York: an international perspective

For many, university is enough of a culture shock; however, as Albi Surlan explains, it’s even worse when you’ve travelled 4,000 miles

Every culture, every country has its quirks, idiosyncrasies and things that simply don’t seem to make sense unless you’ve been immersed in that particular culture for all your life. So for me, an Italian living here in England for the first time, there are a lot of things that I find peculiar and alien.

The word “pudding”, for example. The only “pudding” I had eaten before coming to live here was Christmas pudding, bought for me by my philosophy teacher as a (questionable) birthday present. This, plus the use of the word in American movies, gave me the, I now know false, idea that the word pudding meant, loosely, “dessert”.

I learnt the hard way. My second night in York, I had dinner at Russell’s, and, after having enjoyed the carvery, I thought it was time for something sweet to round things off. I looked at the menu, and decided to order a Yorkshire pudding, thinking it must be a traditional local dessert, while my dad ordered coffee. A few minutes later, my dad was laughing over his coffee mug and I understood why, when I ordered, the waiter gave me an amused look and went off to snigger behind the till. Now someone please explain to me the connection between black, Yorkshire and Christmas puddings!

Realising it was time to get educated, I went on the York City Bus Tour, hoping to learn a few things about my new place of residence. The tour encircles most of York, driving by the important sites of the town and giving out information on all the churches, streets, bars and gates that it passes.

As I got onto the bus a tourist couple, the only occupants, disembarked with a heavily American-sounding goodbye, and as soon as I stepped on after them, I suddenly felt the word ‘tourist’ glow above my head like a bright neon sign. I was branded. Looking back at the locals waiting for the ‘normal’ bus, I could see a group of old women smiling at me, possibly mockingly, possibly sympathetically, but clearly not inclusively.

Two steps into the vehicle, and the bus driver started chatting to me in a strong Yorkshire accent, about, I could only surmise, the current state of the roads and traffic in York. He could have been talking about duck-flavoured muffins for all I know, I still haven’t quite got the hang of the accent. I am grateful I don’t live in Birmingham, though. Sorry if you’re a Brummie, but that accent is considered, in Italy, totally unintelligible, second only to the Scottish one. But the Scots have Sean Connery to make it sexy. I got my ticket and sat down, staring outside at people who were staring back at me probably thinking, derisively, ‘Ha! Another tourist!’

The tour starts off at Bootham Bar, though you can get on at any of the twenty two stations of the route and it is actually quite fun. It lasts about an hour, it costs six quid if you can prove you’re a student, or eight if you’re not. The tour includes a voiceover of random, quirky facts about the history of York. For example, if you walk down St. Giles lane, you can spot scores of concrete cats perched in random places on the houses and shops that line it. Know why? Because the original mason’s trademark was a small feline sculpture, which he left on all his work.

Parliament Street, as well as being home to Britain’s most expensive public toilet, “The Splash House”, was where public executions were held during medieval times, and also used to be York’s central market place. Fancy that. ‘Could I have a head of lettuce and two pounds of carrots please?’ ‘Right after they hang that guy. I have a bet with the butcher he takes more than a minute to die.’

It’s hard to imagine a gallows in place of Marks and Spencers and seems odd that such a historical landmark has just been papered over with modern institutions like Prêt à Manger and HSBC. This is nothing strange; it happens a lot in many historical cities around the world. If you were to chuck yourself out of the Duomo in Milan, there is now a good chance you might just land in someone’s super-size fries and double chicken whopper. McDonalds actually made a habit of taking over antiquated buildings to up their cultural respectability.

Despite modern infiltrations in York’s original architecture, the city still keeps up its traditions. For example, the tour informed me that if the Queen visits the city, she arrives at the train station, walks to Micklegate, and is there greeted by the Mayor, who, offering her a sword, grants her permission to visit his town and assures good conduct and hospitality. She touches the sword, and thus symbolically receives the power to rule over the town for the length of her stay. This has been the same for hundreds of years. For an outsider like me, it’s all a bit strange. In Italy there hasn’t been a king for a while, but even when there was, I don’t think we ever had quite such elaborate ceremonies.

Another of York’s local practices- a more poignant one perhaps- is that the Merchant Adventurers’ Guild pays to have the light on top of the church-tower near Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma Gate (that’s where criminals used to get whipped) burn every night, all year round, to commemorate the death of Yorkshiremen in the Second World War.

Which brings me on to the next point: churches. Driving through town, I spotted at least two churches which have been converted, one into a shop and the other into a club. If this occurred in Italy, there would probably be a national uprising. To turn a church into a club, where lewd acts could be performed or enacted or enjoyed, even encouraged?! That’s outrageous. Or at least it would be to the Italian social psyche. But here, I’ve asked a few people about it, and no-one seems to mind. Maybe it’s just the fact that I come from a culture where religion used to dominate almost everything, or maybe the English prefer to uphold their secular traditions more than their religious ones. Still, it’s something that shocked me, seeing as, in Italy, it would be unheard of for a church to ever be anything other than a church.

By now, the bus had filled with another six tourists, who all went upstairs in the double-decker bus to see the city from higher up. I become interested in the people rather than the history of the place. The first thing that strikes me is that, while it’s a windy day in February, not that many people seem to be suffering from cold. On the contrary, there’s a fair amount of people wearing just t-shirts. I feel cold just looking at them, cocooned in three layers and inside a heated bus.

Another thing is that the clothes here are not as extravagant as I’ve seen in other countries. Interestingly, everyone in Italy wears clothes eblazoned with “Wales”, “England”, “Arsenal” and all their flags. I’m not sure why this is, but trust me, they look stupid, very stupid. In England, the clothes are humbler, no-one seems to stick out like a sore thumb. People on my floor tell me that here in England, hoodies with ‘New York’ and ‘Arkansas’ are popular, which makes me wonder; what do hoodies say in New York and Arkansas- Krakow?

The tour draws to a close for me, back again at Bootham Bar. I walk away and the bus driver salutes me and invites me again for another trip, which if taken in the next 24 hours, will be for free. While I don’t think I will be back on this bus in the next day, I’m definitely going to walk around York more often, learn a bit more about my new home and try to avoid too much cultural confusion in the future.

Guide Friday’s double-decker bus tour of York lasts about half an hour. It leaves regularly from Exhibition Square, Clifford’s Tower and the rail station.
Prices: £6.50 for adults
£5 for students.

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