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From London to Prague

By Gaurav Bhatnagar Posted: 09/27/2010
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Courtesy of Gaurav Bhatnagar
Emory’s Study abroad students posing in Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of playwright and poet William Shakespeare.
My first day in London was far from what I expected. My flight coming in was three hours late, outside, chilling rain and snow slushed the ground, and during a 40-minute cab ride to my dorm, I nearly threw up. Thankfully, those five or six hours were the complete opposite of the next five months.

The Center for International Programs Abroad at Emory (CIPA) had helped me prepare for the transition. Still, living in a dorm in a new country felt strange at first. The first night we went to a local pub to get food, we ended up getting lost along the way, still unfamiliar with our surroundings. But as each day went by, I became more and more familiar with the area and the people, recognizing familiar stores, employees and restaurants like our favorite Thai place or pub. Before long, I was taking shortcuts to classes, which were about a 10-minute walk from my dorm.

My list of things to do in London was already rather lengthy, and it only continued to grow as I talked to British students and other study-abroad students. Wasting no time getting around the city and checking things off our list, we went for runs and played frisbee in Regents and Hyde Park, which were packed with families having picnics, students playing soccer (or football as they call it there), kids catching up on sleep and friends just laying around on the grass talking.

We ate food from several different countries at many of London’s famous and predictably crowded markets such as Brick Lane, Camden and Borough. Most of the markets were made up of small stands all clustered together with narrow pathways crowded with people. My first visit to Brick Lane market was overwhelming — lining the pathway were stands for Brazilian, Indian, Ethiopian and Spanish food as well as one just for chocolate cake.

It felt surreal the first time my friends and I walked along the Thames by Parliament at night. From there we could see the entire city surrounding us, even catching a glimpse of Westminster Abbey. By the time we had explored most of the major areas like Covent Garden, Camden, Leicester Square and Trafalgar Square, we had our own favorite go-to spots just like the locals.

As we began to become more familiar with London, that 30-minute walk to Parliament turned into a two- or three-hour flight to Paris, Rome, Berlin and Amsterdam or a several-hour train ride to Prague, Budapest and Vienna. Nothing was more memorable than traveling around Europe. I will never forget that sense of excitement from booking tickets and hostels for the next trip or the feeling of anticipation right before landing in a new city.

Being able to navigate through a foreign city was especially rewarding. The day we got to Prague, I stopped to get some food at a small restaurant. Not sure whether there would be a language barrier, I tried saying the name of the dish I wanted. Recognizing my stuttering and the look of absolute confusion on my face, the waiter responded, in perfect English, “I’m guessing you mean the chicken?”

Travelling also made us realize how our view of London had changed. A city that at first was entirely new and overwhelming transformed into a place we considered home. After the first couple months, it did not even register in my head that I was living in a different country, let alone a different continent. Toward the end of our tour of Europe, I could not wait to return to London and sleep in my own bed again.

My academic experience in London was also very different from at Emory. Two of my four classes had only four students, and in one of them, I was the only American. I also had to adjust to the new system because there was much less teacher instruction and much more student independence in terms of reading and completing deadlines.

One of the British students in my seminar class, David, had taken all the recommended and required reading on the syllabus and created his own reading deadlines for them. By the first day of class, students had already started working on their papers.

After adjusting to these initial differences, I enjoyed the rest of my schooling. I was able to experience big lecture and small seminar classes, and I got to know most of the people who worked in the Political Studies department. I had each class only once a week, with a one-hour lecture and one-hour discussion section, and that gave me plenty of time to work on my papers and spend time exploring the city.

The British students in my classes, especially the small seminars, were friendly and curious to know about the application of the class to the U.S. On several occasions, Joseph, one of the students who never ran out of things to say, asked me about the legislative process in the U.S., which led to long class diversions. The professors were also interested in having these comparative discussions and did not seem to mind the frequent changes to the class agenda.

When the time finally came to leave, it felt as surreal as when I first arrived. Although it is nice to be back, there are some days I wish I could go grab fish and chips from around the corner, play soccer in Regents Park or hop on the tube to go explore a new part of the city.
All that, however, will have to wait for my next trip back.

— Contact Gaurav Bhatnagar

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