It is said that the best way to learn a language is to immerse yourself in the country where it is spoken. I think the same can be said for adapting to a postgraduate program in a foreign city. There is little you can really do to completely prepare yourself for it. You simply have to go there and live it. I have been in Durham a little over a week now and I feel as though I’ve lived here for a few months. The university and the colleges must plan Freshers Week (the American equivalent would be Orientation Week) to force students to adapt quickly. Within a day I was riding the buses to and from events. Within two days I knew where the shops and banks were. Within three days I knew where my lectures would be held and the proper bus to take to get to them. Now that it has been over a week, I feel right at home here.
Before I begin my recap of Freshers Week, I should say that so much has happened that I’m bound to leave things out. It has been a complete whirlwind and things that happened only five days ago feel fuzzy and distant. I hope you will all understand if some of the finer details have escaped me.
25 September 2013: Arrival and a Bus Ride
I immediately began to unpack my things as soon as Maureen the porter had left me and I had retrieved my bags. This had not been my initial plan. I had decided weeks ago that on the first day I would go out and get my phone and try to open my bank account. Standing in the stark reality of a barren en suite room, however, I moved automatically, without any conscious decision. I just had to unpack all of my things. I continued that way, utterly disconnected from myself and my surroundings, nothing registering. It was as though my mind had completely shut off.
I went back and forth between my room and the common area where previous students had left things. I grabbed as many hangers as I could and as I returned to my room I was greeted once again by Maureen showing a new student the room next to mine. I introduced myself and shook her hand. She was a very quiet Asian girl named Emma. She disappeared into her room immediately and I returned to mine.
I continued as before. Clothes on hanger. Hanger in wardrobe. Clothes on hanger. Hanger in wardrobe. I had turned into an automaton. I turned my attention to my desk area. Books on shelves. Power cords in drawer. Pencils on desk. Next was the bed. The university had supplied a bed pack for every student. I opened it and took out the contents. Flat sheet on tiny mattress. Duvet cover on duvet. Duvet on bed. Pillowcase on pillow.
I shuttered and tears began rolling down my face. I sat on the newly made up bed. I had been traveling for over ten hours and the emotional release finally came. I needed to be in touch with someone. I wanted to check my email and Facebook page. I wanted to talk to someone from home. I couldn’t use my phone, it would be astronomically expensive. I grabbed my computer and opened it up. There was no wireless in the room and so I plugged in the Ethernet cable that was lying on the floor and tried desperately to log into Gmail.
I was hit with a message from the Durham University IT department. I needed to run some software to ensure I had approved spyware installed on my computer. I rolled my eyes. In that moment all I wanted was a bit of home. I downloaded the software and then began the great battle with the Durham Network. My computer failed. I tried again. Failed. Again. Failed. My tears had turned into waves of frustration when up popped my chat window with a message from one of my dear friends.
For some reason Gchat was still working. I let out a grateful sigh and began typing. Out everything seemed to pour, mainly the frustration at feeling so cut off from the world. Not only could I not operate the internet or make a phone call, I couldn’t even walk to the college offices or café to enlist someone’s help. Up popped another chat window. I felt so relieved I was chatting with my friends from across the Atlantic and yet I still couldn’t get to my email to tell my parents I had arrived safely.
I explained my troubles to both of my friends but nothing they suggested seemed to work. My stomach began to rumble. I closed my eyes and let out a sigh of frustration and exhaustion. I had had nothing to eat all day. Do I really need to eat something? I asked myself. Maybe I could make it until tomorrow. My stomach rumbled its reply. I still couldn’t properly sign on to the internet. I resigned myself to the fact I’d have to go to the IT department and to the grocery store both of which were somewhere outside of my room. Very reluctantly, I typed a goodbye to my friends.
I went over to Maureen’s office. She was busy helping a new student check into her accommodations. I knew that I wouldn’t have much time. The offices were sure to be closing soon. A tall Indian man was standing near the window. He listened as I asked where to go to take care of my internet problem. It was clear I’d have to take the bus into town. Inside, my brain was screaming. I just wanted to tell my parents I was alive. That’s all. The rest of the internet could wait.
“I can take you down there if you want.” It was the Indian gentleman who had been standing near the window.
“Really?” I asked, relieved .
“Yes, I need to meet my cousin down at Howlands Farm, it is on the way.”
For some reason, probably because I am used to living in the United States where everyone has a car, I imagined that we would drive to these places. Very quickly I realized that we were on our way to the bus stop. So off I went on my second adventure in as many hours. We got on the bus, off the bus. On a different bus, off that bus. Walked up a bit of a hill and rounded a corner. There was the Palatine Center, home to most of the administrative offices for the university. My guide, whose name was Shumon, pointed me to the IT department and I went in.
They were no longer taking appointments. I was crushed. It wouldn’t be until ten o’clock tomorrow morning that they would resume their appointments. At least I’ve got Gchat, I thought. I can tell one of my friends to email my parents that I had made it safely.
Shumon found me again and we were off to Howlands Farm the location of most of Ustinov’s students. I might as well get my campus card and get enrolled, I thought. We hopped onto another bus and this took us all the way south, where the coach from the airport had taken me that morning. It seemed like days ago now.
I managed to get at least one thing crossed off of my list. There was my campus card with the picture I had uploaded a month or so ago. I had been so excited thinking that that picture would be on my Durham University campus card. Now I just felt tired, hungry, and alone.
Ugh! I still hadn’t eaten. By now I knew that the bus from Howlands would take me into town near the shops. We had passed a Tesco Express on the way in and I knew I could grab a sandwich there. Shumon had managed to find his cousin and they had bid me goodbye. Alone, I gingerly stepped onto the bus and sat down on the edge of the seat. I was sweating from exertion and nerves. With a jerk, I was off again. I was too worried about missing my stop to really look out of the window and take in the scenes that passed by. The bus stopped at the City Center and I walked up to Tesco.
Damn. I still didn’t have English money. I would have to use one of my credit cards. I went in and in a daze began grabbing random items I knew I might need. Sandwich. Water. Bagels. Cream cheese. Toilet tissues. Juice. Milk. Tea. I went to the counter and paid. I was terrified my card wouldn’t work, but the cashier handed it back to me and smiled. Thank goodness for small miracles.
Back on the bus and then home I thought. I would finish unpacking and setting my room to rights and then I’d be ready for sleep. I had been up for over twenty-four hours by now. I thought I’d have no trouble sleeping. I managed to grab the correct bus and found myself back in my room eating a salmon sandwich.
I tried to sign back into Gchat but now that wasn’t working as well. I hit my frustration threshold and decided it would be better to make an expensive phone call than to let my parents think I was lying dead in a ditch in Durham. I left a quick phone message assuring them I was fine and turned to unpacking the rest of my things.
I had all but finished when there came a knock on my door. It was my flat mate from across the hall. He had heard me come in and hadn’t seen anyone else yet. He introduced himself as Rafael from Mexico studying economics. We chatted about how far we were from everything here. There was an event going on at Howlands Farm but neither one of us felt like we could go. The busses stopped running at six, Shumon had told me. Instead he asked if I’d be up for walking into town to grab something to eat.
I had just eaten my sandwich, but I felt like I should be social. I grabbed my coat and off we set. I sort of knew the bus route and thought we could follow that. We got a little turned around but made into Market Square with the help of some passersby.
It was the first time I stood there. I remembered how it had looked on Google maps and I got a strange sort of familiar feeling for a place I had never been. The night was dark and everything was shut up but it still seemed magical. It was full of potential energy. Like anything could happen in that square. I looked up into the night sky and saw so many more stars than I could see at home. For the first time that day I began to breathe more deeply and more regularly. For me, the stars were something constant; something ancient and comforting. They were something I could hold onto in my mind.
My reverie was broken by Rafael pointing out the Tesco Metro just down the side street. It was still open. (Small point of order: there are two Tescos in Durham. Tesco Express which I had visited earlier and Tesco Metro which I was about the visit. Tesco Metro is larger and has a more varied selection.) My flatmate grabbed his dinner and I grabbed a salad. We made our way back through the darkened streets of Durham. It was a long walk and I’m sure we took a few wrong turns. It was near midnight when I made it back to my room and collapsed on the bed.
Despite the long day, I still couldn’t sleep.