how can i fit in here?

FEBRUARY 2014

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LONDON – I have been in London for four weeks now. A month. Hard to believe, right? This is a strange time. It’s that time where I think I’ve been in this city long enough to understand what’s going on, but I still feel somewhat out of place. As if I’ve walked into my house and all my furniture is moved an inch from where it was. It’s not enough to startle me, or for me to even realize right away, but it’s enough to make me notice how my usual bubble of a comfort zone has vanished under the nonstop London rain.

My new friends and I joke that it’s like freshman year all over again – we’ve all been thrown into a new environment complete with new people, a new place and a new protocol. Lots of newness. But it’s not very shiny or fun to unwrap. It’s a hesitant pull each time we receive a present from our new town, unsure if we want to know what’s underneath. It’s usually irritated stares from Brits on the Tube as our infamous “inside voices” echo throughout the silent cabs, the discovery that pedestrians don’t have the right of way here or the ever-present knowledge that we are living in the most expensive city in the world.

So I return to my freshman year. How did I find solace then, in that bumbling and confused sort of time? When wearing my lanyard around my neck was somehow a signal to the greater population of my ineptitude and trekking through the Logan in packs of 20 garnered the taunting yells of “Freshmen!” from the older crowd (but really, not that much older). I learned quickly that there were certain ways of masking my youthful identity from the more seasoned of students.

The solace that I found, however, did not come from passing myself off as an older Bulldog. The joys and laughs of freshman year came from the people I was around – my hallmates and roommate and even those people that hold the door open so long before you’d naturally reach it that you have to run to receive their intended kindness.

I learned freshman year that finding comfort amid the cloud of uncertainty comes, not from the desired shedding of your freshman skin, but from the people-to-people connections that you make. My experience became defined by the people I surrounded myself with and not by the first-year label stamped upon my forehead. And the more I laughed and cried and lived, the more the big red “freshman” sign disappeared and the more the Gonzaga community became my community.

So it is here. In London, I have become only too aware of the big red “American” sign plastered across my face and clothes and accent. It’s hard not to feel out of place and lost (especially when the streets twist and turn for no rhyme or reason). It’s tempting to ditch my comfortable American garb for black tights, a black dress, and a pair of heels – if only to fit in here. And while fitting in is not a bad thing to desire, fitting in if only to fit in is.

Trying to become the culture that you are thrown into is a completely natural response. It is why freshman stop wearing their lanyards around their neck and start going out in smaller groups. But this sort of trying rarely leads to true assimilation. Culture is much deeper than what people wear or how they speak or what they look like. Culture is who people are.

Discovering London has been a lot like freshman year. I thought the key to being a real Londoner was to quiet down while riding the Tube, look right before crossing the road, and order my coffee with “skinny” milk, not “nonfat”. But the times when I’ve felt most at home here are not the ones where I am mimicking, they are the ones where I am living. The ones where I am discussing current events, asking genuine questions, even complaining about the hour-late bus with the people around me.

It is in those moments that the big red “American” sign dissolves under the London rain and home is here and I am a part of the culture because I am a part of the people. That’s what I found freshman year and that’s what I’ve found here. A home. And all the rest will follow.

feeling fashion backward amongst the fashion forward.

JANUARY 2014

Luella's Guide To English Style

LONDON – I bought a new coat today. Some call it peer pressure, I call it assimilation. You see, in London they do this thing called style. It’s chic and cultural and… completely foreign to me. And this is coming from a person who once called herself stylish. That is until I landed in London and my eyes were opened to a fashion phenomenon.

Here, fashion and style are not mere compilations of clothing – they are an extension of one’s very self. People use their style to tell a story to their city. Stories of history, rebellion, society, monarchy and art are visible as pieces from haute couture houses and charity shops alike march down the centuries old streets.

And it was in this setting that I found myself. At Gonzaga, going to school in a black trench coat, jeans and boots would be little cause for alarm. In fact, some sweatpants-clad soul might even ask why I’m so dressed up today. In London, I might get asked just how late I overslept.

To my first fashion marketing and merchandising class, I wore a prim green dress with a plaid shirt layered over it – my version of classy meets edgy. My professor referred to me as “Checkered Shirt Girl” (a disappointment, indeed, but certainly not as bad as “Stripey”, the girl in a striped shirt behind me).

Some may take offense at my professor’s words, but I see them as a cheeky reminder of just how important fashion is to the English. It isn’t something us casual Americans can simply “do” – no, instead we must watch and learn. To study abroad in Paris, one must learn French. To study abroad in London, one must learn Fashion.

So I grabbed the book my housemate’s mother had given me for Christmas, Luella’s Guide To English Style, and set out to learn. It took many park benches, coffee shop visits and late nights reading in bed, but two weeks and 326 pages later the book was finally finished.

And what did I learn, you ask? What any proper British bird would know from birth – that English style is as much a part of English culture as any overly photographed landmark in this city. It is a tradition in and of itself. The quintessential British traditions of irony, dark humour, class and satire shape and guide the London wardrobe through those formative years of adolescence and required school uniforms into the defined and individualized style that adulthood brings for the Londoner.

While in American college culture we may scoff at this kind of focus on something as “petty” as fashion – preferring to ace our tests in yoga pants and North Faces, thank you very much – it is worth exploring the reasons why fashion holds such high esteem in English culture to gain a more complete awareness on the issue.

Fashion as an industry began in Paris, where designers – then called couturiers – were hired to create new styles for nobility to wear. The first recognized couturier was an Englishman and from the 18th century on, fashion became a staple of European life. How shocking it was for Europeans when, in the flurry of World War II, American designers stole the spotlight from the inventors of fashion and became leaders of style in the 1940s and 50s.

Not ones to let Americans tell them how to dress, the English commanded attention in the 1960s by subverting fashion-as-they-knew it and made style a two-way street – quite literally. Designers were looking to the youthful streets for inspiration and standout Brits like Mary Quant and Zandra Rhodes reclaimed fashion as a for-the-people and by-the-people entity. Fashion became individualized for the English, a way to tell others who you were and what you stood for. It was both political and personal – a statement made via plaid miniskirts and collared dresses.

And so it still stands to this day. The importance of fashion to the English is more than a vapid obsession, it is a part of their history and culture. Every day, Londoners open their closets and continue the tradition of style as a personal mode of self-expression. London is my home now. It is where I sleep and ride buses and miss buses and walk around and study and live. I am living its culture. So I bought a new coat today.

british as a second language.

JANUARY 2014

big ben.

LONDON – We all sat down in our individual desks, nerves as palpable as the rainy chill we just endured on the walk to class. Our hair still slightly damp and our clothes smelling of the crisp outdoors, we sat in the dull classroom with open notebooks, a leisurely demeanor and pens at the ready. Our professor entered with a casual walk and a fedora atop his middle-aged head. The this-is-not-normal alert rang through my thoughts – as I’m sure it did others’ – as our professor asked us to ditch his title and call him simply, Justin. I am certainly not in Kansas anymore. Nor Spokane for that matter.

Noting the absence of many of our cohorts (due to East Coast flight delays), Justin suggested that we simply have a little chat. Not about class, the syllabus or even studying abroad, but about him as a person, us as people, London as a city. It was fantastic. Before I knew it, the three-hour time limit that I viewed as a prison sentence melted away into laughter, genuine questions and actual learning. Even if it was mostly learning which area pubs were the most worthwhile. I swear, in London that counts as a major of its own.

Right before class was scheduled to be dismissed, Justin handed out the syllabus. Like clockwork, the flipping of papers could be heard as students scoured the pages noting responsibilities and tests, papers and percentages. As if through a haze of mental calculations (“What do I need to get an A on this and even out this potential grade…?”) our professor’s voice broke through the thick sheet of thoughts and spoke to us, “I’ll bet you’re all trying to figure out the most efficient way to get an A in this class, huh?” Our heads snapped up, ready to extract the pearls of wisdom he was surely going to hand us.

Instead, he shook his head slightly and told us, “You are Americans.” He needn’t red and white spangles or fifty white stars on a blue background to alert him of our country of origin (not to mention our dastardly plain accents), but only our learned instinct to focus on grades and assignments and deadlines.

Indeed, on one side of the paper, our syllabus outlined exciting events such as learning about the mystery of Jack the Ripper, the complexities of nationality in the UK and Republic of Ireland, the entrancing notion of the modern monarchy, while the other side had two lines mentioning our final exam and a 3000-word essay. Guess which side us Americans flipped to?

The British educational system is much different than the United States one, our professor explained. While in America, we strive for As and need constant direction and instruction, in the UK, students are much more self-sufficient and are encouraged to deal with uncertainty in the classroom. Because of this, British university students become less focused on letter grades and more motivated toward turning in their best, independent work.

Here, the same instruction on an essay could yield a classroom of different responses and thought while, at our home universities in America, the detailed and specific instructions that our professors give returns such a narrow field, that it seems as though we are in competition with each other. And how do we measure who is on top? Through our grades, of course. To the British, success is not measured through letters and percentages, but through the effort, time and pride that one puts into a project.

The normal coursework given in British classes are simply one large research essay and one final exam. That’s it. The ample time given is meant to help guide your essay, as the paper should be worked on all throughout the semester. Here, learning – genuine learning – is encouraged in order that our essays are well informed and of at least some personal interest.

This is not to say that grades and GPAs and deadlines should be ignored. We Americans aren’t completely dull. More that the British offer an interesting look at how university, learning and education in general can be viewed from a different lens. And to adopt their lens would be to learn something new and complete a picture from which something is missing. Indeed, truth is in no one place.

So this semester, I will set down my pen and stop writing furiously each time the PowerPoint clicks onward a new set of information. I will note the meaning of the words on the screen instead of merely collections of letters. My focus will be not on grades (Ooh, I cringed still when I wrote that), but on creativity, truly absorbing information and enjoying class – an experiment of sorts, a meshing of two cultures.

I am an American in London, after all.

it appears as though i’m back.

it’s may 28th and i came back may 15th. almost a fortnight has passed since i was in europe – prancing about london having the time of my life. but i’m back in spokane now and, while it was definitely an adjustment, i feel at home again.

believe it or not, i also was writing a column whilst i was studying and working in london. i’m going to use that as an excuse as to why i wasn’t posting on here… at all.

i do think that what i had to say weekly was reflective on the study abroad experience as a whole – i went through extreme highs and extreme lows which, in my discussions with other study abroaders, is a fairly normal emotional experience.

i’ll be posting those articles here over the next fourteen days along with a picture or two and hopefully you all can get a broader view of how i experienced living and working and traveling around the majestic city of london.

cheers darlings.

xx

mary.

on my walk to work, the city at my feet.

on my walk to work, the city at my feet.