An American in Durham: I’ll have an Americano please!
“I’ll have an Americano please,” I said. The guy behind the coffee stand register of the London train station shot up an amused glance and asked where I was from before relinquishing my change.
“Cleveland,” I answered.
“Is this your first time in the U.K.?”
“Yes,” I replied, in a tone expressing anxiety and the hope that he might divulge some sort of survival tip. “Oh, well, welcome then!” was all he said.
I walked away towards the platform, bewildered. Did I just receive a formal welcome to a nation from a barista in St. Pancras Station? In America they would just ask if you wanted five shots of espresso in your coffee and leave things at that, but welcome?
Half an hour later, I boarded a train with sensations of jet lag and giddy excitement mingling to produce the sort of subdued bliss that one only feels during their first few hours in a foreign country. My family and I were travelling three hours north to a university I’d thought very little of until the day prior when, coincidentally, I’d received an offer of admission. I slumped down into my comfortable train seat and let myself become hypnotized by the endless green pastures outside the window. “An enjoyable public transportation experience, and no urban sprawl, where am I?” A man with a trolley offered us biscuits and I felt like a child headed to Hogwarts. I declined however; I wasn’t really interested in a dry cracker like the treats we feed our dogs in America. “No, you must try this,” My dad said. My first shortbread cookie, or Walker’s biscuit, was a revelation: is this what real butter tastes like? I had been delivered from the purgatory of American butter substitutes, muddled with chemical additions of vitamin E and omega-3’s. If biscuits were considered snack food, my thoughts hovered on how delicious legitimate desserts would be. My mental tally comparing British and American culture had already begun, and the U.K. was definitely winning in the food service sector.
After three hours which passed in what seemed like a quarter of one, we arrived to a view like none I had seen that day or in any of my travels. Notre Dame, Chartes, even the Vatican, could not compare with the sight of Durham Cathedral from the Viaduct Bridge.
That first trip to Durham last March, on the concluding day of Epiphany term, lasted less than 24 hours. What followed was a pinball-ing tour of the United Kingdom as I visited all the British universities to which I’d applied. None, however, showed themselves quite so well as Durham had. Coming from America, I was easily wooed and overcome by the architecture in Durham, being 700 years older than my country’s founding documents. The town was lively, but not daunting, I felt very safe in its streets, compared with London’s.
It seemed, almost, too good to be true: to have found the right place, unexpectedly, so late in my “college-search” process, when many of my friends had already know for several weeks or months which college (American term for university) they would attend. I think that when it comes to college, or university, the word right, though simple to comprehend in other uses, carries so much weight. But it seems that when we find the right place to commit ourselves, the realization is not a conscious thought but an innate sensation, or “gut-feeling” as Americans and Brits alike will say.
I returned to Durham six months later, everything seeming the same, but I felt quite different. I carried a small sense of nationalism, or university-ism on this second visit and felt a numbness from the knowledge that there was so much information I could not determine prior to the start of term.
Now, my orientation as an international student has passed: I have met face-to-face with alcohol during fresher’s week, and we have become amiable friends, with the understanding that I cannot remain loyal to it when I return home at Christmas break. The streets that once appeared idyllic and quintessentially British have now become a part of my everyday life. Within the short span of a month, I no longer feel affronted by your accents, nor does the abundance of potatoes at every meal continue to shock me. Rather, I have begun to notice subtle differences between British and American culture. As I gradually gain awareness of British culture this year, perhaps I might offer a different perspective than that which readers have grown to see themselves. I will certainly share the bits of my background that are thoroughly American for your entertainment.