08 July 2008

Arriving and Settling

Here I am, sitting in my room drinking a cup of tea and listening to Radio 4.  In short, I have arrived in London.  First of all, rather randomly, here is a picture of Pierce Brosnan for my best friend, who I've somehow got it into my head wanted to see what he looked like:

We should all be so lucky at 55!

Also, I've set my spellcheck to British norms, so spellings will be different.

Now, on to the real news.  I am here, and I am getting used to it.  In order to give you a sense of how things are going, I've divided this entry into several subsections, beginning with

The Air

What's the weather like, you ask?  Well, this morning, when I decided to wear my lively-but-not-really-summery grey and black skirt and sandals, it was, frankly, chilly.  And then it was rainy, but that's hardly a surprise.  In the afternoon, though, it got sunny, and as I sat in the kitchen eating my dinner I was reminded of one of my very favourite things about London, and about England generally:  the air.  The air here is nothing like the air where I live, or the air at my parents'.  The best way I can explain it is to say it always feels light.  I think what I really mean is that, even at its hottest, the air is never oppressive; rather, it feels almost always fresh, and somehow, even when it's hot, cold - or at least as if it contains coldness within it.  Breathing it in is always a pleasure.  Plus, it comes with all sorts of smells, some of which are not very interesting (rain, for example), but some of which are very interesting indeed.  Warm butter, for instance, is a smell that seems to feature in all supermarkets, I suppose because of the fresh croissants they sell.  Now, I'm careful about what I eat, so I can't have a croissant anywhere near every day, but I can open my nostrils as wide as possible and pull in the buttery air.  And, in fact, it's just as good as eating a croissant.  The other interesting smell is on the far end of the spectrum from warm butter; it's what I supposed must be creosote.  It's some sort of tarry or industrial substance, anyway, and it's a smell I associate solely with London.  I have smelt it once or twice in America, but only with extreme surprise. This smell, which I can't describe, used to greet me when I came off the plane at Heathrow:  I could smell it in the cold air trapped at the very start of the plane walkway when they attached it to the plane.  These days I no longer smell it there, but I always smell it at some point relatively early in my trips to London, and it says, "You're here."  Tonight it came while I was taking my dinner to the table.  

Which leads nicely to...

The Basics

The room is, well, a dorm room.  I knew that before I came, of course, but I had forgotten how much of a dorm room English dorm rooms are.  It has a rickety but reasonable desk, a chair of vinyl hideousness,

a basin in the room (lovely), one of those bizarre open closet arrangements so favoured by English hotel rooms:  six open shelves and a drawer, flanked on one side (can something be
flanked only on one side?) by an open space to hang clothes, provided with some few sad hangers.  The bed is a single, and resolutely so.  You couldn't fit two people in this bed and expect them to get decent sleep even if they adored each other and lived to be pressed close.  As I thought to myself sadly yesterday afternoon, I guess I won't be sleeping with anyone during my two months in London - unless it happens during the week I'll be staying in a studio flat because all the rooms were taken.  Still, the room is comfy in its way, and large enough not to be smothering. Plus, it's only for

a week, and after I come back from my conference I'll be in an entirely different room (God willing, not one that faces the main road, as this one does). Today I bought myself a radio alarm clock (hence the Radio 4) and a
small lamp (there's nothing but overhead lighting, and that all fluorescent, which I find very hard going), and I think once I put up some postcards in the next room I get, that plus lamp and radio will make it positively homey.  And what do I need to be sleeping with people in London for?  I'd only have to leave them once I went to Cambridge.

The (shared) bathroom and showers are exactly what you'd expect:  small, dank, and like those you find at summer camp, only indoors. I confess I am surprised at this.  I thought that with increased gentrification and more people going to university, the universities of London would have improved their hygiene facilities.  But no.  That being said, I did have a lovely bath in the sort of tub that only Europe seems to provide, large and deep, with broad ledge on which to balance a cup of tea  (in a blue-striped mug that a reprehensible sort of person would spirit out of the kitchen and keep secreted in their bedroom, using it make many homely cups of delicious tea).  

Opening a bank account was surprisingly easy.  Last time I lived here they refused to give me an ATM card until I'd had an account for six months, but today it all went through smoothly (even though I inadvertently gave the wrong address), and they even gave me a £250 overdraft!  

What went much less smoothly than I expected, however, was hooking up the computer to the Internet.  First I had to buy an ethernet cable, so I toddled of to PC World down the road. Doesn't that name make them sound as if they have a thorough knowledge of everything? Well, pshaw!  because they sold me a USB cable, which I didn't know was a USB cable because I have
 no idea what a USB cable or ethernet cable looks like (or rather, I didn't.  I do now).  So I spent a fruitless evening trying to plug it in, before finally having the bright idea of this morning going to the new Apple store on Regent Street, where I bought the right cable AND a handy adapter, which slots neatly into the groove where my American plug went before I removed it to put in the adapter.  Sorted.  Thank you, Apple store.

I also went swimming in the University of London pool.  I'd already done a lot of walking, what with the bank account opening and Apple store visiting and lamp buying and grocery shopping (which I forgot to mention), but I really felt the need to get some exercise, however mild.  And the pool was very pleasant, and I only did eight laps - just enough to stretch me a bit and make me a bit tired (which I need.  I took a long nap by accident yesterday, my first day here, with the result that this morning I woke up at 4am.  Tonight I'm going to sleep at 10, and I'm hoping that my swim, plus my general exhaustion from having been up since 4, plus the fact that I ate sensibly, will help me sleep.  I want to work tomorrow before I go off to have my first ballet and meet the first of my Internet "friends"). 

The final thing is that I bought a phone. This, too, turned out to be more trouble than I expected.  I'd selected the phone very careful, with a lot of forethought and good economic reasons (it was a bit expensive, but it has Bluetooth, which cheaper ones did not, as well as an excellent camera, access to the Internet, a great screen, and a nice shape, weight, and feel). Unfortunately, just as I prepared to slap down my credit card the woman behind the counter informed me that the phone was non-returnable the way I was buying it.  I could either buy it this way, going with one of the networks that offered cheaper minutes, 15p a minute, or I could go with the most expensive network, which charges 25p a minute.  10p is quite a difference!  As I said to the woman, this is one of those situations in which, as we say in America, you're screwed no matter what you do:  buy it with the cheaper minutes, and you risk finding out you hate it but can't return it (thus leaving me out £69), or buy it with the more expensive minutes and have that extra amount rankle every minute.  I see now that there was a third option - buy it with the more expensive minutes, see if I like it, and return it either way, buying it again with a cheaper option if I do like it - but that seems far too much hassle, even in retrospect.  At the moment I was considering my options, I did have a relatively long think.  The other factor is that someone I knew whom I'd rather not have known had this phone (that' s how I knew what it felt and looked like), and I suddenly realised I risked being reminded of that person every time I used the phone.  But it is a great phone, and I do like it in and of itself, and in a very short time it will just be "my phone."  So I went ahead.  Now it's cha
rging; tomorrow we'll see how it goes.

So all in all I'm settling in nicely.  I'd say my only real frustration is that everything costs so much. I don't just mean that everything costs twice as much when you turn it into dollars (so that I realised with horror today that I paid $3 for a cup of tea), since I usually don't do that math.  I mean some things in and of themselves cost a lot, curious things.  It cost £6.50 to go for a swim, which is a fairly hefty amount, in my opinion, particularly when you consider that I only swam for 20 minutes and also had to pay just to get a card that allows me to get into the gym.  Tomorrow I'll take class at a place where there is a monthly membership fee as well as a cost per class of £7-9.  I remembered that there was this concatenation of fees over here, but I still find it strange - and very pricey.

Now I am indeed exhausted, so I'll go off and have my warm milk, then head to my narrow bed. Under my lovely warm duvet.

I note with interest that there is a nineteenth-centuryist job going at Birkbeck College.

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