Watching the Olympics this summer has been fun and not just because Ryan Lochte is about the cutest thing to happen to swimming.
Seeing all the images of Big Ben and the Thames make me nostalgic for my experience on a Temple University summer program in London 20 years ago.
Now I feel like it was a bit of a cop out to do a study abroad program in England, having my housing arranged for me and most of my days scheduled in a country where I didn’t have to learn a new language. (Well, mostly, as this video shows …)
But as a blue-collar kid in the Midwest, the only international travel I’d ever done was the occasional visit to Canada — which Michiganders sort of treat as the 51st state. I’d never had a passport or flown across an ocean.
I’d never been to any of the world’s large cities — we did the obligatory visit to Washington, D.C., when I was in middle school and I’d occasionally ventured into Detroit, but nothing on the scale of London.
Since I turned 16, I’d always had a car and had never had to depend on my feet and public transportation. I’d never used a subway or hailed a taxi.
Living in London opened my eyes to so many things.
Thankfully I had more cultured classmates who helped me navigate the trains and buses and who explained to me what a falafel was. We lived in a very Indian neighborhood and I have fond memories of the patient restaurant owner who explained to me what everything was and taught me to love samosas. (That’s also when I learned I don’t like cilantro … I don’t think I’d ever tasted it before.)
Probably the most profound experience was falling for a British guy who took me out with his friends and roommates and even invited me to dinner with his parents. Talking with citizens of another country was transformative.
For example, in the run up to the 1992 election, they knew more about George Bush and Bill Clinton than many of my peers back home. I could not say the same about my knowledge of international politics.
I was astounded to hear their perspectives on the U.S. military in Iraq, about gun violence and gangs in our country versus theirs, and about the prevalence of American pop culture around the world. Seeing us through their eyes made me consider my own views differently.
We went on a date to an American-themed restaurant in the suburbs of London and I cracked up as I explained that I’d never eaten or even heard of many of the items listed on the menu as authentically American.
A few months later, the British boy and his roommate came to visit me in the small northern Michigan town where I had my first job. Showing them my home state and answering their questions gave me even more to think about.
It’s 20 years later and as I reflect on my London time, I think it made me a different person — one more aware of other cultures and views, one more curious about experiences different from my own. And though I didn’t come home with a gold medal, I’m still pretty grateful.