The Wrong Side

My physical journey to the United Kingdom felt like I had been walking through a dream. My mind focused on getting through customs, retrieving my luggage, and figuring out the logistics of how to get to where I needed to go. Signs everywhere told me that I had arrived in the United Kingdom, and I could hear British accents in the crowds that passed by me.

I don’t think that it actually hit me that I was in a completely new country until I got into the car that took me to my residence.

The steering wheel of course, was on the right side of the vehicle, meaning that the car driver and I were entering the car on the same side. One awkward look at the driver later, we started to head out, driving on the left side of the road instead of the right. This was absolutely something that I was aware of and had researched prior to coming to the UK, but actually being physically present in the car that was driving on the wrong side of the road was a true slap of British reality.

Once we had made it out of the tunnels of the airport, I was greeted by a bright grey sky. Later, I would learn from locals that in London there aren’t very many sunny days — “bright” or “dark” days, but cloudy nonetheless. At first there was only the road, nothing super special, until I started to see them poking out of the sides of the highway: old English houses. Compared to the United States, where an old building maybe meant a building from the 1960s, it was clear that an “old building” had a much different meaning here. Even through my jetlag, I thought they were the most beautiful buildings I had ever seen.

They were beautiful, until I got the keys to my residence and found out that I would be living on the fifth and very top floor of my townhouse flat building. No elevator or “lift” was to be found; I would have to carry my two heavy American bags up the five flights of stairs myself.

Two trips later, I was sweaty but relieved, thinking that was the end of it. I made it up the stairs, and I could finally unpack. No more heavy trips.

The next few days were straightforward enough; I met my flatmates and attended my orientations. My particular favorite experience was having high tea with the other Badgers on the trip and joking about the proper way to hold a tea cup. Soon enough, however, the vacation vibe ended, and we went as a group to get groceries for the first time.

UW students were lucky to experience this awesome high tea! I had black English breakfast tea with these sandwiches.

Another expected-yet-unexpected challenge — of course all of the brands in England are different. Even simple items are branded with different terminology: 2% milk isn’t 2%, it’s “semi-skimmed”; “soured cream” not “sour cream”; “sweets” instead of “candy”; and of course, they’re “crisps” not “chips”. My eyes naturally sought familiar logos as they normally would in the United States, only to be confused that yes, I would have to read every single package and figure out what exactly was in it. At one point, I thought I was even getting the hang of it, as there was one section where I realized I recognized almost all of the brands. Unfortunately, that feeling of accomplishment disappeared quickly when I read the label of the section: “American Food”.

“No more heavy trips”? I realized quickly how untrue that was. After carrying my groceries home, and up those same five flights of stairs, I was left panting and with arms that would continue to be sore for several days. In short, it was very difficult first few days. I quickly had to come to terms with the fact that being on vacation in a country is very different from actually living as a local there.

And I love it!

It was a tiring and challenging start to the trip, but having the opportunity to overcome these challenges has already been tremendously rewarding. By the end of my first week, I was finally able to stop relying so heavily on Google Maps (although I’m still prone to using it outside of the Kensington area) as I learned about the surrounding area. I’ve scoped out so many new restaurants and cafés that I can’t even wrap my head around the fact that I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ve been eating different, but in a good way as London’s fruit is actually extremely delicious; blended juice seems to be a larger trend here than in the USA. London really is a truly dynamic city that I’ve only just begun to explore. Each day I’m faced with a new challenge and I feel that I’ve already grown more adaptable as a result. If I can already feel this way after a couple of weeks in London, I’m truly excited to know what I’ll have accomplished by the end of the semester.

Oh, and it rains a lot here, but I hear the news of how much snow Madison is getting and I feel that maybe complaining about the rain would be in poor taste…

The view from my room, 5 stories up. A typical gray London day.