Monday, January 12, 2015

The Land of Perpetual April

Walking toward Harborne
I'm writing this from my roomy chamber in Birmingham.

I don't have much to tell so far, besides that at first blush Birmingham is not as bad as I'd anticipated. That sounds terrible, but I'll explain what I mean. I didn't have a prejudice against Birmingham; in fact, I'd never even thought about the place until finding out that my potential supervisor was faculty at the university here, and after accepting a spot in the grad program I didn't think about it much beyond what my office here might look like (a library from Harry Potter? a hobbit's den?). I looked at a few maps, coincidentally found out that JRR Tolkein was born and raised in the area, and gained inspiration for his novels from the landscape and the university itself (c.f. Isengard and the university's bell tower), and did boring stuff like find a place to live and figure out transportation from the airport.

Beyond that, I had a general impression of British and European cities and houses from the various places I've lived and travelled to over the years. There's a style of housing, which shows itself in the appearance of radiators and mechanics of front door locks, but is much more than this, and is really hard to describe exactly. I was definitely expecting dampness, because it's England, and greyness. I did get both of these. However, the house is happily warm. This may be due to the fact that the woman I'm renting a room from is Spanish.

There is no dryer (at all - wtf?) but the five women (that's right, FIVE) I'm currently sharing with are great. Four of them have 9-5 jobs, and one other is a PhD student at Birmingham. It's like camp. They hang out together, chat about their days, plan things for weekends, and motivate each other to go to the gym. They're also cool with one opting out of things that one is not interested in (the gym). This stands in such sharp contrast to my previous experiences, but I've never lived in a situation like this before, even in Canada. The house is a little like a hostel in that only one of the girls is English. Besides myself, the Englishwoman and the Spaniard, there's a Frenchwoman, an Estonian, and a Latvian. The Englishwoman and Spaniard have other friends, and the Estonian has a boyfriend who lives in London, but the other three of us are totally dislocated from our social groups, so it's a nice built-in group to chill out with. Latvia took my gel manicure off for me tonight, and last night England cooked a massive and delicious stew for everyone. This was especially excellent since I was too delirious from the jet lag and lack of sleep to organize food. On Saturday night we're all apparently going out for dinner and then to a nightclub.

The city of Birmingham is really unexpectedly beautiful. Perched atop a high plateau, it's windy as the plains of Hell, but once you get your hair and scarf out of your face and have a look around, it's lovely. There are warm-weather plants here, like palm trees and holly, and some flowers are currently in bloom. Such a place clearly does not experience winter, even if it believes that it does. Winter is not relative; winter is absolute. Birmingham is the embodiment of an everlasting April.

I walked through some parts of town today to run errands and get to the university that are certainly wealthier neighbourhoods. There were beautiful Victorian and Georgian houses, with ivy-covered gates and fences, and mossy roofs. I'm staying in a neighbourhood called Ladyhood (holla!), which is between the downtown area and the university, in Edgbaston (edge-baston). The university is sprawling and green, with the usual mix of beautiful old, hideous mid-century, and alright modern architecture. I walked through a neighbourhood adjacent to Edgbaston today called Harborne, and it is as cute as a button. I'm going to go back there to check out some of the cafes that I spotted.

For being here two days, I've got a very favourable first impression of the city. I've already seen spots that I want to show to people (some of you reading this, in fact) because I know that you would like them. Come visit me! (kidding - but also dead serious, if you want to come visit me.) This certainly makes it easier to be here for such a long time, and with knowledge that I'll be coming back many times before this PhD is done.

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