Saturday, November 5, 2011

Sweatpants Across Europa: London

A decade ago, I applied for a work visa in Britain and used it to work and travel for several months. This is that story. To begin at the beginning, ghere. You can pick up a hard copy here or download the PDF here.

We arrived at Heathrow at noon and quickly had to get into downtown London before our 3 PM orientation at BUNAC. BUNAC, an unintelligible acronym which stood for British University North America Campus, was our sponsor in the UK, supplying us with work visas and other paperwork before saying cheers to us several times and ushering us quickly out the door.

  We navigated Heathrow about as well as could be expected. Heathrow is a nation unto itself, comprised of endless corridors, moving tramways, directional arrows, and Hoof and Mouth warnings. Getting through is no small task and when you finally reach the tube or the cab or the bus or the train or whatever transport you are seeking, you find you are nowhere near central London. In fact you may be in France for all you care, because it will be at least an hour and a half and maybe more before you get into town.


  We made it to a tube station on our map, which in map-distance was mere centimeters from our orientation location. However we still managed to spend another half hour walking in random directions before my arms gave out due to the weight of my luggage, which technically had wheels, but every time they were engaged would fall off. So I was forced to lug all my worldly possessions, which had been violently smooshed into one garment bag and the aforementioned wheel-less suitcase, under the meager strength of my shoulders for many, many city blocks.  

  We made it to our orientation with seconds to spare. In the twenty minutes that followed, a young British lady led us through the ins and outs of surviving in Britain, followed by strong hints that we would never make any money or enjoy ourselves one bit if we stayed in London. I didn’t remember much else of what she said. I was just glad I didn’t have to lug my suitcase anymore.

  With the orientation out of the way, Karie and I checked into our home for the next two nights, The Generator. If you ever get the chance to stay at The Generator Youth Hostel in Bloomsbury I highly recommend it, especially if you are between thirteen and fifteen years old, like to smoke at breakfast, and enjoy banging into walls and yelling loudly all the time. “Maybe this is just culture shock we are experiencing,” we thought.

It was a strange night to say the least. We both felt pressure to decide whether or not London would be our home for the next six months. Having been in the UK for nine hours, we were clearly not informed enough to make that decision and not in much of a mood to decide anything important. There were tears, there were nerves, there were sirens, and there was crashing and shouting in the hallway all night long.

We decided, based mostly on the fact that our first day in London was painful, that we would head for a quieter setting. I wanted to try Oxford, due to its name, history, and close proximity to London. We ran that idea by some of the BUNAC employees, who all seemed to agree that any plan that did not include living in London sounded pretty good. The only problem with Oxford, they said, was that there was nowhere to live due to the influx of students during term time. We didn’t care. It couldn’t be worse than The Generator, we thought. With a long list of temp-job placement agencies in hand, we made some calls, set up meetings with very intelligent and proper sounding people who we felt could place us in interesting career-advancing positions, and went looking for a pub.

After a second night at The Generator, we were more than happy to lug our lives to Victoria Station and board the first shuttle to Oxford. Our bus driver, who was nice enough to let both of us on his bus even though our bus ticket was only a single-person ticket (for which we had foolishly paid twice the normal amount), grew up in Oxford. When he found out we would be moving there, he wanted to give us a detailed history on greater Oxfordshire from 1960 until the present. This did not sit very well with the German lady behind us, who felt that his chatter would send the bus careening off the road in the light drizzle that fell outside. She whispered in our ear not to “encourage him to talk.” Eventually he heard her complaints. Annoyed that she doubted his driving skill, he told us all quite loudly that her comments really “chapped his tits.” He was more than pleased to have “that witch” off his bus when she exited. He continued his brief history of Oxford until we reached Gloucester Green Station.

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