Last time on “An American in Durham” our heroine had braved a cross Atlantic flight in the dark of night and rushed like a speeding bullet through the security checkpoint at Heathrow (hmmm, not the most appropriate metaphor). When we left her she was walking around Newcastle International Airport trying to find the Durham University Welcome Committee. And now the continuing adventure.
I was far too exhausted and bedraggled to really be concerned that I couldn’t find the Welcome Committee. Newcastle Airport didn’t strike me as particularly large and confusing. Certainly nothing compared to Heathrow. I found an information kiosk and the woman pointed me towards the Starbucks.
“Around the corner there, just past Starbucks,” she said. It was the first Northern accent I had heard in person. “They are just setting up now.”
“Thank you so much,” I replied and rolled my heavily laden trolley around the corner.
I gave my name to the woman at the desk. She carefully highlighted my name and then asked me to wheel my luggage to the back of the table and have a seat. I collapsed into the chair and just sort of stared at nothing while my thoughts raced.
Well, I had made it to Newcastle. The hard part of the journey was over. There wasn’t another connection to find, my luggage had not been lost, and I had located the folks who would be taking we to my room. I could breathe out if only a whole new slew of worries and pressures hadn’t immediately replaced the ones I had just dismissed.
What if they take me to the wrong building? Mine is not on the main college site. All I have in my pocket is American money, now worthless if I needed to buy something. My phone won’t work here, unless I’m willing to pay huge amounts of money to use it. How will I let my parents and friends know I had landed safely? What if…
“Can I sit here?”
My thoughts were broken and I snapped out of the circuitous worry hell I was beginning to build for myself. I looked up and so a small Asian girl in a bright yellow jacket. She had big smile on her face.
“Of course,” I said. She told me her name and I said mine.
“I am from Thailand,” she said in a thick accent, “I’m studying foreign relations with concentration on Middle East.”
“That’s a degree that will certainly come in handy,” I replied.
She smiled and laughed. She was the type of person who smiled a lot. I found that I began to smile, too.
“I’m doing an MA in Museum and Artefact Studies,” I explained.
We went on talking about our programs, our flights, Thailand, the United States. It was quite lovely to chat with someone who was just as confused and lost feeling as myself. We wondered how the university would be getting us to our colleges. How we would contact home and where to exchange money. This time though, it didn’t seem so scary. We were both…well all in the same boat. By now many students had checked in at the table. The luggage trolleys stretched into the distance and people were chatting in many languages with one another.
“If you would all like to bring your luggage outside to the coach, we’ll load everything on and we’ll take you to your colleges,” said the woman who had highlighted my name.
A long train of luggage left the airport building and headed toward the waiting bus. I looked around at the amount of luggage everyone had brought and to my embarrassment I had the most bags out of everyone, probably twenty-five to thirty students. I immediately wished I had packed lighter. I felt so … American in that moment. As my bags were loaded up I boarded the bus and took a seat near the window. My new acquaintance from Thailand sat next to me. The woman in charge boarded the bus once we were all situated.
“I just want to let you all know what is going to happen,” she began, “We’re going to drop you off at Howlands Farm at Ustinov College. From there you’ll board several minibuses and those will take you to your colleges.” She smiled and stepped off the bus.
“Which college are you in?” I asked my companion.
“I am in Van Mildert,” she replied. I realized sadly, we wouldn’t be in the same college.
A wave of exhaustion came over me. I am by nature an introverted person. I had expended so much energy in the trip to Newcastle that I was finding it difficult concentrating on a conversation. I desperately wanted to get to my digs and unpack so I could just relax. I had a feeling though, that it would be a while before I’d be able to do that. I looked out of the window into the gray and drizzly northeast of England.
The bus took off and began the thirty minute trip to Durham. It was fun to see the different cars on the motorway and the traffic signs. It was a bit awkward seeing the lanes reversed. But that was the only thing that seemed really different. Everything else seemed so similar; similar to the US but slightly different all the same. It was a little disorienting.
As we drove my companion and I talked about driving in our respective countries. We talked about the driving tests we each had to pass and price of fuel. Soon though we had entered Durham and all I wanted to do was stare out the window. Would it look like the pictures I had seen? The narrow cobbled streets took us up steep hills and past small shops. Then we hit the outskirts of town and then we made a left into Howlands Farm. The bus climbed up one last hill and then we stopped.
A different woman, wearing a purple shirt boarded the bus.
“Hello everyone. I’m sure you are all tired and just want to get to your rooms so you can unpack and settle in. I’m going to call you off my college and then you will be directed to minibuses which will take you all home. We’ve set up a marquee so hopefully you and your things won’t get too wet.” She smiled and shrugged as if to say here’s your welcome to England.
I left with the Ustinovians but while they were allowed to go right on to their flats (they were already home), I had to wait to be taken to my housing as I was living at another location. I felt lonely standing there amid my many suitcases. For the first time I regretted not living at Howlands. It would not be the last time.
A tall, brown haired young man asked if he could help with my luggage. He wore a purple shirt, too which told me he was working for the Welcome Committee as well.
“Yes please,” I replied.
We headed over to my minibus and waited while it was determined which order the bags should go in. It was then that I found out I would be dropped off last. I sighed inwardly. It would be a while before I could relax.
I boarded the second bus of the day and sat. I just wanted to spend a few minutes alone so I could recharge my batteries. Others began to board the bus and I saw my Thai companion again. She took the seat next to mine and we resumed our conversation. The bus took off and headed for St. Mary’s College. It was a short drive and three people exited the bus. The next stop was Van Mildert where I bid a final farewell to my companion. It went on like that until finally we were driving north to my digs and I was the last one left, like some collegiate version of Survivor.
The bus pulled into the car park and the same brown haired man, who turned out to be from Texas and was doing his PhD in Theology helped me one last time with my bags. He walked me over to the porter’s office and I was checked in by a very nice, very Northern lady. I had to listen carefully to her accent as it was thicker than what I was used to. She grabbed my keys and we walked over to my building. She spoke so quickly but I tried my best to keep up through my exhaustion and growing homesickness.
“Here we are, then,” she said as she showed me my room. She handed me the keys and then we were nipping around to the kitchen.
“You’ve got your cooker and washer there. You’re allowed four shelves in the cabinets,” she explained. I nodded without really taking it in.
Then we went into the common room. There was laundry drying on racks and a pile of heavily used kitchen supplies and some hangers and a very beaten up drying rack.
“This is stuff that was all left behind. You’re more than welcome to it,” and then she was gone. Off to help the next new boarder most likely.
I rushed downstairs to my waiting luggage. The coach driver was kind enough to watch everything for me while I was getting the 50p tour. I waved and called thank you as he started up the coach and began to drive off.
I took my bags up two at a time and shut the door. I was finally alone and I was finally at Durham.