Earlier I told my friends that I wanted to find the “Gainesville, Florida” of England. I grew up in Gainesville and having spent time in a number of American cities, I know how useless some of them are for experiencing America. My presupposition was that visiting London would be fairly useless when it comes to experiencing England. During my time abroad people will tell me they’ve been to “The States” (that’s how they refer to it, holding on to that colonial ownership ’til the bitter end), and explain that they’ve been to New York. I tell them that New York is so weird that other Americans go to New York to see how weird it is, and when they get home they breathe a sigh of relief that they don’t live in New York. Being in New York is just not indicative of anything other than being in New York.
Gainesville, Florida is a nice innocuous city, population ~120k, with a footnote: “Home of the University of Florida.” Salisbury, England is similar, except the footnote is “Pretty close to Stonehenge.”
Except that’s not entirely true. This is the problem with Europe. Even your small ‘nothing’ town is SO old that it is just teeming with history. Castles, everywhere, religious artifacts, significant wars. There are people watching TV right now that are almost as old as America.
In addition to being Pretty Close to Stonehenge, it’s also the home of The Magna Carta, which you’ll know of as being something that Jay-Z referred to in his album which you’ve already stopped listening to. The Magna Carta something something Democracy something Constitution something Church something old document. To be honest, I didn’t even know that much about the Magna Carta. It’s weird to think that, decay aside, there exists a piece of paper with my handwriting that proves that in 8th grade I almost certainly knew a LOT about the Magna Carta (and had to prove it to Mr. Beckmann in US History) but that piece of paper is (unlike the Magna Carta) not in a church, not in a Jay Z lyric, and really no one has asked me about it since. I don’t have the slightest clue where it is.
Years before Mr. Beckmann’s class, I was at J.J. Finley, which, being kids, we renamed JJ Junkyard. How did we know what Junkyard was? We were like… seven years old. This was before we learned that you shouldn’t “shit where you sleep.” There’s something very sad about a group of children making fun of the public school that they’re currently attending.
KID 1:You know what’s terrible?
KID 2: This place where we are creating the academic foundation that will determine the course of our lives?
KID 1: Yeah, it’s not unlike a Junkyard.
JJ (Junkyard) Finley was the first time I’d heard the word Salisbury because of the lunch program. The way it generally worked at Finley was that white kids brought “home lunch”: a paper bag, which had things like sandwiches, capri suns, and fruit roll ups. The black kids had “school lunch” which had things that were sometimes edible and always gross. One of those things was Salisbury Steak, a brown square of something we’ll call “meat” for the sake of argument, that I had exactly one bite of and NEVER ate again.
I never really thought about Salisbury again until I wanted to see Stonehenge. It’s really a testimony of my own inner flexibility that my reflex wasn’t “Salisbury? No, thanks. Let’s check out Cornwall or something.” Childhood trauma sticks with you. I’m a fighter.
We make it to Salisbury by way of train, and then cab it to our AirBnB. The car stops, and the cabbie reads off the amount and with a sinking sensation I realize that I don’t have any pieces of paper or metal coins that have that exact number printed/molten onto them. I’m going to have to make change.
The currency exchange problem creates a situation where either I have to overpay people, underpay people. Every time. Also as a result I make every transaction take ten minutes longer than necessary while I try to figure out what coin is worth what, and how to convert that to dollars. I didn’t want to make the guy spend more time waiting for me to do math than he’d spent driving, so I just ballpark it based on weight and hand over some coins. “Hmm, this is hefty, have this.”
“You do realize you’ve paid me double the fare, right?” Just by asking, I feel he’s earned it, it’s only…fair.
The house is super English and adorable. I’m not sure when architects invented the “closet”, but it was sometime after most of the houses in England were built. As a result, most of the rooms have a Narnia cabinet in them, because…you know… clothes, right? The host is super English and adorable and says things like “The English are a bit mad about horses.”
We see pictures of her (grown) kids who send letters addressed to ‘Mum’. There are absolutely no pictures or references to a Man/Father/Husband type, so I make a mental note to place him in the Voldemort box, never ask about him and think “Well, at least she got the house.”
The bar scene in a quaint English town is different, and I have to overcome a bit of resistance to the idea. There’s something strange about discovering a quaint Hans Christian Andersen town with cobblestones and then immediately trying to get drunk in it. The first bar we go to is called The White Stag or something. The bartender smiles when she sees me (during our entire stay in Salisbury I see two black people, and none with dreadlocks), and then almost falls apart when I open my mouth to order a Perroni. WHO HAS THE ACCENT NOW?
I’m halfway around the world, drinking a Perroni with my sick American accent, thinking about what a world traveler I am and how foreign and different everything is, how far away I am from everything and everyone I know when suddenly the club goes wild because the DJ has started the next song. Beyonce.