1. a journey or voyage: to win a trip to Durham, UK.
2. a journey, voyage, or run made by a boat, train, bus, or the like, between two points: It's a short trip from Sofia to Durham.
3. round trip. revolving.
4. a single journey or course of travel taken as part of one's duty, work, etc.: his daily trip to lectures.
5. a stumble; misstep.
Let me tell you about Durham. About the skies. About the people.
Being Bulgarian in Durham. Definitions.
|Discovering Durham. Discovering me.|
After three years at university, and two modules in social psychology, I can tell you that people label, or stereotype, in order to bring order and provide an organisational framework into the massive and chaotic flows of information. Or something like that. I didn’t do all that well in social psychology, after all.
Among the flows of people I had never met before in this place I had never been before, there were two definitions, labels, identities that I would hold on to – student, Bulgarian. Two definitions that were unquestionably true. Two definitions that were an easy pick, for a start, in the quest for redefining. Two definitions that would revolve around the familiar and the salient.
Students quickly became familiar – there were many of those. In fact so many, it was easy for any other human or other population of the city to go unnoticed.
Bulgarians were salient from the general student population, in the sense that they represented an escape island of familiarity from the rest of this new and unknown world.
They were both new. One in the sense you could proudly put ‘university’ where ‘highschool’ used to stand – in front of student. And university is a bigger, bubblier, ballsier world. It is also a choice. The other was in the sense that it never needed to de spelled out before. Until this moment in time, and most importantly in place, it was always present, but never necessary to be actively used in shaping and making sense of experiences.
Language was a factor. Bulgarians were familiar as you have the same cultural coding, you are going through the same thing, and rather importantly – you speak the same language. A language that you master, that you feel deeply comfortable in, and that, in those first days and months of not understanding very well other people’s English, you long for. Being a student was equally important in this sense, as the English of the textbooks, the one the lecturers spoke was the one I could understand. They did not contain the specificity of accents and general background noise.
Being a student is easy. You put a gown, you shake a principle’s hand, you sign your name. And this is it. You are a student now.
What’s your name? What do you study? Where are you from? You will answer and ask those questions so many times, they become a reflex. It is the established, easy path of communication, but also of remembering people. Carefully ordering them in your memory, into places, subjects, looks. It becomes a necessary database of points of reference. Where it goes from there is up to your own imagination and social skills. Oops.
And yet, it was easy being a student. There was a sense of camaraderie I felt. Discussing lectures, schedules, assignments. After a day of struggling with an assignment, I would go to dinner, sit amongst others, and overdramatize my pains. Someone would just smile and say: “Then you are just like the rest of us.” That rather simple moment has been my comfort in many of the academic struggling and long nights before the deadlines that were to follow.
Yes, being a student was easy.
Being a Bulgarian, it was different.
In a way, I needed to be Bulgarian. It was an escape, plan B identity I could always turn to when plan A (communication with all other nations) was failing, or, was proving too complicated. It was easy because you did not need to connect in a specific way that contact necessitates so much. Your default settings with the other Bulgarians are the same. It does not make contact necessarily less superficial, but it does make it easier to pass the superficial barrier, and thus makes it emotionally more satisfying.
The experience of being Bulgarian provided the glue that was needed for people to stick around. Contact in first year, especially at the very beginning, can be annoyingly fleeting. Even with the people you really like in a particular moment, you tend to lose them in the masses of other people, other contacts, other moments. You don’t bond. Bulgarians, in contrast, will always be linked to you by the simple fact they are Bulgarians. Some of the most unique individuals I’ve met there are Bulgarians. Not a small part of the people I’ve felt closest to, are Bulgarians. And it all comes from the simple fact if you like someone, you are bound by this common nationality of yours, a Bulgarian fellowship, that does not allow for moments to simply fleet. The start can be as simple as “Do you happen to be a Bulgarian who likes rock music? So cool. Hi, M. Should we hang out (all the time)?”. Oh, what a comfort this can be. Oh, what an advantage this can be to all those who do not have such a back-up identity.
The difficult bits are all the other manually adjusted settings. The difficult bit is when you use plan B as plan A. When the emergency exit becomes the only one you’re using. When you search the contact not for the joy and comfort of it, but simply out of fear and insecurity of any other. When you become too absorbed in the very limited world you’ve assigned yourself to, you fail to see any sort of bigger picture.
Those are the identities I was falling in and out of for the past 3 years. Those were the ones that were pre-given, but then had to be established over and over again. There were times when I was not happy with them. There were times when I did not want to acknowledge I was a student anymore. There were times when it was just too hard being a Bulgarian.
And yet, sometimes... sometimes being an owner of either or both identities felt just too damn good.
As a footnote in content, though not in form, I feel I should add another identity - a very specifically Durham identity – the college identity. College is the nice building or cluster of buildings you live and eat in. There are 16 colleges in Durham University. Each consists of common rooms, a library, a bar, and student bedrooms. Students from different departments are in the same college, and it is your basic and most immediate contact with university life, as most people would stick to their collegial social groups rather than people of their course. Same college plus same subject is a double bonus. I was a part of St John’s college – the second smallest, located in the city centre, between 5 and 15 minutes from everywhere you will ever need to go to in Durham.
It is a footnote identity, as it did not possess the omnipresent reach that being a student (more generally) or being Bulgarian did. It is an identity, as in the concrete experience of situations and acquaintances, it mattered and defined. It did matter this was my college, as I would always say it with certain pride. As it did provide the comfort and security of a very specific place I belonged to. It did matter for all the memories that it was the active context of. It did matter for the amazingness and uniqueness of the people I’ve met and grown close to just for the sheer luck of finding ourselves in the same college. For the amazing senior tutor, who knew each and everyone of us.