England, Not humorous, Study Abroad, UK, Uncategorized

Stompin’ the Blues Away. Hull, England. A Study Abroad.

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     A man walks down the street
     It’s a street in a strange world…
     You know I don’t find this stuff amusing anymore…     
     Paul Simon “You Can Call Me Al

 

Hull Church 1A couple of years ago, I spent a half-year at the university in Kingston-Upon-Hull, on the east coast of England.

At the time I lived there, Hull was a city on the rebound.

The city’s economy had turned from old-time shipbuilding and fishing, to healthcare, pharmaceuticals, and the university. It was right near the fantastic Humber Bridge and the beautiful Yorkshire Wolds, Vales, Dales, and other expanses of heather & gorse or whatever, all dripping with healthy picturesque outdoorsy-ness.  Yachts in the marina.  Aquarium. Ferry lines carrying a million people a year to the Continent.  Beautiful museums, theatres, and art galleries.    About to be named the UK’s “City of Culture” for 2017.

 

Personally, I was a bit in the dumps.

It was a big adjustment, to move from a college in subtropical Hong Kong, to northern Yorkshire, in the wintertime.  Hull is about the same latitude as Minsk, perhaps not quite as festive.  I missed my friends at home, and the new friends I’d made in Hong Kong.  I missed the beautiful neon swirl and perpetual energy of HK, too.  I even missed the snow back home.  This place wasn’t as cold as Upstate NY, but it was often chilly and gray.

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So here is my unvarnished recollection of a “study abroad” semester.

 

 

 

 

The Student Ghetto

I’d chosen the U of Hull for some history courses that sounded really interesting, and they turned out to be fascinating.  But it was a tough semester – I was playing catch-up in an unfamiliar field, and unused to the British approach to learning.  Some rainy days, I felt unhappy and claustrophobic in my tiny house in the student ghetto, surrounded night and day, inside and out, with drunks, bad pop music, and racket.

I know this sounds “snarky.”  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind a party on Saturday night, and love music, but to cross the Atlantic Ocean, think you’re safe, and then wake up at 2 AM to find that Robin Thicke and Miley Cyrus have followed you, and crawled ashore, making their crappy noise?  And sounding waterlogged, because you have a head cold.

I also love English beers.  But by the glassful, not the gallon.  And as a rule, not for breakfast.

There were days when the constant uproar made me miserable.

The actual classes, I loved.  The professors and my classmates – they were great.   Some of them were locals, former ‘Ull fishermen and sailors, being re-purposed for the new, improved UK.  Their deadpan jerkin’ and muttered comments on the professor’s knowledge of ships were hysterical.  But somehow, I had set up a schedule at odds with everyone else’s, making it hard to hang out with classmates or housemates.  The courses themselves were excellent, even if the readings were sometimes the only thing that could put me out at night.

Other than at the library, I wasn’t getting a lot of sleep.  The University had converted an entire street of tiny row-houses into student housing – mine wasn’t bad, but featured dripping pipes, an unpredictable, malevolent little cooker that kept incinerating my dinner, and a bunch of housemates practicing The Tao of Alcohol:  Beer As a Way of Life.  With that goal in mind, the kids in my house had chosen only afternoon classes, so they could go out every night, and crash home about 3 AM. Every night.

 

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Most of the American, African, and Australian students in the ghetto didn’t give a damn about the University.  They were there to drink.

Hull followed an old seafaring pattern – take aboard as much cargo as you could, tack to the other end of the street, careen & offload the cargo.  I guess the old competitive drive that built the Empire still exists — even on a wet Tuesday night in February, Hull produces more drunks than an entire New Orleans Mardi Gras.

So every night, the Yanks, Brits and Aussies in the street, outside my ground floor window, gave off clouds of cigarette smoke and unloaded gallons of used beer from various orifices.

And then they sang.

At first, the singing was kind of endearing.  Seriously.  Hulking rugby players, weaving down the street, or in the back alley, falling over the dustbins, singing songs from “Frozen” in their bizarre accents.

By the end of the week, it was not so amusing.  And there were months of this to go.

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Walk the Walk

So, since I couldn’t concentrate or sleep, I would walk.

All winter, I wandered the town’s confusing back alleys, church yards, windy narrow roads, cobble-stoned rows.  Many secluded and private in that peculiarly British manner.  In the U.S., there’s always a sign, alerting you to dead ends and cul-de-sacs.  In England, streets may just peter out without warning, stranding the walker, as if it was just a road crew’s oversight, or lack of interest in going any farther that direction, or maybe they ran out of macadam, and decided to put up a house instead.

Leaving 1 Cottingham Road, I’d slip out, usually in a bad mood, angry at sloppy-drunk roommates, my horrible cooking, the gray weather.

Based on the day, the time, and which way the freezing rain was driving in from, I would either wander until I arrived on the far side of campus, or make a right turn, and arrive at a Chinese-owned deli. Because I know a few words of Cantonese, the deli’s owners would always question me in depth about things in Hong Kong, no matter how many times I ‘d explained, I was in fact an American who’d just spent one semester there.

National Health’s “Early Retirement” Squad, gunning for victims.

Zebra Crossings.  Run, Robbie, Run!

On my longer walks, I’d begin by taking my life in my hands.

Meaning, I’d try to actually cross the street.  Hoping that this particular day, the insane and homicidal bus drivers that define life across the pond, were in a mood to stop at the light.  Or else, I’d walk down the avenues near Cottingham, pass the fenced-in yard of the old school, and scramble across the street, toward the Tesco and the battered women’s shelter.  Those two institutions were an interesting combo to be sure. One of the local merchants actually explained to me that he believed there was a connection – the denizens of that Tesco, according to him, were a wife-beating mob.  One Supposes that the More Enlightened might only Purchase Provisions & Provender at Marks & Sparks.  Whole Foods in all its pristine-ness has not yet reached Hull.

One plus:  walking angrily in England means that those who normally ignore you stay clear out of your way.

When I wasn’t looking deranged and angry, and sometimes, literally feverish, it was slow going.  Sleep-deprived and cranky, it seemed I was endlessly weaving through lumbering throngs, not accustomed to moving at a New York pace, and as I negotiated the crowds in the poorer neighborhoods, of local shoppers or pub-hoppers, in my hyper-irritated state, they seemed to be a consistent mass of  the chain-smoking, heavy, and alcoholic.

But sticking to my weaving, in-and-out, gradually I’d make headway down Newland Avenue, and my black mood would lift.

As I arrived somewhere that I loved. This street was full of vendors, hawking fresh produce, a bakery, a Polish grocery where no one smiled or spoke English, a tailor, several barbers, clothing shops, night clubs, pubs, coffee houses, and trendy joints for all the hip young monied English folks. Everything you need, could be had on Newland.

Fish & Chips & Vinegar

Another Tesco was there – you could grab the overpriced produce, that went brown by the next morning, and bread that either went bad in two days, or else never went bad at all.  Pale-skinned chickens, onions with strange case of spots, frozen cod or haddock. You’d make small talk with the cashier, one of the few locals to do so, and so you’d stop in more than you should normally. Same goes for the fish-and-chips shop, a chance to chat with someone normal.  I’d stop in after a weary day and get rejuvenated with the warm, crumbly haddock and vinegar-soaked fries. So good.  The British have delicious malt “Win-a-Gah,” as the shopkeep called it.

Or, I’d go to Pie 2, a local chain, and get savory meat pies, for five pounds, not a shabby deal, seeing what food costs in that culinary-dreary student ghetto. On nights when I couldn’t hack my own cooking, I’d get these meat pies, stuffed with anything, all of them really good.  Or I’d go to the Greek gyro place, or the “Macau” house – although I’d often regret eating their odd fusion of Asian and British foods.

 

Back on the walk, I’d only made it to the antiquated rail bridge over the street, that announced you’d arrived on Newland, and I had a ways to walk. I could make a right, head down a beer bottle-strewn back alley, into a very lovely part of town, with nice homes of the Victorian style, interesting European cars, and nice, respectable-looking folks milling about, in their slow and awkward Yorkshire manner.

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A Walk in the Park

At the end of the way, I’d pass the old pub and arrive at Pearson Park. An old Victorian park, indeed, the old queen herself was sitting there, cast in bronze.  On days I was short on time, I’d make this my destination, and just wander around the little gardens and manicured lawns. Somewhere around here, Hull’s resident poet Philip Larkin had lived, scowling out his window no doubt at the lovely trees. Here, among fountains, statuary, and a greenhouse that offered some respite from the North Sea’s cold winds, constantly blowing into this city, I’d go and feel refreshed.  Until seeing all the happy couples, families, and friends  hanging out together, while I was on my own, made me feel blue again.

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I’d then race down the next set of streets to hit downtown, passing by the more upscale shops and restaurants, stopping once to eat some incredible Moroccan food.

After this lovely jaunt in the park, I’d roar by all the hip places in town. If I went straight down the way, past the Polar Bear pub (which can be seen in The Hubbards “Is it Me?” video), you’d arrive at the KC stadium.

Tigers Tigers Burning Bright

I only watched one match at the stadium, with my roommate Jaden, to see Hull City play Newcastle.  We cheered and had a great time, and the local crowd turned out to be great, even when watching with dismay as their proud footy team was dismembered by the Magpies, and the cheers turned rather vulgar. Here, for the first time, I saw Brits from all walks of life come together. And to their credit, the Hull fans demanded that the Newcastle people get kicked out, when they turned unsporting, and to nasty jeering.  To the Hull fans, singing a few bits of profane lyrics about genitalia and the other team’s manager was sporting, anything beyond that was not. I was proud of them.

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Sometimes I’d head down to the old city. Passing by a sketchy part of town, with a housing project for recovering addicts, you arrive at the theater, the new hotel, and the wonderful train station,next to the gorgeous George Hotel (Saint George? King? Prince? something George hotel, where Larkin used to hide out, when he couldn’t hack living with people).

 

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Old Town

The hotel marked the start of the old part of town.  Walking along the cobbled streets, among pubs from centuries ago, next to modern shops, where all of the English lads would come out with trendy clothing, looking like very hip tablecloths. Old restaurants, arcades, museums, and cool old pubs were the highlights of this part of the town, culminating with the gorgeous harbor along the river.  The museum street also housed the oldest pub in town, the no longer PC “Ye Olde Black Boy” from the 1300’s.  The publicans and drinkers, to my surprise, would listen to my accent, stare at me a bit, and then quietly nod and make me welcome.  Friendly drunks would insist on jumping in and posing for my photos.

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Walking along past the excellent Maritime Museum, the BBC regional studios, the big glassy mall, and remnants of the old city gate – where the Civil War began, when the King was denied entrance. Ran across William Wilberforce’s house by accident. The old warehouses along the river side, now converted to clubs and bars. Wandering along curved walkways on echoing cobbled streets, it was easy to get lost. And I often did, stumbling along and arriving by statues of people I’d never heard of, by old pubs, arriving at some point by the magnificent church, and pass “The Smallest Window in England” which always make me laugh for some reason. It was here, in this old part of town, I spent a lot of hours, wandering and exploring.  And I’d have spent even more, if the restaurants weren’t so prohibitively expensive on a student budget.

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Starting to get cold.  The house lights coming on.  I’d head back before it got dangerous, after all, late nights, Hull does have a reputation for occasional violence.

As I read back through what I’ve written, I guess this isn’t a particularly inspiring tale of “study abroad” tale?  And not an very organized or enlightening city tour.  But for some reason, I replay these walks sometimes in my head.

I close my eyes and re-walk it, passing through distinctive zones, from the public-lavatory-brick-student-ghetto, past dreary Victorian row houses,  through a winter-gray but lovely park, to docks, winding old lanes, hallowed pubs, and the ancient-modern combination that defined the downtown.

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This was my survival stomp through Hull, and it got me through.  Spent time in a real place, not just the university bubble.

After all that grousing — I’m glad I went, I learned a lot, I came to feel some affection for a place pretty foreign to me.

But, still, years later,  whenever I hear a song from “Frozen,” I smell cigarettes, secondhand beer and rugby players.

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Hong Kong, horse racing, Study Abroad, travel

Happy Valley Racecourse, Hong Kong Island.

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A Horse Race in China.

I believe that China has the most ardent gambling fans of any nation.

Americans like to gamble, but not like the Chinese — to them, it’s a basic, essential part of life, like fine food to the French, or dancing to the Spanish.  I suppose it stems from seeing life as a gamble — you have to take your chances, competing for a job when everyone else has exactly the same skills and mindset.  And in the industrial zones of China, your life is being gambled away for you, as you attempt to survive the job-site, the drinking water, and the air you breathe.

In Hong Kong, like everywhere in China outside of Macau, every form of gambling is outlawed — with one exception.

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The exception is the horse race. There are two racetracks in Hong Kong — both famous, world-class, and impressive.

My friends from Lingnan University decided to meet at the Happy Valley Racecourse, in the center of heavily-developed Hong Kong Island.  Happy Valley is home to the biggest single jackpot in the world for any horse racing event – 400,000,000.00 dollars.

L0055568 Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. Credit: Wellcome Library, London. Wellcome Images images@wellcome.ac.uk http://wellcomeimages.org Racecourse, Happy Valley, Hong Kong. Photograph by John Thomson, 1868/1871. Viewed from the hill. The village of Wong Nei Cheong can just be seen at the far end of the racecourse. 1868 By: J. ThomsonPublished: 1868/1871. Copyrighted work available under Creative Commons Attribution only licence CC BY 4.0 http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/

Racecourse, Happy Valley, 1868, credit John Thomson, Wellcome Library, London.

Originally, the land was swamp and rice paddies, appropriated by the British back in the 1800’s.  The city grew around it, and the track is now surrounded by skyscrapers.

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The owner of one building, a particularly enthusiastic fan of racing, built himself a penthouse with a special viewing balcony.

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The Tram. Looking a bit like J.K.Rowling’s Knight Bus

The trip there from the New Territories was an entertaining saga if its own — getting lost repeatedly, while trying various unique modes of transportation, including a 110-year-old tram.  Getting home took even longer,  and only people familiar with the absolutely indescribable impossibility of keeping any group of Asian college students on track and moving, can understand. (Because enjoying being together in the group is the goal and the reward, rather than actually getting anywhere in particular!)

The racetrack is an amazing sight in its own right:  7 stories of free seating, and 3 more decks for those who want to pay for the privilege of getting VIP seating. The stadium was also very Hong-Kongish in that it was full of food stalls that were randomly placed around the track, and simply full of people everywhere, tens of thousands. I don’t know the seating capacity, but it must have been in the hundred thousand range. In typical Asian fashion, it was crowded, full of animated conversations, clouds of cigarette smoke, and cell phone “Selfies” being taken.

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Having finally found the track, getting up to the seventh story to find our friends was a challenge in its own right — the elevators we found took us into the kitchens for some reason, and others were just for use during fires (which didn’t make sense to me, since in America elevators are what you don’t take when there’s a fire). So we took the stairs — also challenging — they were crowded with people, but none of them were actually going up and down.  The glitzy decor of the rest of the stadium wasn’t there, and the stairs were full of cigarette butts, old gum, torn-up betting slips, and countless people sitting quite comfortably on the steps smoking cigarettes, despite the signs saying: NO SMOKING. They clearly weren’t bothered by that. The looks they gave us seemed like they were daring us, “Go ahead, tell us to stop.”

When we arrived at the 7th tier, it hit me, that we were having a distinctly Hong Kong experience. Yes, there were about 10,000 reserved VIP seats, but really, as far as your neighbors at this track, all bets were off (pun not intended) — you could sit on the crowded benches literally rubbing elbows with a CEO on one side, and his shoe-shiner on the other.  It put everyone on an equal level.

 

Horse running Mulbridge LOCBetting was also interesting, as it was a very complex process. We had three Korean women in our group, who seemed to have mastered it with their system — they placed a bet on every single horse!  They were betting in several categories (win, place, show) and despite the initial cost, they won by default every single time, sometimes winning enough that’d they’d break even or even make a bit of money.

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The Lingnan U Betting Club

The most vivid memory from Happy Valley is something that screams “CHINA” to me. When we got to the final round of races, we all decided to place bets. I had been carefully studying the directory, and placed my bet on a favored horse to win. Everyone else was going to do the same, when a shirtless, mostly toothless old-looking man approached them. (This isn’t an uncommon sight in China, another difference between here and there). This man whispered in the ear of the Chinese-speakers and then stood behind them as they placed their bets. I thought he was just some oddball and then proceeded to watch the race.

Well, apparently he was a wizard. My horse lost by a hair, or a nose, to the horse that was the underdog — who was the one the old mysterious man had told my friends to bet on. He was right. They split the winnings (several thousand HKD) between them and had a great time rubbing it in my face.

They turned to thank the old man, and he had vanished. The time he disappeared was the only time that there was no crowd in our part of the stadium, so it seemed like he honestly vaporized into the night air. I don’t know why, but that disappearing old shirtless man is probably the most distinctive image I have of China, of all of the images I have saved mentally. It just seemed so incredibly Chinese to me, maybe because that does not happen anywhere else!

I didn’t need any time to realize that this was a distinctive experience — it struck me as suddenly as the little old man vanished. As we left, I was disgruntled over my lost bet, and my friends were ecstatic that they won (even though divided up, it came to very little money).  We walked out of the stadium through a literal downpour of papers from the betting tables. Showers of papers riding the humid air currents and slowly falling to earth closed the scene.

Of all the things I saw, felt, smelled, ate or heard, during my time in Hong Kong, this day was China.

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Hong Kong, Study Abroad, travel

The Night Market. Fu Tei, Hong Kong

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A lot of the lights in HK are still lovely neon, not LEDs. I don’t know if my hand shook on this shot, or if it was a reflection, but when I went to delete it, I realized it looked like musical notes. And so I kept it.

As any traveler to Asia knows, the “night market” is the place to visit while traveling for amazing food, and for a taste of local life. I cannot imagine Hong Kong without its night markets.

 

To a newcomer from the U.S., it is a wholly new experience.  We might have grown up with a “farmers’ market” — perhaps a great chance to meet some local farmers and crafters, and get fresh produce, but often it’s pretty limited – – just same-old vegetables on some bare-bones stands, or a handful of crates and cartons on the tail of a pickup, maybe a few baked goods and handicrafts, set up once-a-week in a village park, plaza, or parking lot. If you’re lucky, or in a bigger town, someone might make fried dough or doughnuts.

But in HK, a whole secondary city exists, popping up everywhere, every night, stalls with lots of lights and signs, selling everything, almost like a traveling carnival, open until midnight, then disappearing again by morning.    Everywhere you turn you’ll encounter them — from the famous Temple Street market that takes up several city blocks, to Mong Kok’s Ladies’ Market, where anything (and I mean anything) can be purchased, legal or illegal. But of the many night markets, the one nearest and dearest to my heart is the Fu Tei Illegal night market.

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Next to Lingnan University, Fu Tei is a huge housing estate – so big, it has its own postal district.  Several times a week,a semi-legal night market would semi-magically appear in front of the estate’s small shopping mall.

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Diagon Alley East

And that is my single most quintessential image of Hong Kong:  a shopping center with food stalls in front, teeming with people, saturated in cigarette smoke, and food smells wafting toward you through the humid air.

There were only a dozen food stalls in this particular night market, making it among the smallest. But this place was perfect. Despite their limited or nonexistent English, the cooks never messed up my order, and there was always good food for very little money. It cost more for me to get a bag of chips in the nearby Circle K, than it cost for a full meal at the night market.

I’d go three or four times a week to get my fix of spicy peanut noodles (dry) and my dumplings. Sometimes I’d get the soup noodles but they always found a way to make them too spicy, though still delicious.

The reason it is only semi-legal is that they are only allowed to operate certain times without a license, which most can’t afford. However, they would run the market every night of the week, crossing the line, and it wasn’t uncommon to have them pack up and run when a cop approached, though they wouldn’t be prosecuted and they always made sure everyone got what they wanted before leaving, making it the most relaxed illicit activity in the history of crime.

When I think of Hong Kong, five images come to mind, and most of them are the stereotypical images one would expect: the skyline, the harbor, the Big Buddha, the swarms of people. But that night market is always the fifth and possibly what I miss most about the city.

Westerners who have never been to Asia simply cannot understand the night market. It is a strange concept. The idea that random strangers, many toothless, missing limbs or sporting large wounds and dripping cigarette ashes into your food, are serving you random foods, that you cannot name, from a cart that isn’t even legally allowed to be there, does seems strange. But seven million customers can’t be wrong. The food is often better than what you’d get in a restaurant:  cheap, in generous portions that are agreeable to a westerner, and wildly addictive.

DSC02597The western business people and high rollers visiting Asia, they’ll go downtown in places like Hong Kong or Tokyo and drop five hundred dollars on a lobster that’s actually steeped in pollutants and glowing with radioactivity.  But the high rollers of Hong Kong, along with the bottom-of-the-barrel types, all know that you go to the night market for the action.

Nothing says Hong Kong like seven steaming dumplings wrapped in paper, served with a box full of peanut noodles with random things on them that I still couldn’t identify to this day.

I miss it .

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England, Study Abroad, travel, UK

Grantham. The Quintessential English Town

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DSC05302One of my favorite moments in England was a visit to Grantham, a small town in Lincolnshire, halfway between Hull and London.

 

I arrived at an old-fashioned train station and immediately fell for the charm of the place. Staying at a little inn, painted bright red for some reason, I felt like I’d been dropped into the stereotypical English holiday depicted in the old movies — a quaint old town set in a picturesque countryside.

 

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Roaming the winding alleys and cobblestone streets, past little parks with statues and flower beds, past buildings standing since medieval times, I felt most definitely in England.

 

 

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statue in front of City Hall, dedicated to the English Civil Servant, and every bit as animated, brandishing a sheaf of useless paperwork.

 

We ventured into the High Victorian-styled City Hall, where the staff were perfectly cast, like a waxwork museum, fulfilling their stereotypical roles as British Civil Servants.  Polite, pleasant manners, combined with total indifference to their jobs or visitors, and lacking the slightest interest in, or knowledge of, the town they where they worked.

 

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Sections of the church not only pre-dated the United States, it even pre-dated the Normans. As I studied the Saxon-Norman-Gothic church, housing its chained library and perhaps a bone or two from old St. Wulfram, I really felt like I was in England for the first time, and not just in a continuation of the Rust Belt where I’d grown up — it might be in the East Riding of Yorkshire, but Hull seemed like it could just as easily be Cleveland or Detroit in some regards — it even had a Chrysler plant.  Hull somehow didn’t feel entirely British, though it was distinctly un-American.

 

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Grantham felt how England should feel: damp, but not cold, grey, and ancient. Under the massive steeple of a thousand year-old church, I knew I was not in Kansas anymore. Roaming by Sir Issac Newtown’s school and home, I felt that it really is true, there isn’t a spot in England that isn’t touched by history, I don’t think any other nation in the world can make that claim, especially in the third world, with cities rising out of jungle, desert, or seemingly from thin air.

The Grantham cabbies, the gingerbread biscuits, fish-and-chip shops, a medieval inn, the pubs lining the street – these were exactly the elements of the England I had hoped to discover in Hull, but never found there.

 

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The next day was spent at Belton House, an estate and manor. Roaming the grounds with its own forest, deer herd, and even a small railroad for children, it reinforced the sense of a movie-set England. The house was massive — 72 rooms and over a thousand acres of land (and a lake, a boathouse, gardens including a maze, carriage houses, etc). I loved the greenhouse, the immense library, even the servants’ quarters.

 

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Everything about this trip was wonderful. For the first time in England, I felt like I had finally arrived on the right Island, and not in some historical Disneyland like York, or an American-style Rust Belt burg like Hull, or a modern cityscape like Leeds, which felt like a Canadian city minus the joviality and hockey.

 

Travel and “study abroad” involve learning something new, challenging your preconceptions, and encounters with the unexpected.

But — Grantham is England for me — I finally found the England of my expectations.

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England, London, Study Abroad, travel, UK

A commitment to The Commitments

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Cast of the Commitments on the marquee of the Palace Theatre. (I think? it’s possible some of my photos got mis-labeled)

Halfway through a semester at the University of Hull, I was sick of England.

At that exact point, I could only think about the mass of readings and papers facing me at school, while trying to function on the few hours of sleep I could manage amidst the noisy, drunken student ghetto where I was living. I’d reached the low point in my regard for Life in Outer Yorkshire – – I did not feel at home, and I was sick of feeling like an outsider in a strange, decrepit corner of an island nation.

I took the train down to London to visit my mother, who was there briefly on business, and even then, didn’t feel as enraptured with London as I had expected. It was hard to generate too much enthusiasm when I’d decided that I hated England.

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Sure, London was cool. It was neat to see the great old buildings, the fantastic, though wholly overwhelming British Museum, walk through Hyde Park and some of the nicer neighborhoods, Covent Garden…and eat good food, rather than my own horrible experiments with codfish in an unpredictable and malevolent cooker. But it felt hollow (since it was all tourist stuff) and I felt that I needed something with a feeling, with soul, to welcome me, or make me feel more at home.

What finally helped me out of this rut was unexpected — going to see the play “The Commitments” on the West End.

On impulse, we got half-price tickets and then sat in a comically high part of the theater, past the nose-bleed seats, possibly in converted attic space, farther up than I would’ve expected possible in the creaky old building, looking down a long way to the stage. Three or four more rows up, the vegetation became stunted, and the seats were reserved for goatherds, as you hit the alpine timberline.

Despite a theater building that seemed to qualify as a comedy improv in its own right, the seats were fine and the crowd around us was interesting (between the middle-aged Irish women in front, singing and dancing the entire time, to the old British woman who turned around halfway through, to ask Mom if she, too, “thought tha’ show was rubbish”). The audience was a treat, and could’ve been a show in itself.

The actual show, while simple in plot, was more of a concert, highlighted by some bit of acting, rather than being a musical, which is more like a show interrupted by singing.

The songs, all protest and soul songs from the sixties (and therefore all songs I enjoyed greatly) were wonderful and done expertly, the dialogue was funny, and everyone was having a good time (save for the crabby old lady in front of us, who was kind of entertaining, in her own way). It was hard to be downbeat when the show was nothing but great beats.

Perhaps it was the music, perhaps it was the atmosphere of British people cutting loose a bit, having a good time, not being cold and aloof in their usual London manner (even Scandinavians and Germans are warmer than white Londoners), but I was finally able to have my spirits lifted. Maybe it was because the characters, Irish folk living in the 80’s, were also in a rut, that I was able to really get into the show… and from that point on, the city felt less dead and cold.

Like New York, and of comparable size and status, London has an edge — you know you don’t impress anyone there, and no one rushes to make you feel welcome, probably because you aren’t. At least folks in Hull were friendlier, probably due to the relative novelty of an American visitor to the East Riding of Yorkshire (especially one visiting on purpose, and not just a random tourist stranded when they missed their “All Creatures Great and Small” tour bus).

While a return to the Uni ghetto and drudgery didn’t help my mood or mental state, the show granted me a short-term escape, and helped me enjoy London and England more.  The positive effect was strong enough to last the rest of my stay. More escapes and happier times were around the bend, visiting friends on the Continent and then taking a brief trip to Spain. And even if I never acclimated to the student ghetto’s endless cycle of boozing-and-singing-Disney-theme-songs-very-badly-at-3AM-outside-my-window, I came to appreciate and like the people of Hull, even if I rarely understood more than a word of two of their dialect.  But the better mood and higher spirits all started with the Commitments.

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Copenhagen, Soft Capitalism, Study Abroad

Copenhagen. The Happy City.

IMG_5815Regardless of what you think of Bernie Sanders, when he recently said “…I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people,” I have to agree.  I’ve visited two of those countries, and they’re great places, especially Denmark.  Here is my brief “letter home” from a visit to Denmark.

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A bicyclist lazily rolls along, not in any hurry. It’s a beautiful day. It’s a wonderful place.

I left Hull on a cold, gray, rainy English morning at 5am, and arrived in beautiful, clear-skied Copenhagen. A city so beautiful that it’s reflected in every person there.

The Danes are wearing black clothing, with some festive gray and white thrown in, and sunglasses that prevent their pale faces from fully being seen. Not all of them are super tall, but many of them tower over this rather short American, a hybrid descendent of only stocky European stock, with no Vikings in the family tree.

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you knew I’d work Hong Kong in somehow, even when it’s a story about Copenhagen

Smiles everywhere. By scientific measures, this is the “happiest” city on earth, and it truly shows. (This year, for the first time, Copenhagen was surpassed by a city in Paraguay. And according to North Korea, Pyongyang is happier than anywhere else, under penalty of death no doubt.)

Everyone is friendly, calm, and sagacious. They speak several languages fluently, and effortlessly glide back and forth between them. They’re all engineers or scientists who decided to become baristas, or sailors, or political science students with grand plans to work in Israel and climb the Himalayas.

Copenhagen is a city in a bubble. I say this because it is so pleasant, it feels fake. But not in the glitzy Las Vegas-meets-Miami Beach-with-a-dash-of-Dubai style. It just doesn’t seem possible an island in the cold North Sea, as far north as Glasgow, that should by all rights be bleak and inhospitable, can be so nice.

The guy at the hot dog stand speaks English perfectly, even though he’s a random street vendor in a random part of a city that has its own unique dialect. Danish-style hotdogs are vastly superior to what we have, like a mix of Italian sausage and apple-smoked breakfast sausages, served with pickles, (Denmark always does smell of the ocean, cigarettes and pickles) and a dab of onions, mustard, and ketchup served on a hot fresh hard roll. Delicious.

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I finally met up with my friend, and he showed off his wonderful city, from the beautiful buildings to the waterfront, where you feel like you’re on the edge of the world.

Copenhagen is situated on an island, closer to Malmo Sweden than to other cities of Denmark. And, perhaps due to this relative isolation, the city feels trapped in time. No one is in a hurry, though they move quickly and get things done fast. There is no sense of stress you find in large cities, just sensibility and calmness. People are relaxed to an almost lulling degree. And to me, it felt fragile, and knowing its history I can see why it has been conquered or occupied a few times, it seems like a place like this can’t handle stresses, though it clearly has survived and thrived.

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Denmark is clearly not a model for the U.S., for many reasons, but if we modeled our cities on Copenhagen, I think America could see some vast improvements. Infrastructure was great (even though their roads freeze, just the same as in my homeland, the pot-holed and crumbling Upstate NY). Everyone is educated (America, step up your education game), and everyone seemed stress-free, despite talk of a depressed economy.

When I first arrived, I walked through the “ghetto”, really a bohemian area with lots of African immigrants, sex shops, places selling various apparatuses for smoking pot (legal in one square mile district of Denmark called Christiania). And yet, I didn’t get the vibe you get when you quickly duck through those parts of an American city. Walking alone in an area where I didn’t speak the language, carrying my camera and backpack, I’d be an easy target. But I didn’t feel alarmed in the slightest. There are many parts of the US, where I’ve felt uneasy just driving through.

IMG_5813This safe, nurturing environment makes Denmark so great.

My fondest memory from the very brief time I spent there was nothing to do with the many amazing tourist sites my expert guide took me to, but rather three brief moments. The first was when my friend told me to try a Tuborg beer, his favorite and only found in Denmark. His eyes lit up as I tried it, and I could see he was very excited to share a bit of his culture with me. That connection, just one can of good beer, to a place he wanted to share affected me.

But my favorite thing (and I loved everything about this city) was getting the famous pork sandwich of Copenhagen. The city for so long depended on the sea for food, but years of overfishing by other Europeans (ahem, England and Russia) and American fleets depleted the number of fish that could be sustainably harvested. So, left with two options, continuing to deplete a battered-down population of northern fish and pay hefty fees for the privilege of eating them, or go to the southwest of the country to the pig farms, the Danes chose pork. The pork sandwich was proof that some higher power exists. Crispy pork, red cabbage, pickles, some mysterious unnamed sauce, a leaf of lettuce and a crispy yet soft warm bread roll made this the best thing I’ve eaten (save for dim sum and barbecue ribs) ever. Just getting to try the “best” pork sandwich in Denmark, which I’d never find otherwise, was an exalted experience usually only known by the locals.

I loved that about Denmark, I just arrived and felt like I belonged there. I was clearly an outsider (though one drunk girl approached me speaking rapid fire Danish, apparently thinking the guy with the camera and map was a local who could tell her how to find a nightclub rather than his very Danish-looking friend) and yet they made me feel welcome. It was like I just walked into the city and they were like: oh yeah, we’ve been waiting for you, now let’s go.

I became a local in Hong Kong in a few weeks (in some parts), acclimated to my college campus in Maryland after a semester, and never felt at home in Hull. But when I came to this place, it was the most instantaneous and seamless transition. Very magical.

My Danish friend and I ended our time together by going to a “brown bar”. This is one of the only places in Denmark where smoking indoors is allowed, and my friend and his friend Rune who joined us both smoke a pack a day. I don’t like smoking, but the windows were open and despite the huge crowds there was room for everyone. We played Danish pool, actually billiards, which has its own alien rules, but it was fun.

What struck me about that bar, was, in my haste to win the game (which I did to my amazement), I bumped into a guy and spilled his drink all over him. Maybe it was my two Danish friends standing behind me who are six foot three and former military firemen, but he didn’t start a fight. He realized it was just a mistake, I bought him a new beer and we shook hands. In a British pub you’d be looking for your teeth on the ground and I’m familiar with the American “tough guy” (read that as: insecure punk trying to prove himself in a juvenile cult of masculinity) drinking culture to know that wouldn’t have been the case at home. Even when he’s had a Carlsberg poured down his leather jacket and a thwack in the chest from a pool cue, he was still friendly (it probably didn’t hurt that at that moment, he was doing quite well in chatting up a French girl).

A trivial incident, just a spilled beer — but proof that the Danish and their “no worries”, relaxed, and in-control nature can make us re-think our “American way of life”. We can still learn a lot from our old world friends.

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England, Study Abroad

Manchester

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Manchester is a unique city existing in several times.  It is simultaneously in this current world, the future world as envisioned by the media, and still in centuries past. The different times are intermixed and entwined perfectly.

Old buildings of brick — cold, gray and grimy with the ashes from industry of a bygone era — are mixed among steel skyscrapers of the “Madchester” era, an era of revitalization and a new face of British “cool”. And, among the old bricks and ‘80’s steel, is a new architects’ dreamscape, a world of modernistic buildings of glass and random designs, colors and styles. If you picture the city of the future, it may be located in the Far East, in the steaming jungles of a tropical region perhaps, but its look may be based on the experiments of Manchester’s cityscape. Giant glassy domes, belonging to a co-op mixed with the tallest building in the UK outside of London.  (This last one is the Beetham Tower, an ugly glass box with legs, but it gives an unparalleled view.)

The city has more restaurants than they know what to do with, so they just leave it to chance for the tourist (lost amid confusing half-streets, back alleys and winding ways), to wander into them — be they kebab, Korean, or fine Italian dining.

There are great museums — one promoting the struggle of the working man, and that gave a balanced view of communism, and made it look all right. Another museum, of science, and another of art, with no admission charge and extended hours so that the poor, the working, and the student can get to experience culture without sacrificing their schedule.

This city mixes cultures and races together into a cosmopolitan flavor. And yet, the whole time, you know you’re in England. There is the wet grey weather, the crumbly streets, the wrong-sided driving. The smell of tobacco, the music, the pub signs.

Manchester is possibly the last true English city. London is more than half foreign-born, and Leeds is thoroughly modernized, it’s historic roots mostly lost beneath myriad mazes of glass and steel, though present if you know where to look. Hull is like Bucharest, a nice place once you get over the initial ugliness and bad reputation. But Manchester, there is something special there. It is English in its mix of history, culture, and night life, its blend of old and new.  Foreign and native blend together but remain decisively English, and it feels Old World in a way the vibrant London does not, but it doesn’t feel ancient in the way York does, a city that is now a living museum.

Manchester to me, while not the most immediately interesting compared to some other places, is the most real. It has the English realness, the directness, the honesty. You can see its story written on its walls, not holding back, and yet not telling it to your face either.

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