So, I made it—I’m here! My much anticipated year abroad at the University of Westminster has begun and, I’m sorry to say, three weeks into the semester and there’s surprisingly little rain to report (sadly, no use yet for my new trench coat). The weather is the news you are all waiting for, right? It’s not like you wanted to know anything about the actual city or my classes or anything.
In all seriousness, the lack of rain is the only thing about my time here that even mildly resembles disappointing. I’ve had the best experiences meeting locals, studying for classes, and frequenting museums. Who knew a royal polar bear at the Tower of London was once kept on a long enough leash that he could swim and fish in the Thames? Who knew they don’t make Java Chip Frappuccinos at English Starbucks? Who knew my Media Transformations class could have so much reading? Who knew you can stand five inches away from an original Elsa Schiaparelli coat circa 1937 at the Victoria and Albert Museum? Ditto for 1950s Dior. Dior, people!
Engaging in everyday life in a different city is a learning experience unto itself. Having a role in a different culture as a study abroad student forces a deeper give and take with surroundings than a tourist relationship offers. Everything from attending class to ordering coffee in this new context forces to the forefront the assumptions on which I base my life. I assume Starbucks will have Java Chip Frappuccinos. I assume you answer the question, “Are you alright?” (You don’t answer it. You simply say “alright.” I know… I don’t understand it either.)
That isn’t to say that taking time out to be a tourist is a bad thing. In fact, I’ve had the most fun hitting the touristiest of the tourist destinations. And I truly believe, especially following my first weeks in London, that seeing the stuff the rest of the world knows about is just as important as seeing the obscure.
The Tower of London in a book or a film is not the same as the Tower of London in person. You don’t get to see how security guards react when you make a joke about the crown going missing (they joke back that they need to search your bag). You don’t get to observe British children seeing the crown jewels for the first time (they fidget and complain about the long line; their parents tell them it “moves quickly”). These places the rest of the world knows about, these touristy places, are like ambassadors. Attention turns to them to represent the whole of the country. They are manufactured to encompass what the nation would like to be. They’re like the version of the country you’d see on Facebook if the country were a person. In other words, they are not the “authentic” places to turn to identify what the country truly is, but there is nowhere better to identify a group of people’s aspirations and values.
Engaging in touristy activities can supplement and reinforce academic material. Images from Tate Modern and the Victoria and Albert Museum will definitely make their way into my sketchbook—an assignment for my Design Process class. Next on the list? The Design Museum, Fashion and Textile Museum, and Saatchi Gallery.
Essentially, I’ve only just begun to scratch the surface of British culture and education, and I can’t wait to learn more. As a media student, I’m excited to immerse myself in a culture with such a globally respected, effective media presence. As an artist and designer, I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to absorb the art, architecture, signage, landscape, and visual culture of London and surrounding England. As a rain enthusiast, I’m elated to use my umbrella whenever the stubborn rain decides to show up. And most importantly, as a citizen of the globe, I’m honored to be welcomed into another country in order to gain perspective. With physical distance from American assumptions, I endeavor to better analyze and interpret the world as a whole.
I can’t wait to share more of my experiences with you this year! Cheers!