Not a workshop

Last night, I was flying to England for a workshop. I hadn’t had a great day study-wise, having watched a whole Olsen sisters’ movie in the middle of the afternoon and I was feeling disappointed in myself. Unbelievably, I made it from my house to Dublin airport and from Luton airport to my hotel without needing a single taxi. I was well-impressed with myself and my slick use of public transport. The bus from Luton airport had a sign at the front that said “Luton Centre via the Busway”, which made me laugh. I realise the Busway is presumably a place, but  I found it funny, like this bus was having a fight with another bus that was behaving suspiciously like a train and was saying, “Well I don’t know about you but I’m going to Luton the Busway, and not the StupidFakeTrainWay.” I was the only passenger on the bus and the driver took me directly to my hotel instead of to the stated destination. I really like English people.

My hotel was an EasyHotel, the same company as EasyJet. It’s great value and when I was booking I was offered the options of a “quiet room” or a “room with a window”, both of which would have been more expensive than the room I had actually got. In some ways, my room was like any other hotel room. But it’s not. It’s a big plastic cube. The walls and the ceiling are all plastic, and there’s no window. Three of the walls are hotel-coloured, insofar as they’re a kind of dappled pastel peach and cream, a little like wallpaper you’d expect to see in a 1960s hotel, except it’s not wallpaper, it’s shiny plastic. The fourth wall is a bright EasyJet orange, with the company logo. It feels like the future, and is simultaneously awful and amazing. There is a bed and there’s a TV on the wall. The hotel literature boasts that the TV is “free of charge”. It doesn’t have any of the other things you’d expect a hotel room to have, like a chair, or a desk, or any surface other than the bed or the floor. It doesn’t have a kettle, but there is a towel and toilet paper, both of which I presume are also “free of charge”. It doesn’t have a wardrobe, but there are hooks on the wall. The bathroom is small, with a bright orange plastic floor and the temperature is controlled at reception, who you have to walk to see as there is no phone in the room.

As I lay in bed in my orange plastic cube, the thrill of being abroad coursed through my body. I love being in another country. And I love travelling alone. There are no responsibilities. No one is going to appear at your door and demand things from you. Everything suddenly seems possible. I’m a ludicrously optimistic traveller and Luton town seemed like Heaven on Earth and the plastic hotel room was my own cloud.

I was going to Milton Keynes in the morning. The idea of Milton Keynes has always appealed to me. It’s named after a poet and an economist, which seems like a very silly, but pleasing, combination to me, a little like calling a town Omelette Watering Can. I was going to a workshop. It was designed for early-stage PhDs. I am a late-stage PhD, but I was going because (a) it was cheap, and (b) the speakers were potential external examiners for my thesis and so it was kind of an opportunity to check them out. I was due to get a bus from Luton to Milton Keynes at 7:00 am.

At 5:00 am, I was still reading, and I realised that there was no way I would get up for the 7:00 bus. A sneaky plan formulated. I wasn’t going to go to the workshop. I would stay in Luton, which I was totally in love with, and I would do some PhD work, and I would achieve.

I got up at about midday and went for a walk around Luton. I overnighted in Luton once before in 2004 or 2005 and I remember finding it a very exciting place. It’s still exciting. English people laugh at me when I say I love Luton, but I really do. Part of it is simply the charm of being abroad. I’m very easily excited and small differences between places fascinate me. In Luton, the traffic lights make no sound, meaning that I stood for ages waiting to cross the road because I’m used to the noise Dublin traffic lights make when it’s safe for pedestrians to cross. I have no idea how the blind use pedestrian crossings in Luton. But obviously, there’s something more than that that excites me. Luton feels like a real melting pot. There are people of so many colours and languages and styles of dress. Like East Germany, Luton still has punks. Taxis pass with exotic music coming out of them. Afro-Caribbean hairdressers stand next to pretty brown cottages, next to pubs with English names like “The Fox and Lion” next to Pakistani greengrocers and it all feels delightfully free. People wear all kinds of clothes and have all kinds of funny hairstyles and the pressure to conform that I always feel in Ireland lifts from my shoulders (though God knows, Ireland is nothing as bad as it used to be). England just seems to offer so many more possibilities to be whoever you want to be and no one seems to bat an eyelid if you look different. It’s an incredibly exciting feeling and the potential endlessly titillates me.

Luton town centre is pleasant, pedestrianised, with nice street furniture, and busy and multi-cultural, although  poverty is depressingly evident. English people were faultlessly friendly and polite to me, which I have always found them to be. A man in a shop called me “bruv” and I nearly yelped with joy, feeling like a character from Eastenders or Skins.

I went from cafe to cafe, writing and reading, and achieving and doing PhD in such a relaxed and productive way. It was amazing. As I sat in a Costa cafe, I was tapped on the shoulder. A former colleague of mine from Dublin was standing in front of me. She now lives in Luton and had come to the cafe to use the WiFi. It was really surprising and really lovely. She’s a driven and ambitious woman, and I couldn’t quite admit to her that I’d flown to Luton in order to sit in cafes and write my PhD, so I told her I’d been to the conference in Milton Keynes. People texted and messaged me and I let them think the same. It’s easier.

And I know I’m daft. I do. I know I should have gone to the workshop. I know. But my escape from life today has done me and my PhD the world of good. And I know I’ve written more for this PhD this year than I did in 2010, 2011, 2012 and 2013 combined and I’ve made real progress and I’m actually going to finish this year. But a PhD is an awful process. I think of doing a PhD as both the cause and the symptom of mental illness. I have had a constant knot in my tummy for the last three weeks because of it. And yet my work rate has slowed. But today, today I found peace and I got started again. And it was wonderful.

Thank you, England!

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