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  • Call Me Tweet Me: I see London, I see France: what I learned from my semester abroad

    By Leah Finkelman
    April 27, 2012
    Section: Impressions


    By the time you read this, I will probably be back in the United States after spending the past three and a half months in London. I absolutely love this city and a part of my heart is breaking a little bit at the thought of leaving it.

    This isn’t my first time in London. I came with my family for a week in 2004 and it was awesome. It was the first time I had traveled outside North America, and I still remember doing all the touristy stuff—a tour of the Tower of London, a visit to Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, tea in the Orangerie at Kensington Palace, the Changing of the Guard. I absolutely fell in love with the city after walking down countless narrow streets, eating more pain au chocolat than I should have, and watching the sun set over the Thames.

    Fast forward seven years. It’s 2011, and I’m a sophomore at Brandeis. As a NEJS major, I had always planned to study abroad in Israel, but when I dropped the major I knew I wanted to study in London. It was a combination of a lot of factors: the connection I felt with the city the first time I was here, the fact that my mother had studied abroad in London in college and still talked about it, and knowing that Prince Harry was still single.

    I got a little delayed in the planning process, and my best friend ended up choosing my program for me: the Boston University Internship Programme, so that I could complete my journalism internship while abroad.

    In order to prepare for my semester abroad, I studied everything I could get my hands on. Luckily for me, that included movies like “Notting Hill,” “What a Girl Wants” and “Winning London,” as well as cheat sheets of British slang, travel blogs and blogs of British students. At one point I think I even Googled “what to pack when studying abroad in London.”

    When I got here, I was already looking forward to all the things I wanted to do. First on the list was dinner (Indian, of course) with my best friend, who is currently studying at University College London.

    That night, though, I lay in bed and thought about everything I had given up to be in London for the semester. Gone were Thursdays at The Hoot. Gone was seeing my little in Usdan and running into her arms. Gone were classes with professors I knew, and whose classes I knew how to get the most from. Gone were Ollie’s waffle fries and using my meal plan to pay for food.

    Most importantly, gone were American customs that I was so used to, I overlooked them. Maybe I was too young to experience culture shock in 2004, maybe I just wasn’t here long enough. I didn’t eat bacon then, so I would have had no way of knowing how awkward and thick it was until I ordered a BLT in my first week back. Luckily, the local grocery store has Oscar Mayer. Also, not stopping for sirens? I saw a police car get struck by a car that didn’t realize the cop was about to run a red light.

    It’s sometimes hard to understand the thicker accents, and because Brits can all tell I’m American, sometimes when they crack a joke and I ask “What?” they just smile and say never mind. I promise, I have a great sense of humor … I just didn’t understand you! But the weather? I’m from Ohio. I know how to deal with completely unpredictable weather.

    This semester certainly wasn’t perfect. I spent too much time in McDonald’s and not enough time in museums. I didn’t travel as much as I’d wanted to, and by being on an all-American program, I didn’t meet too many British people. I also never saw the royal family, which isn’t really my fault, but still disappointing.

    Although I missed some cities I wanted to visit, I got to live the Mary-Kate and Ashley European adventures (“Winning London,” “Passport to Paris” and “When in Rome”). I tried something called “Black Death” in Iceland. I hiked through snow in Rome (four times in 40 years, and I was there). I spent a beautiful but hot Parisian weekend with my pseudo-family. I visited Switzerland, and saw a friend I never thought I’d see again. I was able to celebrate Passover in Israel with my best friend’s extended family and visit friends living and studying there. Throughout my travels, I had the opportunity to reconnect with and meet a lot of amazing people from all over the world. I doubt we’ll keep in touch forever, but I’ll always remember them.

    Wow, hundreds of words about culture shock and missing The Hoot … It wasn’t all bad, I promise. I love the people here. I love their food, their accents, the fact that one pound is a coin. Once I got used to looking right, left, right as I crossed the street, I learned to love walking around my neighborhood, South Kensington. I love the children, especially when they’re on the Tube in their school uniforms practicing their American accents. I love the ease with which I can get around the city, and I love how helpful everyone is when it’s not quite so easy.

    I had an amazing semester, and even during the rough patches I knew I had made the right decision. I have grown so much just in the past few months, from someone who laughed at the thought of living off-campus and not having a meal plan to someone who cooked almost every meal for herself for a semester. Being on my own in a big, beautiful city has also given me a lot of time for self-reflection, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

    To quote Amanda Bynes in my favorite London movie, “The truth is sometimes things aren’t exactly what you always imagined … they’re even better!”


    More posts by Leah Finkelman


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