Not My Cup of Tea

Image

British people don’t joke when it comes to tea. Watching English movies as a kid, I knew that they liked tea, but I didn’t know how ingrained tea is in their culture until I studied abroad in London. I had an internship at a boutique PR agency where my colleagues drank 6-8 cups of tea a day. There was a whole etiquette that went with drinking tea. The most stressful part about my first day at my internship wasn’t keeping up with all of the training that I was receiving; it was learning how everyone interacted when it came to tea. My first day I quickly learned that it is good manners to ask the entire office if they would like a cup of tea when you feel the urge to make one for yourself. It was a small company, and the entire top floor was all women. The space was also completely open, there were no cubicles separating us. The office had three large tables, one for each different department and then a large desk for the founder of the company. Everything and everyone was out in the open and exposed. I worked in the Beauty department, which was comprised of two other interns and two full-time employees. Since there were only about 15 of us in total, it was expected that you extend the tea offer to the entire office, not just your own department.

On my first day my boss, the head of the Beauty department, offered to make me a cup of tea, which I thought was so cool of her since she’s so much higher than me in rank. I quickly realized why English people love tea so much, it tastes so much better over there! I wanted to make a good impression on my first day so when I was craving my second cup of tea, I did what I had been observing everyone do the entire day, I extended the offer to the entire office. Normally I’d noticed roughly three people request a cup of tea when someone extended the offer since it was made roughly every half hour. However when I extended the offer, eight people took me up on it and requested a cup of tea. Eight. I was freaking out. I didn’t know how any of these people took their teas and honestly since I wasn’t an avid tea-drinker myself, I didn’t really know how to make an excellent cup of tea. Trust me, it’s an art for them. I went as low as taking out a piece of paper and pen to write down how each person takes her tea since I’d just met them all that day. My boss made it clear that she was the pickiest of them all. She said, “I want milk, but not too much, just a splash, because I hate it when it’s too milky.” I was terrified of failing.

Making tea is something simple enough that any competent person should be able to do. However, making tea at Starbucks where all I do is throw a teabag in a cup and add hot water is totally different from the way people make their tea in the UK. I tried the best that I could, but I’m pretty sure my boss hated the tea I made her on my first day, because I noticed that she barely touched it. However, when you get it just right, you earn yourself a lot of praise. I’m not joking when I say I watched all of my co-workers to pick up on their tea habits so I knew how often they drank tea, what they said when they were going to make themselves a cup of tea and how each person liked to take her tea. This whole tea culture was completely foreign to me. Although, I assimilated quickly, because the tea over there was delicious. It didn’t take long for me to get to their level of drinking at least six cups a day.

One day however, when I thought I’d already fully adapted to the tea culture, I was in the kitchen cleaning up the plates I’d used for lunch. I had an urge for a cup of tea. It seemed silly to go back to the office area and announce that I was about to make myself a cup of tea and ask if anyone wanted one, since I was already in the kitchen. I made myself the tea and walked back to my computer, which is literally right next to my supervisor’s computer. She immediately saw my cup of tea and scoffed, “I see you made yourself a cup of tea and didn’t offer to make me one. I ALWAYS offer!” I was speechless. She literally called me out in front of everyone for not offering to make her a cup of tea on this one occasion. My blood boiled. I couldn’t talk back to her, because she was my boss, but seriously? I know how diligent I’ve been with asking the entire office if they wanted a cup of tea, since it was such a foreign custom that I had to consciously make the effort to integrate well. This was the first time that I hadn’t offered everyone a cup of tea while I made myself one, because I was literally already in the kitchen when I got the craving. I didn’t think it would be such a big deal. I was wrong. I bit my tongue to avoid saying anything I’d regret, and simply apologized to her for not making her a cup of tea. What else was there to say?

I wasn’t the only person my boss called out for having bad “tea etiquette.” A few weeks later she yelled at another intern for the same thing, but the intern actually talked back and said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about, I always offer to make you tea!” My supervisor got so angry that she started yelling at the intern and the CEO who sits roughly five feet away from us intervened and told my supervisor, “Enough is enough, back off with the whole tea thing.” My boss quickly shut up after that. Although, it still baffles me how she could get so angry over the rare occurrence of not being offered to a cup of tea. At the end of the day, she has two hands and two feet that work perfectly, and the kitchen is about ten feet away. Make your own damn tea!

London Talks Back

Image

During my time in London, I learned to admire British culture. I’ll admit when I first arrived I felt very out of my element. The variety of accents, the bluntness of the people and even their mannerisms were so different from what I’d known that even basic interactions were a bit of a struggle for me. No amount of Jane Austen novels or Sherlock episodes could have prepared me for real interactions with British people. Within the first week I quickly adapted, but I guess it was more so the fact that I wasn’t expecting to feel the cultural divide as much as I did. I’d grown up admiring and learning about British people my entire life so I thought I knew what to expect. I was wrong.

British people are the most polite group of people I’ve ever met. It’s funny though, because their bluntness I believe may be construed as rude in the U.S. or other parts, but I loved it. They were so much more efficient with conflicts, because they were much more open to voicing their opinions rather than beating around the bush. To give a quick and humorous example, I dated a British guy named “Michael” who really did in my opinion exemplify all of the major observations I’d made about British culture, and I got to experience them first hand during our relationship. One day towards the end of my stay in London, I had a childhood friend named “Ivonne” visit me for a few days so we took her out for a drink with us and a few of Michael’s co-workers. I was sharing a story about when my older brother visited me in Boston and complained about the amount of walking that I made him do. Living in the suburbs with his own car, my brother doesn’t walk much in general. After telling the humorous experience to point out how I didn’t even realize how much walking I do living in a city, Michael curiously asked, “Yea, but isn’t your brother really fat?” Those were literally his exact words. I know he didn’t say it maliciously or with the intent to insult, he was genuinely curious. At this point, I’d adapted to the bluntness so I simply replied that yea he is indeed a bit overweight. Ivonne died laughing. This was her first night in London, and she was certainly not used to this type of bluntness. She quipped, “Man, you guys really are blunt here!” Michael looked confused by her statement. I laughed at Ivonne’s comment, glad that I’m not the only one who noticed how odd it is for us for people to be that honest.

Ivonne’s two days in London were actually odd in my experience with London. It was during my last week so I took advantage of her stay to do all of he touristy things in London that I hadn’t already done. What made her final day memorable was how Londoners simply chimed into our conversations out of nowhere.

The first instance happened when I went to Sainsbury’s to buy credit for my phone. As we were exiting the grocery store, Ivonne asked me what this signal by the bars on her phone meant. I told her I didn’t know, but then out of nowhere a woman with three bags of grocery bags on each hand who was literally like 10 feet away from us, turns around and explained the signal as she continued walking away with her groceries.

The second instance was when Ivonne and I took the tube. When we arrived at Westminster station, I momentarily forgot where I needed to go and just follow the crowd. I found myself leading Ivonne to go downstairs when we were trying to get out of the station. I revealed to Ivonne, “I think we went the wrong way, but I can’t be sure, I’m just following the crowd, but I’m pretty sure that this is the wrong way to get out.” London is a very crowded city so we were surrounded by people and at this point, we would’ve been annoying if we tried to turn around and go upstairs when literally everyone was going downstairs. However, amidst the crowd a woman, who was a little further ahead of us down the stairs, turned around and responded, “Yes, you guys are going the wrong way.” With this confirmed, Ivonne and I decide to be those annoying Americans and turn around and fight our way back upstairs.

The last instance of the day was when Ivonne and I went to the bank. Since she was studying abroad in Spain, Ivonne only had Euros so she needed to go to Barclay’s to take out more pounds for the day. As we stood at the ATM machine behind this older man who was withdrawing money, Ivonne and I discussed what we planned to do that day to determine how much money she needed to take out. I said, “Well we are doing the London Eye, we’re going lunch, we’re going to Portobello Market to do some shopping and then we’re going to dinner, so you’ll probably need like 100 pounds.” Ivonne asked surprised, “Really? 100 pounds? That’s a lot!” Then I remembered, “Oh, we’re also going to get ice cream!” The man in front of us finished his transaction with the machine, and then turned around and said, “You’re definitely going to need more than 100 pounds,” and then walked away. Ivonne and I looked at each other baffled.

British people are nothing without their wit and humor. I love it. I appreciated them taking pity on two silly American girls, and helping us out when we were clearly struggling to understand certain things.

A Lack of Discretion

Image

When you’re studying abroad, it’s impossible for you to keep any secrets. In Grenoble, I was put with a host family, which was more of just a host mother named “Madame Siron.” She was the strongest and wisest woman I’d ever met. A survivor of World War 1 and 2, Madame Siron was clearly a woman to be respected and who understood what the important things in life were. What made her so lovable was that she had maintained her kindness or positivity. She was a happy woman with her routine and her own life; despite the many obstacles life has thrown at her. I could not have asked for a better host mother. But she was tough and worried about me like every mother does.

In the very beginning of my enchanting semester abroad, I was lucky enough to make several French friends who took me under their wing and introduced me firsthand to French culture. One girl named “Sabine” invited me to her birthday party at her home. I had met Sabine and her group of friends at a bar and had only hung out with them once before she extended the invitation, so I was extremely flattered. Sabine and her friends were exceptionally kind, welcoming and patient with my level of French. They were all so accommodating that when they hung out with me, everyone in the group would speak entirely in English so that I could understand and contribute. I seriously have no idea why people think the French are so rude or pretentious, because to me they were the kindest people I’d ever met.

Anyway, Sabine’s home was outside the downtown area of Grenoble where I lived so a friend gave me a ride to the party. Upon arrival, I realized how intimate the party actually was. The guests included Sabine’s two sisters, two cousins, her boyfriend, her two best friends and me. I’m still bewildered by the fact that I was invited, but I was touched by the gesture. Sabine said to me, “You know when I studied abroad in Australia, a group of people really took care of me and made me feel welcome, and I’d like to do that for you. That’s why I invited you.” It was one of the kindest things anyone had ever done for me, and the party was so much fun! It was very French in the sense that there were like 10 bottles of wine for eight people with a variety of cheeses, breads and prosciutto offered as snacks. It was the classiest and most low-key party I’d ever been to.

It was 2 a.m. when I realized that everyone had planned to spend the night at Sabine’s house since we’d all been drinking. One of the rules of the program is that I had to inform my host mother if I was going to spend the night somewhere else. Unfortunately, I only had the house phone of my host mother so when I realized I was spending the night at Sabine’s I didn’t dare call my host mother and wake her up in the middle of the night just to inform her I was staying out. So I went to sleep and figured I’d just explain to her what happened in the morning when I returned.

I wake up the next morning with three missed calls from the Main Program Director, two texts messages from her daughter who is the other Program Director and two missed calls from one of my friends who was in my study abroad program. I opt to call my friend Brendon first to find out what was happening, but I already knew. He immediately asks me where I am and if I’m alive. Obviously, I was since I was talking to him so I start firing with questions to figure out what’s the emergency. He explained that my host mom noticed that I didn’t return home the night before so she called the police and the Program Director this morning extremely worried. Also, because Brendon is such a good friend, when asked by the Program Directors if he knew about my whereabouts, his reply was, “I don’t know the last time I saw Ariana, she was getting a ride with a random French dude.” Despite the fact that he didn’t know I was going to a birthday party of a French girl, he decides to insinuate something much more scandalous. While I spoke to Brendon, he mentions that he’s at the Study Abroad office at that moment, and then I hear him scream out, “I’m talking to Ariana now, she’s fine.” He returns his attention to me by notifying me that the Program Directors want me to come into the office immediately.

I asked a friend at the party for a ride back to the downtown area of Grenoble since the house was outside in a more suburban area and out of reach of the public transportation. On my way, I start to panic. They can’t actually kick me out of the program for staying out overnight, right? I’m 21 years old; I’m an adult! (At least I like to think so.) I enter the Study Abroad office shaking. It’s the beginning of the semester so I didn’t really know the Program Directors that well and they didn’t know me. (Although, as a side note, they’re both two of the loveliest people I’ve ever met.) Getting in trouble so early on was not the greatest first impression. “Margot” the Head Program Director who has run the study abroad program in Grenoble for the past like 20 years was angry and ready to show it. However, her daughter “Colette,” who seemed more like the protective, but approachable older sister, balanced her out. Margot immediately started lecturing me on how disrespectful it was to stay out overnight without telling my host mother in advance. I agreed, but then explained the situation on how I didn’t know until very late in the evening that I was staying out, and due to my host mother’s age she only has a landline phone, which I didn’t want to call due to the time. Apparently, I was wrong. My host mother had a cell phone. I wasn’t sure she even knew what a cell phone was! I just assumed she didn’t have one, because when she gave me her contact information, a cell phone number was not included, and I’d only ever seen her speak on a landline phone! I was blown away.

I quickly apologized, because from the beginning I knew I was in the wrong. However, Colette seemed to find the whole situation amusing. She sat there smiling the whole time Margot was lecturing me, before she quipped, “You know Ariana if you were trying to be discreet with your affairs, this was the worse possible way to do it.” I died from laughter. She was completely right! I didn’t even bother trying to correct what I knew they were assuming with “my affairs.” I accepted the warning with gratitude and humor, and then went on my way, happy that I was able to stay in France and continue with my scandalous ways.

Going Down the London Tube

londonpost

I had the privilege of being able to study abroad in London. I studied abroad in London first, because to me London was the dream. Growing up reading Jane Austen and watching movies set in 18th century England convinced me that I was born in the wrong place and time. The history, beauty and character that England offered enchanted my childhood. So arriving in London felt like a dream. I had a Swiss friend who was in graduate school in London at the time come pick me up at the airport and take me to her place before I moved into my flat the next day (yes, I did make the effort to incorporate their vocabulary while I was there, because it’s so much cooler and sounds more proper than American vocabulary. I also spelled colour with a u, deal with it.)

With my internship, and the fact that I thought that London was going to be in two different seasons from January to May I brought two large suitcases, a carry-on suitcase and my laptop bag. Of course, I quickly learned London has one season: rain. I also made the mistake of assuming that my friend Cara would be willing to help me with my luggage. Unfortunately, she had sprained her ankle while walking and that somehow hindered her ability to roll a suitcase so she only offered to take my carry-on, which left my 5’1 frame carrying a 50 lbs. suitcase in each hand. To get to Cara’s apartment we had to ride the London Tube, which already had me jumping in my seat with excitement and amazement. The London Tube was such an amazing experience that it made me feel like I was at a 5 star hotel. It made the Boston T look like a hostel that would most likely give you bed bugs in comparison. London even has a museum dedicated to the history of the London Tube! I can understand why; the efficiency and comfort of the Tube never ceased to impress me for the five months that I lived there.

Once we arrived at Cara’s stop, I had to go up the escalators with my two large suitcases that added up to be 100 lbs., which was only eight lbs. less than my entire body weight. I’m petite and I’m weak. These are two things about myself that I’ve learned to accept, and most of the time as long as I put on a pathetic look that screams “Help me please,” a nice gentleman offers his assistance and I’m off the hook. Not this time.

There was no one behind me to for the escalator going up to scream for help with my eyes and my friend Cara had gone ahead of me with my 10 lbs. carry-on suitcase. I was on my own. Looking back, I’ll admit my strategy sucked, but I was afraid to leave a suitcase by itself in a city I’d been in for about an hour and to me running on to the escalator with a suitcase in each hand seemed like my best bet. It was a terrible idea. I dropped both suitcases and the escalator would drag my suitcases up and then they’d fall down, while I was rising up. So for the first time in my life I got to fulfill a fantasy of running against an escalator, but under the worst circumstances.

Of course, I was wearing high-heeled black boots as well because, high heels are a requirement in my life if I want to be eye-level with most people and not hurt my neck from having to look up all the time. But, the high-heeled boots actually caused me to fall not once, not twice, but more than five times in my attempt to run again the escalator in order to pick up my suitcases so that they weren’t just rising and falling on the escalator. This scenario didn’t just go on for 3 seconds, it went on for like two minutes, because somehow in this timeframe there was no one who needed to use this escalator to go up so I was alone. Although, the opposite escalator going down was packed and many people got free entertainment and apparently felt the need to immortalize this moment by pulling out their phones to take pictures and record my struggle so that my patheticness could be documented and shared.

Eventually a woman came behind me to get on the escalator and she was able to pick up one suitcase and I the other. However, I could not move on from the fact that my grand entrance to this beautiful, prestigious city that I’d dreamt about going to my entire life was probably uploaded to YouTube as “Pathetic Girl on Tube.”

Avez-vous sida?

Image

Being in a foreign country is like being a baby. People have to speak to you extremely slowly, everything around you is new, exciting and terrifying, and you’re always exhausted from trying to communicate. Studying abroad in Grenoble, France was the most exhilarating, eye-opening, beautiful and petrifying experience of my life. I went after only having studied five semesters worth of French and unable to form complex sentences, but left France conversationally fluent. However, there were many humiliating experiences that contributed to the development of my French skills.

The most embarrassing experience was during my first week in Grenoble when I went to a bar with friends. Fluent in Spanish, one of my main strategies in speaking French was to cover up when I didn’t know a word in French by saying the word in Spanish or pronouncing English word with a Spanish accent, and hope that somehow the French would understand me. I think this tactic worked like once. However, I used this strategy at the bar when the bartender asked me what I wanted to drink. Being obsessed with cider after living in London for a few months, I wanted to know if he sold any, but quickly realized mid-sentence that I had no idea how to say cider in French. I opted to say cider in English with a Spanish accent to see if he would somehow, miraculously understand me. Instead, he gave me a look like I was crazy, then looked at other patrons to make sure that he wasn’t the only one who had heard what I had said. Everyone around me burst out laughing.

The bartender was kind enough to explain to me in broken English that I had just asked him if he had AIDS, and then responded to my question by saying that he did not. Mortified, I could do nothing else but join in on the laughter at the awkwardness of the situation and profusely apologize for my lack of French skills. But you know, you learn something new every day and that day I learned how to say AIDS in French.