I have been in London for three nights now, and I am starting to feel settled. The Foundation for International Education, which is sponsoring my college’s study abroad program, has done an excellent job helping us start the integration process, into both our housing arrangement and the city as a whole. Our flat is on Hyde Park Gate, a little street directly overlooking Hyde Park (of Peter Pan fame) and a short walk from Kensington Palace (the home of William and Kate). I share a room with one other student, and our flat splits a living area and two kitchens between sixteen people. Perhaps my favorite feature of the rooms themselves are deep window seats overlooking the row houses, wide enough to sit in with tea or coffee and a book. I’ve already made use of mine, and I hope to continue to do so throughout the semester we are here.
In terms of travel, getting to London (and our flat) was simple enough, I flew into Heathrow alone, my first time flying solo. I had expected to feel scared or panicked, but instead, I felt strangely calm. I filled out my landing card without help from a chaperone; I addressed immigration questions without someone to back me up; I took an hour Tube ride surrounded by complete strangers. I felt like an adult. I was unfazed–or so I believed.
Airport logistics went well enough, but other details tripped me up. Unexpected ones. Things like the curved streets and little alleys that didn’t show up on the map as I dragged my fifty-five pound suitcase, alone, a mile in the wrong direction. Or the panic I felt when my credit card kept getting declined and I had no wi-fi or cell service to contact customer support with. After China and Hong Kong, I had assumed travelling to London would be easy. And it has been–but it is a new place in a new country, and I think I had forgotten that.
After a few days of settling in, I have put together a passable enough accent for situations in which I would prefer to blend in (the stationery store, the lunch counter) and a decent understanding of how to navigate through Kensington. I have also learned, utterly and without a doubt, that the stereotype of the ugly American can and does ring true. Although I have met many perfectly lovely Americans already (both in and outside the context of my study abroad program), I have also met some that bring the stereotype disturbingly–and almost comically–to life.
Even as an American, it is easy to spot some American study abroad students in the wilds of London–we talk loudly, we walk on the wrong side of the sidewalk with our phones out, we order grande low-fat turtle mochas with extra whip at the little French restaurant on the corner. Accent aside, our behaviors set us apart from many of the other international visitors and residents of the city. It’s something I’d never properly considered and something I am fascinated by culturally. As my time in London progresses, I am certain many of my own cultural ignorances and little “tells” will come to light, not to mention more unexpected challenges. But with classes beginning Monday, I am excited to delve into them more, becoming more familiar with both the British way of life and the Minnesotan one by contrast.