The British experience of a foreign first year student and his friends
They say that change is the only constant in life. With that in mind, a few years ago I decided to study at a British university, far away from home. I just thought that if I had to do something new, why not make it big as well? No matter how bold I was trying to be, the very thought of leaving Poland and going to a different country completely on my own was still paralysing at times. I kept browsing the internet and reading about people studying abroad, trying to give myself at least some sort of preparation before going into the unknown. But as the time went by, I just learnt to go with the flow and not overthink the things I couldn’t control. And so after a while, I ended up here in Portsmouth, a place with a lot of surprises waiting for me.
My first day in the UK was already quite an adventure. I arrived here literally without any accommodation because I hadn’t got into halls and was unable to secure a house without a Brit willing to be my guarantor. So upon my arrival, I headed to the Student Housing office with all my luggage like: “I’m homeless, can you help me find a house?” This was my first serious encounter with British people and it was very embarrassing. I wasn’t used to the accents at the time (fine, I’m still not!), so I asked “Sorry, could you say that again?” so many times I still cringe when I think about it, and eventually I just started nodding and pretending I understood what they’d just said. They even had me ring a few landlords and the calls were so awkward I knew they would never get back to me. Luckily, the housing people decided to show some mercy to the pathetic foreigner and revealed there were still available rooms in the halls after all! Now, I’m really glad I couldn’t find a house before my arrival, otherwise I wouldn’t have experienced the hall life and met all the wonderful people here.
Oh, that wasn’t the end of my first day adventure. I took the free bus to Langstone to see a Polish friend I had made a few weeks earlier on Facebook. On the way, I met a guy from Hong Kong who randomly started talking to me at the bus stop – that was already something new to me as I’m pretty sure I would never meet anyone like that in my country. He was the first friend I made in town and we’re still in touch to this day! When I finally arrived in Langstone, it was comforting to be able to converse with a Polish person, without any awkward ‘what’s and ‘huh’s. We spent a few hours talking and when it got dark, we headed to the bus stop, so I could return to my halls. We waited. And waited. And waited some more. And then we looked at the timetable and realised the bus was still on the summer schedule. Well… I need to admit that sleeping on the cold floor in Langstone was not what I imagined my first night in Portsmouth to be, but hey, it’s a cool story to tell others.
In the first month, I got the chance to meet loads of people from all over the world as I attended a lot of international events. It seems funny to me now how everyone would just randomly hit each other up, introduce themselves and start talking. “Oh, you’re a friend of my Lebanese friend I made 5 minutes ago? So you’re my friend too! Wanna add each other on Facebook?” After a few weeks, I had met people from almost every continent and ended up becoming good friends with students from India, Brazil and China which was something quite unusual for a person coming from a very monoethnic country like Poland. It allowed us to learn a lot about our homes, bust any stereotypes we might have had, listen to each other’s music and even taste one another’s food (which just assured me I don’t tolerate spicy dishes).
It’s interesting and funny to see the differences between the UK and the rest of the world. Recently, I heard one of my British classmates ask: “Who even eats sandwiches for breakfast?!” and I had to take a moment to make sure she wasn’t joking. Then I realised the British breakfast in fact doesn’t include sandwiches while they are literally the essence of the morning food in Poland. Some other day, I was hanging out at my friend’s place with two other English students. I got thirsty, so I started pouring orange juice into my glass, but quickly stopped when the 3 British girls looked at me as if I had just done something unforgivable or crazy. “What are you doing?” they said. “Have you put water in there?” It turned out the juice was actually something called ‘squash’ and is supposed to be diluted before drinking. Being used to the regular juice in a box, I knew this couldn’t taste good. Finally, a moment later, after preparing the drink the proper British way, I sipped from the glass and actually did recognise the taste. I picked up my phone and texted my Brazilian friend from the halls: “I know someone who willingly buys the drink they serve us in the canteen,” to which he just responded with an “Ewww”. Hey, we’re not judging you, British people. It’s just those tiny, funny things that make us different. And now, a few weeks after the incident, I have started buying squash myself. See? Getting more and more British every day.
Speaking of the Brazilian friend, at one point I had noticed he would almost be running at pedestrian crossings if he saw a car coming, no matter how far and fast it was. I asked him if there was something different about the drivers in his country that had made him scared even here. He replied the Brazilians tended to be much faster and more violent, and some of them even speeded up on purpose just to scare the pedestrians. After complaining about the British drivers all the time, this made me appreciate them a bit more.
All of my foreign friends have good memories of living in the UK. I do not know a single person who regretted leaving their country and coming here. Some of them might have thought “What the hell am I doing? I don’t want to leave!” an hour before their flight to England, but in the end they’re all glad they have done so. Some of them found their love here in Portsmouth, some others have been able to discover their true identity in this open-minded environment, without the judging eye of their conservative relatives and friends. The things normal for you or me might not be so usual for other people. I have seen a few of my friends run outside to see snow and feel it on their skin for the first time in their lives. They used the opportunity to go clubbing and find out how they behaved after drinking alcohol. Also, I personally know someone in their twenties who is going through their first crush ever. It is absolutely hilarious to see them blush and freak out like a 13-year-old.
I’m sure a lot of international students can relate to me when I say that living here has turned out to be such a greater experience than expected. At the beginning, I was scared, not sure what was going on and had almost zero friends. After a few months, I feel more like myself than ever — I have met fantastic people and been able to express myself the way I always wanted to. While at first, I couldn’t stop thinking about the place I had left behind, now I can truly say that the UK has become my new home.