Friday, September 17, 2010

Across The Pond II

Hello from Carmarthenshire!

I know that it's been almost a week since you've seen or heard from me - well, heard, since you're not actually looking at me, or maybe it's seeing, because you're reading - anyway, there's been quite a bit happening within the last five or so days.

At least, I think it's been five. A little difficult to keep track of time when you hop timezones.

So, to start off this bright new chapter for your favorite - I hope - Wandering Sagittarius let's just kind of go through what that first day - the travel day - was like.

I didn't want to say goodbye to my parents at our little airport and have that be that and not see them again for three months. We got up in the morning on Sunday and left the house at about 7:55, arriving in the city - JFK to be exact - roughly six hours later. We found the terminal with the airline that I was flying and parked in the lot and I felt more like a baggage mule than an actual human since I was toting a giant backpack, two messenger bags, and the rolling suitcase. Quite impressive. We ate lunch in the terminal at McDonald's, and for the record, raspberry tea is absolutely nawful. Just plain gross. Which is why I and everyone else I'm related to drink unsweetened tea. And then we just sat around and people watched and tried not to think about the fact that I was going to be leaving both of my parents outside security and then sitting on a plane and ultimately ending up in a foreign country.

Yeah. Even though you know it's going to be one of the best experiences of your life, you still end up crying because you don't want to not have mom and dad forty-five minutes down the road. You don't want to have to figure out a way to call them so that they can hear your voice maybe once a week. So they know you're okay. You hesitate because you're heading into something that you've never seen before, a culture and a people you haven't really read anything about and to a university that you have no idea how the academic side of things really works.

You're stepping off that edge I talked about earlier and it's damned scary. Exciting. But scary.

I did cry. I'm the baby of the family and I know that mom had Empty Nest-like issues when I first went away to college, and this was probably hard for her. And it's not like it's a picnic on my end, either.

I made it through security with flying colors. Either they didn't want to question me about stuff in my bag or there was nothing to question. The laptop was with me, and of course I had to take that out and have it go through on its own, and you feel really awkward in your socks walking through a metal detector, but it's all good. I got some coffee at this place called Peet's on the way to the gate and then just sort of sat there. Tried to read a little. I brought a couple of books with me - Stardust by Neil Gaiman (yes, they made a movie out of it and yes, I own the movie and absolutely love it) and A Battle Won by S. Thomas Russell, which is another age of sail novel. I really like those, if you couldn't tell. I did some writing in my journal and tried not to think about what I was leaving behind. It was difficult, it really was. There's this certain Mayhem Maker, she's about three foot tall and is loved to pieces by her aunt, and I thought about her. And my sister, whom I love very, very much. So it kind of went back and forth between thinking about the possibilities and then thinking about everything else.

Story of my life when it comes to flying, the plane was delayed. It had been fairly craptastic weather all day - drizzly and rainy and foggy - and the plane was late getting to the gate from wherever it had come from. So, naturally, they need time to flip it and load everything on board for us, and it took time. We were supposed to be leaving at 7:30 and we didn't start boarding until about 8:20. Then once we were on the plane we sat at the gate for at least forty-five minutes. There was a moment when we thought, Alright, here we go, when the plane backed up away from the gate and that was short-lived because we wound up sitting on the tarmac. I traded one of the guys from my college for his window seat and watched many other planes go before we could - which was appropriately frustrating - and then we sat on the actual tarmac out where all the planes are for a little while longer. The girl next to me - also from my college - had taken Ambien and was looking suitably drugged at this point and none of the three of us wanted to sleep until we were in the air in case we had to change planes.

We took off, finally, and for the record I really don't like double-decker planes. I never feel like they have enough oomph to actually get up and go, which, when you're not a big a fan of flying as you probably should be, makes you a little nervous. Either way, once we got in the air, the flight went really fast.

As in, I woke up three times on the way to London: Once to eat dinner (which wasn't very good, though the wheat roll was excellent); once to go Where the hell am I?; and then again when the captain was telling us that we would be landing shortly and the stewardess was simultaneously trying to get my sleep-lagged brain to Please put up your window shade, and then holy sunlight. The view, however, was beautiful.

That, I believe, is the only reason I like flying.

Wonder of wonders we had to circle a little before we landed at Heathrow, but not for long. Then we were off the plane and into the terminal. It was actually a very long walk from the gate to Customs. Very long and windy. And when you got to Customs you were separated into lines and then you really felt like you were a farm animal being herded toward something. Didn't have any issues clearing Customs and then we practically ran to the baggage claim. And there on the rolling thingy was my beloved, beat-up suitcase that didn't look like it was bursting at the seams (a damn good indicator that nobody had been it and thereby upping the risk of a space-bag malfunction).

After you get your bag you walk down this hallway and ramp out into the arrivals hall. Heathrow has these foldable metal gates that you're more likely to see at concert backstages than in airports, and everybody has signs. There were all sorts of business-men looking for other business-men and near the end - which I didn't see, but Olivia did - was a sign for Trinity. And we went over and this guy with a clipboard looks at us and goes, "Ah, our three wayward Hobart students, yeah?" We hadn't realized we were wayward, but okay. The man was actually Gruff (which, even though it looks like gruff is pronounced griff - his full name is actually Gruffydd, where the dd on the end sounds like th instead) and he pointed us in the direction of the other HWS students and our fellow internationals.

And it was at that moment that I realized I was not only a foreigner, but I was also an international student. We form a group that is, appropriately named and short-hand, The Internationals.

We had to wait for everyone to arrive from their various planes and when that was done we went out into the parking lot and got on a bus.

One of the first things that you need to really pay attention to is that they drive on the left hand side of the road in the United Kingdom. Meaning when you cross a street, you sure as shit better look right before you look left or you might get seriously hurt. And it's really strange to be getting on a bus on the opposite side that you normally would. Like, really strange.

That's when you found out that it was another four hours to Carmarthen.

I'd slept on the plane. I'd slept across the whole damn Atlantic Ocean and I wanted to sleep somewhat normally tonight. So I wanted to stay awake. And that was a fail of epic proportions. I made it a little bit and then fell asleep about an hour, hour and a half from London. We stopped at a rest stop - which would put the ones on the NYS Thruway to shame - for a bit of something to eat and then it was back on the bus. I did much better this time, staying awake. I was awake for when we crossed the bridge from England to Wales. And one of the ways that you know you're in Wales? All the signs are in both Welsh and English. This is because Wales is a bilingual country. Children most often - a good ninety percent or higher - grow up speaking Welsh before they learn English.

At this point I'm pretty sure I fell asleep and the next time I woke up we were approaching Carmarthen. I tell you, I first saw it, and I fell instantly in love with it. The winding streets and the row houses, that old world feel to it and this sense of...magic, I guess, is the only way that I can really describe it. It has an air of magic to it.

We pulled into the college and right across the road is a field. A field which then rolls into a giant rolling hill - much like the ones we have back home - and the white dots are sheep. Actually, I've seen more sheep in five days than I have in the last five years, but that's besides the point.

They start calling us off the bus in groups because an International Buddy has the keys to where we'll be staying.

This is probably the time to point out that I am not living with any other international student. My seven floor mates - I've heard mixed messages about the term flat mates, and I'm just going to go with what's familiar - are people that I've never met before, that I didn't meet on that bus ride from Heathrow, and that are native Welsh. That is both absolutely awesome and terrifyingly nervewracking at the same time. So, for the time being, it was just going to be me living all by myself in this flat in a foreign country.

We had time to drop our baggage and then head over to the International Office where we could place a phone call home to let our parents know that we had arrived alright. This time we weren't even mindful of the time difference - which is five hours - so I wasn't even really aware that I was more than likely waking my mother out of sleep at about three in the morning. But she said that she and dad had gotten back from the airport - it had taken a really long time - and that everything was okay. And I told her that I was on campus and that I was okay. Then I went back to my empty flat to more or less sit on my bed and stare at the new walls.

And I'm going to try and do some pictures - maybe a picture series - or a video or something to really let you guys see what exactly it looks like where I'm staying, but you come through the main door to the building, and you go up a little half-flight of stairs. You go through another door and then you're in a little bit of an open space. To the left is Flat 6 and on the right is Flat 4. Through the Flat 4 door there is a skinny hallway that has eight rooms off of it - four on either side before you get to another fire door. They're listed by letter, A through H. On the other side of the far fire door is a little bit of a space and you can either go right or left, through another fire door. Right takes you into the kitchen, and left takes you into the common space. The common space has some chairs and three or four little tables, and that's about it. The kitchen has a little stove, a microwave, a toaster (that doesn't work) and a single-basin sink. There's two tables pushed together so that eight people can sit around, but there's only seven chairs. In my room I have a three-shelf bookshelf, a desk that has eight drawers, a bedside table that has four drawers, a wardrobe, and a bed.

I also have my own bathroom. Stand up shower, sink, and toilet. As someone who's had to walk out into the hallway in the morning to shower and let everyone see her in a towel carrying a bathroom bucket, having my own bathroom is quite nice. It's small, of course, but that's just fine. And the only curtains in the flat are the ones in the bedroom. My window - which doesn't have a screen, though I was assured that's how they normally are - overlooks the front walkway into the building. So it's kind of like living where I was the first year in college when I looked out over the parking lot, but not quite as easy to lay in bed and watch people on their walk of shame. Namely because the bed is on the other side of the room from the window. And that's really the only wall that it fits on. Then again, it's not like I could move the wardrobe as it's bolted to the wall.

The mattress isn't bad and I'm insanely glad that I brought my own sheets. I'm not going to go into details, but I'm just really glad that I brought my own sheets and pillowcase. The comforter-like blanket (about half as thick as a comforter) does just fine, but the

That first night I unpacked a little bit and then found out that some of them were going out into the town, maybe to grab a pint. We found this place called the Rose and Crown Hotel, had a pint, and got to know some of the internationals that we didn't really know - though it was a smaller group and kind of more intimate, and that was nice, in its own way - and had a fairly early evening.

Tuesday was more or less the start of a few days worth of info-dump and orientation. It started with a bit of a who's who and carried on through paperwork, the cultural program, student services, careers, police service, IT Orientation (which was not what you would think it was and is a very complicated, pain in the ass process to get wireless), a brief introduction to the Student Union, tour of campus, meeting the Chaplain, taking a photograph, touring the town (doing the first round of shopping) and then finishing with an evening out on the town with the International Buddies. And a few of their friends.

That was an awesome night.

Wednesday started bright and early since we needed to meet with Jo (the International Officer) to talk about our internships. Then there was a bit on banking from one of the local banks, followed by information on extra curricular activities. Then we registered.

After registration was when things got a little hairy. Abroad tuition kind of comes intermingled or substituted on the tuition bill to mom and dad - I can't exactly remember which - but when you get over here, you have to pay for your housing. Okay. Not a big deal. Mom and I worked that out before I left the states. The only issue arose when the lady behind the glass couldn't take the details I was handing her because she couldn't verify that I wasn't using someone else's card to pay for it. Well, long frustrating story short, she wound up calling my mother at work and having mom do the exact same thing I was trying to do. I understand why the lady was doing it, but...really? That was frustration that I really didn't need.

One library tour later and I was done for the day.

Thursday was a free morning followed by a trip to Llansteffan. Llansteffan is this cool little village that also has a castle. And it's only eight miles down the road. Llansteffan is Welsh for "Church of Stephen" and the castle was built by Norman conquerors in the early 12th century. The view from the top was absolutely amazing. I fell up the stairs, as usual, instead of down them trying to go up the winding staircase.

That night we went out on the town. That was much fun - there was much dancing, loud music, and I'm impressed that I'm not permanently deaf. Absolutely impressed.

Friday was a bit of a chill day. There was some stuff that we had to take of, registration wise, and then we were free to go. Friday is when some of my flat-mates moved in. Matthew (commonly known as Math) moved in, and he's really, really nice. Lurch also moved in. Yes, Lurch. His real name is Chris but he goes by Lurch. Don't ask me why, because I really don't know. Later on that night Kyrian moved in. He plays rugby and he's a big dude.

All of them though are incredibly nice people.

Saturday was a day trip to Whitesands and St. Davids. Have you seen the movie Robin Hood? Yes? Remember that last battle scene? The one filmed on the beach? Yeah, I was there. It was filmed on Whitesands beach. When we left the beach and went back to the village of St. Davids, it was a bit of a walk to the cathedral. Worth it, though. It was even worth it to pay the one pound fee to take in the gatehouse exhibition that told about he history of Saint David, his cathedral, and his town. The cathedral itself was absolutely awesome. But what was really worth it was paying the three pounds to wander through Bishop's Palace. It's the awesome palace that's in ruins that you can wander through and up into the towers and see some of the rooms that they've kind of recreated. Part of it, over the kitchen, is partially underground and partially just under the floor above it. And you can literally feel the history oozing out of it. You also definitely get the feel that the people who had originally lived there are still wandering around, especially in the darker parts and after the sun sets. Absolutely gorgeous.

The only non-gorgeous part was when I went to turn around after going up a staircase and I bent the ever-loving shit out of my right ankle. Thankfully it was the right and not the left (otherwise I might have done some serious damage) but the lady on the other side of the window as I was coming down definitely didn't expect me to be swearing a blue streak.

Sunday was the day that I'd really been waiting for. Everybody moved in on Sunday. There were doors banging and everything, people moving around and stamping, parents moving kids in. I'm not going to lie, it kind of made me sad because I expected my own mother to kind of appear in the door, berate me on the state of my room, and then be like, Come help me unload the car, if you please. My mother, however, is three thousand miles away on the other side of the Atlantic. So having to unload the car of groceries isn't going to happen until I move back across that large body of water.

Anyway. With everybody moving it, there was this sense of happy that happened because I was no longer alone in a strange country, in an empty flat, and now I could get over this idea that, Holy shit, I've got to make friends with people.

It was way easier than I expected. The people that I'm living with are absolutely awesome. Our favorite hang out is currently the kitchen (where I'm actually finishing typing this). So, where I'll leave this, I'm still in the process of getting to know my flat-mates, figuring out how to live with seven other people, and generally just having a go of it.

And so far, so good.

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"The difference between life and the movies is that a script has to make sense, and life doesn't."

-Joseph L. Mankiewicz