Skip to Main Content

Brighton, England

Tess McRae

USAC England: Brighton – Undergraduate Courses

Major/Minor: English / Creative Writing

Brighton Playlist • Brighton Playlist Lyrics Guide

May 2, 2020

Today I have been in quarantine for 49 days, which is exactly as many days as I got to spend studying abroad in Brighton, England.

A lot can happen in 49 days. I know that twice around now.

I wrote what ended up being my final in-country blog on March 9th, my 44th day in Brighton. The very next day, March 10th (Day 45), I had the honor of taking over the UMBClife Instagram page to share what a day in my life abroad was like. After documenting my early-morning Creative Curiosity class on the University of Brighton’s City campus, my friend Jo and I embarked on a grand adventure to take the UMBC community on a tour of the best of Brighton. We walked to the tip of Brighton Palace Pier and back, poked around The Lanes, grabbed dinner at one of our favorite downtown restaurants (Itsu), and stopped by Brighton Beach before ending the night with a bus ride back to the Falmer campus.

Sure, the streets and shops were emptier than usual that day… but I just chalked it up to the harsh weather. As aware as I was of the threat it posed to my time in Brighton, I was in denial about the COVID-19 outbreak steadily worsening around the world. 

 

But then everything changed, and I couldn’t deny it anymore. A few hours after I wrapped up my takeover, UMBC announced the impending closure of campus and the cancellation of all in-person events for the remainder of the semester; it was with this news that I really started to worry about the wellbeing of my friends and family back home. The next day, March 11th (Day 46), which I spent entirely in my flat to recuperate after a busy start to the week, the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic. That evening the President introduced air travel restrictions between Europe (excluding the UK) and the US to take effect within the next few days. And in the early morning hours of March 12th (Day 47), UMBC’s Education Abroad Office made the difficult but critical decision to immediately suspend all European study abroad programs and recall students, and I scrambled to book an emergency plane ticket home. Just like that I only had 56 hours left in Brighton, not 12 weeks… and the world as I knew it was ending, fast. My anxiety and sadness was so vast I couldn’t find myself in it. I was numb.

 

Earlier in the month some friends and I had been thinking of going back into London to see another show on March 12th (Day 47), and on March 13th (Day 48) I had an assignment due for my Image and Text module that I was looking forward to completing. Instead I spent these two days frantically packing my suitcases, shopping around town for snacks and supplies for the plane, and saying difficult goodbyes to the many people and places I had finally come to call home. On the evening of March 12th, my Musical Theatre Society friends kindly threw me a farewell party at Purezza, a vegan pizza place I had been meaning to check out. And on the evening of March 13th, Jo and I met up with some of her friends at Brighton Beach to watch the sun sink over the sea. (Sadly there wasn’t much of a spectacle in the sky because it was too cloudy, but we still had a nice time!) These were my final moments of normalcy, both in Brighton and in the pre-COVID-19 world, and they were beautiful and heartbreaking all at once; there were a few moments where my shock gave way to tears of both gratitude and grief.

On the morning of March 14th (Day 49) I woke up at 5am and dragged my suitcases to Falmer Station, where I caught a train out of Brighton for the last time and began my journey home. From London Gatwick Airport I flew to Reykjavik for a brief layover. Then I flew to Dulles International Airport, one of the 13 airports in the US accepting travellers from Europe due to the restrictions. (I’ve never been so grateful to live close to Washington, D.C.!) Throughout my trip I saw many people wearing personal protective equipment, but no one really observed social distancing guidelines. At London Gatwick passengers sat side by side at the gate; in Reykjavik we crammed ourselves into tightly-packed shuttles between the airport and our planes; at Dulles we crowded in sloppy lines awaiting our health screening at Customs. Of course I was very anxious and uncomfortable through that entire process, knowing how dangerous international travel might end up being for me and my family if I were to come in contact with the virus. But when we passed through Immigration and made it onto the other side, the airport was chillingly empty… and that was the moment it all became real.

Luckily I made it home safely (as did everyone in the Brighton Spring 2020 cohort after USAC’s global recall), and I didn’t contract COVID-19 during my mandatory two week self-isolation period, and now I have been in quarantine for five extra weeks beyond that (and who knows for how much longer). So here I am at Day 49….

 

And a lot can happen in 49 days. I learned that before. I’m learning it again.

I am very glad to be back home. I missed it here with all my heart, and I’m so fortunate to have safety, company, and access to virtual support (among many, many other privileges!) during this crisis. But my adjustment has been hard. I went from working at the desk in my first-ever private bedroom to working in the backseat of our family van in the garage, the only place in our house where I can actually have privacy. I’ve been outdoors only two times since the quarantine started, while in Brighton I was used to being outside (by the sea, no less!) almost every day. My Creative Curiosity and British Culture modules were effectively gutted by the shift to distance learning, and it’s been challenging for me to keep up with the time difference for my Image and Text module (we still meet at 11:30am GMT, which is now 6:30am for me). It’s also been harder to stay in touch with the friends I made in Brighton, some of whom were international students themselves and had to return to their home countries (e.g. South Africa; Australia) where the time difference between us is even more exaggerated.

 

Even though I didn’t experience British culture as terribly different from American culture — and even though both cultures are likely to be forever impacted by COVID-19! — dealing with reverse culture shock has been a messy process I’m still working through. During my first few weeks home I just wanted to forget that any of this ever happened, so I refused to think about Brighton or do anything Brighton-related because it was too painful. But these days I can’t seem to stop thinking about it. When Brighton is on my mind of course I’m grateful, but I’m also prone to spells of wistfulness that evolve into anger and sadness; it’s hard to shake the reminder that technically I’m supposed to be there instead of here. (I’m looking forward to June 7th, which would have been my first day back in the US, so that this will no longer be the case and I can get some much-needed closure and relief.) It’s going to take me a long time to heal, and I’m trying to be okay with that.

 

And yet: a lot can happen in 49 days. I encountered many, many challenges during my brief time abroad, but I was able to persevere: I made Brighton my home. I believed in my story and in the stories of others, and I learned what magic of my life I can never lose no matter how “far” I am, and I filled my heart with love. I learned how to Be beside the seaside. And not even a global pandemic I have to ride out in the dark garage can take that strength and growth away from me.

My study abroad experience transformed me for the better. It burst me into bloom. I will be learning from it for the rest of my life, just as I was learning from it before I even made it to Brighton. That gorgeous town and its sweet sea air will be with me wherever I go. And it will be waiting for me, even richer than before, when I come back someday.

 

I’m deeply thankful that I get to be alive right now, at this difficult but important time, with the people around me, as I am — and that I got to do that on two different continents. And I’m deeply thankful to be back at UMBC, where we are always together even when we’re apart. I know that twice around, now. I will never forget it.

 

To everyone I met during my 7 weeks in Brighton, and to Brighton itself — and to everyone who supported me throughout this journey, in part by reading this blog! — thank you, thank you, thank you. For the ferocious hope, and all the rest. Until we meet (in person) again.

 

Sending love from Baltimore to Brighton… and to wherever you are.

March 9, 2020

I’ve been in Brighton for just over six weeks (almost a month and a half!) as of today. And… I finally, FINALLY feel at home here! I was determined to get moving after the bout of stillness I wrote about in my last post, and I’ve succeeded with flying colors; the past few weeks have been wonderful and overflowing. I’ve gone on a lot of adventures — some big and some small, some with other people and some alone, some familiar and some new, some planned and some spontaneous. Even the days that I spend entirely within close proximity to my dorm are days where I am learning, growing, and healing. The modules I’m taking are nourishing my passions in profound and exciting new ways, even when class gets cancelled because of the UCU strikes. There is a map of Brighton in my head now, and I know how to move myself around it better every time I go into town. And (perhaps most importantly!) I’ve made a lot of great friends since my last entry, and I feel a steady sense of connection and belonging in the social spaces I occupy on campus. I’m building the beach house. I’m finding the people to fill it. I‘m living my dream: the existence I have carved out for myself here is one I love at last! I am now certain that this is going to be a part of my life I will remember fondly despite and because of the challenges I’ve experienced, and a place I will continue to learn from long after I’ve left it (just as I was learning from it before I even came here).

 

Here are some of the adventures I’ve been on lately:

A couple weeks ago I made a solo trip into town to attend the Brighton Vegan Festival (pictured below). I thoroughly enjoyed the long seaside walk to and from my bus stop and the hotel where the event was hosted. My experience of the festival itself was unfortunately lackluster — I got there towards the end just as things were winding down, in part because of unanticipated complications with buying my ticket — but I was so proud of myself for getting there and trying it out. I was especially excited that I got to see my first Brighton starling murmuration on my walk back to the bus stop!

Since I last wrote, my cohort and I have now attended two field trips to different places in Brighton for our British Culture module. Two weeks ago we took a bus downtown to visit the Royal Pavilion (first three pictures), a favorite holiday residence of King George IV. We did a guided tour around the bottom floor of the palace and then explored the upper floors on our own. The interior and exterior design of the palace mixes styles and aesthetics from England, India, and China. It was fascinating to see how these different cultural influences blended together in each room we visited, and to learn about the tumultuous events that resulted in some of the objects in the palace being there (or, in some cases, not being there anymore!). The next day I actually came back to the Royal Pavilion area with my new friend Jo, and we explored the beautiful Brighton Museum & Art Gallery (last two pictures) right next door.

Last week’s session of British Culture was a little less involved, but no less glamorous: we went on a guided tour of the American Express (Amex) stadium, which is practically on our campus! I’ve never really been into sports, but I greatly enjoyed being in the stadium and learning about its history. We got to check out top tier views from various high-end private boxes and sit at the mics in the conference room. At the end of the tour we even got to parade onto the field like the players in the Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club do (musical accompaniment included!).

This past Thursday I went into London with a few friends from Musical Theatre Society to see a matinee performance of & Juliet, a new musical on the West End, at the beautiful Shaftesbury Theatre. It’s one of the best shows I think I’ve ever seen in my life, and I’ve had the cast recording on repeat since I made it back to Brighton! I feel so fortunate that I got to see it, especially as there are currently no plans to bring it to America as of yet. After we left the theatre we got dinner at Market Hall Victoria, a three-storey food court that is nothing short of chaotic. Even though the venue was loud and crowded, I really enjoyed the meal we had there!

 

On Saturday (yesterday), my cohort and I went on another East Sussex field trip. First we saw the beautiful Bodiam Castle , where we got to cross a moat bridge, meander about the grounds, and poke around in almost all of the towers. I was surprised at how much of the castle remains in tact despite all of the strife it has gone through over the last 600 years. I had a lot of fun exploring with some of my friends in the group, and the castle was breathtaking from every angle! Our second and final stop was Rye, a charming medieval town. My friends and I spent basically all of our time there eating (first a delicious lunch at a Turkish restaurant called Layla, and then some tea and cake at the Old Grain Store to finish it off), so we didn’t really do a lot of exploring… but I still had a great time.

I’m waiting on a group photo from Bodiam Castle and should hopefully have it by Monday morning, so if I’m able to get it to you I’ll let you know!!

 

But out of all of these amazing experiences, my absolute favorite was this: two weeks ago Jo and I took a ride on the British Airways (BA) i360 for a gorgeous view of Brighton from 138 meters (450 feet) above ground. It was the best possible way to celebrate the progress I have made over the last few weeks. From this sky-high view and in such good company, I felt the same magical spark I felt the first time I ever heard about Brighton in that study abroad advising meeting (pretty much a year ago to that day!). I realized just how much of this town I know and love already, and maybe always knew, and maybe always loved. And I saw just how much I have yet to see, and was very grateful for all the seeing still to come.

Except… I’m not sure how much of that seeing I’ll actually get to do. The past few weeks have also shed some light on a very real threat to my time here: the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak, which first erupted in China a few weeks before I even left home, is getting worse every day all over the world. Many American colleges and program providers, UMBC and USAC included, have pulled the plug on Spring 2020 study abroad programs in China, Italy, and South Korea in order to bring students back to the United States. Because this is an international emergency, these same colleges and program providers are in intense conversations about potentially cancelling others around the world if need be, including those that would happen in Summer and Fall sessions. As of the beginning of last week, some institutions actually started to do “global recalls” (requiring everyone studying abroad to return home no matter where they are located) following guidance from the CDC. If things continue to escalate in the UK — which they seem to be doing more every day; as of my writing this there are now 209 cases here — it is likely that our time abroad will be cut short.

 

Maybe someone somewhere in the world predicted this, but we certainly didn’t. Everything is in limbo, in jeopardy. No one knows what’s going to happen or when; everyone is anxious. These are difficult times. And this is difficult to write about.

 

In the first half of February there were actually five confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Brighton (all five of them recovered, thankfully, because the outbreak was isolated and well contained). But the amount of coronavirus talk I heard and participated in then was nowhere near what it seems to be now. My sense is that most of the conversation and subsequent panic is happening on social media, but I’m observing it in subtle ways in town too. There are “Catch It, Kill It, Bin It” posters from the NHS on almost every bus stop and billboard encouraging the use of tissues and advising everyone about how to properly dispose of them. (Those have been up since I got here, but I feel like I’ve noticed many more of them these days.) I’ve seen a few people wearing face masks and latex gloves on buses , in the streets, and even on campus. I don’t shop often in a lot of the most common grocery stores like Sainsbury’s and Aldi, but I’ve heard from those who do that canned food and sanitary products are hard to come by because people are trying to stock up on them.

 

Maybe I should be more worried about the possibility of myself or my friends here contracting COVID-19 (and believe me, I am!!). But right now the much scarier thing to me — and to everyone in the cohort, I think it’s safe to say — is the possibility that this chapter of our lives will come to an abrupt and unanticipated end. Of course we were always going to have to say goodbye to this place eventually, but I never would have thought that the ending might come so soon or suddenly. I’ve been walking around Brighton with a heavy heart. Everything I do here, no matter how mundane, is even more precious now because my time here is just so vulnerable and uncertain (which is sort of a beautiful way to look at it, I think, but also a heartbreaking one).

We’re being advised to just carry on as normal until we are instructed to do otherwise, which is hard to do. I feel a strong sense of urgency to complete as much of my study abroad bucket list as soon I possibly can (and I should be checking some items off over the next few days, coronavirus permitting)… but that’s hard to do, too. We don’t know how bad things in the UK will need to be before we might have to leave, or what will happen to us if we do. It’s very scary not to know.

 

I’m deeply grateful for the time I’ve had here, no matter what the circumstances of my departure will end up being. I know my “dream house” can’t be washed away by this looming wave even if I won’t be able to finish building or filling it the way I was supposed to. I have come so far in such a short time. I will learn from and treasure this experience and the people who are a part of it for the rest of my life, regardless of how it ends.

 

But… I so hope that ending is a long way off. I’m not ready to say goodbye.

 

Sending warm wishes and sweet sea air from Brighton to Baltimore.

February 19, 2020 

Three and a half weeks is not a lot of time to find home in a new place… and I’ve been figuring that out the hard way. Since my last update, I’ve definitely done some settling in. My sense of direction on the University of Brighton’s campus(es) and around town is developing at light speed, and I’m starting to settle into the dorm routine at last: I finally figured out how to do my laundry efficiently, and I survived my first ever room inspection! But I’m still very much in a transition period, and that has been (and is, still!) rough. (Sometimes it has me wondering if the transition period will ever end.) Life here is starting to get more nuanced and complicated… which is already hard on its own, but is made harder by my being a) introverted and b) homesick. Things like orienting myself to my modules (classes), socializing with others in my cohort, and taking basic care of myself have been challenging for me lately. For example, last week I missed my alarm for two consecutive days and ended up sleeping through important things I’d had scheduled in the morning, including a get-to-know-you lesson I had really been looking forward to in one of my modules!

On the evening of Saturday the 8th, the pressure I was under reached a breaking point: I had a panic attack. It was a jarring and unfortunate setback during a period where I have been trying my best to work through my anxiety and have even been successful on many occasions. As a result, I spent most of my third week here — almost all of it, to be honest! — holed up in my room, just trying to recover and “keep still”. I figured, as I am wont to do as a major introvert, that hiding from the strangest parts of this strange new world would give me a decent shot at feeling more settled in it, and therefore within myself. But I know, in part because of what I’ve experienced over the past three and a half weeks, that although stillness seems like a safe option it is ultimately much more harmful than it is healing. It’s like being out in the cold (whether you’re surrounded by cold air or cold water!) — you’ll warm up a lot faster, and hold on to that warmth much better, if you move your body instead of curling in on yourself. Plus, hiding in my room means that I’m inhibiting myself and those around me from developing meaningful connections that will allow us to become a cohesive community… which is really, really important to have in a strange and unfamiliar place.

My homesickness funk has been harder on me than I anticipated it would be when I arrived here, and the resulting consequences have been unfortunate. That being said, I’m doing my best not to let this get in my way: to maintain hope that my experience will get better in time, and to treat myself with patience and forgiveness when I stumble. Whenever I look back on my early days in Brighton, I am definitely going to remember the many challenges I encountered. But I also want to remember the things I was able to experience and accomplish despite and because of them. There have certainly been some real glimmers of goodness that have come out of my time here so far… and I’m sure there will be a lot of goodness growing from those seeds as my journey continues.

I spent (and have been spending) a lot more time in town than I did during my first week. It hasn’t really been “leisure time” — usually I just need to run some errands with friends from my cohort, or I have somewhere I’m supposed to be for class or an orientation — but I’m still enjoying it a lot. I’ve even made two solo trips into town because I have a class on UoB’s City campus on Tuesday mornings! It’s definitely been lonely and even scary at times, and the decision to do it in the first place may be a little reckless given that I have never really been alone in a city before until this experience… but I have really been enjoying myself for the most part, and I’m developing significant confidence as a temporary Brighton resident! My favorite thing to do when I’m alone in town is to venture down to the beach. UoB’s free bus conveniently drops off right at the seafront, and when I go on Tuesday morning I have practically the whole strand to myself. There is no sand on Brighton’s shores — just an endless carpet of the most gorgeous pebbles and shells I’ve ever seen. It’s usually freezing cold, but TOTALLY worth it. I can’t believe I get to be beside this seaside! (See, I told you that phrase comes up a lot.)

I’m excited that Brighton is starting to get a little more familiar even though it still doesn’t feel like home. Lately I’ve been relying less on Google Maps and more on my own memory of where I’ve been before, which is pretty cool; I know how to navigate quickly between a lot of the major spots in town now, and I’m pretty much used to the public transportation (including the traffic being on the other side of the road, thank goodness — this is a huge step up from my second week, when I was almost hit by a car while running across the street to chase after a bus!). The city is hectic, especially when the weather is… doing its thing. But I’m proud of myself for venturing out of my room to explore this beautiful mess, even if I risk losing the things that keep me warm while doing it (like one of my gloves! Goodbye forever, glove….)

I’ve also had a lot of exciting opportunities to meet students from all over the world over the last few weeks. As of writing this entry I have now attended two sessions of Conversation Club — a gathering where international students who are learning to speak English get to develop their skills in conversations with fluent English speakers, which allows both parties to learn about each other’s cultures in the process. During my first Conversation Club meeting, I had a great discussion (pictured below) with my German friend Jana and two Chinese students, Yu and Jiarui, about the ways we approach food in our home cultures, and how that is similar to or different than the culture in England. At the meeting this past Monday, I compared and contrasted healthcare systems outside of the UK with students from Saudi Arabia, China, and India. I’ve never participated in a program like this before, and I’m having a lot of fun building relationships and learning about places I have yet to visit! (Fun fact: One of UMBC’s own, Kara Gavin, spearheaded the initiative to make Conversation Club an opportunity that American students could participate in when she studied abroad at UoB last semester. Thanks, Kara!!! #UMBCproud)

On Wednesday the 5th, I attended an orientation for new international students at UoB. Even though it was very overwhelming at times, I put myself out there and tried to meet as many new people as possible. I talked to and toured the city with new short-term students from the Netherlands, Sweden, Spain, Germany, France, and Canada among several others. It turns out that the Canadian I met has family in Maryland… and her cousin actually goes to UMBC! I didn’t have quite as much in common with the other students besides being in Brighton with them this semester, but I enjoyed hearing their stories about their experiences in their home countries — it gave me a chance to see this new city from their perspectives.

The Spring 2020 semester at UoB started a week later than UMBC’s did, during my second week here. I’m taking three modules: Creative Curiosity, Image & Text, and British Culture (which is a mandatory module required for all students who are studying abroad here on the “short course”; this semester all of the students will be the Americans in my cohort). These modules are going to be AMAZING, and I’m so excited for them to really kick off! However, it has been strange to calibrate myself to the cultural norms in the classroom even though they aren’t terribly different from the way things work back home. From volunteering answers to navigating small group conversations to introducing myself to tutors (professors), it is a lot to figure out all at once. On top of this, I am hyperaware of my American-ness when I’m in class. During all of the introductory lectures I had for my Creative Curiosity and Image & Text modules, the tutors made references to basic British culture and history that I am not familiar with, so I felt like I was a major step behind the other students. There were also many references to American culture and history in these introductory lectures… but all of the British students in my modules seemed to be just as knowledgeable about these as they were about their own, which was surprising to me! Also, I’ve been trying to challenge myself to speak more in class than my bare minimum at home, but it’s harder than usual because I’m very self conscious about my American accent. As soon as I talk people know I’m not from here… which is fine, but it certainly makes it harder to feel like I belong.

I have, though, finally experienced my first thrills of belonging. On Tuesday the 4th I went to UoB’s Re|Freshers’ Fair (pictured below; it’s basically the equivalent of UMBC’s Involvement Fest!) and signed up for a bunch of societies (clubs) on campus. The one I liked the most was the Musical Theatre Society. I love musical theater, but I usually spend more time in the seats than I do on the stage (with 1.5 exceptions!). This society seemed like a promising opportunity to stretch my limits alongside people as friendly and enthusiastic as the students behind the table who helped me sign up. I’ve been to two meetings so far… and they were both AMAZING! Everyone I’ve met there has been so instantly warm, welcoming, and open that I feel like I’ve known them forever. I’m delighted to sense myself genuinely coming out of my shell, and it feels amazing to dance and sing and goof around with everyone else! Last week I decided to register to join (which involved making a small payment — very different from how it works back home!)… so I am now an official, card-carrying member of UoB’s Musical Theatre Society. I’m hopeful that this will be a community I will continue to thrive with throughout my time in Brighton and remain connected to after I leave.

The past few weeks have also included some outside travel. On Saturday the 8th, most of my cohort and a few of the Dutch students journeyed to East Sussex for a group field trip. Our first stop was Beachy Head (first picture below), a dramatic plateau with a complex history. The view over the English Channel was mind-boggling, especially with the wind roaring everywhere we turned, but it was definitely an incredible place to be. Next, we visited the tiny town of Alfriston. A lot of the charm of its usually charming main street was snuffed out because Alfriston is under heavy construction at the moment, but I still had fun poking around in the shops with a small group of people on the trip. Afterwards we stopped for lunch in a pub called The Six Bells. The food was great, and the company was even better (I ate with my friends Carrie and Leaf — second picture below)… but my favorite part was the resident feline friends that joined us in the dining area after our meal! At the end of the day we visited the site of the Battle of Hastings, which is now a town called Battle (third picture below). We explored the Battle Abbey and its grounds, and then I went on a solo excursion to check out the shops on the other side of town. Unfortunately this is where the symptoms of my panic attack started to set in, so I didn’t enjoy my time in Battle as much as I wish I had. But for the most part the East Sussex trip was wonderful, and I appreciated getting to experience some of the scenic attractions England has to offer.

Even though it hasn’t really felt like it with all the time I’ve spent, intentionally or unintentionally, isolated in the melancholy safety of my room, I’m glad that I have managed to plant (or at least be present for the planting of!) a lot of important seeds since I arrived in Brighton. But there is also a significant challenge on the horizon that might threaten those seeds. 74 universities across the UK, including UoB, are about to participate in a series of strikes to dispute pay and working conditions for members of the University and College Union (UCU). There are 14 days of strikes scheduled across four weeks starting this Thursday and lasting until mid-March, with each week’s set of strikes growing more severe and widespread than the last. Although not all staff at UoB will be involved in the strikes — mostly because they can’t afford to lose more pay than they are already losing as is — everyone I have talked to about it is generally supportive of the action. I support the action too, but I’m also disappointed about the way this is working out for my semester abroad. At least one of the three modules I’m taking (Image & Text) is going to be seriously impacted because my tutors are fully participating in the strikes. I’m not quite sure how to feel about all of this, or what I’m supposed to do during the time I would normally have class (do I keep doing the readings anyways???). But one thing I know for sure is that this is a very exciting, tumultuous time to be a student in the UK, and to be in the UK in general. I’m trying to soak it all in through this perspective even though this is a distressing situation. I hope the strikes are effective… and that’s about all I can say for now.

Next week will make a month since I arrived in Brighton. (Which is one of the most mind-boggling sentences I’ve ever written, probably.) My first few weeks in Brighton have not been easy by any means; I still don’t feel at home yet, here or within myself, and I’ve had a lot of unpleasant wake up calls about how much I still have to learn. But… I have also learned a lot so far in a very short amount of time, and that’s something to celebrate and keep reaching for even when it’s hard. I’m also very conscious of the fact that England (and Europe as a whole) is right here at my fingertips, waiting for me to explore it; I know this will not be the case forever. “Keeping still” enables me to get by in Brighton without really living. But I am here to live in Brighton, so it’s important that I feel like it, too! So, for the second time now, a note to myself and a general piece of advice for anyone who might find themselves in a similar situation someday: Don’t hide in your room (or… try your best not to). You never know what seeds might grow from the strangeness, or how you might warm up to it, or how it might warm up to you, if you just keep moving.

I’m going to try to keep doing that. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Sending warm wishes and sweet sea air from Brighton to Baltimore!

February 4th, 2020

I didn’t think it was possible to overpack and underpack at the same time. I thought wrong.

 

Hours before my flight out of the US on the evening of January 25th, my family very generously helped me pay the extra fee for my oversized luggage. (Yikes.) On the plane to Reykjavik, Iceland for my layover, I could barely fit my carry-on suitcase in the overhead container… and I actually had to take things out of my backpack and keep them on my lap in order to squeeze it beneath the seat in front of me. Lugging three giant bags from plane to train to taxi once I made it to Gatwick Airport in London was as chaotic as it was exciting. And it took me hours to unload everything I’d brought with me into my dorm at the University of Brighton, where I’ll spend the next chapter of my life.

In anxious moments throughout my journey to Brighton (of which there were unfortunately many — I don’t fly well!), one of the things I kept reminding myself was that I was pretty much bringing my whole world with me in my two suitcases and my giant backpack. But I’ve realized that there is just no way that’s true: I underpacked just as much as, if not more than, I overpacked. Of course there are the items I could have added to my luggage, but simply forgot to bring or consciously chose to leave behind. But then there are all the things I couldn’t have possibly carried across 3,657 miles, but miss terribly — like the piano in my basement, and my bed, and my favorite spots on UMBC’s campus, and my friends and family….

Yep. You guessed it. I’m homesick! Yay!!! (Sarcasm. Not yay. It totally sucks.)

I’ve been in Brighton for a week now. Don’t get me wrong: “Oh, I Do Love to Be Beside the Seaside!” (I keep seeing that everywhere here.) The University of Brighton’s Falmer campus is tiny and beautiful, and the people I’ve met here are wonderfully kind and caring. (I can’t quite say the same about the mischievous, food-snatching seagulls, though. Sound like any mischievous, food-snatching friends we know, Retrievers?) Riding buses and trains is an exhilarating adventure every time I do it. The town itself — especially the waterfront!! — is just as charming and colorful as I’ve been dreaming about for months. The air is cool and fresh and sweet, especially when there is fog rolling in from the sea, and even when the wind is roaring… so I never mind the cold. The sky on campus sometimes glows orange at night because of the giant American Express Community Stadium (“the Amex”) right beside us, and songbirds chirp outside my window even in the dark. The weather isn’t too stellar (as is to be expected in England, I guess), but I’ve never seen greener grass in my life… and especially not in the middle of winter!

But… even though it technically is now, it just doesn’t feel like home. Not yet, anyways.

 

I really hate to say that. I wish so badly that it did. I know it will feel that way eventually; I know I just have to be patient. I also know that I’ve only been here for a week, and it’s natural to have trouble settling in at first. I’ve been trying to trust the process, but that has been, and currently is, very difficult to do. It’s easier for me to trust the process when my surroundings are familiar. And it’s hard to go from a place where you matter and belong so very much to a place where you know no one at all….

 

I think I’m dealing with a major case of culture shock, which is also natural. But it’s not so much from living in another country with a different culture than mine (it doesn’t feel all that different yet, though). The biggest culture shock I’ve experienced is actually just the shock of staying in a residence hall with other students! This is my first time living on a college campus, and it’s a lot to get used to. Maintenance people can come into our flat as they please, and I’ve been startled awake by loud knocks on the door more than once. I share a kitchen and living area with my two flatmates, and it has been interesting to navigate all of the nuances of this arrangement (especially figuring out timing for making our meals, cleaning up after ourselves, and even occupying the space itself). People in this building make lots of noise everywhere, at all hours, especially in the flat above us, and sometimes even outside my window… which makes total relaxation in my room rather difficult. In fact, as I was writing this post, we had to evacuate the building for a very jarring fire drill! I don’t regret my decision to live here, but it’s going to take a while until I feel comfortable.

 

On top of that, I’m also getting used to the social dynamics of my study abroad cohort. There are (I think!) 21 people here in total — 20 Americans and one German — and all of us live in this building together. 17 of us are just here for the Spring semester; the other 3 were here in the Fall and will leave with the rest of us in June, and they’ve been serving as our unofficial tour guides since we arrived. Everyone in the cohort is nice, and I’ve started to form a few promising friendships. But there are definitely major lifestyle differences that have been hard for me to adjust to. For one thing, I’m above the legal drinking age in America now, but most of the people in my cohort are a year or two too young. In England the legal drinking age is 18, so everyone in my cohort is able to drink here. I don’t drink alcohol, and I don’t “go out” the way a lot of college students tend to do (or so I’m learning, now). But almost everyone in my cohort drinks at least a little bit… and most of them already like to party back home, so here they can totally go all out. In the week since we’ve arrived, a solid number of people in my cohort have gone clubbing late at night. I get it — we finally made it here after all of that hard work we did to prepare for this experience, and we have a whole semester of life-changing adventures ahead of us, and that’s something to celebrate. But the particular way they’re celebrating is just not my thing, and that‘s been challenging when it comes to spending quality time with the rest of the group. Throw in eating a different diet than everyone else on top of that — I’m vegan and avoid sugar, salt, oil, and other processed ingredients — and you have a perfect recipe for social disaster. (Yet another thing I really hate to say.)

 

Except it’s not really a disaster. I’m getting by as best I can. For the first time in my life, I’m learning how to care for myself without anyone else to do it for me. I’m slowly but surely figuring things out: how often to go shopping for groceries and where in town I can find food I can actually eat; how to cook for myself even when I don’t feel like it; how to manage my quickly dwindling spending money (I really, really need to make a budget!!). It’s a lonely thing to do, but I know I’m not alone. I keep reminding myself that everyone in my cohort is learning right along with me — I just am learning in different ways than everybody else (and perhaps my learning curve is a little bigger than theirs), and if I want to feel connected I have to be brave and reach for that connection across those differences. I’m very fortunate that there are many caring people here at UoB who are willing to help me out and answer my endless questions. I’m also grateful that my friends and especially my family have been reaching out to check on me and send me reminders of their support and care. It’s easy for me to forget that I’m still connected to home when I’m so far away. Emails, texts, and FaceTime calls definitely aren’t a perfect substitute for being in the same room as someone you love. But it is enough for now, I think. It has to be.

On Thursday morning I dreamed that everyone I loved was in a house on the Brighton shoreline. When I woke up from that dream, reality crashed over me like a wave: I have to build the house, and I have to find people here in Brighton to fill it. That’s a lot of work, and I’m daunted and overwhelmed by it! I’ve had a lot of hard moments and realizations like this, and more than I’d like to admit — I’ve been crying a lot since I’ve been here, and I actually spent two days of this long weekend straight up hiding in my room. (Pro tip, and note to self: don’t do that.) Also, either I’m still jetlagged or I’m very good at self-sabotage, because I keep staying up until after 3 AM. (Pro tip, and note to self: don’t do that either!!!) But I know it’s going to get better. My first classes of the Spring semester start tomorrow, and with it will come a whole slew of new sights, sounds, people, and places I will explore and learn about and fall in love with. And I’m going to figure it all out in time… because even though I couldn’t bring my whole world with me, I do have everything I need to make one here. I will build the house. I will find the people. I will learn to brace myself against the crashing waves. I will learn how to Be Beside the Seaside. As long as I keep believing in myself and challenging myself to push forward, I know it’s going to be okay.

That’s all for now. Sending warm wishes and sweet sea air from Brighton to Baltimore!

 

January 25th, 2020

This is real.

Today I will be soaring across the Atlantic Ocean to spend the next 133 days (19 weeks! 4.37 months!) in another continent. If you look at it the way I’ve been looking at it lately, I’ll be hurtling thousands of miles away from nearly every place and person I have called home throughout my life. But if you look at it in a different light — the brighter kind with all the hope, the one I’m reaching for — I’ll be hurtling closer and closer to new places and new people who I will call home too, someday very soon.

My name is Tess. I’m a third-year Humanities Scholar studying English Communications & Technology with a Creative Writing minor. I work with UMBC’s Center for Democracy and Civic Life as the Civic Design Intern. I turned 21 less than a week ago. And… I am about to spend my Spring 2020 semester studying abroad at the University of Brighton in Brighton, England through USAC.

133 days. 19 weeks. 4.37 months. My first time leaving the country and my first time being truly independent, among many other firsts I’m on the brink of. This. Is. Real.

I know I probably shouldn’t hold on so tightly to those numbers. After all, there are so many reasons I have to be excited about, let alone open to, the adventure that lies ahead! But to be honest — and I hate to admit it! — most of my feelings about the impending semester have been negative. Transitions are very difficult for me, and for the past few months I have struggled to cope with anxiety and sadness as my take-off date has loomed closer and closer. Even though it is only temporary, actively working to put a pause in my life at home while still living it has been emotional and messy: I’ve never been good with goodbyes, and this is the biggest goodbye I’ve ever had to say! But even though they’re painful, goodbyes are also great for gratitude. My pre-departure angst has given me a chance to really reflect on how thankful I am to be alive in this place, at this time, with these people, as I am. I’m doing my best to keep reminding myself that none of that can or will go away, no matter how far I am from all of it. The home I’ve known will still be in my heart while I’m gone… and it will be waiting for me, even richer than before, when I get back.

And in the meantime… I will have a wonderful new home to explore over the next 133 days, 19 weeks, 4.37 months. From the moment I heard about Brighton in a study abroad advising meeting, I felt my heart physically open up to it! It’s a beautiful, colorful town by the sea, located on the southern coast of England, 54 miles (or, uh, 86.9 kilometers) south of London. It’s well known for its creative culture (perfect for me; I’m a poet, artist, and musician) and its friendliness towards alternative diets (perfect for me; I’m vegan). The University of Brighton is much bigger than UMBC, which is a little scary — over 20,000 students across four different campuses — but it is a reputable school with a thriving, tightly-knit community (sounds familiar, right?). While I’m abroad, I’ll also have frequent opportunities to travel around Europe with my USAC cohort. I’m especially excited to see London (West End musicals, here I come!!!) and Paris, which we’ll be visiting during our three-week-long Spring Break. (Yep, you heard me. Three whole weeks!)

There’s no denying that I am going to encounter many challenges during my stay in Brighton. For one thing, this will be my first time living with anyone outside of my family. While there are some perks to this — I’ll finally get to experience what it’s like to live on a college campus, and I’ll have my own bedroom for the first time in my life! — I’m certain it’s going to be difficult adjusting to so much independence in such a huge way without my parents and siblings nearby to catch me if I fall. I’m relatively sure I won’t have a problem maintaining my vegan lifestyle while I’m in Brighton, but I’m anticipating I will not have access to a lot of the kitchen appliances and ingredients I’m used to. And that’s just scratching the surface — from dealing with culture shock to balancing immersion with communication back home, I’m definitely in for a wild ride.

But even though it might not feel like it just yet, I think I’m ready to take it all on and revel in this “freeinvention” (see what I did there?!). This experience is going to transform me for the better: it will burst me into bloom. I am determined to savor and learn from every high and especially every low, to hold each bud with both my hands. I can’t wait to fall in love with Brighton and everything it has to offer… and with myself and everything I have to offer, too. (And I can’t wait to take you along for the journey!)

This isn’t just a goodbye: it’s also a hello. There isn’t just a home I’m going from — there is a home I’m going to, one I am about to very consciously create for myself through the places I’ll go and the people I’ll meet. I’ll be there for 133 days, 19 weeks, 4.37 months. And I’m sure I’ll come back to visit someday… but whether I do or don’t, it will be in my heart for the rest of my life, no matter how far I am from it.

I just know it. I can feel it; I’ve felt it all along. And as ruffled as I am by this colossal change… I love it already.

This is real.

(PS: Throughout the preparation process, I’ve been compiling a playlist of songs with lyrics that tell my study abroad story, which I’ve organized into a somewhat cohesive narrative (I’d like to think!). At the moment it’s part history and part prediction… and if you’re going abroad or have already been, you might find it applies to you too. Click here to check it out on Spotify, and click here for the lyrics guide. Feel free to send me any recommendations at tmcrae2@umbc.edu. :~) Happy listening, and make sure to check back for new additions!)