Erika Mayer: Learning how to live in the U.K.

BY ERIKA MAYER

Published May 23, 2010

My mom always told me that first impressions are really important: “Wrinkles and a poor handshake do not make a good impression.” And London — one of the most amazing cities in the world — has extended its arm and given me a really bad handshake.

My family and I lived in Indonesia for three years during my preteen years, so I’m no stranger to extended stays outside the United States. So after living in the largest Muslim country in the world, I expected that adjusting to London would be a walk in the park. What I didn’t realize is that it’s a lot harder for my family to support me from across the ocean, and that makes this English-speaking country seem very foreign.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I’m not going to give up on London just yet. I had rocky starts with people who turned out to be some of my best friends. But for a city with such awesome reviews, I’ve been disappointed with my first encounter.

The first British accent was exciting, even though it was far from the first one I’ve heard in my life. I had to stop myself from being mesmerized by the grandmotherly woman sitting across the aisle on the plane. But from there, the enchantment ended.

Heathrow Airport is very confusing, and it has little to offer. Granted, if I hadn’t spent six hours there waiting for the rest of my group to land, I might’ve enjoyed my visit a bit more. If my first lesson of study abroad was to avoid total assimilation, the second was to be patient. But a grumbling stomach — there’s no food in the arrivals terminal — makes that a little difficult.

Once out of the airport, I was struck with the startling realization that London is dirty. Really dirty. In all my pre-travel excitement, I pictured the city as both a gleaming metropolis and beacon of culture and cleanliness to the wide-eyed tourist.

Reality: 1, Erika: 0.

Yes, it was naïve of me to create this mental image. But I can’t say anyone ever prepared me for what it would actually be like. While the city is filled with charm and old buildings, I’m covered in black smudges by the end of the day.

After a shower and some food, however, I started to see the city differently. With my clothes put away, a working blow dryer and a fresh outlook, things didn’t seem so bad anymore. Pubs spilling over with locals, music playing: The city had the buzz I initially expected from London. A regular party town where you can drink on the street — what more can you ask for?

But now, as I write this column in the middle of the night, I realize how utterly in over my head I am. Nothing around me is familiar, and that is made even worse by how similar things are to home. It’s the little things — like no flat sheet on the bed — that trip me up. Not to mention the fact my body clock is so out of whack that I’m up at 3 a.m. trying to stave off a panic attack. The mercurial changes of acclimation are the worst part of adjusting to my new location.

Lesson three of studying abroad is that no matter how much I thought I prepared myself, nothing could get me ready for the homesickness. Right now, I just want to go home to my family and friends. Eight weeks seems like a ridiculously long time. We were told all kinds of unimportant information at orientations and talks before we left, but no one told me what I’m supposed to do when I can’t even make it through the first 24 hours.

Everything here is so similar to home, but at the same time frustratingly different. Everyone speaks English, drives the same cars and pretty much eats the same food. The bathrooms are almost the same, but then figuring out how to work the shower is harder than taking the LSAT. I can talk to my family pretty much like I would at home, but I’m living completely alone. It’s very unsettling.

In all my travels, I have never felt this way when entering a country. It’s like I skipped the excitement part and went straight to the freaking out. Though things are rough now, it’s only the first day and I’m sure that things will get better. The program suggests I immerse myself in the local culture, but I think a little taste of home — perhaps some Starbucks — and a good night’s sleep will get me back on track.

Erika Mayer can be reached at elmayer@umich.edu.