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“
A 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.
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.
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.
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 friendly cashier, one of the few locals who’d chat freely with an American kid, 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 cheerful and 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, 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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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”? 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.
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.