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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
I went to my first Little Vintage Fair at St. Andrew’s Hall.
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.
I got a haggis pie from Biddy’s for lunch and some yummy Fentiman’s cola, and I found this incredible Beatles dress:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
After modeling for Dozy, I took myself on a date to the Waffle House on St. Giles Road,
then to Antidote Vintage where I bought my favorite dress ever, and then on to the romantic and hidden Plantation Gardens on Earlham Road.
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.