The clouds move so fast in London. They fly and swoop and change with every passing second in a way I’ve never seen anywhere else in the world, a characteristic mutability. I am sitting in the atrium of Chandler House, my new academic home at UCL and already since I’ve written this sentence two more have already eased by overheard. Today they are white and puffy, but diffuse. Lit up by the early autumn afternoon sun, driven on by the breeze which is barely perceptible here at the level of mortals.
I haven’t done it in a long time, but today’s post has a song attached to it. I know, Bastille for God’s sake. What a predictable cop out, being that they’re from London and all. It’s a good song, I promise. Take a listen.
This first week of classes was frenetic, hard work, and more than a tad overwhelming. I feel rather confused as to how I am able to guess so precisely what in the hell is going on in my wide variety of modules that cover all the major areas of Linguistics. Thus far, Pragmatics and Phonetics are the favourites…though I am apparently best at guessing in Syntax. Some underlying rationale in my brain appears to intuitively know the proper button to push on the clicker, even if I have no conscious idea of what role SAI/SVI play in Dutch. I assure you, I barely know more about those acronyms than you do.
I’ll admit, I never saw myself living here. I had a blatant bias after studying abroad the very first time in Perugia over six years ago…why would one ever want to live abroad in an English-speaking country? And London is so expensive! It’s such a massive city and it’s dangerous and it’s got terrible food. And it rains constantly. More than I’d like to admit, I probably steered students away from studying in London when I was a study abroad advisor, pushing them toward cheaper, “more foreign” options that would “challenge” them more.
I didn’t know that I didn’t know the real London.
I didn’t know that I would someday call a two-hour commute “normal,” or that I would worry more about how much I needed to pay TfL than how much groceries cost. I didn’t know that signal failures are a daily disruption on the Tube that can cause situations to put claustophobics in hysterics, with pushing thousands jammed into the seven feet between the wall and the MOVING FUCKING TRAIN. I didn’t know that my toes would often fall asleep on the morning commute while I train-surf and refuse to lose a hand on my newspaper to stability.
I didn’t know that my morning smash in the Tube could become an exercise in compassion. This morning, smashed into a train without an inch of breathing space at Bank after another goddamn signal failure, I had to remind myself that humanity is a single family in order to stave off a panic attack. Being pressed up against strangers head to hand to foot to arse is a lot less annoying if I tell myself we are related.
I didn’t know that I’d be getting heat rashes on a daily basis. How could I have expected that, in this supposedly foggy city? It’s been unseasonably, ludicrously, obnoxiously hot practically since I arrived. As I commute two hours, I don’t have the luxury of popping by my room to pick up or drop of a jacket when the weather turns on a dime. I end up carrying and cursing a coat all day, only to freeze my arse off the next when I refuse to bring it along.
I didn’t know that London has unbelievable food. Expensive, I suppose. But amazing. Name a food. You can get it in London. From all corners of the Earth, and with remarkable ease. A little work, and you can even eat cheaply and healthily. I bought two huge butternut squashes from the African grocery in our neighbourhood this week and paid a pound for each. I can get kimchi, espresso, camembert, and Chipotle all in one day and wash it down with Chilean wine.
I didn’t know that London has more top universities than any city in the world. And I am at one of them!
I didn’t know that gambling was as prevalent as it is. Perhaps the word is pervasive. It’s everywhere, and as someone raised in Puritan-Cultural-Continuance-Land I am both uncomfortable and shit with it. Last time I managed not to lose all ten pounds of my dog-racing money, but only just.
I didn’t know that I’d be eating my lunches with the dead in between classes. That sounds morbid and sufficiently Dickensian, but it’s literally true. My building borders on St. George’s Gardens, which is a former cemetery converted into a public park and dog wee collection centre. I eat lunch there at least three times a week, sitting on a bench in front of the relocated headstones, the names worn off with age.
I didn’t know that “Pub” is short for “Public House.” Felt like a right idiot for that one.
I didn’t know that use of space would be so efficient. I’m in the atrium of a university building right now, but I”m looking into the waiting room of a doctor’s office. Our local post office is also a convenience store (and it sells liquor for while you wait!). I get the sense that taxis are also half ambulances or that the UCL Main Library doubles as a massive nightclub in the evenings, but have yet to see any concrete evidence.
I didn’t know I would hear so many wonderful languages every day.
I didn’t know I already dressed a bit Londonish.
I didn’t know that the DLR is my favourite line of the London Underground.
I didn’t know I would love it so much.
The clouds are still slipping by overhead, silently as far as I can tell. Do clouds have language? That might be a metaphysical question to save for the second term, but for now the adjustment to life in London rolls by in imitation of the white weather above. They certainly aren’t sleeping furiously, not yet.
Welcome, new home!