Grad Life: Bristling in Bristol

The Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol

By Naomi Perley

The back-to-school Facebook statuses started pouring in over the past couple of days: “I love teaching 8:00am sections. (Repeat until it feels true.)” “FELLOW ADJUNCTS: can anyone tell me how the hell to make my courses available on BlackBoard 9.0?” “I can already tell which of my two sections I’m going to like more…” “Kicking off the semester with a premium, unleaded panic attack.” I can sense through the internet the anxiety, excitement, ennui, optimism, that accompanies the beginning of yet another semester at the GC, and yet I feel strangely removed from it. For the first time in my life, I am not going back to school at the end of August.

At the end of May, I packed up my Williamsburg apartment, found a subletter for the summer, cleared out my filing cabinet at Hunter College, emptied my locker in the music students’ lounge at the GC, and moved to Bristol, a small city in southwest England. Before I left New York, I had carefully scripted answers for all of the obvious questions, answers I got used to chirping out several times a day during my last week or two in the city: “My boyfriend started a PhD program at the University of Bristol last September, so I am moving over there to be with him.” “No, I’ll still be a student at the GC. I’m done all my coursework, and the faculty are really supportive of students who need to move away while they work on their dissertations.” “Well, I know it won’t be as exciting as New York, but really, I think I need a break from all the excitement. I don’t know how I would work on a dissertation while living here and teaching and everything.”

I have been here in Bristol for over two months now, and I’m still not entirely convinced that I have, in fact, moved here. Reading about all my friends starting the new semester evoked a curious double response in me. On the one hand, it made my move to Bristol seem somehow irrevocable—the new semester is starting this week, and I am not flying back in a couple of days to make my Tuesday morning class at Hunter. But at the same time, it feels like I am still on summer vacation, and any day now I am going to wake up in my bed in my Williamsburg apartment to discover that the last two months have just been some kind of surreal dream. Then I’ll get dressed and go to school, like normal.

In a sense, I really am still on summer vacation. The English university system has many quirks, not least of which is the trimester system: instead of having a fall and a winter semester, like most American schools, English universities have three shorter semesters. When I arrived in Bristol in mid-June, the University of Bristol’s Summer term was just wrapping up. The autumn term doesn’t begin until October 1.

Because of the protracted summer vacation, I haven’t met too many musicians or musicologists since I arrived. One of the musicology professors at the University of Bristol invited me to attend the musicology department’s weekly seminars, but they don’t hold any seminars during the summer. I found a choir I’d like to join, but I arrived in Bristol just in time to see their summer concert—after which they take a break from rehearsing until September. I even discovered, through the internet, the Bristol Music Club: a real British club, with a quaint little clubhouse with a bright blue door. For the paltry membership fee of thirty pounds per year, I can let myself in (yes, I have a key to the clubhouse!) and practice on any one of their three grand pianos whenever I please. During the year, they host concerts at the clubhouse once every two weeks, and I’m sure I’ll enjoy attending them and perhaps playing at them—but alas, like the choir, I arrived in time to attend their final concert of the season before the club broke for the summer.

So, I have spent my summer looking for an apartment, moving in, buying furniture, doing all the things you do to try to create a new life for yourself after you move across an ocean. But without a job, or seminars, or rehearsals, I can’t help but feel adrift—like I have moved into a permanent summer vacation. I am living in this city, for awhile, but I don’t really live my life in it yet.

In lieu of finding my niche in the academic life of the city, I have spent my summer trying to acclimate to British life and culture. When I moved to New York from Ottawa (via a few years in Montreal), I braced myself for culture shock. I was surprised to find that I felt more at home in New York after one week than I ever did over four years in Montreal. It must have had something to do with being exposed to large quantities of Seinfeld during my developing years. Moving to Bristol, I made the opposite mistake. I assumed that living in England couldn’t be too different from living in Canada—after all, we share a head of state and a number of traditional spellings that mystify Americans. It took me maybe two weeks to realize that the fraternity of the Commonwealth had nothing against a large ocean and a couple of hundred years of intervening history. England is further away from Canada than I could have ever imagined.

The first shock to my system was the rain and the cold. The last week that I was in New York, it was already too hot and humid, over ninety degrees most days. The entire first month I was in Bristol, I doubt the temperature crept up past seventy degrees. I think it must have rained enough in that first month to flood lower Manhattan. The lowest point for me, the day when I nearly convinced myself that the weather was some sort of sign from above that I was not meant to be in Bristol, came on Canada Day, July 1. I was already somewhat depressed at the thought of not getting to celebrate the 145th anniversary of Canada’s Confederation in my hometown, the nation’s capital. But I maintained hope that we could at least partake in some Canadian summer fun from this side of the Atlantic. The British weather, however, had other plans in mind. When we woke up on Canada Day, it was cold, wet, and grey outside. Nonetheless, we set out on a stroll around Bristol’s harbor. Not five minutes after we left the apartment, I tripped on the wet, slippery, uneven cobblestones, and landed on my butt. My jeans, my white tote bag, my hands, everything was covered in mud. My boyfriend picked up my bag, pulled me up from the street, and we turned around and trudged home, defeated.

I have since acclimated to the weather. I always take my rain jacket or umbrella (or both) when I leave the house, even if it’s perfectly sunny when I leave. And I’ve come to realize that even if it rains most days, there is also a little sun most days—it’s just a matter of luck whether you make it outside before it starts raining again. And while I have mostly gotten used to the rainy weather, I am still struggling with another aspect of English life: British accents. Of course I find the accents I hear on a daily basis all quite charming in the way that English speakers around the world are usually enthralled with the accents of those who speak the same language but come from far away. But what seeps in when you start to live your life somewhere else—when you have day-to-day conversations with the locals—is a sense of bemusement over the tiny differences. When I tried to spell out my email address for the secretary of the choir, we hit a major road bump at the “dot” before the “com.” I said “dot” over and over again, and she just stared at me uncomprehendingly. I tentatively offered, “uhhh…. a period?” before remembering that the British don’t say period. I turned to my boyfriend, mutely begging him through my eyes to “translate” for me, trying to remember whether “full-stop” meant a comma or a period or something else altogether. When we finally succeeded in getting the point across to her, the poor woman told me that she thought, from my accent, that I had been saying “dart” over and over, not “dot.” I may have been asked a few times in New York if my accent was from “the Northeast” (by which people always meant Maine or Massachusetts; Canada didn’t really enter into their consciousness as another northern possibility), but at least people always knew what I meant when I said “dot.”

Every time I think I’ve gotten the hang of it, I inevitably discover a new way to make an ass of myself in normal conversation. The other day, I was trying to arrange a job interview with a prospective employer. He said he would like me to come in at midday on Friday. “Midday?” I asked, “what time?” He just repeated his first answer: “Midday.” I started to suspect that the term midday meant something more specific than just “the middle of day, after breakfast, before dinner.” “Noon?” I asked him. “Yes, I said midday,” he replied.

When I was in New York, I found it rather funny to be referred to as an “international student.” Everyone knows that Canadians aren’t really foreigners, they’re just members of this bizarre annex to the United States that seems a little like a lost fifty-first state. So I was taken aback when the host of the pub quiz that we go to every week referred to my boyfriend and me as “foreigners” without any hint of irony. I’ve come to realize that he’s right. Moving to the United Kingdom might be pretty tame in comparison with some places where GC students relocate to do dissertation work—not  only is it a solidly developed country, but the people here speak (some form of) English. If I had moved to any other country in Europe, where they at least speak a different language, I’d have a little more migratory street cred. But I find England to be foreign enough for now.

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