Saturday, October 24, 2009

Our First Week

The first week passed largely without any sort of incident. It was what was called ‘Freshers Week,’ which meant all of the University’s staff were extremely, obscenely, and disgustingly cheerful to new students—postgraduates included. An example: One night, The Drunkard and I were returning from one of the bars on campus, having consumed, roughly, half a barrel of Guinness between us, when a middle-aged portly man we vaguely recognized from the International Office (the agency set up to help out international students) leapt out from the bushes with six cartons of orange juice and a gallon of water in a bag. “You’ll need this to not get a hangover!” he screamed.
The Drunkard stumbled backwards with a shout and I, much more prone to fright than he, screamed my head off, which made me dizzy, which then made me vomit on the man. Unflappable Brit he was, the man simply said, “Oh, well that’s a bit of a bother, isn’t it?” He then took out a handkerchief and wiped off the sick. “Oh well, no worries. It’s happened a few times tonight.”
The Drunkard swaggered up to the man, poked him in the chest (once again, the man, like most of the English, was taller than the two of us, so The Drunkard had to give himself a little bit of a jump to reach him), and said, “What for doing this are you? Scaring the shit out!”
“Ah,” remarked the man, “right. Well, do take the liquids, it will help you in the morning—better yet if you drink them as soon as you get to your flats! Don’t want to miss the day tomorrow, it’s suppos—”
The Drunkard let loose a scream of rage and punched the man square in the jaw, took the bags, and ran. I’m not proud to say that I did the same (ran, that is), but I did—judgment, as you know, is clouded easily by drink. At any rate, the man didn’t recognize us; I guess we had some shadows on our faces that night.
For that first week, we five didn’t see much of each other, what with running around and taking care of administrative duties. The exception to this was The Drunkard and myself. Apparently, on the second day, the French nihilists set an American flag on fire and hung it outside the kitchen window. I was in the city centre at the time, and managed to miss this display of anti-Americanism, but The Drunkard, cynic though he was, had a part of his personality that truly loved America. Upon seeing the flag aflame and hanging out the window (The Drunkard claimed that the nihilists were cackling like some sort of witch’s coven, but I’m not certain as to the veracity of this statement), my friend rushed inside and, according to him, “put one of the emos in a state worse than Marie Antoinette.”
 So, after that, he didn’t see much of the French nihilists, and we went around the bars on campus. He would try to chat up girls, fail most of the time, succeed some times, and slowly slip into an alcohol-produced haze, only to pass out around four in the morning and repeat the process the next day. The rest of our group had a much less eventful week. The Traveler slept with representatives of each nation in Western Europe and was in the best mood out of all of us. The Writer… well, I’m honestly not too sure about The Writer other than to remark that there were a few times I saw him with a black eye. The Student realized that his flat was the equivalent of a pigsty on the second day and disappeared into the recesses of the library for six hours a day, pouring over volumes of literary criticism to avoid having to see the beginnings of evolution in various pots, pans, and bowls in his kitchen. Once I saw The Stalker being escorted across campus by two members of the security force (Campus Watch), and upon asking him why he was detained, he told me it was because they didn’t appreciate art. I did not pursue the matter further.
Towards the end of the week, we all met up at a pub in the city centre called The Sub-Pope’s Flock (with a hanging picture of a midget in a pope outfit tending to sheep) across from the Cathedral Gate. It was an overcast day—as they tended to be in Canterbury—and the city was, as usual, filled with tourists and European children on trips to the city from the Continent. The Drunkard and I sat outside in strangely comfortable wooden chairs, our ales in front of us, tossing balled-up pieces of paper at the children, waiting for the rest of our party to arrive.
“Hey,” The Drunkard said, “five quid to the first one to peg that pigeon on top of the memorial.”
In the center of the square in front of the Cathedral Gate, there was a large memorial dedicated to the Kent divisions who fought in World War Two. Like many English memorials, it had a column tipped with what was once a shining bronze something or other. And, it being a statue in the middle of a city, it was a haven for pigeons. The top of the spire was about twenty feet above us, and it would be quite a difficult task to hit the pigeon with a paper ball, but I was certain that with God on my side, I could not help but win.
After our first salvo, the pigeon caught on to what we were doing and flew off into the grey sky. Then, it began raining in a light mist, the sort of precipitation one sees in a mist tent in an American theme park. “It would appear,” I said, “that God is on the side of the pigeons.”
The Drunkard grunted, chucked a ball at a German teenager in a half hearted manner, and started humming “Deutschland Über Alles.” We were saved from any reenactment of Call of Duty by the approach of The Traveler. “Hey, maties,” he said. “How’s it going?”
“Meh,” I answered.
“Pas mal,” answered The Drunkard.
“Hey,” I said to The Drunkard, “the French are rubbing off on you.”
“Watch your trap, yid.”
“Right,” said The Traveler, “how about we go inside before this actually turns into rain? The Writer’s on his way down from campus—sounded like he drank a pot of coffee earlier this afternoon, so we should see him running around like Sonic in a couple minutes—The Student called and said that he’s on the coach into town, and The Stalker is, in all probability, waiting for us inside, sitting at a table in a dark corner.”
The Drunkard and I took up our pint glasses, disposed of the rest of the pieces of paper, and followed The Traveler inside the pub. The inside of the pub was dim; the building was erected in the sixteenth century and, from what I could tell, the long line of owners and landlords had not bothered to install electrical lights. The interior, therefore, was lit completely by candles and oil lamps, lending the pub the appearance that one had stepped into the past. Hanging from the ceiling and the rafters were bundles of hops (according to The Student, hops had the effect of making people drowsy simply by inhaling their aromas; this explains why going to The Sub-Pope’s Flock to do work invariably led to a nap or drunkenness), and the walls were decorated with old posters of railway and beer advertisements. There were about twenty tables in the place, with two to four chairs at each. Parallel to the right wall (when coming from the entrance) there was the bar with five cask ale pulls and ten taps for other beers and ciders. As we walked in, we spotted The Stalker sitting at a table in the back corner of the pub, his hood pulled up over his head. “Traveler,” The Drunkard said, “you’re a smart guy, you know that?”
The Traveler bowed.
As The Drunkard and I already had our drinks, we made our way to the back and sat in a couple of chairs next to The Stalker. It was around six o’clock, and the pub was fairly busy—about half of the tables were full of men and women—and students, who deserve their own qualifier when out in the Real World—and there was a warm hum of conversation.
“Howdy, kid,” said The Drunkard.
“Hello, Drunkard,” said The Stalker, sipping from a cider. “How was the chicken you ate last night? It smelled good. Did I detect a hint of lemon?”
The Drunkard cleared his throat. The Stalker would occasionally do this to each of us; ask us how dinners and dates went, that is. Had The Stalker not been an inherently eerie individual, we would have joked that he was ninja in all of its glory, but, as it were, whenever he made such a comment, hairs stood on end and nightmare fuel was created. “Pretty good,” said The Drunkard.
“You might want to put the oven on one hundred degrees next time. It might make the chicken a bit juicier than at one-twenty.” The Stalker took another slow, loud sip from his cider.
“Yeah, I’ll do that.”
The Traveler joined us then with a loud, contented sigh as he plopped down in the chair and laid his Guinness on the table. “So, what’s new?”
“We were just discussing The Drunkard’s meal last night,” said The Stalker.
“That so?”
The Drunkard shrugged at The Traveler.
The Writer then walked into the pub, let out a boisterous laugh when he saw us, took out his mobile phone, checked the time, put it back in the front pocket of his corduroy jacket, laughed again and rushed over. “My friends, mes amis, friends, Romans, countrymen, lend me your ears!” he sat down, tapped his fingers on the table, and laughed again. Clearly, this was a man who had no regard as to the dangers of over-caffeination. “How’s things?”
“Not as good as you clearly are,” said The Drunkard.
“Ah, well, what can I say? There are some things in life one simply needs twelve cups of coffee to embrace.” He leaned forward. “For instance, I saw God on the Eliot Footpath!”
“No kidding?” asked The Traveler.
“No!” The Writer smacked the table with a fist. “I would not joke about the metaphysical! It’s not something you fuck with, my friend!”
“You’re absolutely right,” said The Drunkard in the most sober and calm voice I’d ever heard him use. “Hey, here’s an idea: How about you go get a beer. My treat,” he laid down three one pound coins. “The Doom Bar is really, really good,” he tapped his glass as an example.
The Writer studied him for a moment. “You and the barman aren’t in cahoots, are you?”
“Nope. In fact, he couldn’t stand me when I ordered from him earlier.”
The Writer let out a triumphant laugh, took the coins, and dashed to the bar.
“That was really nice of you,” said The Traveler.
The Drunkard shrugged. “That kid’s going to make his own heart explode with that much coffee.”
“Wait a sec, I thought you and he had this whole disliking-each-other thing going on.”
“Well yeah, but everyone needs a nemesis, just as they need someone to be around. Without that nemesis, man, they get too content with life.”
The Stalker chuckled. “The Writer reminds me of a friend I had in undergrad.”
I can assure you that we were all shocked that The Stalker had a friend in the last five years, but we let him go on.
“The kid went absolutely mental after drinking a pot of coffee and reading some Nietzsche. Philosophy and caffeine should never be mixed, my friends. Never,” he punctuated this admittedly wise statement with another loud sip of the cider.
The Student then walked in the pub wearing a black blazer, black button-down, jeans, and dress shoes, ordered a drink alongside The Writer, and the two sat down. The Student was sweating profusely and a vein throbbed in his forehead.
“You all right?” asked The Traveler.
The Student held up a finger, took a sip from his Kronenbourg, and sighed. “I asked this girl out a little bit ago, right?”
“Well hell, it’s about time,” said The Drunkard.
“Now, hold on. Turns out that the tall guy she was walking with—who I assumed was her brother on account of they looked damn similar—was her boyfriend. I have never ran so fast in dress shoes in my whole life. Luckily, I managed to get on a bus while the guy stood outside, shaking his fist and screaming at me in Italian.” He shook his head, drank from his beer, and said, “The horror. The horror.”
“Barman!” shouted The Drunkard. “Whiskey for my friend with the near-death experience!”
To his credit—and I doubt many barmen would do the same in England—the barman poured a single of Jack and brought it to the table. The Drunkard, of course, tipped generously.
The Student knocked it back in one go and coughed. “Ah, Jack, how I missed you.”
             “Right,” said The Traveler, “we’re all here. Shall we continue our contest?"

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.