Archive | Uncategorized RSS feed for this section

I Hate Paris, or Why Hating Myself Couldn’t Protect Me

31 Mar

This year I had a perfect and perfectly normal Christmas and New Year’s. And by “this year” I mean 2013, because that is how long it’s taken me to finish this post. Back in the safe familiarity of Philadelphia, I was able to reunite with all three of my sisters, as well as my best-friend who is now living in Hong Kong, and my good friend Xiane, now a resident of St. Louis. I got to sing with my enormous extended family and drink store-bought eggnog and I spent New Year’s Eve playing Pounce with my sisters, all of which I missed extraordinarily last year.

1544964_800193011761_1601927782_n

Part of the reason it’s taken me so long to start writing about the rest of my year abroad was that I was very busy finishing my last semester here at home. Any free time I had was to be spent reading or doing homework, which conveniently helped me avoid the more pressing issue, which is that I didn’t want to think about the time I spent in England or France. It hurts too much to think about the ways I misspent my time. I have all the time in the world to dream about ways I could have done things differently, however, and my real memories are slipping away. Last December began with a trip to another little flea market/vintage event on the Unthank Road. My then-boyfriend Pepper bought me a very cute cat sweater, and to my deep regret, I ended up ditching it when I left England:

37101_694951781031_2008865444_n

Afterwards we mulled some wine, which I had only done in the form of making glogg before, and we made fish tacos, which Pepper had never had. In Pennsylvania you can’t even buy wine in a grocery store, so the convenience of being able to buy both the wine and the mulling spices prompted nightly wine mulling sessions throughout the winter.

My other diversions from school were mostly provided from my friend H, who would take me out for all-you-can-eat sushi at Norwich’s only vaguely authentic sushi bar, Shiki.

Shiki, nestled in a tiny corner of Tombland at the bottom of Elm Hill. Photo credit to http://shikirestaurant.blogspot.com/

Norwich’s blindling whiteness provided the perfect setting ripe for bland chain restaurants like Nando’s, Bella Italia, and Yo!Sushi, making Shiki one of the few places to eat in Norwich that had fresh anything.  It shouldn’t have been so surprising that H and I would try to stroll in on a Wednesday night with no reservation and be told that we couldn’t be seated. Despite our incredulity that they were actually full up, H and I kept coming back. It was essentially like asking a girl to prom only to be told she was washing her hair that week. SURE YOU ARE, LADY. But also are you maybe free Friday? They’d sometimes have great specials like okonomiyaki and they had a decent selection of Japanese whiskey. H and I often ordered their Tuesday All You Can Eat Special, and there really wasn’t much to complain about, though that didn’t stop us. Philadelphia has one of the Japanese Iron Chef’s restaurants. Norwich has Jamie Oliver’s Shove Some Ravioli In Your Sad Face Why Don’t You FUCK. It’s not fair to compare the two.

One thing Norwich had that Philadelphia certainly doesn’t was the chance to see live owls fly around a real medieval castle, accompanied by the tunes of the ubiquitous DJ Jazzlord, who seemed to show up at every worthwhile event in Norwich.  The combination of mulled wine, castle, and live owls was too much for me to resist. I’m only human. I bleed Harry Potter fantasies like the rest of us.

The owls were surrounded by a large crowd of undeserving children who prevented me from getting closer and convincing the owls to come live with me in my dorm room. Those children had no way of appreciating owls the way I do. I bet they didn’t even know the word “plumage” and I bet they’ll never have the internet’s #4 owl vore fansite. The rest of the event mainly comprised craft tables with vendors offering soap for humans, soap for dogs, octopus pendant necklaces, chef’s hats for dogs, knitted socks, rubik’s cubes for dogs, and briefcases for dogs. It was an evening which was more compelling in its distillation– “I drank mulled wine at a castle with live owls!”– than in the living of it. When I write it that way, it sounds like the owls could have also been drinking mulled wine. I won’t correct you if you were already picturing that.

The weeks between the end of the winter semester and Christmas were spent worrying about a hastily planned trip to Paris. Sometime in early October, before I had attached myself to anyone, I had purchased a Eurostar ticket, figuring that spending Christmastime alone in my dorm room would be too depressing to contemplate. A visit from a young French dude shortly after I bought the ticket led me to believe I might have friends to see after all while visiting Paris, but that didn’t end up being the case. No wonder the English hate the French. They’re very unreliable and they bring ham, two different wines, and cheese to your dorm room and take up too much space in your tiny bed. That is the real cause of the Hundred Years War.

After writing some terrible coursework about Pynchon and Baldwin, which was marked with the appropriately low grades, my last order of business in Norwich before my trip to Paris was my choir’s concert. Poor, long-suffering H helped me look for all-black clothing (so festive!) in Primark and then I was all set to sing Christmas carols at the beautiful Victorian Neo-Gothic Norwich Cathedral (the RC one, not the Norman one) (that’s its full title).

598621_694894021781_369285541_n

I felt too shy to go for drinks with the rest of the choir at Eaton Cottage afterwards, and I heartily regret that, because a dog lives there, Murphy the Pub Dog. We could have been such good friends. My shyness in this particular instance was ridiculous, because at the very least I had a passion for music in common with everyone. Instead I went home and made myself a disgusting breakfast burrito and probably– I’m just guessing here– probably cried.

The next night H took me out for a going-away-for-a-week dinner at the Reindeer, the only restaurant in Norwich with a Michelin-star-rated chef maybe. Does it sound like I know what I’m talking about? Those are words that came out of H’s mouth in some order several months ago so I’m only reassembling them to the best of my ability now. We drank more mulled cider, and had a feast of duck hearts on toast, roast pigeon with beets, potted rabbit, game pie, haunch of venison, and chestnut pannacotta. That dinner fueled an obsession with gamey meats, a desire which I cannot adequately quell here in these United States. It was lucky I ate so much that night because I barely ate anything while in Paris. The next night I made homemade eggnog with Pepper, who had never had it before, and kept his housemates up by singing along with my family over Skype. Seeing every single member of my family all together in the house I knew I would never get to live in again was the single most powerful moment of homesickness I had while I was there. It was a melancholy that didn’t retreat but only became more complex in the coming week.

H very kindly drove me to Norwich Rail Station, and I took a train to King’s Cross. THEN OFF TO HOGWARTS. From London I took the Eurostar to Paris and I was surprised at the ease of this under-sea travel. Before I knew it I had arrived at Gare du Nord and had to figure out how to get to my hostel, which was in Noisy le Sec. I went up to the ticket counter and requested “un visite”, a pass that provides rail travel for a week. It was my first ever transaction in French, a language that I only studied for a month in sixth grade. I took the RER E to Noisy, and stumbled around in the dark for an hour, too afraid to ask anyone for directions and unable to use Google Maps because I didn’t have data in France. The route I got to know involved walking up to Noisy’s main road, passing a charcuterie shop, two bakeries, a grocery store, and a Chinese restaurant before finally turning on to a little side street. OPEN Hostel was run by a woman who impressively spoke at least one dialect of Chinese, French, and English. She showed me to a small co-ed room outfitted with only two sets of bunk beds. On the bed she placed a pillow that was about the size and thickness of my hand, which I supplemented with my bathtowel.

French pillows were the first thing I hated about Paris

My only roommate for the night was a young man named Olivier, an accounting teacher who was very competent at speaking English and who was living in the hostel temporarily. Olivier didn’t have any plans for the evening so he offered to take me out and show me the City of Light at night, and thinking he seemed ok, I took him up on what seemed like a very appealing night out. We took the RER to Boulevard Hausmann, and the first I saw of Paris was the extraordinary Christmas window displays that Chanel and Dior made for the department stores. We walked to the Opera, where a young gentleman yelled something at me.

Haha who thinks it’s ok to dress like this? NOT THE FRENCH.

l’opera

 

“He said he liked your tights,” Olivier explained.

“Oh, I would’ve told him thank you if I had known.”

“No, he meant it in a joking way,” Olivier clarified. “Is that how they dress in England? Is it ok there?”

“No, it’s not ok there either.”

From the Rue Auber we went to the Place Vendome, where Olivier started getting too chummy, and was repeatedly attempting to link his arms with mine.

“How do you say, ‘I have a boyfriend’ in French?” I asked him.

“‘J’ai un ami’,” he told me, again grabbing my hand.

“Ok, that. J’ai un ami.”

“But he is in England.” I didn’t have the gumption to ask him what the French was for “Geography doesn’t make him less my boyfriend and you more.” I would be utterly lost in the middle of my first night in Paris if I made him angry and he left, so I chalked it up to platonic friendship being more touchy-feely in France and dropped the subject. Valentino and Issey Miyake weren’t open at 10 o’clock at night, so I had to settle for seeing the Louvre and the Eiffel Tower at night. What is French for “disappointing” and “pedestrian” and “maybe you should have learned French before you went there, idiot”?

I had my first views of Notre Dame and the Seine at night, at an ideal time unspoiled by the masses of tourists. It was wonderfully romantic and I felt terrible pangs of regret that I was experiencing it with some aggressive stranger whose room I’d have to stay in for a week.

We got crepes from a street vendor, and the December weather did not deter others from forming a line behind us. I was starting to enjoy practicing ordering things in French. Late night food in England is almost uniformly kebab or pizza oriented, so it surprised me that drunk person food in France was actually delicious. After scarfing our meals down on the street, Olivier took me to a jazz club called Le Baiser Sale (the “salty kiss”. Ew.) and offered to buy me a drink. Even though I didn’t have the expendable income for frivolous non-macaron things, I ended up paying for myself because I didn’t want to give him the impression that I could be bought with a 9 euro neon cocktail. That was my mistake, because instead of getting a free drink, I probably just made him think, “That’s convenient! She pays for her own drinks AND she’s going to sleep with me!” The jazz club had an impressive roster of hot, beardy keyboardists, and a jazz trio that played a rollicking version of “Blame It On the Boogie”, which is the song I would have requested if I had the nerve to go on stage when they asked if anyone in the audience wanted to sub in.

Olivier and I set off towards home after one drink, and before we went into the hostel he grabbed me by the neck and tried to kiss me. “NON, J’AI UN AMI,” I said as I tried to squirm out of his hold, feeling this was probably the appropriate time to press the matter. He managed to land a kiss on the cheek before I was able to withdraw myself from his grasp. We went up to our room and I immediately turned the wifi on my phone so I could send WhatsApp messages to Pepper and try to ignore Olivier. But Olivier thought it was very important that I watch Caribbean music videos all night, pestered me into showing him my music, and then told me my singing was just ok. “I really have to go to bed,” I told him. I intended to show Paris who was boss in the morning. I thought it couldn’t be all tiny pillows and aggressive roommates.

But it was so much more! It was also lost debit cards at the very worst possible time! On my way out to the city the next morning I realized my debit card must have fallen out of my wallet when I was buying my metro tickets. I had taken some cash out and converted it to Euros before I left for Paris, but I wasn’t sure if it would last the week, and I also didn’t know if perhaps someone had gotten ahold of my card. I had to spend the first part of my morning making an international call to my bank to cancel my debit card, and they informed me they could only send a replacement to my university housing, which would take approximately forever. I had finally taken H’s advice about opening a UK bank account right before I left for Paris, but hadn’t yet received my UK debit card. I let Pepper and my mom know about my circumstances, and they both told me they’d think of a solution, and that in the meantime I should get on with seeing Paris. It was lucky that Olivier was hanging out in my hostel room, because it helped me resist the temptation of just crying in the room instead of sightseeing.

I had downloaded tripadvisor’s Paris walking tours to my phone and chose one at random before I set out. I took the RER to Gare du Nord, and immediately became confused about which metro line and stop I wanted. I learned an important lesson that day which I should have remembered for the future: Never just sit/stand around Gare du Nord. I don’t know if it was my hair, my giant idiot doe eyes, or the general look of stupidity surely indelible on my face, but it was becoming apparent to me that I was prey. While trying to figure out the trains, a man came up to me, introducing himself as Jacques. He offered to help me find where I was going, but in order to do that he insisted on physically maneuvering me and kissing my hand. He did help me find the correct Metro line but was annoyed that I did not want to spend the day with him, and abruptly left me at the correct Metro station. I appreciated his help but was annoyed that it required being touched.

Without the aid of any helpful Jacques or Jules or Jim, I had to rely on my own faulty sense of direction for the rest of the day. I wandered around Marais because the description on TripAdvisor appealed to the medieval nerd in me, as it was supposed to be the location of the best-maintained medieval streets in the city. My first stop was the Hotel Sully,  which wasn’t open yet, and which I didn’t end up making my way back to.

The gardens at Hotel Sully, a 17th century urban palace

Marais somehow disappointed me, as it must inevitably disappoint every American tourist who does not want to see a cluster of art galleries and expects the real Marie Antoinette to be walking around in Rococo garb for their entertainment. I ambled down cobbled streets, frequently losing my way, until I got to the Hotel Carnavalet, the museum of the history of Paris.

This room was called “Le Shitty Baffling Accidental Panorama”

Though many of the exhibits lacked English translations, I enjoyed that the Hotel Carnavalet didn’t just revel in the aristocratic excess of Paris with its carefully arranged rooms. It also emphasized the bloodshed of the revolution, successfully combining temporal historical transitions with spatial ones throughout the house. I visited the Marches des Enfant Rouges, but I felt too shy to order any food in French, and because of my digestive disorder, I felt that a meal might put a stop to the day’s activities. It wasn’t as bustling or diverse as Reading Terminal at home in Philadelphia, so I took to wandering again. I stumbled around the Place des Vosges, the gorgeous courtyard home to very expensive apartments and very exclusive boutiques. I attempted to find the Picasso museum, and learned that it was closed. I attempted to visit the Hotel de Soubise, which houses the Museum of French History, and I danced around the entrance a bit before an attendant beckoned me inside. “We’re closed,” she said again and again in French, until I got the idea. It took me a while because of the whole door being open and attendant being there thing.

Paris, city of closed museums.

I was fed up with Marais, but I spent the last few hours of my day salivating over yummy-looking kosher food in the city’s historically Jewish district and browsing vintage shops, being tempted to buy all sorts of fancy hats. I hadn’t eaten all day, so I forced myself to take a break and sit on a bench a while. I wasn’t managing myself properly and I felt exhausted and disheartened.

Once back at the hostel, I had to deal with Olivier’s insistence on sitting on my bed and photobombing the pictures I was sending to Pepper. Rather than putting up with that all night, I decided to turn out the lights and pretend to sleep for hours because I didn’t feel like watching more music videos or putting up with anymore attempted kisses.

Excitement overcame my anxiety at the prospect of the next morning’s destination, the Catacombs of Paris. In the late 18th century, Paris’s Les Innocents cemetery was overflowing into its public market, and everyone knew that was weird and disgusting, so the reasonable answer to this problem was to systematically stack the skulls and femurs underground so disrespectful assholes could gawp at them for the next 15 eons. I took my disrespectful ass there and wished that it was structured like a haunted house, where they space out visits so you never had anyone directly in front of or behind you. I know Americans are famously loud, but there was a disproportionate number of screaming Australians everywhere I went in Paris. The discrepancy was most notable in an enclosed underground space. People of all nations and creeds ignored the sign that said not to take flash photography with their shitty cell phones. I’m a compulsive rule follower to the point of near-fascism, so I was annoyed that I had to take horrible non-flash photos while all the rule-breaking nerds took their slightly less horrible flash photos while screaming the entire time.

arrete1

The famous sign at the entrance to the Catacombs, which says, “Keep out if you’re gonna be a jerk, for fuck’s sake”

arrete

The Catacombs were the first place I really enjoyed myself in Paris. A guard greeted me and was very patient with my poor French, and kindly attempted to have a conversation with me. It ended up being the only time someone in Paris anyone talked to me to be nice and not just to take my ticket or harass me. It’s a very peaceful place, and though morbidity has to be the central ambience, it also felt very peaceful during the moments I allowed the larger tour groups to pass me. It was hard to reconcile the skeletal fixtures that comprised the walls with the idea that they were living people once who were loud and disrespectful themselves 300 years ago. There were plaques along each wall but my French was too poor to read most of them.

 

It seemed like they made an effort to group the bones  based on what section of the cemetery they were taken from or if they happened to be victims of a single event. For an underground maze of real human bones open to the public, it did not seem like a sideshow or very exploitative, just a closer than usual meeting with death.

Being disrespectful but not particularly loud

My next stop was the Tour Montparnasse, and I want to say I went to Montparnasse because it’s where Sontag and Sartre are buried, or because it’s where Beckett and Faulkner used to cry into their drinks, but it was really just the Tripadvisor tour closest to where I already was. On my way to the tower, I stopped at a bakery for my first meal of the day, and the most important meal of anyone’s day: macarons. I cannot resist a macaron, even if I know it’s not the best macaron or even a good macaron. I chose a pack of six from an independent bakery and made my way to the Tour Montparnasse. It’s a big black tower in the middle of the city, but for some reason it took me forever to find it. “That tower’s not black enough! That’s not really a tower– hey, a public bathroom!” Paris’s port-a-potties (pronounced “poor-a-potay”) are operated by stern robot lady voices and seem to rotate while you are inside them. I don’t know why we don’t have them everywhere. I’ve never been on the rides at Disneyland but I am guessing the experience is the same.

Is this it? What does that even mean?

The Tour Montparnasse turned out to be the only giant black skyscraper on the road I was walking on, and as soon as I figured out where the entrance was, I bought a ticket and made my way in. “Did you dye your hair like that for Christmas?” the attendants asked cheerily. “What?” “Your hair is blue. For Christmas?” “Oh, um, no. Just for fun.” The attendants’ faces fell, as apparently that answer was much less reasonable than dyeing my hair for Jesus’s birthday, like any NORMAL person would do.

The Tour Montparnasse is the best place to see the far more famous Tour Eiffel. I never made my way to the Eiffel Tower because I manage crowds very poorly and I figured it’d be harder to take a perspective picture of a macaron knocking it over if I were right in front of it.

THE WHOLE CITY IS IN DANGER

From the top of the tower I could see the Louvre, the Tuilleries, the Jardin du Luxembourgs, and naturally the Eiffel Tower. Maybe it’s because I was by myself and surrounded by couples taking photos together, but I couldn’t muster up much of an emotional response. I didn’t feel like I had earned my trip to the top the way I had when I struggled up the narrow steps of York Minster. It was cold up there and macarons are not really a meal, so I had enough of distant views of a city that wasn’t treating me very well so far.

I meant to find my way to Montparnasse Cimitiere but it was raining pretty hard, and although that would set the scene perfectly, I didn’t want to add pneumonia to the list of Parisian ills I experienced. It’s consumption or nothing in the city of La Boheme. Instead, I ducked into the Montparnasse Cafe, which was as pleasant yet non-descript as any other cafe I visited in Paris. In fact, the cafe culture of Paris is heavily populated by what may as well be Pret-a-Mangers, for all the care taken to differentiate themselves.  My timid approach did not prevent the waiter from greeting and seating me with a jovial, “HELLO! LADY! SIT HERE!” I was taken to a cushy leather black booth, surrounded by a giant, non-functional clock and other large pieces of kitsch.

I ordered some escargot, trying to fill my quota of French stereotypes in one visit, as I can’t drink coffee and I can only eat cheese when I have 3 days alone to myself. An actual human being with a long goatee and a jaunty beret walked in, perhaps using his human agency to direct him towards a meal, but I believe he was actually sent by god to lighten the mood of my trip, at least for a moment. Service in Paris is extremely slow, perhaps because they don’t rely on tips to make a living wage, or more likely because every guide to Paris written for Americans advises us that a COOL CHEAP PARIS TIP is to sit in one cafe for 14 hours sipping at one espresso the entire time and leering at the locals, and the waitstaff figures if you order a drink you won’t mind waiting 6 hours.

I was finally brought my snails by my affable waiter, who continued to sing, “LADY LADY LADY” to me as he served my food. I was particularly glad at this point that tipping is non-standard in Paris. It was only my second time having escargot, and the conclusion I came to is that most things can be palatable if covered in enough butter and garlic.

In the morning I headed out to try to resolve my financial situation. Under the basis of a faulty assumption that the Barclay’s banks in the UK and France were connected, Pepper had very kindly deposited some money into my Barclay’s account that we thought I could withdraw by visiting a branch in town. The first challenge of the day was to even find a Barclay’s without the aid of a map or a smart phone. Very predictably, I spent more than an hour trying to find a Barclay’s, and walking around looking like the helpless idiot I was attracted a “helper”, a young man who apparently had nothing better to do than follow me around. His first language was neither French nor English but he spoke both well enough that he insisted on asking passersby what street the Barclay’s bank was on when he realized what my mission was. When he finally got an answer he took me by the hand.

“I can find it myself, thank you!” I said, even though that wasn’t remotely true.

“No, no, no, I will help you!” We walked back and forth down a street where an art college had just let out, trying to look for the sidestreet that the bank was on. The students ignored me as my voice got louder and louder. “I don’t need your help, thank you!” My helper grabbed me by the neck and tried to kiss me, only managing to get my cheek as I struggled out of his hold. I wondered if I was going to leave Paris with my head still on my shoulders. I wondered if I wanted to.

“I have a boyfriend! I really need to do this by myself but thank you for your help!” Eventually he took off. The students still ignored me.

Without his help I found the Barclay’s bank. When I got in, the greeter didn’t speak English, so she found someone for me who did. She gently explained to me that the UK and French Barclay’s were not connected so I could not withdraw money. I waited until I was outside again to cry and headed back to Gare du Nord so that I could go back to my hostel.

At Gare du Nord I got in touch with Pepper to tell him the bad news. Pepper very, very calmly and very quickly devised an alternative solution and very, very kindly wired money to me through Western Union. While I tried to find the closest Western Union to Gare du Nord on my phone, another young man sat down next to me and started whispering in my ear and rubbing his head against my neck as if he were a cat. All I could hear was “cherie” and “bebe” over and over. He sprayed perfume on me and I wondered if he was just trying to sell some to me. At first I thought it was funny and would make a good story later but I was distraught and trying to figure out how to finally fix the stupid situation I put myself in.

I got up from the bench I had camped out on to set out to find Western Union and the man followed me. “Non, non, non”, I repeated to him. I didn’t want him to follow me. I didn’t want whatever he was asking me for.

The funny thing about the street harassers in Paris was that they all did help me get where I needed to go. I tried to get away from him but when he saw I was walking in the wrong direction he physically pulled me in the direction of the Western Union. I felt stupid and numb. “Arrete, arrete, arrete.” He kept a running commentary in French, “cherie”, “bebe”, over and over. “Je ne comprends pas”, I repeated, but it didn’t bother him. He helped me find the Western Union and he followed me inside. I took a number and I sat to wait. He sat down next to me. The room was absolutely full of people, and they all looked away as I started sobbing and said over and over, “Stop. I don’t speak French. Please. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop.” I didn’t know if he had followed me because he wanted to take the money I was about to receive. When it was finally my turn, the transaction went quickly. I tried to stifle my tears as I asked the girl at the window, “PLEASE, will you call the police? This man has been following me for an hour. Please.” My cell phone service didn’t work in Paris.

“There’s a police station down the street,” the girl said indifferently.

I looked up “I’ll go to the police” in my translation app and said it to the man, and he got angry and finally left.

I can imagine the reactions people might have when reading this.

First of all, I’m fat. How is it remotely plausible that all these French men would be chasing me down and trying to physically maneuver me into kissing them? Why didn’t I say I would go to the police sooner? Why would I let him go into Western Union with me? If these guys helped me get to the places I needed to go, they can’t have been THAT bad or scary.

In Norwich I lived a completely street-harassment-free life. Not only that, I was and am reminded all the time of how undesirable I am constantly. Fat women are told they’re lucky to be raped. I thought that if I could internalize what I had been told over and over, that nobody could possibly want me, that I could be protected by the truth of it.

sasha

I thought that my low self-esteem could save me. I actually could not believe what was happening to me was really happening because it was impossible. I also had never experienced street harassment of that degree and frequency ever in my life. Being repeatedly grabbed by the neck eroded my sense of personal agency.  I didn’t feel human and I didn’t feel like I was worth protecting. I was grateful that Pepper had saved the day but I was extremely tempted to just use the money to buy a ticket back to Norwich and spend Christmas on my own. 

Me on the way to Montmartre

I took myself to Montmartre, famous for the community of artists that once made their homes and livelihoods there. Montmartre still embraces its artistic history by being host to very pushy street caricaturists. The rain fell to match my mood as I made way up the steps to the Basilica du Sacre Coeur, which is apparently the highest point of the city of Paris.

The approach to Sacre Coeur

They didn’t allow photos in the Basilica, and I didn’t spend much time there. I’m not religious anymore but I sort of hoped that the concept of sanctuary might provide me some peace in the moment. It was smaller inside than I had imagined, and full of tourists, so I only spent a moment inside. Outside there was a Christmas market where I was pleased to find French mulled wine, vin chaud, to warm me up and calm my nerves. 

I surveyed the city from its highest point and was starting to feel a little more centered when a man started making conversation with me, asking if I was alone. I was so tired and so on edge that I didn’t even want to wait around to see what his intentions were. I wondered if men in Paris had jobs other than waiting around to see if they could get particularly stupid and vulnerable tourists to sleep with them. Any part of the city where I was easily identified as a tourist seemed to be a hazard for me, so I went to explore the rest of the quarter.

The streets of Montmartre are, I think, what people imagine when they think of Paris: quaint, charming, cobbled, easily replicable in franchise format.

To cheer myself I tried some beautiful macarons from Biscuiterie Montmartre, my favorites being the rhubarb and blueberry. I got a box of them for my friend Owen, who I would be seeing in a couple days for Christmas. Montmartre was obviously charming and I knew I’d feel enchanted by it if I felt safe and could have shared it with someone. I was also really fucking annoyed that I couldn’t take each part of Paris as it was and feel the individual details and take in the atmosphere because I felt so goddamn shattered. I didn’t want to be so self-absorbed. I didn’t want to learn another lesson about what my body meant to people as I just tried to navigate the world. I wanted to be the anonymous and unmarked observer who could insinuate themselves into the background to acclimate and therefore learn about their world. I didn’t even have the stupid delusion of being a cute Amelie who finds magic all around her. The caricaturists called out to me and asked if I wanted to be drawn for only 30 euros but the last thing I wanted was to be taken in and my image spat back out at me again.

Down the steps away from the Basilica was Pigalle, made famous by people who are either really into schmaltzy maudlin bullshit medleys or toplessness. Or both. My goal was not the Moulin Rouge but the Musee de l’erotisme, recommended to me by my sister. (SHE IS NOT SUPPOSED TO KNOW ABOUT SEX. SHE IS ONLY 30. VERY DISAPPOINTED IN HER). The deep irony of my visit was in this spot, centered completely around sex, I was finally alone and unbothered for the first time on my trip. In fact, amongst the groups of fashionable, artistic Parisians who were visiting, I looked like sort of a creep ogling the displays by myself.

The first floor comprised sacred sexual artifacts from around the world, which skewed heavily phallic rather than yonic. (Autocorrect wants to change yonic but not phallic! MISOGYNY!) The photos I took are definitely not worksafe, but can be viewed here, along with all of the many, many, many photos I took in Paris and Newcastle. The second floor had a Paul Amar exhibition with wildly colorful pieces made of seashells.

I find the sea VERY EROTIC. Tentacles, you know.

Another floor was dedicated to the history of the brothel in Paris, in which I found my favorite Ayn Rand book cover:

It only covered about a fifty year period, which was tightly connected to the heavily romanticized turn of the century and both World Wars.  The museum’s focus on “primalism” in religious sexual artifacts from non-European countries, in contrast to the more contemporary Parisian historical documents and pop art, to me seemed to leave a gap. I know there were medieval European dildos and sexual poetry. I’d like to see a European sexual mysticism section!  The pop art was definitely more focused on the objectification of the female body, and also topless chicken ladies.

Mark McKinney! Fancy seeing you here in PARIS!

I did not expect that to be the most religious, the most informative, and the most peaceful experience I would have thus far, but it was, and it ended up proving to me that it might be worth not giving up and going home. I went to a bistro and had a croque salmon and a vin chaud. The proprietor was kind and sort of paternal towards me, and was patient and even encouraging about my poor French.

When I got back to the hostel, Olivier was out somewhere, so I was able to immediately get some sleep when I got back to the hostel. In the morning I put on my victorian puddings dress that my friend Tyler made, a fur tippet, and a bow, attempting to reach maximum fanciness for my trip to Versailles.

Even the RER train to Versailles was decorated like a Baroque carriage! From the RER station it’s only a short walk to the palace. As you approach the gates, your eyes glaze over with GOLD.

The palace was PACKED with non-fancy PEASANTS. No sweatpants in the Hall of Mirrors! STORE POLICY. The level of splendor evident within I could only capture poorly with my stupid phone’s stupid panorama feature.

Everyone knows the story of Versailles. Louis XIV thought that an absolute monarchy meant that logic and economy were irrelevant to him so he built himself a giant palace and then ordered a bunch of furniture made of PURE SOLID SILVER. When he had to pay for some boring wars his counselors peer-pressured him into melting down all of his furniture. He still died in what I would consider near-modest comfort. His successors did a terrible job of convincing their country that they deserved to live in a idyllic palace, with the addition of a quaint “cottage” for the spoiled foreign princess who played pretend-peasant in her hamlet that mocked the actually starving peasants that populated her country. Also, why was she always listening to new wave music and living in an Instagram filter? Time Magazine put a picture of Marie Antoinette taking a selfie on their LE MOI GENERATION issue and that was the start of the French Revolution.

The French government now makes the entirety of their GDP from letting Americans and Australians track their muddy Uggs on the floor of Le Petit Trianon.

I belonged in that room. I really wish that the security guards hadn’t forcibly removed me when I started making plans to move in.

mid 18th-century modern

Mid-December is probably not the most optimal time to visit Versailles, as nothing is blooming in the garden and the fountains are not on.

After exploring the many finely appointed apartments of the palace, I took the long and lonely path to the Grand Trianon.

There’s something slightly hollow about the Grand Trianon. It’s not as densely decorated as the palace and feels slightly stiff and formal.

By far my favorite part of my entire trip to France was the time I spent at Marie Antoinette’s hamlet. I knew it was meant to be enjoyed more in the spring and summer, but I loved the haunted feeling of it in the dim winter mid-day. So few of the bustling throng of tourists had bothered to make the detour to visit it, so I spent at least an hour just enjoying the feeling of a rococo abandoned playground. Telling someone to build a fake medieval village is the exact sort of shit I’d pull if I were rich, so I wallowed in my self-absorption and obliviousness in the place that I felt myself. You can buy Laduree macarons in Versailles to complete the fantasy. The Petit Trianon was less interesting, as Marie Antoinette wanted a very simple, pastoral cottage to pretend to be a poor shepherdess in.

Versailles provided a respite from the depression I felt in Paris proper, but they would not let me stay the night or forever, so I had to leave. When I got back to Noisy Le Sec I decided to see if French Chinese food is any different from American Chinese food, and I also bought myself a religieuse and a mocha eclair. I don’t even like Chinese food so I have no idea what I was doing. I had been living mostly off of macarons and lemon Schweppe’s (a lot like San Pellegrino limonata) for nearly a week so I thought I was ready for a big meal. French Chinese food, as far as I could tell, had a lot more things on skewers. It made me extremely ill, which I should have anticipated.

I had seen a facebook friend’s photos of her trip to Saint Chapelle, a gorgeous chapel from the Middle Ages in the heart of Paris. Paris is a many-hearted beast, I found. I loved the intricate patterns and tiles on the walls and floors:

A man offered to take a picture of me in front of the altar, noting that I looked just like the holy mother. “I’m named after her, too!” I said. He didn’t think that was interesting and I felt embarrassed.

Look how holy I am

 

I could have spent hours looking at the stained glass windows and patterned walls but I figured it was finally time to get to Notre Dame. You’ve seen Notre Dame! We can skip my pictures. I wasn’t in love with it. They really try to retain the pretense that it’s a working church but it seemed like a real circus. They pack a couple thousand people in there at a time, expecting them to trudge their way around the cathedral for their requisite half hour and hope that no one robs them. I paid an extra fee to get a peek at the treasury, because I love reliquaries, but it was small and impossible to get a good look at anything because of the crowds. I was happy to walk across the bridge to Shakespeare & Co, Paris’s famous English-language bookshop.

resident dinosaur

I spent my evening cuddled up in a chair there reading the entirety of Henry James’ “Turn of the Screw” while four different people came in and tried to play parts of the “Amelie” score. Shakespeare & Co. has that ambience that unbearable Tumblr girls like me find so appealing: the air is dense with the smell of old paper. Gorgeous bearded men with glasses come and go. They encourage you to just curl up and read. I came away with two Yukio Mishima books, one of which I foolishly gave away to my rebound chap before I left England.

I still felt pretty rattled at the time, but in retrospect I see that I had managed to turn the trip into something pleasant and worthwhile. I had some crepes in one of the many identical restaurants in the Latin Quarter. It didn’t feel like it was almost Christmas. No one was playing Mariah Carey or Wham!, but I certainly wasn’t complaining. Back at the hostel, it wasn’t so peaceful, as a very loud group of Spanish tourists were basically screaming all night long. In the morning the hostel owner kicked them out because they were loud and got everything in the bathroom soaked. I felt lucky to be a boring killjoy in that moment.

My last day in Paris was spent mostly at the Musee du Moyen Age, the National Museum of the Middle Ages, a true gem not hindered by dense and slow-moving pockets of tourists. I was able to spend ample time marveling at the relics, books of hours, and tapestries on display.

THE DRAMA

 

They had a tapestry on display which has become famous for what looks like the Lady’s exasperation at the unicorn’s vanity. I love tapestries. I love the intricacy, the effort evident in each detail, and the stories they tell. I love that European people in the middle ages gave animals eerie judgmental human features.

I love that they pretended narwhal horns were unicorn horns.

Afterwards I took a walk along the Seine and listened to Scott Walker.

I hoped that my giant fuck-off headphones, a Christmas gift from H, would deter any more persistent Parisians from fucking up my day.

Hopes are folly, friends. Hopes are for idiots. A man approached me and said, “HELLO, WILL YOU PLEASE TAKE A PICTURE OF ME?” I should have just kept walking, but I am naive and thought he was a fellow tourist. I acquiesced and took a picture with his phone, but instead of letting me go, he insisted on walking beside me.

There’s a quote that I see every so often that says something about how we live in a world where a woman’s desires mean so little that the only way to deter a suitor is not by saying that you’re not interested, but only by saying you have a boyfriend. Not so in Paris. Every time I said I had a boyfriend, it was met with, “But he’s not here! So I’ll be your boyfriend in Paris.” This GENTLEMAN took me by the arms and prevented me from taking a leisurely stroll through the Tuilleries to get to the Rue di Rivoli. The whole time he tried to convince me that monogamy was stupid, as though it was just my monogamy that kept me from wanting to sleep with him.

You can’t even take a non-blurry picture. Why would I sleep with someone with hands that unsteady?

I told him I was trying to find the Rue Cambon, and like apparently every man in Paris, he thought that by helping me find my destination, I would realize I owed him sex. This one wasn’t as determined by the others, because at a certain point on the Rue du Rivoli he got bored with my inane American ideas about monogamy and had never heard of Rue Cambon, so he gave up. I soldiered on, and reached the Macaron Motherload: Pierre Herme, the originator of the macaron, the perfector of texture, the innovator of flavor. I got a box of the best macarons in the world for myself, and one for Pepper.  It was right near the Chanel store but I was afraid to go there because of having purple hair and no money. 

AMBROSIA.

I used the last of my energy to wander around the Louvre a bit, feeling disappointed in myself that I could not muster up the gumption to give it my proper attention. I forced myself to go see the Mona Lisa, which is so small in real life! When you go see the Mona Lisa, what you will really see is 500 people per second taking a selfie with her.

I much prefer Henri du Navarre

And these ladies

I spent the rest of the evening packing and whining on the internet. In the morning I was more than happy to say goodbye to Olivier, Noisy le Sec, and to Paris. Getting back to Kings Cross was easy enough, but when I went to collect my tickets to Newcastle, I realized that because I lost my debit card I wouldn’t be able to use the ticket machines. It was a minor crisis that on top of my stressful week caused a slight breakdown. All I wanted to do was go back to Norwich, no matter how depressing spending Christmas alone would be, but Owen convinced me to keep a cool head and try to resolve things so I could spend Christmas with his family. Even though I missed the train I was supposed to be on, after a phone call to TheTrainLine, I was able to use my passport to collect my tickets, and allowed to get on the next train.

Owen and his brother met me at Newcastle Rail Station on Christmas Eve. I had met Owen in Edinburgh through the first English dude I dated, and after that he had stayed at my mom’s house in Philadelphia. In 2012 he was living in Bangalore but came home for Christmas, and since he knew I had nowhere to go, he and his family opened their home to me. Owen’s shared his Fentiman’s soda with me and let me de-stress in the guest room. I was happy to finally have space to myself again, and to eat proper food.

On Christmas morning Owen took me out to see something he knew would be a complete treat for me:

HIGHLAND COOS! Owen, in his infinite patience, put up with an ungodly amount of squealing and excited picture-taking. Owen’s mom is an Anglican vicar, and she showed me around her very sweet little church. We went to Owen’s uncle’s house for tea where we ate pease pudding, broke Christmas crackers, watched his uncle scream at a terrifying and disobedient robot dog. It was truly wonderful.

Boxing Day is nothing to Americans, but I had a proper English boxing day at Owen’s sister’s, I think. We ate really really delicious soup and broke (broke?) (shared?) yet more Christmas crackers and had a DeeeeeLite dance party and watched the Muppets movie.

Owen knew how much of a goddamn despicable nerd I am, so the next day was dedicated to a trip to Durham. Durham Cathedral was one of the filming locations for Hogwarts, and also a haunting ground for the historical historian, the Venerable Bede.

Owen could not contain his enthusiasm. I mean, he could not contain MY enthusiasm. AND DON’T EVER TRY

So when does Sean Biggerstaff come out?

Owen swore there was a door that led to a room that was used as Snape’s Potions classroom, but all the doors were locked. We took the train back to Newcastle and wandered around Newcastle Keep while Owen told me the story of St. James’ Park almost becoming SPORTSDIRECT.COM @ St. JAMES’ PARK and how everyone there blamed “the Cockneys” (anyone from London, apparently?) for ruining their city.

In front of the Black Gate, which is old as shit

For dinner, Owen and I got some pies at a local pub, and came in a respectable 5th or 10th or something in the pub quiz. I had mulled wine, of course, and tipsily whined about the pub quiz being TOOOOO ANGLOCENTRICCCC WHYYYY. We spent the evening watching the Fast Show, which I had never seen but thoroughly enjoyed, and not watching the Doctor Who special.

My last day in Newcastle I ogled goths wistfully and went to an Asian market. Owen and I discussed the phenomena of attractive girls in shirts that said NERD or DORK. 

Owen’s family had shown me an amazing kindness. They taught me about Mackems and Tackems and magpies and trains and vicarages. They fed me and tea’d me and let me sleep on a bed with big pillows. It was the first time in ages I had spent time with someone who knew me pretty well and it was extremely restorative. I’m still so very grateful Owen convinced me not to give up and to come stay.

I got on a train back to Norwich and H not only picked me up from the rail station, but also had a trunkful of my favorite foods because he figured I’d be too tired to get groceries. Sometimes I wonder if I actually made H up, or if he was real, because he was certainly like some sort of guardian angel who was too good to be real.

At home I spent all goddamn day singing alone in my room, because I had promised myself I could. Pepper and I exchanged Christmas presents, and on New Year’s Eve I gussied myself up and then had a big panic attack because I was convinced everyone hated me and didn’t want me around.

 

Photo on 2013-12-31 at 19.08

That turned out to be only mostly true, and it was nothing that couldn’t be fixed by getting drunk and leading everyone in a chorus and also every single verse of Total Eclipse of the Heart.

The new year didn’t start so well, but by god, I’m sure if you’ve gotten this far you deserve every kind of break.

November

10 Aug

IMG_20121101_172522

 

November greeted me like a cardboard cut-out of Alan Rickman as Snape wearing a lei in someone’s window. I thought he was a living entity, and sinister, and watching me, and that the imposition of his presence was a direct affront to me. In reality he was just a left over Halloween decoration, the only one in the neighborhood. His coldness and indifference affected all who saw him equally.

I saw this as I was walking a mile and a half to Aldi one night. That was a wasted walk. Aldi is just as, if not more, depressing in the UK than it is in the US. And they didn’t take my American debit card so I had to use my laundry change to pay for my crappy off-brand groceries.

Here are some things to know about England: Their debit cards have a chip and pin instead of a bar that you swipe. A lot of places will not be able to take an American debit card. There aren’t any toilets anywhere that could deal with you flushing a tampon down them, so don’t ever do it. The good thing about English toilets is that if you’re at a restaurant, the toilets are usually as far away from the kitchens as possible, which I can’t say for America. The water pressure usually sucks and you’ll feel like a gross failure for not being able to get the toilet to flush but I SWEAR IT’S NOT YOUR FAULT. YOU ONLY PEED FOR GOD’S SAKES. People leave their fucking trash on tables all the time because it is the wait staff’s job at pretty much every restaurant to clear the table for you, so don’t try to bring your plates back to the counter at a cafe or they’ll think you’re a needy weirdo, looking for validation for being so “helpful”.

I’m helping. I’m helping. Look at me, I’m American and I’m helping. I’m helping.

A very nice young man (VNYM) took me to the Guy Fawkes Night celebration at my school, which didn’t happen on the actual night, just like fireworks never happen on the actual 4th of July. Especially not in England. They sit and sip tea resentfully,  mourning the loss of a whole harbor’s worth of tea many a year ago, making the assumption that the Boston Teaparty was also on the 4th of July but they are so wrong! Someone correct them.

Guy Fawkes Night is a night of earnest cheering about the defeat of a potential catholic monarchy. People are like, “Damn, I’m so glad we don’t have a Catholic monarch because that would make a huge difference to how our country is currently run. What ho tinkerty tonk.” I do love that they burn a giant effigy of him. Effigy-burning is some pagan barbarism shit, and totally counter to the above Bertie Wooster-style posh stereotype that is actually completely accurate to every single English person I met regardless of what part of the country and socioeconomic situation they were from.

VNYM and I went on the Gravitron and it played funky disco music. I am a wuss and never try to actually go upside down on them. I usually just stand still and let reality and nightmares merge and think about the inevitability of death but this Gravitron had an observation deck and the one weird child watching all of us be be-gravitied was very distracting. I’M TRYING TO THINK ABOUT NOTHINGNESS, SMALL PERSON. I hadn’t been to a carnival in a long while and I was hoping a carnival in England would be more like a Ren Faire and that there’d be an elephant and a Maypole and people would yell “WHY ‘ELLO ME LADY”, but the only particularly English thing was that there was a truck selling hog roast. Delicious, delicious hog roast.

They also hate Wales so they set this dragon on fire

They also hate Wales so they set this dragon on fire

The actual effigy burning involved all of us standing in a freezing pitch dark field while “Firework” by Katy Perry and “Domino” by Jessie J played. Are you tired of this ongoing joke yet? I really wanted there to be lutes and lyres and recorders playing pavanes for us all to…pavane…to…but no. They didn’t even play an alternate version of “Firework” so I’ll write one now:

Do you ever feel like a wooden guy

Waiting to be burned on a giant pyre

Makes a lotta sense to say don’t blow things up

and to demonstrate, you set a guy on fire

 

‘Cause Guy Fawkes you’re an effigy

you wanted to keep the monarchy

Ca-tho-lic

Instead of Pro-test-ant

I clearly spent more than a whole minute on that. I budged in front of a lot of children because I deserved to be close to the fire and warm. English children are used to cold nights. They’re like, “Please guvnah can you spare a heating pad?” and “FOOD, GLORIOUS FOOD!” So I needed to be near the fire.

Do you see his pork pie hat and his beard and stuff? Me neither

Do you see his pork pie hat and his beard and stuff? Me neither

 

Then we stood in an even colder field and watched some fireworks. I think there is a version of that Katy Perry song that actually concerns fireworks so I won’t write it for you.  I didn’t see anyone in Guy Fawkes masks, maybe because people in the UK actually understand that Guy Fawkes wasn’t some anarchist, anti-fascist, pro-free will revolutionary. Americans have carnivals in the summer because we don’t like to suffer. I found it ironically very Catholic to have this celebration in the dead of fall because standing in a field letting the icy autumn creep up your legs and into the unfeeling caverns of your soul or other caverns you may have seems like it must be some ancient act of penance.

Two days later I booted up and explored the path behind my flat for the first time.

IMG_20121105_150026

IMG_20121105_150814

I didn’t find autumn in Norwich particularly spectacular. Autumn is my favorite season, and in Pennsylvania the earth smells so fresh after all of summer’s humidity has dissipated, and the reds, golds, and oranges that scatter the ground are bright and crisp. I thought it was the same way everywhere.

IMG_20121105_152107

 

IMG_20121105_160355

 

What it lacked in foliage, Norfolk made up for in sunsets over marshland. You could wander paths where cows and horses grazed, which I think in super litigious America would be impossible. I encountered a horse somberly standing alone in the middle of the path. I knew he was somber because he was thinking horse thoughts about not having apples or carrots or an entire bale of hay and a single tear was rolling down his horse cheek.

IMG_20121105_160952

 

He started walking towards me and I thought we would have a moment together, a moment of understanding where two beings who felt alone in the world and kind of hungry could create a safe space of empathy.

 

IMG_20121105_160941

 

But he just walked right past me. Don’t talk to me about this fucking horse. He’s dead to me.

I had to resort to humans again, even though humans are not cool and don’t have hooves and cool manes. M, a human without a cool mane, had found me on Facebook because we had gone to the same Halloween event at the Waterfront, and he had started messaging me about how he was also new to Norwich and was having trouble making friends. We decided to meet each other for a drink.

IMG_20121107_220341

We didn’t have a drink here. We just passed it on the way.

I thought if he was finding rando girls on Facebook that he must be some kind of desperate weirdman but he wasn’t, initially. We went to the Fat Cat Pub (as opposed to the Fat Cat and Canary) on Dereham Road and had a couple of pints.

IMG_20121107_225800 IMG_20121107_225808

 

M was sweet and goodnatured and gave me a really delicious cupcake he made, so I thought, “Oh good! I’m making friend!” I thought it was a friend thing because I am super naive and assume that everyone thinks I’m gross and have visible stink lines radiating out from me unless they prove me wrong by sticking their tongues down my throat. All of their tongues. Walking home from the pub to my flat was so strange. It was only 2 or 3 miles but many of the roads I took were pitch black, and I had that moment all travelers have where they see that the stars above them are the same stars that their loved ones they left behind can see, but instead of making you feel closer it makes you feel like you’ll never be near to them again. It didn’t occur to me until I was about 20 years old and someone pointed it out to me that there are stars below us, as well, and I thought about that. I thought about how quickly time passes and I thought about how alone I’d be in my bed when I finally reached it, and how alone I would be when I went to class the next day and watched everyone talk with their friends, and how I’d see those same stars again the next night and still be alone.

But then this little buddy popped out the shadows and started following me, and I was like, “Alright, a kitty!!!!!”

My favorite person I met that night

My favorite person I met that night

It’s always good to meet people when you are consumed by fear and existential nausea, so shortly after that I had my first date with Pepper. Pepper had messaged me on OkCupid when I had all but given up on finding a friend or date or whatever from it. He claimed to be inexperienced with dating but he had pretty much the best first message I had ever gotten on a dating site. It had:

-A greeting

-A non-creepy compliment

-A question

-A mention of something we had in common

-And an invitation to go out

It was also extremely succinct and didn’t prompt the 1000 message game that allows dudes to get validation but never actually meet in person. We had an immediate rapport over text message and facebook, enjoyed the same comedy shows, and I like to think we made each other laugh. He knew who my grandparents were and what the ENIAC was, which impressed me. He stayed up messaging me while I fretted over the election. I could have gone to the pub with other American students to watch the coverage but I stayed in my bed refreshing electoral college results and wondering who in the UK I could coerce into marrying me if Mitt Romney won.

Pepper and I got along so well over the internet that I thought he’d disappear on me or be someone just fucking with me. But I met him in real life at the Plough for a drink, and he bought a round and I bought a round, as he had suggested in his internet dating message. He also did another smart thing, which was that as soon as he met me he gave me a hug and assured me I looked gorgeous and had nothing to be worried about. I rambled on for about an hour over cocktails about god-knows-what, and then we went bowling, because even though I am terrible at it, it never fails to amuse me. The setting engenders a friendly competitive spirit about something no one is particularly great at, it doesn’t take much actual athleticism, and they serve drinks while you play. I ended up getting very tipsy and in the spirit of COMPETITION, I put my hands all over his face so he couldn’t see while bowling. I am so very good at flirting.

He then discovered what became a favorite pasttime of his, which was bringing up a subject he knew I had strong feelings about and then playing detached devil’s advocate while I got extremely angry and uncomfortable. I almost got up and left at one point and I wonder how different my life would have been in England if I had done it. I stayed, though, and that was the beginning of Pepper and me.

More important than dating was the procurement. Procural. Procurerarity. Procurement! More important than dating was the procurement of haggis, which, since my previous two trips to the UK had been Edinburgh-based, I was led to believe was readily available at your Sainsbury’s or your Waitrose’s’s’s’s. H and I asked around everywhere but they said it was more likely we’d find it closer to Burn’s Night. Haggisists. Here’s a guide to UK supermarkets:

Tesco: I guess the closest analog is Target, though it’s also a lot like Wal-Mart. There are ‘Metro’ and ‘Express’ versions that are more like convenience stores. They are effing everywhere, mang. Colloquially “Tesco’s”, like a Mr. Tesco owns it.

Asda: This is owned by Wal-Mart so it’s basically Wal-Mart. Don’t say “Asda’s”. No one does that.

Sainsbury’s: Correctly pronounced “Zainzzzzburiez”, because you are David Bowie. Basically your run of the mill, middle-to-upper middle class grocery chain. I think the closest analog is Publix, because Publix is super nice but not TOO nice.

Morrison’s: Same deal basically. I don’t think they have as deep a selection of own-brand stuff as Sainsbury’s. So it’s kind of like a FOOD LION. Just kidding, Food Lion sucks. I just like to say Food Lion.

Waitrose: FANCY. I think it’s most like a Wegman’s or a Whole Foods, but still not quite either of those. It doesn’t have as sharp a focus on organic and vegan products, and I’m pretty sure a Waitrose manager would rather die than employ someone with tattoos or whose armpits are dreadlocked. They do a nice hummus. And a nice gala pork pie. And a nice everything.

BUT NONE OF THESE PLACES HAD HAGGIS.

My one feeble attempt at getting involved in English politics was my brief attendance at the counter protest of the English Defence League’s march through Norwich. The English Defence League are a bunch of dicks who weren’t actually anymore racist than many of the non-EDL casually racist English people I met but I guess it’s worse if you join a specific organization for it. They claim that their focus is just on countering Islamic extremism and that they were in Norwich to protest censorship because Norwich City Council shut down a Christian bookstall that was distributing anti-Muslim leaflets. There were maybe 10 counterprotesters to every one protestor so the whole thing seemed overblown.

IMG_20121110_131436

I was with H, who was maybe the only person of actual South Asian and Muslim extraction in attendance or living in Norwich at all, and he got bored, so we went to John Lewis. I didn’t feel like a very good leftist for giving up, but I didn’t see any actual marching happening. Also, a pretty good illustration of the spirit of this counter-protest was that I overheard a guy yelling “BOLLOCKS TO FREEDOM OF SPEECH. FASCIST BASTARDS.” I would have been taking a much bigger stand against racism if I had gone up to all the white people with dreadlocks on the anti-EDL side and told them they were culturally appropriative dickholes.  H and I decided instead to check out a couple butcher shops and we finally found a butcher who carried MacSween’s haggises, so I got three.

IMG_20121110_160218

When I got back to my flat, there was a rainbow. Because god loves when you march against marching.

As things developed between Pepper and me, he invited me to a party at the house he shared with 5 housemates. Parties are not different in England. I am still bad at them. There is maybe more drinking than there is at American parties. There is just as much Jaeger. Why is Jaeger a thing? God forbid these people discover Long Island Iced Teas. At least there’d be some type of iced tea in England, because right now they just don’t DO that. There was a little too much being danced up on by Pepper’s ex-fiancee, but I don’t think that is a particularly English thing. I wanted to prove I was good enough for him by pretending to be a person who could be at a party, but it wasn’t working. Are there people who can be thrown into a room full of people they don’t know but who all know each other and can come out victorious and with many new friends? Teach me your tricks, you.

November, like me, was content to soldier on winning no friends. It was the perfect time for a seaside stroll. My friend Bonnie and I decided to go to Great Yarmouth.

Why didn't I go in here? I'm sure I wouldn't have been even a little murdered

Why didn’t I go in here? I’m sure I wouldn’t have been even a little murdered

I don’t remember what the thought process was, though when I told H and Pepper that we were taking this trip, they both said, “Why would you do that?” Great Yarmouth is a seaside resort town in North Norfolk. Before it became so easy to go to Nice or Ibiza or Majorca for vacation, it was THE summer vacation spot.

IMG_20121117_125051

But these days it’s sort of like announcing that you’re going to Jersey City for a fun day trip. Don’t expect anything besides arched eyebrows and actual question marks rising from the forehead of the person you’re addressing. Bonnie and I took the bus, looking out the window and seeing sheep and pigs grazing and lots and lots of little windmills on marshes. When we got to Great Yarmouth we saw that the town is divided in two, with one side being the more tourist-driven gift shop and hotels side and the other being a regular high street. The first thing I did was buy four pounds of fudge and just shove it all into my mouth as if the world was about to end, because Great Yarmouth truly looked like the site of the apocalypse (in fact, ‘apocalypse’ is Greek for Great Yarmouth. IT’S TRUE, LOOK IT UP, I AM NOT CURRENTLY EDITING WIKIPEDIA SO IT’LL SAY THAT) and I wanted to eat all of the fudge before I died. Bonnie and I ambled along, enjoying our last hours on earth, when we approached this banner:

IMG_20121117_124638

 

“Is that… Elvis?” I asked her.

“I’m not sure. I don’t know. Wait… maybe?” We carried on like this for a few minutes but we realized we were wasting precious time. I had to go in and ask.

The proprietor greeted us and I asked if it was Elvis on the banner outside. He assured me that it was, but that he also had some flags without Elvis on them.

“Are you aware that the confederate flag is extremely offensive?” I asked the goodly shopkeeper. He became defensive, and said that people liked to buy it, and that on previous occasions others had informed him that it was an unsavory (if not downright absurd) image but that if people liked to buy it, he was happy to sell it. If you like Elvis maybe don’t buy a banner that endorses the antebellum nostalgia in which all of Elvis’s songwriters would still have been enslaved? I don’t know. I was tickled by this strange fetishized Americana in the middle of Norfolk. I thought everyone hated my people but some people loved us so much they turned us into ridiculous caricatures. Thanks, guys. I have already and will continue to return the favor. It was time to move on.

 

How dare he talk to me like that! I had a hat, dammit.

How dare he talk to me like that! I had a hat, dammit.

Bonnie and I moved ever closer to the North Sea. I don’t know about her but I was ready to be engulfed by its unforgiving and unrelenting chill to avoid the grey death that hovered over us with calm inevitability. Then we were all, “Nah, we’ll just dip our feet in to see what it’s like!”

IMG_20121117_130721

It was fucking cold is what it was like.

IMG_20121117_130653

summer luv

IMG_20121117_132414 IMG_20121117_133311

I wondered if Great Yarmouth felt any different during the summer, if perhaps maybe it came alive with beachgoers and people looking to play the slots. I wonder if at this very moment the sun is shining and it’s not overcast and people are playing in the ocean, and I think the answer is ‘probably not’. Bonnie and I both felt depressed, and we didn’t know how to qualify it. It wasn’t because Yarmouth represented a simpler time because it is just as much a product of crass consumerism as anything developed in this age. It’s a whole town built for the purposes of revelry that no one has any interest in.

IMG_20121117_143056

I felt less depressed when I saw this. I felt uplifted. I got on the bus with Bonnie with my soul truly soaring. I pursued truth, and I found it.

After the all-time life highlight of meeting Michael Palin, I faced the prospect of spending my second ever Thanksgiving in England. The first time was a few years back when I was dating an artist, HJ, based in Edinburgh, whose sister lived in London. HJ, his sister, my dear friend Pear, and I went to a diner, creatively named Diner, for a meal that had a couple of slices of turkey, a few odd little discs of stuffing, and some ‘traditional’ cocktails made with cranberry juice. It was really lovely and comforting to be with people I cared about while celebrating a family-based holiday away from home. Since I knew that was possible, I hoped I could do something similar in Norwich. I contacted a few American-style restaurants in Norwich, but none of them did anything for Thanksgiving.

I had only just begun seeing Pepper and I still didn’t have many friends. It happened to come together that I wasn’t really able to spend Thanksgiving with a group of people, nor was I able to have a meal that was anything like a Thanksgiving meal. I really feel like I asked a lot of people if there was anywhere I could have turkey and mash and carrots and cranberry sauce, and that a lot of people told me they didn’t have anything like that. BUT. UH. For future reference, if you want to have Thanksgiving any time of year and you live in England, you just go to anywhere that calls itself a carvery and for like 10 pounds you can have everything that’s in a Thanksgiving dinner except pumpkin pie. Whenever you want. I ended up doing that with Pepper several times to compensate for not actually doing it on Thanksgiving. 

photo by Ragini Nag Rao

photo by Ragini Nag Rao

 

photo by Ragini Nag Rao

photo by Ragini Nag Rao

 

photo by Ragini Nag Rao

TOUCH IT. IT IS THERE FOR YOU TO TOUCH.

 

Ragini came to visit from York and we went vintage shopping at Prim Vintage and Goldfinches and Antidote Vintage in the Norwich Lanes. I took her to the Plantation Gardens so we could take some pictures and chat, and then we had dinner at the Library. The Library is an actual Library where they kept the fixtures and the books but now serves filet steaks and hamburgers instead of knowledge. The service was really slow and they gave us knives and forks with hamburgers, so I hate it there.

I saw Pepper later on that evening, and knowing that I was upset about not getting to have a proper Thanksgiving, he went ahead and made me Two. Pumpkin. Pies. He had never even eaten a pumpkin pie before, but he found a recipe online and put his faith in the internet, as one does. They turned out beautifully and I was extremely touched. I tried to offer my flatmates some but English people do not believe that pumpkin pie is a thing that sounds good. Sweet pies are not really a known quantity in the UK in the first place and savory pies are much more common. SO I ATE TWO WHOLE PIES BY MYSELF AND IT WAS MAGICAL. Pepper used the gift of pie to make me cleave to him unyieldingly (ok, I yielded, but it took FIVE WHOLE MONTHS) and then he was like totally my boyfriend.

With new romance in my heart I took off to London on my own to visit my friend Pear. I had met Pear on the EGL community several years prior. We had the same sense of humor and liked to make fun of people who did Japanese baby clothes wrong. As we got to know each other better, I learned what a sensationally generous, talented, interesting, and amazing person Pear was, and I finally met them when I visited HJ in London in 2009. I was ashamed that it took me two months to finally get to London and visit them. Pear and Mr. Pear greeted me at London Liverpool Station and kindly welcomed me into their flat.

IMG_20121124_190440

The first night I was there, Pear and I embarked on a journey into the deepest realms of bakery: Making a double rainbow trifle from madeira cake mix. Pear has documented the process here. It was the most fun I had had yet in England, partly because I was finally with someone who knew me so well I could be completely myself. I was also almost immediately at ease with Mr. Pear because he knows and sings quite a bit of Beatles and Scott Walker. Mr. Pear had a barrister party to attend so after constructing our rainbow monstrosity, the three of us took the tube to Goodge St and walked past the bar we were supposed to be going in three times. The Reverend J W Simpson is a hidden little basement with amazing cocktails and some very suspect crucifix-shaped marks on the walls.

Real and devil-caused? Or hokey decoration?

Real and devil-caused? Or hokey decoration?

Pear and I are both very shy and although the barristers at the barrister party were very social and welcoming, I wasn’t able to get quite comfortable. Pear and I nuzzled up to each other while the barristers talked about grown up things and I wondered if I’d ever be able to function at a cocktail party.

IMG_20121124_220905

The next day was the Loy Krathong festival at the Buddhapadipa Temple in Wimbledon. This festival is adapted from Brahmanic traditions to accommodate Thai Buddhist beliefs, and the construction of the krathongs is representative of asking forgiveness and following Buddha’s footsteps.   The three of us bought pre-made krathongs to float on the water. We also watched the beauty pageant, where a string of extremely beautiful contestants displayed gorgeous headdresses, each more ornate than the last, and answered what I think were pretty common beauty pageant questions, with a particular focus on representing Thai culture in England. I also got to try a lot of delicious Thai festival food and I was very lucky that I had Pear to explain to me what each dish was.

And someone brought FIVE shiba inu

And someone brought FIVE shiba inu

Actually getting to see the krathong that Pear’s father constructed was my favorite part of the event. His krathong stood out as the most beautiful, the most technically brilliant, and the most lovingly created of all the krathong there, though they were all magnificent.

IMG_20121125_155513

IMG_20121125_163713

I felt so incredibly thrilled and privileged that Pear shared this with me and I finally got to meet the lovely and amazing Pearents.

When I got back to Norwich, Pepper insisted we go on a proper nice date and took me out for fancy cocktails at the St. Giles Hotel. Because of my tendency to not eat all day, I was immediately tipsy. By my first glass of wine at the Thai restaurant we went to for dinner, I was full on drunk. Too drunk to be conscious of the living stereotype I was being. Pepper started in on his favorite activity, which was Winding Me Up About Shit That Makes Me Angry, and I got angry. Anger led to volume control problems. The woman behind me interrupted me to say, “Excuse me, but could you please keep it down? I’m trying to have a quiet night out.”

A what

A what now

“Quiet night out”?

That’s not a thing! “Quiet night out” is not a thing that exists! You’re thinking of “in”!  I know prepositions are tough, especially ones with so many letters, but “quiet night in” is an extant concept maybe worthy of appreciation. “Quiet night out” is you being a right ol’ ninny.

So add “quiet night out” to the list of things that wind me up. I was mortified for weeks. I am still mortified. I disturbed someone’s quiet night out, which is apparently a thing, by being an abrasive, stereotypical American. I cannot escape my identity or form my own. I am just a lonely monster shouting into the ether, and apparently the ether is listening and getting kind of annoyed.

I ended November by attempting to laser tag with M. Laser tag is not that engaging with two people, and I was wearing vintage leggings that I kept having to hoist up. ELASTIC DIES, LIKE EVERYTHING ELSE. Why did that elastic have to remind me of my mortality and also make me even worse than I would naturally be at laser tag?

I will leave you with the criticism attached to my first piece of marked coursework. Keep in mind that this was attached to a paper that I got the equivalent of an ‘A’ on. I didn’t deserve that ‘A’ because I had to look up both “brio” and “apercus”.

IMG_20121129_181902

October

1 Aug

With a guitar at my side I aimed to hole myself up in my room for hours and days at a time, convincing myself I was productive and not wasting my time because I was making videos of myself singing.

I had lost my callouses from spending a month without playing, so after a few hours my fingers hurt too much to play, and it was at this point that I forced myself to do my schoolwork.  I was reading modernist fiction and enjoying and understanding it deeply, reading 18th century fiction and tolerating it- mostly because my tutor made jokes that referenced Chris Morris’s “Brass Eye”, and reading post-modern American fiction from the 1960s and its accompanying critical theory and not understanding it at all. Oddly, I found the American fiction to be the most deeply misogynist and the least relatable of anything I was reading, and I found the joyfulness with which my male peers approached it to be fucking gross. The main hobby of 21 year old boys with intelligence to spare but no empathy is to engage in for-the-sake-of-it arguments in which they gleefully play devil’s advocate, and repeatedly drumming up the emotional energy to even witness it took a lot for me.

I felt too old to even talk to most of my classmates, and I wasn’t sure where I could make age-appropriate friends, so I resorted to something I’ve used to meet people since I was 18, which was OkCupid. Norwich was too small a city to have many users and I felt I must have interacted with every dude online dating in Norwich within the first week or so. I hoped that I could at the very least make some friends and contacts, and truthfully I just like dating. It’s usually disappointing and scary and weird, but I have a huge proclivity towards experiencing discomfort.

I met up with a local musician who seemed to know everyone in town and we decided to go for a walk. We walked through the city square and ended up at Castle Mall. If you’re from Montgomery County, you’ll understand this analogy: Castle Mall is the Plymouth Meeting Mall to Chapelfields’ King of Prussia Mall. It had 99p stores full of weird Caribbean soda, most of its clothing stores were full of the same shoddy £5 dresses and leggings that you could buy in the castle market, and the only real reason to go there was for TK Maxx, which is why this musician fellow and I were heading there. He needed shoes. I blame this man for the TK Maxx addiction I sustained throughout my trip. Shoes were not to be found and I didn’t feel comfortable buying several kilos of candy from the Pick’n’Mix in front of someone on a first date, so we decided to walk elsewhere. He taught me my favorite route from the city center, through Elm Hill, to Tombland and he took me to Aladdin’s Cave and Loose’s, two flea market shops on Magdalen St.

It's not very much like a mini-mini-malll

It’s not very much like a mini-mini-malll

Loose’s reminded me of my much-loved Bucks County Antiques Gallery, a two-story farmhouse full of vintage clothing and jewelry estates and old Chuck E. Cheese rides that you could buy. Among my favorite knick-knacks at Loose’s were the crash test dummy, the myriad guitars and banjos, so many hats, and an old post box. My least favorite things were the Gollywogs, which I know are still in production from seeing them new with tags in a store on Elm Hill. Get your shit together, England.

Musician and I didn’t have much of a connection and he had other things to do, so he hopped off elsewhere and I took myself to Digby’s, a chocolate store in the Royal Arcade, which is a beautiful art deco avenue that acts as a thoroughfare from the castle to the town square.

IMG_20121002_160153

 

I bought myself some disappointing macarons. I don’t know why I kept trusting England with the making of macarons! I should have just gotten chocolate because Digby’s makes excellent and reasonably priced artisanal chocolate, and look how cute it is with its little windy staircase! I had too much of a habit of comforting myself with sweets, especially Percy Pigs from Marks & Spencer or Tesco’s rip-off, Cute Cats. I also had a serious Jelly Snakes problem.

I went back home and read Henry James’ “In the Cage” and did not make time to watch the presidential debate. I suppose it was partly laziness, partly that I was sure of who I was voting for anyway, and partly that I wanted to feel I was separate from that now. I also did not bother to immerse myself in UK politics. In a way I felt that not having a TV was making my cultural immersion incomplete. There’s such a large part of getting to know a culture by seeing what advertising it uses.

Of course the next logical step in cultural assimilation was going to see American rapper Azealia Banks. I waited for the 22 bus outside of my house for an hour and it just didn’t come, which angered me but also ebbed away at my homesickness because it was something a SEPTA bus would do, to just stand you up when you’re waiting on a street corner alone at night. The next bus finally came and I was too grateful to get out of the cold to be angry at it, and some people are of the mind that it’s pointless to be angry at a bus, anyway. I got off the bus at Castle Meadow and had to get to King Street in a hurry. King Street at night is incredible as it doesn’t have any clubs to attract a nighttime crowd and it has the most concentrated amount of medieval buildings. I thought I must be going in the wrong direction, or maybe traveling temporally instead of spatially. I have a bad habit of dissociating when I walk alone at night, especially when I go to places I’ve never been. Luckily another concertgoer asked me if we were going the right way to the Waterfront and jolted me out of my reverie. By the time I got in the venue I had missed Zebra Katz and Njena Redd Foxx. While waiting for Azealia Banks to go on, I surveyed the crowd, which looked to be 99% white and younger than me. Azealia started her set and played a bunch of tracks from her mix tape, and ended with “212″. It made me super uncomfortable that she engaged the mostly-white audience in call & response participation stuff that prompted the crowd to yell the n-word, but I didn’t even know if it was my place to feel uncomfortable. When she was still in control of her own Twitter account she made her thoughts on the matter pretty clear. She is a very high energy performer who obviously loves her fans, encouraged everyone to dance (no one was good at it), and didn’t miss a single word of any of her songs. It wasn’t exactly transcendental; the whole time I felt completely aware that I was in a weird little club in Norwich full of 15-year-olds but I suppose I only have myself to blame for not buying myself drinks. After spending nearly a year unable to dance because of my ankle sprain, I took the opportunity to dance by myself, though not entirely unselfconsciously. After the show I waited around her tour bus to see if she might sign autographs, but she just threw three t-shirts and rolled off.

82

Even though I bought tickets for pretty much every trip the International Student Society organized, the only one I ended up actually going to was the trip to Cambridge, which I enjoyed and wrote about here. I never made it back to Cambridge on a weekday to do some of my own exploring with less of a time limit, and I regret that.

The most important thing I learned from my trip to Cambridge is how much I appreciated the combination of back bacon (as opposed to streaky bacon– WHICH IS BETTER, SO SHUT UP, ENGLAND), cranberry, and brie. This was the first time I was living on my own. It was a goal of mine to actually learn how to cook but instead I’d go 18-24 hours without food to prevent myself from feeling sick. The novelty of English supermarkets wore off pretty quickly because I had already run through a Sainsbury’s pulling random items off the shelves and screaming a couple years previously, and buying everything in a grocery store is not cheap.  My usual diet was eggs for at least 3 meals a week, sometimes black pudding, marmite on crumpets all the time, sometimes spinach salad, often just grapefruit for days at a time. I did not go to the chippy three times a week, because my awful confession is that I don’t really like chips all that much. I do like tiny greasy French fries but English chips just don’t do it for me. Potatoes generally aren’t that much of a friend of mine, as they’re fairly bland and are pretty resistant to picking up flavors that are around it. This is a metaphor for English culture.

I’d been there almost a month and hadn’t made any friends. A very cute, well-dressed girl in my 18th century writing class found me through my American friend’s Tumblr, oddly enough, and we talked online before talking in real life in class. We made plans to go for a “cheeky pint” after class one day. A “cheeky” anything means something you’re not supposed to do, but that’s ludicrous because day drinking is as inappropriate in England as playing Starcraft and eating really delicious food is in South Korea. Because I was never eating, I got immediately drunk a few sips into my pint of cider and tried to instigate trauma-bonding, which is maybe why we never hung out again. Or maybe it was because I was relentlessly interrogating her about classism and chavs.

My friend count was still hovering around 0-.5 after daytime drinking and I was having a really difficult time finding someone to do Halloween things with. I was also annoyed that Halloween things didn’t really seem to exist. I remember telling an English person I dated (over the internet!) that I was going to a haunted house, and his resultant confusion about where one would find a house that was haunted (as ghosts are not real) and why someone would let me into their house. This prompted me to go on what I thought was a date with a fellow sort-of-American.

H and I met on Okcupid and he drew me in with his intimate knowledge of Philadelphia, so we met up near Marks & Spencer and went to the Magdalen St and St. Augustine’s fair.

83

Norwich is a city full of vaguely punk moms and grandmoms, as evidenced by the tons of pink-haired middle-aged women, but it doesn’t have the strong goth contingent that I found in every northern city I visited. Magdalen St seemed to be the epicenter of what small counterculture Norwich had– and by that I mean it has one weird fantasy shop. Apparently at one point Magdalen St also reserved some of its medieval character– but as a result of the city’s plans to build the abomination that is Anglia Square, they cleared out a swath of historical buildings. George Plunkett has some great photographs of Norwich in the 1930s that I think are well worth looking at. There’s also a great short film from the East Anglia Film Archive- “The Story of Magdalen St“. Its opening lines are “Somewhere down there is a street”, so you know it’s bound to be very well-paced and completely informative. The camera pans to amazingly rendered shop signs that the narrator claims “clamor for attention in a very unneighborly way”. One of the plans the main architect enacted was font and color restriction for street signs. They didn’t think to do anything about the stupidly narrow sidewalks or preserving any of the historical buildings that are now gone. But the fonts were all the same now! And they added window boxes with flowers!

It’s super depressing what time and modernization has done to Magdalen St. Not knowing any of this history at the time, H and I decided to take a tour of Magdalen St with a group, and we were told about the various bars that used to be shopfronts and shopfronts that used to be bars and bars that have been bars for 700 years.

 

This is the pub where that posh guy got a pint of bitter in that movie that I linked that you probably didn't watch

This is the pub where that posh bloke got a pint of bitter in that movie that I linked that you probably didn’t watch

 

A history of this part of Magdalen St: One time someone parked here, and somebody else got mad

A history of this part of Magdalen St: One time someone parked here, and somebody else got mad

H and I went bowling and then had lunch at the beautiful Maid’s Head Hotel, which dates back to the 13th century. H listened to my homesick rants about Philadelphia, about my strange and often sordid dating history, and about my troubles adjusting to life in the UK.

IMG_20121013_164810

We talked and talked until it was time for me to go to a Josie Long gig on my own. Josie Long used to do funny surrealist humor but lately has had a sort of superficial social justice bent, and where the comedy was supposed to be was a bunch of jokes I didn’t get about Ed Milliband and a bunch of not-jokes involving her anger with the increasingly-conservative government. Based on her opining about not being friends with Lena Dunham yet, I think Josie Long is just part of the breed of famous white feminists in the UK like Caitlin Moran who only give a fuck about other white middle class women. It was pretty disappointing! I’d preferred if she had actually done a full comedy routine instead of political rants totally lacking nuance.

The next day I made myself fancy and

"fancy"

“fancy”

I went to my first Little Vintage Fair at St. Andrew’s Hall.

IMG_20121014_132527

Going to a giant medieval guildhall absolutely brimming with vintage clothing and hats and jewelry, and catered by a teashop serving delicious pies, is pretty much still the absolute most ideal place for me. I was a cat rolling around in a sunbeam.

This guy just doesn't know if he wants to buy a bunch of vintage greeting cards with racist caricatures on it. He just doesn't know.

This guy just doesn’t know if he wants to buy a bunch of vintage greeting cards with racist caricatures on it. He just doesn’t know.

I got a haggis pie from Biddy’s for lunch and some yummy Fentiman’s cola, and I found this incredible Beatles dress:

beatles

I can be fairly sure it’s actually from the 60s because of the weird poly-blended fabric, and I think it was hand-made by a Beatlemaniac in her home ec class because there’s no tag. I wanted to be the ultimate nerd and wear this on a trip to Liverpool but– sing it with me now– I never got a chance.

Even though I was clearly capable of having fun on my own, I still felt the compulsion to attach myself to other people, and went on yet another internet date with a man who worked as a Viennese postman. We started out at the Belgian Monk, which would have been lovely if I had just let myself order Krieks because that is what I enjoy drinking, but a project I was embarking on in the UK was forcing myself to like beer, so I started out with a super gross cookie beer. Bars in Norwich close early so at around 10:45 we were pushed out, and we headed up Pottergate to the Birdcage, which at the time smelled spectacularly like mold. My date for some reason met up with his friend at the Birdcage so I was able to nurse a cider and pretend like I didn’t exist while they chatted, which I usually wish I could do on first dates but people don’t normally invite their friends. The Birdcage rang the bell for last orders not soon after we got there, so we pushed on to Delaney’s.

Funnily enough, hokey “Irish” pubs are the same in England as they are in the US. The atmosphere tries to inorganically emulate genuine Irish misery by playing shit music and attracting the most desperate and lonely people, so I guess I technically belonged there.

If you get me super drunk, I will steal your glasses. Because that is "cute"

If you get me super drunk, I will steal your glasses. Because that is “cute”

By this point I was drunk in a way that I have only gotten 3 or 4 times in my life, and I was relieved that Delaney’s was finally about to close, prompting my date and his friend to drove me home. My date tried to make out with me and I warned him I might vomit all over him (I should have phrased it “chundah everywaaaahhh” so he’d know what I meant), but that wasn’t enough of a deterrent so I had to politely slam the door in his face.

You’d think at this point I’d slow down with the dating and try to focus on making friends in a more organic way, but a more organic way would probably involve just as much drinking, and I didn’t really enjoy that. Having witnessed the effects of binge drinking, I didn’t find it cute or funny when people engaged in it as their primary hobby. I went for hot chocolate with a young poet at Biddy’s, and then for a walk.

IMG_20121017_153007

I felt like we had a fair amount in common but I ended up feeling really ill, which maybe scared him off. I don’t know. Maybe he could sense that whoever I ended up with was going to have to be my entire life there, and that’s too much for anyone to want to face.

IMG_20121017_174418

I took my first overnight trip to York, reminding myself I could do things on my own, and getting some much-needed Halloween vibes.

While investing myself in heavy reading and coursework, I was also ruining the Halloween vibes by going to choir and singing Christmas carols. Comprising at least 50% senior citizens, my choir had many more people I was interested in getting to know than my school did, and there were a few people around who actually started conversations with me, and I just couldn’t bring myself to turn talking into friendship.

School was giving me the gift of discovering Richard Brautigan, but I was distracted by a burgeoning romance with Some French Dude who ended up driving from northern France to Norwich one evening, with baguettes, ham, cheese, and two bottles of wine in tow. When we ran out of French stereotypes to eat, I took him to the Grosvenor Fish Shop, which is supposed to be the best chippy in Norwich and is secretly owned by a New Yorker. WE BEAT YOU AT YOUR OWN GAME, ENGLAND.

I never got to actually eat here because of the whole 'not eating' thing

I never got to actually eat here because of the whole ‘not eating’ thing

 

IMG_20121026_184326

We also went for a pint at Norwich’s oldest pub, which is supposed to be haunted by things other than OUTRAGEOUS PRICES (Yes, I said it!), the Adam & Eve. We did romantic things like get into arguments about feminism and avoid eye contact or speaking with each other for extended periods of time.

IMG_20121026_192303

After a breakfast of macarons at House, Some French Dude went back to France, rejecting the future I had planned for us where we’d meet up when I came to Paris  and avoid eye contact and argue there. My heart actually was a little bit broken because when your first date with someone is a grand romantic gesture made by a handsome European guy, you don’t realize there’s nowhere to go but down.

I spent the rest of the month mostly just doing my coursework and eating the occasional savory pie, until I met my friend Dozy from Tumblr, who asked me to do some modeling for her NUCA coursework, which was a lot of fun and I was happy to do.

Photo by Roseanna Hanson

Photo by Roseanna Hanson

After modeling for Dozy, I took myself on a date to the Waffle House on St. Giles Road,

IMG_20121030_130049

then to Antidote Vintage where I bought my favorite dress ever, and then on to the romantic and hidden Plantation Gardens on Earlham Road.

 

 

IMG_20121030_141253

IMG_20121030_134843

Taking myself on a date was the right idea for me, as I was able to take in the beauty of the city’s secret spots, spending as much time as I wanted savoring small details.

The next night was Halloween, and I went with my American friends Bonnie, Lauren, and H to the Waterfront to see a hilariously accurate Cure cover band, leaving before the main event which was spooky DJs and heavy drinking. I was supposed to be some sort of scary mermaid but I kind of looked like Mystique halfway through transformation.

I was disappointed by English Halloween. I guess it’s that English people have fancy dress parties all year round and they have haunted things all year round so they don’t need one special day/month for it. I wish I had gone trick or treating because it is MY CULTURE and you have to give me candy out of CULTURAL UNDERSTANDING. I had no way of convincing people to jump out at me for my personal gratification, though. Maybe next year.

September

28 Jul

Here is how you get to England:

1) Lose your mind repeatedly visiting the financial aid office at your school trying to get them to write you a letter that proves that they’re giving you enough financial aid to live in England– even though they technically aren’t because England is fucking expensive.

2) Lose your mind trying to get visa photos taken. I ended up getting them taken at Walgreen’s, where I had to instruct the employees that there is actually a drop down menu that allows you to take UK Visa sized photos. Don’t go to Kinko’s to get your pictures cut to size. I hope you have an art teacher with an exacto knife for a neighbor because that’s how I got it done.

3) Spend an extra hundred dollars on top of your $400 visa application to go to the consulate in New York. I’m so fucking serious. It did negate all the paperwork I did because they cared about NONE of it except my passport and the application itself.

4.) Use STA Travel to book a ticket but for God’s sakes, fly into London and take the train. I flew from Philadelphia, backtracked west to Detroit, then east again to Amsterdam, and then west again to Norwich. It was STUPID. But also cheap.

I left Philadelphia with the knowledge that when I came back the house I grew up in would probably be sold, so the packing took weeks. I gave away a good half of my belongings.

2012 was the first year I had felt in any way a complete person. Before I left Philadelphia I was doing extremely well in school, I had a job I loved, I had actual friends that I spent time with, I had the most loving and healthy relationship I had ever been in, and I was writing music all the time. That was apparently the perfect time to up and leave and be completely on my own for the first time in my life.

So I got on my stupid three planes to England.

september19

 

I touched down in Norwich bleary-eyed and completely bursting for a pee. I actually had to ask the visa officer (the 1 visa officer for the line of 200 students) if I could use the bathroom while I was waiting in line at the tiny airport to have my visa checked.  The advantage of super small airports is that they didn’t act like needing to pee was a super serious security threat and they allowed me to not pee my pants as my first act of American defiance. I was allowed in the country (HA HA SUCKERS) and put on a bus.

I did meet a girl from my school, Temple, on the bus from Norwich Airport to University of East Anglia and I’d see her sometimes at school but I never hung out with her. I’d only see glimpses of her travels on Facebook as she visited every city in England, as well as in France, Germany, Spain, and Italy, setting an example of what people SHOULD do to take advantage of their study abroad opportunity and depressing me completely.

I had been awake for over 24 hours and I was in a somewhat-new country. I had to have my visa checked again and then I was dropped off at my new flat with no further words of encouragement and no orientation packet. The internet was down in the halls and I had no cell phone. I was utterly, utterly alone, and the worst bit of it was that I hadn’t packed a pillow and sheets so I could not collapse into a much-needed depression nap. I attempted to assemble makeshift bedding from the clothing I had brought, but gave up and cried. I picked myself back up and went to the accommodation office to buy a bedding pack. Eventually the internet in halls was fixed and I was able to get online and tell my family I was safe.

september21

joe919

 

I probably spent all night on the internet and then slept all day, finally calming myself down enough to attempt catching the 3 bus. I initially tried to catch the bus going in the opposite direction and asked for one trip to the city center, and was politely informed that “that’s the other way, love”, which was extremely unPhiladelphian and un-SEPTA of the driver. I did eventually find a bus going the correct way, and used my powers of intuition to get off the bus at St. Stephen’s street so I could go to the mall.

07

We don’t have House of Fraser or John Lewis in America and they’re certainly not bordered by 800 year old walls

There’s something depressing about having flown 20 hours and having crossed an entire ocean just to go to another fucking mall with another fucking H&M and another fucking Burger King. Montgomery Mall doesn’t have Baguette Express, though. Nor has it anything with as much of a hilarious mouthful of a name as Carphone Warehouse 4u, which is where I get my first UK Sim card. I made the mistake of listening to the sales advisor (don’t ever do that) and initially went with a Lebara mobile sim, which was expensive and had no data plan. I ended up with 3 for the rest of my UK stay, but those in the know use Giffgaff. Unfortunately, I hate knowing things and I always have.

My first impressions of Norwich were totally informed by this one image:

This is a shit photo because I took it from a bus and never bothered to re-take it, even though I thought about it all the time. I mean every time I saw it I thought about it for several minutes.

This is a shit photo because I took it from a bus and never bothered to re-take it, even though I thought about it all the time. I mean every time I saw it I thought about it for several minutes.

I was forever tickled by a country having such a surplus of beautiful old Victorian, Georgian, Edwardian, Restoration, Renaissance, and Medieval buildings that they could just stick a Subway in one for lack of a better purpose.

Maybe the real reason I thought about it so much, this Subway in a building of unknown vintage, was that it was emblematic of so much of what alienated me in England. It was a familiar, American image molded to fit something older and it didn’t quite work. I thought I should understand it and everything about it and I didn’t and couldn’t.

I don’t know that I even have any pictures of St. Stephen’s. Immediately my feeling about Norwich was that it was not a city and did not even really have aspirations towards citydom. It was a space content to be just the perfect size for anti-Semitic pogroms for a thousand years. The multicolored market stalls were charming but its vendors touted £5 YOLO sweaters and inexplicably mustache-themed sweatshirts, leggings, and tote bags. I felt that Norwich was not adequately informed that I was coming ALL THE WAY FROM AMERICA and it needed to impress me.

I think the first day I went to the city I bought some new sheets, because the sheets that came in my bedding pack were gross, and I bought some more lumpy, terrible pillows to supplement the one lumpy, terrible pillow I already had. I was exhausted and terrified and had no idea what I was supposed to doing with myself. I bought a mug but still had no kettle, and the deepest irony in the world took me from an America full of tea to an England without it.

I needed to start to chip away at the feeling of being absolutely, completely on my own. My house had 6 flats, and 4 rooms to each flat. My flat was incredibly self-contained, and we didn’t interact with the other flats or each other much at all. The first flatmate I encountered was C, whose family I ran into when I was 24 hours without sleep and I desperately wanted to know where I could buy bed supplies. I probably terrified all of them. The next was Sam, a Kiwi who I saw all of three times the entire semester I was there. The last was M, who I was really fond of and wish I had gotten to know better. We didn’t run into each other often but when we did we would have hours-long conversations about Beatles rarities, alienation, David Bowie, American insincerity, and Roxy Music. M’s room was next door to mine and I felt he must know me better than anyone in the universe, because he could probably hear me singing and writing music, and he could probably hear the succession of boys I brought into my room, and maybe nights of lonely sobbing, or nights of bathroom problems. I felt perpetual embarrassment when I encountered him because no one should know me that well and be able to look me in the eye. When he went back home for the summer he left me a USB drive of Beatles songs and I wish he had left a note, even just with his email address or something. Had we been like any of the other flats we’d be hosting international flat dinners where we cooked for each other and sang our national anthems all at the same time until they stopped sounding discordant and turned into beautiful harmony. I think we were officially put into the socially anxious flat, though, and I think I have no regrets about that.

The beginning of the semester for age-appropriate students (typical university age is 18-21), based on the noise occurring outside of my window, involved a lot hormonal yelling. I was jealous. I wanted to live my life like a goat in heat instead of a Rainer Werner Fassbinder film full of long shots of people being lustful but also sad.  I am going to be more specific, here I go: my university had a devil-chamber den of iniquity– the BORING kind– called the LCR. It stands for something. It’s a place where the university hosted the type of dances that happen in church basements when you’re 13. The LCR had really fun theme nights where people wore different colors of clothing to make getting drunk every night feel like it wasn’t a desperate body-ravaging cycle where nothing actually ever changes. This is the type of cleverness they invent for university.

I never went to any LCR nights because I am old and I do not need to be drunk to want to have sex with other people or for other people to want to have sex with me (they might need to be drunk but that is their problem), and terrible music makes me angry because I’m shallow. I think foreign students who wanted to successfully assimilate skipped the foreign student buddy nights they set up for us and went straight to the LCR to hobnob with the natives. A hobnob is a type of biscuit, which is what stupid people call a cookie.

I wasn’t told about the orientation I was supposed to attend, and maybe that’s why I felt essentially abandoned and confused for the first week I was there. I found out through another student I had met on the plane that there were two days of orientation. I attempted the first seven hour day, which gave me some insight into how other American students were settling in. A particularly loathsome American MA student that I had overheard lecturing a Malaysian student about Sun Tzu’s Art of War on the bus to UEA was now trying on an English accent, and the main thing I learned that day was to be as little like that jackass as possible. Though, in retrospect, I bet he did objectively better at studying abroad than I did. I bet he got the bronze medal. After being given really useful tips like “Don’t say pants because people will think you mean underwear ohohoh!” I decided to skip the second day. I self-flagellated myself into attending a foreign student karaoke/trivia party, where I joined a trivia game team with students from Australia, Zimbabwe, and Kenya and lost horrifically. This event helped me form meaningful friendships that extended  even into waving at this one girl sometimes when I saw her walking to and from campus.

What to and from campus looks like.

What to and from campus looks like.

 

IMG_20120925_143622

A very handsome UEA student came up to me and asked if I was Mary and told me he recognized me from Facebook, and then almost immediately got bored and actually straight up told me he was gonna go talk to someone else now. How do you drop a creepbomb like “I recognize you from the internet even though you have no idea who I am” and then have the audacity to get bored and walk away? I liked the cut of his jib. We never saw each other again.

september21two

Finding the orientation activities not very useful because I couldn’t force myself to extrapolate a common feeling of not-being-from-England into friendship, I resorted to using Tumblr to find other UEA students. I met up with Bonnie and Lauren, two American MA students who were also into Nerd Shit. We spent the day shopping for wares for our apartment and eating scones and drinking elderflower soda at the mall.

As soon as I bought my 9 month bus pass I recovered a sense of personal agency I had lost since I had arrived. I began making itineraries to explore Norwich without the crowded international student tour groups. I visited Norwich Castle and Norwich Cathedral on a weekday where I could explore them in quiet thoughtfulness. Coming from Philadelphia, all of our historical landmarks are firmly rooted in a contextual narrative, answering the question of what import it had in the creation of our country and the development of its liberty. It seemed in England that each building had too much of its own history to be just part of a larger story and had too much of its own identity to have some larger cultural value system forced onto it. WAIT NO MOSTLY THEY WERE JUST PRETTIES.  I had the advantage of being able to explore the small but fascinating treasury in the cathedral, which was closed the next time I visited. I had everything left to discover in the city. In reality Norwich’s city center is all of a couple of square miles, but when I first got there my mental map had all the spaces left to be filled in. I was too nervous to go past Tombland and down Magdalen Street.

Tombland! I put a mental barrier up here because it was cold and rainy

Tombland! I put a mental barrier up here because it was cold and rainy

I am good at going places alone. I took that away from myself, later on, and it was a mistake.

I was relieved to finally start classes a few days in. My first class was 18th Century Writing, and I was impressed with the system of having a changing roster of lecturers each focusing on a specialized subtopic, and then a tutor-led two hour discussion group. My peers, all of whom I think were younger than I am, were confident and self-assured, I suppose having come from a school system where being an intellectual isn’t always universally found less important than the playing of sportball. My second class was Modernism, whose introductory lessons began with a confusing Gertrude Stein text and a barrage of secondary reading. My last class was an American Studies class in which I was the only American. All of the others were from the UK but had just spent the past year in the US and had, to me, extremely strange perspectives that were informed largely by confirmation bias (much like my perspective on the UK is). Every single one of them understood critical theory and, although I was desperate to impress my tiny, charismatic, hot, Welsh teacher, my one note social justice perspectives quickly bored everyone and what kind of idiot doesn’t understand Derrida? MORE LIKE DERRI-DUH. No one has ever made that joke! 

I had a desperate need to prove in each and every class that not all Americans are stupid. Some of us are unlikeable pretentious nerds who are too old to be at university! Listen to me understand the transition from 19th century materialist literature to the spiritualism of the early 20th century, 19 year olds! I’m only 5 years older than you!

september26

 I comforted myself with luxuries from the Marks & Spencer food hall: packaged scones with Devonshire cream, metallic macarons in honor of the Diamond Jubilee, and an entire banoffee pie, which I attempted to share with my roommates by leaving a note, but that didn’t work.

september27

“Auditioning” for choir involved matching notes until the conductor was satisfied I wasn’t completely tone deaf, and I was then ushered out of the room and told to be a soprano because I wasn’t quite un-tone-deaf enough to be an alto.

I went to a societies fair in another unconvincing attempt to be social, and I joined the Horror Society, the Burlesque Society, and apparently the “Music Society”. I joined the burlesque society in the hope I could learn how to move in a sexy way or at least develop a modicum of body awareness, but when I realized the modicum wasn’t coming, and therefore the sexiness wouldn’t follow, I did the honorable thing and fuckin’ quit. I felt stupidly out of place even though I had a group that included medical student Zoe, who was perfectly lovely and I could easily have asked her to come for a drink with me, and lovely Sophie who always stopped for a chat with me whenever she saw me. It wasn’t at all that English people are cold or unfriendly or snobby. It also wasn’t that I am any of those things. I found that a lot of English people approached social situations with the funny attitude of, “Oh, well, we’re all in this silliness together, it’s not the worst that could happen”, whereas my attitude was always, “THEY’LL GET TO KNOW ME AND THAT’S THE ABSOLUTE WORST THAT COULD HAPPEN”.

There were plenty of people I admired, especially in my American Studies class, but I didn’t feel at all like I could initiate conversation, because they’d immediately figure out how boring and how horrifying I am. I don’t know how a person can be boring while they’re horrifying you. I think being horrified involves at least the smallest element of entertainment.

Further aspirational Englishness involved being obsessed with this one red brick house that had ivy on it

Further aspirational Englishness involved being obsessed with this one red brick house that had ivy on it

Having been assigned three novels to read in a week, I at least felt like a busy loser, which is slightly more satisfying than being a loser with free time. To make myself even busier I found a young man selling a guitar on facebook, and challenged my navigation abilities by going and finding his house. He smoked an astonishing amount of pot and we chatted for a couple of hours about music, and he even played some Steely Dan for me to sing to. I wanted to attach myself to him and have him introduce me to all the music in Norwich and help me find people my age to hang out with, but understandably he preferred the prospect of smoking more pot instead of being my Music Mom. His emotional (and relationship status-related) unavailability intrigued me, and I immediately developed a giant crush on him, because the six other giant crushes I had developed were not enough. I took my guitar home and never saw him again, but I now had a tool with which to deal with all the feelings I had.

This cat wanted to follow me home from buying a guitar. I wanted it to.

This cat wanted to follow me home from buying a guitar. I wanted it to.

Having been to England three times before I moved there, I felt like I knew enough about it that the only thing I needed to research is where I could buy clothing that was from the old times, the yesteryears. This meant that six months before I even knew how to pronounce Norwich, I knew where and when I could purchase vintage clothing there. After class one evening I put myself on a bus at night to go to an event called Sip ‘n Shop at a cute bar and cafe called Olive’s in Tombland. There seemed to be an already-extant vintage-enthusiast community in Norwich, with small business owners and vintage lifestylists who had come together at many of these events before. I wanted to steal some champagne to make myself braver but I had to be brave enough to steal the champagne to begin with.

I hoped if I made my hair fancy people would want to talk to me. But maybe making this face scared people away.

I hoped if I made my hair fancy people would want to talk to me. But maybe making this face scared people away.

I learned that no matter the context I cannot make myself talk to people I don’t know even if we might have things in common. I bought an amazing mint dress from the 60s or 70s and immediately put myself on a bus back home. It just seemed everyone knew each other already!

I also learned that I had taken myself away from everyone I knew and loved, put myself into a situation where I really didn’t have any true peers because everyone was younger or came with giant groups from their schools, and was still at the very least trying to go out, even though my internal monologue was constantly reinforcing my desperate isolation.

It wasn’t the most brave, but it was sort of brave. I survived my first 11 days, but at the end of September the rest of my stay was still looking more like a jail sentence than something that would slip away from me extremely quickly, prompting months of what now seems like indelible sadness and longing.

An Emotional Map of Norwich

26 Jul

I was supposed to use my spring break while I was still in England to start writing about my life in England. If I had, it’d be tonally very different. I’d probably find different details more important. I’ve left it too long and soon I’ll go back to school for my last semester before I finish my Bachelor’s Degree so I have to just throw up a bunch of memories, poorly spatially organized, before it all fades away.

 

When I first picked up the book “Dune” (I almost wrote that it was by Herbert West but Herbert West is the guy in Reanimator), I was immediately turned off by the fact that it had a lexicon in the beginning which I had to keep referring back to. In fact, the same thing happened to me with every single JRR Tolkien book I attempted to read and their maps. Nonetheless I’ll have start this account by making a kind of emotional map. It will be confusing because I found Norwich pretty much impossible to navigate up until the week I left, and there weren’t street signs anymore. I suppose I am a stupid irony-deficient American because I expect there to be street signs.

map_of_norwich

 

It was hard to find a visual map that might aid me in this endeavor because, as any gay witch for abortion girl scout learns, maps are made for so many different purposes. I really liked this map that looks like it’s from the 70s or 80s because it shows what Norwich looked like before Chapelfield Mall started budging up on the barriers of the medieval wall. In Norwich, “mall” and “wall” don’t rhyme, by the way.

uk-map-of-norwich

This isn’t part of my own emotional history, but Mousehold Heath is where they found the body of William of Norwich. I will not tell you where any of the bodies that are connected to me can be found. But hey recently they found a bunch of skeletons under Chapelfield!

University of East Anglia campus on (the) Earlham Road is where I stayed, about twenty minutes outside of the city center. I lived in the little section not quite on campus called University VIllage, a loud, unbearable haven from the quiet, pleasant, lakeside ziggurats.

IMG_20130324_164507

I didn’t get to stay in one of these

Behind my flat was a trail that went past a medieval church, a weeping willow arching over the creek, and which led to a patch of marsh land on which cows, sheep, horses, and miniature ponies grazed.

892691_727389131321_836468292_o

 

Taking the 25 bus from campus, or later when I wised up, the 21 or 22 from right outside my flat, to the city center would take you up either (the) Dereham Road, (the) Unthank Road, or (the) Earlham Road. Dereham Road afforded you views of a wooded cemetery, and then a busy road lined with Polish and South Asian grocery stores. The Earlham Road took you past the beautiful Roman Catholic cathedral and the hidden and enchanted Plantation Gardens. The Unthank Road just sounds funny. I never got a chance to go to the patch of it lined with charity shops. I mean, I had chances. But I was lazy.

 

Eaton Park on the Earlham Road, where I had my second date with Pepper

Eaton Park on the Earlham Road, where I had my second date with Pepper

The 25 bus lands you at St. Stephen’s Street, which to me always felt like the transition from suburb to city. St. Stephen’s had a Wilko, where I finally bought some goddamn sheets and a pillow the second day I was in Norwich. Past Rampant Horse Street was Marks & Spencer, a department store with a Food Hall where you can purchase Very Nice Things. DID YOU READ THAT SENTENCE PAST RAMPANT HORSE STREET? I wouldn’t. I didn’t like to take the 25 bus because it was full of Students who were Having Fun and this was extremely alienating to me.

 

I usually took  21 or 22 bus to Castle Meadow, the stretch of road lying under the shadow of the Norman (with Victorian restructured facade) Norwich castle. From there I could cross the street and have access to the medieval lanes, which are mostly inaccessible to cars. And platform shoes. Never try to walk a cobbled street in platform shoes.

Castle Meadow and City Hall behind it

 

 

Once safely in the town square you have views of City Hall, which Hitler apparently greatly admired, the Forum, an extremely modern library and BBC space, and the stunning town market. Then you can amble up and down the lanes.

IMG_20121214_151803

 

Pottergate is home to Biddy’s, the sweetest and loveliest tea shop I have ever been to. It also hosts the Birdcage Pub, where I only managed to actually have a drink twice because they were always out of ingredients. The Belgian Monk was the site of a first date I had with a man who worked as a Viennese postman.

 

St. Benedict’s Street has a little cafe called House, and in the window they have little towers built from macarons. I went there only once, when R, a boy I met on Okcupid, drove from France to Norwich to visit me. St. Benedict’s is also is where I first met my ex-boyfriend, at the Plough, which makes the nicest cocktails in Norwich. I first went there when I met my friend H, who became one of my closest and only friends in Norwich.

IMG_20121027_121014

 

St. Giles Road is where the Waffle House is. You can imagine what they serve. It’s also the street where I bought one of my very very favorite dresses ever, at Antidote Vintage.

 

Supposing you are tired of nice vintage shops in this part of town, you can amble back up the lanes, to St. Andrew’s St. This is the medieval guild hall where I went to 10 or 11 vintage fairs and where I got to sing Benjamin Britten’s Spring Symphony with a whole orchestra.  Across the street is Cinema City, the medieval house restructured into a movie theater where I spent my entire last week in England. After watching an utter mess like the Great Gatsby you can walk down Elm Hill, the most beautiful street in any city anywhere in the world, maybe.

68

Elm Hill will take you to Tombland, where the Norwich Cathedral is. The OTHER Norwich Cathedral. And by that I mean the FIRST Norwich cathedral, and presumably also the first Roman Catholic Norwich cathedral, until it wasn’t anymore. From Tombland you can walk down Magdalen Street and have a kebab with your art school friends who are 5 years younger than you.

 

If you don’t like your walks pleasant and scenic, Prince of Wales Road is the road for you. It’s lined with the shittiest clubs ever, and more kebab shops. This is where an idiot bit off another idiot’s ear at the “New York, New York Diner”. This is also where a team of clubgoers dressed as Oompa Loompas beat up and mugged someone who was assuredly just going for a nice evening walk.

 

Thorpe Road, just past the train station, was where my ex-boyfriend shared a beautiful house with 5 roommates. I spent 6 out of the 8 months I lived in Norwich at “the Mansion” so I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention it. I still feel bitterness and heartache so I’d like to leave him out of it, but my memories would be nowhere near complete if I did. I’ll refer to him as Pepper, even though anyone who’s seen my Facebook probably knows his full name and what he looks like and what kind of foods he eats and his shoe size since I posted about him so goddamn much. AND HE ACTED HIS SHOE SIZE INSTEAD OF HIS AGE AM I RITE LADIES? No.

 

Riverside Walk is where I went bowling the first time I met H. And the first time I met Pepper. And the second time I met M, a Welsh dude who I’m sure ended up feeling “friendzoned” because he deleted me from Facebook after several months of me not banging him.

Riverside Walk is also host to the first and only Nando’s I ever ate at, on New Year’s Day. That’s dedication, Nando’s. There’s also the Odeon Cinema, where I saw Silent Hill 2: Revelations, certainly one of the worst films I’ve ever seen. I also saw Wreck-It Ralph there. In England they pronounce it “Wreck-It Rafe”. And they eat hamburgers with a knife and fork, the utter fucks.

You can get to Morrison’s through Riverside Walk, and that’s where you can distract your boyfriend from doing his weekly shopping for Marmite, crumpets, and the type of heavy-duty chocolate supplies that only the heavily menstruating usually require. I am describing this an endearing and not bitter way. You can tell because I had to indicate it afterwards.

 

This has assuredly been completely useful.

Lovely People

25 Mar

SPRING BREAK, WHOO! Spring break for me means two months of bashing my head against the wall trying to make myself stop playing games on Facebook because I haven’t been able to find a job.

On top of that, I am poorly. Poorly and fully assimilating myself into life here by stealing their colloquialisms!

Now that my second semester here is almost over, I can really reflect on how few friends I’ve made and how little I’ve learned about myself or the culture here. I think if I had been drinking way more and more often I would have had a fuller experience but instead I spent the semester actually reading every single book set me and turning my coursework in on time like a sucker.

None of that matters, though, because I met goddamn Michael Palin and he said I was a lovely person. Completely unprompted. Except for that last part.

When I found out Michael Palin was having a book signing in Norwich I didn’t even know how to process the possibility of seeing the person who basically developed my sense of humor (and if you ever get to meet him, you can blame him). While waiting in line, I tried to think of what I could possibly say to him that did not involve the words “I would still bang you, just sayin”’ because that is extremely disrespectful even if it is true.

palin3

 

palin4

 

Having lined up an hour early with my friend Bonnie and someone who is no longer friends with me because I would not bang them, just sayin’ (he was not enough like Michael Palin), we ended up being fairly frontwards in the line. We heard we couldn’t take pictures with him so I took a picture with a Dalek instead.

palin2

 

I wore a cleavagey dress and covered it up with a grandma sweater. Strategy.

The time approached. One of my first and most heartbreaking celebrity crushes (SO MANY OBSTACLES), one of the funniest men alive, a friend of Beatles was right in front of me.

“Can I just say. You’re a lovely person??”

was the best I could do. And Michael Palin, being that thing I just told him he was, said, “You can say that as many times as you like!”

“Oh. I’m glad I asked permission. That’s not crass, is it?” Which I’m sure seemed non-sequitur or just inane to him, but was actually apropos to my inner monologue which was instructing me not to be disgusting towards him because he is not just a living legend, but in fact a normal human being who probably doesn’t like it when people are disgusting at him.

And he laughed. And he said, “You’re a lovely person!”

AND THEN HE COMMITTED IT IN WRITING:

palin1

 

Also don’t you say a goddamn word about Michael Palin’s grammar. If Michael Palin wants to put the possessive there he goddamn will.

 

Look I met Michael Palin this photo is completely undoctored:

palindalek

I never need to meet anyone or have their opinion of me again.

Pancake Gras

12 Feb

Happy paczkicakegras!

pancakeday

Sometimes when I give into the more severe episodes of anxiety I have, I convince myself I am utterly alone in the world, and my feelings need to be fed.

 

Untitled-1

 

UTTERLY ALONE IN THE WORLD

It is a perfect collision when these episodes interact with one or more eating-focused holidays. The English call today “Pancake Day”, but actually serve crepes. If pretending not to be French helps you sleep at night, I understand, and let’s carry on. Being a quarter Port Richmond consonant-enveloped Polish, I think of today as Pączki Day. Being a person who likes donuts and showing people her boobs, I also call today Mardi Gras.

I took myself to Biddy’s Tearoom because I saw on Facebooks that they were gonna be serving pancakes, and I ordered a Goat(s) Cheese and Watercress crepe. Pancake. It was one of the best crepes I’ve ever had! The caramelized onions were so very sweet and tangy, and I am not a girl who gets filled up easily, but I canceled what I thought were crystallized plans to get myself a dessert pancake. The lavender earl grey tea I had with it on a whim was lovely, as well. I lost my taste for Earl Grey after drinking four mugs of it in a row one strange evening an eon ago, but I was in the mood for something delicate, and the lavender sort of neutralizes the spiciness of the bergamot. It’s also not too floral! It hits a good balance. 

Look how goddamn cute Biddy’s is though:


They offer such cute things to go, as well, like homemade pork pies and scotch eggs. At one of the Norwich vintage fairs I had a haggis pie from Biddy’s pop-up cafe that was incredible! The wait staff are also super sweet and cute.

I did buy a gross donut or two or many from Gregg’s for later. Caramel cream! It’s Mardi Gras! After tonight I will give up giving things up for Lent for Lent.

I considered buying ALL THE ONESIES because really, what’s more important? A week’s worth of groceries or being able to dress like a pink unicorn? Everyone’s onesie game should be tight. Luckily my existential nausea overcame me again before I made it into the store.

Norwich Charity Shopping: Queens Road and Westlegate

10 Feb

Any time someone compliments me on something I wear, a favorite response of mine is to crassly yell, “THANKS! IT WAS ONLY $2! AT THE THRIFT STORE!” because my budget is definitely everyone’s business.

That’s why I can’t believe I’ve been in this city for nigh on five months and haven’t properly gone thrifting. Perhaps it was because every time I popped into a thrift store in the city, it only took a couple minutes for me to realize that, although the stock was beautifully organized by size and color, there weren’t any bargains of the Mennonites-in-Bumblefuck, PA variety.

Nope. No Mennonites here.

The majority of the stock in the average Norwich thrift store is from the past 5-10 years, pilling, and not particularly stylish. I didn’t feel like I gave Norwich’s charity shop scene a proper chance by just popping in a random store once a month, though, and decided today to start investigating it more fully. I armed myself in my best thrifting outfit: a blouse, skirt, belt, tights, and cardigan, the ultimate ensemble for swapping out items when I’m trying things on. 

I wanted my first stop to be the Happy Dog Charity on Queens Road but it was closed! No retail store should ever be closed on a Saturday. The window display had a handwritten sign that said “Seashells, £1.95 for 3″, which I guess is a very good bargain if they are SEASHELLS FROM THE MOON. So I guess I will find out next time if they might also have a 2-for-1 deal on gum from under a desk or maybe I can buy £3 for £6.

I backtracked to a block of charity shops situated under Supatone (Norwich’s most excellent music store), starting with Relief, but didn’t find any of the stock particularly appealing. Next I went into the RSPCA, which actually had a sign on the door begging people to bring donations in, as they were running out of clothing to sell. Unsurprisingly, that was another miss. I would have gotten the slightly faded floral Primark leggings they had except I already had a pair and I’m pretty sure I paid less for them.

The Pets in Need of Vets shop is the last and biggest shop before Queens Road turns into St. Stephens, and thankfully, it didn’t disappoint. Entirely. They didn’t have a rack of dresses, I suppose because dresses are too… summery?  I also don’t really understand why fairly beat up loafers get priced at £10, but their pricing wasn’t universally unreasonable. PDSA has a vintage/retro section, in which I found this beauty for £6.50:

 

Giant collar? Check. Velvet bow? Check. Weird scratchy wool material that probably won’t be optimal when I take it back to an actually temperate climate? SHUT UP I AM NEVER LEAVING. I also nabbed a black lace high collar top because I sure don’t have enough see through items in my wardrobe for wearing to pictures on Tumblr. PDSA gets points for having a vintage section but not pricing it way outside of its normal pricing range, which is something that a lot of stores in Philadelphia do.

Then I had to go into the enormous Chapelfields mall to pee and Chapelfields on a Saturday is a hurricane of strollers and 16-year-olds sitting in puddles of themselves on floors and holy god do I hate it.

Westlegate!

 

I went up Westlegate and stopped in Sam’s in the City, a tiny and relatively new Good Samaritan outpost. They had a lot of trendy and reasonably priced dresses, and I nabbed this guy for £2.50:

Bubble hems! Mesh! Weird snakey geometric print! Yes, ok, sold! I’m impressed with the dead look in my eyes in these photos. Mind you, I had just been in a mall. It does things to me.

My final store for the day was Big C in Westlegate, whose prices were ridiculous, and they also had a bizarre summer section that had velour and leather and suede items in it. Why bother separating your items out seasonally if you are basically going to concede that you don’t experience warm weather in this country?

I can easily come up with a number of reasons that thrifting here isn’t what it is in small-town Pennsylvania. The first is that the consumption of fast fashion in this country, as in the US, means that people will sooner buy a wardrobe that gets tossed after a few wears and washes than buy anything that’s resilient enough to be passed onto a second owner. It’s also pretty hard to price Primark stuff for resale when it’s so incredibly cheap to begin with.

The other reason is that Norwich has an incredible vintage scene, which I am definitely going to write about! While it’s wonderful that there are so many beautifully curated vintage shops around, I can’t help but think they source a little of their stock from thrift stores around here. It’s a totally reasonable thing to do! But if people in the know are buying up the good stuff and pricing it at what’s actually worth, it takes the thrill of the hunt out of it.  I do know that whether my money goes to a charity shop or a vintage shop here in Norwich, that it’s going to something worth supporting. I can’t help but miss my Care & Share in Souderton with tons of 80s dress for $2, though.

Slight disillusionment has only one cure, and that is a snack. I headed up to Harvest Coffee Shop, which I had often wanted to try for homesickness reasons, as it looks like any number of bakeries in Chinatown back home. I tried a BBQ pork pastry and a pudding-flavored milk tea, the cost of which was roughly 4x of what I’d pay at home (which still isn’t very much!).

What else can I expect when there aren’t 200 competing bakeries on the same block, though? The staff was really helpful and sweet, though, and the seating is better than any Philly Chinatown bakery.

I intend to give some of the more central and some of the more peripheral charity shops a try and see if location makes any difference. In Philadelphia the problem is usually that the shops are really picked over, but here it’s apparently just that no one’s donating! That’s fine, though, I prefer the feeling of knowing there’s nothing good to the feeling of having missed out on the good stuff to other people.

What a jerk.

York. No, not the new one. The old one. Old York.

4 Jan

 

I thought the North/South divide in the US was a palpable cultural split what with that war about whether it was ok to own people (“states’ rights”) but it’s entirely a different ballgame (football? soccer? BOTH? NEITHER?) here in the UK (cricket???). There is no equivalent Mason Dixon line indicating where people start being too Northern or too Southern. Hadrian’s Wall divides “the north” from “The North”, but it generally seems that anything above London is the north and is the provenance of idiots, idolators, incestuators, and Irn-Bru drinkers, and anything south, inclusive of London and Oxbridge, is a bunch of asshole snobs.

Norwich is somewhere in between (but not part of the Midlands. Because Mid=north?) but also a place with incest. And folksiness.

From my limited and stereotype-rooted observations, northernness is something to be beaten or teased out of you till you say “GRAHSS” like a proper human being. I love “the north”. I love the beautiful variety of dialects, regional foods, and perhaps the generally more relaxed and less aloof attitude of the people there.

AND I LOVE THE FIELDS FULL OF SHEEP.

On my train trip to York I saw an immediate change of landscape from the grey fens dotted with windmills in Norfolk to bright green fields. FULL OF SHEEP.

 

I booked a room at the wonderful Abbeyfields Guest House where I met a very friendly Australian couple and I threw all my stuff on my adorable pink gingham bed, quickly ruining what was once a very lovely view.

My first view of York, upon leaving the hotel to explore, was part of the city wall:

 

I grew up reading fairy tales with pre-raphaelite illustrations, and those young adult historical fiction diaries of princesses, and some actual medieval history. If I had the budget or talent to be the type of ren faire nerd who shows up in accurate historical dress, I would have done that every year. Norwich has its ugly industrialization and its quaint medieval streets side by side but York has its history enclosed within its ancient city walls. For someone who desperately wants to maintain her incredibly myopic view of what her trip to Europe should be, York is perfect!

My first order of business was visiting York Minster, the intimidating cathedral at the center of town.

 

 

York Minster is simply My Favorite Thing. Its exterior is fearful and imposing but the sheer magnitude and detail of it, combined with its age, make it a marvel of human achievement in my eyes. Probably just my eyes. Everybody else is like, “Whatever. My kid could do that if I gave him a bunch of marble imported from Normandy or whatever. Fuck off”.

Rude. The inside is just as magnificent. I don’t know anything about architecture. I know that York Minster is built in the gothic style. There is something fancy and cool about the naves. I do know that even as a non-believer I have a visceral reaction to seeing a testament to where human faith and achievement meet one another.

 

My favorite part of York Minster is undoubtedly the Chapter House, which is immediately stunning because of its stained glass windows:

 

The best part of the Chapter House is its carvings. Viewing something created 700 years in the past, I tend to separate myself from the humanity of the people who made it and the sacredness of the space interrupts my ability to connect to the human-made art within it. The carvings here are hysterical and very humanizing. It effectively reduces the scale of all human lived experience when you see something 700 years old that is funny to you now and was probably funny to the people who made it then. There is something very moving to me about the comical and the sacred situated beside one another because of the idea that they should not be mutually exclusive and in order to be representative of human experience they should coexist.

WHAT AM I EVER EVER TALKING ABOUT?

“LOL”, said the person who carved this.

 

“Amen,” said this dude.

 

I didn’t realize what I was getting myself into when I decided to climb the tower of York Minster. I thought 275 steps was no big, but it turned out to be incredibly scary, not just because of the physical effort involved (and oh god I hate effort generally), but also because of the very old, very narrow steps, and that there are people in front of and behind you so you are so stuck if you start feeling like you’re gonna pass out and die and fall down and knock all the people behind you down like dominos holy shit uaghhhhghhh-

OH WOW

HOLY SHIT I’M DONE I DID IT HURRAY

 

Oh god wait there’s more? Fuck. (THAT’S YOU. RIGHT NOW. READING THIS POST. THIS IS PERFORMATIVE BLOGGING WHERE  YOUR EXPERIENCE READING IS LIKE MY EXPERIENCE CLIMBING YORK MINSTER. YOU ARE VERY IMPRESSED WITH YOURSELF FOR GETTING THIS FAR)

Once you get to the top, though, you can see the entire city. Either the lightheadedness or reality willhave you believe that you have really ascended into something like heaven.

 

IMG_20121020_145225 copy

IMG_20121020_145237 copy

 

I spent a good couple hours exploring just York Minster, as it has several hundred years of additions and fun Renaissance-era statues and a crypt. Afterwards I wandered into a somewhat cheesy occult shop, which offered tours of an adjoining “haunted house”.

 

A haunted house in America is an attraction where actors wearing hokey makeup jump out at you and yell horrible dialogue in the dark, and it is the best. This was reputedly an actual haunted house, with real ghosts, but what I paid for was a self-guided tour with some boring stories and some pre-recorded sound scares. The couple whose date I was imposing on (this is a repeated theme with me) consisted of a lady who insisted she was filming ORBS and her husband who graciously humored her.

 

Whoa. What is going on with my right eye? Something easily explained by science? PROBABLY.

I then went on a ghost tour, which mainly consisted of my tour guide bragging about how he invented ghost tours and that everyone else copied off of him. Scary!

Before I went to York, I sent a message to Ragini of Curious Fancy as I had long admired her style, thoughtfulness, and intelligence. Luckily she didn’t think I was creepy stalker and agreed to meet me! We went out for a couple drinks and bonded about horrible OkCupid experiences, how we feel sort of excluded in fatshion blogging because we don’t have typically sexualized body types and how we both have a doll-like or fairy tale aesthetic, and we just generally had a good time gettin’ tipsy in some medieval pubs. Ragini and I have a lot in common.

photo credit goes to Ragini!

 

We have pretty much the same body, really similar styles, big eyes and big lips, round cheeks, we’re both a bit shy, analytical, and very literary. Both crass shit-talkers, as well! This is why it was obvious and rather alarming when we both noticed an ongoing pattern where, wherever we went, people would address me and completely ignore her. Ragini is not just a native English speaker; she is in England because she’s getting her masters in post-colonial English literature. It was devastating to me to see people repeatedly treat her in such a hurtful way based on whatever weird assumptions they were making about her. I also felt powerless and complicit because I would just watch these interactions happen and not know what to do. I’ve thought about it for months and it’s part of the reason I took so long to write this post because I didn’t know how to address it but I’d be even more of a coward than I already am if I just let it go.

I wanted there to be some easy lesson I could dispense about the dangers of assumptions or to try to give advice but I can’t. A key element in these interactions was people noticing my accent and talking about how much they loved America or wanted to go there and celebrating the type of otherness I brought with me, the type of otherness that is similar enough to be comfortable but different enough to attract attention. I know these words are inadequate. It astonishes me that people can see two such similar people and think, “the one that looks more familiar to me is the one I’m going to talk to”.

What people miss out on with this type of ignorance– this type of ignorance that is really the root of racism– is getting to know an amazing, beautiful person:

She wrote a truly amazing post analyzing where her aesthetic comes from and I hope you all go and read it. All of Ragini’s posts are thoughtful and interesting and great and there is truly no one whose style I admire more.

We spent the next day walking around York, visiting the crowded, misshapen little medieval alley called the Shambles:

and then we went to the museum gardens to take some photos. Not only is Ragini a perfect model, but she’s an incredible photographer.

The tippet was a present from my lovely friend Tyler, the top was from Greene Street size XL, the skirt is vintage from Etsy size 14, and the tights are from H+M.

Photo credit for all the museum gardens photos goes to the exceptionally talented Ragini.

I loved my trip to York. I get made fun of a lot by people here in Norwich for my exuberant love of what is a tiny little city that doesn’t seem to have a lot going on, and which isn’t terribly different from Norwich, but it has a lot of great history and beauty concentrated into one tiny little spot.

I’m also thankful for getting to meet and bond with Ragini, and I have to urge you again to go and check out her amazing blog, which has recently been featured in the New York Times and the Daily Mail!

Where the Rational and the Religious Go For a Pint

14 Nov

My hair isn’t even this color anymore

Why I have been busy:

-Facebook

-Shittons of coursework deadlines that I think I keep in the back of my mind but when they arrive seem to have come out of nowhere

-Reading Thomas Pynchon’s “V.” in one sitting (NOT THE RECOMMENDED DOSAGE!)

-Trying to cure my homesickness by going out on too many dates (NOT THE RECOMMENDED DOSAGE)

-Not leaving the house and instead watching terrible tattoo reality shows, forgetting I live in fucking England and could be doing way cooler stuff. Ostensibly.

A whole month ago, I did go on a day trip with the other international students to Cambridge. It’s about one and a half hours from Norwich by bus, and the first thing we did was split up into different tour groups, getting first to see the iconic view of King’s College, with coos inclusive!:

King’s College. Learning is happening.

 

Our tour guide was an older gentleman who walked way more quickly than our tour group, which mostly comprised us lazy, non-walking Americans. We suck so bad, am i rite, all of Europe? Psyche, we re-elected Obama, you like us again. Tour Guide made only one allusion to how Cambridge is better than Oxford, and I was impressed with his reserve! As far as I know, we don’t really do much in the way of inter-collegiate pissing contests here at UEA, but I think I’ll arbitrarily start one with NUCA. You hear that, NUCA? You guys are good at art but not as good at fabricating climate change research! BURN.

 

Our tour guide fed us some made up bullshit about Newton testing the speed of sound right about here

 

We moved onto my favorite part of the tour, which was a quick visit to the Wren Library at Trinity College, which contains early Shakespeare folios, notes for Winnie the Pooh, and 12th century manuscripts. We weren’t allowed to take pictures and our visit was limited to five minutes, but I didn’t mind, because if it means the better preservation of rare books, I’m going to be a grateful fuckin’ nerd about it.

 

You expect me to know the names of every one of the 80000 buildings in all 800 of the colleges?

 

While I found Cambridge to be stunningly beautiful, certainly more picturesque than the UEA, it’s a small city that couldn’t accommodate the amount of tourists pounding the streets, and if I were a student trying to get my work done and get around I’d be pretty annoyed that people were gawking at me and coming into buildings that are only supposed to be for students and getting in the way of my bike. I got in the way of SO MANY people’s bikes.

We stopped at several buildings of historical significance, unsurprising considering the caliber of intellect associated with Cambridge, but I found myself irritated at the repeated celebration of Watson & Crick and how they “discovered the structure of DNA at the Eagle Pub” without even a passing mention of Rosalind Franklin.

I finished the day with the requisite punt trip down the River Cam. Since I got in line by myself I was put with a couple, and I felt sort of bad for them that they had to have their date ruined by a random American girl. Luckily I couldn’t ever ruin anything as bad at the punter did!

The view from the boat is pretty excellent, depending on the extenuating circumstances

 

Our punter (I LOOKED IT UP, THAT’S THE RIGHT WORD. IT DOESN’T JUST MEAN THE CLIENT OF A LADY OF THE NIGHT), about 5 minutes into the tour, threw up off the side of the boat. And apologized profusely. Wouldn’t even be a big deal if he hadn’t then gone on to yell at every other punter on the water for being unprofessional. He yelled at a young (and “fit: in both the English and American sense) shirtless punter because “no one wants to see that”, he told all the amateur punters they were doing it wrong, and generally made things much more confrontational than necessary.

He knew a lot about Brutalist architecture, though!

I think I could use a return trip to Cambridge when it’s less crowded to get a better sense of the whole town, but generally it was a good day to narrowly avoid being barfed on in this gorgeous medieval college town!