Editor’s note: Needless to say, our author is American. Cherwell has therefore left in all American spellings for reasons of authenticity.
The great Ernest Hemingway, a fellow Midwesterner, once wrote that you can never truly write about a place until you’ve left it. Recovering both from jet-lag and a vicious hangover, I am safely ensconced in my home country and capable of recounting the past 5 weeks studying abroad at Oxford University’s Magdalen College.
Let it be known that I was not some starry-eyed American desperate for a European adventure. I’ve travelled extensively with my father for work – tasting the shores of Europe, Asia, Central Asia, Central and South America all before hitting my country’s legal drinking age. I’m also a long-time fan of many, now somewhat out-dated, British television shows; I’ve taken full advantage of the change in my Netflix selection to binge watch Miranda, Outnumbered, Cuckoo and of course Absolutely Fabulous. I figured I knew what I was getting into before flying out of Detroit Metro Airport. The cabs would be black, the tea delicious, and the humor dry.
That being said, there are many things I’ve learned, not just about this country, but my own as well. I’ve discovered alcohol tastes a lot better this side of the Atlantic, and it took me longer than I’m comfortable admitting to understand there is no difference between “to-go” and “take away”. Here’s a list, on a spectrum starting with the obvious to the mildly surprising, about my stay abroad:
The Top 7 Things I’ve Learned About Being An American In Oxford
- Everyone wants to talk about how I’m American: As a University of Michigan student, I must say I suffered from lack of recognition. My accent may be obvious, but the area where I’m from less so. Few Britons seemed to have heard much about the Midwest – a large swathe of the country that lies somewhere in between Manhattan and San Francisco – beyond knowing who Eminem is. I hadn’t had one conversation in a pub that didn’t begin with the words, “So you’re an American, are you?”, and finally understood why Brits from my area of Michigan found being singled out for their accent so singularly annoying. The reactions I’ve provoked have ranged from the cheeky (“If you’re an American, why aren’t you fat?”) to the downright insulting (“Are you voting for Donald Trump?”). This wouldn’t be a terrible conversation opener if things actually progressed beyond simply stating where I’m from before lapsing into an uncomfortable silence. Other interactions were less than kind. In line at Sainsbury’s I found myself locked in conversation with an impressively drunk man. I fixed an expression of polite disinterest that served me well until he alerted to the fact that I was, as he put it, a Yank. I was not particularly charmed but this, as it’s an antiquated pejorative. He apologized with the insistence that the term “goes over a lot better” when he uses it in the States.
- The City is empty in summer: Of students, at least. Tourism in Oxford puts the industry in Ann Arbor to shame. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more cosmopolitan street than Cornmarket on a Saturday morning in July. A cultural cornucopia Italians, Greeks, Spanish, Chinese and German tourists congeal on the street like plaque in the arteries of those sitting in the McDonalds, the line for which spills onto the street regardless of the hour. Beyond this, I discovered that summer college is by no means considered “real” college. Returning from a night well-spent at the Half Moon, my companions and I spotted an actual Oxford student in the wild. He asked if we were members of the British American Drama Academy, another summer group staying at our college. We replied that we were part of the academic program, which did not go over well. “You’re a Magdalen Academic?”, his voice thick with derision, “I’m a Magdalen Academic. You’re summer school scum!”
- It’s impossible to talk about this summer without mentioning violence: In America people are shooting each other in the chests while in England they’re shooting themselves in the foot. In the time that I’ve been here, there were three more shootings that added to this summer’s death toll, two of which added fuel to the #blacklivesmatter movement. This same movement has spread to England, and numerous protests have blocked motorways and tramlines. There have also been several attacks this summer in Germany and France, some of which have been claimed by terrorist organisations. Last week there was a stabbing in London that launched a flurry of concerned emails from parents to the program participants. Mourning international and domestic losses has increasingly become a staple of pop culture. On Bastille Day, another attack in Europe left 84 dead in Nice, and 202 injured, ten of whom were children. The Orlando nightclub shooting claimed 50 lives. During this bloody summer more deaths take place in the span of ten minutes than in military skirmishes of the past, revealing of far more than lax gun laws or mental illness.
- Collective memory is definitely a thing: Something I found astonishing about the English was about how often they reference their own history on a daily basis. Granted, we’re a nation that drinks from cans of beer that feature lines from the Pledge of Allegiance and lyrics from ‘The Star Spangled Banner’. Yet the English memory stretches far back and remains fixed in the minds of the present day. My university will be celebrating its bicentennial next year, and it’s quite a big deal. But upon entering the UK I was shocked by how often I’d been referred to as a colonial.
- People actually read in Oxford: Who knew? Whether I was walking past coffee shops or park benches, I was so distracted by how many newspapers and books that were being read that I failed to notice the people plastered to their phones and Pokémon Go. As newspapers in America downsize and re-brand to fit into an already crowded online niche, readers in England are cracking open paper — actual paper — and staying informed. As an editor of the last print paper in my city, the sight warmed my heart.
- The food is terrible: Sorry Oxford. Limited takeout options in the city and everything closes so damned early. This is by no means a universal rule. Notable exceptions include pizza at the White Rabbit, that Indian place across from Thirst, and select dining options along Cowley Road. I will admit the highlight of many evenings out have been the precious moments alongside the food trucks on High Street. Time will reflect that it was during my first drunken bite of chips, cheese and gravy that I saw the face of God. I found the food at Magdalen itself as inedible as at any college in the United States. Dining hall food is, as with airplane food, convenient and often the only sustainable option. (The outbreak of food poisoning that swept through the programme notwithstanding.)
- Stereotypes aren’t always true: I realized early on that stereotypes work both ways, and I went into my study abroad with two in mind. I was aware my American status would be a scarlet letter, and it would come attached with expectations of crudeness, unjustified self-confidence, and the ability to make a public spectacle of myself at a moment’s notice. But also the way Americans envision Britons is exported primarily from the BBC, and involves velvet-smooth accents and tailored suits. Upon arrival, I considered the many tips I’d received and emulated about blending-in and reducing my social footprint. Don’t wear clothes that are too colorful, or have words or brands; don’t be loud or disagreeable. But it would seem the train from Paddington to Oxford came with it’s own floor show in the form of a couple’s quarrel. Minutes before departure an impressive stream of swear words burst forth from a woman several rows ahead of me, the victim of which appeared to be her boyfriend. During the row, the woman to my left glanced at me and raised her eyebrows. I offered her my palm in a universal sign for, “What the hell is this person thinking?” Eventually another passenger had had enough and tactfully pointed out the presence of children aboard. It had all the effects of poking an angry bear and the woman now began to swear with the ferocity of a drunk sailor at a football match. As if to complete my metaphor, a cart of snacks was teetering down the aisle to offer refreshments for the spectators. This anecdote shines, among others, to exemplify that such people exist everywhere.