The single, most rewarding trip of my life was in the summer of 2013, when I lived in the outskirts of London, England. I had traveled the 3,459-mile trip to take my Shakespeare classes at Kingston University, where we visited the Globe Theater and experienced British culture. We stayed in flats in a village called Kingston-on-The-Thames; most days consisted of waking up, walking to lecture in the morning, and taking the train into the heart of London for lunch and excursions. I arrived on July 3rd, and had my first silly culture shock when I realized there would be no fireworks, no parties, no anything for my country’s independence day, a tradition I had celebrated the last twenty-one years of my life.
But thoughts of July 4th quickly slipped my mind. I was enthralled with a modern city in an ancient setting, and enjoyed every waking moment of my schooling and getting lost in London with my newly acquainted friends. It was almost like a cliché movie moment, a perfect “holiday” as the British would call it. And no matter what they tell you about London, it was anything but rainy, cloudy, or cold that summer—the average day was about 98 degrees and sweltering. We even had the (hot) sunny weather on our side.
I could handle the heat though. I was drunk off of the historical city and sometimes quite literally, drunk off of their drinks. Whether it was lunch or dinner, the pubs would have a steady flow of customers coming in for bangers and mash and a Guinness. It was cheap, and it was good. Every college student’s dream. On the first day of my Shakespeare class, my professor smirked at all of us and said, “You want to experience British culture? Go to the pub.”
One evening after class, my friend Jess and I decided we were going to walk from our flat to a nearby pub called The Coronation Hall. It was a fifteen-minute walk past local grocers, two petrol stations, an overpriced pub, and the local train stop. The cheap drinks and location made Coronation Hall “the spot” within days of us arriving at Kingston University. The pub is on the lower part of a two-story building, the name itself etched out in gold cursive against a black backdrop. The storefront is all windows, and you can see the boisterous crowd from the street.
Once inside, it opens up to a large hall littered with high tops and booths. Everything, from the bar, to the tables, to the ceiling, is made from a light, cherry wood. Paintings, photographs, and signs from all eras clutter the walls, as though you are imbedded in a 3D collage.
Being Americans, Jess’s and my accent stood out. This generally gave the locals some excitement, and they seemed to like interacting with us when we went out. Coronation Hall guaranteed drunken discussions of one another’s countries, giggling at little culture shocks—“New Jersey? Like the Jersey Shore? Is it really like that there?” “No, most people don’t call the bathroom the ‘loo’”—and simply appreciating the differences of one another.
Sure enough, after we ordered our beers and found a high-top table to sit at, a gentleman in his late fifties eyed us for a few moments before walking over.
“Are you American students? You sound like Americans.”
“Yes. We’re studying here for a few weeks,” I said as I sipped my Guinness.
“Whereabouts? I have relatives from California to New York.”
“Wisconsin,” Jess interjected.
“New Jersey,” I said.
“That’s by New York, right?” The man leaned on our high top between the two of us. I nodded. “I remember 9/11. Hearing about that. Horrible stuff. You might have been too young.”
“I was nine. I remember it. My dad was sent down to Ground Zero to film it for the news.” I pictured my mother’s panic that morning. The towers falling on the screen. The sound of the air force fighter jets rumbling above the house, too late to do anything.
“It’s a tragedy. Whenever I meet New Yorkers, I think of it. Really horrible. We have had terrorism here too, but not on such a grand scale.”
“Yes, it was horrible.” I didn’t know what else to say to this man. I felt a wave of strange protectiveness seep over me: pride for my country, a city I love, and the Americans that died. This was not discussing what “football” was versus “American football,” and this wasn’t a pop culture reference. My skin flushed from the beer and the identity this man gave me. Amy, American student, New Yorker, witness of terrorism in her backyard.
“England supports America’s anti-terrorism efforts.” He politely excused himself and walked away.
Jess and I exchanged looks. We are Americans.