Thursday, October 22, 2009

Our Arrival in Canterbury

I was awoken by a horrible screeching sound, the likes of which I had only ever heard in my worst nightmares. I jolted up, felt my face contorted into a look of sheer terror. The screech turned into a high-pitched whistle, which finally turned into a person’s voice announcing “Canterbury bus station. All for Canterbury.”
I stood, rubbed my eyes, and saw the bus driver dash out the front door, followed by half of the people on the bus. In fact, out of the ten of us getting off at the station, half of us were English, and the other half were made up of my party. The Brits dashed off, the side compartment flung open and, just over the top of the hatch, I saw baggage being tossed out of the underside of the bus with reckless abandon. I turned to the Traveler and said, “They don’t mess around with this stuff, do they?”
He shook his head, “No, I think we’d better leave before—”
The hatch slammed shut and the bus driver dashed back on the bus. He would have been an otherwise harmless-looking man with his comb-over and pudgy exterior, if it were not for the burning red eyes with which he looked at us. “What the hell are you still doing on the coach? You leaving for Canterbury, or not?”
“Yeah, but—” said the Writer.
“Then get the bloody hell off the goddamn coach before I shit-kick each and every one of you Yanks!”
When a man with hatred-fueled red eyes tells you to do something, then you do it without regard to social conventions. We fled the bus, and in the process, I believe The Stalker may have knocked an elderly woman unconscious with his laptop bag. The action may or may not have been accidental. As soon as the last of us—The Student, if I remember correctly—stepped off the bus, it flew into reverse and backed over a brown piece of luggage the size of a foot locker. “Oh for the love of God,” remarked the Writer.
“What?” asked The Traveler.
The Writer ran over to the now-basically-cut-in-half bag, unzipped it, and uttered a string of obscenities that are not fit for print. “My first editions!”
The Drunkard, now sober thanks to the restful sleep on the coach, walked over and went, “Hmmm,” in a sagely fashion.
For Whom The Bell Tolls!” shouted The Writer. “It’s ruined!”
The Drunkard bent down and picked up a cloth-bound book, bent in half by the weight of a National Express coach. “Yup. It’s done for.” He tossed it in a nearby rubbish bin. “Now what would possess you to bring—” he paused for a moment, counted under his breath, “twenty rare first editions across the Atlantic Ocean in checked luggage?”
The Writer looked up at The Driver, tears in his eyes. “They’re my lucky charms.”
“Ah yes,” The Drunkard nodded. “Normal people have rabbits’ feet, or shamrock lighters. You have volumes worth five grand a pop.” He patted The Writer’s head. “You’re a special kind of stupid, you know that?”
After The Drunkard got his jab in, we helped The Writer clean up the corpses of his books and hailed a taxi.

The taxi ride was uneventful. We took in the scenery, ooed and aahed at the bits where buildings looked especially old and English-y. For the most part, I just watched the cab’s meter. I noticed that the method in which a taxi meter behaves does not change between countries. They operate by laws which are inexplicable to the layman, their functions likely defined by some fel science birthed by Satanists at the advent of the automobile. At least, that’s the way I understand them. The Traveler could probably tell you the actual method by which they work—and, indeed, I think he once explained it to me—but honestly, I would much rather have some sort of absurd explanation that makes mundane things more interesting.
The cab stopped in the dormitory’s parking lot (which, as we were on British turf, I shall henceforth refer to as a college and car park, respectively) and we filed out, paid the driver, and looked around us. The college was made up of nine flat blocks arranged around a central building. At one end, there was a lecture hall attached to a few seminar rooms that were used for class meetings. There were two blocks in a building, and two of the buildings faced each other with a sort of courtyard stuck in the middle. The courtyard was sprinkled with trees confined in square bush and mulch displays, and, as I noticed then and confirmed later, the courtyard mainly functioned as a smoking lounge for the frankly inordinate amount of Greeks and Turkish smokers. (It seemed to me that half of the Master degree students were Greeks, but I am prone to hyperbole.)
We entered the Pavilion, went through the motions of checking-in—made all the worse for not having a firm grasp of language due to being jetlagged—collected our keys and dispersed to our various flats. Aside from my own account, all of the following is collected from what my companions told me about their living conditions. We shall commence with The Traveler’s conditions, for they were the most normal.
He lived in the fifth block of flats, on the first floor, in the room marked A—which happened to be across from the entrance to the flat. Because of this, he was awoken promptly at 8:20 each morning by one of his flatmates, who treated being a student as if it were a nine to five job. He, like the rest of us, lived in flats of six people. His five flatmates were made up of two British men, a German woman, and two women from Hong Kong. They were in various courses—ranging from international relations to biology—were courteous, kept the common areas clean, and, for the most part, weren’t too loud. (According to The Traveler, the Brits drank a bottle of whiskey before each Chelsea match and became belligerently drunk; other than that, they were genial individuals.)

The Student lived in the fourth block of flats with five Chinese people—two male, three female—from Beijing. In the course of the full year we lived in Canterbury, The Student never developed the ability to understand their accents. As such, with such thick accents, bordering on farce, The Student, when he was in his flat, hid himself in his room and spent most of the time desperately trying to get into contact with his friends and get out of the flat. Whenever he talked about the living conditions in his flat, The Student would shudder and describe such an unsanitary Hell that would make any self-respecting obsessive-compulsive kill themselves. The Student’s academic success through the year was probably due to the fact that he never had contact with his flatmates, and whenever another man would have been relaxing in his home, The Student would be pouring through texts and manuscripts in the library and the Cathedral Archives.

The Writer lived with three Greek women and two German men in the seventh block of flats. He didn’t speak about them often, but there were more than a few times when I would be going for an evening walk, look up into their kitchen window, and see him pressed against the panes of glass, cringing in fear of a shouting Greek woman. I’m not sure what he did to precipitate such altercations, mainly because what words I could hear were in Greek. The Germans, as I understood them, didn’t have a high opinion of him. They were very tall individuals with blonde hair and stark blue eyes. One—Stephan—habitually wore suit jackets as blazers and looked as if he were a professor; he was in Comparative Literature and the other, Will, who wore thick glasses and perpetually looked like he was in need of a deep cleansing bath was researching for his PhD in biometric security.  Once, I asked them why, and Stephan responded with the following.
“When he first asked us where we were from, we responded that we were from the Eastern part of the country. He didn’t speak for a couple moments, cleared his throat, and asked us how we felt about the color red. We laughed, thinking this was an American joke, but as it turned out, he was not joking. Now, we try to avoid him as much as possible.”
Will said something in German, and Stephan nodded, “Ja.” He turned to me, and continued, “Then he made an incredibly awkward joke about recompense for the Holocaust. We walked away that instant.”
“Well, understandable,” I responded.

The Stalker never spoke of his flatmates and, to be honest, I’m not entirely sure that they knew his room was occupied.

The Drunkard, God bless him, lived in the first block of flats in a situation that, for him, could only be described as an existential Hell. He lived with five French nihilists who habitually wore black sweaters, berets, and tight jeans, smoked long cigarettes twenty-two hours a day (The Drunkard once actually counted this and determined that they slept only three hours a day), and ate only plain baguettes. They filled the kitchen with smoke—after dismantling the smoke detector, of course—and talked about the miseries of life all day.
“You want to know what I live with?” asked The Drunkard, one evening when we were out in the courtyard. “Last night, I go in to make a pizza. One of the frogs comes up to me, blows smoke in my face, and says in an accent so thick I cannot duplicate it, ‘You fucking American, you think you own the world. You can take her, she is shit.’ Then he walks off into the hallway. Confused, I blink a couple times, put the pizza in the oven, and turn around. Well three of the fuckers are standing there in the kitchen just staring at me, smoking those goddamn cigarettes. We sit there, staring at each other, for a full minute, like we’re in some Sergio Leone movie, then they file back out of the kitchen, talking about me in French.”
“You speak French?”
“Enough to recognize the words ‘American’ and ‘shithead.’”

For my own part, my living situation was such that I could not, in good conscience, have any complaints. There were sometimes some messes in the kitchen, but when is there not a mess in the kitchen? I was in the second block of flats. I lived with an Indian man named Jay, a Greek man named Zaf (I never learned his full name), and three women from Hong Kong. Jay was in an IT support course, Zaf was in a biometric security course with a couple other Greeks, and the three Hong Kong women (with whom, admittedly, I never really had a protracted conversation beyond trying to find out their names and being told they were Katie, Catherine, and Janice) were in actuary science, human resources, and sociology. Like The Traveler’s, my flatmates were all genial and realized that we were all in the same boat—generally speaking—when it came to being in a foreign country away from friends and family. We shared meals, went out together, and basically tried to make life as easy as it could be.

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