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Notes: This newsletter is long. I know that. I meant to keep it light, but it still turned out to be one hearty meal. Read at your own risk. I can't promise you wild things like tea with the queen, or wild car chases down the Chunnel. The summary sums it up though. You can read just that, or digest the whole thing. Up to you. Soup's on!
I made it to England. After a warm first day, the weather has been cold and all clouds. It's hard to dress for it since it's cold outdoors and warm indoors. The people are nice for the most part. The food is fine, and sometimes quite good. London is full of things to do and has 5825 pubs. They tell you that on the plane ride over. I've been to pubs and clubs. School is nice but some chairs are rather hard and it's tough to sit in place for one to two hours at a time. No big trips yet.
Where I stayed:
AIFS Student Center
London WC1E 7JN
September 12, 2002 (Pleasanton, CA)
The air was filled with bittersweet emptiness. I sat at my desk trying to figure out last minute things to do. Not easy. Many things could be done, but still, nothing HAD to be done. All truly pressing issues had been wrapped up, and now I sat waiting for the car to come. The day had arrived. The hour was present, and the minute was duly approaching.
Then the doorbell rang. Terry came inside. We grabbed the luggage and headed out to the car. I returned inside and took a final look around the house. It would be quite different when I returned. I'm not a huge fan of change. My roots grow deep and I'm pretty well settled in. Yet sometimes the winds of change are too strong. When I return in December, my brother will have moved out of the house. Perhaps new roommates will have moved in. I hope. Renting a house with two people isn't cheap.
Driving to the airport was uneventful. I wasn't just leaving town, I was leaving summer as well. Sure, summer would end soon anyway. But this was abrupt. I was going from 90 plus to cold minus. When I returned, December would be in session. Warm days were over.
Forget comedy; timing is vital in so many other areas of life. After saying farewell to Terry, I got into the check-in line. The line was short. Yeah short! Yet, things changed a few minutes after that. As I finished checking in my bags, I turned back to notice the line had quickly grown from a quick wait to a long one-hour wait. Yikes! That was close.
I waited in the boarding area for around three hours. During that time, I started to make a few friends for the journey ahead. Soon, we were boarding the plane and sitting down for the big flight. It was long, but uneventful. Each seat was equipped with a nice 8-inch monitor in front of it. This provided hours of fun-filled entertained. Er, that's dependent on the viewer being a Sandra Bullock fan. Four of the showing movies were Sandra Bullock movies. While I don't dislike her, I'm not a huge fan of her either. My entertainment cache was therefore instantly halved.
The meals were good and the flight went by sort of fast considering it was 10 hours long. Sleeping was next to impossible. I was just too uncomfortable for that. Eventually, we arrived at London. Daylight was upon us. Back in the U.S., it would have been 2am, but we were now faced with 10am London time. A 15-minute delay kept us circling over the airport. But we finally touched down. I was now in England.
September 13th, 2002 (London)
Picking up our luggage was not a problem. But getting through customs would take a mighty long time. The line just went on and on. It was like being at an amusement park and waiting in line for the big ride. Only thing was -- we weren't waiting to get on a cool fun ride; we had taken the ride, and stood in line to get off.
Once through customs (a one-hour line), we met up with the AIFS (American Institute of Foreign Study) lady, and she took us to busses. Another hour was spent waiting for everyone to finish passing through customs. We then boarded the busses and drove out.
One of the girls pointed out that the steering wheel was on the wrong side of the bus. Yes, it was a tired old joke, but someone needed to get it out of the way. She was kind enough to do the deed. Others were kind enough to laugh along. I tried to laugh, but couldn't. Really, though. I did try.
Nevertheless, when we drove out, it was quite different to watch traffic from the left side of the road. It takes time to get used to it, and no matter how much I tell myself to "Think Left," every time the driver makes a right turn, deep inside my reaction is "Augh! What the @#\$# are you doing!?! Trying to get us all killed?"
The roads are very small and filled with tiny cars squeezing about. I didn't see any accidents, which was somewhat amazing considering the gaps between the buses and other cars or people were a matter of only a few inches. I'll say one thing about driving in England -- it's precise!
In London, we came to our stop -- the Dilke House. This is where our student AIFS center was. I called it Home Base. Next door to that is the University of London. We unloaded again and after a brief meeting, most of us had some time to kill. Small groups of people walked down the streets of London to find food and drink. My group finally settled down at a small deli shop. A tad full from the airplane food, I only ordered a Coke. It was. 60 pence which equated to about \$.90 of American money. Not a great bargain, but hey, the can's label was in German. I found this fact rather neat. Another in our group pointed out that the can was smaller than US Cokes. I'm no coke connoisseur so I wasn't able to tell. I then got the bright idea to check the can and view the ounces. An American coke is 12 ounces. After inspecting the can, I got the specs -- .33 liters. Er, well, that didn't help. I guess I could have tried to figure out the mathematical equivalent, but I found it easier to just have a Coke and a smile and simply forget about it.
Still, I couldn't get over my cool new German coke can. I remarked that maybe I should take it home as my first souvenir. The girl next to me, Elizabeth, asked why would I do that? I said "Well because it's German." Another girl, Randi, said "I'm German; you can take me home with you."
I'm not positive, but I think she may have been flirting with me. Ah, you just gotta love this city. Come to think of it, she's American. Well, you just gotta love what this town does to people. Smashing baby, smashing.
After lunch, we returned to the Dilke House (Home Base). The lady there called up my family and they were ready for my presence. A cab was then called and I waited for it to arrive. 20 minutes later, I was inside a small taxi heading for my new home. Arriving there would take some time. It was after 4pm on a Friday and traffic was thick. London has some 9 million people in it. It doesn't take a large percentage of them to fill up the roads. It was stop-and-go traffic all the way -- and more stop than go. Sure, it could have been a nice opportunity to see the streets of London, but my eyes were too heavy to see much of anything. I needed sleep. I needed sleep fast!
Finally, the cab reached our destination -- Lauradale Road. The houses look very similar in their design, but each one has so much character to make it unique. The style is fantastic. Flowers and shrubs grow abundantly and flow over all the fences and gates. It's what one would picture old English two-story houses to be. Yet, nothing can describe it like a good picture, so I'll soon be capturing my humble abode on film. Well, technically, it's not film, it would be an array of 1's and 0's on a memory card. Never mind, just view the picture when I post it.
I exited the cab, grabbed my luggage and tipped the cab driver. I'm told we don't tip much here. And we certainly don't tip cab drivers. But so far, I'm unable to comply with this rule. I had to give him a couple of pounds. However, don't worry. I'll break this habit eventually. And I'll get used to not tipping, come home, eat out, and have waitresses spill hot coffee all over me and curse my good name.
I knocked on the door and Dorris answered. She was kind and friendly leaving me assured from her first hello that I was in a good home. She invited me inside and gave me a quick tour of the house. After which, she made us some tea. She offered tea OR coffee and I am a coffee fiend, but I'm in England now and I should adapt to local customs and drink tea. During our chat, her husband Martin came home and I made his acquaintance as well. That was it for introductions. It is just the two of them. They are a retired couple. She had been a psychiatrist and he was a probation officer. They're extremely friendly people and should be no trouble to live with.
After tea, we all took a walk down a few blocks to see the neighborhood and they showed me the path to the local Tube stop (the Tube is the London underground subway station). During which time, my stomach began to twist and turn. It wasn't fond of being dead empty and having nothing but strong tea poured into it. A nauseous feeling came over me, but I had to fight it. I didn't care to have my first impression of me be vomiting up their first cup of tea. In time, the feeling subsided, but I knew I had to eat soon. When we returned to the apartment, they asked me to join them for dinner. It was a custom in their household to have the student for dinner on the first night. Not a problem. It is a custom for me to never turn down a free dinner.
I went up to my room and unpacked. After that, I sat back and waited for dinner. But this would be no easy task. I was extremely fatigued at this point, and 45 more minutes would not be easy to pass. Every time I shut my eyes, they fought desperately to stay closed. TV didn't help either. I was fading fast. In time, the dinner announcement came and I happily trotted down the stairs to enjoy my first English dinner.
People my say what they like about English food, but I had absolutely no trouble with it. The meal was large and contained chicken with curry, squash and peas, noodles and rice, and bread and butter. It was large enough to fill me up. During dinner, I received a dose of another custom. But it's not primarily English. It's the kind host instinct of not feeling there is enough food on the guest's plate. "Here, have some more..." is the common phrase and it's simultaneously done with a spoonful of something or another being added to my plate. There's no denying the offer. There's no saying "Thank you, but I'm full..." The food is coming. End of story. Though, it's not a bad thing. The dinner was delicious and more peas and squash meant I was getting more healthy vitamins. I graciously accepted the gesture and ate everything on my plate. After dinner, I was offered some plums or ice cream for dessert. As full as I was, I just could not fathom turning down ice cream. So I accepted the offer and soon ice cream AND plums were before me. Yeah, I wouldn't be hungry for some time. As our meal was winding down, I also happened to notice that we had no liquids for dinner. Oddly enough, I didn't happen to notice that during dinner, just afterwards.
Dinner being done, I retired to my room. I did a small bit of typing, but I was spent. At that point, I had been up for over 24 hours. I had caught a few quick and ineffective winks of sleep during the plane ride over, but the fact remained -- I was spent.
At 8pm, I retired for the night.
September 14th, 2002
At 4am, I woke up. No big surprise, eight hours had passed since I fell asleep. My body was ready to shake rattle and roll. But this just wouldn't do. Not much was happening at 4am. I returned to bed.
It was at that point that the real feeling of "What on earth am I doing here?" occurred. I was thousands of miles from home, sleeping in a strange new place, and my life was considerably going to be different for three months. Before leaving for England, I had figured that I would have no feelings like that at all. Yet, it did occur. For a moment in the night, I was homesick. I fell back asleep.
Around 8am, I got up refreshed and ready to start the day. Moments afterwards, Dorris called up and asked if I wanted any coffee. "Yes, please," I returned. Yes, I realize that I said I'd be drinking tea while in England, but this was morning and morning doesn't count. I needed my coffee. I'll save "being English" for afternoons and evenings.
Minutes later, Martin brought a cup of coffee up to my room. "This is nice," I thought, "This is mighty nice!" I sipped my coffee, typed a little and then got ready for my morning meeting. Once out the door, I headed down to the Tube station and bought a ticket to Goodge Street. That was the station where the school was closest.
Once on the train, I noticed a girl whom I thought was in the same program. Yet, I couldn't tell. It's hard to recognize 200 new people right away. Our train was rapidly approaching Camden station. This was the final station before the fork in the tracks and the train would go the wrong direction for the school. In other words, it was transfer time. I noticed however, that the girl was not making a move to get off the train. Part of me said, "Say something to her and let her know." But another part of me said "Wait, that's not her. Don't look like an idiot. And maybe this is the right train after all." A choice needed to made fast. The doors were about to open. The question was simple: is it worse to allow someone to fall into a pit, or is it worse to pull someone into a pit? I pondered it a moment. The doors opened and I exited the train...alone.
I met a few others at the Tube exit and followed them to the University of London Student Union (ULU). I didn't bother to memorize the path. This would return to haunt me later.
We arrived at the UNU and went to the meeting room. It was packed. Two-hundred students were in there. It began at 10am and several speeches were made. We finished around 1pm and the rest of the day was open. A few students planned on going to dinner and a club at 8pm. I agreed to join them. But for the time being, a group was going to the Thames festival and I joined along. The festival was nice and street performers were all around. Many of them pretended to be statues. They would remain still until you tipped them. At which point they would do crazy movements. One would extend his hand for you to shake, and he would then refuse to let you go. It was interesting. In America, the performers harass you and you pay them to leave you be. But here, they ignore you and you pay to be harassed.
The festival's main way of grabbing you was in the smells. All down the path, wonderful aromas abounded. Things smelled richer and sweeter than I'd ever experienced before. It was so pleasant to take in these smells. I was hesitant to eat anything because I knew that after I had eaten, the smells would not be as strong to me. See? Starvation has its perks.
When we finished there, it was past 7pm. I had to be at the meeting place at 8pm, so I raced home and got ready. I made it back to the Tube around 8pm and headed downtown. It was dark when I exited the Tube and I wasn't sure where the school was. I took a guess and began walking. About 20 minutes later, I came to the conclusion that my guess was wrong and I spent another 15 minutes trying to find my way back. Once back, I consulted a posted map and headed out again. I was only lost for five minutes this time before I finally broke down and asked someone for directions. Ack! I was headed 180 degrees in the wrong direction. But a few minutes after that, I arrived.
The group was small. Only 3 other people showed up. Originally about 8 or 9 had planned on coming. Interest must have waned during the day. But the four of us waited around for any possible latecomers. There were none. We headed off to find a bar. Not a problem though since 5,825 pubs are in London. We were soon seated in a nice pub with beers in hand. Mine was a Heineken, which I got for a steal of a price at 2 pounds, 60 pence. If you do the math, the steal is them taking from me. This stuff ain't cheap!
From the pub, we walked around London and ended up in some odd, odd places. After passing the main tourist area, we ventured into an area, which was probably the gay center of London. We made it through that district and then found ourselves in the XXX part of town. Out of one wild area and into another (London has some very diverse places inside of it). We exited that area and finally found a club to enter. We asked about the cover charge. The bouncers and club made us feel quite at home by enlightening us of a nice little tradition found in America --sexism. The girls got in for free. Guys had to pay htree pounds. I didn't mind too much actually. This kept the ratio about even.
Inside it was beyond crowded. The place was jam-packed. We ordered a few drinks. I'm not sure what I had, though I do know it cost me five pounds. That's over \$7.50! It was strawberry vodka or something like that. I couldn't taste any alcohol. Randi (one of the girls) informed me that that was the joy of the drink -- you couldn't taste the alcohol. But I drank it all down and felt absolutely nothing. Wait a second. A drink with alcohol that you can't taste and has no intoxicating effect?!? That's not a mixed drink; that's fruit punch. And that's not a great bargain, not at \$7.50.
But that's part of the game. Alcohol isn't cheap here. After drinks, we went downstairs where Randi and Goalie took off to the dance floor. They were never seen again. It was getting late and the Tube would stop running soon. Alex informed them that it was time to go, and they opted to stay there and take a taxi home. I found a nearby Tube station and returned home. It was a fun and busy day.
September 15th, 2002
Sunday was a morning of rest. I slept in until 9:20 and then got up. Yeah, 9:20 is sleeping in. I don't know how that is, but I just felt done sleeping at that point. The morning was quiet and peaceful, and around 11:30, I headed downtown. On the tube, I ran into Nicole. By the way, Nicole was the same girl I saw on the train the day before, and yes, she indeed was part of the program and did miss her stop. I had apologized for that error and helped her understand the Tube program a little better.
We went over to the school. I was done getting lost for the weekend. I can now find the school all by myself. I'm so proud. When we arrived, we noticed that we were the only ones that showed up. A group of us had agreed to meet there at 12pm and attend the Bodyworks exhibit at a museum. After an hour's wait, we concluded that we were the only ones who had decided to go. This was complicated by the fact that we had no idea where the museum was and Vanessa had the only brochure. The day was spent wandering around the streets of London and exploring things. We found a nice place for lunch that didn't charge too much. And we also found a nice bagel shop that would be a great stop off place before school.
We then stopped by an Internet shop. Nicole bought a 3-month unlimited Internet use ticket. I paid for an hour of time. The hour went by quickly but I got a lot done. After that, we headed over to a Bedford square to rest for an hour or two. The daylight finally began to wane and we headed back home once again. Nothing huge or spectacular happened that day, but it was a great day nevertheless.
September 16, 2002
First day of school.
My shower went into overtime, and I missed my chance to eat breakfast. I jogged down to the Tube station and climbed aboard a train. Morning commute was thick, but no worse than BART. I went to my first two classes and then had a break. At 3:30, I attended my last class until 5:30 and was done with school for the day. There's not a whole lot to say regarding the classes. They're interesting enough, but it's hard to stay indoors when London is right outside (I say this as I spent the entire Tuesday morning working on computer projects and writing).
After class, we had our 6pm social. Our AIFS programs all got together for free food. In line, I met a girl named Natalie and chatted with her. She invited Dave and me to sit with her and Carrie. They were both nice people. After an hour or so, they left to see a show. Dave took off as well, so I joined a group of people playing pool. During all this, I ended up drinking a large beer and a large cider. My world was beginning to spin.
After time, the crowd died down and most people were heading home. A couple of us wandered the streets for a while. And finally, it was just down to Heather and me. We visited an internet café for an hour and then headed out. I was buzzing still from the drinks and getting very sleepy. We caught the Tube and headed home. Heather and I parted ways at the East Finchley Tube station and I returned home.
At home, I was feeling more sober, so I stayed up and chatted with the home stay folks for an hour. Conversing with them is always nice since they're full of information regarding England politics and issues. We would watch the news and then chat about what it all meant.
Then, it was bedtime for sure. Yup. I was dead tired and needed sleep. But I flipped on my TV for a spell. Low and behold...Channel 5 had American NFL coverage of the weekend's games! Yikes! Too good to be true. I watched an hour of football highlights and enjoyed every second of it. Paradise found. At 1pm, I rested.