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Ramblings of a Stupid American
So, flashlights are torches, sneakers are trainers, and underwear are… pants? Then what the hell do they call pants?!
I’m sitting on the plane, trying in vain to memorize the unfamiliar British jargon displayed in my guidebook. After several more minutes of rifling through the pages I decide that I don’t care about speaking correctly anymore. Anyone who hears me talk will immediately label me as an American tourist anyway. But since the shuddering of the plane is making it impossible for me to sleep, I keep perusing my dictionary of slang. I flip the pages quietly, knowing that I’m one of the only people still awake on the redeye flight. I smile to myself as I read that the British say “Safe!” as an equivalent to the American “Awesome!” and turn to show the page to my mother.
Instead of the long, sleek black hair I’m expecting, the frizzy brown curls of another college-aged girl come into view, her head tucked into her shoulder as she dozes fitfully beside me. After making this mistake three times in the past four hours, the idea that my mom is curled up in bed in my small hometown in Connecticut is still more foreign to me than the journey I’ve only just set out on.
All humor set aside, I carefully stow my book in my bag and switch off the light above me. I rest my head against the vibrating wall and squeeze my eyes shut, knowing that I won’t be sleeping tonight. I try not to cry as it finally hits me: I am alone.
Roughly four hours later, my name is called at Heathrow for my bus service. I am glad to be on my feet again, if only for a few minutes. I follow the driver through the frantic crowd toward the exit, and almost laugh out loud with excitement when he pronounces my name in a thick English accent. I settle myself into the minibus next to a couple other passengers as he loads my luggage into the back, and gaze out the window at my unfamiliar surroundings. The airport buildings sprawl for what seems like miles, and the roads leading away from it twist and turn in dizzying circles. Otherwise, nothing looks too different from the scenery back home.
As the driver starts the bus, it becomes evident that some things really are transcultural; this man drives like a New York cabbie. He speeds through the airport’s winding lanes, sometimes slamming on the breaks for pedestrians who get too close. I resign myself to the fact that I will not be able to rest on this ride.
As we finally turn out of Heathrow’s maze and onto the main road, my eyelids are starting to droop anyway. However, they shoot back open almost a split second later. I let out a horrified gasp as the driver turns into the left lane of what should be oncoming traffic. The curious and vaguely alarmed look from the British woman to my left alerts me to my mistake, and I try and fail to turn my gasp into a cough.
Idiot, they’re supposed to drive on the wrong side of the road here, I silently berate myself.
I feel a wave of homesickness for my little red car, now sitting forlornly in my driveway back home. Driving was freedom. Some of my best memories started off as a simple joyride around town. My friends would all pile in and we’d turn the radio up loud, roll down the windows, and fist pump obnoxiously, not caring what anyone else thought. Those fond summer experiences, along with our traditional late-night runs to Taco Bell, are things that will be completely impossible here at school.
When I finally alight on the doorstep of my new Camden address, I am only awake enough to take a short survey of my surroundings. My new home is on a quiet street across from a beautiful gated park. A weary smile comes to my face as I realize the residential apartment buildings look exactly how I pictured them after seeing London in modern TV shows. An RA assists me with my bags, and hearing his real American accent, I am hugely relieved. As soon as he shows me to my room, I get the overwhelming feeling that all these kids I’ve never met in my life, are family. There’s Colbi, the confident, attractive athlete whose beachy blonde waves scream “California;” Danielle, the Singaporean brunette with endless legs; Cayla, the quirky music fanatic whose Long Island roots can be heard in every syllable; Helen, the quiet night owl hailing from Burma; Rose, who arrives late and supplies her side of the room with products covered in Chinese symbols; and Kat, whose New York City upbringing has given her her city-slicker attitude and street smarts. Despite our different backgrounds, our feelings of unease about this new place grant us an immediate solidarity. We convene like a mismatched, multicultural family for group shopping trips to compare the prices of pizza and shampoo, and make a mess of our bathrooms like a group of real sisters. Even so, the sterile white sheets in my tiny corner of the room don’t convey any sense of home or belonging, and as I lay down on them for the first time, I find myself wishing that I brought more pictures to tack onto the blank bulletin board staring at me on the wall opposite.
Over the next week few days, come a multitude of embarrassing cultural faux-pas. At home, a request for the bathroom would be met with quick, easy-to-follow directions for the nearest room containing a toilet, not a snide remark and a giggle from the British secretary. In America, it is a normal, even expected practice to take home the remainder of your meal when you eat out at a restaurant. When we ask the waitress to wrap our meals at a cozy little Italian restaurant in Brighton, the atmosphere suddenly changes, and my friends and I are greeted by silence and confusion. Most disappointing of all is the fruitless expedition to find dessert at nine in the evening, when most everything is now closed. If New York is the “city that never sleeps,” London is the “city with an early bedtime.”
As days pass, these new rules and customs become somewhat more familiar. I start replacing words like “theater” and “movie” with “cinema” and “film,” and I make stir-fries on the “hob” instead of the “stove.” But instead of feeling more assimilated, I feel more estranged from both resident Londoners and my friends back home. When I slip and thank my best friend back home with an enthusiastic “Cheers!” she giggles and point out how English I’m becoming. But when using the same phrase around a Brit, I feel silly, like my obvious American-ness is mocking their culture. I‘m awkwardly removed from my peers; nothing ties me to England, but my everyday experiences are far different from what my friends in colleges in the United States are experiencing. I find myself wishing that I had someone from home to keep me company here. To me, home isn’t a specific place, but more like a feeling I get when I’m around people I feel most comfortable with. Home is the place where I can laugh for hours at the stupidest things with my best friends, or spend a whole night doing nothing but playing Pictionary or watching TV. When a package comes in the mail from my mom, full of American candy and macaroni and cheese, I want to dive into the packing peanuts and stay buried in the world they brought with them. Instead, I pull out the pictures she’s sent me, and carefully examine the contents of each one before arranging them just-so on my bulletin board.
It has been almost a week now, and I am (for maybe the first time) almost fully enjoying myself. Cayla, Danielle, and Heather (the goofy animal-lover from next door) are perhaps feeling the same, as we’re all fluttering through the bustling crowds of Greenwich Market, picking up things we don’t have money to buy as the brightly colored stalls individually attract us. Yet I’m still assaulted with random memories as I continue through the day; when I purchase a dress silk-screened with the image of Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, I have a flashback to the time my best friend said we’d watch it together some day….
“Ashley, let’s check out this vintage shop!” Cayla motions excitedly to a cute little store just off the main market. I carefully fold my new dress into my purse and follow her into the cramped shop; soon I am lost in the romance and pastels of the fifties.
Much too soon, it is time to go. My roommates are feeling pretty positive that navigating back to the dorms will be fairly simple using public transportation. That assumption is about to be proved absolutely wrong.
The first problem arises when the train conductor asks for our Oyster Cards. Our hearts sink collectively as we realize we forgot to tap in at the station. The conductor kicks us off the train, rather coldly, we think (after all, we are obviously foreign!). We dash out onto the platform, huff and puff up the stairs, tap in our cards, and slide between other travelers on our way back down the steps. We make it back onto the train with seconds to spare.
Danielle starts to laugh about our mishap, loudly cursing us as “Stupid Americans.”
“Well, at least we’re on the way back to Russell Square now!” Heather says, relieved.
A woman looks up from her newspaper across the train and shakes her head. “This line goes to Tower Hill.”
The four of us share looks of disbelief, but our laughter only increases. How could we have gotten on a train going the opposite direction? We decide to get off at the next stop and recalculate our route. We continue to berate ourselves the whole ride, our laughter steadily growing. As we exit the train, a new conductors shouts, “Good luck, stupid Americans!” with a smile.
When we depart from the station and ask directions from an employee, we discover that the closest Tube station is closed for the day. The chuckles start again immediately at this new terrible luck. We head over to the Oyster Card top-up machine, because at this point I don’t have enough credit for even a bus ride home. At the last second before the transaction goes through, my Oyster card falls to the floor and the machine times out. Without warning, it spits out all of my twenty pounds – in change. Danielle tries to catch the coins still falling out of the machine as I sink to the ground to recover the ones already rolling away. I look ridiculous sitting on the ground in the middle of a Tube station, trying and failing to hold onto twenty coins all at once, and laughing hysterically. Within seconds, Heather, Cayla, and Danielle join in my mirth so that soon we’re all clutching our stomachs and crying with laughter, as if we’ve been best friends all our lives. “You’re such… a stupid… American!” Danielle reiterates one last time as she gasps for breath. And in that moment, I forget that I’m in London, that I hardly know these people, and that I’m lost in more than one sense of the world. Instead, I just laugh.
Example City, Costa Rica