Exploring the City You’re In

Alicia Hamilton is a history major at Harvard University and studied abroad with IFSA-Butler at University College London in the fall of 2016. She is an International Correspondent for IFSA-Butler through the Work-to-Study Program.  

One of the wonderful things about studying abroad in London is that its location gives me access to the entire European continent. From the UK trips to Paris, Rome, Copenhagen, Barcelona, and Vienna can be inexpensive weekend getaways. However, I have found that in my quest to leverage the amazing travel opportunities London has provided me, I have neglected to experience the city I am in. Instead of treating London like home, I have made it just a starting point for other adventures.

During dinner with a friend visiting from Spain, I was asked about what I had seen and done in London so far. After listing the tourist excursions of my first few days, I found myself grasping at straws. I could only reel off a list of things I still wanted to do and see but have yet to make time for.

I wanted to stroll through the streets of Notting Hill peeking in at the displays of the various shops. I was still planning a trip to take in a show at one of London’s many incredible theaters and I was ever waiting for a free weekend to take a trip to Camden Market, a place my English friends have raved about for its eclectic and affordable shopping. However, though I was approaching the halfway mark of my stay in London, I realized there were still so many places I had yet to explore and things I had still not done.

This conversation made me realize that I had been approaching my time in London all wrong. Instead of taking time to appreciate the city I was living in, I instead spent almost all of my weekends on quests to explore everywhere else. As I reflected on the seven or so weekends I have spent as an English student, I realized that only two of those were spent in London. When I was not visiting family in York or Cambridge, I was exploring other places in the United Kingdom like Scotland. My trips throughout the country undoubtedly gave me a greater understanding of the larger region I was calling home. But I realized that because I was living in London, the sense of urgency that I felt to explore other parts of the UK and Europe was not there for London.

The problem was that after the initial excitement wore off and the stress of academics kicked in, I found myself settling into a routine very similar to the one I have at my home institution even though I was halfway around the world. This routine led me to associate London with the place that I did work, resulting in me seeking adventure outside of the city.

This is why when you are studying abroad you have to maintain somewhat of a tourist’s mindset even as you settle into the patterns of a local. Thus I had to remind myself that I would not be in London forever. That this was my once in a lifetime opportunity to really call it my home, and so I had to make the effort to see the city or I would return to campus with my trip to Big Ben as my London highlight.

It can be easy to take for granted the city you are living in when studying abroad. To find yourself falling into a routine miles from home. I know that I did. My tips for quick and easy ways to really get to know the city you are in are grabbing dinner at restaurants in different parts of the city every other week, studying in different cafés around town when possible, and reserving certain weekends for local adventures. I for one am going to start being more intentional about my time in London, and check seeing a play in one of London’s many theaters off my list this weekend.

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