Things I Have Learned At Grad School That Have Absolutely Nothing Whatever To Do With Grad School.

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I am very much supposed to be studying right now, but the first few lines of the page I’m looking at run as follows:
“colored pictures/ of all things to eat: dirty/ postcards/ And words words words/ All over everything/ No eyes or ears left/ to do their own doings….” Thanks for that Charles Olson, you’re the man alright.
So you tell me, would you rather wade through 165 pages of that, or have a little blog instead? šŸ˜‰

Ok, things I have learned at grad school that have nothing whatever to do with grad school.

1) The cleaning lady that your roommate hires will never show up on the day she’s supposed to show up, nor at the time she’s supposed to show up, nor will your roommate be home to deal with her, nor will she ever (no really, never ever) put a new garbage bag in the bin after she takes the trash out.
1.a) I’m not being ungrateful, I promise, I have to pay half the cleaning lady’s wage. No spoilt brats looking gift horses in their mouths here. Scout’s honor.
1.b) The span of my stretched arm… is still shorter than the depth of the bin, making it pretty darn impossible for me to retrieve the used teabag I have invariably thrown in it before noticing it lacked a bag.

2) In the event of a zombie apocalypse DO NOT GO IN THE BUNKER. If the bunker is already occupied the people in it will have gone seven kinds of crazy and will trap you in there with them before carrying out what they take to be a mercy mass murder so you can all die together and no longer have to suffer fear of zombies. If the bunker is unoccupied, it will be you that goes seven kinds of crazy if you go in it and hunker down. DO NOT GO IN THE BUNKER.
2.a) In the event of a zombie apocalypse, the hero or heroin of the hour will always be complaining of some kind of melancholy or another. I believe this to be the physical ill-effects of camping out on the moral high ground. The air is thin up there.
2.b) I watch too much Netflix.

3) All take-out delivery people are inveterately awkward, and will stand there for a weird moment after you’ve taken the food and tipped them. This will make you think there’s something you’ve forgotten or something else you need to do, or a receipt you have to sign, so you won’t go back into your apartment or close the door, you just stand there, awkwardly, expectantly… they will then nod and say something like “alright, yeah… thank you” before wandering vaguely away. Options for causes of this phenomenon include, but are not limited to, excessive drug use among delivery people, or excessive loneliness among delivery people.

4) Starbucks black coffee, while not amazing (and not even close to the “Buffalo Soldier” Bob Marley coffee my Mum sends me – thanks mum!) is not that bad. It is, for example, miles better than library coffee. This might be because library coffee is brewed with the tears of despairing failing-grade undergraduates.
4.a) The Bob Marley coffee got me back into Bob Marley music. Reggae is very soothing, especially when pumped out of speakers very loud while my roommate is out and I can dance around the kitchen while cooking.
4.b) The sudden return of my roommate has, on more than one occasion, caused me to scamper back to my room to turn Bob off. Reggae is not to be shared with my roommate, who listens to some electro-dance dirge masquerading as music.
4.c) My roommate has painful taste in music.

5) Even though I know Michael Myers is a fictional character, and that I live on the 12th floor, and that the building has 24-hr doormen, and that both the front door and the bathroom door are locked… I will still periodically check for murderers if I hear a noise while I’m in the shower and home alone.
5.a) There are never any murderers in the bathroom when I’m in the shower and home alone.
5.b) I watch too much Netflix.

6) England should absolutely jump on the flavored-cream-cheese bandwagon. Chipotle cream cheese is the bomb. We will not talk about pineapple cream cheese, someone probably got fired for pineapple cream cheese.
6.a) Nussbaum & Wu do the best toasted “everything” bagel with cream cheese on the upper west side. (An “everything” bagel, by-the-by, has poppy seeds, sesame seeds, little flecks of roasted onion and big flakes of sea salt baked into the outside of it. They are AMAZING, especially if you don’t care about onion breath.)
6.b) I have, heretofore, apparently underestimated my appreciation of cream cheese.
6.c) People who order and egg-white bagel with bacon…are dietary delusionists.

7) England should absolutely ignore the flavoured-oreo bandwagon… No sane people think Watermelon Oreos sound like a good call.

8) Sriracha makes all savory foods taste better.

9) I talk about food a lot.

Bye for now, I’m going to go buy a bagel. šŸ˜‰
xxx

Intellectual Vulcan Mind Meld & Fundraising Brunch.

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Yes, “Absentia” should be my middle name, vociferous apologies let’s go directly to the point no need to pass Go, collectĀ Ā£200 or berate me for lackadaisical blogging habits.

A while ago I attended a very strange event. I’m not even sure what its official title is, but for the purposes of not having to trawl my email account for the invite lets go with “The Oxford North American Reunion Meeting of the Minds Weekend.” Its true name will be some rearrangement of those words, please forgive a girl a little disarray. Essentially Alumni get together for a good old fashioned weekend of free promotional pens, newsletters, Oxford-emblaoned tote bags and subtle pleas for funding from bespectacled men who run libraries. Good fun all round by jove. Attendance got off to a bittersweet start, bitter for the earliness of the start (7.30am – an hour with which, as a graduate student, I am joyfully unfamiliar) but sweet because it meant breakfast at the Waldorf Astoria. Having rifled my wardrobe for my best hobnobbing attire I hopped in a cab and, upon arriving, tried desperately to look like someone who spends their weekends at the Waldorf. I suppose I succeeded: at no point was I forcibly ejected. Chalk one up for the power of power dressing!

Having come to the wrong entrance I got to walk through the full length of the hotel, which was great fun! Potted palms, gilded mirrors, families of posh tourists, perfumed air. It’s a truly lovely building. Navigating the right bank of elevators, turning the right way down plushly carpeted corridors and clacking through the right marbled foyers brought me to the right ball room whereupon I was presented with my Oxford-BA-earned goodies: a notebook with the University crest on it and a lanyard bearing all my vital information. The phenomenon of the lanyard makes me laugh, the quiet whisper of importance it brings with it, the way your entire being is summed up on a card that hangs pendulously before you shouting out your college, your subject and the year you graduated in. Strange that it should seem elite when its true purpose is to aid people in not wasting their time on you if, for example, they went to Keble to study Engineering 10 years before you were born and will have nothing in common with a baby from St Anne’s who studied Joseph Heller and Kurt Vonnegut in the noughties. I don’t mean this in an acerbic way, this is the world of networking, American networking no less, and efficiency is the word of the day.

Back to breakfast and the enjoyably odd phenomenon of the networking buffet. How awkward the performance of selecting just enough food items to provide fuel for all the socializing that stands between you and lunch but not enough to seem greedy, of locating the right cutlery for both a bagel and a yogurt parfait, of navigating chafer urns so as not to end up with tea and full fat milk when you really wanted coffee and 2% all the while making nervous small talk with the nearest elderly lady about how smoothly, or otherwise, your journey to the hotel went this morning. “Oh, we met awful traffic over Columbus Circle, took nearly 20 minutes to get across, always happens when we come that way, should have told the driver.”

The adventure doesn’t cease there however, with you dexterously juggling coffee, breakfast and an array of appropriately sized spoons. Next comes an encounter with the many rules ofĀ seating topology. Do not break up groups that arrived together, although these can be troublesome to identify as different individuals will have different rates of breakfast selection. Do not sit at a table composed solely of couples, you will be left out. Do not hover awkwardly while trying to decide, people will think you are weird. Do not sit at a table solely composed of old men, they are likely to be weird. If you, miraculously, settle upon an appropriate seat, do not forget that you are weighted down with plates and granola-filled highball glasses, set them down before attempting to pull out your chair. Pray that the person you are coming to the etiquette marathon with, who happens to be late, arrives before you have to blushingly mumble that you’re saving the seat next to you, like a 17 year old girl. Breathe sigh of relief when he shows up and catalyses conversation with his lateness.

Breakfast sees the satisfying of hunger with tiny pastries and the meeting of your essential networking “friends” for the day – namely, the people to whom you will fleeĀ in awkward moments when you’re left suddenly alone. All this is accomplished successfully and with only a little donut glaze on the table cloth.

The next phase of the day is academically inclined. Lectures on the general state of intellectualism, culture, books, history, in truth I forget the finer details, all that remains to me is the recollection of a warm, kineticĀ feeling, the activation of deep thought and the taste of big words in my mouth; big words and low fat cream cheese. Intellectual banter is passed from mind to mind, the light rumble of laughter at grandpa-style funding humour fans outward from the podium like ripples in a pond. All is cerebral peace and studiousĀ harmony.

And then there is lunch. Swanky current-crusted bread rolls and fancy waiter-service. Chicken in rich sauces and the elegant architecture of some kind of chickpea salad. Eating is punctuated by plummy conversation, the air is thick with clever things being said, thoughts on the lectures, the changing face of academia, the surge of Oxford into the modern age. A brilliant sheen of unabashed braininess covers the day. Then dessert and the resumption of presentations. I munch red velvet cake – cute nod to the North American environs – and save the little white chocolate disk stamped with the Oxford crest for last. That’s what is so much fun about these events, getting to revel in the insane reach of Oxford’s gravitas. To be able to talk about university without having to make it past the initial “Oh, but you must be really clever then?” which can accrue various shades of awe, sarcasm, challenge, or disbelief depending on who you’ve mentioned it to. To be a massive nerd and not have anyone bother to point it out, as if in your 24 years on this planet you hadn’t noticed your unusual predilection forĀ the study of bird life cycles, ancient Russian poetry, the origins of the universe, or whatever revs your engine. So there I was, nibbling the edge off the chocolate Oxford crest, at one with a bunch of epic geeks like myself and fully intent on reveling in it until I step back outside the doors of the Waldorf and return to reality.

Which reminds me that I am supposed to be working, reality can be a real slave driver and Pirandello waits for no woman, not even one that went to Oxford.

xxx

The Little Toast That Was French.

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I do not like French toast.

I think we Brits usually call it eggy bread. I mean, that has to be up there with spotted dick for the least-palatable-name-of-an-edible-thing award. It actually sounds like a gag. “Eggy.” Just say it out loud for a second. “Eggy.” Even the sound comes from right there in the back of your mouth where your upchuck reflex lives.

I digress. Back to French toast.

Ordering French toast in America, in front of an American, as an English person, puts you in danger of eliciting the following accusation: But British people hate French things.

Sigh.

Where did America get hold of this idea that the English and the French still loathe each other with every fiber of our national identity? Did I tell you about the guy at the Halloween party who came up to me, hand literally on heart, all hang-dog about the face? He looks at me a moment, very serious, and says “I’m so sorry, but I’m aĀ Francophile.” Then, of course, there was this tremendous pause into which I think I was suppose to commiserate that our burgeoning friendship would have to go the way of the dodo because English people simply can’t bear French things. It ended up being a bit awkward because, harboring absolutely no ill will to anyone or anything French, I missed the cue and just stood there with my tongue between my teeth completely at a loss for a reply.

I do have a theory. England and France were on opposite sides during the American Revolution. America, seeing only the American in everything, naturally assumes that England and France have remained on opposing sides of all things ever since. Even on the very contentious topic of bread dipped in eggs and fried in butter.

However, in the very sneakiest of baits-and-switches, this turns out to actually be a post about The Time I Liked French Toast. And not just any French toast, an even Frenchier French toast. A French toast made with Brioche. (Go on, say French toast one more time. I dare ya.)

French toast!

I’m converted. But the whole point of telling you all this was actually to tell you about Fabulous Best Friend coming to visit. I had been internally panicking about that moment when someone comes to visit and says something along the lines of “lets go to all your favorite places in New York.” Instant. Lifestyle. Atrophy: Oh god, I’ve never been anywhere, ever. What do you mean I live in the cultural capital of the world (according to Americans) all I ever do is sit in my Ivory Tower on Broadway and look at videos of animals riding roombas on the Internet.

Thankfully there is an institution that comes riding in on a wonderful maple-coloured horse to save the day: Brunch. It’s a very serious matter here. It’s a bonafide activity that takes half the day and can involve both pancakes and alcohol. It’s the greatest idea in the history of ideas (and I’m including penicillin and the wheel.) It also leaves just enough time for a little buzz around an art gallery or a museum before retiring smugly to a midtown bar, happy in the knowledge that you “did” New York. (Throwing in a bowl of ramen the size of your face at Ippudo never hurts either – just a little insider tip while we’re here.)

I’m afraid I have to go – I am sat next to an olfactory terrorist in class, and his feet smell like dead people who bathe in melted gorgonzola. Not breathing through my nose is splitting my focus, and you deserve my full attention.

But the moral of the story is thatĀ you will come to New York, you will have Brunch (you may even have French Toast) and several mimosas, you will love it and it will have nothing whatever to do with Anglo-French relations. šŸ˜‰

Bye for now xxx

Look right, look left, look right again.

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I’m sat here idly fantasizing about an on/off switch for human beings. If only there were a button somewhere on my person that, if pushed, would turn me briefly off then on again. A reboot would be handy right about now. I’m aware that a lot of my unutterably bubbly excitement about being in a new country swirls around my brain for a bit and comes out… as complaining. But trust me, I’m complaining with a smile. It’s just the way I am. The things that seem insane, bizarre, annoying, frustrating, outright blood-boilingly nightmarish… are the things that make me dance on the inside. It gives me a chance to jazz up the language. Let’s face it, the language of crazy things is just so much more fun!

Observe.

New York is a full-throated roar of a city, an assault on every sense. Even in the haven of my little room in the top of my tall tower. 12 storeys above Broadway I am not far from the electrified kaleidoscope. Take last night: the sun was setting behind my building and throwing golden light at the windows opposite, from there it bounced through my curtains and painted itself in ochre patterns on my walls. The sky itself, beyond the water towers and the Jenga skyline, is blushing pink. Even the close of day takes on a myriad colours. (Sorry, colors.)

How about the ears? Well, there’s only one place to start:

I live round the corner from a fire station. I would swear up and down American fire engines are more obnoxious than their English cousins! And as far as a full night’s sleep is concerned… well… lets just say the entire Upper West Side must go up in flames every night for all the silence its inhabitants are afforded.

From there its subtler, how could it not be, and yet it’s overwhelming. Something about the broad street between tall buildings and the still end-of-summer nights rattles the noises back and forth and up even as high as my window. Snatches of conversation, cussing, laughing, clink of keys in front doors, coughs, the dawn parade of garbage trucks a bickering hum and crash of men and bins. There’s the murmured coming and going of my roommate, flush of toilet, splash of shower, sometimes the shrill whistle of the kettle, snatches of radio. Neighbours clump in and out, crashing keys and doors. The quick ping of arriving elevator. Rowdy kids and professors dimly singing.

And then, suddenly and nerve-shreddingly: total silence. We’re in class – Intro to American Studies – and we’re torturing our professor with Total Silence. He asks a question, we avert our eyes and clamp our tongues between our teeth. He is reaping the reward of his vague line of questioning, his broad generalizations. Twice now, for two hours a piece, it has been the six of us against the entire span of Native American History. He deserves silence.

Even the library cannot claim so deep a hush. Winter colds are making the early rounds, people snuffle and cough into their coffee. Foot-high stacks of books are dropped on the wide desks, laptops whisper in and out of standby, clack of keyboards. A phone buzzes, the vibration spreading through the table and sending eight hands blindly reaching for devices, scholars’ eyes still glued to their books. Only one is really in touch with the outside world.

The library itself is an icebox. The air-conditioning oozes chilly air on the greyest of days, leaving us feeling like side of beef strung from hooks in the ceiling, tiny ice crystals forming in our veins. Handwriting takes on a spidery quality that speaks to numbed fingers.

There are grips in the library today, film handymen on a low-slung trolly. They’re rolling up and down the central aisle, cameras pointed ceiling-ward. Surrounding studiers tacitly agree to pretend they don’t exist. The librarian himself is an elaborate concoction of impressions. He looks out at the world from underneath thick glasses and an even thicker beard. As if in fear of not being heard from under such impediments his tongue sometimes offers support to his voice, joining it in escaping his mouth: it sweeps in a wide left-to-right arc, the tip curled down toward his chin.

Life here is an avalanche of sensory overload, a constant stream of input. The sick pink reek of my Professor’s uncapped soda, the dull smell of her breath as she preaches to us about personhood and bodies, said as if it’s spelled “bodiz.”
Another class is beset by theĀ machinations of the lighting timer, going dark for a few seconds every 23 minutes. No one can figure out why, or how to end the cycle. We simply bear with it for 2 hours of surreality. At least in the darkness no one can see me grinding my teeth at the one student for whom, by some arcane rule of his personal law, “like” must be every third word.

Everywhere you look there are tiny pieces of art, there’s a small section of the foot-high wall that surrounds the traffic island in the center of Broadway that has a casual mosaic set into it, for seemingly no reason other than ‘why the hell not?’ Bronze alligators crawl out of manhole covers to snatch at tiny fleeing bronze figures. One building in the midst of many plain ones has life-sized golden people crawling up its flanks. The whole city is a gorgeous mess of ‘why the hell not?’ It’s a noisy, painted whirlwind of exuberant self-expression and it’s too much of everything.

I can’t get enough of it!

xxx

May Contain Traces of Nuts.

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So I have definitely lived here too long to get away with not posting about my apartment. But where oh where to begin?? Bugs spring to mind, since one just flew into my face. New York is not immune to the common mosquito and I am delicious, so naturally I’m covered in angry red bites. Thanks for that New York, would it kill you to give a girl some bug netting in her windows? Heat also springs to mind since there were highs of about 90 today and we don’t have air-conditioning. I have been parked in front of a fan since 8 this morning except for a four hour stint in class. Things went the other way on the way back from class though as a thunderstorm broke over my head and I got completely soaked! The weather here is mental. But I’ll let you in on a secret. I love it!

A braggy history PhD called me snooty last night. (The jury is still out if he was trying to hit on me, my roommate thinks he was??) Because I’ve been prattling on about all the whacky things that are different here. But that’s the beauty of it. The things that are different are the ones that thrill me! The way all the packaging on food here has a slightly muted colour scheme. What would be red in the UK is usually maroon here. There’s lots of shades of golden brown and dark blue. To my UK eyes it looks a little dated, close to 50’s packaging back home. Plus for any one product there are about 70 variations. For example: one with sugar, one with no sugar, one with 40% less sodium, one in peanut butter flavour, one in maple flavour, one in french vanilla, one in cinnamon, one in chipotle or jalapeno, or both, one fat free and one zero calorie which is apparently different from fat free. Also the rules on what you can put in the food here are so lax, there could be anything in it at all, likely candidates include but are not limited toĀ unpronounceable chemicals and substances derived from cows feet. Also there’s corn syrup in everything. Even my sweet tooth is struggling to keep up. Mine!

The thing with the sales tax has caught me out a lot and I have to smile through my embarrassment as I search wildly for an extra dollar. I’m considering moving to a state that doesn’t have sales tax! The trains are insane as well! I think I’ve got a vague grip on it, except the other day I was in class and Alex was telling me that sometimes the train can change while you’re actually on it and the only warning you get is an announcement telling you the next stop will be Schenectady and you better get off sharpish. So now I’ve lost all my confidence.

The Columbia neighbourhood is a people-watching nirvana. There’s a guy in the building across who wears dungarees and the kind of flat cap that steam engine drivers wear in American westerns… every day. I feel a bit bad because I just assume he’s in the fine arts programme, which is academic profiling. My building is full of characters too. There’s a very nice gentleman across the hall who laments on my behalf that my apartment doesn’t have air conditioning. Across the air shaft there used to be a Chinese couple with four cats that used to watch me while I boogied around the kitchen making soup. But I woke up two days ago and they’d cleared out. Just gone. Such is New York I suspect.

The main thing I can’t get over is the food! The library cafe has sushi. Really good sushi. And lunch the other day was a spicy chicken wrap the size of my upper arm. Although the people are pretty fascinating too, assuming you mean fascinating in the way that say… a glow in the dark goat would be fascinating. A little bit familiar and a little bit totally alien. Get a load of the following conversation. This a 100% true story as overheard by my own disbelieving ears.

“She was like hahahaha

And he was like uuuuh

And she was like, well I forget what happened after that but it was SO funny.”

Um. WHAT?!

It’s a glorious festival of human craziness here. Take for example the guardian at the gate of the GSAS office.

He’s a little turtle of a man, shiny of pate, with a hunch to his shoulders and a dip to his neck that makes his back look like a shell. He’s got a broad smile but his glasses pinch his nose so he breathes through his mouth, which he leaves slightly ajar for the purpose. This gives his dry lips, so he often pauses mid-sentence to lick them. Overall he’s a very ponderous creature. One of his hips hurts him and some cruel collegiate deity has bequeathed him an obstacle course of a desk. Every time he needs to fetch a file or a form he has to grip the desk and hoist himself to his feet. Then its a half circle around the chair, an angled squeeze past the bin, round an outcrop of desk and at last to freedom. Then the whole process in reverse to get back. While I was waiting for my meeting, this lengthy performance unfolded before me and the man shuffled off out of sight. In his absence a woman walked into the office, looked at the empty station, at me, around the office, back at me. Gesturing at the desk she half-whispered “Is there…?” I just nodded. She settled to wait.

A moment later the Keeper of Forms shuffled back, with a slice of pizza the size of a shovel in his fist. Her eyes bugged out. She looked to me for help, but I was too busy wondering how the assault course would be managed with only one hand. I was disappointed. He balanced the slab of pizza on a pile of student IDs before attempting the maneuver. Once settled he recommenced the slice and peered up at the woman, who had risen uneasily to her feet. She held out a form. I tuned out of the conversation and watched the pizza. It was replaced on top of the IDs. The hand that had held it briefly and ineffectually visited a napkin, then offered to take the form. The woman handed it over, upper lip curling a little. He signed on the dotted line and returned the form to her, quickly retrieving the pizza and talking through a mouthful of it as he gave her directions to the office she need to drop the form off at. She retreated, a signature and a smear of marinara the richer for her visit.Ā 

I’ve got to run. The pizza story made me hungry! See you next time, I have a librarian anecdote ready and waiting.

xxx

Well hello to you too!

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I am going to start this post with a foreword.Ā  The tale that follows may give the impression that I am not excited about moving to America. I would just like to be clear and say that I have been living here for a handful of weeks now and I am living in a near-constant state of boggle-eyed excitement. Here are some reasons why, in no particular order of importance.

  • Almost every beverage known to man is available to purchase by the gallon here.
  • My apartment is enormous and right round the corner from campus.
  • I have finally got a handle on the metro, well, enough to get to midtown and back at least.
  • There is a shop that delivers cookies to your door until 3am.
  • The library is so huge I can always get a seat (that one maybe only fellow nerds will appreciate.)
  • I have discovered that even after two years away from academics I can still read!
  • I am officially registered for enough credits and will not get deported for not having a full course load.
  • … I live in New York.

Ok, I’m done boasting. šŸ™‚

I was reading Joan Didion on the plane over here. It probably wasn’t a strong choice. She is a total joy suck. Every last shred of happiness or contentment that you have squirreled away she will find and vaporize. A potent brand of misery breathes from the pages of some of her books. This is not your basic favourite-character-getting-killed-off-in-a-rock-slide kind of thing or the downward turning mouth of unrequited love. This is deep, slow, inexorable misery of the existentially moribund beautiful woman in a loveless marriage. Page after sluggish page of interminable depression that throws shadows over the sun and robs the stars of their shine. She’s kind of a downer.

So landing at JFK to start my new American life I was in a pretty introspective mood. Smart move, I know, to cross the Atlantic with an Olympic level buzz-kill on my kindle. But she did get me thinking about one thing that didn’t make me want to spend the next twenty years hiding under my duvet. Nose-deep in a novel you know exactly what to feel. Miserable writing evokes misery, funny writing makes you do that goofy thing where you burst out laughing in a public place. Etc. Here’s the crunch though. In real life it’s not so easy. Real life tends to take its thumb and violently smudge the emotional clarity of a moment, blurring it with things like hunger, having to pee, a long form to fill out, fees, people with the spacial awareness of a fossilized dinosaur turd and the manners to match. I have been known to be uneasy on airplanes: take off gives me the heeby jeebies. But the flight to New York had been fine, minus a few bumps and Tom Cruise’s total lack of sex appeal in Oblivion,Ā  it was a breeze. So we land. I’m officially in America, my life as a grad student is finally beginning. I should be excited, brimming over with giddy happiness, buzzing with giggly anticipation.

I am bored.

Bored. Bored to tears. We are taxing toward the airport at the speed of a centipede with 100 shin splints. Then we stop for a bit and the captain spouts some garbage about being early, which of course means you have to wait until you’re late before you can go anywhere. We move a bit. Stop. Move a bit. Listen to some excuses. Move a bit. Stop. Massage our pins and needles. Move a bit. Stop. 500 years later we’re let off the plane to join the ample queue, sorry, “line,” it’s not a queue here, it’s a line. We move a bit. Stop. Move a bit. Listen to the world’s most inane family compete for each others attention. Move a bit. Stop. Make forlorn jokes with fellow queue victims. Move a bit. Stop. Stop some more. You can see how the excitement, so mandatory in theory when arriving in one’s new home, could get hopelessly lost in transit.

Then I’m a little nervous. That bizarre, unaccountable nervousness that is a glorious part of the customs process. Have I got the paper work right? Am I actually going to be allowed into the country? What if they turn me back? What if I’m falsely accused of some customs infraction and arrested on the spot? What if they go through all my bags right here in the airport? What if I just have to turn around and go home right now?”Welcome to America. Enjoy your stay.”

Phew.

So now I’m through customs, now I can be excited right? Wrong. I’m knackered. And travel-gritty. My eyes are a bit sore, as is my head. I have more possessions than the King of Siam so I am wrestling heavy bags. I keep banging into people and banging my bag against my thigh. My hair is reacting to the NY summer humidity and frizzing into my eyes, which is driving me nuts. I smell a bit like I just spent 7 hours in a confined space with 300 other people. Excitement is on the back burner for a little longer.

I’m at the hotel I’ll be staying in until I move into my Upper West Side apartment. Surely I can be excited now?! It smells like aromatherapy candles, a hunky man is carrying my bag for me. The air conditioning is blissfully cool against my skin. The hotel itself is beautiful, an elaborate chandelier hangs low over the front desk. It’s very modern too, which is good fun: the lobby is approached by an escalator lit in bright lime green strip lights embedded in the frosted glass walls. There are small groups of chairs and benches scattered throughout the spacious lobby. They have that rich organic look: driftwood that’s been shipped in from distant exotic beaches and varnished especially for weary journeyman rumps to rest on. The lighting is low, soothing to eyes strained by fluorescent airport lighting. Behind the front desk is a vast wall of glass, looking out over a kind of zen drinking garden, like a beer garden but for elaborate cocktails involving tequila and blue curaƧao. Over the right hand wall is a rambling creeper plant of some kind. Maybe ivy. (Hey, not a botanist.) I am so nearly free to be excited at this point. I’m in my own little world, taking in the hotel, on the lookout for beautiful, sophisticated Americans of the type Hollywood has informed me are abundant in New York. I can feel a grin pulling at my lips, there’s a giggle trapped under my rib cage, tickling me to get out.

But oh wait. Here’s a nice dose of embarrassment to put me in my place. The concierge is chatting away as he checks us in.

“So what brings you to New York.”

“Oh, Lauren’s moving here.” Proud Dad pipes up.

“Oh for school.”

“Yes”

“Which school. NYU?”

“Columbia.” Proud Dad is proud. I am embarrassed… and a little proud, not going to lie.

“Oh great. What are you studying?”

My turn to pipe up. “American Studies.” Nervous giggle.

“Oh, I can give you a lesson in America any day.” Dumbstruck silence on my part.

Hello and welcome to America, where we will level scorchingly inappropriate sexual innuendos at you in front of your Dad. Enjoy your stay!

xxx

Long overdue.

Technically I am supposed to be working today. Or at least considering my future, since although it must be said that winning the weekly mexican laundry standoff with my mother affords me a ready supply of clean pants Ā (which I personally consider the key to happy life) I can’t really live at home forever. Also technically supposed to be prepping for my driving theory test, but since the highway code is so boring I would rather find myself starring in the next instalment of the Saw franchise than look at yet another pedantic road sign I think I’ll tell you all about the girls instead.

I have owed the girls this post for a while now, I owe them a homage for making my time in Cambodia what it was… downright hilarious. So here I am at last to tell you all about Gabby and Katie… or “Smice” (please let me know if I spelt that wrong? I was fighting the temptation to throw a y in there for some reason) since they came as a pair, and as such must be known by a cute little portmanteau of both their surnames.

But, as ever, WHERE do I start?!

These two battle-hardened stalwarts welcomed me with the warmth of friendly cynicism: teaching me that no, the world would not end if Savin was crying. He cried quite a lot. Once or twice I was even convinced that, mid wail, he forgot why exactly he was creasing up his face and noisily shedding big salty tears. Even having forgotten, however, he always continued because he knew something it took me a little while to realise. He knew that somewhere, no matter where she was on site or what she was fussing over, Ma Susan would respond to his bat signal and shuffle over in her ill-fitting blue crocs to scoop him up for a cuddle and a hearty session of sympathy. So often did he pull this fast one, however, that one day the inevitable crying-woolf lesson had to be learned. It took us upward of a week to realise that poor Savin had toothache. So varied and slight where his usual causes for weeping that we never dreamed of blaming his squalling on actual pain. On the bright side however (a side that the girls taught me early on it paid to consider) Savin’s misfortune prompted a mass exodus to the dentist, which was considered by all rather an adventure.

From early on they allowed me to feel useful without me having to do very much, a combination absolutely certain to win them a place in my heart. I spent much of my early days at HVC sat on the floor (the tiles were a brief escape from the heat – until you started to stick to them and the ants discovered you) helping Gabby with her lesson plans… and when I say helping I mostly mean asking her what a lesson plan was and then agreeing with all her ideas. Although I did steadfastly refuse to take over her afternoon lesson – I was just as scared of the silently staring flock of 17 years olds as Gabby was! – I did my bit with them, after all, ensuring that it was me they were sniggering at rather than Gabby was an invaluable service.

As I found my feet at HVC I quickly took up the role of in-house sugar dispensary. After Jo left I was the only one who lived in town and regular bag-fulls of sweets became my weighty responsibility. Lollipops nominally meant for the kinds would often find their way into the mouths of teachers, while catering to Gabby’s milk candy addiction was pretty much a full time job. Actually, come to think of it, I developed a pretty hardcore candy addiction of my own: working with kids is perilous business.

When I finally, officially took up the role of teacher and began flapping around in front of my class yelling things like “synonym!” and “adjective!” (I think my logic was that if I could make my kids jump I could make them listen and then it was just a hop and a skip to making them learn) bless them, the girls didn’t make fun of me… too much anyway.

But their talents were not restricted to the classroom… oh no! Extra carriculars were a special gift for Gabby and Katie. I learned many things from them, including but not limited to the following…

1) Nothing says Jagerbomb like the evening’s fifth rendition of Call Me Maybe.

2) Cambodian Red Bull is flat and often warm… but may or may not make up for this by being about 40% amphetamines.

3) It is mandatory to know all the words to Justin Beiber songs, and it is mandatory to sing them at the top of your lungs… even if it’s 9pm and Temple is empty.

4) It is ok not to go with Mitch to the same club every single night for a whole week.

5) Dodging angry prostitutes is an art form requiring months of diligent practice to perfect.

6) Angkor What? is where your odds of picking up a squeeze for the evening are highest.

The subject of squeezes is where Katie came into her own. Halfway through a night, just as Gabby and I were starting to ebb a little; sitting down a little more often, maybe even switching to water for a few rounds (scandalous I know) up would bounce Katie and proclaim that she was bored: now was the moment for action. Leave no man behind! Gather yourselves girls, grab another Jagerbomb, pull up your sassy pants and follow me to Angkor What?

Now the fun would really begin for it was the task of Gabby and I to get our acts together, position ourselves strategically near the likely lad of Katie’s choosing… and dance so badly that we repelled him toward her. The intricate maneuver of magnetism accomplished, we were to retire, also strategically, and keep a lookout for danger. If – the horror! – the strategy failed and the target took a fancy to either Gabby or I we were to retreat immediately and make a giggly dash back across the road to Temple and the safety of Carly Rae Jepsen to regroup and consider our next move. This, interestingly, was also our retrenchment strategy should the target turn out to be a bad kisser. Ah, the casualties of war. I remember one evening where the target turned out to have friends and in an endeavour to distract them I ended up buying my own Jagerbomb! Pretty sure I was the casualty of war that time. Worse luck.

Or the night we spent perched on a rusted out old skating ramp on the roof of the world’s seediest bar and watched the sun rise over downtown Siem Reap. Or all the times we had to wake Tee Tee up at 3am to get back into Prom’s… something that got much more fun after he started working at HVC with us and we realised he was a horrible man who deserved to be pulled out of bed to unlock the door at awful o’clock in the morning for three giggling drunk girls. Or getting Gabby drunk enough to throw some moves on the dance floor… not always a straightforward as it sounds!

Back to more serious things and it soon became apparent that one of my major responsibilities would be helping the girls not to go completely bat sh*t insane over Sue. This woman could make Saint Peter swear.

Example: The Great Vulva Mishap of 1950-something.Ā 

Picture the scene, I am quietly minding my own business over my customary plate of rice, cucumber and hot sauce, half listening to the chatter around the table: Wa asking obscure grammar questions, Mitch asking who is coming to Temple that night, Robbie’s crime against fake british accents, general mutterings of grossed-out curiosity as to what might be in the soup today. Mostly I was staring out at the front gate watching the kids line up on their bikes to head off to Khmer school for the afternoon. Sue’s high-octave sigh intrudes on my total absence of thoughts: “Ohh some of the little ones are riding big bikes! Ohh that’s very dangerous.” Not really up for a full-blown conversation I attempted to make light of it. Big mistake. “I’m sure they’re alright Sue, they’ve been riding since they could walk.” And then out of nowhere, BAM, this gem fell into my ears. “Ohh no, it doesn’t matter how good you are at riding. I very seriously injured my vulva once riding a big bike when I was a little girl.”

Kill me. Kill me now. A 70 year old woman with crocs and a buzz cut just talked to me about her vulva. Where is sudden-onset deafness when you need it, or a handy case of full retrograde amnesia.

Part 1 of my homage to Gabby and Katie will have to draw to a temporary close here because my enormous Irish driving instructor is going to pull up outside my house in two minutes and I’m still in my pyjamas.

But for now, thank you, thank you to the huge force of life, laughter and hilarity that is the Gabby and Katie show.

And thanks for making the other side of the world feel like home.

Bye for now

xx