CULTURE SHOCK.

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ONE YEAR IN NEWCASTLE-UPON-TYNE
[posted 03.25.2005]

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SIX HOURS NORTH OF London, Newcastle-upon-Tyne — with its blue collars, grey walls and green hills — is one of England’s last major cities en route to Scotland.

Hadrian’s Wall, not far from Newcastle, represented the northernmost boundary of the Roman Empire circa 122 AD. Emperor Hadrian built no further than Newcastle, and his wall guarded against the “barbaric tribes” from the north for over 250 years. Walking along the now crumbling wall and the rolling hills, I could imagine blue-painted men raging toward the not easily petrified Romans. I soon came to view Newcastle as remaining on the border of wild madness, just as it was in the time of Hadrian.

LESSON ONE: ASSUMPTIONS ARE FOR IDIOTS

Coming from Canada, a former British colony, I assumed that my exchange year in England would be pleasant, if not ‘easy,’ compared with the culture shock students from elsewhere would experience. England offered no new language to learn, no rituals involving the burning of virgins or goats, no prohibitive fashion rules and, I hoped, no hockey hair cuts. I would get BBC, Channel 4, British humour, quaint pubs and tea with biscuits all the time. Surely my intense training programme of Coronation Street, Black Adder and Gordon Sumner (Sting, for the uninitiated, originally from Wallsend, Newcastle) would be more than enough preparation. How different could Newcastle and Canada really be?

Again, assumptions are for idiots.

LESSON TWO: ENGLISH IS NOT ENGLISH

England has over 24 distinct dialects, reflecting vast linguistic differences — too damn many for such a small country, if you ask me. What would we do in Canada if we spoke a new dialect every 50 kilometres? Newcastle — a traditional, working class industrial city famous for its brewery’s Newcastle Brown Ale — has its fair share of dialects, clearly divided along class lines. I wondered if this environment played a role in the very unique English dialect spoken by the locals, or “Geordies.” At university lectures we spoke Queen’s English, while at lunch I was faced with greying, stern, hairnet-wearing women armed with large butter knives: “Do you want a bit of maaarrrge on that, my pet?” (Note: “Pet” is apparently interchangeable with “duck.”)

Having worked with international and exchange students in Canada, I used to consider myself culturally aware, with an above-average ability to decipher accents. But nothing prepared me for the Geordie refrigerator repairman who appeared one day in my student house. In an accent I can at best describe as incomprehensible, he shouted emphatically and waved what looked like his finger in my direction while I hoped he hadn’t discovered a new form of fungal growth in our fridge requiring us to go into quarantine…with him. It was all I could do to write down the few words I could decipher in order to check for them in my trusty dictionary.

I didn’t find them.

Days later my flatmate Paul (a Liverpudlian — or “Scouser” — he presented other linguistic challenges for me) finally gave me a hint. As Paul explained, the repairman had simply tried to offer a nutritional tip: We should throw out food when it becomes hairy. In Newcastle, the word “throw” can also be pronounced as “hoy.”

Hoy, Scouser, chip butty (thick french fries on bread) — such words made the English language a smorgasbord of adventure.

LESSON THREE: ENGLISH WOMEN ARE A SPECIAL BREED

I’m convinced I discovered a new breed of woman in England.

She looks very much like the standard female, with parts in the right places and the corresponding female gait. Yet she can brave below-freezing temperatures clad in only a short skirt, tight tank top and high-heeled shoes, for hours at a time. Such strange beings could be observed Friday and Saturday nights standing in long line-ups outside clubs or trying to hail a taxi at 4 a.m. (I’ve since spotted close cousins of this species in Edinburgh and Dublin, and there are reports of sightings all over the United Kingdom.)

How these women manage not to get hypothermia and faint from the shock of the bitter cold is beyond my comprehension. Perhaps it’s mind over matter: The mixture of just the right amount of alcohol and warm thoughts of hot and sweaty clubs might make winter clothing superfluous. And yet, these women are out in the cold all the time! Surely there’s another explanation. I am convinced they have genetically evolved into new, harder women.

Beware: They travel in packs.

LESSON FOUR: CENTRAL HEATING IS GOOD

Where I come from, it is warm inside and cold outside. I now know how spoiled I was.

I hope student housing has improved since 1998, because only one word could describe it at the time I was there: BAD. Paul (the Scouser) considered it an improvement over his last place; mushrooms were not yet growing in our bathroom. But the walls were so thin we had to avoid leaning on them. Worst of all was the damp, nasty and treacherous cold.

That mix of temperature and dampness attracted a whole array of organisms, from slugs to mold to an unidentified virus that made itself known on my face for several weeks. While the rooms had an air of deceptive luxury — high ceilings, murals, statuettes, a winding staircase — our garden was the equivalent of a concrete slab. (On the practical side, my landlord no longer needed to mow the grass.)

Each room had just one source of heat, a sort of gas heater that hadn’t been inspected since it was built, probably before World War I. I was faced with the question of how I would like to die: freezing to death or being poisoned by invisible gases. It was a toss-up, but I chose the first. Feeling like a huge, cold onion, at night I wore ALL my clothes at once. Eventually I developed a method of pulling the blanket over my head and running a hairdryer intermittently, thus maximizing the heat input and minimizing output. The downside? Severe lack of oxygen. I don’t yet know the full extent of that damage.

LESSON FIVE: FAG BREAKS ARE AN ESSENTIAL PART OF LIFE

Studying film production in England, I realized quickly that if I wanted to direct a film in Newcastle, I would have to accept a few simple rules.

First, all production meetings must be held in a pub. This wasn’t a problem, as there’s a pub on almost every corner and their quality tends to be much better than the student housing.

Second, no discussion of the actual production can occur until the first pint has been enjoyed. This actually worked well. After one pint I found most people very open, motivated and full of ideas — a beautiful thing to watch, really.

Finally, fag (also ciggie) breaks are essential. Were these not planned at regular intervals, three quarters of the film crew would walk off set. In Toronto such behavior was unheard of — smokers had to fend for themselves — but in England this was not considered rude behavior, but a simple fact of life.

Yet the fag breaks offered a real bonding atmosphere; practically the entire crew was gathered to discuss practical solutions to current problems. Some of the best films in the world come out of England, and I am convinced that this is partly because they know how to turn drinking and smoking into positive creative tools.

LESSON SIX: VEGETABLES ARE NOT MEANT TO BE CANNED (OR, THE WAR IS OVER)

In Newcastle I learned to appreciate vegetables, those bright green or red or orange or yellow crispy, crunchy delights just bursting with vitamins. One could only find decent vegetables in the insanely overpriced Marks and Spencer’s downtown, where produce and other delicacies were dressed up as if they were going to tea with the Queen.

The alternatives weren’t pretty. The affordable supermarkets offered only the standard vegetables: onions, cabbage, potatoes, carrots, sometimes turnips. The tomatoes looked reddish but tasted like watery leather and the iceberg lettuce like wet socks. I came to understand the Brits’ need to put mayonnaise on nearly everything.

Otherwise, canned vegetables seemed the natives’ choice. Mushy peas, mushy carrots, powdered potatoes… mushy and gloppy seem to be well-regarded in England. I couldn’t imagine that these cans had any sort of nutritional value and taste seemed less a priority than an occasional salty bonus. Had no one told them that the war is over? Canned rations are no longer mandatory.

I knew I had to find a better alternative or I wouldn’t survive the winter. I thought I found the answer in that English staple: beans on toast.

LESSON SEVEN: BEANS ON TOAST IS NOT ALWAYS THE ANSWER

When starvation becomes a real threat, one must become creative and frugal with meals. My time in Newcastle was no different. More often than not, my solution was beans on toast — a meal in a can!

Broke, I settled for the 10-pence no-name beans on plain white or “pan” bread with a special cardboard flavor. But even people who had money ate beans on toast (though not the 10 p variety). Like fish and chips or toad in the hole, beans on toast was a respected national dish easily found on the menu at almost any restaurant.

Still, after about a month I developed such distaste for beans on toast that just seeing the clinical white label caused me to break out in pimples and want to vomit. I had nightmares about the mealy consistency. It was one of my most successful diet plans to date, until, confused and bitter, I turned to another of England’s national dishes: fish and chips from my local chipper.

Yes I did put on a bit of weight, thank you very much.

LESSON EIGHT: BRITISH MEN CRY IN PUBLIC

Strolling through the streets of Newcastle one Sunday afternoon, there they were: packs of men in Newcastle football jerseys huddled protectively around each other. Crying. Tears, sobs, gasps, hands covering their faces — the whole works.

Shocked, I rushed home to find out what national tragedy had produced such an outpouring of emotion.

“They lost,” said flatmate Paul.

“What do you mean, they lost? They lost what?”

“The match. Newcastle lost the football match.”

“You mean all those men I saw in the street were crying over a stupid football match?”

Paul didn’t appreciate my comment — probably because he’d been known to throw chairs through walls when his beloved Liverpool team lost a match, especially to Manchester. (Paul even refuses to drive through Manchester and avoids all contact with its native folk.)

“It wasn’t just any match. It was the finals. It’s OK to cry about that.”

There I had it. After all, how else to release all the pent-up emotions and stress of supporting a team through thick and thin? Yes, in England, it’s OK to cry openly about football matches.

LESSON NINE: THE ENGLISH HAVE SERVICE DOWN TO A SCIENCE

Never mind England’s new breed of women. There is a super elite force, the crème de la crème, a special team of mostly women who work on the national bus transportation system. As a student in Newcastle, the only way to affordably travel the six or so hours to London is the National Express. The road to London includes bumps, potholes, sharp turns, hills, roundabouts and twisty-turning roads. Through it all, the smiling professional women of the National Express would walk up and down the aisle offering snacks, sandwiches, crisps and hot tea. Despite the bumpy conditions, I never witnessed a tea accident or even the hint of a bit of spilled milk.

I can imagine National Express trainees somewhere high in the Andes on a rickety rope bridge, trying desperately to walk from one end to the other without spilling the tea on the shortbread. They’re that good.

LESSON TEN: CHEAP BEER, JAZZ AND SALSA BELONG TOGETHER

I discovered an ingenious, yet simple club concept in Newcastle’s Jazz Café: good food, cheap beer, good live music and dancing.

It was impossible to be sad or depressed at the Jazz Café. Everything grooved. Dressed to the nines, my flatmates and I enjoyed our veggie burgers and chips and cool live jazz acts for just over 3 pounds (along with the aforementioned cheap beer). An evening there was like a good brain massage. And then, at 11 p.m., the club upstairs opened to offer salsa dancing into the wee hours. Relaxed and funky morphed into energetic and electric. Pulsating rhythm and bodies made for an incomparable high. God, how I loved the Jazz Café. Please let it still be there when I return.

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sonya poller studied film & video as well as multimedia production in toronto, and now is a multimedia producer in fulda, germany. sonya enjoys running in almost any direction, making documentary films, writing, live music, travelling and meeting inspirational people in this often dark and mixed-up world.