Thursday, Sept. 21, 2017

Do the No-Jet-Lag pills really work? They taste like sugar pills but I chewed them diligently as I flew from Calgary to Canterbury. After just two days in the UK, my home-away-from-home, the place where I will magically finish the first draft of my dissertation, I have nearly become a non-jet-lagged Canterburian. Canterburyite. Canterbourois?

I managed to sleep a bit on the plane, despite the angle of the seat, which forces your chest to curl forward and your head to tip back until you feel as if a lovely spike has been driven through your neck.

Fast-forward to the Heathrow customs line, where, after an hour-long wait, the border agent refused to look at the bundle of paperwork I had assembled for my crossing. She cared not one whit that I had made a special trip to the bank to have my statement printed out on official Bank Paper, signed by an official Bank Person. She brushed away the original letter from SSHRC, the notice from U of C that I am truly a foreign exchange student. Feeling miffed, I collected my bag and made my way to the public area of Heathrow, where I found my assigned driver so fast I had no time to experience the palpitations about potential airport terror attacks, which I had planned into my schedule.

Having gotten the spike-induced kinks out of my neck as we walked to the parkade, I piled into the car and dove into conversation with my driver. I am here, after all, to do research. And to get a handle on how Brits feel about insularity, refugees, Brexit and more. Here was my first opportunity to grill an ordinary citizen on the politics of the day. The Zeitgeist of the UK. The yay-or-nay on Teresa May.

It was a short conversation.

The driver, although lovely, had taken The Oath of Quiet Living. He had resolved never to turn on the television set, scan a news site, or sully his eyes with social media. You have to turn all that off, he explained. If you want to live happily. The news will make you mad.

So we covered other territory. My driver, it turned out, was the son of a Thai government advisor – the right-hand man to the former king, he told me. Fascinating! When I asked how he felt about British monarchs, he snorted. What a waste, he said. They do nothing! But what about Diana, I protested – the land mines, the AIDS patients. Well, maybe Diana, he grumbled.

I asked who he thought should succeed the Queen, and he said, Well, it certainly won’t be Harry.

Why not, I asked.

He’s not Charles’s son; everyone knows that.

Everyone except me, I thought, but decided to grunt appreciatively instead, and nodded knowingly when he mentioned James Hewitt. I made a mental note to google Rumors Re Prince Harry as soon as I could find a wifi connection (spoiler alert – Daily Star readers voted decisively that Harry is indeed the son of Hewitt, due in part to his ginger hair and also – small canine teeth).

Fast-forward to my arrival in Canterbury. My flat mate, Tamara, is wonderful. She swept me up to our second-floor flat and, seeing that I was on the verge of starvation (Really, Air Canada? White flour pasta and white beans in water sauce?), cooked me a delicious meat pie using puff pastry and beef/mushrooms slow-cooked in herbs and tomato. Which I certainly did not eat, due to my unfailing devotion to my vegetarian lifestyle choice.

Fast-forward to my first trip to the Kent campus. I dash from the flat at 8:15 AM, having slept marginally better in my new comfy bed than I did on the Air Canada bed of nails, and still needing change for the 8:30 bus. Mission accomplished. Small corner store: open. Bottle of water: purchased. Bus fare: obtained, almost exactly. The bus driver, unlike the Canadian drivers I know and love, does not seem to care that I ask him where he is going. In Calgary if you ask your bus driver his destination, he will look at you as if you’d asked him to co-sign your mortgage. Not Mr. Canterbury Bus Driver. He tells me politely that the bus will go to the University of Kent, and then he proceeds to GIVE ME CHANGE from the coins I have given him (not completely sure what they were or what the fare was). This is a foreign concept to anyone who has stepped onto a Canadian bus. We in Canada do not expect the driver to pause for more than a millisecond before waving you to your seat and stepping on the gas, causing you to slip on a patch of melted ice and sending you sprawling across the lap of the elderly gentlewoman in the front row.

As it turns out, I was not the only one in the precarious situation of not having mastered the Canterbury transit system. At almost each stop, a studenty-looking person got on, handed over some coins, asked a question, and stood for a moment, pondering the information offered by the driver. At first it was charming. How much lovelier these drivers are than the ones back home! But then there was another stop with another inquisitive student. And another, and another. This, surely, is meant to be a five-minute bus ride, and already fifteen minutes seem to have gone by. I began to feel nostalgic for the jolt of a Canadian bus and the puddle of melted ice. However, I stand by the value of friendly drivers – huzzah!

At the campus, I breezed through the hyper-organized registration process, facilitated by a young woman named Dora, no less (a sly reference for those of you who know my mother’s name), and her colleague Sarah, who once visited her sister in Calgary and thoroughly enjoyed it, having spent the bulk of her visit in Banff and Jasper. Huzzah! Bolstered by my success with bus drivers and registrars, I strode boldly to Cornwallis East, home of the sociology department.

My supervisor met me in the lobby and showed me around the building, which I had thought might smell of moss or possibly of Henry V, but no. This is a newly built building and it smells of paint. It is also warm, unlike buildings which smell of moss, and this pleases me no end. Huzzah!

I have been welcomed into the School of Sociology fold – they are a truly gracious bunch, making room for a Canadian interloper. I can use any of the carrels in the PhD study space, but one of the students confirmed my suspicion that existing students have long since marked out their territory. I promised to ask if my chosen spot had already been chosen. This territoriality will not surprise my own U of C cohort (is Speedo man still in the Grad Commons, wriggling his bare toes at the window?).

Such has been my Canterbury experience so far.

You’re probably thinking, surely it’s not all kittens and rainbows. Surely there has been at least one drop of rain on the sunshine of my Canterbury?

And to that I say, pish posh! After all, who doesn’t enjoy a good 1-800 session with the Apple Service Team? I’m taking a page from my sunny bus driver’s book; I will see only the positive side of the six to eight hours spent fixing my aesthetically pleasing iPhone. How else would I have made so many new acquaintances at Vodafone, StormFront (the lovely Apple re-seller folks in Canterbury!) and of course the Apple Service Team, available until 7 PM nightly, toll-free? I feel confident that my inability to send and receive texts to my friends and family back home will be remedied any day now.

So I lay myself down in my comfy bed with the Apple phone call to look forward to. And then, the lovely walk up to campus, which winds through fields that are still brilliant green, lush with ivy vines and chestnut trees (I think). And then, the calm of the carrel, where the real work will begin.

Until tomorrow.