When I finally made it to the city of Wilming, I had only spoken to two other people. There was the border guard, who asked a few questions (very impolitely), and the taxi driver, who I couldn’t get to stop talking, even though I couldn’t understand a word he said. Was he even speaking English? I tried replying to him making noncommittal noises, but ended up desperately staring at my phone, trying to give him a clear hint that I wanted to be alone with my thoughts. I needn’t have bothered; he just seemed to like the sound of his own voice, and it didn’t seem to matter whether I responded or not.
The next person I met was the secretary at the admissions office, who brusquely gave me a huge pile of papers, brochures and forms to fill out and return the next day, ‘Don’t lose them’, she admonished, and topped it all with a map with a big red X showing me where my ‘digs’ were. Before I could ask any questions she was speaking to the next student. I tried to figure out where I was, and realised with a sinking heart my accommodation was miles away. I took a wrong turn several times, avoiding eye contact with anyone I met, and dragging my rather noisy and wobbly suitcase behind me, it felt as if one of the wheels was about to come off, maybe it was a sign of things to come.
The first ‘real’ people I would meet in the UK would be my two new flatmates. I had been late getting an offer of accommodation from the university due to a delayed application; everything seemed to get lost in the post, or swallowed up on the internet. They had placed me in student halls, in a shared apartment with two other students, and I’ll admit, I was really nervous: Would they be nice? Would they like me? And worse: Would I be able to understand them?
The stereotype always goes that English people are gentlemanly and polite. That wasn’t entirely true of my first impressions of Craig, the first new housemate I met: He opened the door as I fumbled for the key, which was in an envelope tucked in amongst all the paperwork. With rising horror I thought, how am I going to tell my parents I am sharing with an English man? They would be scandalised. Oh well, what they didn’t know, wouldn’t hurt them.
He was wearing a dressing gown, and introduced himself in a friendly yet groggy way, having just woken up at what was now midday, and I don’t think he noticed the look of shock on my face. I calmed myself, and politely asked him if he was unwell, but he just grinned. I could have kicked myself, I didn’t feel the need to ask why he was up so late, and why he looked so tired, I could guess, I had read all about binge drinking, but hadn’t expected to meet a victim quite so soon. We had a brief, slightly timid conversation to introduce ourselves, with it turning towards where I was from.
‘Ah, Indonesia’, said Craig, ‘I’ve heard of it but I’ve never been…’, adding with a sudden burst of enthusiasm, ‘I went to Thailand once though…’
I wanted to respond sarcastically, something like ‘You’re from England? Well, I know someone from Finland!’, but I didn’t. Explanations could wait a while, until he knew me well enough to not take offence.
‘Thailand is nice,’ I replied, simply.
As the conversation faded away, he stumbled back to the kitchen. So far so good, I thought. I mean, the conversation wasn’t actually that good, but I hadn’t embarrassed myself too much, and at least I had understood him, so hey, you take what you can get!
For a few minutes, I stood in the living room alone, but it was a welcome chance for me to gather my thoughts. Craig shuffled off to what I presume was the kitchen, but I didn’t want to follow him, it might seem a little needy. After the flight, and buses and taxis, all the moving around and the new settings, it was just too much ‘newness’, and to be alone with my thoughts for a while was nice. Besides which, I didn’t know where my room was. But, I’d made it! I was here! In England!
My moment of introspection didn’t last long though, the peace was suddenly shattered by Penelope, who seemed to have heard me arrive, or so I gathered from what she said, but as I would come to learn, she was always one to be fashionably, or should I say annoyingly, late.
‘I just heard you sweety, how are you?’
Sweety? OMG! I had no idea how to respond, and suddenly I wanted to run and hide. ‘Tired,’ I said. Words never flowed when I spoke English. My brain would always have so much to say, but my mouth only easily uttered single words.
‘Poor thing. Here, let me make you some tea. That always helps, right? You can’t beat a cup of tea! Take the weight off.’
Did she think I was fat? Tea? Well, there’s one stereotype that holds up, that gave me something to grab hold of. I felt on solid ground with tea. ‘Thank you’, I replied, ‘that would be lovely.’
She walked into the kitchen to put the kettle on, and from the lack of conversation between her and Craig, I assumed they either didn’t get along, or he had simply fallen asleep. From my earlier meeting with him, I would bet the latter.
The worst thing when meeting people was the awkwardness: What do I do? Where do I stand and how? What should I do with my hands? Should I stay standing, or should I sit down? I tried to look normal, which of course meant I looked extremely out of place, as if I had been teleported onto a stage set and told to ‘act naturally’.
‘Do you want milk?’ she called out, breaking the silence.
‘I’d prefer tea’, I replied. I was quite shocked at how rude she sounded, I had always been taught to say “Would you like…” when offering someone something.
‘No’, said Penelope with a laugh, ‘do you take milk in your tea?’
Milk? In tea? Ugh! Why would anyone do that, I thought?
‘No, thanks’, I said politely, trying not to sound disgusted.
After a few minutes., she came back out and handed me a mug of tea, it was huge!
‘There you go,’ she said, ‘A nice cuppa. That will put hairs on your chest.’
What? I took hold of the monstrosity and stared at its contents. It was unrecognisable as tea, very black, and it looked slightly oily. I’ve never drank anything as quickly in my life. It was so strong and bitter, but I gulped it down, just to end the whole horrible experience. It was more like taking medicine, than relaxing with a “cuppa”.
‘Gosh, you’re a fan! It would take me half an hour to get through a pint of tea. Do you want another?’
‘No!’ I shrieked without thinking. I composed myself, and gave a slight cough. ‘No, thank you. it’s okay, I don’t want the caffeine to get to me.’
‘It’s only just gone midday…’ Penelope said, trailing off.
As I told you earlier, I have never been good with introductions, not even in my native language, and this experience wasn’t going to change that record. Now to add to all the newness of moving somewhere different for the first time, I was left with the additional worry of my new flatmate Penelope, and her worrying that her tea wasn’t good enough for me. It wasn’t good at all, but I didn’t want to be the one to tell her.
She retreated to more solid ground, and asked me where I was from. This was going to become a question I would hear a lot. After I told her, she seemed to become more interested in me, as if being from a different country meant I was wearing a label of ‘possible tour guide and free accommodation for next summer!’
She kept talking about how nice Indonesia looked and how she had always wanted to go there, but at least it avoided any further conversation about her awful, black, oily tea.
I changed the subject, asking how she came to be in a shared flat.
‘I was a little late in sorting out halls. When I got round to it, they were all full…’
That didn’t surprise me in the slightest, but when Penelope showed me to my room I realised arriving late into shared accommodation was even worse. My room was tiny: just enough room for a single bed, a table and chair, and a small wardrobe. It was quite gloomy too, as it only had one window, high up in the wall, facing another brick wall. It wasn’t a room, it was a cell.
‘It’s not much,’ said Penelope sheepishly, ‘…but it’s home.’
At this point, Craig yelled out from the kitchen, it really sounded like he was just waking up. I realised I hadn’t even seen the kitchen yet, not wanting to seem presumptuous, and I hoped it was nice as I had a suspicion I’d be spending a lot of time there.
‘Let’s take our new friend into town!’ he shouted down the hall.
‘After last night?’ Penelope shouted back. It was like being in the local fish market!
‘No, I mean just around town. A cafe or something.’
‘That sounds fine,’ but get that washing up done first. It’s your turn and we don’t want our new flatmate to think we are slobs.’ She turned to me and said, ‘I don’t have that much to do right now. Do you want to join us… Um. What is your name? Sorry, we didn’t ask!’
‘Julie,’ I replied, ‘… and yes I would love to go into town.’
‘Excellent, I’ll go and get ready. See you in two ticks!’
About half an hour later, we left to get coffee. It cost me more than a meal for two back home, but at least I managed to get rid of the taste of Penelope’s tea.