When I think back on the last ~13 months I’ve spent in the UK, I think of wandering through London’s parks, of trying strange restaurants in hard-to-reach corners of the city— and weekend trips to even harder to reach corners of the country. The United Kingdom does not share America’s culture of convenience or efficiency. Some have attributed this oft-frustrating phenomenon to social movements or class structure, but I think the population’s general social inertia — mixed with an over-developed respect for tradition that seems part of the national identity — is probably the main culprit. This reduced pace of life, even in the nation’s most bustling city, helps curate a sense that studying here is akin to wandering into an intellectual Disney Land populated with brilliant speakers, whimsical professors, unexpected classmates, and off-the-beaten-path extracurriculars. Time stops; stores open and close at strange hours; everyone seems to be in costume (think literal robes); and the streets are a thousand-year-old tangle of alleys and avenues, probably designed more for horses than the current mix of cars, pedestrians, and cyclists.
This is a nation bound by endless rules, few of which are ever explained, all of which seemed to be strictly followed. I’ve personally been buying train tickets here for over a year, and I’m still confused about the mysterious difference between “peak” and “off-peak” hours. And while this might sound like a recipe for culture shock, I’d note that none of my memories of this place occupy a silent, solitary corner in my mind. The navigation of the trains and ferries, graded and ungraded assignments, visa requirements and non-traditional modes of transit form an essential component of the Marshall Scholar experience. The best part of studying here, for me, has been the opportunity to befriend 40 of the most genuinely kind and interesting Americans that I’ve ever met.
For the non-Marshall readers, whom I’ve been told are the target audience for this post, the MACC and the AMS reimburse a series of discounted travel passes, trips to London, and other ways to make visiting your classmates living in Edinburg, London, Oxford, Reading, or elsewhere as easy as possible. You’re encouraged to take a full account of the country, and my class has been to Scottish rugby matches together, drunk snakebite over pool tables, snuck into formal halls, gotten piercings in Brighton, eaten Chinese food closer to the Atlantic than the Thames, stuffed olive trees into cabs, and gone on roundabout adventures in search of hipster wine.
Beyond views of Regent’s Park, the images I conjure in my head of England are often through the window of a train pulling into a station, or the green-gray blur of countryside slipping past the window seat in the back of a northbound Great Western car. The emotions I remember are the excitement of meeting a friend coming into Kings Cross or the surprise of discovering someone has crossed the whole island to surprise me on my birthday. Despite the UK’s culture of inconvenience, it is generally a pretty easy place to get around. You don’t need a car or even a bike, just a few free hours and the determination to see a friend for a drink on the other side of the country. In other circumstances, I’m sure I’d take the time to understand the archaic system that moderates peak versus off-peak train times, but the Marshall community is a good one with which to get a little lost or consider taking the slow train to extend your chance to have a good conversation. Although our time here is growing short, I’m thankful for the opportunity to spend another few months of wandering with good friends in a faraway place before heading home to start earnestly the real work of our lives.
’17 Marshall Scholar
University College London/University of Oxford – Marshall Thanksgiving 2017