A lot of people that I talked to before coming to England told me not to worry because it’s “just like the States” and “they speak the same language.” While these unnamed people were terribly mistaken, I’ve been rather impressed with how well I’ve dealt with all the expected and unexpected differences.I’ve gotten used to being served salt and vinegar with every order of “chips” and paying 10 pence per packet extra when my American ways prevail and I demand ketchup to properly consume hot, fried potato products. I’ve gotten used to bagging my own groceries in the grocery store and carrying around a wallet full of coins because the British make “notes” – not bills, as we call them – in denominations no smaller than five pounds. I’ve gotten used to their expressions, road signs – you name it – and I was even secretly enjoying some of the traditionally British things.That was until I tried punting on the River Thames in Oxford. For those of you lucky enough not to know what punting is, I offer you my biased explanation. Punting is basically when you pile into a boat with four of your best mates and try to navigate a river. Only instead of using a paddle, the British have decided to make life a little more interesting by using a 12-or-so-foot-long metal pole. And instead of sitting in the boat and staying low – like everyone learned in Girl Scout camp – you do the unthinkable and stand on the end of the boat.The day we were scheduled to punt was a mild, sunny day, with a few clouds mixed in that threatened to burst with a few light sprinkles. But feeling adventurous, my fellow Americans and I decided to indulge in another British tradition and brave the weather. Our luck turned sour, though, and we had no sooner boarded the boat and snapped a few priceless photos when thick gray clouds took over the sky and started to explode with rain and hail. While our adventurous spirit was wearing thin, we still weren’t ready to abandon this idea of punting and headed downriver. After crashing into a few other boats and forgetting which way to go, we decided to surrender and make our way back to the dock. This is when it was my turn to take over the actual punting part – going upstream, in the rain and hail.My determination was surprising, however, even to myself. And I’ll admit I made some damn good progress. It was painstaking, yes. The pole was freezing cold and I’m not exactly an experienced punter, so our boat more zigzagged up the river than floated in a straight path.We were within sight of the dock, and just had to make it through one final obstacle – the tunnel under the bridge. This was the beginning of the end. Competing with another boat for space in a pretty confined tunnel, my boat was driven into the wall. This happened at approximately the same time the giant pole got wedged between the bottom of the river and the top of the tunnel.Struggling to get the pole free, I put all my weight to get the thing to budge, making the crucial mistake of compromising my balance. At this exact moment, one of my fellow boat mates decided we were too close to the wall and pushed us away from the edge of the tunnel, jerking the boat.And that was it. Before you could say anything I had taken the plunge and was going for a swim in the River Thames. Only my feet were somehow caught in the brilliantly designed boat.I guess this is where I might add that my in-no-way-scientific estimate of the water temperature of the River Thames was approximately 40 degrees. With the feeling of a thousand knives stabbing my chest from the extreme coldness of the water, I performed some crazy acrobatics and managed to break free from the boat and found my way to the surface of the water. I somehow managed to hurl myself into the boat with some adrenaline-induced Herculean strength.One of the kind men that operates that dodgy punting business agreed to punt us back at the demands of a few of my panic-stricken boat mates. This is where the man told me, “It’s all part of the Oxford experience,” and sent me on my walk back through town to my room at University College in my near-hypothermic state.After a hot shower, some time spent wrapped in blankets and a few cups of hot chocolate, my body returned to a quasi-normal state. My program director declared me an honorary member of the Polar Bear club, or at least the British equivalent, and I somehow convinced myself that swimming in the River Thames was quite a feat, especially in March. I also resolved that despite what the British think, punting is not a wintertime activity. And unlike their beer, accents and currency, 40-degree water temperatures are not something I’ll get used to.Egan can be reached at email@example.com.
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