Travelling across the Pond

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The last two weeks of August 2017 stood at that time as the longest I had ever been away from home and my family. I spent them in Indianapolis, Indiana, U.S.A., surrounded by people who talked like me, sleeping in a bunk room with thirteen other girls and a camp counsellor, and with all meals, transportation, and social activity planned out and taken care of for me. If I didn’t wake up on time, a pillow thrown from one of my bunkmates or a sharp bark from our counsellor would handle it. Meals were presented at a specific time every day and the inclusion of all necessary food groups mandated. Whether I wanted to or not, I socialised because group bonding exercises were held regularly. Needless to say, the people treated all of us like precious glass animals and gave out bountiful warmth, support, and encouragement. In spite of the excessive coddling, on the third day I was there, I cried to my dad on the phone wanting desperately to come home. I tend to get pretty homesick.

So, after receiving news that I’d been offered a spot at Harvard University, contingent on me taking a gap year, and after finding a gap year consultant, and after her introducing me to Year Out Drama, when I read on the prospectus that the program would require me to be in another country on another continent for multiple months at a time, I was terrified. That said, I worked tirelessly to perfect my audition speeches and song. The fear gave way to overwhelming excitement upon seeing that email pop into my inbox with rainbow confetti at the top and the subject line “This is a GOOD NEWS email!” 

Nonetheless, I still had my misgivings about moving across the world. Before I began Year Out Drama, I had been to Europe exactly once. It was 2014, in the summer before my freshman year, i.e. year 10? I don’t know what you call it but I was 14. Riding the London Eye, taking pictures in front of the Eiffel Tower, and riding Vespa scooters around Amsterdam, my family and I were the epitome of tourist filth. Turning heads with our American accents, we felt the need to take pictures of everything and say “oh my goodness that little [town, house, car, road, boat, building, river, bicycle] is so cute!” about fifteen times a day. In the two weeks we graced the landscapes of Europe’s finest, the image of England formed in my mind as stuck-up people speaking some ridiculous version of English and having absolutely none of the Southern hospitality my hometown of Dallas, Texas offered. 

As I neared the fateful day that I would be picking up my life and moving it across an ocean, I tried to shake what I knew was a flawed image of England and remain open-minded about this new adventure. When I put the first of about twenty black t-shirts into my suitcase, it all sunk in. Thankfully, I had chosen for my flight to be overnight. Though it served me well in the jet lag department, it meant that rather than waking up early and handling goodbyes and airport travel before I fully got my wits about me, I spent all of September 12, 2018 thinking about the dark chasm of leaving home that I inched closer to with every passing second. Okay, maybe I am being dramatic, but truly, the amount of uncertainty associated with this one plane ride was more than I had ever experienced. After I cried on my dogs’ shoulders for about fifteen minutes, and then my dad’s for slightly less (sorry Dad!), I boarded that plane.

The plane served as a kind of liminal space: the amalgamation of ethnicities and accents of the passengers meant that I had definitely left the comfort of an entirely familiar existence but wasn’t quite surrounded by strangers either. I spent a ludicrous amount of time overthinking the entire year as I sat there leaning against the shaded window of Row 27. 

After what can only be described as a stressful and confusing conversation with a particularly curt customs officer, I saw the image I had been promised: Malcolm holding a cardboard cutout of William Shakespeare’s head that, funnily enough, resides now in the corner of my bedroom. It’s creepy at times but I just can’t part with it. With a greeting and a shuffling of extremely large suitcases, so began the influx of new: new person, new accent, new side of the car, new road signs, new river, new house, and, my personal favourite, new friends. The word of the first week: new. And as new as everything and everyone were to me, I was just as new to all of them. Thus, I made things simpler with what had become my catchphrase: “Hi, I’m Bailey. I’m from America and that’s why I talk funny.” It just cut out the middle man a little bit. Once, I used a slightly modified “I’m Bailey and I’m from Texas in America” and my favourite response to this robotic greeting I had adopted was “Hi, I’m Elly and I’m not from Texas in America.” 

Pretty soon after the “hello”s and “how are you”s, we were all sat round in a circle, a shape that would prove integral to this course, and a lively conversation about what various food items are called in the “North” and the “South” ensued. My eyes darting from person to person, I fruitlessly attempted to follow. I did what I thought was best and remarked, “Can someone get me a translation book?”

I digress; though all unified by something I could never achieve, these incredible individuals welcomed me with arms wide. The level of interest they expressed about where I’d come from and my experiences there warmed my heart, even if at times I felt like a rare exotic bird at a zoo. This feeling of always sticking out, and the mixed emotions that accompanied that feeling, persisted for the first few weeks.

There’s a look people will give me when I’ve said about three words and something about the emphasised “r” sounds or the fact that I say “y’all” every other word informs them of my nationality. For shopkeepers and customers, it’s typically a moment of intrigue, a separation from the hundreds of similar voices passing through every day. For mentors, visiting directors, and lesson instructors, it’s a data point they file away and reference occasionally. For my friends, however, it’s a common conversation topic. “Wait, what did you just call that?” and “How do you pronounce that? Say it again” were the common ones. It is so funny to hear something so normalised as a part of my American upbringing as the pledge of allegiance or pickup trucks be just as fascinating to people as if I’d told them we have flying cars or teleportation. Although, at the same time I tease my friends, I find many aspects of British culture so strange that if I see someone teleport here, I probably won’t question it. Although I would probably assume they were apparating and also a wizard. Anyway, the mutual sharing and receiving of knowledge about how myself and my friends perceive the world around us has been undoubtedly one of my favourite aspects of this journey. 

These last two months have given me an entirely different perspective about England, and frankly about America as well. I can say that my previous assumptions could not have been more untrue, though Londoners could do with a little more “love thy neighbour” Southern hospitality. We as people are far more similar than different. We groan at bad drivers, buy lots of things we don’t need, smile when we see adorable dogs, and are there for each other when it’s needed. I’ve had the most insane two months of my life nestled here in Stratford that I wouldn’t surrender for the world. That said, I miss my family, my favourite restaurants, and my bed. Don’t even get me started on my dogs. It’s been hard to pick up and start from scratch thousands of miles away from what I have ever known, but each day I spend having meaningful (and completely ridiculous) conversations with my friends and learning so much about one of my most fervent passions, I marvel at the endless opportunities this land of uncertainty has given me.

So Bailey from the summer of 2014, if you’re listening, don’t be too quick to make assumptions about people who are different. If you just look a little closer, you’ll see that there are ten people scattered around that country just waiting to change your life. Oh, and take off that bedazzled U.K. flag tank top. Yes people are looking at you but it’s not in a good way. 

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