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by Helen ~ November 16th, 2011

Everything about ASE feels a little bit like a dream. When I look back at all of the pictures we took and think of all of the things we managed to pack into five weeks, it doesn’t seem like it could have happened. But here we are. In Cornwall we saw Tintagel, the legendary home of King Arthur, and hiked The Lizard; in London we walked down all the streets Oscar Wilde probably took a cab through and caught a brilliantly-cast production of one of my favorite plays, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; and in Oxford we lunched at Tolkein and Lewis’ favorite pub and punted at Magdalen, not to mention the extra time I spent there catching up with one of my close friends who goes to Exeter. While doing all of this traveling we wrote about 15,000 words for our two classes in Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen, did oral presentations, and led class discussions. We ate so much food–most of which were cheese and onion-flavored or made with blackcurrant–and explored the city’s parks, shops, walks, and museums.

America is such a comparatively young country that I sometimes forget how historical the places I visit every day are. Fredericksburg and Charlottesville both have rich histories rooted in the American Civil War and the legacy of the Founding Fathers. In Bath, that history was both new and inescapable. The Marks and Spencer down the road from my flat was built on the remains of a Roman wall. We visited the Roman Baths, saw one of the original entrances to the Roman city that Bath was built upon, and toured the violently gothic Bath Abbey. The ultimate marker of my own personal history came to visit Bath during one of our last weeks: John Cleese! My father’s sense of humor–and consequently mine–is utterly indebted to the comedy of Monty Python, so seeing him was important to me in a lot of ways.

If anything, classes are a little bit disappointing this semester after the intensity of the academic work we did in Bath. Though I feel lucky that Mary Washington caps seminar classes in English and creative writing at about sixteen students, it was an even more intense experience to study Oscar Wilde with just seven other students and our professor. We were all unbelievably engaged. I felt like I was part of a really supportive community of people while I was there in my immediate group of UMW cohorts, the Foss-Scanlon clan, and the ASE staff.

It’s always disappointing to summarize any kind of experience in this way. This is why I don’t like diaries. I feel as if I’m writing a revisionist history, forgetting salient bits of information and excluding the less savory times that I am choosing not to remember. Consequently, I’ll close with two intersecting anecdotes rather than an overarching statement about what this has meant to me:

When we were visiting St. Ives, a sign warned us not to eat on the beach because gulls might try to steal our food. Believing we were scrappy enough to protect our own lunches, we ventured out onto the sand and sat down. Not a minute after seating ourselves, a gull swooped down and hit Tricia on the back of her head, causing her to spill the contents of her hands–a large, delicious pasty which she had waited hours for–onto the sand, where a horde of gulls tore it to pieces in seconds. All of us, especially Tricia, were wary of birds for the remainder of our trip. It was the subject of much hilarity and anxiety.

I was the last one of our group to leave Bath. My housemates all left early in the morning, and I wandered through the rooms of Linley House making sure that we hadn’t forgotten anything. Nick and I got lunch before he left to catch his train to London; I waited another hour, then walked to the train station on my own. I was walking along the track to the nearest empty bench when I noticed the blackened husk of a gull’s body in the center of the track. Just as I spotted it, a train rolled into the station, tombing the bird beneath a car. Something about that was important, but I don’t know what it was.


by Helen ~ November 16th, 2011

[Note to those reading: I started these posts when I was in Bath and am finishing them during fall semester, hence the confusing dates on my posts.]


This is just a brief message about my accent:

I’m not putting it on.


The problem with being raised in one culture where people speak one way then participating in a culture where people speak a different way is that I have access to two modes of discourse. One iteration of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis tells us that our linguistic usage influences how we conceive of the world. Some people have even gone so far as to say that it is possible to have different personalities that go with each language–that is to say, people behave differently based upon which language they are speaking.

The difference between my American English and my British English is generally fairly subtle. Most of the words are the same: sometimes they are arranged, spelt, or pronounced differently, and I use some phrases that are not necessarily mutually intelligible to Americans and the English. But I think I do behave differently and even reflexively think about different things when I am speaking in different accents. I feel uncomfortable speaking to Americans in an English accent and vice-versa. It seems wrong to pronounce “scone” as “scOWNS” when it should be “scONS,” ridiculous to talk about Enid Blyton’s Mallory Towers series with an American accent and weird to try to explain 30 Rock to an English audience.

Being in Bath has been confusing because although I have been mostly amongst British people when we’re out exploring, I am always with Americans. When I hear a cashier in the shops speaking to me in an English accent, I’ll respond in an English accent. If, a moment later, a friend interrupts the transaction to ask a question, sometimes I will reply in an English accent or an American one. Sometimes I haven’t been paying attention to what one of my American friends has been saying and I’ll reply with something in an English accent. It makes me uncomfortable, and I think it’s irritating to the Americans I’m with. There were a few times on this trip where I called out a friend or two about their pronunciation because it was an attempt at British English that fell short of any accent with which I was familiar. Most of the British people I know are fairly sensitive about imitations of how they speak because people from other countries are unaware of the vast majority of accents that the UK contains. Irish is not Scottish is not Welsh is not Geordie is not Cockney is not Liverpudlian is not West Country is not Cornish is not West Midlands. And none of those define my accent, which is East Anglian. I think that some of my friends were sick of never being able to blend in the way I was able to, so they tried to do an accent that sounded, to their ears, close to mine.

I understand the impulse: even as they feel that I am able to pass as an Englishperson, I am constantly aware of the ways in which their influence, and the influence of my American accent, make it impossible for me to fully pass here. I love that I’m here with my friends, please don’t misunderstand me: it just means that I am constantly muddling my words. Sometimes I sound American, sometimes English, and I find it hard to control. It is unsettling to feel my relationship to language complicating itself the longer I am here.

I hope my friends realize that I’m not putting the English accent on to disassociate myself from them or to seem more English. The sounds I make are, for the most part, involuntary, or are in response to factors that I do not control. I think I would choose to use one over the other here if I could: the mixture of my two accents is complicating my relationship to this trip, and to my two cultures, immensely.


by Helen ~ November 16th, 2011

[Note to those reading: I started these posts when I was in Bath and am finishing them during fall semester, hence the confusing dates on my posts.]

It has been a packed, rough-and-tumble sort of week for us at ASE in the very best sense of that phrase. Last weekend was our first (read: only) free weekend on the program! All of the UMW students decided to get together to watch the BBC Pride & Prejudice miniseries; considering there is about five hours of film there, I think we did very well to get through about half. When we woke up the next morning it was only Friday and it already felt like Sunday! We had two papers as well as an oral presentation due early in the next week, so much of our time was spent inside revising during the intermittent showers that fell for the remainder of the weekend. Even so, it felt like time well-spent. Early on in the week we tried out a (chain) pub just around the corner from us called The Huntsman. They had extremely beautiful (and, if you get in there before 5 PM, affordable) food and the company was good, as always: I am lucky to be here with such an extraordinary group of people.

It was this weekend when I really started to feel like Bath was home. I know where I want to eat lunch every day; I know where all of the fun shops and markets are; I’m familiar with the different street performers who come through the city center and fan out through the rest of town. Most importantly, I know when the pasties are half off at the local branch of Pasty Presto. The various bits of town that we stumbled across in our first few days in Bath have begun to knit together into a cohesive map that I can navigate without hesitation. It really is fun to feel like I am a part of what is going on around the city.

But of course, as I write this, we are more than half of the way through our stay. In less than three weeks I will be back in Virginia, getting a few weeks of work in before I return to Mary Washington for my final year as an undergraduate. I am having a hard time reconciling myself to the fact that this study abroad trip is going to end and I’m going to have to get on with the life I decided to absent myself from for six weeks of summer.

Like many of the other trips I’ve had to England, this has felt like a vacation. Well, it has felt like a vacation except for the approximately 15,000 words I will have written about Oscar Wilde and Jane Austen by the time we’re finished here. It’s weird to be from a country but to feel always like a visitor in it. There is always a deadline, always a time when I have to return to the country where I have actually made my home. That isn’t a bad thing: there are a lot of reasons I’m thankful to live in the US. I’m just finding it difficult to untangle my feelings about it. Part of the reason my parents consented to my studying abroad in England rather than Spain (where I could have practiced my Spanish) was that they had hoped it would serve as a kind of reconnaissance mission to see if I would ever like to go back and live in England. My father and his partner are definitely settled in America, but my mother is a little bit less so. I think they all wondered if having a daughter in England might not be a good way to anchor them more strongly to the country we all came from.

But, you know, I feel like a visitor to this country even now. Certainly, I feel like I know this place, but I am having these feelings of acculturation along with all of my American friends. We may know our way around Bath and have our own niche here, but we’re students and we’re here on loan. Even though I was born here and lived here and have strong family ties to this country, I don’t feel like an English person, not even when I’m talking to other English people in shops or to my grandparents on the phone. Americans think I’m pretty English, the English think I’m pretty American, and I’m having a hard time untangling what my own feelings are about where I want to be.


by Helen ~ June 21st, 2011

Let me be candid with you for a moment:

I am a rising senior in college; I am twenty years old; I like to drink alcohol.

Please, hold your gasps of shock and horror until the end. If you can cry silently, feel free to do so. I know you’re all shocked: one doesn’t normally discuss drinking on a public blog that one’s parental units read, but let me be the exception to that rule. See, first of all, one of the great things about England is that I’ve been overage for two and a half years. Any and all drinking that I do here is legal and, since I’m a young person, more or less expected. I haven’t been carded since I’ve been here, and it’s been nice to be able to have a drink with my meal. Did you know you can have drinks at lunchtime? I’m not sure that I did.

And here’s the truly shocking thing: young people drink socially here and it isn’t a big deal.

I mean, sometimes I still feel like it’s a big deal. Being raised in America, even with parents who have comparatively liberal views about the drinking age, I still feel slightly transgressive every time I saunter up to a barman and say, “I’ll have a pint of Blackthorn.”

(I say this a lot.)

This trip is sort of functioning, in terms of drinking, as a taste of what it will be like in less than six months when I turn twenty-one. Drinking before you come of age in the U.S. is a normative social behavior, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t carried out mostly in private social settings. The fact that, after class today, most of the Oscar Wilde seminar went out for an early dinner and drink at the pub around the corner was still thrilling to me, even though we’ve been here for nearly three weeks.

Drinking on a school night? I thought, tasting my first snakebite (a heady combination of cider, Foster’s, and blackcurrant syrup). But, really, it’s more than that: I’m still surprised to be treated as if I can drink responsibly. It’s a nice feeling.

Robert, me, Tricia, & Erin enjoying our pints of cider at Roskilly’s Farm under the Cornish flag!


by Helen ~ June 14th, 2011

This has been a solid, tiring, wonderful week, and I realize that I haven’t even talked the best parts yet! ASE has truly got their summer program down to a science. A run-down of major events:

– Monday was our first day of classes:

— In the morning I have Jane Austen in Bath with our tutor, David Fallon, who teaches at Oxford! Jonathan (director of ASE) described him to us as a Mr. Darcy type, which of course had a few of us on this trip fanning ourselves in order to ward off a fainting spell. In reality he is a Liverpudlian with endearing sideburns and a great deal of Austen-related knowledge! He took us on a tour of Austen’s Bath and has led a few class discussions, which, to me, do not seem too terribly different from our literature discussions at UMW. In terms of the discussion level, some of the students could care more, and I think Fallon is a little bit unsure as to how intelligent we are and whether or not we understand him or his humor. Overall, though, I feel good about how it’s going.

— In the afternoon we have Oscar Wilde with Dr. Foss! The best thing about this trip, other than the fact that we are currently ON it, has definitely been the extremely solid group of people we have on this program from UMW. I can say with complete honesty that I love and value all of them. Even though we’ve only had three days of class, every day we’ve had good discussions of which I’m pleased to be a part. We gel very nicely as a group, so it’s been really easy to come into class every day and get work done. A good feeling.

– On Wednesday we were at Stonehenge and Glastonbury, which was extremely fun. The group of people that most of the UMW people seem to fit in best with are very kind and, more importantly when we’re out in public, very respectful. One of the horrible girls from another school actually CLIMBED part of Glastonbury Abbey, which is an absolutely ancient and hallowed place. It’s just despicable, truly, that people would be so self-centered and uncaring, that they would, at twenty-something, act like children who haven’t been toilet trained. I feel extra…angst, I suppose, because they reflect so poorly on the rest of us in the program.

– On Friday all of ASE left on a big bus together for Cornwall! Our first stop was King Arthur’s old house, Tintagel. Okay, really Tintagel is an ancient ruin set on the Cornish coast. It was extremely beautiful there–I have never seen water so turquoise–but it was also VERY wet there. We ate our sandwiches and crisps in pouring rain before walking up and down rough-hewn stone stairs on the lookout for photogenic vistas, of which there were many. While we were there we also saw the entrance to what was apparently Merlin’s Cave, though the tide was too high to explore unless you wanted to go swimming as well, and we did not.

– Following our severe drenching, Andy the Driver took us further down the Cornish coast to a fishing village called Coverack, which was a truly exquisite place. When we got there it was cold but sunny and scenic. There was a stretch of beach, a small shop, a pub, and a rather alarming number of hills that made for an extreme workout over the course of the weekend. The hostel in which most of us stayed was high atop a hill and was also very, very nice. I’ve only ever stayed in two hostels, both on this trip, but this one was clean, the staff were lovely, and the beds, above all, were extremely easy to sleep in. Our breakfast, both mornings, was English in the best sense: rashers of bacon, eggs, toast, croissants, roasted tomatoes, baked beans, sausages, tiny little mushrooms, and large commodities of yoghurt, jam, honey, and coffee. After all of our long walks, the breakfast was the highlight of my stay.

– The following day, Saturday, dawned bright and beautiful as we made an early start to The Lizard, the southernmost point of Engla–sorry, I mean Cornwall. Cornwall likes to think of itself as a separate country from England, though its secessionist tendencies are far less notorious than, say, Ireland or Scotland. We had a marvelously knowledgeable pair of guides on our hike along the coast. The weather was better than it had been at Tintagel by miles and the views were utterly spectacular. We learned about a bird called the Chough (pronounced “chuff”) which was made extinct in Britain a number of years ago until a pair of Choughs came to nest on the Lizard, presumably originating in Boulogne or somewhere in Ireland. The day was glorious, the company predominantly very affable, and to top the experience off, we saw several shaggy Shetland ponies and large brown cows on our walk.  This part of the trip we like to refer to as “pre-seagull.” What follows is post-seagull.

– Our lunch was spent in St. Ives, a resort town which you might know better as the home of most of your soaps and hand lotions. It’s nice (for a resort town), but the seagulls and other birds have gotten so aggressive over years of being spoilt by wealthy, crumb-laden tourists that, while on the beach, Tricia was hit in the back of the head by a gull. Her pasty leapt from her hands and a swarm of birds was on it in an instant. We were so terrified that we left the beach. We had seen the signs warning us of the gulls and had tried to be careful, but to no avail. A few of our friends stayed: two of them were bitten by gulls, and one of them had her sandwich stolen. St. Ives was not a hit. Thankfully, we ended our evening with a large barbecue and a pint of cider at Roskilly’s, a large farm and dairy which had exceedingly charming cows and very delicious ice cream.

– Our final test on our journey was the long bus ride from Coverack to Knightshayes, a large stately home with an overpriced cafe, then from Knightshayes back to Bath. At this point we were all very exhausted and ready to get back, so it was hard on everybody. Once we got off the bus, I accused Jonathan of planning a long trip away on our first full weekend in Bath so that when we came back, we were tricked into calling it “home.” He agreed that this was certainly the outcome, if not the original goal.

– A few interesting cultural notes: while in Coverack, I never heard a bad word about Americans. Even when we went to dinner as a group of about sixty, the pubgoers were mostly very friendly and those who weren’t understood that we were not there to upset them, but merely wanted to eat. When we got to St. Ives, however, a man on the beach called us “prats” (think “idiots”) and laughed at us when we left the beach. At Roskilly’s, I thanked a woman for handing me my pint of cider in my English accent. Tricia came up to get hers, also thanked the woman, and the woman responded, “Goodness! They have manners!” Finally, one of the volunteer guides at Knightshayes, the stately home, whispered to another guide while I was in the room: “Why would a bunch of Americans want to come here? They aren’t really welcome.” It was pretty embarrassing, overall, to be seen as a bunch of ignorant Americans, and even more embarrassing to understand why people thought that of us. Otherwise, though, it was a beautiful weekend, even if it was so rainy that most of us smelled like wet dog for the majority of the trip.


by Helen ~ June 6th, 2011

Hello again. We are now on day four of our stay in England and our first day of classes. Our tutor (as professors are called here) for “Jane Austen in Bath” is a very lovely man who obviously knows an awful lot about his subject. We talked to him very briefly at dinner, but it became awkward incredibly quickly. I suppose that will happen when you’ve only known someone for an hour and a half and all you’ve ever done together is read you biography on a famous female author.

The Oscar Wilde senior seminar, as taught by Dr. Foss, has also been wonderful, though not in the least awkward thanks to prolonged exposure to his teachings. We are working in a room known as “Nelson’s Cabin” in Nelson House, which is the only standing residence in which Admiral Lord Nelson stayed (though he was only there ten days). Funnily enough, the heating and cooling system outside makes noises not unlike those of a ship–I expect nautical jokes to become a regular part of our class, just as Tricia’s hammock jokes were the highlight of our journey overseas.

We just got back from a very nice ASE soiree at an art gallery in town where we were plied with wine and canapes and good company. All of these good things very nearly make up for yesterday’s rudeness:

– The downstairs residents of Linley House consist of myself, my roommate Erin, my friend Meg (a recent UMW graduate) and Ivana, who goes to Skidmore in New York. The four of us get on very well: resultantly, we went shopping yesterday at Marks & Spencer, one of the main grocery/department stores in England. We navigated the store well enough, picking up some frozen dinners (as our oven does not seem to exist), fruit, juice, and snack foods. We proceeded to the check-out.

– Once at the front of the register, I said hello to the cashier.

She said “hi” back.

I asked her how she was.

She says, “How am I?” as if I had just asked her if they served cat in the M&S cafe.


“Oh! Fine.” She scanned my items. She rang them up at fourteen pounds, ninety-five pence.

I reached for a twenty-pound note and handed it to her.

She looked at it in disgust. “This is an OLD twenty-pound note.”

“Is it really?” I asked. “I’m sorry. Let me get you exact change.” I pull out a ten-pound note and reach for my coin purse to extract the remaining four ninety-five.

The cashier sets off the bell on her register and calls her manager over to ask how the machine will deal with the fact that, instead of receiving twenty pounds, it would receive exact change. While the manager explained, the cashier nudged her and said, rolling her eyes, “Americans.”

– This REALLY irritated me. Erin was standing in line behind me and she had been talking in an American accent, but I sound English! It’s difficult to explain this in a way that doesn’t sound self-serving, but my accent isn’t fake, so the only reason she would have assumed I was American was because Erin had spoken to me in one.

– I also didn’t do anything wrong. I handed her a note. The old note looks VERY much like a new one, even upon closer examination. The new ones have more reflective parts on them and the picture on the back is different, but if you didn’t notice, someone could easily hand you one in a shop. It looks like legal tender.

– The cashier was also upset with me because I took a while to fish out change. Newsflash: the reason why I paid with a twenty-pound note was because I didn’t want to have to give her ninety-five pence’s worth of exact change!

– The old twenty-pound notes are also exchangeable in banks: they are still legal tender and represent the same amount of money.

– I am probably just upset about this because it made me feel like I didn’t know what I was doing. The whole incident made me feel homesick since, at the very least, I know how to spend American money (perhaps too well). Conflict also upsets me a lot. I don’t see why you would be rude to someone when you could expend the same amount of energy to help them and make them feel welcome. As a big group of Americans we had been to M&S more than once earlier in the week and had had some really wonderful, kind, interested cashiers who even welcomed us to Bath and asked us where we were from and what we were studying here.

– Another reason why this most recent M&S run really stung: I realized that I probably need to feel like I don’t know everything around here. For the sake of my ego–for the sake of my interaction with other Americans in the program–I really need to be a part of this group. We are learning our way around the city, and it feels important for me to absorb this experience as something entirely new and different in order to fully appreciate it.


by Helen ~ June 4th, 2011

We have, after a long couple of days, arrived in Bath and been let into our assigned residences! Our journey went something like this:

– Our group arrived thoroughly on-time and checked in. Check-in, which I normally like to think of as the least stressful part of the journey on the American one, was probably the worst part for me personally because I didn’t know how to use the passport scanners. I was totally overwhelmed by how much international travel has changed in the three years it’s been since I last flew to England. SCAN my passport? Print my boarding pass and luggage tickets MYSELF? I was blown away. Security, also, was extremely efficient. I didn’t mind the TSA body scanners at all–in fact, the man who was doing the scan was really nice, and we had a nice exchange while someone else behind a curtain surveyed my naked form to see if I had concealed anything worth mentioning. All told, we got through security in under ten minutes, which seemed ridiculous to me.

– We had time to eat a snack in the airport before boarding the plane, which was fairly comfortable. No screaming children, my television/headset worked, and the flight crew rushed us through dinner (which I did not eat) so they could turn off the lights and get us snoozing. The woman sitting in front of me was rather heavily-set and continued to re-adjust her seat for the duration of the flight. My legs, long as they are, complained greatly about this inconvenience.

– The strangest thing? EVERYTHING was quick. EVERYTHING was efficient, and EVERYTHING was on-time. I assumed our luggage wouldn’t be on the carousel for a little while, so we all took a bathroom break. When we got downstairs, though, the flight crew were just about to take our bags off the belt! We had a couple hours to wait in Heathrow’s coach station, but our bus was also right on time. We were extremely shocked when we got to our hostel and found out we weren’t going to be let into our rooms because we were ten minutes early for check-in. Irritating.

Getting here, then, was fine. The strangest thing has been trying to fit in with two different nationalities at once. Americans? Yeah, we are loud. That stereotype is absolutely true. I don’t even notice it when I’m in Virginia, but wandering around with my friends yesterday? I had to remind them more than once that we needed to be more quiet. Everyone was really tired out yesterday, but I got so anxious about us fitting in that I started to feel sick. We didn’t know how to order in the pub when we got there for dinner: I have only ever been to one with my family in the past, so I wasn’t even able to be helpful. When we were walking around, I became glaringly aware of how American everyone sounded, but was irritated when someone in the group tried to pronounce something in an English accent.

I have it very easy: I can switch between accents without any trouble. To me it feels natural to speak to an English person with an English accent, but if I’m standing with a bunch of Americans, my impulses feel divided. Of course it feels more right to speak in my American accent to them, but when we were in the grocery stores, I found myself wanting to sound more English in order to blend in with the other people doing their shopping. When I went up to the cashier, I spoke to him in an English accent. I accidentally handed him a 2 pence coin instead of a pound coin, and when I noticed I said, “Sorry, it’s been rather a long day.” We ended up having a conversation about his shift, which he had apparently been on since the early morning. The only reason we really bonded, though, was that I said it with an accent. I sounded like him, I looked tired like him–therefore, I knew what he was talking about.

It has been a truly weird experience trying to explain some things to my American friends that I have always known and never really thought much about. That certainly isn’t anybody’s fault, but I didn’t remember to tell them to try to walk on the left-hand side in the supermarket and on the sidewalk. I didn’t think to remind everyone about British water pressure, which falls below American standards. I think we would be having a much harder time of it if Bath wasn’t a World Heritage Site and therefore a large tourist attraction. We have heard several American voices other than our own since we’ve gotten here, which is some kind of comfort. Bath also has a university, which means we blend in as students as well.

Overall, I think I have culture shock: I’m shocked that England is as different as it is, but I probably wouldn’t have noticed if I hadn’t been here with my friends.


by Helen ~ May 4th, 2011

Well, team ASE Bath (which includes me and my schoolmates/friends Erin, Robert, Meg, Sasha, Tricia, Nick, and Carly) are making the final preparations for our overseas journey over the next few weeks. We leave at the beginning of June, get on an overnight flight into London, and take a coach (a “bus” in more standard American vernacular–expect sassy cultural notes throughout) to Bath. The program begins the day after we arrive in England!

The important preparations of this week:

– Applying for a debit card that will work overseas with minimal exchange rate swindling

– Getting a large sewing needle and industrial strength black twine in order to fix my bag before our flight; it’s being held together by industrial strength safety pins which would definitely not be allowed on board a plane these days

– Choosing what books I’ll be reading on the plane and securing the textbooks for the two courses we’ll be taking

– Earning money so that I can feed myself while I’m in England without a visa or valid UK passport!

x Helen