[It's a joke. I do know the difference between a vinaigrette and a vignette, thanks.]
The lights are off. The curtains are open. The stars look on, impassive, as week two is blown away by a wind so chill that it cuts through coats, sweaters, and scarves to lacerate your skin and make all but the hardy few retreat to their radiators and sweatpants.
That feels like how it ought to be: dramatic, intense, and exciting, and sure, it's all those things. But this is also everyday life. Even as culture shock and travel weariness have faded and made way for routines peppered with lectures, hours upon hours of reading, supervisions, seminars, more americanos than I care to admit, and the like, what I said in my last post still holds - and probably will always hold, since it is a rare individual who masters the art of confronting the wild and wonder of every fleeting second of his life.
So if it is not an edge of the seat thriller, what is it?
The colleges seem to be oriented largely around staircases. It's a little hard to explain to Americans, because we're used to a single staircase connecting different floors, and I think that's probably the case in most modern English buildings too. But it seems that rather than creating significant horizontal levels, the rooms are all organized around staircases, a few to a level. There's another girl from the International Programme who lives on my staircase at Corpus Christi, and she has been something of a saving grace to the past two weeks. When a friend of hers came up from London today, we bravely sallied forth to fight weekend tourists for a spot at a tea shop and ended up getting surprised in the street by a sudden hailstorm instead. It had been windy and was drizzling a bit, but we were still caught off guard when the drizzle broke into an icy downpour, driving us into the closest doorway along with every single other hapless individual so unfortunate as to be out on the pavement. Startled, with nervous laughs and stamping feet, caught in a tiny space with a crowd of the similarly marooned, watching in wonder as signs blew across the paving stones in the gusts and employees ran to rescue their outdoor furniture. Breathing in the scent of warm crepes and wondering, in a cafe with every table filled, what next?
The half hour before you email your essay to your supervisor is the worst, especially when it's your first one - or maybe it gets harder afterward, because you're afraid that your writing doesn't reflect the careful, thoughtful input you received the week before. I don't know yet, since I've only submitted one paper. But your heart races a little bit, and as you scroll through the Word document one more time, every single flaw and failure is highlighted in glowing neon, as if you've contracted temporary synesthesia when it's too late to be any help. Redundant points that can't be ripped out and mended over, the suspicion that for every good quote and explication you've made there isn't a shred of argument to be found, everything merging into a pang of doubt that says, "Maybe they made a mistake. Maybe you shouldn't be here." The sweetest relief is the moment when your supervisor tells you that, sure, you didn't have an argument, but you had a really great understanding of the text, and that your writing is stylistically good, and then launches into a discussion of the differences between American and British education systems as if it's not really the end of your life and there's always next week and the week after to walk together through the learning process.
For my first two days in England, I thought it might end up being a repeat of the last trip. I thought maybe the sun loves it when I'm here. Then the clouds came and reality set in along with the occasional shower (it's not as rainy as you'd think, but it's usually damp and puddly, and there's always the sense that it's thinking very seriously about doing something a little more official in the way of downpours, only maybe after it's had its tea and biscuits, thanks). The clouds conspire with the lack of daylight savings time to make mornings interesting. The first day that I was able to wake up before 8 was a victory, because it's hard to drag yourself out of bed when the sun probably won't even show its face before the afternoon sets in. That's when you get those two blessed hours of beautiful blue skies that serve to slacken the tense threats of the morning's dishwatery gray clouds, but the hours pass quickly enough, and then it's a prematurely aged day, already conceding defeat and climbing into its armchair with a newspaper and a mug of warm milk near at hand.
It has been two weeks of so much coffee and tea, finding dining halls, nutella and stroopwafels, late night episodes of The Wire, stressing about Plato, making friends, trying not to miss family too much, serious hunts for the best postcards in town (relatively speaking), navigating absurdly complicated libraries with their own absurdly complicated cataloging systems, sitting silently through hour and a half long reading groups with postgrads who are excitedly arguing over painfully fine points of philosophy in the early middle ages, eating Chelsea buns from Fitzbillies but not too often, and occasionally waking up from a deep sleep with the jarring realization that getting out of bed means going out into an unfamiliar world to live an unfamiliar life, grateful for every outstretched hand that anchors your heart and your sanity.
Some of the moments, not all of them, not particularly dramatic or exciting, though often intense; and still more are waiting in the wings, ready for their cue to enter from stage left as their predecessors take a quick and, for some, final bow.