Yesterday, as I was returning from the library, two workmen were dismantling something atop this building, at the corner of my street. When I stepped to one side to try and get out of their way, one of them said to me in the undertoned way I've experienced so many times in this country, "You're all right, my love."
Today has been a day for realizing just how much about England is very familiar to me, after twelve years of being here intermittently, and just how much about my sense of landscape aesthetics--of how to see a landscape at all--has grown out of my time here. I read Alain de Botton's marvelous The Art of Travel (2002) in the days leading up to my journey, and I finished it just before we began our descent into Gatwick. Near the end of his essay "On the Exotic," de Botton summarizes ninteenth-century French novelist Gustave Flaubert's idea that national identity should be assigned "not according to the country of a person's birth or ancestral origins, but instead according to the places to which he or she was attracted" (96). I can remember coming home from England in 1996 and feeling as though I'd been transplanted to some alien planet; I can remember coming back from visiting my brother in 1999 and feeling intensely doubtful (and not a little confused) when the passport control official in Philadelphia greeted me with a cheery, "Welcome home!"
England is not, and probably will never be, my actual home country. And in many ways, it's no better (or worse) than the U.S. It's different. But many of the ways in which it's different are very congenial to me. I love the pedestrian-oriented nature of much of this country. I love that it would actually be an enormous pain for me to have a car here, rather than the other way around, and yet that I can walk to everything I need (and probably to most, if not all, things I want). I love that there are buildings here that predate the eighteenth century--and that the city centre, at least, is densely built enough that it can't be modernized beyond recognition or individual identity. History is visible here in a way that it simply isn't in much of the U.S.
I love specific brands that I can get here. I love that I can get not only Nescafe Gold Blend in almost any size I want but also a grocery store knock-off of Gold Blend that's every bit as good and half the price. I love that English milk and yogurt don't upset my stomach, so that I don't have to pay triple the price for special milk just to be able to eat cereal. And I love that people will call you "love" pretty much everywhere: even though part of me feels as though it should perhaps bristle when I'm called "love" or "my love" by a random man on the sidewalk, more of me appreciates those little fillips of consideration.
For some reason, I awoke extraordinarily early today. When I realized by 7:15 that I was not going to fall asleep again, I also realized that I should take advantage of being awake for morning light, which I don't typically see. With my brief morning routine over, I headed out for a walk--and decided to explore the strange road/footpath that (according to Google Maps) disappears somewhere west of here.
No one was around when I set out. I walked westward past the rugby practice field that borders my college, then watched the asphalt path get choppier and choppier. In not much time, I reached a barbed wire fence that could have been with me in mid-Ohio.
And yet on the other side of the path was a mix of fruits familiar and strange. Another member of the college had alerted us to the presence of edible blackberries along that walk (though anyone who's seen The Good Girl is, I suspect, unlikely to be too cavalier about eating strange blackberries). But no one told me about whatever this fruit is:
And it was right about this time that I realized that though I could in fact see a continuation of my path, I didn't feel like walking any further without having alerted someone, somewhere, about where I was and what I was up to. I turned around and headed back toward the asphalt, there in the morning haze. By the time I reached my room, it was only 8:15 a.m., and I still seemed to be the only person awake (though I know that I wasn't; I'd actually seen some of our resident families eating breakfast in their flats' kitchens even before I set out).
Though I did get through some reading (and furniture rearrangement!) this morning and afternoon, my chief business involved getting to know the city centre (and chiefly its bookstores) more thoroughly. Strangely, bottles of black ink seem to be less common here than I'd have expected, and I'll be damned if I don't keep forgetting to buy an umbrella while I'm out shopping--an absence of mind that's going to come back to bite me soon if I'm not careful.
I've decided that one problem I'm experiencing with my pictures in the city centre and of the colleges is a direct result of my almost never having both hands free while I'm shooting. Tomorrow, I'm going to endeavor to perform only one task at a time: grocery shopping or taking pictures, for instance. And movie-going. And, possibly, dining out--because though my college's food is wonderful so far, the kitchen is closed on weekends.
It's feeling more and more like home already. I'm all right, my love.