How to Cross the Street and Other Lessons I Learned in England

By Grace Marie Wierenga, with some jokes by Brett Wierenga 

Ten months ago, my husband and I arrived in Oxford, England, laden with four large suitcases, two carry-on bags, and two backpacks, sporting the chunky winter coats we couldn’t fit anywhere else.

Brett is currently studying for his master’s degree in Economic History, an interdisciplinary field all but extinct in the United States, and I’m waitressing at a nearby burger joint, where the manager decided that having a girl from the Land of Burgers on staff would up the place’s cool factor.

 Here in England, I’ve learned about British mannerisms, history, and literature. I’ve learned that you absolutely will not get your check at a restaurant unless you flap your arms wildly because they’re too busy ignoring you and that enthusiasm is a dead give-away for a Yankee. (Canadians may share our accent but not our verve.)

 All of this, however, remains peripheral to the real lessons of the year, lessons that have less to do with England and more to do with life on the outside of Hillsdale’s close intellectual community, ready-made cafeteria food, and nearby friends.

Since graduating, I’ve taken a 19-credit course load in settling into a new life. So, here are my reflections—a non-exhaustive list—of things I’ve picked-up as a newly graduated stranger in a strange land:

The first hurdle was leaving the apartment. Cars here zoom by on the wrong side of the road and bikes weave through the streets, tiny handlebar-bells casting aspersions on lowly pedestrians, leaving the uncertain expat stranded on every corner. The safest strategy is to follow a competent-looking British man or woman—even a confident child will do—across the street, then flounce by said British person so he doesn’t realize that you were using him as a crossing guard. What driver would risk a two-pedestrian lawsuit?

Next, I learned to feed myself. When we first arrived, we did not have a piece of cutlery to our names. In the first week, we snagged plastic sporks from the place that sold their boxed sushi at half price in the half hour before closing. After accumulating such necessities, I scoped out the local grocery store and slowly learned—after a few bewildering laps and corresponding Google searches—that a zucchini is a courgette, crisps are chips, chips are French fries, corn meal doesn’t exist (how do you have chili without cornbread?), chocolate chips and baking soda come in impossibly small packages, and nothing—not eggs, not vegetables, not fruit—is refrigerated. Back at home, it took Brett’s matrix algebra to convert grams, ounces, millilitres [sic], and tablespoons in order to recreate local “cuisine”. And to top it off, potted herbs die here when you don’t water them.

More importantly, I’ve learned how to be a tourist in my own home. I watch for interesting fliers and posters along the roads, advertising concerts, lectures, and absolutely anything that happens at my favorite bookstore. I Google “interesting literary sights in Oxford” or “Oxford festivals” and snap iPhone pictures of beautiful buildings on my way to work. I plan my weekends so that we can make it to the opening day of the G.K. Chesterton library or go hear local authors talk about their latest works at a bookstore. Make plans, try everything, and get up on Saturday morning. It seems like the obvious thing to do here, but it can be done anywhere, and as you “tour” your place, you in fact become a participant.

     With the place comes the people, and moving to England sent me back to the basics of friendship. Making friends can happen quickly and anywhere, like being struck by lightning. Within two weeks of arriving in Oxford, I had met two couples that I was sure were our kindred spirits. We connected over shared goals, new marriages, and life in Oxford; we were easily and quickly hanging out, almost like the first few dates of a relationship. But having friends is less like lightning and more like spring rains: it took sustained conversation, many board games, and planning birthday parties for our spirits to become kin. And so I’ve learned that even those “meant to be” friendships can’t be sped up, no matter how many rounds of Bananagrams you play. I’ve had to remind myself that the great friends I spent time with during my senior year weren’t always my bosom friends, that it took time to grow together through late nights in the library and long spring break car trips.

And now, as we turn to getting all that stuff back in our suitcases, carry-ons, and backpacks and heading back to the States, I know that I’ve really only scratched the surface of my newest endeavor: life on the other side of a Bachelor’s degree. I’ll keep learning, making friends, touring my place, and figuring out where to find the zucchinis at the grocery store for some time to come.

GraceMarie Wierenga graduated in 2014 with a degree in English.

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