London, 1986, Earls Court
With the package in hand, I walk up the three flights to our one bedroom flat, shared between the 5 of us (three in the living room, the Sisters in the only room in the back). We’re thrown into this apartment by pure luck: all living here on a Working Holiday Visa, coming from various parts of Canada, with various “first time away from home” experiences. Some of us discovering that being away from home isn’t as glamorous as first envisioned when we held the pamphlets in our hands.
I mention that because I’m at the end of my patience with one of the girls I’m sharing the living room floor with. She’s been crying herself to sleep since she and her friend, Melanie, arrived at the apartment a week ago – their first time ever being away from Halifax. Each night Melanie holds her, rocking her to sleep, telling her that the next day will be fun and she’ll forget about her homesickness. She was my pull from the SWAP office and I feel angry for my poor choice in roommates, but also envious. I wish I had someone to rock me to sleep.
The flat is like an ever evolving germ, observed in a petri dish. Someone a million years ago stood at the front of the Student Work Abroad Program orientation day seminar and offered space to crash out on the floor, incredibly cheap. As people came and went, trips back to the SWAP orientation day were made to pull new roommates from the constant flow of arrivals. When you first land in London on the SWAP program you’re given two free nights in a hostel and then boom – you’re on your own. If you have the money, you can stick around in the hostel until you find a job and a flat and you start living in London. Or until that runs out. If you want to save your money, you find a flat share as fast as you can. At the end of the orientation one of The Sisters, her turn to pull someone, stood at the front of the room and asked if anyone was looking for a place to live. My hand shot up and we made eye contact. I got a corner of the living room floor that day.
I put the parcel down on the kitchen table. Melanie is with me, dancing in excitement, revealing to me that she’s terribly homesick. Not as homesick as her friend that she consoles to sleep every night, but the role of nursemaid seems to be taking it’s toll on her.
I knife the box open. Inside is a nice hand-written note from my father, saying how much he misses me, the dog misses me, the car misses me, his boyfriend … is ok. And beneath that: 6 pristine Kraft Dinner boxes.
Immediately Melanie has a £5 in my face asking for two. In 1986, £5 = $11.25. She was willing to pay over $5 for a $0.50 taste of home. I gladly sold her the two, now having drinking money for at least a night in my pocket.
Expats can get North American comfort food in London, easy. If you have the money. Harrods sells the “Family Value Box” of Kraft Dinner (the kind with the tin of cheese sauce, not the powder) in their “International” food court, but it runs about $16 a box. Eventually word got out via the Canadian Black Market and I made about £25 on the package.