In early fall, 2013, while trees were still green in Oregon, my aunt and I boarded a plane headed way east, further east than I’d ever been before. We initially landed in Amsterdam, but after a few days of pancake-eating and espresso-sipping, we took a train through the Chunnel to London. We stayed for much of two weeks, seeing a play in the West End and speculating about the purpose of the squiggly lines painted on the streets near crosswalks. After those two weeks, we drove first to IKEA then further north so she could drop me off at the flat where I lived for the remainder of the term.
That apartment was in Lancaster, a city with a Corvallis-sized population that resided along England’s northwestern coast. I liked the duality of going from the Pacific Northwest to the northwestern corner of England, from one college town to another. In truth, Lancaster was much less of a college town than Corvallis; uni was twenty bus-ride minutes away from the city’s center which itself was small and landmarked primarily by grocery shops and a large, menacing statue of Queen Victoria. Lancaster certainly wasn’t London, and though before I left I wished I could have lived in London instead, I ended up thankful for living elsewhere. When you grow up in the Willamette Valley, your frame of reference for a “big city” is Portland, and let me tell you: the Tube map doesn’t even do London’s incredible size any justice. London is Portland times fifty, both in size and in price tags.
But Lancaster was comfortable, much more so than many of the other larger cities I visited like Manchester or York or Leeds where it seemed like shops were always full to capacity, and the university was even more so. The first day I arrived, my flatmates and I were all lumped together for Freshers’ Week – intended for new uni students but also attended by new study abroad-ers – and that initial activity of going to the pub down the walkway from my on-campus housing was the only time I experienced culture shock. Here we all were, drinking beer during a school-sanctioned activity at one of the campus’s nine total pubs. Nine! I knew this before I showed up, of course, but the reality of it surprised me given my American rules of consuming alcohol in school-related places: “Don’t You Even Think About It.”
That pub, our pub – each college had its own – became my favorite campus spot. Every Wednesday night at half-seven, a regular group of us would circle in those brown leather booths for the pub quiz, and though we lost every single time – we never even cracked the top three – it was consistently the highlight of my week. Initially, I was wrangled in to balance the team’s gender inequality, but my penchant for literature proved much more useful as the term progressed. We laughed at each other often over beer, watery to my high-set Pacific Northwest standards, and picked small fights over football statistics that no one knew anything about, and it’s these nights I miss most.
I was living there for school, though, and that was certainly fulfilling as well. As an English major inclined to romantic notions, I’d often dreamed of taking a Shakespeare class in England, and I managed to snag the last spot to do so. I also enrolled in a contemporary English literature class that had a refreshingly diverse syllabus and which I enjoyed a great deal. But, put simply, classes were hard. In my English classes at Oregon State, I’ve never once had my grade reflect two total assignments, one final paper and one final exam, like all my grades did at Lancaster. Also different were their expectations for those final papers. I was used to essays based on ideas I formed – with help from professors – while reading class-assigned texts, but at Lancaster, you’d be lucky to get an A on a paper in which you cited fewer than ten external, scholarly sources. It was like learning to be a university student all over again. As my tutors repeatedly told me, all this learning of new citation formats and writing expectations will prove especially beneficial when grad school comes around, and I believe them. For that I am especially grateful.
Even more than school, I enjoyed the privilege of living somewhere new for a while because of the travel it allowed. With such a well-established and maintained train system across the U.K, spur-of-the-moment trips were no problem and became a frequent occurrence for me. I took two days off in the middle of November and went to Edinburgh and learned the most valuable aspect of solo-travel: you can spend all your time doing whatever it is you please. So I paced circles around a small record store, lingered too long in bookstores with no intent to buy, and drank the daily tea special at one of the many cafés that boasted of J.K. Rowling’s patronage while she wrote Harry Potter.
My favorite trip, though, took place about a week before I headed home. Me and a few new friends – two other Americans and two Brits – went to London for a night, and as much fun as it was to see the landmarks we traveled to see, the best part, easily, was how much we enjoyed being together. We’d all only known each other three months, but by then it felt like I’d known them back home, too. On this trip, we were delayed at Euston Station for a few hours on our way back, but instead of complaining about it, we set up camp in a station pub and continued to make each other laugh. Joe, one of those other Americans, had broken his foot early in the term and had become quite speedy on crutches. When our train was finally called, Joe took off, and the rest of us assumed he was intentionally hurrying to catch the train, so we took off after him. Tons of other train-goers followed, chasing us chasing Joe, and when we got to the train and had at least ten minutes to spare, we just laughed, took our seats, pushed the hair from our faces, and napped on our crossed arms rested on the fold-out tables.
I know I would not have been able to see what I did if it weren’t for the Honors College’s support. The Honors Experience Scholarship helped me afford my living expenses so I wouldn’t have to worry about finding a job so I could, instead, enjoy seeing as much of the U.K. as possible. And for that I am so, so grateful.