I've told you this, right? That I'm in England to run a study-abroad program--the same one that brought me to England for the first time, sixteen years ago next month? When I first started teaching at the college, it seemed as though everyone's favorite question was, "Is it strange to be back here, teaching?" My answer then was, "Not really." I'd spent a lot of time in the village after graduation, and I'd been teaching for several years, and somehow the strangeness of teaching where I'd been a student not so long before wasn't particularly great.
Somehow, the strangeness of coming aground in Exeter after not having spent any significant amount of time here for sixteen years feels far greater--no doubt in part because I also haven't started a job in a new environment in the past seven years, even though I have set up house over and over and over again in the past decade. This afternoon, taking what I thought was the walk I used to take from campus to the city centre, I ended up in an Exeter neighborhood I'd never seen before, and as I kept walking, I realized that I had gone far out of my way. It was still a grey day, though at least the pouring rain had stopped in the morning, and it was cool enough today that I wore a coat and a cotton scarf all day (plus wool socks! I have worn my wool socks every day since I've been here!). So there I was, striding along on what felt absolutely like an autumn day, down a footpath and then through a neighborhood in the middle of a town where I lived for a whole year of my life without ever seeing this part of it. And when I finally emerged onto a road I knew, I couldn't help but swear at the fact that I was on the other side of the city centre from where I'd planned to go.
Meanwhile, I also seemed not to be able to help layering Cambridge over Exeter, or Exeter over Cambridge, and noticing over and over again how much grittier Exeter is, as a town, than Cambridge. No big surprise there, really, and it's not as though all of Cambridge was well-to-do. But partly because the university here is outside of town, whereas the colleges, with all their manifested wealth and tradition, are all over Cambridge (keeping it elevated above any number of elements of the English cultural landscape that are just as homogenized or banal or disheartening as any of the frustrating political, social, and geographic developments I've left behind in the U.S.), and partly because it's now 2011--after the first economic collapse in 2008 and at the cusp of another, possibly even greater economic and cultural faltering here, across Europe, and all over the place back at home--rather than 2007, when I arrived in Cambridge just as the pound started riding so high against the dollar that I still automatically double a number to figure out what I'm going to pay for things--partly for these reasons, my walk around central Exeter today had a significantly more grim feeling to it than my early walks around Cambridge. "You'll be glad you're living where you're living," said my excellent friend when I spoke to her on the phone this evening. And I'd already been thinking that on my jam-packed, standing-room-only train trip home this evening. I'm always glad to be at a quiet margin.
As I walked through town after my failed attempt to go to a movie at the arts cinema (which, unbeknownst to me, was off of a particular street, rather than on the street), finding myself increasingly stressed by the number of randomly meandering people all around me on the sidewalks and the street, I pretty rapidly began aiming myself at the big Waterstone's bookseller at the corner of town, a store that (when it used to be a Dillon's) was one of my favorite haunts during my year in Exeter. Once securely inside, I remembered what a nemesis to me "3 for 2" deals in bookstores here are.
After a little while, it was safe to come out of the bookstore again, and then, lo and behold, I discovered the little in-town branch of the grocery store I used in Cambridge. There are two main groceries in England: Sainsbury's and Tesco. (There's also the Co-op, which is what I use in my little village here, and then there's the upscale Waitrose, the convenience chain Spar, the frozen goods emporium Iceland, and who knows how many other assorted places.) In 1995-96, their in-town branches still predominated--definitely in Exeter, though also across the country as far as I know. Tesco was the closer of the two stores to where my flat was located, and so it was the store my friends and I used most, even though Sainsbury's had far nicer store brand foods. By now, supermarket versions of both of these stores--which are typically located out beyond the edges of towns, so that one almost has to use a car to get to them--have become enormous phenomena, and what's left in downtown areas are Sainsbury's Local stores and Tesco Metro stores. The funny thing about Exeter is that its two stores, in their Local and Metro incarnations, have switched geographical positions: the Tesco Metro is now very near where the old (and expansive) Sainsbury's used to be, in the old mall, and the Sainsbury's Local is now mere doors down from where the old Tesco was.
You can understand, I suspect, why I had a fairly confusing day today, and why it felt good to get home and wash dishes and cook some dinner pasta and watch the news.
On my way back to the train station--where I kept finding myself staring at the vastly overgrowing planters between the tracks, and the paint that's peeling off of the rusting ironwork everywhere--I cut through the still bright and shiny outdoor pedestrian mall that Exeter has built over the past half-decade or so. By this point, I had so many bags that I didn't want to mess about with getting out my camera to take a picture of the downright strange way I finally saw Exeter Cathedral up close again for the first time in over a decade, with its towers rising up over these retail stores and chain restaurants and crowds of meandering teenagers and shoppers and families. And then, almost before I realized what was happening, my muscle memory took over and carried me back to the passageways I knew, the walks I used to take to get to the Cathedral Close--these walks that are still there, with all their little cafés and sandwich shops, directly parallel to the new mall development. And then there it was, and I did not have a lens wide enough to take it in--so it's a good thing I can go back.
Things I did take in:
Tomorrow: part two of my adventures with the bank--which, thankfully, have so far not been adventurous at all.