Wednesday, February 9, 2011

r.i.p., proper caffs

My first week has passed-- off to Poland tomorrow. This adventure has yet to feel adventurous. England is too familiar, my friends here too numerous and longstanding. Inevitably when I travel I hit that "Toto, we're not in Kansas anymore" moment, but still, I don't feel aware of the distance between Here and There.

In some ways, England is not quite as I left it the last time (leaving London for Marrakesh with Bryan)-- there's no stepping into the same river twice, of course. The recession and its associated misery is immediately evident here: the articles on unemployment and intensifying racial hostilities, the boarded up shops, the growing number of methadone clinics. And while McDonalds and Burger King are a familiar blight on the English landscape, since that vagabond honeymoon of sorts with B, Wal-Mart has taken over, Starbucks are pushing out the "proper caffs" (as they call their lovely local tea shops), and at the edges of the cities "retail parks" are spreading. Don't let the word park fool you-- they're out of the way strip malls of big box stores built around parking lots. Little America Townships spilling over the UK. Another something for me to mourn. At 20, the UK seemed a literary aspirant's refuge; at 25, it sometimes feels like America with prettier buildings and funnier accents.

Of course, I've changed too. Beyond my inventory of gains and losses, the growing up and the shifts in perspectives and values (no stepping into the same river twice indeed). In my year volunteering with Oxfam, I never really warmed to Oxford. It always seemed exclusive and unfriendly; a playground for old money and antiquated notions, with a postcard prettiness I distrusted. But returning this week for the first time since 2006, it felt like paradise. The bookshops and the constant crank of passing bicycles, the gargoyles leering from the stones, the gardens sprawling from the Isis. As I get older, I think I become more comfortable with my own intellect, and feel more at ease with the life it entails. Keeping it real in the Rust Belt grime has done me no favors. I could use some a prettier place to ride my bike and drink my Earl Grey. Handsome boys in glasses to lust over between the library stacks. It makes me more anxious for those grad school letters soon to start arriving. To settle down in a new life-- be done with this rootless, homeless, widowed one.

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