The first time I visited London, I was 16 years old and I was absolutely blown away. The sweeping architecture of Piccadilly Circus, walking along the Thames River to see Parliament, Big Ben and the London Eye, were all sights I had only seen in pictures. It had the hustle and bustle of my home city of New York, but it all felt so culturally new – maybe it was just the British accents. After I left I made the decision that when I studied abroad in college I needed to come back to London, I had never wanted to live in a place so badly.
Fast forward four years, and as a college junior I spent my Spring 2017 semester in London, living in South Kensington. I had spent years hyping up this experience in my head. The months leading up were filled with endless hours of looking at my old pictures and doing research while applying for my visa and buying my plane tickets. My program also included an internship portion, so I would be working at a community radio station in Central London. I was more ready for this than anything I had ever done before — or so I thought.
Living in a new country involves a lot of change, even if you speak the language. The first few weeks required me to adjust to little societal changes. I learned to called the bathroom “the toilet,” after being made fun of for asking for the “restroom.” I had to remind myself of difference between the pound and the dollar, the pound is about 20 cents more than the dollar (at the beginning of the semester, I was spending like there was no difference, oops).
I learned that Londoners have a different coldness to them than New Yorkers, but over time I started to adjust to their sense of humor and vocabulary. I even finally learned which countries make up the “United Kingdom” (for everyone’s reference: it’s England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – and no Northern Ireland is not just a part of Ireland).
Living in a new country involves a lot of change, even if you speak the language.
The societal differences were not the only major differences I experienced while abroad, mainly because my time in London was one of massive political adjustments. My first Friday in London was the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration. I chose to spend the day at the Tate Modern museum, instead of joining some of my friends who watched the event in a local pub.
I felt guilty taking the opportunity to ignore my own country’s politics, but it also was a welcome escape. However, leaving during Trump’s new presidency didn’t shield me entirely from political upheaval, as I spent my semester during a heated political climate in Britain.
Britain’s political world is currently up in the air, to say the least. In June 2016, The United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union in a movement that is now referred to as Brexit. David Cameron, the Prime Minister then, stepped down because his party (Britain’s Conservative party) did not support Brexit. The country then elected the current Prime Minister, Theresa May, who is pushing for Brexit.
In March 2017, during my time in England, she triggered Article 50 (the bill created for Brexit), allowing for Brexit to begin. At the time, I was at my internship, and I got to hear the various opinions of my coworkers on the matter. Many of them had voted to remain in the EU. For many it was a sad day, while those who chose to leave the EU rejoiced.
It was not just these wavering political changes that made me, and many others, feel uneasy. About one week before Theresa May triggered Article 50, a terrorist attack happened near the Palace of Westminster in London. Five people died, and more than fifty were injured. Again, I was at my internship when this happened, and we watched it all unfold on the news from the TVs in our station office.
I was very far from Westminster when it happened, and I felt strange checking in as “safe” on Facebook afterwards. But I had to remember what my family and friends at home must have been thinking, and how scared they must have been when the news broke. Fortunately, everyone from my program was safe, but the incident was deeply upsetting, and shook an already unsteady country.
Like the 2016 Presidential Election in America, the vote for Brexit was rooted in fear and deep-seeded xenophobia and nationalism. By keeping Britain separate from the EU, it makes it harder for immigrants to move to the UK. I heard a lot of rhetoric from people who voted to leave like the rhetoric of Trump supporters: they don’t want “outsiders” taking their jobs, they want to protect their families from terrorist attacks. The sentiment felt all too familiar to what I was trying to avoid on inauguration day, when I chose to go to the Tate Modern. It reminded me that although I was 3000+ miles away, I was not all that far from home.
Everyone always talks about how being abroad is eye opening and life changing, they rave about the pubs, the British countryside, of seeing Stonehenge or other famous sights. And while I came home with 1000 new pictures and memories that I love to talk about with my friends at home, I also must remind myself of the state of our world. Of how much unity is lacking, how much work there is to be done for a more harmonious future.
On April 18, Theresa May announced a surprise general election to be held in June, although the next general election was not supposed to be held until 2020. I’m back in America now, and this time I don’t need to go to a museum – I will be paying attention.