February is turning into March, and for the American students at Richmond American International University in London, the semester abroad is almost half over. For some people like myself, the concept is terrifying. “I haven’t done half the things I said I would do yet! My list of theatre productions is still really long, I still have a lot of traveling to do!” But when I really stop to think about it, I’ve already done so much and seen so many amazing things.
I watched the Chinese New Year parade in Trafalgar Square. I went to the Magical Lantern Festival, have been to mass at Westminster Cathedral (not Abbey, though I’m getting there). A morning walk takes me past the Albert Memorial and Royal Albert Hall, and I’ve combed the Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Gallery, and the National Portrait Gallery. I’ve taken a flight on the London Eye and a riverboat on the Thames. I’ve been to Cambridge, and even travelled to Prague. On top of it all, I’ve met a huge number of amazing people. This half of the semester has been busy, and the second half likely even more so. I’ve learned so much, but not in the way that I expected.
The experience of studying abroad isn’t an epiphany, more like a short jaunt to another country. It’s a slow process, a metamorphosis, moulding someone from the inside out into something different and beautiful.
So, here are some of the biggest things I’ve learned so far from this half of the semester studying abroad:
Your idea of a place isn’t always what it’s really like. And that’s okay. Most people have an idea in their head of what a place is like before they get there. Some people think London is full of people wearing bowler hats and smoking Sherlock Holmes pipes, and everything is foggy and grey and mysterious. The reality is a vast, multicultural, throbbing hub of people, tourists and otherwise, moving with the great cyclical preponderance of a nation’s capital. Some find the reality to be as enchanting as their fiction, others find it repulsive. But above all, it is normal. There is no different magical quality to life here any more than there is in the States.
Choose your crowd. You can come to drink, or you can come to travel. Don’t get me wrong, being able to buy alcohol is great, and when in Germany, one would be remiss if one didn’t buy some lager with their schnitzel. But there is more to being in Europe than that, and the people that realize that are the ones that are worth sticking around.
Humans aren’t that different. People eat, sleep, work, and make merry much in the same way as Americans, Czechs, Spaniards, Australians and South Africans. Humans aren’t that different from each other. The way we go about it may have slight differences, but in the end, we’re all looking for the same thing.
Natives are more fun to talk to. There are a lot of American students at Richmond. Study Abroad students outnumber the British students, but the natives are more fun to interact with. It may take a bit of seeking out, but it’s worth getting out of the bubble and meeting someone new. Clubs are a great way to do this. I joined, of all things, a Wushu group at the nearby engineering school Imperial College, and I’ve made a lot of great friends there. The thing about interacting with non-Americans is that they will constantly be reminding you that you’re an American, and you can compare little things about your culture with them, because they’re just as curious about you as you are about them. Also, don’t try to imitate the accent. It’s just a bad idea.
The world is your oyster. The evil day will come when the temptation to simply stay inside and watch Netflix will arise, its deceptive invitation of lethargy will test even the most seasoned veterans. Don’t give in. Yes, rest is important. But there are so many opportunities that come along, and are not to be passed up. The weekends are to be filled with life, the city is there to be explored! Carpe diem, brothers and sisters!
WALK. EVERYWHERE. The day before I wrote this, my Oyster card expired for the month. That day, I had a class field trip to the National Portrait Gallery. Oyster cards are expensive, and the day was absolutely gorgeous, so instead of taking the Underground, I decided to walk. From my dorm in Kensington to Trafalgar Square was an hour one way. I regret nothing. Walking is the best way to see the city, and even though it’s impossible for one person to see it all, by walking the streets, the city becomes real.
It’s the little things that are different. The little things are what’s going to open you up to other people. I’ve had a debate over the merits of the British and Australian use of A4 printer paper instead of the American 8x11, and on whether those decorative sugar bits are called hundreds and thousands or just sprinkles. Notably, as one guy asked me in a pub, “Why do you call it a restroom? You don’t rest in it!” Thanks to my Australian friends, I now know what a Tim Tam is, as well as how to do a Tim Tam Slam. It’s the little differences that you learn, little by little, that are the fun part.
Traveling is the best feeling in the world. Europe is here for the exploring. One of the best experiences I’ve had so far is when I went to the Czech capital of Prague for a weekend. I could talk for days about how beautiful Prague is. On the Charles Bridge, there is a local legend of John of Nepomuk, a priest who was thrown off the Bridge for not revealing to King Wenceslas the confessions of his queen. Henceforth, touching the statue of John of Nepomuk is said to bring good luck and ensure one’s return to Prague. I didn’t need to touch it, I know I’m going to go back. Every opportunity to visit somewhere new is a gift, and with every taste of somewhere new is fuel to do it again and again and again.
Going to a place where English isn’t the native language is a unique, vital experience. Yes, there are countries that don’t speak English. Learning to navigate another’s language is a whole new learning curve. When you aren’t a native speaker, you are no longer the one in linguistic power. In my case, when I travelled to Prague, I didn’t know a lick of Czech. I didn’t even know Czech was a language before I went on the excursion. This was probably a mistake, and I had to rely solely on people in Prague that spoke English. Being in a country and having to think in terms of a different language calls for a whole different mind-set than what one normally has, like exercising a muscle you didn’t know you had.
Homesickness happens. I used to think that I didn’t get homesick. It’s lies, all lies. Everyone gets homesick, I don’t care who you are. It sucks, but you’ll get over it. Oh, and by the way, you have a paper due in a couple weeks.
I never, ever, ever want to leave. You will miss your family, but at the same time, the end date of the study abroad experience is a date of utter, unadulterated dread, with the knowledge that as soon as I return to the United States, I won’t know what to do with myself and will likely fall into a vast abyss of Post-London Depression, because however much you hate the food, the beds, the smoky air and the traffic noise, London is the best place on Earth.
THE MOST IMPORTANT THING: I thought that I would be learning the most about other cultures, but since being here, I’ve learned the most about myself. The single most important thing I’ve learned since being here is how much I am an American. The things that I’ve grown up with, stuff I’ve taken for granted, are all being finally recognized as something unique to me and my country. Marching bands, Friday night football, sweet iced tea and summer backyard cookouts, cowboys and pioneers and liberal arts degrees. Every country has its differences, its failures and its shortcomings, but they also have beautiful things, and I can finally feel proud of these things and the country that I come from.
The halfway point is here, and there are great things still to come. The return date to Mount St. Joseph is still far off, but my time in London is going to stay in London is going to stay with me long after May 2017. Cheers!