The Battle of Mid-Way

The Battle of Mid-Way

October 12, 2010

So according to CAPA, last Wednesday, October 6th was the mid-point of my trip in London. From that day, I only had a remaining 45 days in the UK. And I will say that it came as a bit of a shock. I always knew it would come, but it crept on me nonetheless. Kieran, one of our academic advisors at CAPA asked us to take some time then to reflect on what the first half of the trip has been like. Asking ourselves, what are some of the best parts? What have been some of the challenges we've faced? What expectations do we have for the rest of the trip? My focus immediately turned to what the past month and a half has been like, particularly what have been the biggest things I've noticed about London.

1. London Life is a crowded life. London is massive. There are neighborhoods upon neighborhoods, all with not quite the same personality as the last one. There are endless numbers of pubs, restaurants, shows, concerts, and galleries to visit. Once you think you've got the hang of London, you visit another part of the citizen and are hit with the realization that you've conquered an area of London. Not London. And all of these areas are crawling with people at all times of the day and night. I squeeze my way into the Tube in the morning, brush past tourists on the way to work, and queue up for my coffee before heading into the office. When I leave at the end of the day, I contemplate how nice it would be to relax a bit before fighting my way through the crowds to the Tube or the bus. But the parks are crammed with the newly released school kids playing football, so relaxing in the grass is out. And most businesses close early, so there is a rush between 4:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. at every grocery and retail store to do any shopping. So really, trying to wait out rush hour is no use, because there is a wait for waiting it out. There is no relief at home. I have six flatmates that I get on very well with, but there are still six of them. We live in a three bed, two bath flat in the basement. When there are not girls chatting, watching television, or bustling about in the kitchen, I still hear other residents of my building in the halls or the stairs. During my evening excursion to the pub, I join the ranks of the local business men, women, and retirees looking to socialize before turning in for the night. I wind my way through the mess of pushed out chairs and persons without standing beside the corresponding tables to collect my pint. When I’m pushed out around 11 p.m., I join the small herd and shuffle out the door, nod to the night-walkers on the pavement and head home again. I pause as I put my key into the lock, take a deep breath………. And then go inside, greeted by the laugh-track of the sitcom my flatmates are watching in the living room. In London, there is always a line for things, another person in the pub, or waiting to use the loo. I yearn for the luxury of a door that locks and a walk down the sidewalk that doesn’t involve side-stepping strollers, construction workers, or swinging briefcases. It is not unusual for me to stay up until 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning just for a few moments of peace in the living room. When I do, I may sit with most of the lights off, check my Facebook, and have a snack. Most often though, I just zone out to my iPod, relishing in the sweet calm of the night. When that isn't possible, (because staying up so late does not guarantee I'll be the only one looking for that relief) I will take a second shower before bed and just try to wash off the residue of the day's constant human contact.

There is not much noise in London compared to US cities. Hardly anyone chats on the Tube, except for those from out of town. Sirens are only heard often near hospitals or in major parts of the city but not in residential areas. I almost get excited when I hear music blaring out of someone’s car as they drive by, for it’s so characteristic of American quasi-urban neighborhoods it would be nostalgic if it weren’t so annoying (and unnecessary). But you still notice that London holds as large of a population as it does. People move about the city quietly, but they are still blocking your skyline when you stop to take in the sights.

2. British “Polite” does not equal American “Polite”. I was utterly surprised when I came to England and found that I did not have a slew of British persons waiting to be my friend. I like to think that in recent years I have grown adept at conversation with strangers in public, and that is has earned me many happy smiles and casual friends. I am not particularly loud most days, nor even the most outgoing. But I have no problem conversing politely with a stranger, putting on a smile and sharing a laugh. I will make conversation at the bar, and make it a habit of asking the barista at my local Starbucks how his or her day has been. I have met many interesting people this way and while they do not all bud into lifelong friendships, I’ve got a good handful of decent conversations to re-affirm the notion I have of myself that I am not terrible with people. So when I came into English pubs and restaurants, stepped up to order my drink and chat about the weather with the barmen I did not expect to be met with a sneer. And that was certainly my first lesson. The English, though not unreasonable, are not customer service oriented. They say “sorry” when they bump into you, “cheers” when you order a drink, and “You alright?” in the morning at work. But there is no rule in British culture (quite unlike American culture) that you are to smile if you would not naturally be so inclined. And it makes London seem strangely foreign. Because although I am in a country with the same primary language as that of my own (for the most part), the manners and expectations of behaviour are wildly different. It is not easy to affirm your acceptance from Londoners in London, because there is no assumption that you are liked and then must work to fall from grace. It’s the exact opposite you actually have to earn the affection of the English and it is very apparent. Assimilation, for better or worse, is key here. If you want to get to know the locals of your neighbourhood you’d best come in a few times to order your coffee, knowing just what you want and ready with exact change, first. That will at least get you a nod of recognition on the face of whoever is behind the counter at that time of day. Americans are not always well liked, but they are not hated either as in some countries. They are just outsiders, and like any outsiders that are willing and able to shed their major differences, they can win their way into the “circle” of London favorites. But asserting your dominance as pride as an American on a regular basis is a sure-fire way to get your wallet pick-pocketed and a death stare with your espresso.

3. London is a city of conflict, which may not be so bad. London houses some of the richest areas of all of Europe, and along with it some of the poorest. I walk past Parliament and the London Eye on my way to work every day. I am surrounded by the riches of the city’s culture and tourism constantly with trips to museums, galleries, and parks. But this is not all of London, it’s only a piece. In London there is a lot to learn about poverty and hardship. London is comprised of many different immigrants that have not traditionally been welcomed into the city with open-arms by its current inhabitants. Parts of Tower Hamlets, one of the poorest boroughs in the continent has become a favorite place of mine because of how real it is. Life in the East End is gritty, the food is home-made, and the graffitti speaks volumes about the lives of its inhabitants. The architecture of London is no exception. Centuries of different architectural styles and ideas have been crammed into one city. Parliament is in a gothic style, but the inside of Westminster hall has the hollowed out feel of a castle. Remnants of Victorian imperialism sit next to Georgian homes. And from the window of your French styled office space, you can see the steel and glass minimalism of post-modern architecture looking down on its concrete-based, modern styled brothers. When I take it down a few notches to my own life, I see the same patterns. London has meant scheduling conflicts, disputes between flatmates, vegetables that spoil too fast, stores that close too early, a wardrobe that doesn’t always match the fashion season (remember what I said about how important it is to blend in), a bed too close to the ceiling, weather that ranges from 25 Celsius to 12 Celsius in the same week, escalators that favor standing to the right and sidewalks that call for walking on the left. Each day there is some kind of conflict between me and the City of London. How can we be at peace when London isn’t even at peace with itself? But the thing that makes it not so bad, is that I’m forced to live differently. London and its inhabitants don’t care about what I am used to, it only knows what’s happening there (and that’s really only in part speaking to itself). But it’s been a test of whether or not I can swim against the Florida current I’ve always known. It’s more than surviving three months in one of the world’s largest and oldest cities or convincing some tourists that I may be one of the city’s permanent inhabitants. It’s been a test of whether or not I can find ways that I can live, as myself, in a world that I didn’t grow up in. London was not made for me, and I was not made for London, but it does not mean there isn’t a space for me here. And like the immigrants of Tower Hamlets or the architectural differences scattered about downtown, it’s a space I had to make for myself. London does not have a distinct flow, so I’ve had to create my own that winds through, around, and with all the others. After a month and a half, I realized that I have a life here. I go to work, (and shake my fist at the tourists blocking the pavement on the way), I wave at the Tube attendant at my home stop, I rush to finish homework assignments so I can make it to the Warrington or the Robert Browning before last call. In London I have friends, I have classes, I make grocery trips, I use public transportation, I visit art museums, I see concerts, I drink beer, I do homework, I get stuck in traffic jams, I dislike things, I make choices, I have preferences, I get angry, I feel happy, I question myself, I forget things, I space out, I write blog entries when I should be working on a spreadsheet. In London, I live. These things don't always agree, in fact in most cases they don't. But they still happen, and they happen with me.

So the Battle of the Mid-Way point starts here. Now that I've thought about some of the major things I've learned since I've been here, I have to start working on how to make the most of the rest of my time. Because I'm half-way through my semester in London and I've got to start thinking about going back home. The hard part wasn't getting used to London, because I was pushed all the way through the process, I didn't have a choice but to get used to the city. The battle lies in remembering the time constraints put on my time here and the work that comes with the hard truth of knowing that there are only 39 days left of living in London.

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