Maddie Stuart is a junior advertising and public relations major and business minor from Lincoln, Nebraska. She is one of 71 students who participated in the 28th annual Nebraska at Oxford Program held July 17 through August 13 at the University of Oxford in England.
Bags Packed, Ready to Go! – Thursday, June 30
As I looked around my room to check one last time to make sure I had everything I needed, it was hard to believe I was about to embark on a six-week journey to Europe. I grew up hearing tales of my dad’s adventures as he traveled around with friends before studying at Oxford, and I always knew that if I attended UNL, I would go on the same trip. Before now, I had never really planned a vacation by myself. I always traveled with family or friends and was never put in charge of booking flights or choosing hotels. I’m slightly afraid I did everything wrong, and my two weeks of travel will be a disaster. I guess at this point I have no choice but to accept whatever happens.
Before I arrive at Oxford, I’ll be visiting London, Prague, Salzburg, Florence and Barcelona with two friends. I have traveled abroad a few times before, and when I visited London on a high school theatre trip, every day was packed full of so many tours and activities that we didn’t have time to go anywhere off the beaten path. I like having a schedule to follow, but I would rather have the freedom to spend time exploring a cool site I find along the way than be disappointed I didn’t make it to every tourist attraction on my list. Hopefully, I’ll be able to maintain that attitude throughout my time in Europe.
While I am, of course, extremely excited for my time traveling, I am even more excited to begin studying at Oxford. I think now is a perfect time to study the politics and economy of Great Britain, seeing as the Brexit referendum passed earlier this week. I am so grateful for the opportunity to study at the oldest university in the English-speaking world, and I can’t wait to get started on this adventure. It feels like I’m heading off to Hogwarts!
How Do You Travel Across Europe? – Saturday, July 9
I’m now about halfway through my pre-Oxford travels, and I still learn something new every day. For example:
• Sunscreen is your best friend. I packed sunscreen, I swear, but I have yet to remember to wear it. Over the weekend, my friends and I decided to get up early and queue to get into Wimbledon. We ended up spending over six hours sitting on a blanket outside, followed by five more watching tennis in the sun. That morning, I thought, “London is cloudy. It’ll probably rain today,” and thus left my sunscreen in the hotel. Needless to say, I vaguely resembled a tomato by the end of the day.
• Don’t book multiple legs of a train journey with only six minutes to find the second train. It’s way too likely you’ll arrive five minutes late and end up scrambling to find a different train, on which you won’t have a seat. I spent an hour sitting on top of my suitcase in an aisle because I missed the train I had a seat reserved on… oops!
• If you’re traveling across multiple countries, bring a backpack, not a large suitcase. I realize now I should have dropped my luggage off at Oxford before beginning my journey across Europe. I’m packed for six weeks, so it’s a massive pain to lug a huge suitcase with me on trains, planes and automobiles. There’s also a lower weight limit for checked baggage on the smaller planes in between European countries, so I had to put all of my heavy items into my carry on when flying from London to Prague. My shoulders have been sore ever since.
• Street food is GOOD. Everywhere I’ve visited so far, I have been constantly surrounded by a huge variety of restaurants. While the varied European cuisine in these has been good, some of the best, most authentic local food I’ve found has come from a cart on the street. All of the fresh pastries, sausages and sandwiches are made by people proud to share the food they grew up cooking.
• Try to learn at least the basics of the local language. Czech makes no sense to me. I know some German and Italian, but still not enough to have a real conversation with anyone. Thankfully, plenty of people speak English in the places I’ve visited, but they tend to be annoyed when tourists just assume locals will understand. I’ve found that people like me better if I ask, “do you speak English?” in their language. “Thank you,” would also be a good one to know.
• Sometimes, no plan is the best plan. I have a long list of sites to explore in every city I’m visiting, but I hate the pressure of trying to see so many places in one day. Depending on where you are, it could be best to start your day at an exciting site and just keep walking from there, rather than hurrying from tourist attraction to tourist attraction. On my second day in Prague, we took a taxi to the Prague Castle, thinking we would only stay for an hour or so. We ended up spending nearly three hours exploring the grounds, then continued to walk through a part of town we hadn’t seen yet, and ended up right by our hotel at the end of our day.
Although I (unfortunately) learned all of these lessons at the cost of my own mistakes, I now feel prepared to take on my next nine days of travel as I continue exploring Europe and get ready to start at Oxford.
Back to Britain - July 15
It’s hard to believe I’ve been in Europe for over two weeks already! When I last wrote, it was the end of my first day in Salzburg, Austria. After that, I visited Florence, Italy and Barcelona, Spain. I returned to London this morning to spend the weekend before hopping on the bus to Oxford, and I am surprisingly grateful for the gloomy weather. It’s been so hot and humid everywhere else that a bit of rain and some clouds sounds quite nice.
I think it’ll be nice to settle into a dorm and unpack my suitcase for the first time in weeks. As someone who tries to live by the motto, “you can sleep when you’re dead,” I sure have been exhausted lately. During the school year I can stay up practically all night and still (usually) make it to an 8:30 a.m. class, but travel is exhausting. There are so many places to go and things to see, but when your feet are your only mode of transportation and it’s more than 100 degrees outside, the list of sites you can actually visit seems to get shorter and shorter each day. The best solution I found for this recurring problem was to plan my most important outings in the morning. If I got up and did at least one exciting thing each day, I would either feel motivated to keep trekking, or I would just go sit in a nice air-conditioned café and people watch.
Speaking of air conditioning, if you ever plan a trip to a hot country in the middle of summer, be sure to confirm the place you’re staying has functional AC. For example, Austria has only a few weeks of very warm summer weather, so buildings in Salzburg’s old town often don’t have air conditioning, as it usually isn’t necessary. Of course, I arrived at the start of this hot season. AC was very necessary.
Anyways, over the past few days, I realized I may have been wrong to say no plan is the best plan. It’s nice to just be able to explore all day, but when you’re in a larger city, where all of the things you want to see are spread out, you’ll never get to everything if you spend an extra hour at every attraction walking through all of the souvenir shops on the block. In Florence, I bought tickets in advance for the Uffizi Gallery and the Boboli Gardens, but forgot about the Galleria dell’Accademia, where Michelangelo’s ‘David’ is on display. When I showed up to get in line, I found there was hardly a chance I would get in before the gallery closed, so I paid extra to join a tour group and skip the line. Worth it. Thankfully, I also pre-ordered tickets for Barcelona’s Park Güell and Sagrada Familia – both showcasing Antoni Gaudí’s incredible architecture – as both were sold out on the days we visited.
I know a lot of people who want to avoid the “touristy” areas of town so they can experience more local culture, but I believe it’s possible to do both. Tourist attractions are usually popular for a reason, so you should at least find out what makes those sites so special. I’m not saying you need to wait in line at King’s Cross Station in London to take a picture at Platform 9 ¾ (although I definitely did that), but I do think it’s worth it to go inside the famous churches instead of just admiring them from afar. Exploring the road less traveled is exciting, but if you get too caught up in that, you could miss out on the incredible history and culture right in front of you.
As my free time in Europe comes to an end, I look forward to broadening my horizons even more at Oxford. A new prime minister has stepped into office since my last visit to London, just two weeks ago, and I have already met some incredible people from around the world who love hearing about Nebraska – although most don’t understand what “Cornhuskers” means. It may be hard to get back into a classroom mindset after so much time spent exploring just for fun, but I have no doubt there will be plenty of time for adventure when I’m not in class or studying.
Like a Local - Thursday, July 21
After five days at Oxford, I feel like a local. I’ve explored a few of the colleges near where all of the Nebraska students live. I’ve seen productions by multiple local Shakespeare companies. Most importantly, we’ve discovered a late night food truck around the corner from our dorms that many of us have visited every night this week. What more could I need?
Katlyn LaCroix with Stuart with student program coordinators A group of Oxford students has been planning social, cultural and athletic events for us, so we always have something to do after class. While these activities are all optional, I have been doing my best to experience as many new things as possible. I have seen three Shakespeare plays – “The Tempest,” “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and “Love’s Labour’s Lost” – in outdoor performance spaces, went to high tea and saw a local improvisational music group.
The most surprising thing so far has been the quality of the performances we’ve seen. We got off to a bit of a rough start with a confusing production of “The Tempest,” but I loved “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” This was the best I’ve ever seen it done. The cast of college students performed in a garden, and the show was set in the 1920s. Live music underscored many of the scenes, and the garden provided a great atmosphere for all the chaos of the play. I’m not sure I’ll ever enjoy another Shakespearean production as much as that one.
It definitely helps I’m taking the literature course while at Oxford, so I’ve had a chance to study Shakespeare’s language. I’ve read, seen and performed in a few of his plays before, so I am familiar with his work, but it has been nice to have Dr. Turner’s help to interpret the meaning of the plays right before we see them. Only five students are in the literature course, so it’s run a bit differently than Dr. Holmes’ course Political Economics of Great Britain Since 1945, in which all 71 students are enrolled. Even after only four days of class, I feel like I know so much more about the history, economics and theatre in England.
This weekend, we’re all going to London to see “Les Misérables” on the West End, and I’ll be visiting again on Tuesday with the literature class to see Shakespeare’s “Taming of the Shrew” at The Globe. I really was expecting to just have free time most days after class, so I’m very excited about all of the opportunities we all have to see plays and have fun experiencing local culture. This first week has flown by, and I can’t wait to see what adventures the rest of the trip holds.
Exploring England - Thursday, July 28
After the first few days of classes, time has flown by at Oxford. I’ve gotten to try so many new things and share so many incredible experiences with my classmates that I can hardly distinguish between the days anymore.
One of the most exciting things I got to try within the past few days was punting. Four of us got in a gondola-like boat, and one person stood on the back, pushing us with a pole. Nobody really taught us how to do it, so we struggled a little bit, but it was so much fun. It was surprisingly hard to make the boat go straight. Fortunately, I had Katlyn LaCroix in my boat, and she was a natural. One of the people working at the boat shop didn’t believe she hadn’t punted before! Needless to say, we had her do most of the work to get us from start to finish.
Over the weekend, all of us took a bus to London to see “Les Mis” on the West End. I’m very involved in music and theatre, so that was definitely a highlight of the trip for me. I had seen the movie and listened to the original Broadway cast recording before, but I had never seen the show live before last week. It was absolutely incredible. Even the people who didn’t seem to have any interest in musicals loved it.
We had time to explore London before and after the show, and I got another chance to visit the city on Tuesday, when my Shakespeare class went to see “The Taming of the Shrew” at the Globe Theater. The director went with a rather dark interpretation of the play, and set it in 1916 Ireland, during the Easter Rising. A lot of the humor in the show was lost because of this, but the actors were all amazing and it was so cool to see a play in a theater where Shakespeare performed and debuted some of his work. After the play, the two other girls in the class and I decided to spend the rest of the day visiting more sites in town. We went on the London Eye—the fast track tickets were an extra $5 and saved us from waiting in line for two hours—then got some fish and chips and visited the David Bowie memorial. My favorite part of the day was realizing I actually knew where I was and how to get where we wanted to go. I guess all the time I’ve spent there lately has really paid off!
On Monday, we had our annual football (soccer) tournament. Fun fact: my dad and his friends apparently started this tradition, when they were in a pub with some people from another American school, and challenged them to a game of soccer. The Nebraskans won. This time, we just played in teams of five against the other Nebraska students, and I unfortunately did not inherit my dad’s athletic ability. Each team was required to have a girl on it, or else they would face a two-point penalty, so Katlyn and I were bribed to be on a team with some of our friends. We lost in the overtime after missing our penalty kick, but I definitely think we were the best losers. I wasn’t much help to the team, but the rest of them were great!
The group ventured away from Oxford yet again on Wednesday, when we went to the horse races at Sandown Park. I got a fancy hat for the occasion, even though nobody really wears hats to everyday horse races. It was still worth it. I placed a few small bets throughout the evening, but didn’t win anything, probably because I really don’t know how to judge what makes a horse winning material. Two of the boys in our group predicted the first or second place horse in all six rounds, and ended up winning about 100 pounds each, just from that. Everyone (especially Dr. Horsewood, who taught everyone how to bet on horses) was a little bit jealous.
It’s almost the halfway point in my time at Oxford, and I already know I won’t be ready to leave when the time comes. I don’t know how I’ve had time to go to class, stud, and fit so many new adventures into the past couple of weeks. This evening, I’ll be on a plane to Dublin, Ireland for our extended weekend. After that, there’s only one full week of classes before we start preparing for exams. I guess it’s time to find a better equilibrium between school and fun.
A Weekend in Ireland – Sunday, July 31
Classes were cancelled on Friday, so I used the extra free day to take a weekend holiday to Dublin with a bunch of other UNL students. I believe 28 of us chose that as our destination, and I flew to Ireland and stayed in a hostel with a group of eight.
On Friday, we visited both the Guinness storehouse and the Jameson whiskey distillery. Our waiter that night told us a leprechaun dies when you spill Irish alcohol. Seems a bit dramatic.
That evening, a few of us went out to see Trinity College and Christ Church Cathedral. At Oxford, we aren’t allowed to walk on the grass because they want it to remain in pristine condition for when the students return in the fall. At Trinity College, we were so wary of stepping on the grass that when we were walking on a field and heard a man yelling for his kids to come back, we thought he was scolding us for stepping on the grass. After we talked to the man and everyone laughed about the misunderstanding, we decided to continue our stroll through the field.
On our way to the church, we walked behind Dublin Castle, but never figured out how to get around it to the front. Oh well. By the time we made it to Christ Church, it was closed to visitors, but we still were able to admire it from afar.
We woke up bright and early on Saturday morning to take a day trip through 11 of Ireland’s 32 counties. Twenty-three of the 28 UNL students in Ireland were in our tour group. It was a loud bus.
Our first stop of the tour was at Barack Obama Plaza. Yes, named after our president. In the early stages of the 2008 election, it was revealed Obama’s ancestors hailed from the small town of Moneygall, Ireland. The locals were thrilled about this revelation that the 298 citizens of Moneygall decided to endorse Obama in the election. After he won in November, they officially invited him to town to enjoy a pint and learn about his ancestry. Since then, the town has sold Obama trinkets, they serve American food and the town hosts the Moneygall American Festival over the 4th of July every year. I really thought I misheard our tour guide when he told us the name of the stop. Guess not.
After that, we moved on to the primary destination of the day: the Cliffs of Moher. We arrived right as the sun came out and left just before it started raining. It was an absolutely perfect day to walk around the cliffs overlooking the Atlantic Ocean. We also got to go to the mini cliffs a little ways away. These required a little more climbing and caution to take our pictures, but it was totally worth it. I wasn’t scared of heights until I jumped down the side of a cliff to get a good picture and realized how windy it was. Did I mention I’m really clumsy? That probably wasn’t my best decision. Thankfully, we all made it out unscathed. Only one person fell, and it wasn’t me!
The last major stop on the tour was at Corcomroe Abbey, a church in County Clare that opened somewhere in the late 12th or early 13th century AD. We were basically walking over graves from the last 800 years the whole time. There was also a hole in the bottom of the altar, through which we could see part of a skull. That was kind of cool, kind of creepy. I’m glad we went there while it was still light outside.
By the end of the day, we were all pretty exhausted, so the group I was with just hung around our hostel for the rest of the night. We got up early this morning to head back to Oxford, and it felt weirdly comforting to pull back into the Gloucester Green bus stop and walk up Ship Street to get to our rooms. We’re home!
From Hamlet to the Olympics – Friday, August 5
After returning from Dublin, it took me a while to make up for my lack of sleep over the weekend, so this week has been a bit more relaxed. On Monday, most of the group went on a riverboat cruise, during which some people studied while others caught up on gossip from the weekend. I chose to read the new “Harry Potter” book, and it was an afternoon well spent.
On Wednesday, some of us saw the Oxford Philharmonic Orchestra perform with Menahem Pressler, an incredible 92-year-old pianist. Even though he could hardly walk onstage without assistance, he looked so genuinely happy to be there and brought such spirit to the music of Mozart and Haydn that he shared with us.
The highlight of my week – possibly of the whole trip –was the production of “Hamlet” we saw yesterday in Stratford-Upon-Avon. Shakespeare was born there, thus the town is home to the Royal Shakespeare Company. I actually visited there a few years ago on a high school theatre trip, and we saw a version of “Hamlet” I did not enjoy, so I was a bit wary of giving it a second try. After reading and analyzing the play in class this week, however, I had a much better understanding of what was going on. This staging set the play in modern day western Africa, where young Hamlet has just returned to after graduating from college. There was so much more color in this production than the version I previously saw, and I was just amazed by the talent of all the actors. I can’t believe I hated this play a week ago.
Beyond that, I’ve really just been spending time with friends around campus this week. We have discovered there are a few other groups of American students in town, so some of us have made friends from Florida, Virginia and Georgia. It’s always reassuring to meet people who actually know where Nebraska is! Too many people have asked me if that’s in Canada.
Tonight, we’ll all go to one of our favorite pubs to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympics, although it won’t end until about 4 a.m. thanks to the time change. After that, there’s only one more week before we all head home. I feel like I’ve been here forever, but still can’t believe how quickly the past three weeks have gone by. I’m just not ready to go back to the real world.
The End! - Saturday, August 13
And just like that, it’s over. Five weeks of fun and one week of 24/7 studying later, I’m almost back to the heartland. While I am excited to finally see my dog (and I guess my family and friends, too), I’m not sure I’m ready to get back to the real world.
Six weeks is the longest I’ve ever been away from home, as my family lives just across town from the University, but I really wasn’t homesick at all. I had so much fun making friends and exploring new places every day that I didn’t have time to think about what I might have been missing at home.
During my last weekend in England, I finally went over to visit Blenheim Palace, which is the residence of the dukes of Marlborough and the birthplace of Winston Churchill. The tour I went on was full of animatronics and hologram-type people, so it was a bit strange, but the palace was incredible. It’s located next to a lake and surrounded by gardens and a little waterfall, so my friends and I spent a lot of our day just walking around outside and enjoying the nice weather. I also went to an outlet mall a little ways out of town, and although I didn’t actually buy anything, it made for a nice study break.
I spent the week writing my final essay for the literature course and finding new places to study for the exam in Dr. Holmes’ class. As it turns out, colorful study guides make reviewing much easier, and setting stacks of paper on the ground on a windy day never ends well.
Thankfully, I made it through the exam, got my paper turned in on time, and made it to Oxford University Parks to celebrate with my classmates on Friday afternoon. Those of us who didn’t take an evening nap said our goodbyes at the closing banquet, and ended the night at one of our favorite pubs in town. I doubt anyone got much sleep before heading to the airport this morning.
The time I spent traveling through Europe and studying at Oxford is incomparable to anything else I’ve done. I learned so much about how to make the most out of my time and be optimistic when it seems like everything is going wrong. I made new friends, got out of my comfort zone and took classes at the oldest university in the English-speaking world.
Now, I’m just sitting in the Detroit airport, watching my flight to Omaha get more and more delayed by the minute. This is really testing my patience, but thankfully, there are two other Nebraska at Oxford students here who are just as exhausted as I am, so we can all suffer together.
Cheers to my (eventual) return to Nebraska and a great six weeks abroad!
CBA Study Abroad website