sun cast long shadows across the landscape, making the lovely rolling hills of the South Downs very prominent. And the green…such green. I’ve never seen such green grass so prevalent everywhere…but I suppose when it rains all the time… It’s certainly an unusual sight in wintertime, though.

At any case, when we de-planed at Gatwick, the reality of being in a foreign country on my own for the first time really set in. My stress level went up again, thinking about how I would get from the airport to the school without having any experience with the rail system in this country, and so forth. The customs line (sorry, queue) for non-E.U. nationals was also rather long, and at the end of it I was met by a rather glum customs agent (is there any other kind?). After getting my bag, I headed towards the trains (one huge bonus of European airports), but after getting my pre-paid ticket from a machine, I quickly realised that I had no idea what to do next. The ticket did not indicate a train number, or a track number. I tried to consult various maps and timetables, but it was probably just too much to take in, especially since I hadn’t slept very much at all on the plane (and hadn’t slept much the previous night, either, if at all).

I then went up to the information desk, where I was met by another unfriendly individual (not the best first impression of English people, but it would’ve been foolish to make any generalizations at that point), who nonetheless provided the information I needed. However, I either forgot which track to go to, or she told me the wrong one…I honestly can’t remember. I soon realized that I was at the wrong track, though, and at this point I had really had enough of all this stress. After a while, I was able to consult some timetables which indicated the right track.

I got on the train going to the right place (amazingly), although I asked the conductor to make sure (who *was* friendly). He did tell me that I had two options in terms of where to change trains, although I wasn’t initially sure what he meant when he said “There’s not much in it” — I eventually supposed that this expression meant “It doesn’t make much difference.” This would be the first of several Britishisms to come.

Despite all the confusion, I did learn that the trains in Europe are considerably better than their North American counterparts, given the much greater frequency of trains, the much more extensive rail systems, and the much better punctuality of the trains. When I got to Brighton, I didn’t know which track to go to in order to catch the train to Falmer (where the university is located), but one of the workers must have noticed that I looked disoriented and kindly helped me (after addressing me as “mate”). I found out that some of the baggage helpers at the station even offered money to a couple of my friends for their troubles — the complete opposite of the normal situation at home.

Of course while it’s easy to fall into generalizations like, “All English people are so nice!” or “English people are cold and rude,” the reality is obviously somewhere in the middle. While they do have their quirks, part of a social culture that I’m still trying to understand completely, I’ve found that on the whole they’re remarkably similar to people back home, that is, in New England. Like New Englanders, the people here have a reputation for being reserved or aloof, but once you talk to them, you get a completely different story (not all the time, of course). A large part of their charming side, though, is simply their accents, which seem to win over Americans without fail.

Admittedly, they are quite charming (although some people in this part of England can sound rather posh, and sometimes I wish I could hear other British accents more often — particularly Scottish. I did hear an Irish family in town one day, and I think there were some Scots in London…there were certainly Aussies! I know there are some people here from northern England, too, which is a nice contrast). Due to my linguistic bent, I sometimes fall into the trap of listening to *how* people are talking rather than what they’re saying (although I certainly don’t try to do this when someone’s addressing me directly). But it is fun. After a while, you don’t even really notice when someone is speaking with an English accent, since it has become the norm for me. Now *I*’m the one with the foreign accent, although there are a good deal of Americans at Sussex so I’m not a complete oddity. It is a novel situation to be in, though. I sometimes feel insecure about my accent, feel inferior if I’m speaking to an English person, and after talking to other Americans, I know I’m not the only one. But it’s just something I have to accept.

I’ve occasionally found myself using English pronunciations or intonations…especially when asking questions. It’s such a subtle but intriguing difference between the two dialects. For example, when an American asks, “Do you have your textbook?”, the intonation raises at the end, peaking on “book.” The same question, rendered into ‘British’, would be “Have you got your textbook?” — here, the intonation peaks on “text”, and then falls slightly. I’ve found myself doing this once or twice without thinking about it, and I’ve sometimes pronounced certain words in the English manner while speaking with an English person. Don’t worry, though, I’m not turning into Madonna or anything. However, I have heard my New England accent come out in certain words, probably due to similar features like r-dropping.

Most of my friends thus far, however, are not British. This is in part due to the fact that the events for the International students offered great chances to socialize — consequently, several of my friends are Americans, due to the large percentage of us among visiting students. But I have my non-American friends, too. I’m just working at making British friends, though, which was one of my goals when coming here, given what I’d heard from the alumni who said that it was rather difficult to befriend them.

I am at a disadvantage, moving into a very close social group half-way through the year, although at this point I have no plans to become *close* friends with the people who live near me. This hallway has been described as the “loudest and drunkest” part of the dorm, which honestly hasn’t been as bad as it might sound — it’s just that I can’t join in on the primary means of socializing: drinking. Don’t confuse this with drinking “socially,” which is an entirely different matter altogether, and one which is very responsible. I wouldn’t mind going to a pub if I knew my companions weren’t intending to get drunk, but unfortunately that’s often the case with my neighbours.

It’s certainly different from living in Marks Hall at USC, which obviously didn’t allow alcohol. Here, it’s everywhere, and even the school stores sell it. Might sound like a paradise for your typical American college student, but I don’t belong to the drinking culture and I never will, thank God. At any rate, there are bound to be slightly more sober British students out there, and while it’s very rare for them to socialize with people who are in the same classes as them (which was my primary way of making friends at USC), I’m sure I’ll find a way.

Anyway, I haven’t yet described what actually happened when I arrived at the school. It was mostly one technological difficulty after another — my plug converters only worked with some of my stuff. My alarm clock was essentially fried (not surprising, since it was from the ’80s, although I kind of miss that hard-working little thing). Thus I had to rely on the alarm clock on my cell phone, but unfortunately my cell phone charger wouldn’t work with the plug converter, either (and I still don’t have a UK charger or a converter that converts voltage, so I’m sans mobile at the moment). I ended up having to buy an alarm clock…which makes an extremely loud and unadjustable alarm noise. But hey, at least there’s no way I can sleep through it.

I also tried plugging my battery charger in to charge the batteries for my camera, but this was also fried. To make matters worse, when I attempted again to use those batteries in my camera (I had two pairs and hadn’t tried the second), I think they may have actually damaged the camera itself. That, or the camera stopped working for some other reason altogether. Yes, my camera broke. I eventually decided to buy a new one at Asda (the UK equivalent of Wal-Mart…everything is bright green instead of blue), because it was only £55 (about $110). It has 4.0 megapixels (I think my old one had 5.0), but more importantly, records video with audio (which my old camera couldn’t), so I figured it was worth the money. I’ve come to discover one glaring flaw, however – it eats up battery power like you wouldn’t believe. This necessitated me to buy a UK battery charger…a bit expensive at £20, but it included US and European plugs (so I can use it during Spring Break).

In general, everything is expensive here. Not only do we have a terrible exchange rate, but the average British salary is also $10,000 more than the average American salary, and so prices differ accordingly. It’s a major pain, and makes me feel guilty about traveling, even if my parents give me the green light. Well, at least I’m not staying at hotels or anything.

Anyway, all of these things made my first few days rather stressful, especially considering there were only a few days before classes started. I quickly learned that you could only flush the toilets once every 10 minutes or so, and that some of the faucets wouldn’t stay turned on, and some of the knobs wouldn’t turn at all. Despite my experience with the rail system, I soon realised that a lot of things here just don’t work as smoothly as they do in the States. The laundry machines are ridiculously small, take forever to wash, and cost TWO POUNDS ($4!) per wash! Fortunately I have a friend who lives in a residence with free washing machines, so now I have to lug my clothes over there and intrude in order to save a ridiculous sum of money.

I also had to hire (rent) a bedding pack for my room, which consisted of a duvet (what I’ve always known as a mattress cover), a duvet cover (which fits around the duvet…strange), and a fitted sheet. No regular sheet? No comforter? Fortunately I’d brought a blanket, but I have to use the duvet cover as my sheet, seeing as how its intended purpose really serves no function anyway. The bed itself is a rather rigid, rickety piece of work…but I guess we Americans are just spoiled.

I do enjoy having my own room, though, especially one with a sink. Things might not be perfect here, but it’s my home for six months, and I’m getting used to it. Admittedly, I was kind of depressed during those first few days — a lot of it was just the effect of all the stress, but it was also confounded by the English weather, which was dismally grey and dark and wet that first week. We’ve gotten some nicer weather since then, though. I even woke up to snow on Wednesday, which was a very pleasant surpirse. Don’t believe me? See for yourself:

Unfortunately, it melted later in the day. But I took the opportunity to take pictures of the surrounding countryside in the morning, which is absolutely lovely, snow or no snow. This brings me to all the photos that I’ve uploaded on facebook, chronicling my travels. If you’re reading on wordpress, you can view the photos at the following links:

Brighton: Part I — includes pictures of the Brighton Marina Village, the Undercliff Walk that runs along the coast beneath the chalk cliffs, the old and picturesque village of Rottingdean, some shots of Brighton landmarks at night time, and some of the beautiful campus environs.

Brighton: Part II — continues the pictures of the lovely countryside, including lots of farm animals that are raised on campus, and lots of pictures from downtown Brighton

Brighton: Part III — includes pictures of the Royal Pavilion, the Old Steine area, and the countryside under the snow

London: Part I — from the International students’ trip to London…includes a few miscellaneous shots but mostly the Tower of London, which was awesome (unfortunately I couldn’t take pictures of the crown jewels, but that’s really something that everyone should see for themselves)

London: Part II — more shots from walking through London, including St. Paul’s Cathedral, Parliament, the Thames, and Trafalgar Square.

I’m going back to London on my own Feb. 16-18 and staying at a hostel for two nights (unfortunately, in a mixed gender room with 12 beds). It should give me a chance to see some of the attractions we skipped over on our tour, and I’ll be going to the Science Museum (which has an awesome video game exhibition right now) as well as the British Museum. You can expect more photos then. 😉

Also, tomorrow I’m headed off to see the Seven Sisters (a famous area of coastline, with the white cliffs and all)…there’s a bus that runs from Brighton all the way to the park, which is great (and you gotta love the double-decker buses here!). Anyway, I should upload photos of that area tomorrow night (Greenwich Mean Time, of course).

I really love traveling around here. The history fascinates me, and I love the quaint villages and everything (although I have the feeling that English people feel the same way about New England villages). Sussex has some great castles, including the nearby Lewes castle, which I’ll be visiting twice over the next two weeks. There’s also a rather grand one in Arundel, which I’ll be visiting next weekend. Here are photos are some of the cool castles in the area (not mine):

Lewes Castle:

Arundel Castle:

Herstmonceux Castle:

Bodiam Castle:

I’ll be sure to add some photos of my own when I visit them. 😉

My Historical Geographies course has been a great resource for learning about England. It’s really fascinating. Even more fascinating is my Historical Linguistics class, which seems a lot more like fun than work (although I’m sure that feeling will change come finals time). My Sociology of Language class is equally fun and interesting. My Phonology class is very straightforward, but the exercises are actually fun, too.

The system is a bit different here, though. I spend less time in lecture than I would in the US, although I do have more discussion groups, or seminars. The reading lists are much less rigidly structured — you’re given a rather extensive list and expected to read a chapter or two from one or two of the books per week, at least. The best part is that all of the books are in the library, so you really don’t have to buy any books — thank heavens! It might sound easier than school back home, but…it’s taken very seriously. The studies are more focused since students attend university for 3 years rather than 4 and take fewer electives or GE courses. So the professors really don’t waste any time. You have to be on the ball with your reading and so forth. And while there might not be a lot of quizzes or papers, there’s usually one final exam and one paper or presentation that count for 100% of your grade…putting all your eggs in one basket.

I’m sure that I’ll be stressing out majorly when I have one of my papers due, and during finals, but I am enjoying the greater free time. It’s much easier on my stress levels. I like doing the 3-mile boundary walk around campus when the weather’s nice (even if the path is rather muddy)…very therapeutic.

One thing that I do miss is television — there’s no TV room in the dorm, and even if I did have a TV, I’d have to pay for a rather expensive television licence…now this is perhaps the most obscene concept ever for an American. Fortunately, I’ve discovered peekvid…while they don’t have all of my favourite shows up (like Law & Order), they do have most of them, even if it takes a few days for the latest episodes to be put up. It’s definitely a lifesaver. I couldn’t live without Scrubs, House, ER, Lost, Heroes, and 24. Although I’m not sure how I can watch Conan… 😦

Anyway, I think that does it for now. I was going to rant and rave about my travel plans for Spring Break and later, but I think I’ll save that for another post. This one is already quite long, and I commend you if you’ve read this far. You’re a true friend. 🙂 I’ll try to update more regularly in order to avoid long posts like this. I’ll also attempt to keep track of all the “Britishisms” that I come across. They’re quite quaint.



One Response to “Across the Pond”

  1. Lynda West 14 March 2007 at 21:35 #

    Great blog, good job getting it all together 🙂

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