London UNIVERSITIES, near an obscure station on the Underground called Chalk Farm, there is a four-story mansion of regal red brick called the Worrell House towers over the street, and it is full of Americans. Its classic Old World exterior features a flowing maroon staircase painted to match the color of the building, and the people who live there say the lead singer of Oasis used to own the place across the road. In the dining room, there is a lengthy wooden table surrounded by a dozen chairs and covered with laptops and an occasional pile of textbooks and loose paper. Classes like “British Fiction of the 20th Century” are taught at this table; at others times, it is a place to check e-mail, to write papers, and to chat with friends. The mansion is the London branch of Wake Forest University, yet its students need not necessarily step out into the streets of London when they live there. They have everything they need food, a bed, books, professors right there, and they could spend a whole semester without ever encountering the Jesus impersonators of Hyde Park or the brusque halal merchants of Whitechapel.
This is not to say these students never actually see London. When I studied abroad in that city for a semester, I had a friend I’ll call Sheila who lived at Worrell, and it was pretty clear that she knew much more about the museums and stage theaters of the city than I did. Sheila and the other people who stayed at Worrell that spring went on field trips to just about every cultural institution in London, not to mention most of the major destinations in Europe that I never got around to visiting.
Of course, I wasn’t just sitting on my hands as she wandered the halls of the National Portrait Gallery. Far away from the green fields and quaint crepe stands of her neighborhood, I was enrolled directly in a British college with British students in a part of town that was more or less normal, which in London means “smelly enough to make your bloody grandmother keel over.” Queen Mary and Westfield College, 9,000 students strong, is part of the city’s university system, and its drab, gray buildings take up a piece of not-necessarily-prime real estate on the Mile End Road in London’s East End. I became a regular student at QMW, albeit for a semester, and my experience, I have to think, was more authentically British than anything the kids at Worrellcould hope for.
When I arrived at QMW that January, I was presented not with a dorm full of other Americans but with one-fifth of a flat in Maynard House, one of the college’s newer residence halls. The building overlooked a long-forgotten canal, a pub called the New Globe (the Old Globe was down the street), and a blessedly inexpensive fast-food place, Kenssy Fried Chicken, where one pound sterling bought a drumstick and some fries. Six students each with a tight cubbyhole for a room that fed into a kitchen and sitting area, and that was the flat no more than 400 square feet.
Academics at QMW seemed to be much less important and rigorous than at American colleges. This is either a benefit or a drawback, depending on your mindset. Classes met once or twice a week at most, and many students regarded attendance as something of a suggestion. I took a few courses in politics. I optimistically attempted to buy schoolbooks, but the campus bookstore was more like a B. Dalton in that it had only one copy of each required text. Most of my professors required only a final paper or exam at the end of the semester, asking no further work of students, meaning those with procrastination complexes were really in for it.
I loved everything about this new system. It wasn’t because they made it pretty easy to coast for most of the semester, or because I saved lots of cash through the not-buying-books program. It was that the British system was so different, and I was completely immersed in it.
Take my neighborhood, for example. A settling point for London’s South Asian community, the East End is a mishmash of curry houses, public housing, and poorly lit pubs with legions of salty old men frowning at each other. It wasn’t a key destination on the tour bus route, and yet I don’t think any part of the London that tourists usually see could have taught me as much. We made weekend trips up a street called Brick Lane, home to at least 40 curry houses, occasionally forgoing dishes of lamb vindaloo for the Brick Lane Beigel Bake, a lonely vestige of the neighborhood’s Jewish past.
Naturally, in the beginning, we Americans at QMW sought each other out. Faced with the prospect of befriending a drunken Mancunian at the student center’s pub (it was a school-run drinking facility), those with Midwestern accents listened for other Midwestern accents. Emory University, my college back in the U.S., sent five people to QMW through a partnership between our two schools, though the other Emoroids (horrible nickname, no?) and I didn’t live near each other and generally did not interact on a regular basis. Like nearly everyone else, my first few friends at QMW were American, but together we longed to interact with the Brits all around us. Shortly after 11 (that’s when the pubs close) on a particularly uneventful evening at the New Globe, my American friend, also named Jeff, and I saw a few English guys stumbling around in front of us and knocking over trash cans on the road back to the flat. They must have heard us coming, because they turned around. “Hey, Americans,” one of them yelled. (I didn’t know we were that obvious.) “Help us trash these bins!” We steered our new friends away from vandalism and into the flat’s common room, where we all watched a horrible late-night talk show on Channel Four and agreed to play snooker at the pub the next night. Just like that, we had broken into the British circle.
By semester’s end, my British mates outnumbered my American ones. My flatmate Del, a born-and-bred Londoner whose nickname, somehow, was short for Alastair, took me to dinner at his home in Golders Green, a section of North London that is one of the city’s largest Jewish population centers. His mother served Yorkshire pudding and roast beef, of all things. With Del’s help, I swiftly navigated the oft-treacherous waters of London slang. (“You see that fit bird over there?” he would say to me in the corner of E1, our on-campus nightclub. “I’d give her a right snogging.” After a quick translation, I was hip to his M.O.) Matthew, a friend from a town near Canterbury, supported Tottenham Hotspur, then one of the worst football teams in the Premier League, and could instantly understand my passion for the exploits of the Detroit Tigers.
On occasion, I would visit Sheila up at Worrell House. She shared a room with one or two other American women. I could never quite put my finger on the feeling at Worrell; the people there would often gather at their laptops on the dining room table, talking about activities they had done in the city that weekend, yet some of them would slip on headphones and chat via instant message with people back on the home campus. It seemed like they were enjoying themselves, but I often wondered if they knew what they were missing. When Sheila came out with my British buddies and me to a bar that featured the British obsession with enormous versions of the games Connect Four and Jenga, she looked a little lost. I couldn’t blame her; like any group, we had our own in-jokes and mannerisms, but they were forged from humorous misunderstandings or cultural differences between myself and the Brits. It was a bond she didn’t have with the other American kids from Wake Forest in that big, quiet house.
At some point during our time in England, Sheila asked me to get a history book for her out of QMW’s school library, as she didn’t have access to one outside Worrell House. Sheila and I then proceeded to drift apart somewhat, and when the book became overdue I could never seem to reach her to get it back. The school nearly withheld my credits for failure to return it. But what better way to wedge myself into the machinery of the British bureaucracy? I eventually got the university off my back through a series of delightful phone calls with an excitable man in student affairs. Without Sheila’s unintentional help, I wouldn’t have had that authentically British bureaucratic bookend to my experience, just one more way of pretending I was British, at least for a little while. I’ll take that over a museum any day.