Thursday, September 29, 2011

Welcome to the UK: the first few days

"You're in for a fuuuuuuun flight, honey."

These are not the kind of reassuring words one wants to hear from the Air Transat employee checking your boarding pass minutes before getting on a plane.

Yet these were the words directed at me after a hysterical woman screamed and ranted at the airline employees for a good fifteen minutes (sample: "I am a CANADIAN citizen, and I have rights! You're only treating me this way because I'm BLACK!" Yikes. Not touching that one). She finally raced away, resisting all efforts at containment, and somehow made it onto the plane. I had a flashback to my flight from Moscow to Toronto in June, when a drunken, aggressive man was promptly and swiftly detained and kept from boarding the plane entirely - those Russians take no chances!

Luckily for me and the rest of the passengers headed to Gatwick, the crazy woman was sedated or something, because she was quiet for the entire flight. It was actually quite enjoyable, if you gloss over the freezing temperature, the centre aisle seat (ouch! Drew Barrymore made a very good point in The Wedding Singer about flight attendants banging your elbow while passing by with the drinks cart!), and the lack of blankets or pillows....clearly, I've been spoiled flying British Airways before because Air Transat was just not the same!

My lovely view from the top

The highlight of the flight, though, was a very random coincidence - the woman I was sitting beside was fluent in Russian! She studied it in university because she figured that Russian or Mandarin was going to be the next "global" language, so she went with Russian...uh, I suppose that was a bit of a mistake due to the whole fall of the Soviet Union, but it was a nice surprise and we chatted happily about Russia and when it was time to disembark, we said our "da svidanya"s and went our separate ways.

Once I was lined up at the passport control, that's when it REALLY hit me - I was moving to England. Somewhere in the airport, Liz was waiting to take me to what would be my home for the next year. I was slightly freaking out when I heard, "Next!" and before I knew it, I was handing over my passport and then...being let into the country with a "Enjoy your experience here in the UK!"

I made my way through Gatwick to the Arrivals and was greeted by Liz, Baby B, and two enormous balloons - a star-shaped one and a Union Jack! Right away, I felt like I had known Liz forever, thanks to our emails and phone chats that have been taking place over the last nine months. We hugged and talked for a bit before making our way to the parking lot (er, CAR PARK) where I headed over to the right side of the car and went to open the door.

"Are you driving home?" Liz asked with an amused grin.

Flustered, I realized my mistake (a mistake that I have made 99% of the times when we've gone somewhere in the car these past two days!) - I was getting in on the driver's side! Still getting used to that well as the whole driving on the "right" side of the road, as Ian puts it!

Liz and Ian and their three adorable children (James, Wills, and Baby B) live about 2.5 hours southwest of London, in Somerset. Our drive was lovely - it was 21 degrees and sunny, with clear bright blue skies and lush, rolling green hills. At one point, Liz pointed to the left side of the road.

"Oh, there's Windsor Castle," she said.

Ummm...I am used to driving on the 401 in Canada where the only things on the side of the highway are Tim Hortons' coffee rest stops. Windsor Castle!?!?! I almost fainted from excitement.

We pulled into their driveway at 5:45pm, where Ian and the boys were waiting. I had been expecting some shyness at first as we all got used to each other, but James and Wills rushed over to me right away - whew! "Katie, Katie!" they called out in what has to be the cutest accent for kids EVER. Seriously. (Tonight at dinner James was killing himself laughing at how I say "tomatoes". "It's not to-MAY-to, it's to-MAH-to!" he giggled, and I immediately felt like a boorish North American philistine).

Anyways, they were very excited to show me my room and help unwrap the absolutely lovely presents that were waiting for me:

James with "Runny Hunny Bunny", the stuffed rabbit they made me at Build-a-Bear (does anyone besides me fear that Build-a-Bear is slowly taking over the world? They're everywhere!)

My room

One of my new presents - love it!!

The view from my window - their garden (not called
a backyard!) and James' school - literally behind the fence!

I must take a brief break here to get really sentimental, so bear with me :) Over the past year and a bit, since I've graduated university and been traveling, I've learned a lot - about the world, about myself, and about others. And I think one of the most important and uplifting lessons I've learned centers on the kindness of strangers. I don't mean to call Liz and Ian strangers at all, but the fact is, they barely know me and they are welcoming me into their beautiful home. And they have been so, so unbelievably warm and welcoming and WONDERFUL...that I am just blown away. I've been so overwhelmed by all of the preparation and thought and consideration that they have put into my arrival and shown me since arriving here on Tuesday.

I know that some people may read this and roll their eyes at what they may consider my naivete, but the kindness of strangers has been the underlying thread running throughout my experiences traveling, and I truly believe that people really are inherently kind and good. I've been lucky enough to have celebrated Russian New Year's with Russians, to have been given a cell phone on my birthday from my students because I randomly mentioned that I didn't have one, to have been stopped on the street and asked if I needed any help with directions, and countless other experiences with strangers who have just shown me so much kindness. Sure, I don't think I'll ever stop cringing at the memory of the guy who pulled over in his car to show me his you-know-what in the Russian countryside, but hey! Yeah, sure, there are freaks out there. Anywhere. But as James and Wills would put it, the "goodies" far outweigh the "baddies"!

Well, I think on that note, I'll end this post here as its getting rather long. Next up: my first experience having some authentic English fish and chips!


  1. Katie! Your host family sounds completely amazing :) I can tell you're going to have a wonderful experience. I love your room!!! Can't wait to follow your adventures over the next year :) xoxo

  2. The room is amazing! Pretty much different from what you had in Russia, I bet, right? :-D The family looks soooo nice and the kid is adorable!

  3. Actually my room in Russia was incredible! I'm not sure if I ever posted a picture on my other blog, but my bedroom in Mytishi was huge, with a chandelier, a balcony, huge ceilings, and a big, long wall unit for clothes, books, etc. Plus a pull-out couch, a table and four chairs, and a bed! And room for my yoga mat :)