by Bri Wink
To Those Abroad In London:
First and foremost, do not take your time abroad for granted. Go ahead, indulge in a few days of wallowing in homesickness upon arrival, use jet lag as an excuse to curl up in your bed, skyping your friends and family and crying into your pillow that is nowhere near as comfortable and fluffy as the one at home. Take a few days to adjust, but then move on. Get out of those sweatpants, walk out that door and go out and do things. If you spend your whole time abroad stuck inside your room, hiding behind your laptop and complaining about your lack of live stream feed, then you shouldn’t have even studied abroad in the first place. You didn’t travel over 3,000 miles to stay up until five in the morning watching Pretty Little Liars. Go experience real things instead.
Take tourist days. Don’t be afraid to freak out crossing Abbey Road. Pose in front of those red telephone boxes with pride. Galavant around the Victoria & Albert Museum and take as many photos of St. Paul’s Cathedral and Big Ben as you want. Tourist days are the best days because you can let go of all that nonsense about blending in and just enjoy yourself. Bring your camera, bring a friend and leave the embarrassment of being an American behind. Just go out and knock things off that checklist of yours and don’t be ashamed of your enthusiasm or excitement or even your American-ness while you do. With that said, take a few non-touristy days, too. Travel off the beaten path and find a café or a bookstore or a pub that you can call entirely your own. Don’t pre-plan, either, Google searching “best unknown pubs in London” because that is cheating. Go out and find it on your own.
Visit the markets. Brick Lane is my favorite but go to all of them. Camden, Portobello Road, Borough Market, Old Spitalfields….They’re all unique and different and are such a great way to experience the vast and rich cultures that London is known for. Eat loads and buy loads and for just one day, indulge yourself in being a hipster. Just walk around and take in the charm of the city through the eyes of the vendors. You haven’t experienced the real London life until you’re chowing down on cheap empanadas while haggling down the price of a leather jacket.
Go out on the town, ride the Tube drunk, and get lost on the night busses with your crazy friends and the even crazier strangers you meet. Open your eyes on these 4am journeys and take in the view of the city at night without the hustle and bustle. Sit back, relax, and let the beauty of the lights and the stillness of a city that’s half asleep mesmerize you. Then get off at the wrong stop, stand around for another twenty minutes and do it all over again when the next bus pulls up. Also understand that not every night has to end in vague memories and hangovers. Sitting around, gorging on pizza and bingewatching American Netflix with your flatmates is just as satisfying as feeling the bass pump through your veins and seeing the neon lights flash behind your eyelids at a club. Some may even argue that it’s better.
Steal something. I’m not saying to break into a jewelry store or hold up a bank, but sneak out a pint glass from your favorite pub. Rob a fork from that restaurant you fell in love with. Take a few leaves from your favorite tree or flowers from a garden. Conveniently never return the notepad from that hostel you stayed in when you traveled and don’t hesitate to steal a few kisses from the boys and girls that tickled your fancy.
When you get sick (and you will get sick- Freshers Flu knows no discrimination) you will miss your mom and your dad and your own bed more than anything. You won’t have the slightest idea what cold medicine to take, how to work your insurance, or what to do with yourself other than wallow in the self-pity that comes with a runny nose. I think the days I was sick were the days I missed home the most, simply because all I wanted was my mommy, my teddy bear and an America’s Next Top Model marathon to cure me back to health. But eventually, I stopped moping around and started ingesting that Vitamin C, slurping down some of that soup and went to the pub to drink away the headache. In Britain, a pint can cure just about anything.
Meet people. Meet local people, to be exact. This is the most important part of the experience, the one that you’ll cherish the most once you return home. Befriend the Americans on your program but don’t forget to set out to make some of the best friends you’ll ever have. My entire semester became infinitely better because I spent my time playing it up with a bunch of British idiots I was lucky enough to call my friends. Knowing people, hanging out with people, and understanding people from the city that you’re in or from cities and areas around it makes the whole study abroad experience vastly different. These are the people who can show you the ins and outs; the ones who know the best place to grab a bite or the perfect spot to watch the fireworks on Guy Fawkes night. These are the people who will think you and your American-ness are fascinating, and together you’ll understand new things about yourselves. They’ll help you figure out the basics and provide vital information on how to live outside of your comfort zone, and in return you can help them see the city through a new set of eyes. Also, you get the benefit of hearing those precious accents daily and nothing can be better than that.
Fall in love: with the city, with a boy or a girl or maybe even both, and most importantly, with yourself. Cherish the way the air smells before it rains, and be captivated by the way he/she holds your hand when you’re drunk on Jack Daniel’s and their smile. But, more than anything, get on that plane ride home loving yourself. Love who you are in the city, love who you’ve become (because those pamphlets really don’t lie- studying abroad does change you) and the way you’ve grown to care more about people and the world around you and less about your own problems. Studying abroad is about the whole “once-in-a-lifetime” experience, sure. But really, you’ll notice the best memories come from those little moments that shape you.
And if you do fall in love with a boy or a girl that captivated you, don’t run from it. Let that feeling of a foreign romance wash over you. There really isn’t anything that can compare to a European love affair. It might not work out in the long run, of course, but that doesn’t mean you have to immediately give up out of fear of the future. Sometimes the city really is better when you have someone’s hand to hold.
But above all, understand that you’re going to have to leave. It’s inevitable; when you study abroad you have a clear expiration date and sooner rather than later, the day is going to come where you’re going to have to re-pack your entire life into a suitcase, hop on a plane, and go back to the place that you once considered home. Cry. Cry a lot. It doesn’t help, really, but it’s not something to be ashamed of, either. Freak out. Go crazy one last time. Sob the whole way through the packing process and the whole way to the airport. Hug your new friends so tight that it hurts to let go. Be weak. Listen to The Weakerthans “Left and Leaving” on repeat the entire 7 hour plane ride home. But then promise yourself that you’ll come back eventually. Get off that plane in your home airport rejuvenated, ready to return one day. Tell yourself as you fly back across the Atlantic that it’s going to happen. There’s so many things you haven’t done yet, so many sights and places and sunsets over the Thames that you haven’t seen. Do not doubt for one second that a return is possible. Because it will happen one day, as long as you believe that it will. Studying abroad is temporary, but the feelings that you leave with are for a lifetime.