Just over a week ago, I flew halfway across the world to do something completely out of my comfort zone – that’s right! You probably guessed by the title, but I’m now studying abroad in the UK to complete my exchange semester!
It has been such a long journey to get to where I am today – I’d been planning this a whole year in advance and after many late nights of planning, stress, sweat and tears, I’m finally abroad and kicking off my exchange semester! You can read about the finer details behind the application process and everything I did pre-departure in my previous blog post.
Let’s back track to the night of Saturday, 16th September. I’d stayed up until 2am the night before checking that I’d packed absolutely everything. My mum helped me with this and we stuffed up every single corner of my one and only suitcase that I was bringing and bounded it up with a luggage belt (- to this day, I still haven’t felt like I’ve left behind anything important – so I think we did a pretty good job!)
I was a ball of emotions the entire Saturday of my flight. Naturally I’d felt a little bit cranky and sleep deprived from sleeping so late the night before, but there was something else – pure dread and anxiety that hadn’t been there before but had been slowly and surely creeping up on me had fully manifested itself. Up until late August, I’d felt nothing but ecstatic and excited about starting my semester abroad. I’d had a massive break from uni from June until September and had been hyping my expectations up for D-DAY, but now that the day was actually before me, I felt sick to my stomach.
Could I really do this? Could I just leave my whole family, network and lifestyle behind for the next 5 months and set up shop somewhere else in the farthest corner of the universe from home?
I was also thinking of the gazillion things that could go wrong en route to Sheffield. I was flying alone for the first time in my life. Once the plane landed in London Heathrow airport, I’d also have to face another huge journey getting to central London to take a train halfway up England until I got to Sheffield. From there, I’d need to lug my baggage around and look for a taxi to my student quarters in the dark.
I’d have to do everything alone. On my very first day in the UK.
What if I got on the wrong flight? What if I got lost while the plane was stopping off in Dubai? What if I didn’t know where to wait on the platform for my train? What if I missed a train? Was London and the rest of the UK as scary as my parents made it sound?
Goodbye for now
My family dropped me off at Melbourne Airport and I said a quick sibling bye to my brother with a cheeky grin and my mum and and I headed on inside so I could drop off my checked in baggage.
When I got to the check in desk, I realised I’d already made a blunder – I’d only printed off my confirmation for my departure flight but not the actual itinerary showing my return flight. This was needed as proof that I would only be staying in the UK for no more than 6 months as my visa said I would. I felt my cheeks flare up with embarrassment as I dug around in my bag unable to produce the necessary document. Luckily, I had saved a screenshot of my return flight details on my phone and I showed this to the lady behind the desk who seemed satisfied enough.
“Is this your first time flying? You look very nervous.” she remarked.
I wanted to dig a hole and disappear into the ground. “N-no…” I managed, “but, it’s my first time flying alone” I admitted.
I walked away in total shock and embarrassment. I was convinced that a million other things would go wrong in the space of the 30 or so hours it would take me before I arrived in Sheffield.
My mum and I took a few selfies, then she said goodbye to me at the customs gate.
“Don’t be so anxious, everything will be okay” she reassured me.
We hugged and I promised to keep in touch with her some way or another – through WhatsApp, Skype and Snapchat.
Customs was a breeze. We didn’t even need to fill in those little forms anymore.
They also had electronic little gates that we could simply scan our passport and biometrics to get through.
I waited patiently at the gates, using the free WiFi to send last minute messages and snaps to my friends.
The flight was delayed almost an hour.
On the flight
When I finally boarded the flight it was close to midnight. I had a nice spacious front aisle seat in the upper deck. The passenger next to me introduced herself as a consultant on her way to a conference in Geneva on internet security.
She was a frequent flyer who travelled a lot for work. Let’s call her Ms Dixie.
Ms Dixie was on friendly terms with all the cabin and crew, being someone who travelled frequently with them. She was extremely interesting, intelligent and friendly and made my 13 hour flight to Dubai go by a lot faster.
We accidentally stayed up until 2am conversing about my exchange program, her work and other spontaneous topics such as food in different countries, politics, and travel. She told me that international conferences could be extremely tedious especially when things were lost in translation and there were errors in the agenda.
“There can be up to six different translations of the paperwork, which can all mean slightly different things due to nuances in the language,” she said. “Things get really confusing.”
At one point in the conversation, I commented, “It must be great, being able to travel for work.”
She simply shook her head and smiled, “No, not really.”
Ms Dixie was also kind enough to help me with figuring out how to navigate the tube and cross country trains, since she’d been to London quite a few times.
“After you get off Heathrow Airport, walk straight past the M&S Food and down the escalator. Keep walking straight past the Heathrow Express and until you reach the Underground station… oh and also, King’s Cross Station and St Pancras Station are twin stations so if you end up at St Pancras you needn’t worry, but just try and walk back across. And look up to see the signs to see which train you’ll be on – everyone usually makes a dash for the platform at the last minute…you might even catch a glimpse of Platform 9 and 1/2!**”
**I didn’t try and correct her and tell her that it was actually 9 and 3/4
The flight stopped over in Dubai for a refuel and I said good bye to Ms Dixie, who wished me luck for my exchange program.
As soon as I stepped off, I felt the heat. Even though it just looked like every other airport, the subtle differences reminded me that I was thousands of miles away from home.
Welcome to London
The six hour flight between Dubai and London went by quite quickly. I passed the time by watching one and a half episodes of American Gods. We were also set to arrive on schedule, which was good.
As the plane was landing, I caught a glimpse of the Thames and the London Eye from up above and my heart jumped in excitement. Iconic symbols of the great city that I’d always dreamt of were barely out of my reach! I was in awe.
I managed to make my way to the Underground station and board my train early, as I’d been assured by the Underground workers that I could board earlier than the time stamped on my ticket. This meant I would have plenty of time at King’s Cross Station so I wouldn’t have to worry about missing my train to Sheffield.
I hopped onto the red, white and blue train – which was surprisingly old, but exactly like the ones I’d seen in the movies – and sat dreamily while I watched it slowly make it’s way from the outskirts of London towards the bustling city centre. My heart skipped a beat when I heard names like ‘Covent Garden’, and ‘Kensington’ and announcements telling me to alight for ‘Buckingham Palace’ and the ‘Royal Victoria and Albert Museum’. I was living in a dream!
At King’s Cross Station, I mused at the architecture, gaped at the crowd lining up Platform 9 and 3/4 and wandered into the Harry Potter shop. I sat patiently and waited for my train to be announced at it’s platform.
I took the long distance train up from King’s Cross Station and the next three hours was spent passing by lush English countryside and greenery. It was dark by the time I made it to Sheffield and I took a taxi to pick up my keys and head to my student accomodation.
I got lost a few times on the way to my apartment, as it was further from the hub, but after walking around for a bit, I finally found my way.
I slept soundly, without having unpacked.
The next few days were spent settling in, buying groceries and necessities and seeing bits and pieces of my campus and the city centre. I relied on others to take me places for the first few days as I didn’t yet know the way myself.
A break down of the last week:
- I attended some Orientation and welcome talks by my faculty and went through the nightmarish process of registration. I had to bring all my documents, including offer letter and passport with me so that I could be formally registered on the university enrolment system and issued a student card. This was a bit of an annoying process and was fairly time consuming (and probably could have all been done online)!
- I went sightseeing around Sheffield and got to see the Town and City Hall and Winter Gardens as well as the shopping district.
- I got to pick up free utensils and homeware from a free shop, where anything from cutlery, desk lamps, pots and pans were donated by previous students who had lived in the residences. This was a very good scheme for us to save on money and not have to bring a lot of items with us when moving in as well as recycle and make good use of old homeware. The only condition was that we return the items back to the shop at the end of our stay.
- I attended a few events run by the university, including an ice skating event, karaoke (where I didn’t actually sing) and a Hogwarts themed party (which was just loud music, really, and not a whole heap of Harry Potter).
- I met Pauline (Pawlean) and Hamdah who I’ve been lucky enough to know through blogging! And we caught up over burritos at the Great Gatsby, a hip Mexican style restaurant-bar in the city centre.
- I went to the botanical gardens and fed a squirrel! And then headed over to the beautiful Weston Park Museum.
- I went with Pauline and Hamdah to Edale, a small rural village located in Peak District, which is a beautiful national park in central England. The town was very cute, but located next to a creepy gothic church and graveyard!
- I tried out rowing and fencing for the first time, through university run social and competitive sports events. Both are very fun, but awfully challenging!
- I vlogged almost everything.