After telling my friends and family I would be spending the next year of my life studying abroad in York, England, the first words out of their mouth were, “Congratulations!” closely followed by, “You better pack some food because I’ve heard it’s not so good over there….”
Although they were almost always joking, I only ever encountered one British obsession that was truly revolting to my taste: Marmite slathered on dry toast. Marmite is a low-budget vegan protein yeast extract that’s found in a lot of Commonwealth nations, and although I was abroad on a low budget, I was never drawn to it like my British student counterparts. It reminded me of when I was younger and mistook the salt for the sugar container. I was convinced I would never eat straight salt again.
And I didn’t, until I was fooled when the British cleverly disguised the taste in a thick, brown paste, sealed it with a yellow label and called it “Marmite” instead of “Salt.” Nonetheless,
Apparently Tesco, one of the UK’s supermarket chains, was temporarily not selling Marmite and several other basic goods because Tesco’s supplier was raising its prices to compensate for the Brexit-triggered drop in the value of the British pound. Out of all of the political topics that my friends were debating, Marmite was the one I least suspected to be controversial. People who wanted Britain to remain in the European Union believed those who voted to leave did not understand that Britain’s economy would suffer. And there were other signs of economic and political separation.
I picked up on the abundance of English flags in certain communities, predominantly in the north, while the Union Jack was nowhere to be seen. Throughout other communities, I would see only Union Jacks with no trace of an English flag. I talked with locals and learned that for some, the Union Jack was a symbol of a belief in unity with Europe and international corporation, while an English flag could be read as a symbol of English nationalism and isolationism. Brexit was showing up in unexpected ways.
Learning in the Lakes
Traveling around England increased my understanding of the complexity of the issues.
IFSA-Butler’s London office organized a trip each semester to the Lake District, a rural area of Northern England and world renowned for its natural beauty. Those two weekends were some of the best experiences I’ve ever had: We stayed in a luxurious hotel lodge at the base of misty green mountains, treated every morning to a full English breakfast buffet and doing adventure activities during the day like canoeing, via ferrata and ghyll scrambling (a proper Northern word for climbing up waterfalls).
Amongst all the beauty, we also got taken into town and were able to learn more from the locals. In between making friends with some miners, getting car sick on mountain roads, and scrambling my way through cold English waterfalls in a onesie, I learned about the history of the North as an economic powerhouse, and how northern areas like Cumbria, and the cities of Manchester and Leeds that had once shaped English landscape and propelled the economy now felt shoved to the side as Britain switched over to an information economy. One person from Blackpool, one of the towns hit the hardest by the recession, told me that when he hears another northern accent, he instantly warms up to that person because there’s a sense of community in both people knowing that they come from the same place and likely the same economic background. Instead of hearing academic debates, I got the opportunity to listen to people from drastically different communities. I could hear differences in values, sense of humor and community histories, so much so that I now understand why some English claim the North and the South are like two separate countries.
A Noticeable Shift
Studying abroad in Britain during Brexit prepared me upon returning to the US to listen with an open mind. Moreover, it gave me a framework to be able to understand the strong rhetoric I was witnessing and extreme views that played out. Developing a lens was crucial in teaching me to listen rather than to speak first and allowing me to have greater compassion for others.
I had to travel 5,295 miles to finally understand an economic struggle that had been going on for decades within my own country. Yes, I expected my study abroad experience to result in personal growth and sense of achievement because those were the things I was used to hearing about from returning students. Yet, nobody prepared me for the extreme joy and sense of peace that comes along with being able to connect with such a wide variety of individuals.
Except, of course, when it comes to Marmite.
Rachel Hobbs is a student at the University of California, Berkeley and studied abroad with IFSA at the University of York in York, England.