An American Girl in Leeds: Life on the Other Side


I really was meaning to do a more consistent series about my adventures here on the other side of the pond, but then you get here and start an MA program and an internship, and you realize that very little of your time is actually for you anymore. So sorry about that. I can be pretty succinct about life here, which I guess is a good thing or a bad thing depending.


I got here in Leeds in mid-September, a strange girl in a strange land in a strange city that I’d actually never even heard of until I was persuaded to apply to the University. So you can imagine that I got here not really knowing what to expect, especially because I’m living in here by myself, with one friend I actually know from back home, and no real intrinsic knowledge of the area or its ins and outs. It took me probably a month to get fully adjusted to the bus system, and even then, I have no idea how their pay system works. Like you can just ask for a one pound ticket, but I don’t even know how they would enforce them if you go farther than that one ticket would permit you? The British must rely really heavily on the honor system, which would also make sense, because as generally kind and polite and welcoming as they’ve been, they’re also about the most non-confrontational people I’ve ever met. Being American in that sort of environment…well, more specifically, being me in that sort of environment is an exercise in patience that I’d like to HOPE I’m succeeding in. I’m a terribly straightforward person and I like things dealt with promptly with no fuss. It’s kind of like pulling teeth trying to get my landlady to get anything done, or to get my professor to tell me directly what he thinks of my work.

Which reminds me…I should probably pay my rent and check my email. Meh.

So how is Leeds as a city? Well, if I had to sum it up, I’d say it was fairly…familiar. It’s pretty much a poster child for a university town, and either it hasn’t hit me, five months later, that I live in England, or I just got so used to it that I forgot. I still find myself looking left when I cross the street instead of right, and I’m still terrible at dealing with British currency, but overall, it doesn’t feel all that different from home. People say you experience the biggest culture shocks in places that actually speak the same language you do, but I haven’t found that. I’m as comfortable here as I think I would’ve been had I moved anywhere else in the States. I hate the weather, sure, but that has nothing to do with the culture of the area. It just feels like any other mid-sized industrial town. That’s probably why it bores me so much.

I’ve been trying to get more of the English experience by getting out of Leeds and traveling around more stereotypical “tourist” towns, which is a monstrous oxymoron, I know, but still. I’ve been to London once (LOVE IT) and York three or four times (LOVE IT TOO). The train system in the UK is pretty phenomenal, so if you know where you want to go, it’s literally a train ride away. And it comes out cheaper when you book in advance, which is a huge win. London is literally my mecca – it’s an amalgamation of history and modernism, and I only regret having gone for just two days. Everything you’ve ever dreamed London would be, it is – seeing the Parliament building literally moved me to tears. Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, the Thames, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London, the Crown Jewels… the whole city is a feast for every sense, and you leave feeling fulfilled and wanting more at the same time. I can’t wait to go back.

York, on the other hand, is much more quaint and old-worldly than London is, but that’s exactly what’s so damned charming about it. I’m a huge nerd when it comes to history, and York preserves its antiquity without being “old timey”. I literally almost fell over backwards when I saw the gorgeous and incomparable York Minster for the first time, a magnificent structure hundreds of years old, carefully and rigidly preserved and maintained, and a stone’s throw away from the beautiful ruins of St. Mary’s Abbey. You walk down York’s cobblestone streets through the Shambles, where the shops are literally all 4-5 stories high and narrow as a single room, leaning close enough to each other to evoke the same whimsy that you’d expect from the filming location of Diagon Alley from the Harry Potter film series. Tea or coffee can either be served in hip, laid back cafes like Coffee Culture (my personal favorite) or in the elegant and more traditional (and popular around the world) Betty’s Cafe – which reminds me, they have a China Rose tea that is the foundation of all of my dreams that I need to order a tin of.

Other than those two places, I regret that I haven’t done as much getting around as I’ve wanted to, but I’m hoping that’ll change with the coming of my spring break and the warming of the weather. I’m trying to make my way over to Paris in a few months to visit a friend of mine who just moved there, and I’m definitely trying to get to Dublin and Scotland before my expiration date here comes around (10 June, in case anyone’s curious.) But in the meantime, I’m just here in Leeds, living life no differently that I really did when I was back home. Doing laundry, going to the shop, and mailing letters home. Might wander down to Kirkstall Abbey before the end of the week, because at the very least, I can say that I’m learning to explore Leeds, and not to just take it at face value as just another “college town.”

An American Girl in Leeds: The Beginning


Life in your twenties is never easy, as I’m sure most people are aware. We’re sort of divided into two camps; the ones who are trying to figure things out, and the ones who think that they have things figured out. Me, I am the former. I spent a good chunk of my twenties thinking that I needed to conform to certain societal norms: finishing college, getting a job, getting married, pushing out kids. And I certainly spend a good amount of my time being reminded of that by people who are supposed to be my friends, and my family. The latter two were always a popular topic of conversation, as if I had somehow already managed to fail adulthood because I wasn’t married, even though most of my friends were, and I had absolutely no interest in having any kids. Never mind the fact that several of those same said friends were also already divorced, and some had kids that were all monstrous little shits; somehow I was the failure because I had yet to accomplish either one. And of course, I use the term “accomplish” extremely loosely, because you’ll forgive me if I don’t think that getting knocked up and/or managing to land a man is the pinnacle of human achievement.
  You can probably tell from my not so subtle cynicism that I no longer think that this is the sort of thing I have to accomplish anymore. I’m 28 years old, and I give much less of a shit now about marriage and children as I did when I was 21. I’m not saying that it’s outside of the realm of possibility for me, I’m just saying that it’s no longer something that I actively want to pursue. And I’ve long since convinced myself that I’m not a failure for not wanting those things, for now or ever, regardless of what other people seem to think.
You’re probably wondering what on earth this has to do with the title of this post, and rightly so. I do have a tendency to ramble when I’m giving exposition. But this goes back to what I was saying at the very beginning of this whole thing. I spent 8 years trying to figure out what it was that I wanted to do – I went to college, I graduated, and I got a job. Things should be simple and I should be happy, but I still feel that there’s something missing. And I think the biggest problem is I talk a much bigger game than I play.
You probably have gleaned from this blog thusfar that I have a serious case of wanderlust. I’ve wanted to globetrot ever since I was old enough to know that there was a world beyond my playground. I couldn’t really reconcile with the fact that there was so much of the world out there, and that I was only seeing a small, almost miniscule percentage of it. And that’s all very well and good, but intention doesn’t take you nearly as far as action does. I had all the intention in the world, just not the initiative. I have always planned at some point in my life to see as much of the world as possible while I still have the time, while I wasn’t anchored to a man or a baby.
And of course, I had to be realistic. I didn’t have the money to just jet off wherever I felt like, much as I wanted to. I was working full time and going to college full time and I was barely making enough money to feed myself and keep a roof over my head, let alone satiate my desperate desire to travel all over the world. When I was still at San Jose State University, I thought that my opportunity had shown up at last in the form of a study abroad program for a semester in Bath, England. I was already taking out student loans to fund my college education, so what was a few thousand more dollars in order for a once in a lifetime opportunity to visit countries that I’ve only ever dreamed of? But, of course, fate conspired against me. By the time I was at a point where I was eligible for the program, it was canceled, due to, ironically, lack of enrollment.
I graduated from college with the reluctant understanding that my chance to go abroad was now limited by the strength of my paychecks. And since I work as a teacher with over 15k in debt, you can imagine that my paychecks aren’t particularly powerful. Oh sure, opportunities were there, dangling precariously out of my reach – an offer to teach English in Japan for a year, a chance to apply for international internships, learning about travel hacking (a worthwhile venture if ever there was one). But all of these fell by the wayside, not just because of lack of organization by the people who had extended the offers to me, but, as I soon came to terms with the fact, that I was afraid.
I don’t know if you all know this, but the prospect of going overseas for an extended period of time is daunting as hell. There’s a real fear of the unknown, of being separated by the comfort and safety of the familiar. But it’s the price you pay for dreams. When you want to see the world, you can’t take your whole life with you. Part of you has to stay behind.
When I first heard about the University of Leeds through a friend who is currently attending, I had no plans to take my education past my bachelor’s degree. English majors rarely benefit from a graduate degree, so I filled out the application on a whim, more concerned about the idea of being abroad than being a student. So I strayed a bit in the application process, because I couldn’t reconcile the idea of putting myself even further into debt with my dream of going abroad. It just seemed like too much money for what I couldn’t consider a worthwhile reward, especially considering the tremendous issue of student debt that the American economy is currently facing.
But the university hadn’t lost its interest in me, and a few months ago, I was contacted by their department about submitting the documentation needed to complete the application process. I still had my doubts, but I was also facing yet another unfortunate effect of the economy, as well as the flaws in the American higher education system – I couldn’t get a full – time job, and I didn’t have the job skills or experience to distinguish me in a competitive job market. It’s true that I am making more money than I had been before graduation, but that job will offer me no growth or stability in the long run. I took the time to research the university’s MA program, and the more I read, the less my doubt became. I still had the concerns about the cost of the whole thing, as well as the prospect of being separated from my family and friends for a year, but that was soon outweighed by my increasing desire for the degree, and the chance to have the kind of adventure I had always dreamed of. I’m nearing the end of my twenties – I no longer have the time for fear.

So I submitted the documentation. As of April 29th, 2014, I have been accepted into the University of Leeds as a graduate student in Publication and Performance.

Looking back, making the decision was the easy part. Telling my mother that her only child would be leaving her for a year was hard. Understanding the amount of money and preparation needed to make this happen was hard. Knowing that I will be separated from my cats for a year was hard. Knowing that I will likely be absent from the birth of my best friend’s first baby, from Daniel’s first words and first steps, from my cousin’s high school graduation, from the most important people in my entire life was almost beyond bearing,

But I can’t think of it in terms of what I will be losing. I have to think of it in terms of what I will be gaining. Even though I’m coming back with 36k more in debt, and with once-in-a-lifetime opportunities missed, I will be coming back with not just an MA, but with the kind of experience I’ve always dreamed of having. And there will be another part of the world that I will have seen. And that’s what makes it worth the fear.

I’ll be leaving for England September 16th. Meanwhile, expect me to do quite a bit of documentation about the millions of things that I have to accomplish first.