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TCU Magazine "Academe"
Articles:  Clinton's class | Meandering | Message in a bottle | That old-time religion | "Dr. Lorenzo"

Ross . . . Robyn Ross

By Robyn Ross '99

BY DAY, we're wide-eyed study abroad students. By night, we're spies of international intrigue, going deep undercover into the heart of London.

Lesley Hilton '99 and I write to you -- on disintegrating paper with invisible ink -- from the Janet Poole House, a delightful place to live, with the exception of the constant smell of incense in the hall and the paper-thin walls that let every tiny noise slip through. Our neighbors upstairs are hip American kids who listen to hip American music on a hip American stereo that makes the need for our tiny speakers obsolete.

Late at night we enjoy figuring out what alternative hits are playing by listening to the rhythm of the bass and their excellent singing. Our room is well-furnished with beds as wide as ladyfingers, a refrigerator as tall as a 3-year-old child and a table as big around as a Ritz cracker. On our walls we have an excellent collection of art that we have stolen from the major galleries in town.

From our window we can see the British Telecom tower, which does not exist. Official maps of London leave it off for fear of terrorist attacks, because after all, terrorists always go by the maps. We can also see into the back windows of several buildings that face us, which makes for interesting late-night entertainment. We suspect we've seen a couple of murders, hundreds of illicit trysts and one nude cartwheel, but no one has seen us watching because we wear sunglasses.

The key words to remember when living in London are SMALL and FREQUENT. These apply to most standard activities -- laundry, dishwashing, cashing of travelers' checks. The washing machines of England are approximately the same size as the kitchen sinks, which are as large as a deck of cards, so clothes are washed with regularity and precision. But most importantly, the aforementioned words describe trips to the grocery store. Food is fleeting. A standard loaf of bread develops a green cast after three days, and Mr. Extra Fresh Super Bread goes bad after four. Milk is generally dated two days after the day of sale and exudes a suspiciously rich odor after a few hours. Most other products come with warnings: use within three days of opening (orange juice); use within five minutes of purchase (yogurt). I have applied for a grant to study refrigeration in hopes of alleviating this problem.

Eating out is fun, especially if you like corn. Corn is served on everything: tuna salad, cheese pizza, salad, chocolate ice cream. It's handy, because vegetables are otherwise difficult to find. A popular travelers' cliché holds that there is no ice in Europe, and that water is not served at meals except on request. All this is true, but in addition to their water shortages, restaurants seldom have any change for increments of money more than 20 pence. I have yet to decide if this is merely a scheme to generate higher tips, because sometimes tips are not required. Service is included in prices at some restaurants, excluded at others, and one often forgets to find out this piece of information when ordering. The result is a cleverly orchestrated ruse of ordering dessert, with the real goal obscured by admiring glances at the strawberry cheesecake and toffee-banana sundae, topped with corn.

The attractions of London are rich and varied. On the first full day here our group took a bus tour around the city, during which we learned numerous entertaining facts completely without context. For example, the last public hanging in England took place on the same site where the Beatles performed their early hits, which were based on Celtic anthems of love translated backwards by a left-handed unicyclist. At the end of the tour we had a quiz, and the person who remembered the most obscure facts won tickets to a peep show in Soho.

Since then, Lesley and I have been to the National Gallery once, the Tate Gallery twice, the Imperial War Museum three times and the National Portrait Gallery not at all. We plan to pose for one of the illegal street artists in Trafalgar Square and try to get our portraits added to the rest of the ones in there. Over fall break Lesley went to Paris, where she visited the Louvre. Security was tight, but she managed to fit the Venus de Milo in her backpack. When we visit the crown jewels, Lesley will distract the guards while I snatch the Royal Punch Bowl and Coronation Spoon.

During the rest of the semester, we plan to visit as many museums as possible. Although we're right down the street from it, we have yet to visit the British Museum; its Reading Room is the famous library where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital, Paul wrote his letter to the Romans, and Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his Letter From a Birmingham Jail. We also plan to visit an art museum that currently has a display of hundreds of one-ton metal casts of the human body. Maybe we can sneak some of those back to the Janet Poole House as well.

I've noticed that there are a lot of people here. I've met some of them. Their names are Matthew, Midge, Howie and Eduoard DíAraille, and we have all been introduced at various teas and proms. We talk of Nabokov and Rand, television, culture and imperialism. Sometimes we crook our little fingers. Sometimes I get angry because they insist on speaking with accents. I also hear lots of other languages spoken on the streets and in the tube. By the time I return, I will have mastered French, German, Swedish and Underground Operator: "*#&$# delays, #$&# alternate bus service." (TCU is offering a test for course credit in this language as part of its new London Center curriculum.)

London is not an especially child-friendly city. Babies are only seen folded up in bolts of cloth and plastic wrap and strapped into steel strollers designed to cross streets at a speed fast enough to avoid annihilation. Young children are dragged along by the hands of smartly dressed parents galloping down the pavement to their next meeting. Pre-teens are sometimes spotted reading Far Side comics at the bus stop, but they always have on stiff school uniforms. While it's fun to study here, I don't think this is where I want to raise my family.

Lesley and I must go now, because the computer lab where we type our letters is about to close. It is only open for 18 minutes every other Thursday, which makes word processing difficult, but such are the English nuances we must adapt to for our study-abroad experience, er, I mean tangled web of espionage and deceit.