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Lessons learned abroad

Geoff Johnston | Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Spring has finally arrived: the flowers in the College garden are blooming, the days are growing unbelievably long (16 hours of sunlight) and the tables in front of the King’s Arms are filled with students sipping ales under striped umbrellas. I have started to enjoy the weather (when it is not raining) by jogging through the University Parks, where the Oxford cricket team has recently begun hosting a series of matches. Cricket matches are a lazy, all-day affair: a few dozen spectators lie on the grass, picnicking and chatting while the players dressed in white sweater vests and khakis stand for hours at a time, waiting for the occasional hit.We still have one entire term left here, but as this is my last column, I thought that I might take this opportunity to reflect on what the previous year has taught me about British culture and Oxford students. It has been a rough ride at times. Adjusting to the tutorials was sometimes painful, and when a tutor and I did not see eye-to-eye, well, the sessions felt like they lasted for weeks, not hours. Also, the Oxford students (as I have said before) are, on the whole, more reserved than Americans. Trying to strike up a random conversation with a Brit is like speaking to a wall, except that walls cannot express the combination of silent horror and fear that blossoms on the face of a student who has just been approached unaware.But, excepting the occasional cultural difference and lynch mob out to kill me for missing a soccer game, I have had a great time and learned more than I had thought possible. I learned what Oxford students think of America: they love our TV (especially the Simpsons, Friends, the OC, CSI and pretty much anything else they can catch on their dishes), they do not appreciate the Bush administration (that is a huge understatement), and they have no idea how much we pay for university (on a recent train ride, a young woman tried to argue that a right to free university education was a basic human entitlement). I have also learned a lot about Oxford students themselves: on average they are very similar to Notre Dame students and there is a similar range of partiers and workaholics here that you would find at Notre Dame. They are not the weird, anti-social brainiacs that they are made out to be (although, to finally settle the score, on average they probably party and drink slightly less than Domers). The fact that our program is a year long (as opposed to the many other programs that are only a term) has forced us to immerse ourselves in everything British: orange marmalade instead of peanut butter, British pop instead of American metal and ‘zed’ instead of ‘z.’ (I don’t know why they call it that, but they do). During breaks we have been forced to cook for ourselves, which has been an experience in and of itself: eggs and couscous, anyone? Anyone? Only one student I know here has a car, so buses, light rail, Ryan Air and the Tube are the only means of transportation. And I have heard enough about Blair, Becks, Posh, the Queen and the Prince to last me 10 lifetimes.Studying abroad for the year has also allowed time to travel: I recently returned from eight days in Italy, including a tour of the Vatican and a celebration of Easter Mass at St. Peter’s Square. I have been fortunate enough to enjoy many of Europe’s great museums, cities and cuisines – how do people survive without crepes or gelato? But for all of these unique cultural and intellectual experiences, having been here for a year, I can safely say that Notre Dame still holds a special place in my heart, and that I am looking forward to my senior year under the Dome. Only after being away from the place for a year can I now really appreciate how special Notre Dame is: the football games, the faith-filled atmosphere, the dorm communities, the Grotto and the Lakes. After a year in England, I am ready to return, ready to enjoy the dining hall (trust me, our dining halls get a bad rap), the Jig and tailgates. So to all of the seniors, farewell and good luck, and to everybody else, see you next year.

Geoff Johnston is a junior currently studying at Oxford University. His column appears every other Tuesday. He can be contacted at gjohnsto@nd.edu.The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily of The Observer.