November 12th, 2004

Fishy Circumstances


Just now I was browsing through the LJs of the members of the medievalstudies community. Several of them are Americans, a month or two into their programs at UK unis, and they are experiencing a new country with fresh eyes. The sweets aisle offers major surprises. Bonfire night is unfamiliar. But it is the realization of their dream to be in a place where there was a Middle Ages. Some leave because they have family members to run away from, or because they never felt at home in their native land. (And the recent election has absolutely nothing to do with this in their cases.)

I don't remember my first trip to the UK with many points of cultural difference. I was 10, it was a sabbatical year, and we lived in central London. Goodenough House was full of international academic families. I was placed in a school more laidback than most. Perhaps uniforms didn't seem odd to me because of the grembule from preschool. I remember some of the process of learning English vs. American words, but that's still a sporadically ongoing process. I don't remember anything striking about going to the grocery story or commuting to school (although I'd never used the Underground on my own before).

Surely, at some point, I found excitement in exploring all the new kinds of candy. The only kind I remember were unbranded loose sour lemon candies from the sweets truck that parks at my school each noontime. The only excitement I remember about bonfire night was fear of effigy burning; then again, I've always been prone to suggestion.

Have I missed out on a sense of wonder? Did I miss the mystery of exploring the world? I like going places, seeing new things, eating unfamiliar foods (well, with some limits). I like to believe I see beauty and wonder in the world, that I notice the unfamiliarities.

Perhaps the real difference is that I've never gone to another place with an agenda of finding a new life. Canada is as close as I've come, since I knew I would be here a while when I came back the second time. My first trip to Canada was in the summer of '97. I came up to Toronto, to the University of Toronto, to study Latin for the summer. I had six weeks in which to see the city, be a tourist, learn Latin, and probably never return. The biggest point of difference for me wasn't candy, unknown celebrations, or currency; it was the black-furred squirrels running around in Queen's Park. I hadn't expected them, at all. They weren't the red or grey squirrels I'd grown up with. When I consider the places I've been, the sights, the unexpected... I think the black squirrels of Toronto are still my most memorable experience of culture shock.