This semester I have had the privilege to begin my study abroad semester in England. With the recent end of February, I’ve begun to reflect on the massive shift this experience has brought to my life and all that I’ve been taking away from it.
These are strange and scary times both locally in the UK and internationally. I’d like to acknowledge the privilege I have to embark on this experience, especially in this cultural moment. I do not think studying abroad means shutting the problems of the world out. It is not a vacation from real life. It can be a way to engage in opportunities to support others in places outside of one’s own home, and it is a space to learn and respect other cultures firsthand. I’ve been thinking a lot about what the power is of my own individual voice, and also what limitations I have as a singular woman who does not hold a political office or a large amount of money. I try to do what I can from where I am in ways that make sense.
Studying abroad in London has always been my dream. Maybe it’s the books and films set here (I always loved Harry Potter as a kid), my lifelong Doctor Who obsession, those red phone booths, or the fact that my parents both lived here for a time, but something about this place has always intrigued me.
I like the idea of big adventures (like reading epic adventure novels or watching Star Wars), but the actual practice of it comes with a lot of anxieties for me. Getting on a plane and flying thousands of miles away felt, honestly, surreal. My first days here felt like I was living in someone else’s life. Now that I’ve become familiar with my environment, though, the adventure feels all the more exciting. Taking the plunge is often the hardest part for me, and now that I’ve taken that risk I’m ready to see what opportunities lie ahead.
It’s a bit like whiplash, being here. So much of the last two years has consisted of isolation and bad news. I’ve spent so much of my life dreaming of a trip like this, but the pandemic has either crushed or modified every single one of my goals. My own scope of possibility has certainly narrowed over the past two years, which might sound like a sad thing to hear from someone who is twenty, but it is the reality for many who are coming-of-age in the time of COVID. I have to be practical about dreams. Plans that are solid and clear slip through your fingers faster than you can blink these days.
Wearing a mask in class and while going out has helped me stay safe and keep others safe. But still, it’s impossible to evade public health when you are a part of the public. I’m just trying my best to be responsible and not contribute to problems.
With all that said, being here feels like a miracle and a privilege, and I suppose it is both. Life these days is about navigating the balance between living life and being a responsible member of the community. I’m always making sure I consider the best and safest ways to enjoy this study abroad experience. It may not look the same, or be as carefree, as study abroad experiences in the past, but I have learned so much from being here in this moment.
I get it. This is Julia’s Bookshelves. You want to know what bookstores I’ve visited. Well, Waterstones is everywhere, and a trip to the six floor store in Picadilly Circus nearly moved me to tears. I know I’m theoretically going to have too bring all these books home at the end of the semester if I want to keep them, but I’m trying not to think about the experience of packing them all into my suitcase, I tried to have a “no book February”, meaning I wouldn’t buy any new books this month, but I failed miserably after a few days.
Another favorite of mine is Foyles. The Charing Cross Road location has a cafe on the fifth floor where you can get a nice pot of tea while you read or study. Sometimes I try to go to the cafe without buying a book, but I have never been successful. How am I supposed to walk through four floors full of books and not browse? It’s truly an impossible task.
There’s so many smaller bookstores in the city, too. My favorites have been Daunt Books in Marylebone, an independent bookstore with a beautiful Edwardian interior, and Gay’s the Word, the oldest LGBT bookstore in the UK.
Why I’m Reading (And What I’m Reading)
I don’t think I could go an entire semester without reading for pleasure. There’s so much to see here, yes, but traveling means train rides and bus rides and flights, so there’s plenty of time for reading. To me, reading a good book feels a bit like home, or kind of like a warm blanket. It’s comforting and familiar, and while I’m on this unfamiliar journey, I find that books are a way to center myself.
I’m trying to mix some British literature into my reading. Most recently, I finished the brilliant memoir On Chapel Sands by Laura Cumming. I’m currently reading a modern adaptation of Much Ado About Nothing. This semester I’m studying Shakespeare because, well, why not? There’s only so many opportunities in life to study a work in the place it was created. I’m looking forward to seeing more live Shakespeare productions this spring. I’ll be headed to the Globe when the weather warms.
If you’re following along with my reviews, there has recently been an influx of romance novels in my life. I love a book that I can read in one or two sittings, and these romantic comedies fit that perfectly. With all the academic reading I’m doing, it’s nice to be able to step back and enjoy stories that make me smile.
The books are edited differently here. At first I found the single quote marks (‘ ‘) around dialogue to be infuriating. Now my eyes scan right over it. It doesn’t even requite a second thought. And lots of things are like that now. I spent the first few days terrified of messing up the tube system, and now I pull out my Oyster card without a thought and switch lines like a pro (most of the time…).
Seeing the City
My favorite thing by far is the walkability of London. I haven’t stepped foot in a car since my parents dropped me off at the airport in January. Some of the best days here have consisted of just walking around neighborhoods and marveling at the architecture.
Days oscillate between the very mundane and the extremely significant. In the morning I’m buying broccoli to make with dinner and in the afternoon I’m taking pictures at the Prime Meridian (seriously!). Did you know that Uber runs a boat to Greenwich?
Coming from a college where snow is a constant, it’s kind of nice to have a break from severe weather. Of course, Storm Eunice brought us some pretty scary winds, but I managed to wait them out with a cup of tea and a good book.
It feels like I will never finish exploring London. There are always more shops, parks, markets, and shows than I could ever possibly visit. I’m doing my best to create a healthy mix of pre-planned experiences and what can only be described as “marvelous wandering”, where I just head to a new place and see what it has to offer.
There’s something indescribable about seeing places you’ve dreamed about for years. I geek out quite a lot. The “touristy” spots are touristy for a reason. Who doesn’t want to see Big Ben, the London Eye?
My new hobby is staring at things for several minutes. Maybe I’ll take a picture or two. But I just love looking at stuff and thinking I can’t believe that’s real. I’ll walk pretty far just to stare at something. It’s kind of nice, and it feels silly, but hey, this is my chance to be a tourist, right?
I ventured out of the city twice this month, the first being a day in Cambridge.
Cambridge is full of these beautiful old university buildings. I felt a bit like I was in a storybook. I spent most of the day wandering the streets and marveling at the different colleges and small shops.
It was cold. And I say that as someone who has experienced an Upstate New York winter. I felt like my face was going to freeze off.
The best part of the trip was the punting tour. We got to see all the riverside colleges with an expert guide. It was such a unique experience!
To round out February I took a weekend trip to Brighton. The cliffs there were some of the most beautiful sites I’ve ever seen in person. I was able to sit for a bit and write on the beach, which is something I’m going to try to do in every place I visit.
Seeing a new place is exciting, but familiarizing yourself with how it feels is actually my favorite part of traveling. On the beach in Brighton I felt how the rocks make my feet sink into the beach and and I watched the tide pools fill with snails. The wind was harsh, so I wrapped my scarf over my ears and buckled down so I could write.
This month has been about exploring this new space I’m in, both physically and emotionally. I know the joke/stereotype that students go abroad to “find themselves”. In this case, with everything that we’ve all been through in these past two years, it seems like lots of abroad students, including myself, are finding the world again instead. We are finding what it means to explore, to be surprised, and to meet new people. Studying abroad is a privilege, a challenge, and such a marvelous wonder that I’m thankful I get to experience.