26 September 2014

Flatmates & Fanfare

Sunday night: the suitcase that had rolled so smoothly on the glass-like floors of Heathrow Airport now felt cumbersome and heavy as it clunked over the cobblestone drive to my university's entrance gate.

I checked in at the security desk and was given a key and some vague directions to my room. Luckily for me, it was right by the main entrance. Unluckily for me, the buildings were poorly marked, and I wasn't sure which building was mine and which was the next. After some quick comparisons in the dark, I figured out which building I belonged in, and went to scan my key card.

The thing is, in American hotels, you slide electronic key cards through little slots in the door to gain entry. I'm not sure if American colleges have the same setup, seeing as I've never been to one, but I had absolutely no idea how to use my key card (I later learned that you merely hold it over the sensor and it will activate the door).

As I mentioned, I was really lucky that night, because it wasn't long before a few students came over and asked if I needed help. They got me inside the building, and this guy said, "Wait, are you Monica?" I was so confused because he called me by name and I didn't understand how on earth he could possibly know it if I had only just arrived and not told anyone yet. I then realised he was my flat rep, so he was in charge of all the students on my floor. They'd been waiting for me for almost two weeks because I'd arrived late and they were all wondering who I was, where I was from, what I was like. He yelled up to the other students on my floor and said, "Hey, guys! Monica's here!" then he called out to one of his friends behind him and said, "Hey! My Fresher's here!"

Suddenly, there was this deep rumbling coming from the stairway. I looked up and saw about ten students stampeding down the stairs, cheering and yelling and clapping for me. They swarmed around me, grabbed my bags and my luggage, and led me up to our floor, singing the whole way.

A few hours prior, I wondered if it would be a bit awkward to just drop in two weeks late, but I couldn't have asked for a warmer welcome.

Travel Day

At least for me, it's generally been the case that things come together all at once and at the last minute when you start to wonder if you should abandon your plans entirely.

After I decided to move to London for university, my family and I spent the whole summer doing everything we could to make that dream a reality. This included hours of research, visa applications, trips to Boston, early morning international phone calls, mid-afternoon phone calls to state representatives, and emails to officials asking questions we couldn't find the answers to.

Meanwhile, I was working five days a week at McDonalds in an effort to save as much money as possible so I could sustain myself while I was away at uni. I made about $8.27 an hour, but after the conversion rate to pounds, I took home about £5.00 for each hour that I worked. I made so many friends working there and I was grateful for the distraction from the summer days that seemed to pass at an agonising speed.

We waited all summer and into September for everything to come together. My projected departure date was September 8th, but after some trouble with the student visa, it soon became evident that I wouldn't make it on time for International Orientation or Fresher's Week. Still, I hoped that something would happen and I'd make it to uni for the first day of classes on the 22nd of September.

"But there's no room for me in here."
Finally, after a lot of help from my parents and some calls to our local representative, we were able to get the visa sent to my house on Friday, and I was able to leave Saturday morning, the 20th of September. Given the time constraint, this was miraculous. We spent all Friday packing and preparing.

We left the house at 4:45 Saturday morning and made our way to Logan International Airport in Boston. The closer we got, the more sick my stomach felt. I think I was just starting to get nervous thinking of all the things that could go wrong. Not only that, but this departure had been so hyped up all summer, so when it finally came, it felt like I was doing this thing that was so much bigger than myself.

I was tired of saying goodbyes at this point. I'd already watched all my friends leave for college in August, and the weeks leading up to my departure were tough because I never really knew how much time I had left in my hometown. I knew I would be back for Christmas, but it would be different. There's this quote by Azar Nafisi, "You get a strange feeling when you're about to leave a place. . . like you'll not only miss the people you love but you'll miss the person you are now at this time and this place, because you'll never be this way again."

This feeling only grew stronger as I checked my bag, said goodbye to my parents, and went through airport security. Once I made it through, I decided to forget about all of my worries. I didn't know what I was going to do when I landed in Heathrow or where I was going to check myself in. I didn't remember how to get through the Border Agency, or where the baggage claim was, but I was going to figure it out as I went along.

First I went to the Starbucks at my terminal and got a chocolate croissant, a banana, and an Americano. I sat in one of the white rocking chairs in front of the window and watched the sun come up and the planes take off. They were playing Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra through the airport speakers and it helped me relax.

Finally, they opened the gate and we boarded the plane. The flight itself was rather long. The food wasn't very good. I snacked on yogurt, a muffin, and some nuts. I tried to sleep but I was too excited. I ended up watching Divergent to try to pass the time and I was pleasantly surprised to find that it was a great movie. I made a shopping list for what I needed to buy when I arrived at uni, which was basically all the things I couldn't fit in my suitcase. I listened the "Wait" by M83 for almost an hour on repeat. I'd been listening to it for weeks before I left: in my room, in the car, going for walks. That song sort of became my London song.

In the last hour of the flight, I opened the window and watched the sun set. You could see all the clouds and the sun slipping beneath them. There was a smear of light that cut the sky in a spectrum from red to purple. It cast this bright orange glow through my windowpane and it grew very hot when you placed your hand on it. The clouds looked like an actual force in the sky, the way they moved so swift and strong, and I just felt like the Universe was pushing me all the way to England. At one point, the plane dipped right below the top of the clouds and for a minute it was like there was a clouded ceiling to the sky or something. It's the view, it makes you kind of emotional, it sort of takes you over. I cried twice on the flight, once when we took off and again when we landed. I know that sounds totally lame but this was a very big deal for me.

We arrived at London Heathrow at about 8:30pm local time. The first thing I did when I got off the plane was look for a restroom, and after a few minutes I realised that the reason I couldn't see any signs was because they were labelled simply "Toilets". The thing about Heathrow that makes me laugh is that Terminal 5 (International Arrivals) is always playing this slow, classical music that seems to be streamed right from the Queen's MP3 player.

Next, I followed the signs to Border Control and took the airport shuttle that brings you from terminal to terminal. I remembered using it the last time I was in London with my aunt and my grandparents. When I got to the Border Agency, I waited in line in front of two American boys who kept joking with each other. The wait was a bit long, so I was glad they were behind me because they were amusing and they kept me distracted from the things I was worried about, like getting my luggage, going through customs, and finding my cab. It was so hot in the airport, I started peeling off some of my layers, but that only left me with more to carry.

When it was my turn, the lady at the desk asked me a few questions about myself and requested some of my paperwork. She stamped my passport and welcomed me, and I made my way toward the baggage claim. I had no idea which carousel my luggage was supposed to be on, but they list them on this board next to your flight number. I grabbed my bag, which was not as difficult to manage as I feared it would be.

Next was customs. I didn't think I had any goods to claim, but I wasn't sure if I needed to go through, and the last thing I wanted was to be kicked out for evading a security checkpoint a mere two minutes after my arrival. So I asked a nice gentleman by the entryway and he said I was free to skip it since it was doubtful I was smuggling any contraband in with my school supplies.

I walked out of the exit and saw a bunch of cab drivers with signs. I found mine with no trouble, and followed the man out to the parking lot where we got in a Saab that was very spacious and had plenty of room for my bags and other belongings. The ride to university was about twenty minutes, and I just sat quietly, watching the other cars zoom by on what I perceived to be the wrong side of the road. Everything was all lit up, the lights were a bit dizzying. The driver had the radio on and the broadcaster was talking about Scotland's independence in a thick accent.

I couldn't believe where I was. I'm not really a numbers person, but I know it's about 3,200 miles from Boston to London and I never really understood the scope of that number until I was actually that far away from home. Same with the time difference. I mean, you don't realise what a distance of five hours feels like until your face is lit by the night lights of a dark city and your family's faces are lit by the stove light in the suburbs as they get ready for dinner. I wondered what they were making, if they had fed the cat yet. The cab was winding through some slim streets in Richmond and before too long, my driver pulled into the entrance gate at Roehampton University. Not only had I made it to London, I had made it to school.

I know this is a long story, but it was such a long day.

Lots of Love,
Miss Monica Jean

17 September 2014

— Vicious Skin —

Brooklyn Gang 1959 ft. the Ghost of Holden Caulfield

This week I was lucky enough to stumble upon a seamless combination of two things I love dearly: black and white photography and the greaser subculture.

Elliott Erwitt, Robert Frank, and Brassai are among my favorite photographers. The other day, I was looking through some of the archives of old photographs on my laptop and I came across a picture that really stood out to me. The caption said "Brooklyn Gang 1959" so I decided to Google it for a bit of context.

It turns out the photograph I'd saved in my file was one of many taken by photographer Bruce Davidson in the summer of 1959. He captured New York's rebellious youth in various shapes and shadows. These photographs are an excellent representation of the greaser subculture: cigarettes, tattoos, and the white t-shirt as the uniform of youth. There are diners and jukeboxes and one boy in particular named Bengie. When I was clicking through the photos, I was stunned by this boy's face. He is featured at the end of the slideshow, in the last few.

As you know, I've just finished J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye, (which, incidentally, is set in New York) and I swear this boy is exactly how I imagined Holden Caulfield to look. Ever since I saw the photographs, I cannot get him out of my head.

I think it's easy to look at these photos and see them as a sort of window to yesteryear. Put the slideshow on full screen, it's absolutely transporting.

12 September 2014

— September Forever —

Sometimes I think writing wordy titles to short poems may be my specialty. 

Wishing you all a very happy (and chilly) September.

Lots of Love,
Miss Monica Jean