Jetting off to London Alone

Story by Alyssa Bilotta, bilotta.a@husky.neu.edu

I stood alone at the American Airlines terminal of Miami International Airport. Watching my dad drive away, I strongly considered abandoning my luggage and sprinting after him. How did I think that I could just move to another country for three months without knowing anyone?  This plane ride was going to be the longest eight hours of my life, and I was decidedly not excited.

Back in March, I had applied to study abroad at Queen Mary University of London for the fall semester. As September approached, I learned that I would be living on-campus in a flat with seven other people. Because I was not told any information about my roommates until the day I arrived in London, I was more worried than ever about making friends and feeling lonely for three long months. Everyone told me that this experience would be the best time of my life. I had previously studied abroad in Florence, and that summer had actually been the best time of my life so far. I had spent one month in Florence during the summer after my freshman year, and those four weeks spent soaking up the Italian sun were eye-opening. So even though I had studied abroad before (and loved it), it was only for one month.  Now, I was anxious that my three-month London experience would not live up to the expectations of my friends and family. What if this fall semester abroad was not “the best time of my life”? I knew plenty of people who studied abroad for entire semesters, but they flew off to various countries together with friends from home. In hopes of remaining calm, I put my headphones in and began listening to my favorite playlist.

After my flight arrived in London the next day, I hopped on a bus provided by Queen Mary and settled in for the supposedly 45 minute ride. The bus ride ended up lasting over 3 hours –my first taste of the infamous London traffic. Queen Mary University of London is located in East London. East London is an ethnic enclave, known for its numerous Indian restaurants, open-air markets, and Islamic mosques. This city had already drawn me in, for London is steeped in history that runs much deeper than Boston’s.  London’s narrative dates back to Roman times around 50 AD. When Boston was just making a name for itself as the center of the tea party, London had already been established as a city for 1700 years.  I made a promise to myself to explore the different London neighborhoods and uncover each one’s history and culture.

I finally arrived at the residence where I would be spending the next three months, and met my flatmates- three British girls, one girl from Sweden, a junior from Seattle, and a freshman from Malaysia.  Some of my fondest memories include the nights spent with my flatmates in London: acting like tourists at Buckingham palace, attempting to cook an entire American Thanksgiving dinner, and going to the infamous TGI Fridays.

One of the prevailing assumptions regarding American study abroad students in Europe is that they are always jetting off to a different city every weekend.  For example, one of my professors told me that he would avoid assigning homework due on Fridays because he knew I would probably be travelling. Granted, I did take quite a few weekend trips. Some of my favorite memories include wandering around the Copenhagen train station at 4am, looking for the train to the airport before missing my flight home, or eating a communal dinner at the hostel in Madrid with people from all over the world while feasting on tapas and free sangria all night.

Nonetheless, I think there is a huge misconception that study abroad students have to travel to dozens of cities for their abroad experience to count. It is made to seem that if we spend too much time in one city, we are missing out on better opportunities. Although I relished the various trips around Europe with other American study abroad students, some of my fondest memories were with my flatmates in London.  Because most of my flatmates were freshman, just moving away from home for the first time, I got to watch them evolve and experience new things while they also saw me mature and cultivate novel adventures.

In the end, I was thankful for my study abroad experience. In contrast to my original worries, I did make friends and kept myself surrounded with people. Nevertheless, I also realized that I never had to be worried in the first place. The beauty about studying abroad in a new city is that you are never really alone. There is always a museum to get lost in, a coffee shop to relax in, or a market to immerse yourself in. Especially after staying in hostels and meeting people from around the world who were traveling across Europe alone for several months, I grew to cherish my unique experience and value my strength as an individual.  

College is the time to discover yourself—and what better way to do that than by flying to Europe for three months alone.  The adventures I made during my semester abroad forever changed the way I view the world and the way I view myself. I am a stronger person not in spite of my struggles but because of them.  

I was nervous that I would not have the “typical” study abroad experience. However, I realized that the “typical” experience does not actually exist. We have to make our own happiness and put ourselves out there instead of going into things with a negative attitude. If I could give future study abroad students advice, I would tell them not to let their fear stop them from going out of their comfort zone. You might be surprised to find that you learn new things about yourself when you’re put in uncomfortable situations.