When I think of people who travel, I don’t think of myself. And really, maybe I should. I’ve been all over, not the world- but the continent, and in the United State each state is an awful lot like a country. There’s a patchwork of dialects, regional shops, and regional dishes tied together by loose threads of commonality. Still, the “people who travel” remains a class distant and aloof, almost like traveling isn’t something that people do but something that is done. It’s the stuff of fiction: the journey into the wild, the escape, the ever elusive quest to “find oneself.” It’s the woman telling her friend about the weekend she jetted off to Paris for lunch over a glass of sangria and the girl who grabbed a backpack and disappeared into the Amazon jungle. Which is odd, because I know a lot of people who’ve traveled. I know people who’ve been to every non-glacial continent and if I asked around, I could probably even come up with someone who’s been to Antarctica. But there’s something about the way people talk about travel that makes it seem hazy and distant from the stuff of day-to-day life.
When people come back from their world traveling, they make it sound easy and intuitive with transitions no more disruptive than the blast of chilled air that hits you’re face when you walk through the automatic doors at the grocery store. They say they went to Paris and then hopped on over to Nice and there are such lovely beaches there and they had the absolute best choux pastry of their life in Lyon. I’m going to tell you now these people are all lying to you. I’m not saying they didn’t go to Paris or that the beaches in Nice aren’t particularly lovely; no, the lies I’m talking about are lies of omission. To paraphrase Shakespeare: much like the course of true love, the course of globetrotting never did run smooth. People aren’t all suavely stepping into other cultures without a hitch, they just aren’t telling you about those hitches. It takes time to adjust to living in a new place and to learn the new operating rules. Of course, when your friends and family visit and ask what on earth a treacle is you’ll look at them like it’s the most obvious thing in the world and explain that it’s kind of like maple syrup but thicker (basically, it’s molasses) even though the same question would have flummoxed you just a few months ago. It takes time and questions and help from people who actually know what they’re doing, but after a while you adjust and become one of those people who actually know what they’re doing.
I am not yet one of those people who actually knows what they’re doing. I entered an airport attempting (and largely failing) to balance the heap of bags I piled on top of my rolling suitcase. I hate to admit it, but as I rolled up to the luggage check, I came to the realization that I had absolutely no idea how airports work. I’ve never traveled alone before, so while I was familiar with being on a plane, I wasn’t entirely familiar with the whole process of getting to the plane. With a considerable amount of apprehension, I went to weigh my bag and lo! It was exactly 50lbs, the max weight for checked bags without being nickled and dimed to death with overage fees. It may sound crazy and superstitious, but I took this as auspicious sign. I neglected to weigh my bag before arriving at the airport, so it felt a lot like winning a slots payout with all the flashing lights and clanging bells- except I was celebrating internally, fully realizing that most people don’t get this excited when weighing suitcases. But, hey, full disclosure- I hadn’t really slept a whole lot the night before and I’m not exactly fond of flying so I probably needed some superstition to latch onto portending that destiny itself had decided that I would have a smooth flight.
I gave my family a big hug and made my way over to the security line. They waited until I made it all the way through and waved goodbye before they left. While they were waiting, I managed to somehow set off the alarms on the scanners and had to have my hands tested for explosive residue but I made it. Then I started the search for my terminal which culminated in me asking for directions. It turns out that at O’Hare you have to go through a giant underground tunnel with a moving floor to get to C block which is why I was having trouble finding it. I then finally made it to my gate and began to think that maybe getting to the airport six hours before my flight was a bit excessive. Right as I began thinking this, I received a text from my mom saying it was a good thing we got to the airport so hours early because there was a major accident on the highway and the road into O’Hare was deadlocked. Regardless, I still had about five hours to kill before I could board my plane so I ended up doing about ten laps around C block- during one of which I was harried by a remote control robot darting through my legs. I finally settled into my terminal and a really nice British woman asked me if I was Irish (because apparently I have an accent that shouldn’t exist) and she was surprised to learn that I was actually American. She chatted with me and diligently explained some facts about London (such as the tube station). I met a lot of really nice people like her on my voyage across the pond, including a friend of a friend who I had been texting after finding out we were coincidentally on the same flight. In the end, the flight wasn’t as bad as I was expecting, but the in-flight movies were horrible. I honestly considered trying to get off the plane mid-flight the second time The Intern started playing. The only way I can describe The Intern is a Nicholas Sparks novel without the sadness or cancer. The most interesting part of the film was attempting to decipher why someone thought this movie was worth making.
Thankfully, the plane reached UK airspace and quickly approached the London area. I have to say, flying over London at night was a truly awe inspiring experience. The ground looked like it was covered in thousands of quivering stars and as the plane dipped lower, I could see the sun beginning to peek over the bend in the horizon. The plane landed and I stepped off of the longest flight of my life and onto British soil armed only with an address. Of course, I had to get out of the airport before I could go in search of my temporary home. I had some laughs with the immigration agents, trekked through a maze of hallways, and claimed my luggage before finding myself at the Heathrow tube stop. I got an Oyster card right away but, embarrassingly enough, I kept trying to put my Oyster card in the ticket slot instead of touching it to the card reader even as the tube worker yelled “No, no, put it on the yellow pad.” I also got my suitcase jammed in the off gate on the tube and was temporarily estranged from my luggage until someone stopped to help me out. He couldn’t get the gate open either so he ended up having to lift my auspiciously weighted suitcase over the gate. After taking a moment to make sense of UK addresses- especially the zip codes (which contain letters)- I made it to my new home. Let the cultural adjustment commence!
I’d say my first trial once I got all unpacked was finding a grocery store. In London, they don’t have large supermarkets like they do in the US; they have a bunch of small grocery stores about the size of a gas station convenience store. I walked by tons of these mini grocery stores as I ran around London frantically touring everything. There was actually a fairly large grocery store in the Waterloo tube station I used every day, but it took me about a week to notice it. I can be a bit myopic at times but really, I think my priorities were in order- food comes after adventuring. It’s actually a bit disorienting when you aren’t familiar with any of the stores and the British do shopping in a rather different way. They don’t have a Walmart where you go and just buy everything. Most shops are fairly small and sell one thing. Sainsbury, Tesco, and M&S are the most popular grocery stores that I’ve seen, Boots is a pharmacy and Primark sells cheap clothes and home goods. But there is nothing that sells all three except maybe Argos, but Argos is like a bizarre-o-world store where the products aren’t on shelves and you have to look through a catalogue to find the product number of what you want to buy. Getting the basics for my apartment was interesting to say the least. I had to figure out what shops sold the thing I needed and then locate the shop in a city where the streets confound any logical ordering. Seriously, look at a map of London, it isn’t on a grid system or a wheel and spoke system it’s on a hey look we’re turning now because we feel like it system. You’ll be walking and figure it’ll be faster if cut over a block only to suddenly end up on the wrong side of the river three miles from where you started. The street signs are also not on the streets, they’re on the building, except for when they’re not (which is quite often). And the streets will suddenly change name for no apparent reason. The street didn’t turn or even curve, in fact, it’s still perfectly straight, but for some reason the name changed at the end of the block. Navigating London is no easy task. I recommend using landmarks because the street signs are out to make your life impossible.
There are plenty of other things that I find strange about London. For example, at most grocery stores, the self-checkout section is way larger than the section with cashiers and the self-checkout is like HAL from 2001: Space Odyssey and out to destroy you. The machines keep telling you to put the item in the bagging area when that’s actually what you just did and then they tell you that there’s an unexplained item in the bagging area and you wonder if that isn’t the item the machine just told you to put there. Peanut butter is pretty much nonexistent here while Nutella is everywhere and the grocery stores actually sell the ever elusive hot cross buns of your childhood music career. I honestly didn’t think hot cross buns existed. I had never seen one in my life before coming to the UK and I got really excited when I saw them, so other grocery shoppers were probably giving me weird looks as I intensely examined a package of hot cross buns. There are pay toilets that only accept 20p and 10p coins and oh yeah, did I mention that the British monetary system has eight different types of coins? Bathrooms have two taps instead of one, so you know that nice comfortable tap water temperature, well forget that, you are granted a choice between freezing cold or steaming hot water with no middle ground. The first floor is now the second floor and for a while, you feel like nothing makes sense anymore. You’d think that going to a country where everyone speaks the same language would be a pretty smooth transition but it’s the little things that get you. The nonexistent language barrier was just to lull you into a false sense of security, you still have to adjust.
While I’ve noticed a lot of differences between Britain and America, very few of them actually bother me, except for the coffee. I drink my coffee black. Very black. And that’s apparently not a thing here. I ordered “just coffee” and was handed a mocha. Thinking this was a fluke, I tried again at the next place. They asked me if I meant an Americano. I didn’t. An Americano is not like a cup of regular drip (or pour-over or pressed) coffee. It’s basically impossible to find a cup of coffee sans milk which means that I’ve been gravitating towards expresso in the morning (I’m actually a big fan of tea but I drink tea in the afternoon and coffee to wake up). I’m now on a mission to find somewhere, anywhere in London that will sell me a cup of regular black coffee. So far, my mission has largely been unsuccessful.
I came into the UK with a lot of romanticized notions of the country. My expectations were so high that I was sure that no city could possibly meet them, and London didn’t, it surpassed them. There are countless streets to explore and history to uncover. Every day I find something new but, every night I love seeing the same view as I walk across the Waterloo bridge and watch the buildings light up like Christmas trees. England is quaint and pub-filled and everything I expected, but it’s also something more. And I look forward to discovering what that something is.