Sunday, October 31, 2010

Halloween

I was trying to make my costume as cheap as possible so I revived a classic that I did a few years back. I went to the the charity shop and bought 11 stuffed animals and sewed them onto the clothes I wore when I flipped my bike. (They were already ripped, so I added a few more rips to add to the effect.) I went to the home improvement store and bought a little bottle of red paint for blood and my costume was done. When I was in the U.S. it was "When stuffed animals attack" but since here they don't have those kind of videos I just told everyone it was what it would be like if your toy box attacked you. In total it only cost £8 and everyone liked it enough that I won 2nd place in the costume contest.
I had heard previously that the pumpkins outside the U.S. were small so I was expecting it. All the pumpkins were labeled large and were about 6" to 8" across. But they had a pumpkin carving contest so it was still fun to carve them and I finished the first one so fast that they wanted me to carve another. Since I didn't know what to do I carved the world. It was fast and the pacific ocean was way to big but I guess they liked it since I won a £5 certificate to Amazon and a trophy as first prize.
The party itself was fun. Because of the low light and everyone wearing costumes I didn't recognize anyone. Of course just from my height and not wearing makeup everyone recognized me so I ended up talking to everyone. I'm still not used to the idea of school sponsored parties with free alcohol but there was. They even carved radishes with an olive in the center to look like eyeballs for the drinks. I am not guessing they would taste good but I guess it does not matter when someone is drunk. There was apple bobbing and trying to eat donuts hanging from a string as games. I was pretty surprised at how fun it was.
Since the school part was actually on Saturday the 30th. I was trying to get caught up on Sunday (Halloween). But while riding the tube I got to chatting with some guys in costume and they invited me to the party they were headed to at a nearby club. Caution to the wind and I went. It was pretty fun but I didn't have a costume. I saw an inflated skeleton that was stuffed under the table so I tied the arms around my neck and had an instant costume. It was pretty funny the reactions that I got just from doing that. Everyone started referring to the skeleton as my date so I just played off of that.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

How Americans are Viewed

It is funny how there is a dichotomy here. On one hand American culture is spread through movies and TV shows so it is not considered foreign to anyone here. So things like the pizza sign make sense since it is really American Pizza and not Italian that they are serving

But just because people are familiar with it on TV does not mean that they understand what American culture is really like. When I have asked people what they think of for American stereotypes the two things they all seem to agree on is guns and religion.
Some people are scared to visit the U.S. since they think it is dangerous enough that everyone needs to buy guns to defend themselves because there is no law outside the law at the barrel of a gun (yes, they really thought this). I've had to explain that, no, it's not because it's dangerous that everyone arms themselves. That people feel strongly about being able to own guns because it is in the Constitution and they feel that people are trying to take the right away from them, so they buy guns to show they can buy guns (and to have them should the gun laws become stricter). The last time that I was here I couldn't convince an old man that it was the conservative viewpoint in the USA that wanted to defended the right to keep guns. According to him "The USA will not be a civilized country until they can get rid of the idea that they need for so many guns." I really don't know how to explain this one to people around here because on one hand they all see American movies where, of course, everyone is shooting at everyone else.
The other big one is religion. Of course Europe has a much lower level of people that identify themselves as religious so signs like the following are everywhere:

They see the American government under the influence of Christian fundamentalists to the same extreme as say the Islamic fundamentalist countries like the Taliban. That the U.S. laws are set by Christian biblical precedent instead of rule of law. For example the idea of "dry county" laws to make it harder to drink alcohol and gambling bans are the religious majority spreading their religion by force. They do not believe there can be separation of church and state while at the same time it is tradition to have the president sworn into office on a Bible or have "In God we trust" on the money. So basically my main arguing point that I keep coming back to is that Texas is not the United States.
The other stereotype that I have heard from a lot of the other students is that Americans don't know geography. While there is a good chance that Americans might have problems naming where Latvia and Moldova (Those are the two I got messed up on.) I have already been asked how many states there are (people here have a hard time deciding between 50 or 51) and most don't know which states are where or which countries are in South America so I am chalking that one up to unfamiliarity with the continent you are not living on.
There are good stereotypes too. Apparently every American that travels abroad are the friendliest people there are. So other traveling Americans, thank you for making it easier for me. That being said if you don't want to stick out like an American tourist according to the locals here, don't wear tennis shoes (or as they are called here "trainers") and don't wear any T-shirts when visiting. (The main reasons why I personally don't like looking like a tourist is a lower chance of being pick-pocketed and getting hassled less by people trying to sell tours.) But hey, if you want wear a t-shirt with white basketball shoes to show your patriotism then have fun.

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Getting Used to a New Language

When I first got here I was hitting an unknown word about every 2 hours. It really causes my brain slow down with the extra time it takes to process it. I hear all the right words but it just doesn't have sense so I find myself asking people to repeat themselves and they just say the same thing over again. The problem is that everyone understands me because of the pervasiveness of American Movies and TV shows so they don't relise I don't understand them. None of the British people I've talked to believe it is that big of a deal. The only people I get any sympathy are the ones that were taught American English in school (Taiwan and Chile at least) so they see all the same differences, but they (rightfully so) don't think it is as big of a deal as having the double problem of it being a non-native language and different accent.
When I have talked to some of the british people and they get mad for other British people not using the right words ("cello tape" instead of "scotch tape") they blame it on the American movies ruining the Queen's English. My argument has always been that there are two languages, British English and American English, and as long as they are seen as that there isn't a problem. I see as much as of a difference between American English and Scottish English as there is between Spanish and Italian, but because English is tacked onto the end people are expecting a similar language.
Sometimes it is just a different term, like saying excuse me (people don't move) instead of pardon. Some words I figured out what it was when I heard it (ladybirds = ladybugs). A lot of the words are when I go grocery shopping. If I can't find what I am looking for on the signs I'll think of what it would be next to. I found dish soap (washing up soap) to be next to the other soaps. A lot of vegetables are like this: Eggplant = aubergine, zucchini = courgette, cilantro = coriander, canola oil = rapeseed oil; so it just takes more time when I shop. (There are more, those are just the ones I've bought so far)
However all this cultural experience is all fun and games until I got hurt. When I flipped my bike I walked into a pharmacy (Chemist) on my way home when I saw my knee was bleeding pretty bad. I asked for band-aides and she stared at me, so I asked for rubbing alcohol and I saw her eyes dart towards the liquor store across the street. Frustrated, I finally asked for disinfectant and she pointed me in the right direction. I now know that band-aides = plasters here.
Also, I have been trying to pick up the right words from listening to everyone I talk to and movies. British English adds an "e" sound to a lot of words, so Television becomes Telly and present becomes presi. But, if I didn't know any better I would end up using the racial slur of calling Pakistani people Paki (from watching a British movie). A "telly" show that I did watch before coming here was "The Mighty Boosh" to try to learn some of the language. When I tell people here that they laugh since apparently one of the guys uses a lot of Irish words.
Another problem is that most european countries teach British English along with the British accent from a young age so just because someone has a British accent could mean they are from Belgium, The Netherlands or somewhere in Scandinavia. As far as my American accent, British people don't really have a preference (They prefer a strong southern Georgia accent) But the rest of the Europeans that have English as a second language can't tell one American accent from another so to them I sound like I have a drawl so they like hearing me talk. I've lived in enough different places in the U.S. to not really think I have an accent from any specific place so when people tell me that they like my accent it throws me off.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Measurements

Part of my disorientation has been because of the change in how things are measured. People weight is in stones, buying things at the store is in measured in kilograms, but everything else is still in pounds. Distance is still measured in miles but now that it is getting colder it does not help that I am now seeing all the temperatures in Celsius (lower numbers look a lot colder). When I'm buying liquids, British gallons are different than US gallons so I buy my milk in 4 pint jugs instead of gallon jugs. You would think that the one constant in all of this would be a two liter bottle of soda, but to fit in the smaller refrigerator they are taller and skinnier.
I knew it would be different but I was not expecting so many conversions in my head for comparing prices in my head for groceries or trying to find the right weight at the gym (switching from pounds to kilgrams is not a good idea since I took a month off while dealing with the paperwork to use the gym at the school for free, those extra .2 pounds add up quick when you're out of shape.)

Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bike Accident

Originally my idea was going to be to ride my bike everywhere and save money by not needing to buy the monthly pass for the tube. For the first week it worked like a charm but the second week I had a crash. Since it all happened so fast the best I can figure out is that I felt the chain slip as I was peddling away from a stop light. Since I was standing up and peddling when it happened my left leg went down a lot faster than it should causing the bike to swerve right and me to flip with the bike going up and over me. I'm guessing this because I have bruises on my elbow and my knee got pretty scraped up and I remember thinking "crap, the bike is on top of me". The part that really scared me is that as the thought "crap, my chain came off again. Hey that bus is coming right at me, I better sit up." I was luckily still cognisant enough to look at oncoming traffic and quickly sat up pulling the bike out of the way of the bus that also happened to pulling out of the stop light. All of this happend within a matter of a second and a half. If I hadn't sat up I would have been OK but my bike would have been run over but it was still quite un-nerving quite the same to see the bumper of a bus coming right at me. While this bus driver watched I pulled the bike to the corner and was looking it over. There was a lady there at the corner that kept repeating how scared she was that she saw the bus coming right for me without stopping. I didn't want to relive my brush with mortality through her so I told her I was fine a couple of times, gave my bike one last look to make sure it was just the chain that came undone and started the walk home. It was not until I had gotten a few hundred yards that I realized that going fast enough to flip a bike usually isn't that good on the body. The adrenaline rush had worn off and my knee was really hurting. I was too mad at myself and my bike to even check to see how my laptop had survived in this whole ordeal as I knew checking now or later would not change any damage done. (surprisingly it was was undamaged in my shoulder bag) but my knee would need to be looked at to make sure I could walk back home. I set my bike aside and rolled up my pant leg, to see that while scrapped pretty bad I hadn't broken to far into the skin so I could walk home without worrying about loss of blood. I stopped off at a pharmacy along the way and found out that band-aids are called plasters here.
I would have liked to have called it a day, but I was headed to campus for a weekly meeting with my advisor and since I had missed the first one because of not having Internet access to check the meeting time. So I had to go to this one. I walked as fast as I could to the tube stop and made it to the meeting. When I got back home, I realized I had bled through the bandage so everything was replaced and washed. Surprisingly I only lost one pair of jeans to the whole ordeal. My jacket and laptop were OK. So the moral of the story is that transporting a bike on an airplane has a good chance of messing up the alignment of the rear derailer on a bike.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Disorientation

Since I've got here I feel like everything has been just slightly off. Like I am living in Bizarro world or something. I don't know how to explain it because I don't really feel like I am in a foreign country since I'm surrounded by other nationalities. I don't really feel like there is a huge cultural difference from New York City. I guess there is no more of a jump from New York City to London then there is for every-town USA to New York City so it doesn't feel like I am in a totally foreign culture but there are all these things that keep throwing me off. Everything is just enough off to make feel like I am retarded.
I feel like I have developed a speech impediment because of the extra time trying to remember the right words to use. I feel a little deaf because I have to ask everyone to repeat themselves because I understand all the words but the sentences they use them is seems like random words strung together. I feel a little slow because I need to do so many conversions for money and weight in my head. I am a little clumsy because the keyboards at school are all the british key layout and I have the U.S. layout on my laptop so typos are constant when switching between the two.I feel clumsy because everything around is smaller so I am a giant. I don't feel like I can trust my vision because all the paper is just a little different size (A4 instead of 8.5 x 11). I don't feel like I can trust my internal sense of direction because none of the roads are straight and it is so easy for me to get lost and every time I try to cross the road all I have to force myself to look both ways since I can never keep straight which way the cars are on the road.

Sunday, October 17, 2010

Assimilation

It was weird when I felt it. I didn't know when I would start feeling like this was home. I was just sitting at the kitchen table drinking my morning protein drink but the difference was that I had found a hand blender so I could blend in some frozen fruit with it. I guess it's the same feeling of warming up with a cup of coffee but that is what it took for me to start feeling like this is really my home.
Later that same day it was movie night at the student village I was living in. The movie they showed was good (The Girl with a Dragon Tattoo) but it caught me as weird when I saw they were driving on the right side of the road (In Sweden since it was not a U.S. movie). So I know that my brain is starting to switch over. I just think it is weird how fast the brain starts to readjust the norm. I mean I have only been here a couple of weeks and yes I have been trying to force looking left when crossing every road but I was not expecting it to become a base reaction any time soon.
There are so many more times when I feel like I have to make a gut decision while riding a bike then when I have driven a car here, so swerving left is a weird feeling; even more so when it has started to happen naturally. The first time I swerved left instead of right it was such a relief but also a weird sensation that I actually pulled over and went over it in my head a couple of times that I really had the right reaction.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Alcohol

One of the things that I find so funny here is how different the view of alcohol is. In British culture pubs are social hang outs. I realize that in a place that is soggy and gray most of the year having somewhere to hang out indoors is required so pubs became the part of the culture to serve that purpose. They have choir practice at the local pub along with their own football team that play against other pub football teams. (Pub culture does have some weird side effects. While shopping I witnessed some kids excited about this year's model of darts just arriving.) As opposed to American bars where people either go to drink or pick up people. So I've tagged along since there is always something to do besides drinking.
As for the school, for starters, there are multiple pubs on campus. One in the student union and one just for post-grads and professors. There are school sanctioned pub crawls for club activities and at the student village I live in. For a few of the big parties thrown at the student village they supply the alcohol. I have never seen any of these things at schools in the U.S. There does not appear to be a worse rate of alcoholism either but I have not been around the undergraduate housing on a weekend. (When living in Oregon, we referred to the street separating student housing from the liquor stores as "drunk alley".)
One of the funny things at the store I've found are 2 and 3 liter bottles of hard cider. It really makes a "40" look puny. (and yes, it is 5% alcohol so similar to beer) Apparently they are the drink of choice for alcoholics and under-age drinking because it costs about £1 a liter. Also when I told them that I used Guinness to cook corned beef on St. Patricks day they said that is all Guinness is good for in America. Apparently it does not ship well, so even the Guinness here in London isn't at it's best. For that you have to go to Dublin. I have not told any of them that I have toured the Guinness factory and did not drink while there. I don't think that would be considered a passable offense.
As far as hanging out with all the different nationalities, everyone says a different nationality can drink you under the table. Be it German, Irish, English, French (as long as it's wine) they all individually admit they are not good at holding their liquor but "such and such" nationality can.
The largest pub crawl is using the tube. Every stop on the circle line you go to a pub. However trying to drink 27 pints in the time from the pubs open to when the tube closes is not an easy task. It is one of those fabled activities that everyone knows about, but no one knows of someone that has accomplished it.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Impressions While Shopping

Everything is smaller. I already feel like a giant, and having the tiny fridge, stove, and cars around me I feel like I have grown a foot. (However, with most of Europe having health care for everyone, or different diet, or something there are a lot more tall people. I've never seen three people taller than me in one day but it has happened here twice already. And no, they were not just a bunch of Swedes.) The lack of space has caused some things to be merged together, like the washer and dryer. However I was not able to fully figure out if they were advertising what they really said they were, and if it was good idea when I was in a home electronics store.

One of the other things I have found while shopping is a store called Argos. The entire store is just catalogs. You write down what you want on a slip of paper, take it to the cashier and pay for it. Then wait for your number to be called when they have put your order together from the back room. I guess it saves the space of having a large display floor but it feels like Internet shopping but with instant gratification.
I have been trying to save money since getting here. I originally thought I would buy things like dishes from charity shops (thrift stores). However all of them have ended up being more boutique stores so they have not had the every day items needed. The other funny thing about charity shops here is they are named after the cause they are trying to help ("Age concern", "Families Relief", and "People's Dispensary For Sick Animals") making them harder to find since I don't know the names. Instead, I have turned to the equivalent of the dollar store. Here they go by names such as Poundland, Poundkingdom, and Poundstore; but the idea is the same.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Food Shopping in Merry Old London

It is really weird when the concept of environmental responsibility is not considered a dirty word in the culture. The largest grocery chain Tesco labels most of the their food with the carbon footprint on the packaging. (Yes, delicious avocados have a pretty high footprint since they are coming from South Africa and the grapefruit juice for my sore throat is from Israel.) The idea of Walmart having carbon footprint reduction as their main advertising would just be unheard of; but the reality of living on a foggy island is that it's going to encourage environmentalism for cost reason more than anything else.
London is compact. So instead of having 7-11 or bodegas for convenience stores the grocery chains have tacked on code words so you know how big the store is. For Tesco it goes express (convenience store), metro (this is how big grocery stores were when I was a child), superstore (normal grocery store), extra (in the U.S. a superstore, where they sell non-food items). Other chains like Sainsbury's and Waitrose have their own code words that I am still trying to figure out.
Growing up in California I have always liked Mexican food. I had heard getting Mexican food here was going to be a problem. I have found a small shelf though in the local grocery, and the California craze of "wraps" has spread further than just the United States so it is pretty easy to get tortillas. The only mexican fast food I've found here are quesadillas and nachos and they did get some of the words wrong calling the hot sauce creole sauce; and while it isn't the best (They add sugar and malt vinegar to the salsa) it does satisfy the craving I have for now.
Everyone is familiar with the publicised cookies = biscuits but I was surprised that English muffins are still called English muffins. (But I bought crumpets because they are easier to find in the stores. If you are not sure what crumpets are, think half an English muffin with the nooks and crannies all the way through.)
It is bizarre, but I can tell which foods are subsidised by the government differently. In the U.S. it is the corn and soy so most of the cheap food is the prepackaged stuff. Here, I am guessing, it is the wheat and milk because it only costs £1 for loaf of bread or 4-pint jug of milk. This makes me happy since I don't go for much pre-packaged food so my food bill should be cheaper and I can drink plenty of milk.
Of course I feel the need to try the local food too. So, the first one was Soreen malted bread. It caught my eye because it said it was full of squidgy energy. It was quite tasty; a cross between raisin bread and an energy bar, I've already bought another loaf (their small mini-loaf size).

The other food I've tried was All Day Breakfast in a can. It is not as bad as it sounds. The normal English breakfast is baked beans, roasted mushroom and tomatoes, with as many types of meat on the side as possible. So in the can was the baked beans with mushrooms but the meat was a couple of pieces of sausage and hotdogs which I've never had before when ordering an English breakfast. It was OK, but I don't think I will be buying it again. When I saw Wensleydale cheese, I had to try that too (Wallace and Gromit reference). It tastes very similar to Mexican Queso Blanco so I was quite happy.
It seems like a lot of the dishes that British food are known for are greasy. For the first week I was eating a lot of prepared or frozen food and I'm sure it is the same in the U.S. but after every time I ate it felt like I needed a nap. Between the sausage, ham, bangers, and sautéed mushrooms for breakfast, the Cornish pasties for lunch, and the frozen dinners I got that billed themselves as "True British dinners". I guess it has just been a while since I have eaten like this, and to judge a country's food by what is in the frozen section of the grocery store is unfair. But the U.K. has a problem with obesity too, I'm just surprised that they are not on par with the U.S. if this is the normal diet.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

My first week

The first Sunday morning the student village I lived in had a shuttle going to the Tesco Extra (Think Super Walmart) for people to buy needed stuff. Really I was just trying to get what I needed to get me through the first week, then I felt I would have a better idea to buy actually needed items. I had made a list of the things I would need back in New York, Bedding, toiletries, TV dinners, and other sundries (or as they refer to them here, bits and bobs). Since this is Europe, you can't get a comforter or a blanket, they are all Duvets. And, since a lot of students were also buying bedding it filled up the shuttle's luggage area rather quick.
For orientations I had one for: International students, PhD students, Computer Science students, the student village, and my medical research group. Needless to say, with that many orientations I feel no more oriented now than before. However I did get a fresh stack of papers and paperwork from each one that I have been slowly going through.
I knew that I would get lost easily when first here, however there were a lot of things that added to it. My watch broke right before I left so I was disoriented by not knowing the time. I had decided to go with a cheap phone company (giffgaff, £10 month-to-month for unlimited texts and Internet, and 150 minutes. There is no way they would exist in the U.S.) but I had to get my SIM card through the mail and configure my phone to work on their network. It took me most of the first week before I could use the GPS in my phone. For my luck there was a subway workers strike the day after I arrived. The closest I could get to campus was from an unknown stop so luckily my internal compas worked with all the curvy streets (cloudy skies don't help with getting directions from the sun.) I made it to campus both days without to much getting lost.
There have been activities every day for the student village to get people meeting each other, and scavenger hunts and pub crawls to familiarize people with the neighbourhood. It was also weird to have one of the pushes to be registering for a doctor since the health care is just there and the hard part is getting people to use it. Everyone here is different nationalities. So far I have only met one guy out of the hundred or so I've talked to that is actually English. I've also met one other American, there seem to be a fair bit from Ireland and France with the rest of the world pretty evenly distributed.
When there were sign-ups for social groups I thought- hey I'm finally one of the international students, but alas, there is no American student group. However, since this is a pretty premiere engineering school there were some pretty nerdy groups such as a Magic card group and World of Warcraft along with the more normal stuff. I did sign up for the robotics group should I need a reference for some of my research, the bike club to get access to tools should I need them, and the glider club with the hopes that should I have enough time I can fit in some gliding. (Hey, I can dream can't I.)
The first two days I took the tube to the campus. But when I wasn't in a hurry and didn't have to worry about getting lost I rode my bike. Luckily there were bike lanes most of the way. Bikes are seen as a normal mode of transportation here and I fit right in on my folding bike. (Apparently there is quite a folding bike sub culture here and I already had one guy ask questions about my bike since it is different from any others.)
Everything here is linked to a RFID chip in the ID card. The problem is that my card got lost somewhere in inter-office mail. So I spent the first week following behind people into all the buildings, or asking people walking past to swipe me in. While I had no nefarious intent it is obvious that the cards don't provide much security since I was able to get into the bike cage and even the most secure medical areas with, at most, a few minute delay.
By my first full weekend had enough time to do some more shopping for dishes so that I could cook (and clean up after) instead of buying take-out or frozen dinners. It tasted great, but I realized after eating I realized I hadn't bought any containers to store the left-overs.
I have also switched my spell checking over to British English since I need to start writing letters and papers here. So if things start looking spelled weird, that is why. It is not because I have succumbed to British pub culture.

Sunday, October 03, 2010

Touching Down in London

Well, I guess this is the start of my new life; I am in London. I had a surprisingly easy time getting through customs. I guess I arrived late enough to miss the really long lines. Once the border agent saw my visa and verified my fingerprints to the ones I had done earlier in his computer he waved me through. I did get a chuckle though that there are enough U.S. tourists that think they should get their own line like the European line that they had to make a sign.

While walking to collect my luggage there was a SIM card vending machine. I was quite relieved since I knew I would have to call the housing office to get my key and my phone still was not showing any signal. It cost £10 for a SIM with credit already on it. I used my credit card since I had not changed any money yet. While waiting for my luggage I asked the woman at the American Express booth for a paper clip which she asked, "For your phone?" Apparently she gives out a lot of paper clips.
All the luggage came up the belt soaking wet, I guess it was pouring outside. I locked all my bags together and started to head out when the bag handle holding my bike ripped totally off. I just wanted to get on the tube and I didn't feel like dealing with it right now so I just dragged my bike with one arm and the other 3 suitcases with the other.
I thought I should get off on the right foot so I bought an oyster card, I was so out of it that the cashier laughed that I had such a long flight I couldn't remember which stop I was getting off at. Heathrow Airport was the end of the line so I didn't have trouble getting got all my suitcases onto the train car but realized it wouldn't be the same case at my stop. While riding I asked other riders which side of the car was going to open for my stop and they helped get my stuff onto the platform when the stop did arrive.
I had planned to unfold the bike so I could walk it along, instead since it was pouring rain and the bag the bike was in was the only waterproof thing I just laid it on top of the other three suitcases that were locked together and walked down the platform. There was a taxi station at the stop but when I talked to the dispatch he said no taxis were within an hour radius. Instead I walked the half mile dragging my train of luggage behind me. I knew my way to the housing because at some point while bored I had walked through the trip using "Google Street-View". It was weird having a very déjà vu moment for a place I had never been to before.
By the time I arrived I was so soaking wet I couldn't make a phone call because my iPhone kept registering the water droplets as fingers. Luckily I had brought along a cheap backup phone so I was able to call and get the keys to my new home for the next year. It was furnished but there was no bedding and blankets were one of the things I had to eliminate because of the space contraints on my luggage. So I laid out a bunch of T-shirts on the bed, rolled up one of my dry jackets as a pillow got all the wet stuff out of my suitcases and laid them out to dry. For all the things that could have gone wrong I think I lucked out with only a wet walk home. None of my luggage was lost of damaged, I didn't get lost, or exit at the wrong tube station, breezed right through customs, and there was someone there to give me a key when I arrived. I passed out as soon as I laid down.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Iceland

It felt like I had been preparing for this point forever so when I got everything done on my list I headed to the airport early; very early. I ended up getting there before the gate crew did so I couldn't even check my luggage, but it was fine since I found a comfy seat with a nearby outlet to charge my laptop and phone. As luck would have it another London college student sat down next to me with a few hours to kill. I was able to pick her brain for all the details for living in London. When I was able to check my luggage I found that my bag had ripped that was carrying my bike but it turned out to be a good thing because the gate agent saw it was a bike and only charged me half of the suitcase rate (I didn't know there was a cheaper rate for bikes) once she saw my visa she didn't hassle me for being oversized for my carry-on weight.
I gotta say, I like Iceland air. I don't have to sit spread eagle because the seat was far enough away, and there was a USB port in every chair so I could charge my phone. As soon as we were airborne I was out cold until we started the decent.
When I saw I could have a 9 hour layover in Iceland and I took it. Getting through Iceland customs was the easiest experience I have ever had. All I said was hello and he stamped my passport. I had reserved a car and had opted out of the extra insurance. It was dark and raining when I got the car and of course once it was light I found a dent and a scratch that were not declared. I thought for sure when I turned in the car I, along with every person before me that refused insurance, would be charged highly for the scam of the same dent. The rental person had said to call her if I found anything when it got light but my phone was not picking up a signal for some reason and I think it is the first time I was dependant on pay-phones and realized that they do not exist anymore even at gas stations or hotels. The person I turned the car into ended up not seeing the dent so I just made sure to get a final receipt. But, that didn't stop me from kicking myself all day for trying to save a few bucks instead of peace of mind.
I had been so busy that all I had time to do as far as planning things to see was to just ask on an Internet forum what other people liked that had gone. I started out by going to the state cathedral Hallgrímskirkja. (It was on a hill and easily seen and I realized that the map that came with my guide book was crap so it was the only thing easy to find without a GPS.) Once I had my bearings, even without a GPS, it was pretty hard to get lost since Reykjavik was small enough that I could just head towards the water and get to a known point. I had planned on going to a museum but kept getting mixed up instead. The first time I ended up at the furthest point west for Europe and the second time I ended up at a Saturday swap meet. Both things I found cool and I don't think I could have found had I been trying. I drove down the famous shopping road Laugavegur but did not see any stores that looked interesting (All expensive tourist traps). For lunch I ended up at a shack in the harbor that was recommended from the forum (Saegreifinn / The Sea Baron). I had mink whale kabobs and Iceland lemonade (it was orange). Whale is tasty, mostly like steak, if not a little tough. While in the city I guess I fit right in because even in the touristy areas when they greeted the person in front of me in English they used Icelandic for me. (I always try to look non-tourist and I guess it works.)
For how plain European Reykjavik was, the scenery was amazing. I didn't have enough time to drive to the volcanoes but I could see them in the distance. The lava flows made it look like I was driving over a lunar surface and the thick green moss on everything just added to the other worldliness. I drove to the Blue Lagoon. The minerals in the steam and pools of water gave it the most beautiful blue color to offset the green moss. I wanted to stay longer but knew better than to push my luck.
Driving to and from the airport and while being lost I listened to a lot of radio. Icelandic sounds like a cross between Dutch and Swedish. The music was almost all recognizable even if it was covers of songs they were still sung in English.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Reducing Down to Zero

So I'm leaving today, and thinking back the most annoying part is trying to reduce all my stuff down to nothing. My brother-in-law talked about it as something wistfully romantic; someone who can pick up and leave without anything tying them down. Well, it isn't. Anything that had sentimental value that I did have is stored at my Dad's house. So anything that is going with me is basically 2 suitcases and a folding bike. The problem is the weight. The suitcases are only allowed to be 50 pounds. I added up all the numbers and between the suitcases and carry-on I have about 200 pounds going with me. I realized that is around the same as I weigh and I have about the same amount of stuff at my Dad's so I have about two people worth of stuff to my name right now. I also realize this is probably the least amount of stuff that I have had in my whole life (just think of all the stuff that is associated with babies.) And, there within lies the problem: Modern life requires stuff to be efficient. I am trying to meet some very conflicting goals. I will be spending all my time working on my PhD so I want the modern conveniences to make my life easier. Not all of them will fit into my luggage, and I don't have the budget to buy all of when I am London. There is nothing wistful or romantic about getting rid of stuff you need.
Everyone has been asking me if I was excited to go. In all truth, I've had a list in my head of all the things that I needed to get done before leaving. Now that the list is down to reducing my luggage weight as the last remaining thing it has hit me for the first time that I am really moving out of the country. Knowing that all that is standing in between me and leaving is a few pounds of stuff is what gives me the motivation to go through my luggage yet again and get rid of more stuff.