Foreign EXEchange: A Semester in Exeter, UK
My blog comes just over two months after I have returned home from England. I’ve had two months of reclamation into United States culture, preparation for my fall semester, and reflection on my time abroad. I took a solid week of rest and recovery after my long trip from Exeter back home in Christiansburg, but since then I’ve been back at Emory & Henry working for the Honors Program while training for the upcoming cross–country season and conducting research for my senior honors thesis. I’ve come back a changed person; however, I’m still me, Alex Cooper. I still hold the same ideals, enjoy the same activities, and act the same. I wouldn’t say that my study abroad transformed my character or lifestyle. However, one cannot spend 5 months abroad and remain unchanged. After all of the people I met, places I visited, and ideas about life, of course I’m changed a bit.
I am very appreciative of the opportunity I had to study abroad at the University of Exeter in England. While Emory & Henry highly encourages students to study abroad, I realize that not everyone gets to do so. I tried to take advantage of my good fortune as much as I could by becoming involved in the university there, traveling and experiencing Europe, and appreciating everything as I was in the moment. I did not want to take it all for granted.
Leaving Emory & Henry, my family, and the United States for 5 months was not easy. It may seem like I can just go and go all day long, love traveling at all times, and enjoy trying new things more than anything else. There is some truth to this, but I also need my rest, love staying home, and enjoy sticking to a familiar routine. I knew when I was choosing a school, however, that I would want to indulge my adventurous side during my collegiate career and study abroad. This desire was one big reason why I chose Emory & Henry in the first place, so I went through the long process of reaching outside of my comfort zone to make my study abroad happen.
After a year of thought, planning, and preparation, I stepped on a plane on January 10 bound for Europe. I had no idea just what would be in store for me. I knew one person in Exeter who I had gotten in contact with online, but that was it. I was about to travel across the Atlantic and then across England by myself, show up to a dorm room that would hopefully have a key to it, and then begin making friends instantly. On that long and stressful trip, I had no idea what would await me. I didn’t know then that I would be racing in a national championship in three weeks’ time. I did not know a single rule of rugby and didn’t expect to enjoy watching the sport as much as I did during the Six Nations. I had no clue that I would have a Muslim Nigerian/Australian for a flatmate who would end up being one of the coolest people I’ve ever met and one of the best friends I’ve ever had. I had no idea about the rest of the people I would meet, from the girls across the hall from Virginia and the Netherlands to the others who lived in my building from Germany, Australia, or Mexico, or the others I met through athletics from France, the United States, or England itself. I had a promise for a meeting, but I never thought that member of parliament (MP) Michael Fabricant’s offer to visit him for a personal tour of Parliament would come to fruition. How could I have predicted exploring Stonehenge with people I had just met, climbing the Tower of Pisa by myself, riding trains from country to country with Emory & Henry Honors Program friends, or riding the London Eye with my family? Exactly five months later, I returned to Virginia, and I had done all of that. I had no clear vision of what my trip would look like before I left, but when I returned, what it evolved into looked pretty dang cool.
I loved living in Exeter. It was a different experience living in a city where everything was within walking distance and the streets were always packed; I am more used to having cows and rabbits for next–door neighbors, and I certainly can’t go anywhere that isn’t on campus by foot. Exeter isn’t a ridiculously big city like New York or London or anything though; it was a good medium for me where I could live in a metropolitan area without being overwhelmed. I loved having a huge cathedral near me where I could go to church and great spots to hang out like the riverside quay. Fun places like Tesco (my grocery store), the KFC that was so different from its American counterpart, and pubs like The Ship and Firehouse made for a different experience as a consumer. And of course, my living situation was drastically different than it had been at Emory & Henry; for the first time, I had to shop and cook for myself. I may not have had a great variety of meals in James Owen Court, but I did learn a few valuable lessons in the process. For instance, onions, peppers, and mushrooms are delicious when sautéed together and can be used in practically any dish. I became an expert in the art of scrambling eggs while simultaneously learning to eat them fried in true English style. Also, if someone offers to cook for the evening, always accept, even if you have to help, provide ingredients, or wash the dishes after.
While in England, I also tried to become familiar with the culture as much as I could. Some things I couldn’t avoid even if I wanted to. For instance, I couldn’t ignore the fact that cars drove on the other side of the road because I had to learn a new way of crossing the street to get to uni. I couldn’t help but notice the food choices offered because I had to buy food for myself. However, I sought to actively engage with English culture as much as I could. Not only did I learn how to cross the road, but I also learned how to do so while running. I still have trouble not saying “cheers” instead of “thanks” now that I’m back in the United States because I used the phrase as the locals do. Outside of the things I couldn’t avoid, I also made sure not to stick to the strictly familiar for those five months. I never once went to a McDonald’s, choosing to visit local pubs instead. I enjoyed learning how my sport, running, is treated in the new culture in attitude and language. For instance, running is much more student–led than it is in the US, where it is more heavily sponsored by the institution. At Exeter you pay to participate, and therefore you run with a mindset of wanting to get the most for the value. And of course, I frequently tried to call what I know as a workout a “session.”
These unfamiliarities are what make living abroad such a great experience. I was surrounded by other international students who all had taken the same leap of faith that I had, and we all shared a yearning to expand our worldviews through full immersion in a new culture. While taking a full semester abroad may make me somewhat unique at Emory & Henry, the people I was with all shared that experience with me. We were a group of people who all engaged with England in our own proactive ways that enabled us to get the most out of our time in a foreign place.
One huge advantage of studying abroad in Europe that everyone took advantage of was the rest of Europe being so easily accessible. The borderless continent as a concept is fascinating to me, and I thoroughly enjoyed exploring all around to see such varied cultures all in a relatively small space. The centuries of rich history that took place in Europe give it such a unique quality that the United States, being less than 300 years old, can hardly emulate. I made the most of my time in the UK by exploring places close to me such as Cornwall, Cardiff, and London, as well as farther–flung places like Oxford, Edinburgh, and Loch Ness. My adventures were able to span across the whole of Europe and not just remain contained to the isle of Great Britain. I enjoyed many a sausage and beer in Germany, tried some great street food in Prague and Budapest, celebrated Easter with fellow United Methodists in Vienna, took in the canal cultures of Amsterdam and Venice, and marveled at the posh (as the British would describe it) atmosphere of Luxembourg and Switzerland. From the stunning highlands of Scotland to the staggeringly high cliffs of western Ireland to the Alps of Switzerland, I was able to see some of the truly amazing natural sights that this world has to offer. New natures and cultures can be overwhelming, but I loved seeing everything I could. In all, I visited 15 countries in my time in Europe, and I feel very fortunate for that.
Through my travels, I was able to experience Earth and humanity in the way that is unique to traveling. One can study, read about, and watch documentaries on foreign places for years but never really get the intangible sense of what truly makes a place special. As a cultural geographer, I have been trained that landscape, human interaction, religion, economics, and practically every other liberal–arts topic merge together to make a culture that exists in a space on the world and that, in some way, each place is special. I feel much more like a global citizen now than I did before I studied abroad because I have seen and felt these places and have begun to realize just how gigantic this world is. I have only seen a small part of it after all!
Many people have asked me a very difficult question since I’ve been back: “What was your favorite place you visited?” I had to make some difficult decisions about this, but I decided on my two finalists, London for the UK and Prague for Europe, for very different reasons. Prague was an amazing place that was incredibly foreign and enchanting. Discovering new street food such as chimney cakes and lángos, a sauceless kind of pizza, was a major component of the city’s appeal because of the type of market culture that existed. The many markets that existed throughout the city were all decked out in pastel in anticipation of Easter. The architecture was another important aspect of the city’s appeal because of its severe difference from its Western European counterparts. It is a Bohemian style all of its own that signals that you are now in Eastern Europe, and that is not a bad thing at all.
London, on the other hand, is my overall champion and my favorite location that I visited during my time in Europe. People will rightly tell you that if you want to experience England authentically, you cannot just visit London. This is true; go to Exeter for that! However, I got to see London at multiple times over the year, including when it was not in tourist season. I truly appreciate the London culture and thought it was thrilling to be a part of it for a little bit. I loved getting to know the city so well that I could hop on the tube and know where I was going without always consulting a map. I loved ducking my head, acting like a local, and being annoyed with tourists in my way who didn’t know where they were going like me. I appreciated the efficiency of the Underground and the beauty of buildings everywhere, like Westminster Palace and Tower Bridge. There was history around every corner at the Tower of London, Parliament, and Shakespeare’s Globe. There is always something to do in London to fit your interests, whether it is going to a free museum, seeing a sports match, stopping by shops, seeing a quality play, or enjoying a drink of tea or ale. No, London is not quintessentially English, but it is one of the coolest globalized centers I have ever had the pleasure of visiting. I felt comfortable in the city to the point that when I returned from a trip on the continent, I felt at ease after I got back in London. I know that if I return to the city, I can find a great shop for fish n’ chips, navigate my way from Kensington to The City, drop by Parliament to see an MP, and easily drink in the history and atmosphere. London is a deserving winner of my competitive bracket.
As I begin taking my classes at Emory & Henry to start my junior year, I now have months of international experience that have left me changed and my view of life altered, or rather, enhanced. I am very glad to be back with the friends, cross–country team, research, and campus I love. But I will and do miss my second home of Exeter, England. I did not expect to become as attached to that place as I did, but I will always remember my time across the pond. The memories of walking through the steady rain up Exeter’s steep hills, heading down to my favorite pubs, tromping around London on my own, and scurrying around Europe to see all the Brandenburg Gates and Towers of Pisa I could are very much with me as I return to finish what I’ve started at Emory & Henry. I know that I have true friends who live all across the world and that a bit of my attachment for place will belong in the southwest corner of the UK in Exeter.
I have been pleased to share with all you, my readers, my experiences and travels. I kept an extensive account of my travels in my personal blog at https://foreignexechange.wordpress.com/. Also, for a final slideshow of all my pictures, I encourage you to watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4uswkNeT84I
In conclusion, I’ll close in true British fashion: Cheers! Or more formally I suppose, God Save the Queen.
BY: Alex Cooper ’17
Photo Description: Alex Cooper with Meg Connell, a student from Australia, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean in St. Ives, Cornwall (UK). Photograph taken by Abdul Law, Alex’s flatmate from Australia.