I have now officially been in the United Kingdom for twelve days and it’s finally starting to sink in – I’m really not in Ohio anymore.
In those twelve days I feel like I’ve traveled much farther than the 3,788 miles between Dayton, Ohio and Cardiff, Wales.
My journey began a long time ago; I had my first meeting with my internship advisor during spring quarter of my freshmen year, and I finally boarded a plane to London on Sept. 22 of my junior year. The year and a half in between was long and occasionally difficult – at times I wasn’t even sure if my program would exist this year – but little did I know that the most difficult part of my journey was waiting for me in London. Upon arriving at Heathrow Airport, I quickly learned that when you are carrying three months worth of luggage, it is better to take a taxi to your hotel, no matter how many pounds it may cost. Lugging three suitcases through Paddington Station, the London Underground and assorted busy streets in the rain makes any trudge up Morton Hill look like a walk in the park. Add in serious jet lag and you have the makings of a fantastic first morning in Great Britain.
However, I recovered fairly quickly, and spent the next few days hitting the amazing touristy highlights of London: Westminster Abbey, Trafalgar Square, the London Eye, etc., before heading off on a train to Cardiff, the city where I will be working and living for the next three months.
Cardiff, by the way, is the capital city of Wales, which is part of Great Britain. The first time I heard about this program, I actually had to Google it, and it certainly isn’t one of the top ten study abroad locations in Europe. However, I’m certainly glad I chose to study here, not only because Cardiff is an absolutely beautiful and amazing city, but because this program is giving me opportunities I could never have found anywhere else.
Instead of a more traditional study abroad program, I chose to spend my time abroad working as an intern at the National Assembly for Wales. The National Assembly was created by the national government of Great Britain in 1999 as a form of regional government specifically devoted to making laws for Wales. As a government, the National Assembly is pretty unique, and the issues they deal with range from health care and education to the effects badgers are having on the Welsh cow population. Because this government is so new, it is always changing and developing, making it a fascinating, though somewhat complicated, learning experience for a newcomer like me.
I have had a number of other learning experiences in my first weeks here as well. Never having been to Europe before, I was not at all sure what to expect before arriving in the UK. I mean, I knew they drove on the opposite side of the street and said ‘jumper’ instead of sweater, but not too much more. Obviously my experience with culture shock hasn’t been nearly as terrifying as it would have been if I was studying in a country where English wasn’t the official language, but there have been some definite adjustments. For example, the simple knowledge that the British drive on the left side of the road is rather dramatically brought home the first time you look the wrong way down a street and almost get run over because you didn’t see the car coming from the “wrong” direction. Also, before arriving in the UK I had naively assumed I was fluent in English – clearly not the case. I am rapidly adding new words and meanings to my vocabulary. I now ride a “lift” instead of an elevator, eat lunch in the “canteen” rather than the cafeteria and “ring” home on my “mobile” (pronounced with a long “i”) instead of my cell phone. My favorite addition is the word “cheers,” which means both thank you and goodbye, though most often the Welsh simply say all three at once.
That slightly overzealous farewell is rather typical of the Welsh, who are known for their hospitality. Generally they only have to hear my American accent to start talking, asking questions and offering advice. This is helpful when I’m wandering aimlessly through downtown Cardiff because I can’t find my way back to my apartment (or “flat”), though it’s slightly more problematic when I’m asked to explain the Tea Party or the origins of the phrase “rain check.”
I actually have had a lot of fun adjusting to the little differences between the United States and Wales. Life gets a little more exciting when suddenly the “@” button is in a completely different place on your keyboard and you’re never sure if the washer-dryer combo machine will actually produce dry clothing. The biggest problem has been the lack of mac & cheese, generally a staple in my diet and impossible to find here. My attempts at experiencing British and Welsh cuisine have also been largely unsuccessful so far – somehow mushy peas (yes that is actually what they’re called) and cheese sandwiches don’t really appeal to me. Fish and chips are rather amazing however, and I am looking forward to trying laver bread, which is a Welsh bread made from seaweed.
Living in Wales has definitely taken some getting used to, and I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve gotten lost in the past two weeks, but I can already tell that I am having the time of my life. Here in Cardiff, I am a fifteen-minute walk from a thousand-year-old castle, and on my way I pass pubs called things like the Pen and Whig and the Duke of Wellington. I am spending my evenings planning trips to Stonehenge, Edinburgh and Paris. All of the things I’ve wanted to do for years, all of the places I’ve wanted to see, are suddenly only a train ride away, and I can’t wait to get started!