As spring approaches, I sometimes catch myself wondering if the five weeks I spent in the UK last summer were in fact some fantastic midsummer monthâ€™s dream.Â
I often mentally return to my room at Pembroke College, Cambridge, the third oldest college in the University of Cambridge system. I walk down the centuries-worn staircase and through the courtyards, taking in the beautiful architecture and feeling again that I wouldnâ€™t rather be anywhere else in the world.
Along with about 150 other college students, most from the UC system, I took part in UC Irvineâ€™s over-30-years-in-the-running Travel-Study program in Cambridge, England. While studying South African Literature and Shakespeare on Film, two of the most fascinating courses I have ever taken, I explored many places throughout the UK, made amazing friends, learned a lot about myself, and became broke by the end of it (thank you, USD). Still, I think this trip was life-changing and worth every penny.Â
The first thing that struck me about Cambridge upon my arrival was its architecture. I had never been in a city that felt and looked so old. The narrow, cobble-stone streets were composed of one beautiful neo-Gothic building after the next, lined with small shops and punctuated, of course, with the occasional Starbucks (a Frappuccino cost about $6!). I had never seen anything like it. The grounds of the colleges were picturesque and the sights of Cambridge never became dull.Â
Each week we had a formal dinner in a Harry Potter-esque hall, participated in activities with the T.A.â€™s (punting, museum visits, etc.) and took day trips to different parts of England including London, Bath, Stonehenge, and Stratford. My friends and I spent the last weekend in Wales, and many of our classmates went elsewhere in Europe. Â
But prior to these explorations, we had hardly started classes before we took a five-day trip to Edinburgh, Scotland, checking out ruins on the way.Â
I never imagined that I would travel to Scotland, but it was by far one of the best parts of the trip. We stayed at the University of Edinburgh and explored the city by day. We went on a â€œSinners and Saintsâ€ tour of the old city, and it seemed like at every stop, our tour guide Neil informed us that we were standing at the execution site of some 16th century criminal. We ate lunch at the cafÃ© where J.K. Rowling started writing the Harry Potter series on napkins, and the view of Edinburgh Castle from the table where she supposedly sat seemed like an undeniable inspiration for Hogwarts Castle. We hiked to the top of Arthurâ€™s Seat and went to Rosslyn Chapel of â€œThe Da Vinci Code,â€ and due to scaffolding, were able to get up close to the exterior levels. Those five days did not feel long enough for a place so full of history.Â
One Saturday, after taking a walking tour of London, I stopped with some friends to eat sandwiches on the grass under Big Ben when I noticed a bunch of protestors having a tent city. I wondered what they were protesting so approached a group of them, and as soon as I opened my American mouth, a crazed looking man stared at me with wide eyes. He started telling me the wrongs of my country and then-president, but was glad that I agreed with many of his criticisms. And then he fell of his rocker when he said Bush and Obama â€œdrink the blood of children.â€ I considered it metaphorically and he quickly assured me that he meant it literally, telling me of some forest where the elite feast on the blood of pre-pubescent youth (his words, not mine). â€œFollow the line of inquiry,â€ he kept repeating as I politely excused myself to return to our picnic. But I had hardly sat down before we began a mad dash to catch the ferry to Bankside, where we would later see â€œA Midsummer Nightâ€™s Dreamâ€ at the Globe.Â
The highlight of the trip for me was without question seeing this play and two others. We saw both â€œA Midsummer Nightâ€™s Dreamâ€ and â€œKing Learâ€ at Shakespeareâ€™s Globe (a re-construction of the original Globe, the site of which was about 750 ft. away). I had studied Elizabethan theatres before, but standing in this reconstruction was an amazing experience unattainable from any PowerPoint slide Iâ€™d seen in lecture. Standing in the yard, I leaned my head back and took in the sky framed by the circular rim of the theatre. Before â€œKing Learâ€ began, musicians came on stage and politely asked those seated to silence their cellular devices. They then barked at us groundlings to shut off our mobiles. The plays themselves were amazing, and combined with the experience of the Globe, they were totally unforgettable. A few weeks after seeing these plays, we saw the Royal Shakespeare Companyâ€™s â€œThe Taming of The Shrewâ€ in Stratford on Avon, the birthplace of Shakespeare. Although we didnâ€™t get to explore the town, the phenomenal play and 30-minute Q&A with the director totally made up for it. The director told us about how â€œThe Taming of the Shrewâ€ could be either a misogynistic play, or a play about misogyny and his portrayed the latter. The play began as a comedy and ended in tragedy, changing in period along the way. It was the best play I had ever seen.Â
Going abroad made me challenge myself in new ways. One evening for example, I had to travel alone to London to meet up with my 11-year-old cousin and his uncle for dinner. They happened to be in England for a few days on their way back from Finland. It wasnâ€™t exactly a complicated journey, but I was terrified at the thought of traveling to London by myself in the evening. I made my plans and everything ran smoothly until I convinced myself that a certain train stop was London (it of course wasnâ€™t, and it didnâ€™t help that a man I asked assured me that it was London). As soon as I stupidly stepped off that train, my greatest anxiety about going abroad came true: I was lost and alone half way around the world. After a momentary freak out, I did some asking around and fortunately a kind woman informed me that I had picked a good stop to get lost at; another train bound for London swept through shortly after and I was only 10 minutes late.Â
During my last day in Cambridge, the Pembroke College bartender spent a day showing some of us around town, shamelessly discrediting official tour guides we encountered along the way. Every street, alley and corner had so much history. While Cambridge seemed worlds away from Isla Vista, there are apparently some characteristics of a college town that are universal. Not unlike I.V., I could hear groups of loud, drunk students stumbling through the streets at 2 a.m. in search of some late-night greasy food, in this case, The Trailer of Life (which should be called The Trailer of Death judging by the menu). Â
All of the events I have described do not begin to truly depict my experience in the UK. Seven months after returning to the U.S., I miss Cambridge every day. The freedom of leaving the stresses of my life at home to see new places and make new friends made every moment spectacular. I knew that this experience was once in a lifetime; that even if I went to England again I could never relive this experience. And so when I occasionally mentally return to random memories from my time in England, from something as breathtaking as feeling the wind blowing through my hair atop the Scott Monument overlooking Edinburgh, or as mundane as waiting in line to use the toilet at the Globe Theatre, I think in all of those moments, whether I thought of it consciously or not, I knew that those five weeks were magical and meaningful; that I was having the time of my life. When I run into people on campus who were also in the program, it is a refreshing validation that it was not a dream and that yes, it all really happened.