Reflections: 1 Month Later

About one month has elapsed since I returned from my trip to London, and I am still struggling to digest it all. In order to cross as many activities off our bucket list as possible, we all possessed an on the go mentality, leaving our itinerary packed and free time to process our experiences scarce. However, after resuming life in America, I have finally begun to realize the valuable impacts it has left me with.

The greatest takeaway from my three weeks on the Fulbright Institute is a better understanding -and in some cases defiance- of existing stereotypes. The truth is, in today’s society everyone holds certain stereotypes, consciously or not. We have been molded based on our culture, experiences, and geographic locations to possess certain beliefs, which though likely founded in some truth, may or may not be fully representative of reality. However, living in another country, particularly during the Olympics, provided the opportunity to meet individuals of several nationalities and hear first hand about what life is really like in their respective countries. Even the students from America had differences to share, as socioeconomic and religious disparities resulted in significant dissimilarities in the way we were raised. These interactions forced me to reevaluate some existing stereotypes I held, leaving with a better understanding and respect for other cultures, countries, and people.

However, the trip also provided an opportunity to view America through a foreigner’s perspective. One stereotype associated with America is our strong nationalistic culture, which is sometimes perceived as being self-centered or ignorant. As a known world power with significant influence, I do not think it is uncommon to notice sentiments of superiority among Americans. A commonly cited example of this is our media. Most news outlets overwhelmingly focus coverage on activities that either occur in the United States or events abroad that impact our country. Of course these issues are of tremendous importance, but it seems that other countries’ new sources produce more worldly reportage. For instance, many complained that US Olympic coverage was so focused on American athletes that heroic and groundbreaking accomplishments of other competitors went unreported. Having been able to observe both BBC and NBC coverage, I personally noticed a similar disparity both in the Olympics and regular news reporting. Furthermore, I did notice that I was less privy on certain discussions related to integral European events than some of my classmates from other countries.

Although patriotism is vital, it is important to realize that every country would be well suited in adopting some of the policies and practices of other nations. For example, though New York and other major cities boast impressive transportation structures, they pale in comparison to London’s navigable and extensive system, which has some lines leaving as frequently as every 15 seconds. In fact, to my surprise some Europeans view America as being unconcerned about the environment, and compared to the UK, the US seems behind in sustainability practices. In addition to mass transportation, London and other major cities posses extensive bike sharing systems, which are only beginning to be adopted here. Moreover, cars tend to be much smaller in Europe, with SUV spottings being a rarity.

There is nothing comparable to the pride I took in being able to wrap myself in an American flag and sing along to our National Anthem as it filled Wimbley Stadium. But, I now also realize that there is much America needs to improve upon. Studying abroad does not just teach a student about a specific topic, or give insight into the education system in another country; it provides an immersive experience to really learn about the world beyond one’s comfort zone. Despite stereotypes or a country’s GDP, there are always things that it can teach and learn from others.

 

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Adjusting (a post from home)

Crossing the street, there are moments when I wonder why the cars are driving on the wrong side of the road. On elevators, I expect to press the LL button to get to the first floor, and wish for a voice telling me to “mind the gap” when the doors open and it’s time to step outside. And soccer is still football, no matter what anyone says.

London has left its imprint on my soul. In grand ways and good memories and in pictures on my dorm wall. But in little ways as well, like these nuances. I know we were only in London for three weeks, and that doesn’t seem like it’d be long enough to pick up on and get used to all these little cultural differences. But it was.

I hope, in the next three years or three decades or however long it takes me to get back, these minor memories don’t entirely disappear. Because, while I still remember when it seemed weird to spell “honoured” with a “u,” I’m now a person who’s been to London and back. Which means, along with all the other things, I’m now a person who appears incapable of writing words like “baptised” with anything but an “s.”

That’s the teeniest example of how London has changed me – just like elevator gaps and campus crosswalks are tiny examples of things that make me miss the city. But it’s a real example, and one I can write about in the morning right before class when I haven’t yet or don’t have time to figure out exactly how things like my opinions on the EU or big cities or the exploitative side of the Olympic Games have changed.

Also, I miss the tube.

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Wrap-Up Video

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On Saturday we …

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On Saturday we went to Stonehenge. Standing in front of those famous rocks, I had another “is this real?” moment. Visiting Stonehenge, like attending the Olympics, was something I always saw and thought was amazing, but never really imagined I’d have the chance to see in person. My time in London has been marked by such moments. From seeing Big Ben, going in Parliament, watching Olympic Gymnastics live, and stumbling upon the Rosetta Stone, to our upcoming tickets to see the US women’s soccer team in the gold medal final, this trip has allowed me to experience things that I’d only dreamed of before.

But, in addition to these big-ticket moments, I’ve had little revelations that are equally important and come from living in another country and acclimating to another culture. I’ve learned how to navigate the tube system, I no longer think it’s odd when I hear “mind the gap,” I remember to look right first when crossing streets, I get annoyed when people stand on the left side of escalators…  and the list goes on. These little things that were so strange at first, are now part of everyday life, and I think I have enjoyed becoming accustomed to them as much as I have enjoyed playing the tourist as we scurry from one attraction to the next.

It is this mix of things that I will bring back with me to the US. I’ve learned so much about British history- the Tower of London, Parliament, museums… all have taught me valuable lessons. But my day-to-day life has also taught me much about London that cannot be learned on a tour, in a guidebook, or in a classroom at home. For example, it really surprised me when I came here to find that Londoners are very helpful and willing to point us in the right way or give us advice whenever we stop for directions or suggestions. Not that I imagined people would be rude, but I certainly did not expect the overwhelming willingness to help that we’ve encountered from person after person!

All in all, the past three weeks have flown by. We have repeatedly wished for a few more weeks (or months) to be able to see and do everything that we want in London (and I’m sure even that would not be enough time!). I do think we have made the most of every moment here, however, and I am so thankful for this experience. To be honest, it’s hard for me to find anything to say to sum up the trip that does not sound incredibly cheesy, because my experience really has been overwhelmingly amazing and unforgettable. I cannot say thank you enough to the people who have aided us on our journey. It’s sad to see it end, but hopefully I am returning to the US with a new outlook on British life and the Olympics, new knowledge about UK politics and history, and a new appreciation for living and studying abroad. I can’t wait to return someday!
-Lindsey Rowe

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City Beautiful (all architecture aside)

Moments. Moments matter.

Everywhere I go in life, I keep coming back to that same conclusion.

To be honest, I thought it was a Midwestern thing. I thought that the way to be content with living in low-key Indiana was to pay attention to the moments: a farmer tending his field with a tractor his grandfather taught him how to use, a frog hopping contentedly from a pond on a summer afternoon, a pair of friends with ice cream cones walking through the county fair on a hot day. When not a lot happens, you learn to appreciate those little things.

Before coming to London, I thought being here would be different. London is the home of major things. Big Ben. Trafalgar Square. The Houses of Parliament. The London Eye. And this summer, the biggest thing of them all: The Olympic Games.

Visiting these landmarks and attending these events has been amazing. I have been excited beyond my capacity to be excited to see them, and I will remember them – and that I was here with them – for the rest of my life.

But the most precious things – and the ones that will most quickly fade from memory – have been the things that have made me stop and smile, or stop and think, or stop and try not to tear up. They have been the little moments.

When we visited Stonehenge, I was touched by the people who took our pictures. There was a mom with two sons, one of whom looked about ten years old and kept teasing his mum, doubting her picture-taking abilities. He made us all smile – and laugh, later on, when he passed us lined up for a group shot at another part of the monument and loudly commented, “They sure do like having their pictures taken!”

He reminded me of my brothers. And the third person who took our picture (we really do like getting group shots) was an elderly little man visiting with his wife, who knelt down surprisingly spryly to get a better angle for our photo – and reminded me of the grandpa I wish I’d gotten to know.

They were just people, average, everyday Britons and internationals, come to see an ancient monument and wonder at it like we were. I can’t say why or how Stonehenge was constructed, and looking at it didn’t change that. But looking at other people looking at it made me realize that we all kind of have the same goals. People from all over the world come to major events or famous landmarks to see them with their own eyes, to take a photo by them and be able to tell their friends they’ve seen them, to pause for just a moment and wonder at the strength and mystery and grandeur of them.

Standing there at Stonehenge, in a line of five Fulbright kids and a much larger line of people from all over the world, of all ages and backgrounds and understandings, I got a hunch that what I’m supposed to learn from this trip is not how marvelous Stonehenge or any landmark in London is – or even how huge the Olympics are, though I have certainly gathered that.

Maybe what I’m supposed to understand is that, whether we’re from the U.S. or the U.K. or any of the countries people visiting London come, we’re all a little bit the same. Children in Brixton and Manchester and Trafalgar Square chase birds in public squares just like the children in Bloomington or Muncie or Indianapolis, Indiana do. People want their pictures taken by major monuments everywhere, and children sing on the tube here just like the ones I mentor at home do on the bus. Sometimes, they even sing the same songs.

The world is becoming smaller. The more we travel, the more we talk, the more we share culture and sport and experiences, the more we realize that we all have moments.

When we realize that, and when we realize that those moments matter as much to other people as they do to us, how can we pretend not to understand each other? How can we hurt each other?

I don’t think we can. But I also think it’s easy to ignore the moments that lead to these revelations. London is a fast-paced city, a constantly changing, constantly breathing place. Being here, adapting to it all and being in a hurry to see it has made me miss so many of the beautiful little things I would have liked to have captured in my mind and written in my heart. Even at home, there are tons of distractions to keep me and everyone else from noticing the little things that tie us all together.

It takes, strangely, a little bit of courage to put down the tourist’s camera and see things with my own eyes here, committing to remember them without any digital image to jog my memory. At home, it takes a little bit of faith to put down my cell phone and iPod and laptop and notice what the people walking by are wearing or how old the man watering the flowers along the sidewalk is or the way the birds sound in the trees.

But it’s worth it, because those things are beautiful. They are the moments, the details, that make up this life. And if what I’ve seen in London is any indication, this life is a beautiful thing.

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Victoria Ison

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Tradition, Tradition!

The Fulbright group outside of Big Ben & The Houses of Parliament

Getting to know a city is like getting to know a new friend.  You need to learn about their past, their present, and their plans for the future in order to fully understand them, and you gradually gain more understanding about them over time.  Well, I can say that a week and a half certainly isn’t nearly enough time for me to say that I truly know London inside and out, but I do have some very well-grounded first impressions.

I have begun to see London as a city that remains deeply entrenched in tradition, even while in the constant throes of modernization and progress.  The word “tradition” has crossed through my mind countless times as I’ve visited and toured the city’s numerous historical sites.  (Admittedly, I have even sung “Tradition, tradition! Tradition!” in my head a few times, Fiddler on the Roof style, of course.) This was especially true on Tuesday afternoon, when we went on a tour of Parliament, also known as the Palace of Westminster.

I don’t know much about the British form of government, so this tour was filled with much new information.  Any and all actions taking place under the roof of this magnificent building carry great symbolism and meaning, which is based in a history that easily goes back hundreds of years.  The queen visits The Houses of Parliament once a year, when she comes to open it.  On this day, she wears the Crown Jewels, which only she and the Royal Jeweler are allowed to touch.  They are secretly delivered to Parliament the night before, and not even the Yeoman Warders who live at the Tower of London know when they are being taken away.

At the State Opening of Parliament, the Queen reads the “Queen’s Speech.”  Interestingly, this speech isn’t actually written by the monarch.  It is written by the prime minister, outlining all of the action that the government plans to take that year.  According to our tour guide, if the Queen doesn’t agree with something that is written in her speech, there isn’t much she can do.  She has to read it the way it is written for her, which makes this act seem more symbolic than anything else.  This speech is recorded in three different ways: on goatskin (for tradition’s sake), on paper (off of which she will read the speech), and via email (the Queen receives this in advance).  This fact really captures the way I view London – honoring tradition, but fully utilizing modernization.

One would think that the Queen of England would be able to go anywhere that she pleases, but interestingly, she is prohibited from entering the House of Commons.  The last monarch to enter this room was King Charles I in 1642.  On quite a power trip, he was attempting to arrest five members of the House for high treason, but they had already fled to safety.  This was part of a long period of tensions between the monarch and the Parliament, and ever since this event almost four hundred years ago, no monarch is allowed to be in the House of Commons.

Elaborate buildings with long-standing history, like the Palace of Westminster, stand in stark contrast to the contemporary buildings of London, like the newly-opened Shard.  There appears to be a constant pull between “Old Britain” and “New Britain,” but even as times continually and rapidly change, it is obvious that London will never forget its history.  From an outsider’s perspective, England’s traditional ways put an unusually positive twist on the old adage, “History repeats itself.

~Emily Shea

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Transformation Throughout London

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It is mindboggling to think about different parts of the world and how they are in fact similar in many ways yet they have their distinct dissimilarities, almost as if they are poles apart.

Transformation is always occurring. This has been a recurring trend that I have noticed throughout this week’s class lecture and discussion.

Class this past week has opened my eyes in a positive light. Because I am studying urban planning and business in school, topics such as poverty, change within neighborhoods, etc. interest me a lot. I find it rewarding to see how a place has changed over the years, hopefully for the better.

As Jason taught us in class, London is the richest city in Europe. It is extremely well off and there are signs of wealth all across the city. Also, London’s richest people are worth 273 times more than the poorest making it the most unequal city in the developed world; just from this statistic one can imagine the difference in lifestyle. We’ve learned specifically about Brixton and the East End of London. As we all know, the Olympics are currently occurring all around us. Even though London is extremely well off, the new Olympic Stadium is centered in one of the poorer parts of London. The East End is prominent in this year’s 2012 Olympic Games because it is where the Olympic Village is centered, in Stratford. Stratford is right at the heart of the poorest part of London. The Olympics coming specifically to this area marks the notion of revamping this part of the city. It is the culmination of a 50 year effort of trying to revitalize the area. The new mall built specifically for the Olympics at Stratford as well as the new Olympic venues will help restore the East End of London. It will supply thousands of jobs as well as a center where the community can gather as a whole even after the Olympics finish.  Questions remain about how the mall is going to be maintained after the Olympics, who will support it, etc., yet it is at least a step in the right direction. It shows me that low income neighborhoods are in fact noticed and not forgotten as some may think; it just takes time for current circumstances to change. In my opinion, Stratford and East London are changing for the better; they are slowly transforming after all these years. The impact the Olympics will leave on the community after the two weeks of sport and competition will be remarkable.

As we learned about Stratford and East London undergoing transformation for the Olympics, Jason, our tutor, taught us about Brixton as well. He said Brixton is not really on the map of London; it’s not very well known. Brixton as well has had its hard times; it has a history of tension with the white community and the police. The early 1980’s marked the beginning of the Brixton Riots, which were explained in a short documentary we watched in class. They erupted due to tension between the police and the community. To put it simply, the Brixton we saw in the documentary was not the same Brixton we saw today when we traveled there for a field trip. The documentary showed overturned cars; shattered windows of shops, homes, and cars; homes that were set on fire; physical fighting between the community and the police—as you can imagine it didn’t seem like the best place to be.

When we went there today the first thing I thought of as we were riding the bus into the area was how vibrant it was and how it did not mirror the video we seen in class. The area transformed and built itself up from the riots of the past. The mixed-use developments and commercial districts were absolutely thriving. It made me excited to be there and to explore. The area used to be populated predominantly by white, middle class residents but it has had an ‘Era of Caribbean immigrants’; the area is significantly of Jamaican descent now. This makes the area unique in its own way.

Walking from the bus stop to the market Jason took us through side streets, specifically so we could see London’s low-income housing, or ‘projects’, as they would be called in the US. This specifically struck something within me. Personally I know a lot about the Chicago projects back home. Overall they are not places you want to be; you avoid them if you can. They are normally not within the best neighborhoods, and gang violence and crime run rampant. Most of the projects are in fact gone; if not, they are in the process of being boarded up and evacuated. My initial reaction to the ‘projects’ in Brixton was not the same as I would have expected it to be. The homes, from the outside, look nice and relatively new. Both places, Chicago and London, have requirements in order to get into these housing units. The requirements are similar and slightly different in both areas. A worker from the City of Chicago gave me this example explaining how the CHA (Chicago Housing Authority) did not go about choosing its residents in the best way; “If you’re of minority descent and have low income, we’ll put you there. If you’re a single mother, we’ll put you there. If you’re disabled or have a drug problem, we’ll put you there”. It definitely has a negative connotation and leaves a bad impression, which is what I have come to associate with the word ‘projects’.

Unlike what I have learned, London is different. In Brixton the attitude is much more optimistic. People want to live in public housing. The homes are spacious and built for families whereas rental units within Brixton are crammed to get more people and families into a small space, therefore they are not as desirable. Here there are only a certain number of public housing units; they stopped building them, especially after the war. The threshold requirement is continually being altered so it is harder to get into the public housing. There are also a higher majority of white people in these projects. What I have learned from home compared to how things are here are complete opposites, and I’m glad they are. Brixton to me has its own identity. It’s vibrant and filled with culture. It is an area I enjoyed walking around and learning about. The people there are friendly and open. Like any area, there is crime and violence but it is relatively safe (according to Jason). We learned in class that Jane Jacobs, an urbanist, came up with the idea of ‘Eyes on the Street’. She basically says the more people there are in a public space the better. The idea that Brixton has a lot of police surveillance parallels the idea that there is a greater feeling of safety which adds to the general impression the area portrays.

Overall I have learned a lot about specific spaces in London and have seen them with my own eyes. This past week has been extremely insightful. Being able to connect what I’m learning in class to London as an Olympic City, to a smaller less known neighborhood in London (Brixton), and to home (Chicago, the city I believe to know best) is rewarding in the utmost respect. My time with King’s College London is teaching me a lot about the Olympics, urban planning, and the city in general. I cannot wait to see what experiences come within the next week.

Jenny Speaker

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