THE FOREIGNERS (II)
Unlike Marta and Natalia, I lived in the outskirts of Norwich, at the University: another village, a greyish residential quarter housing students from all the parts of the world. My room was in Norfolk Terrace, which wasn’t as cool or expensive as Nelson Court or Constable Terrace, but which was much better than Waveney. Norfolk and Suffolk were two ziggurat-shaped buildings. My room was on the ground floor, in front of an artificial lake full of mutant fish, where, just in case, it was forbidden to bathe.
I arrived very late but a night guardian gave me the keys. He teased me because I had two family names and told me where my room was in great detail, so I only got lost three times.
In the first days there were meetings about cheap supermarkets and academic requirements: there were no exams in February, plagiarism would be punished, every international student had their own tutor and there was a student help-line.
You could find almost everything you needed on campus: a sports centre, a disgusting restaurant, a travel agency, a theatre, a cinema, a museum, a Waterstones bookshop and a second-hand one, a small supermarket (with tobacco), newspapers and a laundry. There was a disco on Thursday nights, and a chapel that was used by many religions. Norwich was twenty minutes away by bus. A lot of people rode bikes, but I was scared of choosing the wrong side of the road.
There was a market on Tuesday and Thursday. You could buy second-hand bric a brac, posters, cheap CDs. And sometimes you were approached to join an association: the Poetry Club, the Conservative Party, the Latin Society, or the Role-playing Club, whose members fought with wooden swords in front of my window on Sunday afternoons.
There were professors, international and first-year students living on campus. I shared my floor with eleven British boys, a German and a boy from California. The house rules forbade that girls lived on the ground floor, in fear that a rapist might break in through a window.
I ran into María and Natalia when the people from the Office of International Relations took us on a bus tour around Norwich. They’d joined a group of Spaniards. It included a few boys that were going to study Environmental Sciences there, and a guy from Saragossa who’d out of the blue become the leader of the gang. His name was Fernando and he had the Real Saragossa’s insignia tattooed on his arm. He’d studied Human Resources in Saragossa and then he’d started Management in the University of Teruel. I asked him why. He said he’d get a subsidy of one thousand eight hundred euros a year for travel expenses.
“That doesn’t look like a lot of money”, I said.
“No, not if you go.” But, of course, he never went to Teruel. And he was already familiar with Norwich, because he’d arrived a few days before everyone else. He even seemed to have learned a lot about English culture.
“Here people live fucking well. Even construction workers. In Spain you work in construction and midmorning you have some fried eggs with ham and half a bottle of wine. And here, at lunchtime, they have a coke and a chocolate bar. That means they don’t work much.”
“You know, despite appearances”, said Fernando looking at Natalia, “I’m a worldly guy.” He said there was a special lunchtime offer at Pizza Hut, and was fed up with the tour, so he convinced all the Erasmus students to go and eat pizza. But I didn’t feel like it. I thought I shouldn’t separate from the excursion, because they might worry. When I realized that we hadn’t been counted, that we were old enough and that I had no food at home, Fernando and the others had probably arrived at the Pizza Hut, and I didn’t want to go there after rejecting their offer. I spent the afternoon walking, looking at shops and second-hand bookshops.
Norwich was a small city: its best moment had taken place in the Middle Ages. It had a gothic cathedral, a church turned into an art cinema, another that served as a bar, an art school and a small market near the police station. The castle, transformed into a commercial centre with a multi-screen cinema, was in the shopping district. There was a river with restaurants running along the banks, swans and a bar and night-club zone. The city was too small for my taste; we started to call it the village, because everything closed early.
I had a sausage and bought some food at the market. I didn’t want to get to the University late, because there was a welcome party for international students and I was afraid that Scotland Yard would be looking for me.
The stop for the 25 was near the market. Though there was a sign saying “UNIVERSITY”, a black haired guy, with a guitar, a radio and two bags, asked me if I knew where the University stop was. I recognized the accent and met Miguel, who was Asturian but studied Law in Bilbao. Miguel was wearing a blue coat that made him look like Harry Potter, though I didn’t tell him so. He’d flown from Oviedo–his ticket must’ve been much more expensive than mine, I thought- to London, where he’d spent two days in the house of a family friend. He’d been browsing in shops for a while, because he hadn’t brought a pillow and was unable to sleep without one, but the ones he’d seen were too expensive. I told him he was brave for doing that carrying all his luggage (and also that he could buy a duvet and a pillow in his own residence).
“I brought the duvet from home, man.”
“Maybe you can just get a pillow.”
“Do you think?”
“Sure”, I said, having no idea, but good intentions.
We told our life stories to each other: the family, football, what we wanted to do. Miguel had a brother who wrote in Asturian, the friend from London had been his girlfriend. She lived in a nice place, full of “super cool” paintings. Miguel wasn’t much interested in art, but he loved everything that looked artistic: he always had a book by his bed –the same for months- and his room in Nelson Court would soon be very well decorated, with the walls filled with photos of the sea and posters of Bob Marley and Rio de Janeiro. He said he didn’t play the guitar very well, but he’d brought it because you could always find someone who did. I told him there was a party that night and he invited me to his place for dinner: he’d brought some tins of fabada in his bags.
He looked out the bus window and pointed out what he considered interesting.
“Hey, man, what do you call pillow in English?”
At the University we picked up the key to his room; I helped him carry his stuff to his place. Miguel’s residence, a sort of chalet in the upper part of campus, was a bit more luxurious than mine. His room was on the second floor. I told him I’d cook something –I advised him to keep the fabada for a time of need- while he unpacked.
“It’s okay”, said Miguel. “I have some recipes.”
Miguel handed me a wrinkled serviette: his mother had written down for him how to make rice and pasta. I recommended he cover the pot so that the water would boil faster.
“Fuck, man, you are a fucking genius”, he said, and wrote “cover the pot” on his mother’s serviette instructions.