You Can’t Always Get What You Want

My posh room

My posh room

I wanted Bowland College, but I got Furness College instead.

All students at Lancaster are divided into colleges. Not like “College of Liberal Arts and Sciences” or “College of Nursing”; they’re social colleges, not academic colleges.

Think Hogwarts houses. Each college has its own buildings that include a common area and a bar. So, when we enroll at Lancaster, we choose one of the eight undergraduate colleges, usually based on its location and the type of accommodation it offers. We live with people in our college and join our college’s sports teams to compete against the other colleges. I chose Bowland because its accommodation looked so nice, its flats had very few people in them, and it was in the very heart of campus. But I got Furness, my second choice, which is a small college with less fancy bathrooms and more people per flat.

So I am a Furnessian.

I am also Posh. There is no way to say that without sounding inherently British, because I have never used the word “posh” in the U.S. in any context other than when referencing one of the Spice Girls. But our Furness housing is divided into Posh—those with bathrooms in their rooms—and Ghetto—those who have only one bathroom per flat. The four Posh buildings are clustered together, and the three Ghetto buildings are right next door. These buildings are then divided into flats, with up to eight people in the Posh ones and up to four people in the Ghetto ones.

When I first moved into my Posh flat, having adjusted to receiving my second choice college, I encountered another disappointment. Not because of how it looked; it looked just fine. The long, door-lined hallway (kind of like a dorm floor) was clean and homey. The kitchen was nice and big, with two fridges, freezers, ovens, and stoves, lots of cabinet space, and a nice table in the center. My room had a big desk and closet with plenty of places to store the few things I’d brought. No, on the surface, everything looked very nice and comfortable.

But I had requested to live with all girls, and I found out very quickly that there were only two other girls…and five boys. Once again, I didn’t get what I wanted. What was I going to do when I wanted to go into the kitchen for a snack with wet hair, no makeup, and pajamas? Would the guys have their friends over for loud drinking parties and keep me up at all hours of the night?

Or worst of all, would they all be cute and distracting?

But two full months into studying abroad, I can confidently say that living in Furness with the guys has been the best thing that could’ve happened here at Lancaster.

The housing is quieter because its farther from the campus bars and restaurants, and I’ve been able to develop relationships with each of my flatmates, relationships far beyond just sitting next to someone in class for an hour and talking a handful of times. With Aaron, we like to sit at the kitchen table during the day and vent while everyone else is in class or in their rooms. He’s an amazing baker, so he’ll bake me brownies or cookies and I’ll eat them while he tells me about whatever issue he’s dealing with.

With Katherine and Elise, we sit in the hallway on Friday and Saturday nights, eat candy, and discuss everything from handsome actors to obscure British laws that allow Welsh people to be shot by a bow and arrow within the walls of the city of Chester after midnight (but I really hope that’s a myth). They explain British vernacular to me and I do the same for them with American words. We gush over Downton Abbey and try to talk in each other’s accents. With Ashley and Tom, we don’t talk as much, but their actions speak louder than words. Ashley and I have the same history class on Mondays and Fridays, and without words, we’ve somehow established a routine.

At 4:45 on Mondays and 1:45 on Fridays, one of us leaves our room and lets the door slam shut. This is the signal to the other one that we’re ready to go. We walk to class together, sit together, and try to understand what the heck our lecturer is saying in her heavy Spanish accent. Tom, on the other hand, will sit down at the kitchen table and wait for me to finish eating before he leaves the kitchen; he doesn’t want me to eat alone. We talk about football (soccer), his home (the Isle of Man), and American politics (I’ve noticed British people are really curious about American politics, especially right now with all the election craziness). But no matter the topic, Tom won’t let me eat alone. Even if he has already finished eating and washing his dishes and I’ve just sat down, he’ll sit next to me and wait until I’m done.

But the best moments come when we’re all together in the kitchen or sitting around a table in Trevor (Furness’s college bar) for the weekly pub quiz. We play off each other like friends who’ve been together forever, like a family. Aaron’s high-pitched exclamations, Katherine’s quiet, secret sarcasm, Tom’s constant giggling…it all blends together into memories that I’ll carry with me long after I’ve left Lancaster.

Memories I wouldn’t have if I’d gotten what I thought I wanted.

A Routine Wednesday

Forming the crepe

Forming the crepe

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.

The finished product

The finished product

Conversations Over Tea

I’ve been in England just over a week, and while the world may say America and England both speak English, I have encountered several word discrepancies, and not just the commonly known “chips” = “french fries” and “crisps” = “chips.” No, there are so many more differences. For example, just like how in the US, some people say “supper” rather than “dinner” for the final meal of the day, people in England sometimes use “tea” rather than “dinner” as the final meal.

So when two of my English flatmates, Elise and Katherine, asked me what I was eating for “tea,” I looked down at my Gü soufflé pud, back up at them, and tried not to be an ignorant American by saying, “I’m not having tea.”
“For what?” I asked instead.
“For tea.” Pause. “For dinner,” Katherine clarified.

I laughed before launching into a description of my newly discovered favorite food: Gü puds. While the brand does not exist in the US, I’m sure something similar has to be sold somewhere in the country. They look like pudding cups, but in glass jars. You place them in the oven for roughly ten minutes, and what comes out looks and tastes like a gourmet dessert from a five-star restaurant. So far, I’ve tried chocolate soufflé and chocolate lava cake.
As I dug into my soufflé—all light and gooey—Katherine and Elise sat next to me at the little round table in the kitchen of our flat. There are seven of us total in the flat, which honestly looks more like the floor of a dorm rather than an apartment (except for the kitchen). The word jumble of tea versus dinner still fresh in my head, I looked at Elise. “What are some common stereotypes most English people have of Americans?” I tried to sound positive and carefree. I wanted her to be honest.

She looked at Katherine and then up at the ceiling, deep in thought. “Bigger portions.”
I laughed and nodded. “That’s true for the most part.”
“Also, very patriotic.”
“Also true.”
“And humor.”
I hesitated. “Humor? What do you mean?” I expected her to say that American humor was more vulgar, which I would have been inclined to agree with as well.
“It’s hard to explain.” Elise turned to Katherine for help. “Do you know what I mean?”
“Yeah, it’s like American comedians want to raise themselves up, talking about the people who are best at things and making themselves look really smart. And British comedians lower themselves and talk about the people who are worst at things. They try to make themselves look stupid. Does that make sense?”
I nodded. “Kinda.” I’d never really thought about that, to be honest.
“Is it true British people have a stereotype of bad teeth?” Elise asked.
“Yes,” I replied immediately. I didn’t tell her my mother had warned me before I left to wear my retainer while abroad, because “I didn’t want to turn into one of those British people with horrible teeth.”

“See, and I can’t understand that!” Katherine said. “It’s not like we don’t have dentists!”
“Well, if it makes you feel any better,” I offered, “you two have great teeth.”
We all laughed. “But what are some more stereotypes of British people?” Elise asked eagerly.
“That y’all drink lots of tea.”
The girls looked down at the mugs in their hands and gave me sheepish smiles, silently conceding that point. “What else?”
“Well, that you’re all super serious.”
“What?!” they both shrieked.
“I think y’all just disproved that stereotype.”
“But why do Americans think that?” Katherine asked. I told her I honestly didn’t know.
“It’s those bloody Posh Southerners,” Elise added. “They get into all the films and everyone thinks the rest of England is like them.”
Our conversation shifted from stereotypes to accents, and we alternated explaining the different accents of our respective countries. While Elise refused to demonstrate a New York accent for me, I gave Posh Southern British my best shot. They laughed at my “y’all” usage and I pointed out the frustrating discontinuity of “tea” meaning tea, and “tea” meaning dinner.

Maybe there is some truth to stereotypes, but so far, living in England has shown me three things: one, that stereotypes fail to grasp the whole picture; two, that there’s a lot my flatmates and I can learn from each other; and three, that I will be filling my suitcase with Gü puds to bring back home.