Tag Archives: culture shock

my neighborhood is ridiculous.

all the bay area IGA stores (including the one that was 7 blocks from my house) went out of business recently, so now there are no regular old supermarkets within reasonable walking distance. finding items that are not standard eastern european and/or asian fare proves to be quite a goose chase.

this morning i needed three items to make breakfast: eggs (preferably local and organic); buttermilk (standard); and bacon (preferably deli-style/fresh/thick-cut).

the asian market on my block had none of the above.

the asian/russian/american market a block away had organic sonoma county eggs for $3.49 (not bad). but they only had pre-packaged bacon and old-world-style bulgarian buttermilk (which is made with yogurt cultures instead of cream cultures, making it thicker and more tart — could be good for some baked goods, but i’m not sure about pancakes).

the russian deli a block away had fresh thick-cut bacon (although it cooked up more like really fatty ham, so next time i think i will try another butcher shop a few more blocks away) but again, only bulgarian buttermilk. they do get bonus points for always talking to me in russian, though.

i had to go to the fancy-pants organic food co-op a few blocks away to find regular buttermilk.

it takes commitment to cook american in these parts.


Rainy Afternoon in Praha. . .

I am done with my Intensive Czech course! Had an exam today; I think I did pretty well. I will miss Zdena, though.

Got up today and had a good Praha morning — the best times I’ve had so far here are the mornings I have just gone walking by myself, getting lost and finding my way. When I’m in a group of people, I usually take on the role of navigator, unless Zac is there, and then he does. So it is quite nice to just walk by myself and not have the pressure of guiding people, or wondering if people are tired of walking, or if everyone is having a good time. If I get lost, whatever, I’ll find my way back again, and I like just walking for hours. So I walked down from the Kolej and went to the H&M at the top of Wenceslas Square. I wanted to find a dressy top to wear to Don Giovanni on Sunday, but didn’t like anything. So I walked down the Square to another H&M, tried on some more things. Ended up buying a cool necklace with little wooden birds and green glass beads, a big wide white hipster belt, a bag to take my books in so I don’t always have to take my huge daypack, and a white sweater/shirt that is cute.

I wanted to find a cafe to study some Czech for my exam today, so I walked around until I found Bohemia Bagel off of Old Town Square. It was quite interesting; a bottomless cup of kava cost 45kc, which is a bit pricey for Praha, but I guess reasonable when compared to the States. But you pay for the “American atmosphere” — it was kind of cafeteria-style, they had Thievery-ish techno music playing, fare included hamburgers and egg and cheese bagel sandwiches, bottles on Heinz ketchup sat on each table, most of the patrons were equipped with bulging backpacks, and even though I ordered in Czech, the barista answered me in English. So anyway, I sat and drank the first real cup of coffee I’ve had since I’ve been here and studied.

Went to class, took my test. Walked to the tram in the rain. It was steamy and smelly on there, the windows were foggy, just like the PAT busses in the Burgh. Home, sweet home. The weather here has cooled off in the last week; it is nice and autumnal.

The past few days have been good; I’ve been somewhat lazy, mostly just sleeping in and going to class. Went shopping yesterday with John, Zac and Mike; hit up some thrift stores, bought some bright green and yellow Eurotrash shoes. It was the most fun I have ever had shopping with a group of men. . .actually, probably the only time I have shopped with a group of men. Went to dinner at Maly Buddha last night; paid 115kc for a big bowl of delicious vegetarian/tofu soup and a huge place of fried rice with veggies. Have spent time the past few nights at the Hanging Coffee, too, drinking some Gambrinus and hanging out.

We are going on a day trip to Česky Krumlov tomorrow, a little town in Bohemia. I think a hike is involved, a visit to an old cathedral, probably. There is also another film showing tomorrow night a little further away from downtown that I want to see. I’ve been trying really hard to do some different stuff here, check out places other than clubs and bars, get into some of the culture. I know this will take some time, and I have some time to be here, but I need to feel a little less American and a bit more cultured.

Not sure what my plans are for the night. I want to see Šteští (Something Like Happiness), but it is dreary, and I am home now, and I still need to eat dinner. So we’ll see. A jazz club has also been rumoured as an activity for this evening, which would be quite fun, too.

Off to a Good Day in Praha.

I think yesterday might have been the first day since I got here that I didn’t write a blog entry. Perhaps this is a step in the right direction. . .although I was a bit depressed yesterday, and didn’t leave my room until class time. But class was good, and I had a nice dinner at a restaurant across from the Kolej (U Dragoon) with Megan, Bekka and Laura.

I got up at 8:00 this morning, emailed some registration questions to Marketa and Fiore, got dressed, ate breakfast, and was on a tram by 9:10. However, the tram I got on, #23, which normally takes me to downtown, happened to have a sign in the window that I couldn’t read because it was in Czech. Apparently, that sign said something to the effect of “This tram is not running on its normal route,” because after about 10 minutes, I didn’t recognize any of my surroundings. I took out my headphones and heard the tram-announcer-lady-voice say that at this stop, you could “vystup az k Metro” (exit to the Metro), so I figured I should get off, because I could acclimate myself at a Metro station and get downtown via that. It was a good thing I did get off, because once I got to the Metro platform, I saw that the stop was the furthest one out on the Green Metro line. If I had gone further, I would have been extremely lost and would have just had to wait for a tram going back the other direction or something, which would have been fine, but taking the Metro was easier and I didn’t have to get lost. Crisis averted.

So I got on the green line and rode to Mustek, transferred to the yellow line there and rode to Narodni Trida, where Tesco is. I bought a pot and a knife and some Tide on the 3rd floor, then ventured down to the grocery store in the basement. I had memorized how to ask for 200 and 300 grams, so I could get that much meat and cheese. It worked pretty well. I got 200 grams of some kind of “Burlander light,” which looks like swiss cheese, and 300 grams of this meat called “kureci rolka,” that looked like ham. (To my dismay, when I looked up the word kureci after I got home, I learned that it meant chicken. So I actually bought some kind of weird chicken-roll-mystery-meat, I think. But I’ve probably eaten worse. . .) I got some of these little chocolate-covered wafer candy bars I’ve been eating at school called Cokotatranky, a few “Nestle Fit” bars that were the closest I could find to granola (I miss Nature Valley and Clif bars!), and then a bunch of veggies. Fresh fruits and veggies are the way to go in Praha — they are incredibly cheap and good. I got some olive oil, garlic and green peppers to cook with some pasta for tonight, and I got 4 nice big Braeburn apples for like 50 cents. That blows my mind. The bunch of bananas I got were more expensive than apples.

I took all of my groceries and decided to walk to the AIFS office; I know how to get there by Metro, but I wanted to navigate by foot, so I did. I’m getting used to recognizing landmarks and knowing where I am, knowing which way to go, even though I don’t know any street names or actual directions. (I also found a Kino I had been reading about last night that shows at least one film with English subtitles per day, so I definitely want to check that out soon. It is right by the office, and it is showing a new Czech film called “Happiness” that looks good.) Went to the AIFS office and put down a deposit so I can go see Don Giovanni and Swan Lake later this month. Then took the Metro and a tram back up to the Kolej.

I’m going to do my homework, go to class, and then come home and cook a delicious dinner. This has been a great day so far; it was a good move to get up and get going this morning instead of laying around feeling out of place. I’m getting better at this.

I Have Arrived.

I’m sure when classes start I won’t have enough time to write blog entries after every thing I do. Also, there probably won’t be as many new, exciting things happening every day to write about. But there are, now, and I like writing about them, so I’m doing it.

Got up this morning and went for a run. It was nice, although I felt a bit out of place, and people were looking at me funny. Silly Americansky, all health-consciousky. I ran away from downtown on a main street near the Kolej; I haven’t ventured away from downtown yet, only toward it. So that was cool; there are a lot of little shops and groceries and cafes and pubs — and old Czech men drinking beer on the pub patios at 9:15 in the morning.

I ate breakfast at the dorm again, and went to the internet cafe across the street to activate my AIFS debit card. Gmail wasn’t working, so I couldn’t check my email. Then I took a shower, and Kathryn and I decided to venture down to Wenceslas Square and Tesco for groceries and little things for the apartment. We hopped a tram down there, and I thought we would have to get off at a certain stop to catch the Metro, but we got off there and there was Tesco!! So we ventured all over the 5-story consumerist hellhole, buying can openers and cleaning supplies and blankets and towels and groceries. I got a good week’s worth of food — apples, bananas, rice, whole wheat pasta (once I found the health food section), tomato sauce, baked beans (I couldn’t find black beans!), bread, turkey, cheese, bottled water — for 350kc (less than $20). What a deal. And it was only a mildly harrowing experience. (See Appendix A.)

We went down to campus today for an orientation meeting. It basically consisted of Marketa reading us everything that was in the literature they gave us when we were accepted to the program. But we saw the building where our classes will be, and it gave us an excuse to be downtown. After the meeting, my friends wanted to look at cell phones, so we went to the Oskar store and got the scoop. I’m still not convinced I’ll need one, so we’ll see how this week plays out once everyone else gets theirs. We walked around a bit and tried to find a place to sit down and eat; we ended up at a weird fast-food wrap place. I don’t remember the name, but they served a bunch of different types of wraps, like Greek and Thai and Japanese and Italian and Norwegian and Dutch and French. So I had a Thai wrap with chicken and good Thai dressing and lettuce and tomato. Not very Czech, but cheap and good. Then we decided we wanted a bar and some beer (because I hadn’t had any yet and it was like 7:00!!!), so we walked to Mala Strana, where none of us had hung out, and found this awesome place called U Stkaklksdf Cafe. They had 27kc (about $1.10) pints of Pilsner Urquell, so we hung out there, and it turned out it had free WiFi, and I also happened to have my computer in my backpack because I was afraid of thieves taking it while we were gone, so I passed it around and we all checked on class schedules, etc.

There were a couple of other American-looking girls in there, so we talked to them and it turned out they were from American University, doing the FAMU program, living in the dorm next door to the cafe — the dorm that Teddy is living in! So I asked if they knew him; they did, and he was a good friend of one of them. So the one girl said she would tell him she saw me, but he was out or whatever. But about a half hour later, who walked in but TEDDY!!! It was crazy — I haven’t seen him since we were like 11! So we caught up, talked about what we had been doing in the past 10 years, talked about his program and its director, who was a Czech ex-pat in the US for a while, and came back after communism and now lives at the Kolej and runs this program. So it was incredibly good to see him, just cool to see a formerly-friendly face in a crazy place halfway across the globe from where you last saw each other.

So, we got a bit rowdy at the bar after our 3rd round, and were getting kind of obnoxious, so we left a big tip for the American-friendly Czech bartender, walked back up the hill to our dorm and hung out in the lobby a bit. A lot of people were around tonight, probably feeling like they should be social because school is starting or something. We have an orientation for our intensive language course at 10:00 tomorrow morning, and then class after that. I’m excited to get started, have school, learn, have some structure and some more things to occupy my time. It’s been nice to hang out, but it will be ever better to get back to classes, learning, intellectual stimulation. And beers between classes, of course. Most of my classes are in the morning and the late afternoon, so I will have lots of time to kill at cafes and pubs and doing work during the day. I can’t wait.

So, I had plugged my computer in with my Czech adaptor for the first time when I started writing, and there were weird little blips on my screen. I felt the adaptor and it was really hot, so I unplugged it and now it kind of smells like burning. This is not a good sign. My Pod is also dying, so I was hoping to charge that, too. I should probably figure out what is going on, if I need some kind of transformer or something. I wonder how I do that. . .call 1-800-APPLE? Oh, wait. I’m in Eastern Europe. That won’t be possible. Guess I should conserve battery, then, for now.

Therefore, time for bed. Gonna get up and shower and eat breakfast so I hopefully have enough time to walk down the hill and across the bridge to class. That will be nice.

Appendix A:
Things that are similar between Tesco in Praha and Giant Eagle in Squirrel Hill:
1. Elderly Eastern European people speaking Eastern European languages with anger.
2. More people than the aisles can comfortably accommodate.
3. Not enough cashiers.
4. Lines at the deli.
5. Braeburn apples (my favorite).
6. A very rushed and frenetic atmosphere.

Things that are different at Tesco in Praha than at Giant Eagle in Squirrel Hill:
1. Prices listed in Crowns instead of US Dollars (this is a bridgeable gap, because I am a mental math star).
2. Clerks at the deli counter who speak English; in Praha, one must point to the type of cheese one wants and then nod when the clerk has put enough of said cheese on the scale, or one must try to pronounce the type of meat one wants and be corrected by the clerk, but with a smile.)
3. The price of Braeburn apples (my favorite) — 16kc per kilo, compared with $1.69 per pound.
4. The presence of delicious dark chocolate candy bars for 9kc.
5. A little counter by the produce that you have to take your produce to, where a man weighs it and puts a sticker on it for checkout ease.

Czech, Czech. . .

I am in Prague.

Finally, after a somewhat harrowing day yesterday in transit. My hotel-roommate had to get on a bus to the airport at 4:15, and even though my shuttle didn’t leave until 6:15, I didn’t go back to sleep after she left. I got on the bus at 6:15, but we didn’t get all the luggage loaded until about 7:00, so more sitting. We got to Heathrow quickly, though, and drove past the brewery that makes London’s Pride.

I was quite amazed at how easy it is to fly when you are not in America. As we were walking up to security, I untied my boots so I could take them off quickly — the security lady looked at me like I was crazy and told me to keep them on. They set the alarms off in Pittsburgh a few days ago, so I looked at her skeptically, but I walked through with no problem. I didn’t have to take my laptop out of my backpack, and they didn’t look at my passport, ever, until right before I boarded the plane. They also don’t assign gates to flights there until right before they leave, so everyone sits in this big waiting area with tons of shops and restaurants and kiosks and watches these little TVs to check gate assignments. Much different than flying in the States, for sure.

We sat in the plane for a good hour before we actually took off, but the flight to Munich was fast, I dozed off, and the landing was one of the smoothest I’ve ever experienced. (I have been impressed as all get-out by British Airways, all around.) The Munich airport is really cool — lots of neat, clean lines, tons of open space and glass, very German. I think I’d like to go back to Germany at some point in the semester; Berlin is close by train and would be cool to see. There was a big yellow Mercedes bus there to pick us up, so we piled in and hit the Autobon — the first highway; it still has no speed limit. We sat at the border of Germany and the CZ for about an hour while the officials checked all our papers. That was a pain.

But the first stop we made once we got into the CZ was in Pilsen, at the Pilsner Urquell brewery, of course!! They served us tall mugs of fantastic Pilsner with about 3 inches of head, and we had our choice of authentic Czech dinners — I had beef sirloin in a vegetable cream sauce with Bohemian dumplings (which are actually like slices of rich, heavy white bread.) It was delicious. We got back into the bus and were finally headed to Praha.

We got to our dorm, the Kolej Komenskeho, around 9:30. Waited in a big line to check in, and got to my room on the second floor of this old dorm building. My roommate is a girl named Kathryn, from Long Island, who is studying elementary/special education at the University of Rhode Island. I was a bit overwhelmed when I got here, after a long day of traveling, and coming into a barren dorm/apartment that definitely made me feel like I was in post-communist Eastern Europe. I called Mom and Dad with one minute left on my phone card after connection fees and pretty much just spent it crying. But Kathryn and I put up pictures on the walls, moved our stuff in, and it felt a bit more homey.

A door to our suite opens from the hallway, there is a toilet to the left in a little cubby (it flushes by pulling a string above your head), and there is a hallway that leads to our room. We have a room with two beds (they look like beds, but they just have these long church-pew-like cushions on them). We have two cabinets stacked on top of each other that we use as dressers, two desks with drawers, two chairs, and three big windows. Outside our door is a little kitchen-type area with lots of cabinets, a mini-fridge, a hot-plate, and a sink. Also in that hallway are four floor-to-ceiling (the ceiling is probably 12 feet high) wardrobes, for us and our 2 suitemates. To the left is their bedroom, and to the right is a tiled room with the shower and sink. The shower is interesting — it is just a free-swinging hose with a nozzle at the end, so you have to hold it the whole time you’re in there so it doesn’t fly all over and spray everything, and you have to turn it off every few minutes so the drain can drain. But the water is hot. So, it is an interesting setup, to say the least. I’m calling it home for the next 3 months.

I was feeling pretty disheveled when I got here, kind of didn’t know what to do with myself. I used a phone card they gave us to call out, but Mom and Dad and Jut weren’t there. So Zac and I decided to go for a walk; he wanted to go to an ATM to get some crowns and by cigarettes, so we found the nearest one, and I walked off some of my nervous energy. We ran into some other people from the program, and a kid named Dylan, from Illinois, joined us to find cigarettes. We finally stumbled upon a little cafe that sold Marlboros — Zac got a pack of Lights and a lighter for 77kc, less than $3. After that we just kept walking, and stumbled upon Prague Castle, which turns out to be about 10 minutes from our dorm. It is really amazing — it makes me think of communist Russia; a mass of people gathered on the flat stone floor, their cheers echoing off the tall walls (come on, it’s almost poetic — I’m trying for that irony. . .). Within its walls is an incredible gothic cathedral with endless turrets and creepy gargoyles of screaming ghost-women. It was so cool that everything was still open at 10:30 at night, and it was really great to walk around at that time not only because it was really eerie, but because there weren’t many tourists around. We sat there for quite a while, just enjoying the solitude, the amazing cathedral, the night sky, the lights of the city across the river. I needed that, just to feel a bit more calm here, like this will be a bit more manageable; I needed to see pretty-Prague, not crazy or ghetto-Prague. It was a nice welcome.

We walked aimlessly for a while, down cobblestone streets with high walls and houses on them, winding around and up hills, until we got our bearings again and found our way back to the dorm. I finished unpacking and felt better about being here. It’s culture shock, for sure. It will be better when I learn some of the language — people say a lot of English is spoken in Prague, but all the street signs/names, signs at stores, billboards, signs on Trams, etc are in Czech. I haven’t seen or heard much English, so far; I will be much more comfortable when I can understand some of the Czech.

And there’s a strange kind of loneliness — a twinge of that loneliness that persists even when you’re surrounded by people, because you feel like you don’t know/trust/like any of them; but there’s something more, something related to being an outsider, probably, something having to do with gaining perspective on the country you come from, knowing how other people think about you because that’s where you’re from. Probably also something about not understanding the words the letters you see make, sometimes not being able to identify the letters themselves. It will take some getting used to. But it is beautiful here; I’m sure there will be moments like seeing the Castle last night, which will be what keeps me going.

Slept well last night, on my church-pew-bed. Got up and took a shower, as described earlier. Went down to breakfast, which is served every morning for us, in a cute little room in the dorm basement. Little Czech ladies put the food out for us and bustled about. There were doughnuts, bread, rolls, jam, lots of different lunch meats and cheeses, cut up tomatoes, cucumbers and red peppers, yogurt (that tasted more like cream cheese), fruit, watered-down Tang, water, coffee and tea. Not bad.

So, we are meeting in the hotel lobby soon and are going to a brewery for lunch. Then we are getting a tour of downtown Prague, places we need to know about like the post office and AIFS office and the nearest Tesco’s, which is supposed to be the “best” place to get groceries in Prague — oh, British Empire. I’m hoping to change some of my American dollars into crowns, and hopefully go out tonight, get some beer or wine, get more acclimated. It will be nice to see the city in the daylight, since it was difficult last night to get my bearings. Viva, Praha.

Prague. . .Czech it Out!

Two entries in one day? I must need more to occupy my time. I guess technically this entry will be tomorrow’s, since it is after midnight. But, still.

Today was a good day. I am still feeling culture shocked, pretty hardcore. So, in order to combat that, I tried to keep going today — even when I wanted to crawl in bed and take a nap, I forced myself on a Tram, walked across the Vlatva, and explored Praha 1.

Our “tour” was nice — it started with yet another traditional Czech meal at a brewery! We rode the 23 Tram downtown to it; we had their good microbrew pilsner, a delicious vegetable and potato soup, an entree of chicken with mushroom cream sauce, cabbage with dressing, and little round swirly tater-tots that had mashed potatoes inside, and dessert of an apple/rasin/walnut big kolachi thing. Also paid for by AIFS. . .or, I guess, by our program fees. But it feels like a free meal.

We walked to the AIFS office after that, on Wencesclas Square (as in, Good King looked out, on the feast of Stephen” — he’s the Patron Saint of the CZ, apparently), then went to Tesco, where we will do our grocery shopping, then back to the Post Office on the Square. We hopped the Metro to check out “Prague’s Only Unique Czech-American Laundromat,” Laundry Kings, where it is suggested we wash our clothes. Then back on the tram, back to the Kolej.

I kind of wanted to take a nap at this point in the day; I was feeling quite overwhelmed, wondering whether or not I’d ever be able to get back to the places I’d just been, wondering how I’d ever get everything done I’d need to do for school, life, etc in this crazy city that I don’t understand yet. When I got back to my room, however, I learned that my suitemates’ room had been broken into, and the one girl’s brand new, $2,000 Apple laptop had been stolen. I kind of freaked out, because they had told me earlier at the brewery that they couldn’t get our front door, the one that opens into the main hallway, locked, but both our room doors were locked, so they weren’t worried. I asked them if they had used their key to lock the door, just like when they unlock it; they hadn’t thought of that, so they hadn’t tried it. So someone had walked through that open main door, apparently, and ducked around the corner to their room, which you can’t see from the hall if you were walking by, and broke down their door. Pretty creepy. We figured someone had to have known she had the computer in there; she had it sitting on top of the wardrobe, in view, I suppose, of someone who looked into the window. But it still doesn’t make sense that someone would break into only that room, only take that laptop, not touch anything in the unlocked wardrobes in the hallway. I don’t know. I know that we will lock the doors from now on.

After hearing this news, I knew if I stopped doing things I would most likely break down, so I joined a large group that was going back down to Wenceslas Square (Vaclavske namesti, for the lay person, or the Czech-speaking person). I knocked on Zac’s door to see if he wanted to come, and by the time he came out, everyone else was gone. So we decided to venture downtown anyway, and just fend for ourselves. We got on a Tram and rode to the bottom of the hill, right before the river, and then walked across on most Legii (Legii Bridge, for the layperson) to Wenceslas Square. We found a cool internet cafe on the second floor of a wine bar, and wrote emails and checked our course registration. I am enrolled in 3 classes and am on the waiting list for 3 more, so we’ll see how it works out.

Then we decided to go to Old Town (Stare Mesto) to check out the square and some of the old castle-like buildings. It was pretty awesome to walk through there, especially after only seeing it on TV and in pictures. Pretty incredible. So we walked around a bit, looked at Russian dolls of Bill Clinton and Dubya, and went to find a cafe Zac had seen in his tour book. We found it, and ducked into the dimly lit, quiet, totally chill little bar for 30kc tall glasses of Pilsner Urquell. The environment was pretty much perfect, the waitress/bartender was really cute and laughed at us trying to speak Czech, and it was almost empty. So after that, we walked toward home through New Town (Nove Mesto) and found another bar — one that is supposedly frequented by American ex-patriates. So we went there; I had a pint of Staropramen, and a big plate of nachos (yes, that’s right, nachos in Prague. Lay off — the last 2 meals I’ve eaten have been huge tradition Czech fare!). Then we caught a tram and came home. It was just a really good, relaxed evening that made me feel like I have a handle on this city, or am at least starting to get one. I navigated, rode public transport, found good beer, and got home safely. And really, what more do you need?

Talked to Mom and Dad for a bit — I emailed them my number here and they called my room. It was good to talk to them; I haven’t talked to them since I’ve gotten to Praha.

I just ate some of the cheese I bought in London. Gross, because it rode through a 7-hour bus ride in my suitcase at the bottom of the bus. But it tasted all right.

Lots more people around tonight at the Kolej. I think a few more programs moved in today. I’m beat. I have to keep justifying to myself that it’s okay if I don’t go out to clubs or bars with people all the time. I mean, I wouldn’t have fun doing that at home, so why should I do it here? I mean, I’m in Prague, but that doesn’t mean I have to party all the time; if I’d be happier just chilling out and reading or writing, that’s okay, right? I have to keep telling myself it is. I mean, I spent like 12 hours today with people, being social! I’m allowed to have some alone time, I think. I don’t know. I’m realizing that I don’t really remember how to be me, in a normal situation — I don’t remember how I am socially, what I like to do when I am able to choose how to occupy my time, that kind of thing, since I lived on YouthWorks’ schedule for the past 3 months. So now, I have to remember how to be me again, what I really do like to do, and also try to balance that with the other-universe that is a study abroad semester, the strange social milieus that exist there, etc. But it’s cool. I’ll figure it out. And I’m having fun. I’m enjoying myself! So how can that be bad? It can’t be. So there. crazy, overanalyzing brain.

Going to sleep.

A Day in London. . .

I am in London. “The Borough of Kensington and Chelsea,” specifically, in my 14th floor room at the Holiday Inn-Kensington Forum. I’m watching some HGTV-type show with British people (surprise) buying antiques.

Everything about my journey thus far has been incredibly novel. All of Britain is novel to me. Charles Darwin is on the back of the £20 note. Right now I have these coins: 1 penny, 2 pence, 5 pence, 10 pence, 20 pence, 50 pence, and 1 pound (which, incidentally, is much smaller than most of the other coins, but weighs considerably more). You have to put your room key in a slot by the door and leave it there in order for the lights to function. You have to hold the toilet flusher in for as long as you want it to flush; not push it once and have it flush everything down like in the US. These types of things.

I got on my British Airways flight at 9:20 last night, Chicago time, and arrived at Heathrow about 11:30 this morning, London time. (I think we are 5 hours ahead of home here.) The flight was surprisingly enjoyable; it went quickly; it was the most comfortable and posh flight I have ever been on. I rode in economy class, of course, so to get to my cabin I had to walk past First Class, where each passenger gets his/her own private compartment, and some kind of “Club Europe” class, where each passenger gets a special reclining seat and footrest. But in my cabin, my seat was equipped with a little TV screen in the seat in front, and a package laid on the seat that contained a pillow, a British Airways blanket, a pair of headphones, and a little pouch with socks, a toothbrush, toothpaste and eyeshade. (I have never felt like more of an easily amused American than when oogling over my plane care-package.) I watched the BBC World News, a terrible Ashton Kutcher movie that was filmed in Silverlake (it was pretty cool to recognize scenery in a movie), and listened to the new Bruce Springsteen and Aimee Mann albums on the in-flight radio while I dozed off a bit. We got dinner sometime during the night — beef lasagna, a salad, a roll, a little bottle of white zinfandel, and a little piece of chocolate chip cake. In the morning, we got a little breakfast pouch with orange juice, blueberry yogurt and a blueberry muffin.

So, we got to London, got our luggage, got our passports stamped, and got in a funny 9-passenger VW van and drove, on the wrong side of the street, to our hotel. I rode all the way from Pittsburgh with a kid named Zac, who is from Pittsburgh and goes to Mercyhurst in Erie; my roommate here in London is a girl named Tina who goes to school in Austin, Texas; they’re pretty much the only people I’ve connected with so far. We got checked into our rooms, Tina got in the shower and I went downstairs to touch base with Mom and Dad and Jut. (We were told not to use the phones in our rooms because they charge £1 a minute or something.) But by the time they connected me with Mom and Dad, my phone card had gone from 180 minutes to 37 minutes — absurd! So I talked to them for a bit, called Jut and unknowingly got him out of bed, forgetting it would be 6:30 am in New Mexico. By the time I got back up to my room, Tina had gone, and Zac wasn’t answering his door. So I got in the shower, washed off the airport dirt, and decided to venture out on my own.

I suppose I should be able to manage on my own in London for a few hours; I am an adult. But I was particularly proud of myself, just meandering around the neighborhood, getting used to Europe. My goal was to get to the bank a few blocks down to change my dollars into pounds, but I took the long way and got to see lots of cool old apartment buildings, cafes, pubs, shops, and Brits. Everything is very light here; even the smaller side-streets are wide and bright because of the nice, white-painted houses lining them. It definitely feels more open and vibrant than other cities/neighborhoods. I didn’t get hit crossing the streets because at each sidewalk crossing, the words “LOOK LEFT” or “LOOK RIGHT” are painted on the ground. I guess the British get confused, too? I did have a bit of trouble navigating because the street signs are posted low to the ground on fences in front of houses, and are sometimes obscured by shrubbery. So, I peeked in a few coffee shops, found an internet cafe that charges £1 for 20 minutes, perused a used bookstore, and ended up at the bank. I got $60 changed into £31.25 by a nice Asian lady who didn’t charge me commission because I am a student. She also offered to get me some Czech crowns before I leave for “a good deal;” I think I’ll just wait until Praha.

I decided to find a grocery store next, so I wandered into a small mall-type conglomeration called the Gloucester Arcade, and found a Waitrose supermarket. I think I walked around for 20 minutes just looking at prices, figuring out what I wanted to get, how to get it cheapest, working up the nerve to go to the cash register. It definitely felt like a foreign country, although I’m not sure why. I finally decided on a small loaf of Irish stone-ground wheat bread, a package of English cheddar cheese, and some bananas — all for £3.37!

I was hungry and wanted to find a nice park or bench to sit and eat my bread and cheese, but this is a pretty densely concreted area, with the exception of Hyde Park, which is quite a few blocks North. So I started walking back toward the hotel on a side street and came across an awesome old stone church — The Parish of Saint Stephen or something. It had a little courtyard and a bench in it, so I sat there and enjoyed my own private pocket London and a snack. I was kind of glad I lost track of all my “new friends,” because I needed that time to just get my bearings here, go out on my own, fend for myself, and get a personal taste of London.

I’m still at the point where I want to remember every single thing that happens here, write it down, tell it to everyone back home. I’m sure this will wear off.

We have a meet-and-greet-and-have-a-few-drinks with the rest of our group at 6:00, and I’ve been relaxing in my room, watching BBC, and writing for the last half hour or so. Zac came back and wanted to go get something to eat in a bit, so I will probably walk around some more then. He walked up to Hyde Park this afternoon; something I definitely want to do tomorrow. We are doing a 3-hour sightseeing tour in the morning, which ends at the Tower of London. I think I want to walk down the Thames after that, see the Globe Theater and go to the Tate Museum of Modern Art (which is free, I think!). Then perhaps hop on the Tube and go up to Hyde park, Bloomsbury. I want to just walk around and explore and be a tourist, but my own tourist. This is a cool city, not obnoxious (at least not in this part), and I’m excited to see more of it.

I might take a nap now, to get over my jet-lag a bit and not be anti-social at the gathering.