Alessandra

Alessandra Dagirmanjian
Study Abroad in English--Spring Semester 2015
Alessandra is a student at Boston College in Massachusetts, originally from Phoenix, Arizona. A junior at Boston College, she'll be completing the second semester of her third year of studies at QMUL. She is studying in the School of English and Drama at Queen Mary, taking courses on great British writers like Virginia Woolf and John Milton.

Close to Home: Things to Do Near Queen Mary

Living in London gives you the opportunity to go to all the incredible sites you’ve seen on television or read about. Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Piccadilly Circus, Buckingham Palace and several other incredible monuments make the city so rich with history. Of course, these are all important sites to see, especially if you’re studying in London for a few months and have the time to. Yet, as an associate student at Queen Mary, I’ve tried to discover culture and art closer to campus in the East End of London. These are just a few of my favorite things to do near Queen Mary.

 

Street Art or Graffiti Tour:    IMG_5688

This was one of my favorite tours in London. I learned so much from my guide about both art forms and the various artists roaming around London. He started off by explaining the difference between graffiti and street art, and then proceeded to take us around to several of his favorite pieces near Brick Lane. A street artist himself, he was passionate about the subject and often was thrilled to discover new pieces during our tour, that had just been painted days ago. This tour opened my eyes to the free and constantly changing museum that is the streets of London.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Genesis Cinema:

This is one of my favorite places to go for a study break during the week. My flat mates and I would go here to catch recent movies and student tickets are discounted on Mondays and Wednesdays. The best part of this theater, though, is their mixed salted and kettle popcorn.

 

Victoria Park: 1473019_863622813710326_4183656735986034723_n

Since I’m studying abroad in the Spring, I’ve managed to find plenty of beautiful sunny days to relax at Victoria Park. A friend and I decided to rent Barclay’s bikes and ride down the canal that runs next to campus to the park. I also walked the canal to the park a few times during finals to clear my head for a few minutes. It’s a great place to hang out, picnic or relax if you don’t have time to get to St. James’s Park or Hyde Park.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thrift Store:

Just down the street and to the left of Queen Mary’s campus is a thrift store where you can find all the flannel you’ll ever need. You can stuff as many clothes as you can into a bag for £10. It’s pretty fun to rummage through this place and I’ve actually found a few cool pieces from here!

 

On Returning to London

In my travels to other countries and cities in Europe this semester, I often find myself sincerely missing London and particularly Queen Mary. My returns to campus were strange in that I began to find this new place relatively old. As a student studying abroad, I found it amazing to experience a sense of the familiar in a formerly unfamiliar place. I think this sense of belonging somewhere that I had never even been to four weeks prior is one of the most incredible aspects of my Study Abroad experience.

When leaving home or school to study in a completely different country and take part in a different society and culture, students often consider the possibility of feeling homesick. I think a crucial aspect in the success of studying abroad is the ability to feel at home in a new place. The moment at which I felt this connection with Queen Mary was when I returned to the campus, excited to see my flat and my flat mates again.

The idea that I could feel so comforted by a place I had only lived in for a few weeks is in part due to its relative familiarity in comparison to Edinburgh, which I had visited the weekend before. Still, I think there’s a really profound importance in students’ ability to connect with a school that is not only far from their home, but reflects an entirely different sense of academics and culture. Yet, I felt like a QMUL student after my first weekend away from campus, because I had actually missed my classes there and its familiar buildings.

For this reason, I think studying abroad is more than just experiencing a new place. I think it’s becoming familiar with that place, and its culture, in a way that reveals a key aspect which travelling lacks. Successfully living and studying abroad means understanding that you as a person, are in many ways defined by where you live, study, go out and make friends. For this reason, I found myself capable of recognizing London and Queen Mary as familiar places.

Canal near Mile End

Canal near Mile End

Thames

Thames

A Pilgrimage to Canterbury

While studying in London and travelling to different countries, it’s sometimes hard to remember that there is more to England than this incredible pocket of diversity. A weekend trip outside of London can be a great way to counter that perception and the county of Kent was my choice for this experience. My journey to Kent included a visit to the well-known city of Canterbury, where I saw the Canterbury Cathedral and a very odd tour depicting Geoffrey Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales.

Canterbury

Canterbury

While Canterbury has been a significant religious site for centuries, literature lovers like myself think fondly of it as the inspiration for Chaucer’s tales. One of the best aspects for me of being abroad has been seeing the actual places I’ve read about in some of my favorite works. I’ve gotten to read Virginia Woolf’s novels while actually living in the city she often tried to capture in her writing. I saw the Brazen Head Pub in Dublin, where Jonathan Swift, the author of Gulliver’s Travels, a work I’m currently reading in my Satire course, used to hang out. Traversing the final point of Chaucer’s pilgrims’ journey was certainly just as spectacular.

The Cathedral with its incredibly detailed design gave me a greater understanding why people would have made extensive journeys to this place, even though I only took a two-hour bus ride from London to get there. The rich history of the Cathedral including the murder of Thomas Becket provided me with a foundational background for Chaucer’s work. It was spectacular to actually be in a place that was so intimately connected with something I had read in a classroom. My trip to Canterbury allowed me to have an interactive experience with a piece of writing from the fourteenth century, which was eye-opening for me, in part because I don’t have that opportunity in the U.S.

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Of course, the city of Canterbury acknowledges this connection to a very old text, and provides an interactive museum of manikins, which I can only describe as creepy and uninformative. It was still slightly entertaining, though, and mimicked the kind of unclear humor lurking beneath Chaucer’s writing.

 

London Café Hopping

As a student studying abroad for one semester, I often feel as though my life will end when I get back to the U.S. Now is the time to do everything in London that I scribbled onto that little post it on my bulletin board titled “Bucket List.” This drive to see and do everything possible in London has even pervaded my studies, and for this reason, I café hop.

Cafe hopping is a great way to see and do a lot abroad, with the added bonus of staying in school and not losing all of your money. For just £2 you can grab a coffee and a seat in some, dare I say, “hip” locations around London. I like to think the café or coffee shop is an important aspect of English culture, since Coffee Houses in England date back to the Enlightenment, when Englishmen discussed new ideas in chaotic and stimulating settings.[1] Of course, now most people at cafes are plugged into their iPods or laptops doing their own work, but I still find those excitable groups sitting with their £2 espressos, discussing life and London.

Some of the most unique and colorful cafes I’ve  found, where I can catch up on readings or work on module assignments, are pretty close to Queen Mary. These are three gems I’ve stumbled into, all within about thirty minutes of campus!

Look Mum No Hands!

Look Mum No Hands!

 

Look Mum No Hands!: Nearest Tube Station, Barbican 

This is one of the more unique places I’ve been to. The café doubles as a bike repair shop and reflects this setup in its souvenirs ranging from bike equipment to coffee mugs. I would definitely recommend coming here for a few hours to study and grab lunch, as it turns into a makeshift restaurant in the afternoon.

Shoreditch Coffee: Nearest Tube Station, Shoreditch High Street

I would describe this café as too cool for me, as is most of Shoreditch. The atmosphere is a wonderful combination of dingy and edgy accented with some large comfy couches and square tables. The space is cozy and small, but kind of quiet and ideal for working. I never wanted to leave Shoreditch, especially after trying their vegan blondie.

TImberyard Old Street

TImberyard Old Street

 

 

Timberyard:  Nearest Tube Station, Barbican

I’d choose this place for its chill atmosphere and range    of cronuts. They also have strong coffee, which helps when you’re struggling through an essay, or four.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Unknown, “The Internet In a Cup,” The Economist, 20 December 2003, Christmas Specials.

An Associate Student’s Take on QMUL Student Culture

Since my arrival in London, I’ve been on constant look out for aspects or characteristics of Queen Mary and the city that I can point to and say, “that’s unique” or “that’s striking”. To be honest, these unique qualities only became apparent to me with time; yet, once I began to notice aspects of student culture and academics at Queen Mary that struck me, I was excited as though I had solved some great mystery. Of course, they had only been a mystery to me until I discovered them.

One significant aspect of student culture at Queen Mary that differs from that of my home university is rooted in the fact that most students actually live off campus. Queen Mary often seems smaller than Boston College to me, but it actually has a much larger student body. While at Boston College it seems as though the entire student body is taking over the campus for a large portion of the day, Queen Mary often feels less packed, especially on Fridays. I found this difference also lies in the fact that students have less class time and perhaps larger amounts of reading at Queen Mary, which means they most likely spend less time on campus and more time, well, reading.

I think this “absence” makes student culture at Queen Mary somewhat difficult to define. While it is still present, it doesn’t jump out at you in a maroon and gold jersey the same way Boston College fandom does. Perhaps, this is due the difference in the way Queen Mary and Boston College treat athletics. At Boston College, American football, hockey and several other sports are heralded as great identifiers and promoted as significant aspects of student culture. Yet Queen Mary’s football and other sports teams, which are successful and well established, are not huge aspects of student life or events. There are no emails about upcoming games or flyers with a mascot’s face floating around Queen Mary’s campus. There are no hoards of students flocking to weekend games decked out in blue and white. While I’ve always taken part in this aspect of Boston College’s culture, and it’s a largely positive part of my experience there, I don’t find any kind of negative emptiness in its nonexistence at Queen Mary. Instead, I find a student body which puts less emphasis on identifying with their school and seems to focus more on academics.

In an attempt to gain a first-hand account of student culture at Queen Mary, I decided to ask my flat mate where she felt it was present. She explained that while Queen Mary’s student culture is not as noticeably pervasive as that of many American universities, it does lie in academia. An emphasis on humanities and discussion at Queen Mary has led to groups of students from the same course going out to eat together or hang out. They create a forum outside their classrooms in which to relate and discuss their studies. While there are dozens of academic clubs at Boston College, these kind of informal communities of students who go out to dinner together just because they are in the same class aren’t very common. BC students tend to bond with the people they live with, are in clubs with and have mutual friends with. In this way, student culture is prevalent at Queen Mary, but it exists more subtly and informally than it does at Boston College.

In noting these differences in student culture between my American university and Queen Mary I’ve found that neither approaches the experience of college in a superior or more enlightening way. My experience at Queen Mary thus far has simply shown me that BC’s culture of football and tailgates and hanging around campus for hours simply does not exist everywhere else in the world. These different practices enhance the uniqueness of each student body and cultivate a distinctive presence that exists within each campus. Experiencing these differences has allowed me to better understand and pinpoint significant aspects of my own educational experience at home, as well as those of students at Queen Mary.

Sundays in Shoreditch

Having explored several diverse and unique areas of London in my first two months at Queen Mary, I’ve found Shoreditch to be my favorite place to hang out on the weekends. This area is strange and complicated in the best way possible. In Shoreditch, you can find a myriad of special shops such as coffee houses, record stores, chocolate stores, vintage clothing stores, and even a cereal store. There are pop-up stores right outside the Overground, which are fun to check out every month or so as one brand leaves and another takes its place. Sundays in Shoreditch are a blast as well with street markets selling random trinkets and old clothes. These constantly changing streets offer unique food and shopping experiences around every corner. For me, though, Shoreditch is a wonderful place that encourages my penchant for wandering aimlessly. IMG_3649 Sundays in Shoreditch are, in a word, magical. The Brick Lane Market consists of dozens of stands selling old vinyl records, headbands, clothing—I was shocked to find a Boston College jacket on my first visit here—and, unexpected items like toothbrushes and iPhone covers. It’s the kind of market that’s perfect to go to when you don’t actually need anything but want to look at some strange forgotten objects or spend your extra cash. My friends and I wandered around here for hours, enjoying the sunny day and the bagels we had just bought at the 24-hour bagel shop. Just near Brick Lane, is the Columbia Road Flower Market, which is a more thrilling and chaotic experience than one might expect. Walking through the crowded street full of tourists and locals, my friends and I, like a pack of sardines, worked our way past dozens of stands selling everything from cacti to pansies to orange trees. Vendors shout prices at prospective buyers, even imploring you individually to check out their amazing varieties of flowers. I found myself, at one point, the target of a skilled cactus vendor, who nearly convinced me to buy several cacti I had no intention of bringing home with me.

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           Of course, I love spending afternoons in Shoreditch because of the large variety of interesting shops and food it offers. Yet, aside from its unique charm, this area also presents tourists like myself with an authentic London feel. Having stumbled upon enthusiastic vendors at the Flower Market and a strangely talented band performing in the street, I felt I had found something really “London-esque” to take back to Arizona with me. Perhaps, that drive we feel as enthusiastic travellers to find something authentic is never truly fulfilled by any one place, but I have certainly found something memorable in the streets of Shoreditch.

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Old Is All Around Us

 

I vaguely remember seeing a documentary about Stonehenge a few years ago and mentally putting it on my “places to go” bucket list. I was shocked that there could be a pile of stones somewhere that modern archaeologists and historians couldn’t attribute to a definite people, purpose or technology. So, when a couple of friends at QMUL brought up the idea of going to actually see this pile stones, I was thrilled.

Is it a moss-covered pile of stones in the middle of England? Yes, but Stonehenge is so much more than that. Standing there in front of this strangely haunting structure, I found the same feeling I’d first experienced while watching that documentary. These stones…are really, very old!

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“Old” might not seem like the best adjective to describe an ancient marvel like Stonehenge, but I think it’s probably one of the most significant aspects of Europe that American students find appealing, and deserves some consideration. Of course, being from the Southwest, I’ve seen really old natural wonders, like the Grand Canyon and Yosemite. Still, I’ve never had the opportunity to drive two and a half hours to see a five-thousand-year-old man-made structure, whose origins we still haven’t puzzled out. The accessibility of this place was kind of hard for my friends and I to wrap our minds around. To add to this confusion was the fact that we could see Stonehenge from the road we drove in on, when we had expected it to be in the middle of some valley far from any civilization. Yet, here was Stonehenge, sitting amidst sheep farms and large tour buses. If stones could talk…

After walking the circumference of Stonehenge and taking in its extraordinary strangeness, my friends and I got back on the bus and headed to Bath, home of the ancient Roman baths made from natural springs. Again, I experienced that sense of awe, which might be particular to Americans, who have never travelled in Europe. I saw and felt that this structure has existed for so much longer than all of the shops and people surrounding it.

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This discovery of the very old has been eye opening for me especially in thinking about where structures like Stonehenge and Bath lie. They sit in the middle of daily life, as though nothing has changed since they were built. This aspect of accessibility wouldn’t be so apparent to me if I were just in England for a week or two. For this reason, studying abroad has been so enlightening. There’s a sense I get from travelling, that even though this amazing site is in the middle of this foreign country, it’s only a couple hours’ drive from the place I’ll consider home for the next four months.

Here I am, finally!

It’s now been two weeks since I arrived at Queen Mary, both excited and terrified at the prospect of meeting new people, and attending a new school. Having applied to QMUL last spring, I felt as though my arrival in London was long overdue. Still, I had qualms about coming to a place where I knew no one and had absolutely no sense of the landmarks or direction. I spotted the London Eye outside the bus window on my journey from Heathrow to Mile End campus, and felt both a sense of “Here I am, finally!” and “Wait, where am I?” Walking into my empty single room in Maynard House, I felt an immediate need for the familiar.

London Eye

London Eye

Nevertheless, QMUL, perhaps anticipating the apparent shock I was experiencing, gave us affiliate students numerous ways of distracting ourselves in the first week. I think one of the most exciting moments for me during Orientation was listening to people from the Abroad Office list the various places I could visit while in London: the Columbia Road Flower Market, Mile End Park, the 2012 Olympic facilities, Wimbledon. My eyes opened wide as I finally realized I had entered a different, but entirely wonderful new realm. I started to remember why I had left the familiar behind, and began a conscious effort to welcome the unfamiliar. I thought, finally, here I am.

Mine and other abroad students’ attempts to orient ourselves here led to a primitive method of exploration called walking. We found the Copy (not coffee) shop, where we could receive our course packs, the Mile End library, the campus dining hall called the Curve and of course, the laundry room in France House. We also endeavored to take a trip down Mile End Road, noticing the local Sainsbury’s and some enticing pubs and restaurants. By discovering QMUL’s landmarks, I found I was able to gain a better idea of the place and started to feel more comfortable with my new surroundings.

Another daunting aspect of coming to QMUL was getting accustomed to different educational practices. The idea of immersing myself in a new student body seemed thrilling before I left Phoenix, but somewhat intimidating upon my arrival. Despite my trepidation in attending a new school, I’ve found the differences between Boston College and QMUL to be more fascinating and exciting than scary. Each of my modules only meets once a week but requires significantly more independent reading. Additionally, I’m able to focus on four modules rather than five classes as I do back home. Another aspect of British education I find interesting is the focus solely on one’s major, which is much different from most U.S. colleges that require students to take several courses in other subjects. Neither method seems more desirable to me, but rather, simply unique in their approaches. I’ve found my courses here so far inspiring, and interesting, with professors who seem entirely passionate about their discourses.

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My first two weeks of adjusting at QMUL have been a bit like my freshman year at Boston College, so it’s fitting that I live with freshmen here. As they kindly welcomed me to their flat, I began to regain that sense of excitement toward the unknown that I had in my first year of college. Everything at QMUL is new and interesting as an affiliate student, and also seemingly strange. Although I’ve lost the sense of superiority and experience of being a third year student, I’ve also gained a fresh sense of wonder in being in a new place. I feel subject to the whims of an entirely unfamiliar system, and happily lost in a sea of new buildings and faces. Finally, here I am.

Lost in London

Having lived in Boston, a wonderful but considerably small U.S. city, for two and a half years, the prospect of exploring a place as vast and complex as London was quite daunting. I found myself perusing several guidebooks my dad had given me for Christmas, taking notes, and highlighting various passages in the first few days of my arrival. How would I find all of these places? Would I have time to do everything? I felt I either had to conquer this city in 6 months, or leave having accomplished nothing. Of course, an experience as long and large as studying abroad is often much different from what we expect. The London I remember before boarding my British Airways flight was shrouded in mystery. Yet, after only two weeks in the city, I’ve already discovered numerous historical monuments, tourist-filled streets, and aging English pubs to keep me busy.

My weekends in London have been filled with adventure, insight and, of course, some tourist-like blunders. My first Tube experience began with my attempt to purchase an Oyster card. A frequent user of public transportation in Boston, I felt confident in my train card purchasing abilities. This confidence dwindled, however, when a local waiting patiently behind me pointed out that I was trying to cram a £5 note into a card scanner. My blunders continued further with my unique ability to get myself, and those following me, quite lost—a habit, which is not admirable, especially in large cities. Just this past weekend, I found myself the leader of a group of friends attempting to find a local pub, which ended with our having to ask directions just to get back to the train station. But this is how we learn, right?

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At some point, though, I found myself no longer concerned with making mistakes, or getting a bit off track, because these blunders often led me to discover places, which I might not have found in a Fodor’s Guide or Time Out, although both are helpful for deciding on a general direction to take. I have found numerous restaurants and hole-in-the-wall pubs just from wandering—safely and within certain bounds—the crowded or quiet streets of London. Some friends and I thought to take a journey to Borough Market this past Sunday—more of a pilgrimage for me, being both a food lover and dedicated Jamie Oliver fan—only to discover that Sunday was the only day the market was closed. We felt a bit stupid at first, but after crossing back over the Tower Bridge and returning to a familiar area by the Thames, discovered a uniquely pleasant brunch site called Bill’s.

My ability to get lost combined with an even greater inability to read maps has led me through several wonderful scenic routes as well, none of which were at all disappointing. In journeying to Kensington Palace, a group and I somehow arrived from Queen Mary at the exact opposite end of Hyde Park. I don’t think any of us regret a minute of that beautiful hike, though, where we passed the swan filled Serpentine and the Diana Memorial Fountain. We probably wouldn’t have thought to take the time to wander through this park, had we not ended up on the wrong side of it.

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Kensington Palace

 

After our tour of the palace, which we did eventually find, our journey back to the Piccadilly Station brought us through some unfamiliar streets, where we gladly discovered that, yes, London does have Chipotle. Perhaps, getting lost is the best way to find the right places.

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The street where we stumbled upon Chipotle

 

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