We take the 11am bus. Take the noon or 1pm and you risk not getting a seat. There are no 2pm or 3pm buses, and I have no idea why. But by 4pm, the sun is getting ready to set and it’s too cold to wander around town. So we take the 11am bus.
England, like the US, has several grocery stores. Aldi, Tesco, Spar, they each have their merits. But Sainsbury’s is my choice, primarily because every Wednesday, the local bus line runs a free service into the city of Lancaster that drops off and picks up at Sainsbury’s. Unlike the buses at my home university in Iowa, buses from Lancaster University’s campus are not free for students. A round trip to town (or a “return” if you’re feeling British) costs £2.50, or roughly $3.60. Not much, but it eventually adds up.
So, every Wednesday it has become a routine for Melanie (another Iowa student) and myself to take the 11am Sainsbury’s bus into town. It starts at the Underpass, a tunnel beneath Alexandra Square (the main square on campus) before winding down the hill upon which Lancaster University rests. We pass the campus farm and duck pond—I have no idea why there’s a farm on campus—and then the Sports Centre, a giant metal block that reminds me of the swimming cube at the Beijing Summer Olympics. The bus then turns right onto the main highway that leads into Lancaster city. But unlike most highways, this one is lined with farms and rolling green fields. Sheep graze to my left, and a sign advertises fresh farm-raised eggs to my right.
After about five minutes, we start to pass stone buildings with a historical look that I wish more American cities had. The houses cluster together, all touching each other, and I wonder aloud to Melanie how in the world people get their couches through those tiny front doors and into their living rooms (her answer is that maybe the front bay windows are removable). Another few minutes pass, and now we’re in the city centre. A copper statue of Queen Victoria stands in the main square across from the Town Hall. I heard that last term, someone somehow put a giant Santa hat on top of the statue and police couldn’t get it down, so they just left it there until one of the multiple December storms blew it off.
The bus pulls into the parking lot of Sainsbury’s at the bottom of town, which, like the university, rests on a gradually sloping hill. Melanie and I hop off the bus, thanking the driver with a “Cheers!” when we pass him. Over the month and a half we’ve been in Lancaster, Melanie and I have developed a solid shopping routine. We finish at Sainsbury’s, because that’s where the bus picks up and where we get our meats and cold foods. So now, we head across the busy street, past the bus station, and up the narrow cobblestone street towards the city centre. The medieval Lancaster Castle rises dark and striking to our right, the site of 17th century witch trials and a 20th century prison. Minus the castle, most of this part of town is similar to my university’s pedestrian mall back home, and it gives me a twinge of nostalgia every time I walk through it. We pass a KFC, McDonald’s, and Starbucks, but we have never and probably will never stop at any of these places. We weave through the crowd, resisting the urge to bear right in this left-bearing country. There are multi-colored stalls set up along the road, selling everything from pottery to bedding to freshly made crêpes. I hesitate when we pass the crêpe stand, but Melanie pulls me along with a simple, “Later.”
Halfway across the shopping area, we turn left and arrive at our first stop: Poundland. Ahh, Poundland. Dollar General, the Dollar Store, whatever the US equivalent is, has nothing on Poundland. Pasta, cookware, body wash, candy, toilet paper; we get it all at Poundland. Overall, we must save at least £5 every Wednesday by buying these things at Poundland rather than at Sainsbury’s. The only stressful thing is that the cashiers must be paid for how quickly they can get through customers. When I check out, I have my wallet already in hand and my tote bag open (every bag at most stores costs £.05, so most people bring their own). After the cashier rings up each purchase, she tosses it into my hands and I cram it into my tote bag as fast as I can; I have to be ready for the next item.
After Melanie and I leave Poundland, I make a beeline for the crêpe stand and exchange a few words in French with the owner while he makes my lemon and sugar crêpe. The smell of citrus and melting sugar makes my mouth water, and if I closed my eyes, I could easily be at some French street market. But if I closed my eyes, I’d miss the work of art being created in front of me. A ladle of batter, and then with elegant swoops of a wooden tool, the crêpe is formed. Like the strokes of a paintbrush, the tool manipulates the batter into a thin, even layer of golden deliciousness. A few of the pedestrians behind me pause to watch the crêpe’s magical formation, and Melanie takes out her phone to film it. I produce my £2.80 as the chef slides the now-triangular crêpe into a sleeve similar to that of an ice cream cone. I pay him, say, “Merci!” and follow Melanie back down towards Sainsbury’s.
Once we get there, it all becomes much less of a novelty; an English grocery store looks about the same as an American one. But the taste of my crêpe lingers in my mouth, the PA system’s announcements are sometimes in an indiscernible accent, and we constantly fail to veer our cart left instead of right. So clearly looks can be deceiving.