Notes From Abroad
Published: Thursday, April 28, 2011
Updated: Thursday, November 15, 2012 01:11
As I write this, there is less than a week left until Kate Middleton marries Prince William. She might be queen one day, and she is not even a member of the peerage. In the United States, this probably seems like an interesting diversion or, at most, more material for the gossip rags. In the U.K., however, believe me when I say that the royal wedding is a big deal. In Exeter alone, where I've been studying for the past two semesters, there are three separate street celebrations planned on the day of the wedding. I'll be going to at least one, since free food is nothing to turn your nose up at, but I don't really get why it's so important. There are a lot of things in England that I don't quite understand. It's a strange sort of country, though in most ways it's not so different from home. The little differences are often what matter most.
I'm a participant in the Kenyon-Exeter Program, an annual program exclusive to English majors. This year there are 13 of us, not including Professor of English Janet McAdams. It's a no-brainer that someone who studies literature would want to visit the home of Shakespeare, Austen and Milton, but I received many odd looks when I told people that one of my classes would be on African-American literature. "Why would you go to England to learn about that?" The only answer I could give is that I wanted a new perspective on things, and I found a lot of that across the pond.
My personal hero, comedian Eddie Izzard, once said that he's from Europe, "where the history comes from." Truer words have never been spoken. Exeter, a minor city in the southwest of England with a population of about 118,000, has existed since "time immemorial." I'm not joking: that's the official term. It has a cathedral, medieval tunnels and a statue inscribed with riddles found in a book dating to the Norman invasions. Stonehenge is only a few hours away by bus. We visited it over the course of a long weekend, and had the entire site to ourselves early in the morning. Some people still live in castles here. They still have a monarchy, for crying out loud. The entire country, while just as modernized as the U.S., is flooded with a sense of continuity that is difficult to describe to those who haven't been here.
What hit me after that were all the little differences. Everybody knows that they drive on the other side of the road here, but it takes a long time to adjust to that. When I go home, it'll be a miracle if I don't look right instead of left the first time I cross the road. There are a hundred other small differences to wrap your mind around. For example, I haven't been able to find a decent deli or burger place anywhere, and believe me, I've looked. You've probably heard all the stereotypes about English cooking. I want to let you know that it isn't true, except for when it is. If someone from England offers to make you bacon, do not take it if you know what's good for you. Other challenges include remembering the difference between "pants" (underpants) and "trousers" (pants) and the proper use of the word "alright," which can mean one of several different phrases, depending on context.
Another big difference is the drinking culture. Imagine the biggest, craziest Kenyon bender you or your friends have ever had. Where I live, they call that Thursday night. When I tell my British friends that the drinking age is 21, their jaws drop, and they ask in horrified amazement, "How do you live?" That's been my biggest challenge living here, to be honest. I'm not usually a wild and crazy guy. I prefer a night in with a cup of tea (don't even get me started on tea) and a good book to going out. My flatmates' idea of a good time is to get drunk, go to a club, get more drunk, then come back and start rearranging the furniture in the kitchen. Nick, a lad from Cardiff, greets me most mornings with a lively "I don't remember anything I did last night, mate."
With a living situation like that, the best part is often getting out, and thanks to Britain's surprisingly cheap and efficient rail system, that's easy. The Kenyon-Exeter Program's trips to London have been tons of fun. We've seen more shows than I can even remember and we did the whole tourist thing until we felt dizzy. London is, in my mind, the archetypal city. Anything you can do in any metropolis in the world, you can find in London.
I already mentioned our trip to Stonehenge. The highlight of our trips, and maybe of the whole experience, was the spring break journey to Ireland. We spent ten days, shared between Dublin and the western city of Galway, with some of the most beautiful countryside you will ever see, sandwiched between the two. It was like being a tourist in Middleearth, but without orcs and with more wizards. My friend Carolyn Meins '12 and I then took a week to travel in Spain, which may have been the greatest vacation of my life, hands down. Travelling to the continent is easy and cheap if you know who to talk to. Many of my friends pop down to France or Belgium every few weekends.
There is so much more I could tell you, but a year is a long time. I couldn't really summarize my year abroad without writing a full-length book. I'll end it by saying that the class I took on African-American literature turned out to be one of the best courses I've taken in my entire college experience. Never underestimate the value of someone else's perspective, even if they do live on the other side of the ocean. Keep an eye on the wedding, by the way. It isn't every day you see the Royals at their most posh.