Study Abroad in
by Lea Woods - CIEE, School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS)
I think I expected London to be a quainter version of New York, a metropolis with the amenities of any modern city, but one in which people had “posh” accents, drank tea, and were courteous enough to hold open doors for those behind them. I was charmed by the fictional England with which I had become acquainted from years of viewing shows on the BBC. So while I was excited to come to London, I naïvely anticipated that it would be much like home and underestimated just how different the culture could be.
That misconception was cleared within hours of arriving in London, and with comedic results. Merely an hour after leaving Heathrow, I found myself jet lagged, lost (due to the apparent lack of street signs), and embarrassingly incapable of operating the lights in my hotel room (the room key goes in a slot by the door—you’re welcome). I was quickly finding that it’s the accumulation of small differences that can make being in another country so overwhelming. But it was only after acknowledging England’s cultural distinctness that I was able to appreciate the many differences I had never imagined.
I learned that the English eat baked beans with their breakfasts and that “half three” means “half past three” and never “half an hour until three.” I learned to “mind the gap” and to appreciate the significance of the Oyster Card. I learned that professors are referred to as “lecturers” and that classes always start five minutes late. I learned that “DW babs” means “don’t worry, babe” and I learned to end messages to friends and family in x’s (kisses). And in case it wasn’t interesting enough to familiarize myself with the everyday pleasantries of London life, traveling through CIEE ensured that I would have the opportunity to see parts of England I might otherwise have missed. Excursions to Edinburgh and different enclaves within London gave me a sense for how culturally diverse England is. I learned that those outside of London view Londoners as rude and snobbish, something I still find amusing given how much more considerate Londoners are than most American city dwellers.
I am still charmed by England, but it is an England that is much more authentic, tangible, and meaningful than the one I had envisioned. England is not the United States (a fact that will be unsurprising to those of you more enlightened than myself), but in the end I did find myself at home. The friends I have made here have become my family. We study together, party together, and travel together. My English friends have been so accommodating as to invite me into their homes during Christmas break.
Living in London has increased by appreciation for black humor, cultural diversity, and Indian food. It has also made me appreciate things I took for granted, such as hamburgers that cost less than $13 (£8). But I am grateful to have had the opportunity to study abroad. London, with its quirky geography and unpronounceable street names, is just where I needed to be.
by Conor Fagan - CIEE, University of Westminster
It’s a real shame to admit now, but I was not in a good place when I first arrived in London. When my plane touched down in Heathrow Airport, I felt like I hadn’t slept in a year. I hadn’t had a thing to eat except whiskey and coke in the past 24 hours, and I had broken up with my girlfriend of two years not thirty minutes before leaving for the Rhode Island airport. On top of all that, I had also managed to convince myself over the course of my ten plus hour-long span of air travel that I wouldn’t be able to make a single friend during my entire stay in England. I was a bit of a mess.
I’m thrilled to report the full extent of how wrong I was. Before I lived in London, I had never been to a place so absolutely packed full of some many different types of people and music scenes and ideas and entertainment and culture. The semester I spent as a student at The University of Westminster was an all-too-brief, rapidfire series eye-opening, unforgettable moments spent across four European countries, surrounded by excellent people that I would have otherwise never have gotten the chance to meet. I unironically assert that I was a completely different person before I lived outside of the United States, and that the regrettably short span of three months outfitted me with a newly widened perspective.
Before I left, quite a few people tried to convince me that I would have an easy time assimilating to English culture due the absence of a language barrier. While their argument certainly had it merits, my teachers, friend and family were only partially right. Of all of the students in my CIEE study abroad group, I was the only one of the group living in the University's Harrow campus, which houses the arts and media program as well resting the farthest outside central London, in Zone 4 of the Underground system. Initially I was petrified to be living in such isolation from the rest of the Americans I had so recently made friends with, but I soon realized that my remote dwelling was something of a blessing in disguise. First of all, Harrow Campus is beautifully designed, with a sprawling, green quad in style of an American campus. It’s student union is massive and contains everything from a performance space of bands to fashion and film studios to a study/chill area built like an oversized staircase and covered in beanbags. On top of the environment, I also managed to form a bond with two of my flatmates initially based on our love for great music and appreciation for comedian Louis C.K. Winding up slightly more on my own than other students in my program forced me to come out of my personal and cultural shell, which a personal process I feel like I managed to skip by attending college so close to my home. For the first time in my life I didn’t have an arsenal of people with whom I was familiar and comfortable with to fall back on in social situations, and I’ve become a better person for it.
My semester in London was the first time I’ve ever lived in a city, or even been to one for more than three days. Having four classes in three different corners of a sprawling metropolis taught me a thing or two about both budgeting and management. Though it certainly grew tiresome at times, it was probably good that I couldn’t just roll out of bed thirty minutes before class started on most days. Instead, I had to take two trains and a bit of a stroll to get to the Regent Street Campus for my lit classes, and established something out of a healthy morning routine out of pure necessity, something I’ve never really had before. During my early-September sojourn to Spain, I visited my hometown friends who were in the middle of WWOOF-ing their way across Western Europe as a means of subsistence and sightseeing. My stay in Malaga was the first time I had ever encountered a significant language barrier, and I daresay that my rudimentary grasp of Spanish served me very well throughout. Southern Spain was by the most alien social landscape in which I found myself during my Fall semester, and as a result it was one of the most memorable points of my study abroad and the place where I felt the most immersed in an entirely new culture.
But enough about all the personal growth. You and I both know that no one actually wants to read about any of that. When I was travelling to nearby countries for the weekend, I spent my time indulging in every form of entertainment that London had to offer, particularly the numerous and vastly different types of music. By far my favorite commercial area of London (as well as the one I spent the most time in) is Camden Town. Aside from wandering around, sampling all the different types of ethnic food and gawking at the outlandishly dressed punks, I got the chance to see Baroness, one of my favorite still-active bands, at The Electric Ballroom on High Street. I was thrilled to see how much more energized and plainly excited to be there British concertgoers turned out to be in comparison to American audiences, and I’ll never forget watching every fan in the hall lose their minds during the encore. Camden’s also got some of the greatest bars that cater to hard rock fans that I’ve ever had the pleasure of stumbling into, including Our Black Heart, The Underworld and The World’s End. I recommend that anyone who considers themselves a fan of aggressive music to come explore Camden as soon as possible. I didn’t just stick to metal bars with all the freaks, however; I also got to see some amazing comedy during my time in London. If you’re an American in London, this is one aspect of the city that you absolutely cannot miss out on. Our wonderful study abroad advisor Elizabeth Cameron-Cooper brought our motley crew of college students to The Comedy Store in Leicester Square to see the riotous improv group The Comedy Store players, who slayed every audience member in the tiny, packed theater with their honed, off-the-cuff skits. I also got a chance to see stand up comedian Micky Flanagan at the beautiful (and slightly intimidating) 02 Arena.
The only regret I harbor about my time in London was that I could have done and seen more. This isn’t to say that I squandered my semester there by any means, but I’m acutely aware of the fact that this sprawling urban metropolis has more to offer than any one person could ever hope to experience in just three short months. I plan on returning to London as soon as I finish my last semester at The University of Rhode Island, and I couldn’t be happier with my overall study abroad experience.