Sunday, February 1, 2009: Exhausted and disgruntled, operating with sore legs and almost no depth perception, this ugly American landed at Heathrow Airport and muddled through customs with eyelids propped at half-mast.
After getting my luggage and converting all the cash in my wallet to Pounds sterling, I purchased a latté (less for the caffeine boost than for the comforting knowledge that, an ocean from home, this is still Planet Starbucks™) and sought out my cabbie, an Indian with a nervous grin and rudimentary-at-best understanding of the English language. As he drove me the fifteen minutes to Eastcote, a suburban neighborhood on the northwest corner of greater London, I sat zombielike in the passenger seat, panicking quietly every ten seconds or so at the oncoming cars on the right side of the road.
I staved off much of the bewilderment of my first 48 hours in England by sleeping for at least 60% of them. I’m still in the process of working out how to stay awake past 9:00 p.m. without a lengthy mid-day nap and I haven’t yet conquered my internal clock’s insistence that I get up at 5:30 every morning. But at the very least I’ve achieved some sense of familiarity with my surroundings.
For the next three-and-a-half months, my study abroad program has placed me here in Eastcote in the home of a couple named Kay and Antony—respectively a quiet London social worker and a genial, slow-moving Trinidadian whom I’ve yet to see outside the house. An awful lot of walking has given me a decent feel for the general area, and through trial and error, as well as careful study of my Underground map, I’m starting to get the hang of London’s geography. I feel like I’m starting to make the slow transition from a dazed tourist to a Londoner who can’t properly pronounce “aluminium.”
One thing that’s been somewhat helpful in this transformation is the Underground commute from Eastcote to my classes in central London. On any given day, the trek can take anywhere from 45 minutes to well over an hour, and I’m sure I haven’t seen the worst of it yet. It gives me and the other students the opportunity to join in a highly popular Londoner pastime: griping bitterly about the Tube.
The London Underground is a notoriously unreliable beast, and I’ve already encountered multiple mysterious “signal failures,” which delay the trains exclusively when I’m in a crunch to get someplace on time.
There are certain other elements of the Underground’s character that have also taken some getting used to. The pedestrians in this city roam the sidewalks at a breakneck pace, but that doesn’t bother me; as a gangly praying mantis of a freak on stilts, I’ve always been too fast a walker for most cities. What I can’t get used to are things like the unappetizing choice between squashing into an air-tight lift with at least 50 too many people and climbing the 200 stairs to street level, or the unnerving silence on a jam-packed station platform—four or five of us seem enough to fill even the most crowded train with American voices.
After a week of worrying about my backpack getting caught in automatic doors, being squashed against smudged windows and buffeted up and down escalators, I feel like I’m starting to understand just what the hell T.S. Eliot was talking about in “The Wasteland.”
Maybe next week I’ll work up the courage to give the bus system a try.