Spending a semester abroad in the United Kingdom

The concept of me going abroad popped into my head when we watched a presentation on doing a semester abroad during class. Nobody was interested in the opportunity and when the deadline to apply hit, there were no applications from journalism students. This caused the International Centre to extend the deadline for several weeks in hopes of someone signing up for the opportunity and though I was extremely nervous about going to a new place for such a long time, I took the plunge and volunteered to go. I remember at the time joking about “taking one for the team” since nobody else would and still joke about that more than a year later.

It was a long process to apply and get ready to go to England, where I had to attend an interview, apply for funding, residence and secure travel tickets and insurance. I didn’t realise how tedious the lead-up to actually going was but I’m glad to say that all the nitty-gritty work definitely paid off.

Just the concept of going over to a foreign country for several months made my stomach turn in a combination of excitement and being terrified. I made sure to see all my good friends before I left, grabbing lunch or drinks in the weeks leading up to my departure.

I remember arriving to the airport way too early — I stood around with my mother and boyfriend for a hour before finally going through security. It was a bittersweet moment, having to say goodbye to them but being excited about being in England (and Europe) for the first time. I accidentally packed liquids into my carry on suitcase and had to exit security and check it in, but then I had finally gotten through security and was ready to start my adventure.

The plane was a smaller one, shuttling us off from Toronto to Halifax before we disembarked, waited several hours and boarded a different plane to fly over the Atlantic Ocean. The flight was an overnight one but I didn’t sleep at all, being too excited to even think about getting some sleep, plus a bit nervous about being on my first trans-Atlantic flight.

The first day I was here was a bit frightening, overwhelming and nerve-racking. I had flown in from Toronto to London, landing at Gatwick where I had to gather my bags and lug my two suitcases through customs and throughout the country to my destination.

Having only been through the US before and being a member of the Nexus trusted traveller program, I’ve never had to go through customs before. I had all my paperwork, including proof of enrolment, funding and my airplane reservation to leave the country all printed out in a binder, but it’s still a bit scary when you travel 4,000 kilometres and if you forgot something or didn’t do something right, there’s a chance that you might not be allowed into the country. Thankfully that wasn’t the case and I was given a short-term student visa that’s valid for six months, but I wish I had applied for a student visa before I left so I could’ve received a multiple-entry one (I’m still permitted to leave the country but must apply for a new single-entry visa each time I do).

I finally found my way to the train station and had to buy an Oyster card, load money on it and then find the correct train. There was a staff member in the station to help out and I found the Gatwick Express to Victoria, where I was due to catch a coach bus to Gloucester. Luckily I didn’t have any issues finding my way and eventually found my way between Victoria Station and Victoria Coach Station which, though only a couple blocks away, is confusing for a newcomer.

Finally after what seemed like forever I found my way to Gloucester (pronounced Glos-ter — here they have a habit of not actually pronouncing half the letters in words, making me wonder why they’re included in the first place), got lost trying to find my way to the campus where I was supposed to pick up my key into residence and then walked the rest of the way to residence. I underestimated how far the walk from the campus to residence was and regretted almost immediately choosing to walk, but since there is no Uber and I had no clue what the number for a cab was I struggled through it, finding my way there eventually.

My residence is right in the middle of the downtown area and is within walking distance of the bus and coach stop, lots of grocery stores, several malls, the quays and more. It’s in what would probably usually be a quiet neighbourhood, except since there’s students living here it’s literally never quiet. I’m constantly waking up at 4 am because of stupid, inconsiderate people outside screaming at the top of their lungs. There’s lots of high street stores which I wouldn’t expect to see lined the streets of a small town, with almost all towns having a Topshop, H&M, Pandora and more. In Canada and the US, you’d really only find these stores in shopping malls in bigger cities, but since nearly every town here has a High Street, they’re everywhere.

The grocery stores are a lot different here too — most fruit and vegetables come packaged in layers of plastic, everybody uses self-checkout and food in general is more expensive, due to the horrible exchange rate between CAD and GBP. There’s literally three different Tesco Express stores within a five-minute walk of my place and there’s numerous shopping centres in Gloucester, something that’s common in a lot of cities.

It took a while to get used to the concept of people driving on the left side of the road and the difference in time zones. I’ve been to Halifax, which is a hour ahead of my normal time but London is five hours ahead, which definitely took a bit of adjusting. During the first couple weeks I was constantly waking up in the early hours of the morning before slowly getting used to the new time — something I’m not looking forward to having to re-readjust to when I head back to Toronto, especially when it’s easier going a time zone forward than it is backwards.

When it had finally seemed like I was getting settled in, disaster struck — the airline I had booked my ticket home with in December, Primera Air, had suddenly gone bankrupt — I was out of $400 and a way home. I was constantly stressed about finding a way home and after waiting for the better part of two months for ticket prices to drop, at the end of November I was forced to purchase a ticket with Norwegian from London to New York — Toronto was more than double the price and I couldn’t afford it since I was not able to get my first ticket refunded — where I’d connect with an Amtrak train which would take me right into Toronto. The ticket was around as expensive as my original one but coupled with the train ticket ($425 plus an extra $120 for the train) made it a lot more money than I hoped to spend.

My classes the first couple weeks were really messed up and nobody at the school had realised I was enrolled in several incorrect classes. I walked into class one Monday and everybody kept talking about sports for the entire classes, which was the main hint to me that I wasn’t in the correct class. That was eventually sorted out, thankfully, though it was nice only having class on Mondays and Thursdays, even just for a bit.

Usually on the weekend I would try to go see a new place, whether it was Oxford, Swindon or Bristol in September, Cardiff, Birmingham, Manchester and Liverpool, Thurso, Edinburgh, Inverness and Amsterdam in October, Coventry in November and the Isle of Wight in December, with numerous trips to London spread out within. Being only a few hours away on the coach bus and with tickets being only £4 one-way if you book early enough, it’s easy to get lost spending a full day in the capital.

Manchester and Liverpool

I’m still trying to understand why I would choose to go to Manchester of all places, but I did and it wasn’t as exciting as I had expected. I took the train up north (though I’m not sure how people consider Manchester north) leaving around 9 pm and not arriving until 12:30 am, which is way past when I’m usually asleep by. I had a presentation before I was due to catch my train and had to improvise on that around 10 minutes before I was due to present, but once that was done I was free (for the weekend, that is). I arrived in Manchester much too late to take the bus to my rental, so I grabbed an Uber, got in and set my stuff down and then literally crashed.

The following day, October 19, I headed to the Science and Industry Museum before going to BBC Media City for a tour — the main, if only reason I bothered going to Manchester. The tour was interesting but not exactly what I had hoped for as an aspiring journalist; it was more aimed at the average television consumer, showing off sets of daytime TV bulletin shows and a children’s set for the CBeebies, some weird children’s show that seems more like a nightmare than a show suitable for toddlers to watch. The BBC’s office in Manchester is set in MediaCityUK, a major TV production parcel of land in Salford, where the crown corporation moved some of its business after realising how much of it was centred in London (which was basically all of it).

Having to get up early the next day, I didn’t have enough time to grab breakfast — having to catch the bus to the station, to catch a train to Liverpool. The trip was smooth and on-time (something I’m still not used to, as a Canadian who regularly has to take the train that’s “delayed by freight traffic”) and I ended up going to the Radio City Tower viewing deck, World Museum and Sefton Palm House. The viewing tower was interesting because though it’s functioning as a tourist attraction, it’s also a fully-functional radio station, home to several broadcast rooms where broadcasts are sent all over the Mersey region. Sefton Palm House was really nice on the inside and had numerous tropical flowers in bloom, but was underwhelmingly small and located a half-hour away from the actual city.

The thing I do want to point out is how confusing travelling around this country is. When in Liverpool I had to get a Walrus card and load my day pass onto it, but in Gloucester I have to either use a StagecoachSmart card to pay for the bus or purchase a paper monthly ticket, while in London it’s either contactless or Oyster (of which only the latter supports my Railcard discount), while in virtually every different major city and with every different bus company there’s a different way to pay. Luckily it’s something most likely only few people are experiencing, because residents don’t travel much in the United Kingdom and tourists tend to only stick to one major city.

To end off my trip I visited the Museum of Transport, owned oddly enough by TfGM itself, and the Manchester Art Gallery to waste the rest of the day while I waited for my train. I took it to Cheltenham because tickets to Gloucester were too expensive and had to walk a solid 30 minutes at 11 pm at night to the bus station downtown to catch the last bus home, waiting in the cold for a half-hour since it was running only once a hour.

Scotland

Throughout my time here I had kept in semi-regular communication with my grandma who used to live in Scotland, specifically a small town located along the northern coast of the country. Finding out that I had a week off — something they call “Your Future Plan Week” since it’s filled with workshops and other career-development sessions — I decided to make the journey up north to see where a part of my family once lived.

The journey from Gloucester to Thurso is incredibly long (752.64 kilometres in a straight line, 10.5 hours driving or 13.5 hours on the train) so I decided to make the London-Inverness portion of my trip on the Caledonian Sleeper, an overnight train that would let me get there in an economical way, though I only bought a normal seat (£50) instead of a sleeping berth (£180), and not waste time I could’ve spent exploring Scotland. I took the bus from Gloucester to London, expecting to catch the train leaving around 9:30 pm directly to Inverness but on the bus, I received a call from ScotRail who told me that due to technical issues, I would have to take a train departing at midnight that would only take me to Edinburgh, where I’d have to catch a connecting train and make the four-hour journey to my original destination during time when I could be out there, seeing what the country has to offer. Luckily, however, they put me into a sleeping berth and though I had to share it with a stranger, it was much more comfy than a chair would’ve been.

It was a weird feeling sleeping on a train. I’ve slept on trains, having accidentally fallen asleep on the subway after a long day or on the Via Rail service home but not laying down in an actual bed. They provided us with little complimentary bags filled with shampoo and body wash, though you had to pay extra to actually use a shower, and a little snack in the morning for breakfast.

Upon arrival to Edinburgh — which, for reference, I was due to take the bus to on Sunday after I had spent the Friday, October 26 in Inverness and the following day in Thurso — I was a bit annoyed to travel through a place I would be returning to when, since I had been delayed, it would’ve made more sense to stay in Edinburgh and then go to Inverness and Thurso later. I caught a train departing around 8:30 am which got me to Inverness in a bit over four hours, where I just wondered around for a bit until I was able to check-in to the place I had rented out.

I had to wake up early enough to take the 7 am train to Thurso and though I wasn’t excited to wake up early, I was excited about the views I would be able to see on the way through the Scottish Highlands, filled with mountains and vast fields. The train didn’t have wifi on it and my cellular reception was spotty but I did manage to work on a final assignment that’s due in January.

I arrived at 11 am and had only until the last train departed at 4 pm to see everything the town had to offer which, in retrospect, isn’t as much as I had assumed. I first went to the beach where I walked along the shore and cliffs — having been pelted by large waves several times and fighting a wind that was trying to blow me away — I spent a hour or two there before getting bored and finding out that there wasn’t much else to do. I walked around the town for a bit and then went into the town’s museum which was surprisingly interesting, since one of the main exhibits was about the Dounreay Nuclear facilities, which before being decommissioned provided more than 7,000 jobs and were the main economic provider for the region.

The train back was not as exciting as there; since it was becoming dark there wasn’t much to see, so I took the time to focus once again on my assignments.

In the morning, I set off to catch the bus to Edinburgh, due to depart from the nearby bus station at 9 am and arrive to downtown Edinburgh by 1:15 pm. When I got to the station I wasn’t able to find my bus which was because even though I had booked my ticket through one company, it was being operated by a different company with no notice of this in any emails or on the website. The ride was overly uneventful and (yet again, but maybe it’s a Scottish thing) there was no wifi on the bus and I only noticed during the ride that I had forgotten my iPhone charger cord at the place I stayed at in Inverness.

Edinburgh was a lot bigger of a city than I had thought it would be, upon first arrival. The old buildings and how busy it was definitely caught me off guard, but being only one of a few major cities in Scotland people have to live somewhere, right? I dropped my stuff off and kind of just wondered around for the day, having nothing planned to do since everything had already closed, grabbing a pizza and some sparkling pink lemonade sugar-free soda from M&S. Their sodas — they’ve got orange, pink lemonade, spicy ginger beer and cloudy apple, which all come in sugar-free varieties — are honestly the best and I need to bring a lifetime supply of them back home to Toronto with me.

The next day I went to Edinburgh Castle which though it was interesting to visit and read the history behind, seemed like a bit of a tourist trap. Then in the most predictable move, I visited the zoo (but in my defence and since the giant pandas left Toronto for Calgary, I had to visit the only pandas in the country).

Having to wake up the the following day to catch the train back to Gloucester, where I’d sleep and grab some clean clothing for the next leg of my journey, I then realised that I somehow did not have my ticket to board the train. They're incredibly strict here about this sort of thing and since you have to pick up your ticket from the station (I always do beforehand so I’m not rushing around on the day of travel), they won’t issue you another ticket because they claim somehow people will sell their tickets or use them twice, which is impossible since they’re magnetically stripped. But with no ticket to travel, I was out the £50 I paid for the train and decided to call Virgin Trains to ask if there was anything I could do — being new to the country I didn’t know what to do next — when I was repeatedly mocked by the support agent who kept on asking me in a demeaning and sarcastic tone “what do you want me to do?”. I talked to her manager and complained and though they offered to credit me for a future journey I told them I’ll never willingly travel with them again. Not really having any other options, I had to spend £50 on a bus ticket from Edinburgh to Gloucester via London, only realising I couldn’t make the last leg of the journey unless I missed my international train.

The bus ride to London was excruciatingly long and I was pretty mad at myself for losing my train ticket (which would’ve taken half the time and gotten me home to grab new clothing) but there was no other option, so I booked a room in London to crash at for the night and get up early for my trip. On the plus and nerdy side, though, I got to ride the new Elizabeth Line trains that’ll be rolling out on the TfL network next year.

The Netherlands

Having come from Canada where the trains are constantly delayed and run slower than a car, I had never experienced being on a train that was capable of travelling at 300 km/ph and it was insane. The ride from London to Amsterdam — a distance of approximately 535 kilometres — took only 3:41, which is less time than it takes for me to take the train only 175 kilometres home. We passed through France and Belgium during the journey which made me think of just how small and interconnected Europe really is compared to North America. They’re able to hop on a train or plane and in a matter of a hour be in an entirely different environment and culture, all for less than the price of a few Starbucks coffees. We’re not able to have access like that in Canada or the USA, where plane tickets are incredibly expensive (though the the likes of Swoop in the former and several budget airlines in the latter) are making progress at lowering airfare prices.

I arrived into Amsterdam around noon and was blown away at how different it was to what I had always dreamed of it looking like, in neither a good nor bad way. Amsterdam Centraal is located directly in the middle of the city in a place frequented by both locals and tourists and it was incredibly nice and refreshing to see a lack of cars driving around. The whole city is built on what is essentially a bunch of piers and small islands, so there’s no rooms for cars in the narrow streets and improvements to public transportation and the enormous amount of bikes used by residents make them redundant and unnecessary.

To make the most of my time in the city efficiently and as economically as possible I bought a tourist card, but without the public transit. I was staying at a place in Hoofddorp, near Schiphol Airport, and since it’s not part of Amsterdam proper isn’t served by the GVB, meaning it would cost less for me to get a regional transit ticket, giving me access to transit across the whole region (stretching from Zandvoort to Purmerend, Hilversum and of course Hoofddorp). With it I got free access to numerous attractions throughout the city too — I generally always purchase this type of thing in a new city, because it always offers the best value if you want to see everything the place has to offer.

I didn’t want to start using my pass the day I arrived because it was only valid for 72 hours from activation, so I spent the day dropping off my belongings, wandering around the city and grabbing some food since I hadn’t eaten all morning. I can’t believe how expensive fast food is in Europe at first sight, but it’s mostly just because of the awful exchange rate.

The following day I started off by heading to the Amsterdam Museum, followed by the Tropenmuseum, Cobra Museum of Modern Art and Foam. The first is a gallery displaying the accomplishments and history of the city, which I found rather interesting since it highlighted how the city was formed and some of its biggest achievements — recreationalization of soft drugs, acceptance of the LGBT community and more. The second and third places I visited during the day were rather boring, though I did learn interesting and downright horrifyingly how chocolate is made in developing countries, through the forced labour of children — I don’t think I’ll ever be able to eat non-fairtrade chocolate again, which is a small improvement towards a fair and equitable world for all. Foam is a photography gallery which had some … provocative (and I mean PG 18) content and I accidentally walked into a book launch that was happening, which somehow isn’t the first time that’s happened to me, but which I found deeply interesting. I watched Crazy Rich Asians when it first came out and the book was about the depressing and unfulfilling lives of maids in Singapore and Hong Kong, and how there’s little law to protect them or when there is, how it’s rarely enforced. Due to that, maids are forced to work up to 20 hours a day, forbidden from leaving the house and confined to rooms the size of a closet to sleep in. Things like this interest me so much because I had no idea this was even an issue going on, but education and information are truly the power to make change in the world, no matter how little or insignificant it might seem.

Waking up early on November 2, I headed off for the day into the city, planning to visit Het Scheepvaartmuseum, the National Holocaust Museum, Hortus Botanicus Amsterdam and Museum Het Schip. Normally I wouldn’t be too happy staying in a suburb since they’re usually far away from the city centre and lack good transit connections, but the Connexxion bus was only a couple minutes walk away and took me right to the station, where an InterCity train arrived every 15 minutes to whisk me off to the city. Thankfully all the signage was in both Dutch and English and I had free international roaming for my phone, otherwise I would’ve been lost so easily.

The National Holocaust Museum particularly stood out to me — I had absolutely no idea that The Netherlands had played such a large role in the horrific event, transporting prisoners on its national train services voluntarily. Coming from a different part of the world I’d always had an understanding of the tragic events which took place, but I had a new appreciation and deeper comprehension of what happened after reading the stories of dozens of children, teens and adults who were forced from their homes into either slave-labour or sentenced to death. I then visited Hortus Botanicus which reminded me of Allan Gardens in London, but somewhat improved because it had a suspended walkway through the building and a butterfly garden, but since there were no baby turtles, it was about on-par. To end off the afternoon I headed to Het Schip, which was honestly the most boring place I’ve ever been to, which is sad because as someone interested in architecture, I’m not sure how I could find an exhibit about it boring. That evening, I went to the Van Gogh Museum which was incredibly busy and popular, where I learned that Van Gogh cut off his own ear and killed himself (!). As someone taking art class all throughout high school, I’m really not sure how I could’ve missed that small but important detail about his story.

I spent all of my morning and afternoon at the place I seemingly enjoy most — the zoo, where they had giraffes, zebras, flamingos and a lot more. If someone asked me why I'm so obsessed with zoos I couldn’t tell them (so don’t ask). It was honestly freezing on the day I went but I somehow survived, dipping into indoor habitats when I started to get too cold outside. Then, since I had nothing else planned between when I had finished at the zoo (around 2:30 pm), that night and the next morning before I flew back to London, I just rode the train around, getting off a couple times to explore some neighbourhoods.

Having so much time on my hands the following day, having woken up quite early as per usual and not having to catch my plane until 3:40 pm, I decided to make a quick trip to Zandvoort to visit the beach. I ended up spending a good hour there and found several jellyfish on the sidewalk, I can only assume stuck there from the low tides. Trying to help them back into the ocean without physically touching them and getting stung was difficult, but I did end up getting two of the four that I found back into the water, hoping that they were still alive.

Then I headed to the airport and was starving; I headed to a McDonalds and went to order a Big Mac combo (full disclosure, I don’t usually eat them but there was surprisingly little other choice in such a major airport) before finding out it would cost me $20 CAD and promptly aborting that choice. I instead got a bunch of chicken nuggets (I am literally so predictable) and headed to my gate, where I ended up talking to a nice group of people who were headed to Taiwan, or maybe Beijing. Flight boarding took forever and I didn’t bother with lining up in anticipation of boarding, letting everybody else fight for the little amount of overhead compartment room before getting on and showing in my suitcase too. The flight with KLM was uneventful but they served us a yummy wrap, water and juice which is more than WestJet or Air Canada has ever offered me (they’ve got to step up their game).

Upon arrival to Heathrow I was immediately able to disembark and go to catch the Underground, since all I brought was a small suitcase and backpack I didn’t have to wait at the luggage conveyor. I accidentally went into the wrong train station, though in my defence having different stations for TfL Rail and the Underground, though operated by the same organisation, is immensely confusing since there’s not much signage.

The Tube ride was quick and more importantly inexpensive but I forgot that there was a time difference between London and Amsterdam, so I had to wait around for a good four hours for my coach ride back home.

Then, another disaster struck and it’s an irritating one. Throughout the summer I had attempted to meet with my landlord multiple times to renew my lease — he constantly made himself unavailable (I asked him at least a dozen times when he could meet) and didn’t contact me until after I had left the country to say he was free. He said it’d be no issue for me to sublease my room out and it was decided that I would be receiving the rent and then forwarding it to him. Well, I accidentally missed the rent in October and contacted my landlord (on October 15, to be exact) as soon as I realized to correct the situation, to which my landlord said he used my last month’s rent but that I could just pay first and last month’s rent when I returned. In the middle of November I texted my sublessee to see when he would be moving out, when he told me that my landlord had signed a lease with him in the middle of October, with my landlord claiming he didn’t know when or if I would be returning to the house — a week after I had talked to my landlord on the phone about coming back. The fact that I didn’t receive any sort of eviction notice which, though I hadn’t signed a lease, (I believe) was still required to be provided to me because I was legally a “tenant” makes me think that what my landlord did is illegal. But since I’m not in Canada right now and don’t know my ex-landlord’s address, I can’t file a legal claim against him and am being forced to frantically find a new place to live before I return to Canada. I’ll definitely be consulting with a lawyer once I get back to see what legal grounds I have (since me and my landlord had a verbal agreement of how to proceed after I had missed the rent) and my sublessee had signed a written agreement saying he would be moving out in December.

Not expecting an event like this to happen and coupled with the fact that I was still out money from my initial airline ticket home becoming invalidated, I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford to pay first and last rent on a new place — especially since there’s limited places available in Toronto so close to when I’d need one, coupled with the price of transit and unaffordable price of renting in the city (I had been paying $700 at my place and if I have to take the bus or subway to school, that’ll be another $100 a month, which my OSAP won’t be able to cover).

I’ve been spending the last few weeks here kind of just taking things easy and trying to enjoy the rest of my time here without stressing too much over everything that’s happening. The good news is that I finally received the $400 back for the flight I had purchased in September, taking a bit of stress away from my current situation.

I can say that being here has been rather challenging at times as someone who’s not great at being in social situations and with clinical social anxiety. There weren’t really any opportunities to meet other people and all the international students were housed together in the same residence quad, resulting in little chance to integrate and meet people from England and the formation of cliques (ie. all the German people constantly are together, as with the Spanish, French and more). There’s only a few other people from Canada here — someone from Calgary, someone who goes to OCAD and two people that go to my campus, though we were only introduced to each other in November.

The whole experience was good at first — everybody was getting along and going out together — until a few weeks in, when the cliques started to form and everybody just wanted to go to clubs during the week and weekend to get wasted. There’s nothing wrong with this sort of behaviour as a student; it’s just not the type of thing I’m interested in and left me feeling alienated and isolated when that’s all everybody wanted to do.

I found myself feeling lonely quite a lot which isn’t the best feeling, but it was easy to temporarily fill that void by going on trips to Scotland, The Netherlands and all over England and Wales. (I wanted to go see Ireland but I sadly didn’t have enough time with my course schedule). With all my friends back home being so busy with school, work and other responsibilities it was hard to keep in contact with them, but I tried as best I could.

But overall being here has definitely been an interesting, challenging and rewarding experience — going from being so completely socially isolated and clinically depressed that I barely left my house back in February to someone who’s travelled halfway across the world to a new country to live there for four months — and I’m so impressed with myself for accomplishing it.