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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.


( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 12th, 2004 09:29 pm (UTC)
I must agree with you on the squirrels.

Most of my discoveries were to do with necessities in life - food and public transport. I found new things when I came, and I'll miss them when I leave - especially if I do make it to Germany.

Actually, I remember a few other things that I just couldn't believe Canadians put up with - e.g. paying for bank transactions or to receive phone calls, but it was just minor surprise I think.

The biggest group of people I'd not come into contact with before were the bow-hunters. I respect their dedication, but I don't understand their fascination. However, I think that going to the outskirts of Vancouver to go do archery etc. has helped me to see some of the parts and inhabitants of this country that I would not otherwise have seen if I'd stayed in the middle of the city.

Interestingly enough, I still feel some sense of wonder when I go down into the US, even Seattle, which I visit regularly.
Nov. 13th, 2004 03:51 am (UTC)
But it is the realization of their dream to be in a place where there was a Middle Ages.

And sometimes one thinks it's a place still in the Middle Ages...
(Deleted comment)
Nov. 13th, 2004 04:56 am (UTC)
Even for a Canadian, the squirrels in Queen's Park were the biggest difference for me when I moved there to do my MA. Of course, we don't have squirrels in the part of Saskatchewan that I'm from so they were a wonderful source of entertainment.
It's funny...I'm off to Israel on Monday for two weeks and I was just thinking how jaded I've become. I don't really look forward to going anymore, it's just another trip to Israel for me. I've been doing it so often that I've lost that sense of wonderment at the newness of the place.
I do, however, sometimes look around Cardiff and I can't believe that I actually live in the UK. It's weird how that happens.
Nov. 15th, 2004 06:39 am (UTC)
Safe travels today!

It's good to know the squirrels weren't just odd for someone from a different country. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised given that the north-south commonalities between any given region of Canada and the US tend to be closer than the east-west ones within either country.
Nov. 13th, 2004 01:41 pm (UTC)
I think you probably did miss a lot of the wonder of going to Britain for the first time.

Growing up in the Silicon Valley, Britain, and all of Europe was a strange dream until I fist made it there. In the Bay Area, we mark historical sites from 60 years ago. In Britain, a little bit of research will quickly afford one nearly-forgotten relics of the iron and bronze ages--I remember wandering all over Arthur's Seat (Edinburgh) looking for just the right angle to see the terraces of the iron-age hill-settlements, and hunting all around for one of the holy wells there, only to find that I had walked over that rock a dozen times, never noticing the depression that used to collect spring water.

In St Andrews, an easy walk into the country would take me from the Castle past the Cathedral on my way down the beaches to a ring-fort, surrounded by brambles, which I endeavored to reach in a rainstorm. Unfortunately, the brambles and the sliding mud prevented me from making it up the hill it stood upon, so I merely glimpsed it. Another direction and I would go past a pictish burial mound, early mill-run and extant mill (now a cheery house), under a bridge that was surely in use before the road belonged to automobiles, out to Magus Muir, where Archbishop Sharp was murdered, and the gravestone of martyred covenanters stands in the middle of the farmers' fields.

It was hard not to be struck by wonder.
Nov. 13th, 2004 05:02 pm (UTC)
I've never gone to another place with an agenda of finding a new life

I'm far too repressive to talk about having done so, especially with graduation coming up and zero desire to go back to ON.

That being said--I've never had an agenda the way that my forebears did, who came here four generations ago with the clothes on their backs &c &c &c ... I want to say that a new life finds us regardless, but that to me would be to trivialize their agendizing, as it were. Hrrmph. ::represses some more::

But yeah--the squirrels. The squirrels here (fat, brown) were out of my experience too. And the candy--it isn't the same either. Maybe these are more basic human things than I suppose ;)
Nov. 14th, 2004 06:47 am (UTC)
Black squirrels! I've heard so many Americans say that was the shocker for them, including my mom, and she's been here for 30+ years. *g*
Nov. 14th, 2004 08:36 am (UTC)
I find it telling that you really dislike those little black squirrels, those first bits of culture shock for you.

What if all bits of culture shock bothered you in this way? No fun, no fun at all. It might very well be a good thing that you missed some of the culture-shock-gee-whillickers-wonder thing that so many of us are having in a new country. It might have been all scary and bleak for you.
Nov. 15th, 2004 06:40 am (UTC)
Re: Telling
So true. It's a good thing I'm blasé about most things then. Or something like that.
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )