Luke Bagnall from UEA, Norwich, UK here, writing about mine and my girlfriend Tilly’s experience of everyday English university life.
You know what’s not the most encouraging thing to hear every time you mention the name of the place you’ve elected to study abroad for six months of your life? ‘Norwich, eh? That’s – that’s really … out of the way. Why would you want to go to Norwich?’ For months, I heard this from everyone – from family in Newcastle to the attendant at the ticket gate in London. Thankfully, their comments were misguided. Norwich is great.
And how could it not be? It comes with the Stephen Fry seal of approval. Apparently he’s obssessed with Norwich. Here’s what he has to say about it:
‘Norwich is a fine city. None finer. If there is another city in the United Kingdom with a school of painters named after it, a matchless modern art gallery, a university with a reputation for literary excellence which can boast Booker Prize-winning alumni, one of the grandest Romanesque cathedrals in the world, and an extraordinary new state-of-the-art library then I have yet to hear of it.’
And I’m pretty impressed with the University of East Anglia as well.
Our first night, we arrived and almost immediately wanted to just settle into our respective rooms, which I speculate is the result of a month of itineracy.
My room, with all the documentation required to go on exchange.
I’m on the top floor of Norfolk Terrace B Block, and Til’s across the field from me on the bottom floor of Suffolk Terrace B Block. It’s kind of cool – I can see into her kitchen from mine because UEA is made exclusively of windows and concrete. The windows are pretty; the concrete notsomuch, but apparently all the buildings have been listed and they’re not allowed to change them. I think that’s okay, though, because the buildings are so distinctive. Norfolk Terrace was just used on the cover of the new Streets album:
The windows come in handy – I can climb through Til’s when I want to visit. That admittedly isn’t very often because Til lives with four other girls and about seven guys, all of whom are around eighteen, so her kitchen is generally pretty hilariously filthy, meaning we cook and eat at mine a lot more.
Told you they come in handy.
The first couple of days we were a bit too cool for any of the orientation activities. Don’t know why. I guess we thought buying essentials like soap and towels and food in town was more important than a scavenger hunt after six hours of orientation speeches from every official in the damn bureaucracy of the university (not a slight against UEA in particular; I imagine all unis do it). We did however go to Zest that first night, which is kind of like a UEA equivalent to Fuel Silo (which I hear is now just called ‘Fuel’ – ridiculous). They have three or four ready-made meal options every day which are usually pretty good quality, and you can get a drink and a soup or dessert for five pounds. In fact, we’re going there tonight. As well as the scavenger hunt, we missed the guided tour of the university, which bit me in the butt later when I had no idea where any of my classes were. But we’ve taken the initiative to explore it a few times ourselves:
These excursions were necessitated by the beauty of the campus, as you can see above (I think it’s quite similar to UOW’s – lots of space and fields; apparently it was once a golf course), but also by the absurd timetabling system instituted by the uni this semester, which everyone seems to be up in arms about. No classes have stable rooms, but have to move around the campus to different rooms every week. Everyone hates it, but as a visiting student it does give me more of a chance to see the uni.
Every Friday morning there’s a fire alarm test, which is usually really rough ’cause I have a four-day weekend that starts Thursday and I’m usually still asleep. The first week it happened we didn’t know what was going on, and Barbara, another exchange student, and I had a hesitant conversation in the hallway about whether we were supposed to evacuate or not. No one else seemed to be emerging from their rooms, so we gathered this was normal and I went back to bed. Then there’s also our lovely cleaner Debbie who comes in every morning to collect my bin. She really likes our flat and doesn’t report us when our kitchen is messy, I think because they endeared themselves to her last semester with the help of a clean-freak Australian who was on exchange but has since left. She’s really funny and, as my flatmates say, ‘proper Norfolk’, which means I sometimes can’t understand her. She also mops the carpet because the vaccuum (‘hoover’) doesn’t reach down the end of the hallway, which I find hysterical.
In the first half of semester I think I was drinking nearly every day … Everybody always wanted to go to the pub, and there were flat parties every night, and lots of clubs to try out in town. For a while our nights would follow a general pattern of going to the campus bar or someone’s apartment for predrinks, then going to the trashy on-campus club, the ‘LCR’ (no idea what that stands for) or a flat party and meeting someone who would invite a small group of people back to their flat to continue partying. Once this resulted in being in some guy’s room with four or five other people next to a gigantic pile of prescription drugs. That was weird. I think we were partying so much at first because only international students and first years really live on campus at UEA, and both of those groups are prone to drink quite a lot. Unfortunately though, Suffolk terrace, ‘the party block’ got banned from having any parties this semester, just after we’d been told how legendary the parties of Tilly’s flat were.
At LCR (photo by Kelia Bergin)
And as testament to the trashiness of the LCR, there’s this Facebook group called ‘Get a Room
‘, where people take photos of themselves with other people hooking up in the background. We contributed some ourselves:
The LCR has themed nights every week, and on Commando night our local Creative Writing friends introduced us to ‘death punch’, a radioactive-green poison comprised of great quantities of vodka, energy drink and mixers, that makes you pretty hypo. Luckily I only sampled – my friends Rob, Sam and George on the other hand, had a pretty messy night:
Another time, post-LCR, we went MATTRESS SURFING on the apartment stairs, which is obviously SO FUN:
(Picture by Kate Crowell)
But while they love their death punch over here, they don’t drink goon … Thankfully there’s one brand of cheap cask wine stocked in the UFO (Union Food Outlet), although it’s a paltry three litres as opposed to the mighty five-litre juggernaut that is Berri Estates Fruity White. My American friend Sam and I brought a box to our other, English friend Kim’s house and she actually tried to pierce the sack with a knife because she was so unfamiliar with the concept. What do impoverished students drink if not a good old goon sunrise!?
We’ve been going to Kim’s a lot to watch Dollhouse
and, on Pancake Day, eat pancakes, which has been great. We’ve also been to see her boyfriend’s band, Late Arrivals Club, play a few gigs, and seen her reading poetry one night too.
(Photo by Kim Sherwood)
I met Kim one day after class when she, Sam and I happened to be the last three people in the room and got to talking about Joss Whedon, after which she invited us over to watch the abovementioned Dollhouse. The three of us, sometimes on our own and sometimes with other creative writers, frequently have discussions that go until ridiculous hours of the morning, solving all of the world’s ills through debate. It’s very satisfying. The other night we stayed till six in the morning, despite having class at eleven.
All this socialising has resulted in my perfection of my hangover breakfast – freezing cold iced mocha, freezing cold apple juice, and bacon, egg, cheese, barbecue sauce, tomato sauce, butter, and freshly ground salt and pepper on chewy white rolls. Oh God.
I’ve been fairly disappointed with the food in Britain so far. I didn’t know it was renowned for bad food until recently, but it certainly does live up to that reputation. It’s not TERRIBLE, it’s just of a noticeably different standard to home. I think I might’ve expected it to be better than ours due to that inferiority complex of Australia’s I mentioned in my earlier post, ‘Impressions of the emerald isle’. I have had one amazing meal, though, on Valentine’s Day in the Library Bar and Restaurant. GOD, that was good!:
Another exception to the crap food rule was the amazing ‘Sunday roast’ we had the other night at my friend Rob’s house. I guess it doesn’t apply to home cooked food. I also have to mention Norfolk Apple Juice, of which I drank over a litre in fifteen minutes the other night because it is SO GOOD. But other than my own hangover breakfasts (and even their bacon is weird and spongey), the Library, the apple juice and also pasties, which are amazing, there’s little to get excited about culinarily – at least not in my experience. Even the water here tastes all awful and thin (Wikipedia suggests this may be due to lower levels of fluoridation here) Service in restaurants and shops is really bad as well. I miss the friendly Australian waiters who come over just to check if everything’s all right and if you want more water or anything. I’m REALLY missing Asian bakeries; the English just do not know how to make good bread, or even seem to want to. Barbara hates it as well, and when her boyfriend visited from Austria, she got him to bring some proper bread from home, and we had a little celebration in the kitchen:
As for UK life in general, outside of food, I’m generally loving it. I love that everyone reminds me of characters from Skins or The Inbetweeners. I love the words they use for parts of their houses that we don’t (loft, larder, landing, conservatory). I’m really going to miss never being hot, never having to worry that the bit of blanket brushing your leg in the middle of the night is a deadly spider (many times I’ve flinched, then thought ‘Oh wait, it’s England, nothing can kill you here’), and not having to seal or Gladwrap any food to keep it from cockroaches.
This is the worst I’ve seen so far – no harm from this guy.
Some observations on the British character:
- Everything you’ve heard about tea consumption and politeness is true.
- They’re AWFUL at giving directions. Literally every single person we’ve asked has given us a massive spiel detailing every possible route with any additional information they can think of. I’ve never seen a trait so present in every member of any society. And the way they do it is by mentioning landmarks along the way that are just confusing because you don’t know the area anyway: ‘You’ll come up on the fish and chip shop, keep going past that until you get to the paper shop and turn right, then look out for the post office on the right etc etc’.
- They say things like ‘To be fair’ and ‘In fairness’ on the front of all their sentences, regardless of whether or not it makes sense, and Til and I have found ourselves picking up this and other habits of British emphasis and rhythm in speech.
- They’re a bit morbid in weird ways. One really strange example is calling ‘op shops’ ‘hospice shops’. Why would you want to make explicit the link between the secondhand clothes you’re buying and the recently dead person who used to own them? Just weird …
- It’s really strange to me how they don’t have a way. You know how in Australia there’s a way you walk when someone is coming towards you, i.e. left. You always keep left. You drive on the left and walk on the left and if you’re on the right you’re wrong and you have to move left to let the person coming towards you past. Well here they don’t have a way. They drive on the left, but all their tube signs say keep right, but in everyday life they just go whichever way. Apparently, my friend Gilly tells me, this has given rise to a cheesy joke of a man saying, ‘Shall we dance?’ when that awkward thing happens where you both move the same way to let each other past.
- And finally, they really love their trashy crap. Nowhere is this more apparent than in their general taste in music and TV. They’re definitely not yet over the boy band or the gameshow. I’m starting to think they don’t have any good quality television. Their favourite programs consist entirely of those trashy shows that you guiltily enjoy but only permit yourself to watch one of because otherwise your brain will euthanise itself. These include such stunning televisual works of genius as X Factor, which is almost universally talked about; Sun, Sex and Suspicious Parents, where rowdy teenagers are sent on vacation and voyeuristically spied upon by their parents; My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding (what else is there to say?); Take Me Out, which only ran for about six weeks in Australia before being kicked to afternoon TV, The Weakest Link, which finished, what, TEN YEARS AGO, back home?; and, of course, Hollyoaks and Neighbours.
The untaxing timetable at UEA has allowed us to do work, socialise, be tourists, and yet still have our share of indulgent lazy days, most notably the time we bought a tub of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream and added chocolate bits and Nutella. The internet is also irresistably fast over here, which means I’m now up to season 14 of Survivor
. I went without internet access in my room for about a month when I first arrived because the instructions explicitly stated to plug the cable into the ‘data’ socket, not the ‘voice’ socket, and it took me that long to just try the latter, which, of course, worked immediately. Luckily there’s some mysterious wireless network called ‘Bryan’s Guest network’ which we’re not supposed to be able to access but which we can from our kitchen because our flat somehow has the password.
But back to the lax timetable (eight hours a week). It’s really different academically here. That four-day weekend I mentioned has done wonders for my sleeping pattern, NOT, but that might make life easier transitioning to the late-night lifestyle of Europe, when we go over there, and then also with jetlag when we come home. The quality of teaching here, I think, is largely on par with UOW, but the style of teaching I’m less keen on. It’s really self-directed, and there’s this attitude of, ‘By third year, we’ve taught you all we can and now it’s up to you’, which I find laughable because there’s ALWAYS something more to be taught. And you know, you pay a lot of money to get taught at uni, not to just do your own independent work. I also have to say I was expecting a higher quality of writing from my third-year Creative Writing class, just because of the university’s reputation in Literature and Creative Writing, but it’s largely no better, if not worse, than the standard at home. I think it’s because they don’t have a full degree in Writing here like they do at home, so they necessarily can’t devote as much time to honing the craft as you can at UOW. I think the Masters program is the one that might deserve its reputation. Sadly I see UOW has just overhauled its Creative Arts degree and almost halved the number of Creative Writing subjects on offer, making the model more similar to UEA’s and possibly diminishing the quality of future students’ experience.
But if the quality of writing coming out of the undergraduate program isn’t extremely high, the attitude to the arts and study is much better here. There’s a real culture of appreciating literature and art that just doesn’t exist back home, where you often feel embarrassed saying you’re studying Arts or Creative Arts. Never in my life have I met so many impassioned people, had so many amazing philosophical/religious/political conversations with truly intellectual people. I think at home we cringe if we talk too much about that stuff, or we worry people will think we’re wankers.
Early on in the semester we got a visit from Gilly and Elisa, the latter of whom is also posting on this blog, which was great fun. It was our first real exploration of Norwich, and we got totally lost despite Brian Blessed’s GPS contributions. I’m still not quite sure what went wrong, but I think it came down to not taking note of which carpark in which shopping centre we parked in. The visit was cut short, though, by Gilly’s need to renovate her house and by Elisa’s thinking that her flight was two days earlier than it actually was, which you can read about below in her own account of that weekend.
That about sums up my experience of living on campus in the UK so far. I thought I’d leave you with this striking image of me on an aptly named street in Norwich: