Maria Fischer

Global Engagement Fellow

Muted

Since bars and other venues in the U.K. are restricted to those eighteen and over, rather than twenty-one as in the states, I have been able to attend a few concerts across northern England. Tickets for smaller performances are usually less than £10 (roughly $13) and the cost of trains tickets from Sheffield to Manchester, or wherever the venue is located, often outstrips the cost of the concert ticket itself. While I have enjoyed these concerts immensely, I cannot help but note several marked differences between live-music events in England and those in the States.

Whether in a small pub or a large venue, bands must respect curfew. While bars and clubs will pour bass-heavy music through speaker systems until three in the morning, concerts are required to wrap up by 11 p.m. Given that venues are often in close proximity to residential areas, this is considerate, albeit strange to my American sensibilities. Furthermore, since daylight often lingers until 9 or 10 p.m., the openers usually play with sunshine streaming through the windows and skylights. To performers in the States, this interference with a carefully designed and coordinated lighting setup would be appalling. However, the concerts I have seen in England, even those of American bands, have relatively spartan and static lighting configurations.

Such reserved stage design matches well with the reserved audiences that attend. Even at upbeat rock concerts, the crowds, in my opinion, could be described as dead. Songs concluded to polite applause and a few cheers. Dancing or moving to the music is minimal and mosh pits are rare. I have observed this behavior across a variety of concerts, each in a different venue with a different style of music which leads me to conclude that this attitude is more a reflection of British conduct than the quality of the performance.

Finals Season

After weeks of drizzling rain and the cheery grey skies for which England is so famous, Sheffield has fallen into what I can only assume counts as summertime. The amount of sunshine has peaked dramatically and the weather has shot up to the sixties. I didn’t realize quite how well I had acclimated to the chill and the damp until it was taken away from me. I only packed a few items for warmer weather so I’ve been cycling through the same couple of outfits for the past several weeks. Despite growing up in the Midwest, I find it slightly too warm for my taste when the temperature peaks above sixty-five. I am expecting an unpleasant transition when I return to the States where the temperature is about forty degrees higher. Let’s just say I am relishing this weather while I have it.

May has been a strange time for the academic schedule here in England. Rather than one week of finals, exams and deadlines are spread over a three week period that includes weekends. One of my friends took an exam last Saturday morning. The last week of the semester before this exam period is called reading week and most professors either cancel class or hold revision sessions. Without the usual structure afforded by weekly classes, the last month feels loose and surreal. Papers are usually due in the first week of the exam period, presumably to allow students to focus on their revision.

Almost all of my final exams at OU have been administered in the room where the class has been meeting all semester. The rare exceptions are still administered in a classroom on campus with other students from my class taking the same exam. Here in Sheffield, exams seem to offered everywhere except classrooms. Last week, I took a final in a multi-purpose auditorium. The room had been cleared out and filled with hundreds of desks and chairs in neat, numbered rows. At least five different classes were taking their final exam at the same time, the students divided up into sections according to the test they were taking. A food court on the upper level of the student union has been shut down and converted into a testing space. Another student I know will be taking an economics exam at the student sporting complex. Several exams are being administered in a conference center on the other side of town. Given that the University of Sheffield is roughly the same size as the University of Oklahoma, I do not understand the need for such a complicated and confusing system.

Cover Art

Have you ever driven down past BJ’s and turned into the Barnes & Noble parking lot on the west side of I-35? The glass storefront emits a warm glow at night, beckoning you to the crisp paperbacks and luxurious notebooks nestled amongst the sounds of soft jazz and the smell of fresh coffee. Growing up, I saw more than my fair share of bookstores, independent and chain alike, lock their doors for the last time, and I assumed they were a dying breed. People still needed physical books, of course, but they did not need to select them from beautiful, carefully curated shelves. England proved me wrong.

I would struggle to count the number of bookshops I have visited in the past three months. Some, like Waterstones, WHSmith, and Blackwell’s are chains that pop up in major metropolitan areas and small university towns alike. Others are on their own, usually small and tightly packed, the floor-to-ceiling bookcases supervised by an owner or employee sipping tea in the corner. Books are respected, treasured, and proudly displayed. Stores that are blessed with a bit more space often squeeze in a coffee bar and a few accompanying tables. Any free wall space is filled with murals or artfully lettered quotations. People come in droves to browse, to linger, and to select their next read. The atmosphere is exquisite. The best part, however, is the books themselves.

I do not claim to be an expert on graphic design, but the book covers in England are the most beautiful ones I have ever seen. Both hardcovers and paperbacks are wrapped in designs conceptualized and executed with care usually reserved for special anniversary editions in the States. We are advised not to judge a book by its cover but when the cover is such an excellent reflection of the book itself, how can I resist?

“Berlin, the greatest cultural extravaganza that one could imagine.”

With three weeks of Easter break to fill, I have been taking the opportunity to travel around Europe. This past week I have been staying in Berlin. Although I previously spent six weeks in southern Germany, I regrettably did not make the time to travel up north and visit the nation’s capital. Returning after almost two years, I had forgotten how much I had enjoyed the little quirks of life that make Germany unique.

It was thrilling to rediscover favorite foods that had slipped my mind. I indulged in currywurst and döner, müesli with yogurt, peanut puffs, paprika potato chips, Spezi, and Milka chocolate bars. I savored the local produce and the many flavors of sparkling water offered in 1.5 L bottles for 0.69€ with a 0.25€ deposit. I crisscrossed the city on the U-Bahn and S-Bahn, never waiting for a late train or unsure of which stop was coming next. I ate lunch in the small parks dotted every few blocks, watching groups of friends and families with small children enjoying the fresh spring air. I crossed streets strictly according to the red and green men in wide-brimmed hats, rather than fighting for right of way as I do in England. I lounged in a plethora of imaginative coffeehouses and fought the urge to spend all my money in carefully curated bookstores. I wandered through neighborhoods admiring the graffiti on almost every surface, the poles covered in stickers and the windows papered with posters. I admired the wide variety of artistic expression that thrived in every corner.

Berlin is an amazing city, rich with history and culture, but I believe much of my enjoyment stemmed from the familiar comfort that I felt the moment I walked out of the airport. In the grand scheme of things, I have spent very little time in Germany and cannot claim to be an expert on German life. That being said, I thoroughly enjoy the little that I have experienced. Subtle aspects, such as the spacing between restaurant tables, and pervasive principles, such as the appreciation for expensive, but well-made products, feel right to me. I enjoyed Berlin immensely and I hope for the chance to return sooner rather than later.

Behind the Roses

Studying abroad isn’t easy.

If you ask other students at OU about their study abroad experiences, you will probably hear a plethora of positive adjectives. Amazing. Absolutely wonderful. Interesting. Rewarding. The list goes on. If you consult Facebook or Instagram or Snapchat, you will be inundated with beaming faces gesticulating to the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum behind them and goofy grins half hidden behind artisanal coffees and glasses of local wine.

These aren’t wrong. Although the stories may be condensed and edited, the pictures posed and filtered, study abroad is full of beautiful and inspiring moments that you will treasure for the rest of your life. That being said, this is only part of the experience.

I have not had any difficulties. I am in a country where everyone speaks English, I have not lost my suitcase or missed my train, I was able to enroll in classes that I can use for my degree, I have not been harassed or attacked or mugged. The worst thing that I have endured was falling ill in Switzerland and being forced to travel home early, forfeiting my nonrefundable tickets. I know travelers have faced much worse and I know OU students who have faced much worse, but nevertheless, this isn’t easy.

Think back to your freshman year at college, your first month at school. You were in a new place, you didn’t know how anything worked, and you were removed from friends and family. Studying abroad presents a host of similar challenges, set in a completely foreign environment. I expected things. I knew that it would be difficult to be separated from my loved ones, not only by distance but by a time difference. I knew that the classes would be formatted completely differently from those at OU and that I would need to double and triple check every requirement and deadline. I knew that I would essentially be living out of a suitcase, limited in my possessions by what I had brought with me and what I had room to bring back.

I did not expect the sheer volume of new input to be so overwhelming. My shopping excursions took ages as I flitted from store to store, unsure where to buy what I sought. I did not expect periods of excruciating boredom interjected with days of frantic productivity. The rhythm of coursework and errands and social life here evades my best attempts at synchronization. I did not expect the quiet constant unease stemming from the inescapable truth that no matter how beautiful my new linens were and how many new friends I was making, my time was fixed, running steadily through the hourglass, and this was not my home. Constantly poised on the edge of my seat, I hesitate to settle in, fearing to aggravate the sting of my inevitable departure.

I do not wish to dissuade anyone from studying abroad. I adore England and would make this choice again in a heartbeat. Every day is an adventure and every day I stop and think about how lucky I am to be here. I smile frequently, broad, genuine smiles that are rarely captured in photos. I am happy.

Just know, when you attend Study Abroad 101 and browse the programs and write your application essays reverberating with enthusiasm, studying abroad isn’t easy.

Destinations

It takes years to know a place. To settle in, to explore the forgotten corners, to take the roads less traveled. Most of us know our hometowns well and most upperclassmen would probably say they know Norman. Sheffield is entirely new to me. I have spent two months here and all my afternoon excursions and weekend explorations have only revealed a fraction of the city’s charm.

This morning, I took a bus into the Peak District, a nearby national park, and found out that I could purchase a student day pass for trips through the area for only £3. The expansive and gorgeous wilderness of Yorkshire was much more accessible than I had realized. This afternoon, I visited a new coffee shop and found out that the student who sits across from me in my literature discussion section works there. I savored my americano and worked through homework under artfully shaded Edison bulbs that I had never before noticed. I had often walked the bustling high street running out front but never stopped to sip a coffee on their plush teal couches. Last night, I was walking to a convenience store and stumbled upon a cafe connected to an indie cinema. It was only a short distance from the main train station and a mere block from the music venue I had visited the night before.

Although I have settled into a routine, attending the same classes, shopping at the same grocery stores, and the like, it is incredibly easy to try something new. I have an informal list of places I want to visit before I leave and despite my best efforts, I feel like the list is growing faster than I can check it off. Even though I am sure I will not be able to visit everything, I am glad that I will have seen so much of the Sheffield that is never included in visitor guides or on lists of must-see destinations.

Sandwich-in-a-Box

One of my favorite parts about studying abroad is the chance to immerse myself in another university’s culture. When you are at OU for nine months out of the year it is easy to forget that the university is a unique environment shaped by the preferences and habits of the student body. Crossroads, Canes, Lloyd Noble, the Blender, the clocktower, and many other campus mainstays have much more significance to the students than they would to a passing visitor. These shared locations and accompanying experiences are the perfect breeding ground for inside jokes and the foundation of a community. In the past month and a half, I have gradually been absorbing the student culture here at the University of Sheffield. The first and most important aspect has been the food.

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am on a meal plan and have been adjusting to “eating out” rather than cooking my own meals. I usually make breakfast in my kitchenette and get lunch from one of the many cafes and coffee shops scattered around campus. Since some of the coffee shops do not have a full kitchen, the food they can offer is limited to pastries, fruit, and what I like to call “sandwich-in-a-box.” This refers to a prepackaged sandwich by Tiffin Sandwiches which can be found almost anywhere in the city. Here is a picture of the sandwich shelves at the main store in the student union:

There are many sandwich options and I have gradually been working my way through the flavors in search of the best possible choice. Unfortunately, most of the dining options close sometime between 2 and 4 p.m. which means that I often eat dinner at the Edge, a mere five-minute walk from my dorm. The Edge’s crowning glory is the £4 meal, an offering that rotates through a biweekly schedule. Particularly among international students, schedules are decided based on what is available at the Edge that night.

One dining option that is not university owned but is essential to student life is a small trailer called John’s Van. Serving burgers, bagels, and wraps, the traditional meal is a sausage or bacon sandwich served with either coffee or tea for £2.10, £2 if you bring your own mug. Parked outside the mathematics and physics building in the middle of campus, John’s Van is able to capitalize expertly on the tired and hungry students who pass the intersection daily.

All in all, I know I still have a lot to learn about this university and about Sheffield but I sincerely appreciate feeling more at home each and every day.

Miles between Us

Compared to the United States, England is very small. I am frequently amazed by the number of historical sites that lie less than an hour away. The country is so densely packed compared to midwestern states. Anyone who has driven between Norman and Dallas or between Dallas and Austin can confirm the open stretches of fields and farmland. I cannot drive down the highway here without passing a town that has existed for centuries every thirty minutes. I might be exaggerating slightly, but as someone who goes to school in a state that has only existed for about a century, it is mind-boggling.

Curiously, most local students have not seen much of the British Isles, much less mainland Europe. Some travel to see football matches, commute to school, or visit family, but it does not seem common to go on day trips, or even weekend trips, to other cities only a few hours away. I am intrigued by this perception of distance so very different from my own.

This difference is just as interesting when reversed. Since the U.S. is so large, students want to know where exactly I live. Of course, this often leads to slight difficulties, since most people here are not familiar with Oklahoma. I cannot blame them since I am wholly unfamiliar with the internal geography of other countries. At one point I was explaining that Oklahoma is slightly left of Tennessee, which led them to believe it was next to California. Given how much of U.S. life is broadcast around the world in the form of news, movies, literature, and music, it is interesting to see which small distinctions are still unknown.

In my short time here, I have explored Sheffield and small parts of London, Manchester, and Leeds. Despite the modern buildings and business that have accumulated over the years, they still retain a beautiful charm of history. Plaques and neon lights are scattered in front of glass facades and ancient stonework. Even on my university campus, sleek, modern buildings with geometric designs stand next to ones that could reasonably pass for an unprotected castle. Given the many similarities between the U.S. and the U.K., I have struggled to explain to other students why I find the U.K. so interesting. I think this juxtaposition of old and new plays a major role.

The First Month

It has now been about a month since I arrived in England and I cannot believe the time has passed so quickly. Since neither my hometown nor Sheffield are home to a major international airport, I spent almost forty hours traveling from my front door in the U.S. to my new home in the U.K. Although I ran into a few difficulties during my travel, everything since has been smooth and simple. I stressed about switching into the classes I needed but the add/drop period here is three weeks so I had plenty of time to sort everything out.

I am staying in university accommodation, in a single room with a communal bathroom. I am on a meal plan, which is very nice, and I have access to a small kitchenette on my floor as well. It is amazing compared to the towers at OU, although I have been told this is terrible compared to Australian dorms. My floor has only international students, about twelve in all. I have met more international students in the past month than students from the U.K. because we all came here alone, or with one other student, and are trying to make new friends.

My classes are very different from classes at OU. I spend a lot less time in class and there is a greater emphasis on individual study outside the classroom. Rather than the professor teaching you all the information you need to know, he or she simply points you in the right direct and then you are expected to research and learn the material yourself. So far, I quite enjoy this method of learning. I feel more connected with the subject and I tend to dive deeper into the material than I would otherwise. In order to make time for this independent study, classes rarely assign graded homework. Most of my grade is based on the final and one or two other assignments that are due at some point in the semester. I am nervous about the lack of feedback throughout the semester so I will be checking in with my professors throughout the semester in office hours to make sure I am on track with the material.

Overall, this first month has been amazing. People in Sheffield are more reserved than in Norman but their friendliness still reminds me of southern hospitality. The university is large and well-organized, boasting all of the resources I have needed and then some. My housing and flatmates are great. The city itself has every sort of store and restaurant and park that I have wanted. Most importantly, my classes have been captivating and I am in love with this style of learning. I feel at home and I am looking forward to what new adventures the coming months will bring.

The First Commandment

In my opinion, Oklahoma is a religious state. Most people belong to some kind of Christian church, are willing to discuss it with anyone, and will invite you to join them on Sunday after knowing you for a short five minutes. I am not trying to criticize, I merely find it quite different compared to my hometown. With their shared roots, it is interesting to compare Christianity, with its many varied sects, and Judaism. This semester, I attended a guest lecture hosted by the Schusterman Center about varied interpretations of the First Commandment.

This fall ,the Schusterman Center brought Dr. Jim Diamond , a distinguished Jewish studies professor from the University of Waterloo, to campus as a guest speaker. His lecture was entitled: “Do We All Serve the Same God? The First ‘Commandment’” Although different religious traditions divide the Ten Commandments differently, the gist of the First Commandment is, “I am the Lord, your God.” As Dr. Diamond discussed, there is some contention over whether this is a commandment or a statement. During his lecture, he discussed the different interpretations of the First Commandment through the years by different religious groups in different countries. As someone who is not particularly familiar with Jewish studies, it was very interesting to hear the perspective of an expert on the matter. As a math major, I prefer dealing with exact sciences, subtleties that can be extrapolated and proved beyond a doubt. I have never taken a philosophy class and I do not have a lot of experience with subjective analysis beyond a few literature courses. Dr. Diamond’s lecture made me think about the distinctions between religious sects resulting from the cultural differences that quietly divide countries, states, and even cities.

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