Across the Pond

By Taylor Swanson

The end of the semester holds a whole new level of meaning for the study abroad student in London. We only have a few weeks to get in any last-ditch London experiences. I bought tickets to a concert at Astoria 2, a notorious venue for hardcore and alternative-rock that is slated to be torn down. A few students are going to attempt to rush through every museum in London in a day. I may have drunk a lot of tea since I’ve been here, but I have yet to dress-up for proper tea service and nibble on crumpets (a fancy way of saying English muffin).

“If I don’t find Abbey Road while I’m here, I’ll kick myself,” said Sarah, a study-abroad student from Maine. Beatles paraphernalia, museum posters and British flag boxers are becoming unavoidable in the dorms.

For the first time all semester, the study rooms in the dorms are being used. The English system of education is drastically different from U.S. colleges. British students receive a degree after three years because there are no general education requirements. At the beginning of each semester, teachers hand out a packet outlining the course requirements, including the assignments. There are about two assignments per class due at the end of the term that determine a student’s entire grade.

I completed eight papers, each 2,000 or more words long, and a 10-minute presentation. My classes ended the last week of April, but most of these assignments were not due until May 15. Assignments are turned in to a registry, an office that files papers for teachers. Late assignments cannot be e-mailed to a teacher or given in-person the following week with a lengthy explanation.

This strict attitude does not apply to class attendance. Toward the end of the semester, I was one of the few students still showing up for lectures. Columbia has instilled a fear in me about missing more than two classes.

“Students here are very lackadaisical about their education,” explained one American professor.

“I suppose everyone is working on their papers,” commented an Irish professor on the lack of attendance.

The essays I was required to write were primarily research based. The lectures actually did very little to help me prepare my work. Students must use a list of media to compile their arguments; many hours are spent hunched over books in the mildew-smelling library.

For fear of inhaling too much dust instead of enjoying London, I completed work early. Now my only assignment is a list of attractions, restaurants and clubs I have to see before summer.

Some study abroad students have a list of must-dos upon returning to the States. “I’m going to eat Chipotle for like a week,” said Melanie from Wisconsin.

Mexican food hasn’t made it to Britain, yet.

Sushi is another treat that is rare because of the conversion rate. A decent meal of raw fish will cost about £15 minimum, about U.S. $30. I will be doing reverse conversion in my head for at least a month. A Chipotle burrito would cost only £3, which will get you half a sandwich or a tall latte at Starbucks.

There are the little pleasures, too, a bubble bath, driving, biking and crossing the street without fearing for my life. Going abroad is very different than a long vacation. I had to modify my behaviour to fit into a different way of life.

Everything from my fitness routine, waking hours, study habits and language has all been altered. I learned to workout without free-weights and run down crowded sidewalks. I sleep-in, stay up until sunrise, take naps, go jogging at dawn, sleep through jackhammers, or awake at 2 a.m. and all of the above. I don’t think I can blame jetlag anymore. I can write at my computer for 12 hours. I can write more than 16,000 words in a semester. I comfortably say ‘cheers’ instead of ‘thanks.’ I got asked for directions on the tube yesterday. I wouldn’t be caught dead in sweatpants in public.

But, there is one question reoccurring in conversation among those of us preparing to depart London: would you live here? The most common answer is yes if a salary in British pounds was included. Money, aside, though, London is so indescribable because it is the sum of its diverse parts.

Each borough renders a flavor and spirit entirely different from another neighborhood. Each day in London reveals something new: an intricate carving on a building, a British blues singer rocking a fuzzy guitar, or a locally brewed beer. The only way to truly experience London is to live in it, to be completely immersed.

Several years here would peel away layers of the unknown within this vast metropolis and within me. Every experience has the potential to shape us for better or worst; I am leaving London as better, or at least more patient and open-minded. For that (and the impeccable Indian food), I would return.

For the remainder of the summer (and my bank account), I will be backpacking Europe and updating my blog as often as possible. Follow my journey on