An American Refuge in London

For Anna, London feels more like America - and is her refuge from the culture on the Continent.

For Anna, London feels more like America - and is her refuge from the culture on the Continent.

Study abroad is an exciting time. But as many thrilling experiences, it can also be overwhelming. And sometimes...sometimes, you just want to go home. How strongly you know you may react is something to consider before even going abroad, actually: evaluating the question of what you personally are going to like best.

Do you want to go somewhere downright different? Try China, Buenos Aires, or even to a lesser degree Italy. European cities like Paris, Rome, or Berlin can offer a pretty substantial alternative to American culture on a basic level...greetings of bises instead of hugs being a small example of what you will confront.

Or do you want to experiment with life abroad but not stray too far from your comfort zone and language? England, Ireland, and Scotland provide the perfect escape: just different enough from the US while within the European Union, allowing for quick jaunts to more "exotic" places (Greece one weekend, Spain the next), yet not scary enough to intimidate you with linguistic misunderstandings and awkward cultural faux pas.

Even if you prefer studying somewhere conspicuously new, the differences that are exhilarating and amusing at the beginning can grow taxing over time. You may find yourself resenting the cultural peculiarities that once made the place so special to you; you may even feel like a foreigner and crave to be “normal” again. This reaction is completely normal, one of many study abroad symptoms. In which case there’s no need to purchase an expensive plane ticket back over the Atlantic. All you need is a weekend spent across the Pond.

France is not the most culturally eccentric place. Still a part of western culture, the French differ from Americans in subtle ways. But subtlety, nonetheless, can make you grow weary. After spending two years in Paris, I found myself restless a month ago, dreaming of returning to the US, to a wider wardrobe selection, to Mexican food, to familiarity. In December, I had planned a jaunt to London specifically to see a ballet and decided to make it a weekender considering it would be my last trip to London (my third in total) until who-knows-when.

The London Tube.

The London Tube.

London and I have a tumultuous history. The first time I went, I frankly hated it. Granted, this was over a year ago when my infatuation for Paris was so intense that nowhere could compare. London disappointed me by being too modern, too varied in architecture, and too, well, American. The Brits would kill me for saying this, but London, to me, seemed like a European version of New York City. And in January 2012, I had absolutely no interest in being anywhere near the U.S. I was studying abroad, and the last thing I wanted to see was something familiar.

Fast forward nine months when I returned in September for 24 hours, just long enough to see two musicals and check out the Harry Potter studio tour (so worth the money, by the way, if you love the movies). I had just spent a summer at home more content away from Europe than I had expected after being almost forcefully pulled away in May. I was now at peace with my American identity and where I fit within Europe. So, this time I found London charming.

My love of London is directly proportional to how much I miss New York. And this last time, I REALLY loved London. Six more months in the future, I was feeling ill at ease in my former European paradise, out of place, and homesick for simple things, like American gossip magazines and a vast, conveniently available selection of foods, as oftentimes Parisian food can seem a repetition of baguettes, cheese, and ham in endless combinations. In terrible need of a reminder of my desire to be here and even more so to be comforted by a homey environment, London came at the perfect time. Like every other American who steps off a plane or train onto English soil, I felt like the rebellious child finally coming home. Our ancestors removed by centuries speak English with a different accent, but ultimately they remind me a lot of us…

They appreciate small talk. Many Europeans are very reserved. Unlike rowdy, rambunctious Americans who like to partake in casual conversation, they tend to value their privacy. It is considered extremely rude to ask a stranger personal questions; even asking how you are can be a violation. The problem in this is that, like many a red-blooded American, I love small talk with strangers, even if I never learn their names. Not only in London did countless British people ask me directions but, as I was traveling alone, I small talked with people at every step. Simple things like exchanging looks of frustration on the street when a car splashed me and two guys, a British man offering to take my picture at Abbey Road if I took his (later divulging his entire life story about why he was there without prodding), a husband and wife in a Thai restaurant who ended up talking to me all dinner after I timidly asked the wife for a recommendation off the menu, and a Dutch woman living in Spain visiting her daughter in London at a musical gushing how much she loved it. As a very social person who loves to hear the stories of people from all over the world, this is something I perhaps miss more than anything.

They have trashy American magazines. It’s a guilty pleasure, yes, but I do love a good People or Us magazine sometimes. And celebrity magazines are just not the same when written in French. So when in London, it’s time to stock up.

They know how to make good snack food. England is not known for a specific cuisine outside of stereotypical fish and chips and meat pies. But one thing the British do seem to be really good at is snack food. Every time I go to London, I raid a local Marks & Spencer or Waitrose for all the chips (or crisps, as they call them), popcorn, and cookies they have. The French do have wonderful pastries (that I will never deny) but their grocery stores can be lacking in good snacks. Cheddar crackers, chocolate chip cookies, sour cream and onion snack mixes, and a large variety of outlandish chip flavors (from salt and vinegar to chicken to shrimp cocktail) line my kitchen counter after a weekender.

And on that note, cupcakes and bagels! Not every country seems to know about them.

They have food from every place you can imagine. It’s easy to forget that not everyone has as adventurous and varied tastes as the U.S. We pride ourselves on our boundless boulevards with a Denny’s, Olive Garden, Chipotle, Outback Steak House, and P.F. Chang’s within one short stretch. But Paris proves not as conspicuously diverse…or at least not as conveniently and affordably so. London is a breath of fresh air of Indian restaurants next to Greek next to Italian next to Turkish. Perfect to re-spice up your life.

THEY SPEAK ENGLISH. This can never be emphasized enough when you are studying in a country with a completely different language than you’re used to.

They will understand your sarcastic comments, figuratively and literally.

Their stores are actually open on Sundays. I can’t tell you how big a deal this is.

They have diverse architecture. A count against it as a historical European city but for it as an American refuge. As London was hit hard during World War II, its buildings aren’t as uniform and consistently old as Paris or Rome. Instead, London consists of skyscrapers, brick facades, and many other architectural styles and building heights, much like American cities. Even the bridges range from the legendary Tower Bridge to the extremely modern Millennium Bridge. There’s something for everyone.

And lastly, still architecturally, I’d like to compare the brick to a hug, warm and colorful in comparison to Paris’ limestone’s bises, beautiful yet formal.

When you first study abroad, you want to be somewhere totally unlike your home country. But the thing is, the longer that you are away, the more you crave the comforts of home. London is not New York, no, but it is the closest thing while abroad. Being there felt so right... so comfortable and easy. I honestly didn't want to leave this time. But I had to. And you know what, I enjoy Paris so much more now that my refuge has revitalized me.