Toronto is known for being one of the world’s most multicultural cities, and these days I do find it to be great place to live.
But believe it or not, when I first moved there in 2012 to study at the University of Toronto, I hated it.
Okay, maybe “hate” is too strong a word, but I definitely encountered a level of culture shock in the move from Beijing to Toronto that I wasn’t quite expecting.
Moving from a city of 21 million people to 2 million people was a sudden and striking change, and as much as I’ve come to appreciate Toronto now, living in its so-called “Downtown Core” – which barely compares to a mere fraction of Beijing’s great urban sprawl – just wasn’t doing it for me in terms of the excitement or fulfillment of day-to-day life.
The need for a change of pace grew more and more acute as time went by, so in the middle of my second year, I began looking into study abroad programs to try out someplace new.
I had always liked London on the two occasions I had visited previously, and the thought of an exchange program there immediately appealed to me.
London was a huge city with a storied history, a world city of global prominence, where I felt that I’d be much more in my element – and I also happened to be going through a bit of an Anglophile phase in my life at the time, harbouring a fascination for everything English from the Arctic Monkeys to Arsenal F.C.
Our applications for the study abroad program at University College London culminated in a group interview, and as someone who was already dreaming of mornings spent at the British Museum and evenings at Emirates Stadium, it was not too difficult to outperform some of my fellow applicants who came up with such gems as, “I’d love to go see where Harry Potter was filmed.”
And just like that, my year-long escape to the UK in the 2014–15 academic year was sorted out. In the summer of 2014, I returned to Toronto after visiting Brazil for the World Cup, finalized my student visa at the British consulate, and then packed up all my belongings into three suitcases for the trip to London.
(My Star Alliance Gold status, which allowed me to bring three checked bags even on an economy class ticket, sure came in handy at the time.)
Arriving in London
I still remember that sunny late summer day in September 2014 when I stepped out of Goodge Street tube station for the first time and made my way towards the residence halls that would be my home for the next eight months.
It was that sense of wonder that we travellers are familiar with as we arrive in a new city, writ large thanks to the knowledge that I’d be staying here for an extended period.
That feeling of wandering around, casting your gaze indiscriminately on a restaurant that’s waiting to be sampled, a street corner that’s waiting to be turned, a neighbourhood that’s waiting to be explored in depth.
That undercurrent of excitement knowing that handful of world-famous attractions were just down the street from me, and even more of them only a tube ride away.
And over the course of the year, it was a blessing to be able to fulfill these goals one-by-one.
Classes at UCL would meet much less frequently than I was used to back at UofT, so I’d make the most of every spare weekday and weekend to check some items off my bucket list, whether it was in the company of some local friends at the pub, some fellow exchange students to see all the sights (Camden Market one weekend, Borough Market the next, etc.), or even a solo adventure to the opposite side of town to see what lay in store at the end of the tube line.
And to spice up the exciting pace of life in London even further, there was also cornerstone of any junior-year exchange program in Europe, which was of course…
Travelling All Across Europe
Travelling across Europe is notoriously affordable, thanks to the proliferation of rail transport and low-cost carriers like Ryanair, EasyJet, WizzAir, and Norwegian across the continent. And with eight months’ worth of long weekends to fill from my home base in London, this was my year to take advantage and see as much of Europe as I could.
Best of all, there were dozens of other exchange students from elsewhere in the world who all had the same idea, so there was never a shortage of adventures to go on.
We started off modestly with a trip to Bath, Stonehenge, and Windsor a few hours outside of London, before graduating to a Berlin weekend in October and a Barcelona weekend in November, where I even had the pleasure of catching up with an old friend from high school who was on exchange in Spain as well.
Now, most exchange students choose to go abroad for a semester rather than a full year, which meant when I returned to London in January 2015 after spending the holidays back in China, I had the chance to meet an entirely new set of travel buddies.
The big event of the spring semester? St. Patrick’s Day in Dublin, of course.
We made quite an interesting journey out of it, too, taking the early-morning train from London to Holyhead on the coast of Wales, before embarking on the ferry journey across the Irish Sea over to Dublin.
Once there, we joined the thousands of fellow tourists in taking up roles as honorary Irishmen and Irishwomen for the weekend, and if I’m being honest, I emerged from the trip with very few memories that were not lost to the day-drinking… as well as a lifelong love of Guinness. Who would’ve guessed?
Late March would also mark the end of the UCL academic semester and the beginning of the month-long “reading break” – ostensibly some time off for students to prepare for their exams in May.
For me, though, this would be the time to embark on a grand tour of Europe with my girlfriend Jessy, with whom I had been in a long-distance relationship over the past little while, and that trip will be the focus of a future installment in this series.
Looking Back Now
Some might say that I was slacking off academically at UCL – I skipped classes to catch flights, brushed off assignments to hit the pub, and glossed over office hours to wander around the streets of London for hours on end. And looking back, I do agree that I could’ve gotten more out of my time at one of the world’s finest institutions from an academic perspective.
But let’s be honest, a junior-year exchange experience is just as much, if not more, about expanding one’s horizons and seeing more of the world over an extended period, than it is about getting another set of “A+”s in a different setting.
Besides, the way that the UK system works is that your final grade is only based on your performance at the end-of-year exam, so I put my head down and crammed in plenty of material along our train rides through the Balkans and on our hostel balcony in Athens, eventually securing a very respectable set of grades despite doing relatively little work for most of the year.
How’s that for immersing myself in the local way of life? 😉
There’s no doubt that 2014 and 2015 were some of the best years of my life at the time because of how much I enjoyed my study abroad experience.
And I won’t lie – I was an emotional wreck in June 2015 as I was preparing to head back to Toronto, taking long, brooding walks along the River Thames as I wondered if the exciting adventures of the past nine months were about to give way to drudgery and tedium once again.
It took me a while, but I gradually came to realize that the excitement, fulfillment, and thirst for adventure I felt in London can in fact be nurtured wherever I am in the world.
Launching Prince of Travel and embarking on memorable trips thanks to the magic of Miles & Points has been a huge part of that, of course. But even Toronto, a city that I had at first struggled to connect with all those years ago, has now become a place I’m proud to consider among the many I call home.
As for London? Well, I’ll always cherish the memories from my time living as a Londoner, and it remains among my favourite cities in the world. And of course, I continue to watch the Arsenal as I have for 18 years now.
But I must say that these days, I’m much less starry-eyed than before about London than I was back in a different phase of life. It’s always fun to go back, of course, but there are simply too many other places in the world worth exploring as well, and I can rest easy in the knowledge that those familiar old stomping grounds will always be there to rediscover when I do pass through again.
Studying abroad was a foundational experience in my growth as a person, a traveller, and a global citizen.
While Europe was the natural choice for me as someone who had lived in Asia and North America up to that point, these days there’s a lot to be gained from spending an extended time in Asia or the rest of the developing world as well.
No matter where you choose to go, though, I’m certain you’ll have a memorable time that sets you up for a lifetime’s worth of pursuing new adventures, and it’s something I’d highly recommend for any university students (or parents of university students) to consider if you get the chance.