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.
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.
“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.
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.
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 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.