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What's on in Bristol
Amber O'Leary from the U.S. Midwest spent six months studying at University in Bristol, England
The excitement of studying abroad is in the exploration of the new, the different and all of the things that are dissimilar from your world back home. For this college student, who had always lived in and gone to school in the Midwestern USA State of Illinois, choosing to study abroad at Bristol University in the United Kingdom was a stimulating adventure. As a junior, my third of four years at university, I knew that it was time to test myself, travel and immerse myself in a totally new culture for spring semester. Bristol was completely unknown to me, on a continent I had never stepped foot on, and ripe with expectation. During my six month stay, I discovered Bristol's thriving counterculture music and arts scenes, its ideal location for exploring London, Bath and Wales, and the cultural diversity of my fellow students at the university. My time abroad was thrilling, life changing and in the end I fell in love with England, the people, the places and the lifestyle. Cheers, and here's hoping that this recollection gets you excited about your own adventure and maybe even brings you to Bristol.
One thing that you should know about me is that I am passionate about music, and arriving in Bristol, I was excited to check out its Dubstep scene. Dubstep is electronic dance music with heavy bass and drum beats, and it is a relatively new and rapidly growing genre of music that first appeared in the late 1990s. DJs spin mixes at clubs all around Bristol, all nights of the week, and many popular pop and rap artists in the UK incorporate Dubstep into their music. Inventive DJs, such as Joker and Gemmy, start out in Bristol and thrive on the local student population's open minded receptiveness to their music. I visited just about every venue at least once, and there are so many clubs in the bustling city center. The thrill that I feel dancing to Dubstep comes from the intricate mash up of samples and the deep bass drops that get my heart racing. Bristol is not just about Dubstep, and while there, I fell in love with great British bands like the Big Pink, the Macccabees, and the Kooks.
Art is deeply appreciated and there are many galleries and art centers in the city. Bristol is the home to Banksy, the graffiti artist known for his stenciling that has appeared in cities around the world. He has even crossed over to the mainstream with the Bristol City Museum hosting a huge exhibit of his work. This exhibit was extra special because his identity is apparently unknown and Banksy is his alias. Street art covers the city, making it appear like a constantly changing, open canvas. Many buildings, especially in an area called Stokes Croft near where I lived, were decorated with graffiti art of creative political statements and funny images. Graffiti is not just allowed, but highly promoted in this area. I went to a few different outdoor festivals like the Stokes Croft fest in June where there was live music, activities, showcases of artwork and artist demonstrations on the street.
When I ventured beyond Bristol, it was an excellent point of departure. London is less than two hours away by train, and the Bristol airport made it easy to fly to the rest of Europe. Dublin was one of my favorite weekend trips where I toured many historic sites of the city, including Trinity College and the Guinness Brewery. A Dubliner on staff at our hostel sent us to an out-of-the-way, non-touristy, Irish pub on our first night. The pub was on a quiet corner just off a busy street. Every inch of the walls was filled with paraphernalia from the owner's travels, including pictures of him with John F. Kennedy and endless Irish family crests, banners and even rugby shorts nailed to the wall. The charm of the pub was intensified by the regular patrons joining together in singing Celtic tunes accompanied by an old Irishman playing his violin. I also visited the countryside along the gorgeous green coast of Ireland. For my month-long spring break I backpacked all over Europe from France to Italy to Spain, and I returned exhausted, enriched and happy to be back in my adopted home of Bristol.
A city of over 400,000, Bristol was the right sized urban environment for me, without being as big and overwhelming of a city as London. It is an urban campus with a large student population concentrated in areas like Stoke Bishop. In my cluster of first year housing, I met a great mix of people. Interacting with so many new people, both British and foreign students, built my self confidence and gave me the opportunity to relate to people with different experiences and perspectives. I lived in a student flat with mostly British students and two students from China. Sharing our everyday lives, we gained a deep understanding of our cultures. Our best experiences were making dinners together when my flat mates cooked typical English food like Yorkshire puddings, curry, or even a big Sunday Roast that many British families do every week.
A wonderful aspect of community in Bristol is going out to pubs, which are social meeting places. The drinking age in England is 18, and it is normal to sit and have a pint of cider, chat and laugh with friends during leisure time. This habit of relaxing over a pint with friends struck me as much more laid back than life in the US. People spend less time fretting over deadlines or obsessing about getting ahead. They took more time to stop and smell the roses and enjoy the surprises in life as they came. Pubs have a great friendly atmosphere and many people gather to watch football matches on TV. Patriotic fever spread throughout the city because the World Cup was going on while I was there. England played the United States, which made for a friendly rivalry between my friends and me. One awkward moment was when I was one of two Americans in a room full of Brits as the US tied their match in group play.
The British education system took a little getting used to because there is more emphasis on analytical thinking and independent research, rather than lectures, as a main source of information. My seminars of 10 or less students, where students have an open discussion with the professors, were much more intimate than my large lectures in the US. Students are also more focused in their study with all of their classes pertaining directly to their major. As a political science major, I picked the perfect time to study in the UK, because I was witness to British democracy in its fullest. The heated 2010 general elections were taking place, and students had strong opinions as important issues were at stake, such as funding for university education. One of the key prime minister debates took place in Bristol, and it was apparent that Bristol was an influential and important city for the outcome of the elections.
The best thing about Bristol was that there was always something fun going on during the week and on the weekends. I fell in love with England because I fell in love with Bristol. It is a city with tons of excitement and plenty of English culture and charm. I never had a dull moment exploring all of the entertainment and nightlife that caters to university students. My goal for the semester was to experience new things, learn about a particular place and immerse myself in a different culture. My goals and more were all realized in Bristol. My experience abroad is one I will always remember for the places I traveled to, friends I met, and time spent delving into the trendy and buzzing, yet comforting and quaint, English lifestyle.
Amber O'Leary is an Public Relations Intern at Hostelling International Chicago