Mind the gap: tales from j-term abroad in UK

The best advice I received before leaving for the United Kingdom was to “mind the gap.”

At the time, I had no clue what my dear friend meant by this, so I simply hugged her, wished her well and then said my goodbye.

In time, however, I discovered that the guidance she offered me would not only prove useful in its literal application, but also serve as an overarching theme of my journey ahead to England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Upon arriving in London, I found that “mind the gap” was a hallmark of the city. The phrase boomed throughout the underground tube network, demanding travelers to direct their attention to the expanse between the railcar and the platform. Being largely dependent on the tubes for transportation, I had ample time to hear and contemplate the phrase and its metaphorical implications on my trip, as any Maryville College student would.

I found the choice of the word “gap” comical and oddly relevant to my trip as a whole. We were not to mind the break, the stair or the ledge when entering the railcar, and certainly no one was going to be minding the step, of all things, when stepping from the tube to the platform below.

Rather, we were to mind the gap.

So, I did.

However, I not only minded the literal distance between railcars and platforms, but also the gap spanning between myself and the new world around me. I minded the 4,079-mile gap between Knoxville and London and the five-hour gap between my home and the new world around me; the financial gap, as 1.6 of my American dollars could buy only one British pound; and the communication gap, since internet and phones were of limited and extremely expensive access.

Examining and understanding these and the thousands of other gaps between what existed in the UK and what I had left behind in the U.S. became a feat within itself.

Never mind the sightseeing, picture taking and souvenir shopping that was to be done, I was fighting to simply be present in a world that was not my own. I was desperate to commit every image, fact, smell, noise and taste of clotted cream to vivid memory that I could.

Some of it was bad; some of it was good, but all of those little “gaps” were worth something to me.

In the UK, I ate nothing, bathed poorly and went everywhere. Every morning, we awoke early and were served breakfasts consisting of beans, sausage, eggs that had never been refrigerated and milk that had never been pasteurized.

We used toilets, not restrooms, that simply ran water over what you wished to dispose of or public toilets, which cost 20 pence. We showered in circular, curtained stalls with circumferences smaller than my wingspan, and I shaved my legs in a juice glass or sink.

Oh, that gap.

However, despite the inconveniences, most of us could not have cared less. We were young Americans displaced thousands of miles away from everything we knew and excited in every minute of culture shock that we could get.  With public transit stations a block away in every direction, we were ready to take on the city, if not the world.

On our third day, three of us split off from the group to visit St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Four tube rides and two bus stops later, we arrived at what resembled a camping ground. Hundreds and hundreds of tents surrounded the glory that was St. Paul’s Cathedral. In order to get to the cathedral, we walked through the numbers of tents where activists, protesters, hipsters and homeless lived, all of them at the foot of St. Paul’s.

Inside, we climbed the cathedral’s 528 winding steps to the Golden Gallery, emerging to find the uppermost dome’s panorama of London.

Suddenly, it no longer mattered to me that I had eaten nothing but beans and mushy peas for the last three days or that my beloved hair straightener burned off a chunk of my hair when my voltage converter blew.

That view was the most spectacular thing that I had ever seen in my life, and at that moment, I could not conceive a bigger gap between the states and my perch atop St. Paul’s.  We spent an hour staring, just trying to internalize the whole scene.

However, it wasn’t until I looked down that I sobered enough to conceive a semi-intellectual thought.

For, when I looked down, I discovered an equally amazing view of the individuals assembled below for their own various reasons. It resembled an image I had seen on television just months before: CNN’s coverage of the occupy Wall Street movement.

In that instance, the gap seemed so small.

I maintained that shrinking and growing relation to minding the gap throughout the remaining 17 days of my journey in England, Wales, Northern Ireland and Ireland, like when I found myself in the middle of a not-so-peaceful protest for Nigerian rights and benefits. The gap seemed pretty wide, then.

The gap remained prevalent during my time in Wales, too, as the purple-tipped mountains appeared to float in the sky during our trek through Snowdonia.

In Northern Ireland, the gap seemed small and large at the same time.

We enjoyed great hospitality, with meals prepared by little old ladies who taught us traditional Ulster-Scot folk dancing.

Although, we also spent time with men who had IRA hits on them no more than a decade or so ago, as well as men born in Northern Ireland who were likely to spit in your face if you were refer to them as Irishmen.

Moreover, in Londonderry, we found that the doors and lower portions of buildings are lined with metal to prevent the Catholics from setting fire to protestant facilities, and school buses deposit children street by street, as the Catholics will beat the protestant children on their way home—and vice-versa, of course.

In Ireland, the trip ended with the gap narrow, as the cab driver forced me to cross my chest and pray with him three times while in route to our destination.

Once for each time I had muttered a minor explicative.

During my three-week visit to the U.K. and Ireland, I discovered a million different ideas and perceptions, saw hundreds of sights, met dozens of captivating individuals and minded countless gaps, some literal and some abstract. I would urge anyone to take the leap and do the same, as I am certain he or she will be rewarded with the same eye-opening experience that I was.

Please, friends, do mind the gap, but don’t let it stop you.

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