Updates from Abroad: The Roundabout

Ashley Johnson gives us a glance at her adventures in Winchester.
Ashley Johnson gives us a glance at her adventures in Winchester.

A roundabout, according to Merriam-Webster, is “a circuitous route” or “merry-go-round”. It can also mean “not simple, clear, or plain: long and confusing,” which was most definitely my experience with driving through and around them in England. On the wrong side of the road. The extent of my roundabout adventures previously ended with the one located at Highland and Siskiyou in Medford. I am happy to report I have expanded my horizons to not only more complicated roundabouts, but to ones where I am located on the opposite side of the vehicle and driving in the opposite direction. I digress.

Before the escapade of operating a motor vehicle in the United Kingdom, I got the pleasure of seeing the Jersey Boys musical live at Piccadilly Theatre in London. My mother, being the world traveling flight attendant that she is, knew the exact half-priced ticket booth line to push our way into in order to get the best seats possible at the cheapest price. The theatre itself was smaller than I expected, yet had a very traditional old English feel to it. A packed lounge area with a full service bar entertained patrons before the show, while those of us who chose not to partake in alcoholic beverages stood near the handsome gentleman playing the piano above the noisy crowd. Masses filed through the rustic double wooden doors fifteen minutes prior to show time.

Our seats were located on the first floor of the balcony, near the front, but not so close as to be blocked by the railings. A booming voice suddenly introduced the production, and as the lights flashed on and music blared, the magic began. The story of Frankie Valley and his band is one I wasn’t too familiar with, but quickly came to love. I found it ironic I was sitting in a London theatre watching a live production about a famous music group from New Jersey. So close yet so far away.

Full of humor, timeless music, drama, and British men who can dance and sing (what more could an American girl ask for?), the production was one I will forever hold in my memory. Having been to various theatres throughout my travels over the years, including Broadway and those in Los Angeles, I can confidently say my experiences of London theatre have been the best. Perhaps it has something to with the atmosphere and being in England. Whatever the case, it was pure magic. The train ride back to the hotel proved quite eventful as well. Sharing a small confined space with hundreds of sweaty people of all sizes, ages, races, and social class was a lesson in diversity all in itself.

Two days later, my anxiety and stress shot through the roof, while my patience simultaneously decreased at an alarming rate. That was the day we rented a car. My heart rate sky rocketed as we waited in line at the Hertz rental car booth at Heathrow airport. Approaching the shiny, black, and familiar Ford Focus, I naturally gravitated toward the left side of the vehicle to get in. My mother lovingly directed me to the other side. I learned to drive 15 years ago on a manual, so wasn’t too concerned about that, other than the fact that the gear shift was now on my left hand side, which felt like a catastrophe on top of all the other complications. Let me just clarify. Everything is smaller in England. Everything. Food portions, houses, cars, sidewalks…and roads. Two lanes in some areas are as wide as one of our lanes in the Rogue Valley. This fact, along with being on the other side of the vehicle and driving on the other side of the road, created a decent amount of nervousness as you can imagine. I managed to hold my own for the next two and a half days, only hitting a curb once or twice and missing any innocent pedestrians that may have ventured my way. I did get a tad short tempered with my mother acting as my navigation aid, especially when I happened to be in the wrong lane of a three lane mess of a roundabout. To reiterate regarding the roundabouts one final time, let me be clear that they are everywhere and are not even remotely comparable to our little one in Medford. It would be like comparing a quaint yet lovely bed and breakfast in the Rogue Valley to Buckingham Palace. No joke. I will leave you with that image.

The day I had been anticipating for months, and really my entire life, had finally arrived. Move in day in another country. Driving through historical Winchester didn’t give me much of a chance to look around, as I was too focused on not hitting another vehicle, human being, or curb. However, I knew I would have plenty of time for that. The campus is on a hill, with extremely narrow roads, which led to a mild panic attack in finding the location to pick up my keys and sign paperwork. Old brick buildings and beautiful lush trees were at every turn. Immediately, there was a feeling of peace and comfort. This, I remember thinking to myself, is a place I could call home.

After going through all the necessary steps, we found our way to my dorm, or hall as they call it here. There were a few student helpers around, but other than that no one else was moving in at the same time. It felt strange yet exciting. There was a sense of deja-vu, from when I first went to Lehigh University straight out of high school, 13 years ago. Now, at 31, I would be living the dorm life again, which was both exhilarating and frightening. We made up my tiny twin bed (oh how I miss my queen sized bed) and I put a few things away. It hit me like a tidal wave of pure joy and tears began to roll down my cheeks as I gazed around my little room. This is mine, I thought. I am in England. I am staying here. Bliss! That bliss, I have since discovered, can easily be drown out by 18-year-old first year students that occasionally like to party and be loud. I make a solid effort to have empathy and remember what I was like at that stage of my life. Honestly, I was probably worse in many ways!

I decided to stay one last night in the hotel with my mom before she departed the next day. It was the Marriott country club, I simply couldn’t resist. After returning the car in one piece, without scratches or dents, the time had come to say our “see you laters”. I don’t say goodbye. She naturally did the motherly thing, telling me how proud she is and that I’ll always be her little girl. It really was a beautiful moment. As more bittersweet tears streamed down my face, I was grateful to be present, to feel love, and for the time I was able to spend with her that week. In many ways, that day was the beginning of a new life and adventure. Spiritually and emotionally I have been on a journey for the past month that I wouldn’t trade for anything. There have been ups and downs, homesickness, fears, and many adjustments to the culture and the educational system. As I walk through each day, confidence and hope builds, and I couldn’t imagine myself anywhere else. Cheers until next time, for a look into life at the University of Winchester.