It began upon my graduation from university, that hallowed place which I’d been preparing to attend and graduate from since elementary school. I don’t regret investing in a university education at all. It was a period of growth that I’d never trade. But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t feel underwhelmed after graduation. I left with honours. Yet no headhunter ever called. There was no golden ticket in the Wonka chocolate bar of my life. I was still responsible for my fate.
My retail job was pleasant for the most part. But I was in my mid-20s, and I knew I couldn’t stay. If I did, I feared I might lose my vocational vision permanently. One night, a couple of my friends who’d lived in London for a number of years, and were coming back to Canada, suggested I could take my university degree and get a lot further with it in England. And since I have English heritage, a visa would be no problem.
Something clicked. I made plans to go, and to take a friend of mine with me. I finished up with my job that summer, and moved back home for a month to save my pennies for my great adventure. I left for England in September, unafraid. I was, in fact, extremely excited. I’d been reading about London, seeing it on TV, and hearing music coming from there all my life. Now I was going there to become a Londoner!
When I got to Gatwick, still excited, I was met by a friend of my friend, both of whom had secured a flat for us in the East End of London in a district called Poplar near All Saints Church. It was located just to the south of Bow, where the Bow bells ring every Sunday (and within the hearing of the Bow Bells are born the true Cockneys). It was when we got to the dreary and unromantic Shadwell neighbourhood in the East End that I realized fully the implications of what I’d done by moving there. And I was horrified.
The East End felt alien to me, claustrophobic. Outside, the houses seemed piled on top of each other; inside, they seemed cramped and dull . Everyone we spoke to was nice enough. But they all asked what we thought we were doing moving to the East End, a place not noted for its affluence. Pretty soon, I was asking myself the same thing. I had no job. And in the age when the Internet was only just emerging as a means of communication, I had no friends, and no immediate network to make friends. Just a week into my stay, I wondered what I’d got myself into.
Then one day, I went to the supermarket. I might have been feeling pretty worried by this time, spending my Canadian pesos in Britain, where the pound was worth twice as much, and me without a job.
But then I saw it.
It was an aisle. A whole aisle!
It shone like a Renaissance halo of glory as if painted by Leonardo da Vinci and contained all manner of lagers, ales, bitters, stouts. There were bottles. There were cans. There were tall ones. There were wide and stocky ones. There were imported, Belgian beers. There were locally brewed ones. They were all beautiful.
Now, I don’t want to give you the wrong idea. My wonderment and awe was not out of a feeling that I could blithely drown my sorrows. You see, my problem was that I thought I’d arrived in an alien world, a place where I would never belong. But the beer aisle in the supermarket reminded me that I was in a culture that routinely celebrates the simple pleasures.
I was reminded of the cultural emphasis on the simple pleasures again when I went a few aisles over to see the lines of chocolate digestive biscuits, and jaffa cakes (complete with the ‘smashing orangey bit’). This feeling continued when I first tried fish and chips wrapped in newsprint. It was through these simple pleasures that I realized that I could, in fact, make my home there. It was the breakthrough I needed.
I got a job, after temping for a bit. Through my friend, I was eventually connected into a vital network of other friends, a number of whom I made lifelong friendships with, and with whom I share some of the best memories of my life. The single year I was to spend in London turned into six years. Much like my university years, it was a period of massive personal growth. And I learned that in order to make friends with a Brit, all you need is a tea bag, milk, boiling water, and a cup.
“Beer” LWY @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“St Mary-le-Bow” by Steve Cadman, Wikicommons.