By Bryce Patterson
I arrived a little past dark in early January, 2014. The taxi ride to our apartments in the city center took us, a cluster of international students, through rainy streets, past rows of classic British duplexes, along pieces of the medieval wall that surrounded the original village, and down through cobblestone streets to our complex on the banks of the river Yar. It was too dark that night to see the spire of the cathedral, the iconic centerpiece of the city. Jet-lagged and exhausted by hours of travel, I crashed and burned within minutes of entering my apartment.
With my circadian rhythms several time zones behind my physical surroundings, I was up before the sun and shrugging on my rain jacket. Within an hour of exploration, I learned two things. One: always look upwards while walking. The glass store-fronts of much of the city are not especially awe-inspiring. Not awe-inspiring, that is, until you take the time to look up. That’s when you realize that the building that houses your grocery store predates the founding of the United States, often by hundreds of years. In Norwich, England, most things do. Thrift-shopping in the city is a religious experience for a history buff like me.
Norwich has a history spanning hundreds of years.My second lesson: nothing is open at oh-dark-thirty in Norwich. Nada. Zilch. Starving, I wandered the streets, praying for an “open” sign. Within about a three block radius of my apartment, I found four different medieval churches, each built out of the ubiquitous flint of the British Middle Ages. Exploring Norwich early in the morning, alone on the streets, is like stepping outside of time; or maybe more like taking huge strides that leave you in a different century each time. Norwich—“A Fine City,” as the slogan goes—is built in layers. Beginning as an ancient Celtic settlement and successively occupied by the Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans; Norwich is simultaneously a buzzing, modern town and a cross-section of British history. This is where Boudicca, warrior queen of the Iceni, led her rebellion against the Roman Empire; where Julian of Norwich became the first (known) woman to write a book in the English language. And, fun fact: Norwich is the only city to ever be excommunicated by the Pope (in 1274).
Maybe because of this, the people of Norwich have a different sense of history from most. While I was awed by the Roman Catholic Cathedral on the edge of downtown, an elderly gentleman on the bus explained that it was actually a “fake,” designed to look about four hundred years older than it really is. A fake, built in the mid-nineteenth century by a British lord, because the older (read: real) cathedral by the river was run by the Church of England. F.Y.I., both are incredible, but there’s an amazing satisfaction to telling a non-resident that the Catholic cathedral isn’t really that big of a deal.
I went to Norwich to study English. The University of East Anglia is legendary for its creative writing program, the first in the country, and the American studies department, which consistently ranks in the top ten of British universities. Not only did the built-up sense of history in Norwich inspire me to write, the academics gave me a chance to approach my own country and culture from a new angle. I took a class on American Gothic fiction taught by an English professor. I studied the Cold War from a British perspective. I was able to study my home country in the same way as my European classmates studied it, which is an invaluable experience. There’s just nothing like it. And after class every day, I could get out into Norwich—voted UNESCO City of Literature in 2012.
The ‘real’ cathedral was begun in the 11th and finished in the 12th century.It’s a lot to try and capture the city in words. Just outside of town is a forest called Mousehold. Beginning on a hillside, past a red brick 19th-century prison, you wander into a wilderness that feels (in places) utterly unchanged over the course of hundreds of years. I remember imagining Roman soldiers, caught in the English rain and pining for the Mediterranean. From the hillside, though, you can look out, and see Norwich Castle, built on a hill so the Norman invaders could keep a constant eye on the locals. You can see the winding streets, the way they appear and disappear and change name on every corner. You can see the Yar River. Over all of it, you can see Norwich Cathedral rising into the tallest spire for miles.
I should confess, studying abroad in England was about more to me than academics. My family moved to a small town between London and Oxford when I was aged eight. We stayed there for four years. I would guess that anyone who has moved between countries that young can relate to the sense of being caught between cultures, and to this day I still occasionally forget that no-one this side of the pond grew up listening to Busted. In that way, study abroad was a chance to return to my roots. I met up with my best friend from elementary school while there and we picked up like the past nine years had never happened. Studying in England was a way for me to reconnect with a heritage that feels just as integral to me as my American one.
Study abroad is not only a way to discover new cultures- it can also help you reconnect with your own history and heritage.There’s no easy way to capture my semester-abroad experience. There are too many moments, too many times that I could feel my entire life changing as it was happening. I could go on for pages, write thousands upon thousands of words. But if I could break my time in Norwich down into a few soapbox-y buzzwords, they would be:
Location. Location, location, location. Go somewhere you can fall in love with. Find routines you can fall in love with. Make the place you live an active, dynamic aspect of your learning and your personal growth. Find a coffee shop you can hardly bear to leave at closing time. Let your location challenge you.
Roots. Anywhere that you live will be temporary, but that shouldn’t stop you from exploring the community, meeting the locals, making friends. Maybe you’ll make it back someday, maybe not, but if you don’t feel culture shock returning to the U.S., you’re probably doing it wrong. Trust me, feeling ripped out of the earth is absolutely worth it.
Expectations. Try to have as few as possible. Go into the experience open to being changed by it, but don’t expect to know how that will happen.
To view more of Bryce’s study abroad photos, click here.