Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Out and About in the Wilds of England

As promised, a little bit of insight into my psyche and my student exchange program in Liverpool, England…

My hero, Tom, who rode through the eye of a storm with me, always encouraging me to be me, let me live in his beautiful house on Lake Washington while I was finishing up my degree in Landscape Architecture. He lived out of town quite a bit of the time, but was contemplating a return to the Pacific Northwest, and being a lover of solitude, the least I could do to repay his  years of generosity was to find new digs. Fortunately, in poking around to find a place to live I learned about an exchange program between the UW and the University of Liverpool. It served not only to get me out of Tom’s house, but it gave me the much needed physical distance from everything and everybody, to shake up my world just a little bit more.

Things got off to a slightly shakey start before I ever left. Sparing you the painful details of boxing up my stuff at Tom’s and then the stuff that was still in my Ex’s house, I will share the sad and woeful tale of the “Romulan Do.” Knowing that I would be needing a hair-cut while I was gone, I decide to have my hair cut a little on the short side. No offense to anyone intended, but I said to the stylist, “I need it to be short, but still feminine. I don’t want it severe or butch.” Butch I got! I think he, a gorgeous man whose name I banished from my memory as soon as I saw my hair, thought I said just the opposite. I am not exaggerating when I say that it was six months until I needed a trim. Not a cut. A trim! I inherited my father’s hairline and all I can say is that I looked like Mark Lenard in the Balance of Terror episode from the original Star Trek Series.

My mother is from East Anglia, Suffolk, England. First stop on my adventure was a visit to my very entertaining relatives. When asking where I would be living I said something like, “I dunno, the University sets it up.” My Uncle strongly discouraged me from living in Toxteth; going on to describe the violence of the racially driven riots of the early 1980’s. Not ignoring his advice, I just let it drift to a distant corner of my memory, because this is bucolic England we are talking about. Not inner city Chicago or Philadelphia. On one rainy Sunday morning a week later I took a bus from the east coast of England to the west coast. It took around twelve hours. We passed through countryside, under Tudor-esque city gates, down narrow lanes, stopped at a military base, and then made our way to some of the UK’s largest industrial centers, Sheffield (watch “The Full Monty”) and then Liverpool. Eventually the bus driver had reached his final destination and parked us in a modern bus station on the eastern edge of downtown, where I was to be met by my advisor and tour guide.

Dragging luggage out from the belly of the beast, Steve, my advisor, plonked what I’d brought with me into the boot of his car. Now would be a great time to insert that I encouraged a very dear friend to come along, she, also a Landscape Architecture student and lover of travel. So, her stuff was plonked into the boot next to mine. His accent was fairly easy to follow, unlike quite a few people we were soon to meet, and we were given the lightning fast tour of town as we travelled down and around many a windy road. It was late, we were tired and hungry, and when the word Toxteth briefly came up. I thought, “Oh boy! Here we go.”

So, our dwellings… honestly, when people say, “You couldn’t make this stuff up,” believe the phrase. Steve, our only connection to the strange new world we found ourselves in, shared with us that we would be living in rooms above a homeless shelter with other students from other parts of the world. We were clearly in a different part of town. Burnt windowless brick buildings that were historic locations were now filled with trees, shrubs, weeds and other stray living matter. Trying to take this in as if it were absolutely no big deal, I sought to identify the local night life. Seeing as it was around 9:00 pm, Sunday and raining, there was little to be seen. Screeching to a halt I absorbed the front of a building recently built; brick, steel, glass, weeds, regularly located street lights, musty smell. “Hmmm,” I thought.

After fumbling with the keys, we made our way through a side door into a private elevator reserved for those dwelling above the homeless shelter. More musty smell accompanied by yellow fluorescent light, faux wood doors, off-white linoleum; the ambiance escorted us, our two backpacks and passel of keys. Facing the back wall of the building, if you went left, you went down the “Male” wing of the facility. If you went right, you met the ladies. So, another key lets us enter our wing. (My haircut might have made my presence questionable.) We reached my room first. It was about 10’X12’, and had a single bed, desk, armoire, bookshelf, night stand, side chair, and sink. A window was just above the headboard. All the furniture was faux brown wood.

Pamemelis’s room, right next door, was identical to mine. As it turned out all of our wing-mates from Zimbabwe, Birmingham, and London had rooms  that were identical. They had just heavily personalized and rearranged furniture. There were a total of six of us sharing the space. There were two water closets and one room with a bath tub. The other space was a communal living area that had two or three refrigerators, metal table and chairs, some old but functional furniture, and “stuff” covering the counter tops.

Now, I am by no stretch of the imagination a Prima Donna, but I had been living in a colorful, well furnished, architect designed, uber cool, several thousand square foot house (mostly by myself) with an extended lake and city view. So, I was a bit… giddy. Why giddy? No other word quite describes it; I wasn’t upset, horrified, underwhelmed, impressed, depressed, or repressed. I was thrilled to be there but it was a lot to take in. Moments after unloading back packs and other stuff we’d been advised to bring, Steve gave us brief directions to the University and then said he’d see us in the morning.

Fortunately, Annie Grace, from Zimbabwe, was a gregarious person who quickly made herself known and helped direct us to somewhere to eat. Pamemelis and I wandered the streets of Toxteth and looked for food. My memory tells me it was Indian, but it could have been a sandwich. Odd, I cannot remember. I just remember that everything was closed and we took what we could. Eventually we did find our way to and sat inside one of the most architecturally splendid pubs ever and sat about absorbing that we were there and our adventure was about to begin.

As an aside, many who would immigrate to the US from the UK in the 19th century would begin their journey West from Liverpool. As a way to earn the money for passage, many would enter the building trade. Some of the finest wood and marble craftsmanship can be found there.

Later we hoofed it back to the homeless shelter, cautiously looked around, identifying useful landmarks, and eventually made it back to the shelter, got ourselves inside after several failed attempts (the keys all looked the same) and put ourselves to bed. The morning would come soon enough. Now, if you’ve read my blog “Shh Woo” (dated January 6, 2012) you know that a curtain free, open window (stuck that way), strange space, was an unlikely location for me to be well rested in. The many nights to follow would prove the exception to the rule. More on this later…

The next morning was bright and sunny, though chilly, and we set off on the trek to the University, architecture department, location unknown. We began what was to become a daily habit of inspecting the narrow cobble road we walked along as part of our journey to school, as it was being replaced. The fellows working on the road were gentlemanly, helpful, and for the most part completely impossible to understand. Their Scouse accents so thick! I have wondered if I could have understood them if I would have heard them say, “Pity about that bloke and his voice. He sounds like a girl.”

Another regular habit began that morning; with literally no food to eat, we decided to find something along the way. At the edge of the campus we saw a long line of people, mostly construction workers, lined up outside a window. The smell emanating was rapturous. People walked away with varying breakfast sandwiches and cups of tea. If there were pastries and such, I don’t know, because my favorite became fried egg (yolk runny) with bacon (back bacon, not streaky bacon), brown sauce, tomato, on brown bread. OMG!! I could have easily eaten two if my budget had allowed for it! In the time that followed, I would start salivating the moment my foot hit the questionably stained concrete sidewalk outside our shelter.

It is here that we will continue the “Amazing Adventures of Celia in Liverpool!” We’ll cover a pub crawl, a leprechaun and the Sinn Féin (nothing like going to another country and getting caught up in its politics).

At this point in the adventure I was already reveling in my bravery and spunk. I was also keenly aware that I was already deciding whether I would return to the US or not. In previous trips to England and the rest of Europe I had wanted to stay and I knew that with the right set of circumstances (ie. a job) I could be easily persuaded to stay. A professor at the UW always said that you should work in a foreign country, it makes you more exotic. I believe him. In Liverpool there was no clutter or baggage, it was a clean slate, and only mine to fill.

Landscape Design Tip of the Week: Small textures make the space bigger, big textures bring the object forward, much like warm and cool colors on a painting. An issue I often get asked a great deal about is how to make a garden more interesting, my answer generally is, change up the textures. People seem to be afraid of plants and so they find one they like and they plant a bunch of it, or they plant a bunch that is similar, therefore it lacks something for the eye to grab onto. Like a painting you want your eye to seek out what is interesting and the rest should be a place where the eye can rest.