Roots

I think I’ve always thought there was a fundamental difference between rooted people and the free birds of the world. One was boring and had no sense of adventure, and the other was the ideal, fluttering off wherever their heart desired and constantly investigating new corners of the world. They were diametric opposites. They had to be.

The massive York Minster cathedral in the center of town.

I’ve got that typical 20-something affliction of nomadism, of wanting to see and taste and feel as much of the world as I possibly can. I want to know for myself that the world is bigger than me, and I want to feel like a tiny dot on a map because if I don’t the main thing that occupies my world is my own big ego. Travel brings you down to size, makes you feel like a part of a whole, and that’s a pretty cool thing. So once the time came, I was eager to have my time to fly around the globe and get my feet on as many new grounds as possible.

Then I went on my exchange year to York, and I realized (again) how limiting this type of binaristic thinking is. Because by any standard, I am doing the “free bird” thing this year. I’ve spent two weeks at home since September of this past year, and won’t be home again until late June, and even then it will only be for a little while. I won’t be home for a long period of time until mid-August. My exchange year is fully 9 months, and after that I’ll spend another month in Arusha, Tanzania. So I feel a bit like that free spirited bird this year, London a 2-hour train ride away and the rest of mainland Europe a 2 hour flight.

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Helping to repaint a friend’s business with York friends. And trying not to cough too much from paint in the process!

But by some miracle, found myself able to put down strong roots in this goofy medieval town of York. I found friends here, good friends, friends who don’t hesitate to loan me an extra plate or an egg or a shoulder to lean on when I’m missing home. The community I found (and have helped to build on some level) here is a massive part of the fabric of my life abroad. So much so that England feels just like that-my life. Not an extended holiday. Not even study abroad anymore, honestly. My life. And it’s given me a new perspective on what I already knew in Colorado (but perhaps maybe didn’t realize as strongly as it’s been there my whole life)-that roots matter wherever you go. You can’t withstand any of the tough parts of your life without some roots to keep you standing. You can survive without any roots, sure. But do any of us really just want to live life surviving?

I want to thrive. I’m thriving in York. And I’m wondering if maybe there’s a little more balance to things than my black-and-white mind would have me believe. That it is possible to be well-traveled and well-rooted, and that those two things don’t have to cancel each other out.

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Sunset in York.

Sometimes, the best of both worlds is not a myth. Sometimes it just takes a bit of extra work to get there.

-Faith Lierheimer, DUSA blogger

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Lessons Learned From First Term

My first term at the University of York is drawing to a close, and as I prepare to head home for Christmas and New Year’s, I’ve put together some things I’ve learned about living as an American in England after my first chunk of my exchange year.

  1. Yorkshire is a county full of immense local pride. Nothing quite brings that to your attention like standing in a crowd of locals at a concert who are all chanting “York-shire! York-shire!” Nothing quite makes you feel as viscerally at home than joining in that chant and having it swell to the point where you can feel it resonate in your chest.
An American and a German at a British rock concert.
  • Nothing teaches you humility like trying to learn all the ins and outs of life in North Yorkshire. Most of the locals have been happy to explain everything to me from how FIFA works, to how a football team makes the world cup, to why people care so much about football in the first place, to what on earth a “brolly” is (Hint: it’s an umbrella). Sometimes you can pick up on cultural nuances via context clues, but sometimes you can’t. And that’s fine! Plucking up the courage to ask what may be a pretty obvious question is an exercise in humility that everyone needs eventually. And it opens up an opportunity for locals to demonstrate kindness and patience towards you. Which, more often than not, they are happy to do.
  • England and America are two countries divided by a common language. Should you choose to go abroad anywhere in the UK, don’t underestimate the differences in these dialects and the cultural differences they bring. You’ll inevitably slip up at some point and say something embarrassing. It’s alright. It’ll happen. But the key to managing a new culture (even one that may not seem that different than home), is always listening. Go and spend time with just local people for awhile (as in actively seek out local company rather than just hanging out with other international students. You already know how to relate to Americans, it’s not going to challenge you to relate to them in another country) and just listen to the conversation before jumping in. English folks have very different methods of making friends than Americans, and you can really only learn this on the job.
A very British Christmas: Love Actually, wine, and Christmas crackers!
  • A political discussion is going to eventually come up. At some point, it’s likely that whomever you’re talking to will criticize something about America. You may or may not agree with said criticism. Whatever your opinion, wait before jumping to defend your home country. Probe a little. Ask more questions. Figure out what is influencing this person to think the way that they do. Then add your own opinion to the mix. Not only does this make for a more fruitful exchange, it sends a more positive message about Americans in general-that they’re politically aware and willing to try to see issues on a global scale, rather than just a countrywide one. And do keep in mind that every country in the world has serious issues and has made serious mistakes. Admitting to and expressing shame or sorrow over mistakes our nation has made doesn’t make you unpatriotic. It makes you honest.
Exploring the northern reaches of Britain in Edinburgh.
  • And finally, on a lighter note, give yourself permission to be silly. Everyone’s got a goofy side, and it often gives others permission to unleash their goofiness when they see yours. Even if (in my case) that means screeching your way through a karaoke rendition of the Time Warp. People will wonder how many drinks it took for you to pull off that entire dance and all the spoken bits (the answer, surprisingly, as zero. The karaoke bar in question was really expensive). But then they’ll quit wondering and dance the Time Warp with you in the haze of the fake smoke machine and leave breathless and grinning. And it’s moments like those, in addition to the more serious ones, where international bridges are built and some special friendships are formed, when people don’t feel the need to choose between silliness and seriousness. Both are integral parts of being human, I think.

It’s been a fantastic first term. For those of you heading back to the States for good, don’t let your experience fade. Write about it and preserve it. For those of you staying abroad for the whole year-we’re just getting started. Let’s make it count.

-Faith Lierheimer, DUSA blogger