My Year in Bristol

Bristol Suspension Bridge


Before I finish the last post on Bristol in the series of blog posts about the family trip we took to Scotland and England in the summer of 2014, I realize that I really need to write about my year in Bristol first. Or, at least, an overview of it. Because my year in Bristol was so absolutely bursting with experiences that I’d never, ever, be able to describe it in just one blog post. And, while anybody who knows me knows that Bristol remains my heart city to this day, I don’t know that I’ll ever adequately put into words just what that year in Bristol meant to me, and how it shaped me indelibly into the person I am now. Or how my heart yearns for Bristol in a way that makes it race and breaks it, both at the same time.

Do you remember who you were when you were 19? I was ready to do more, to see more, to BE more. I am eternally grateful to my sister Jen for leading the way with her semester abroad two years before, and for telling me to make sure I went for a year, and not just a semester. I’m also so grateful to my parents, who not only paid for my year in England, but did it with no strings attached. As my own children get older, I realize what a sacrifice it really is to let them go; let alone enable them to spend the year so far away, with no obligations to call or visit or anything. I know that keeping my grades up was implied, but it was never said.

So there I was, on my own at 19, having been on a plane for the first time, in the country I had read about in so many books over the years (I was an English major in college, and a book lover all my life), with not one person I knew. It was fantastic. The countryside was greener than green. The cars were on the wrong side of the road. The accents were wonderful. I will never forget the feeling of complete surprise and utter surrealism the first time a beggar approached me, speaking with an accent that Americans had always been led to believe signified wealth and aristocracy. I think if I had to point out any one instance of culture shock, that would be it.

Wills Hall1To this day, I’m not quite sure what made me choose Bristol as the place to do my Junior Year Abroad. I know there were six cities to choose from, including London. I’d like to think that I was just prescient or that I looked at a map and made my decision. While I really don’t remember, it’s true that Bristol is situated just perfectly for exploring. After all, Bath is just 15 minutes by train to the east, while London is just about two hours. Cardiff, the capital city of Wales–that beautiful country that most people ignore–was only an hour by train to the west. West Country, England is stunning, and the people were always friendly to me. Sure it might rain more often, but the land wouldn’t have been so stunningly green without it. Plus, I learned to keep living through the rain; unlike here in the States, where so many people curse the wet weather and put their lives temporarily on hold for it.

Christmas StepsBristol hides it gems. It’s hard to explain to somebody just visiting exactly what makes Bristol so wonderful. While there are so many places worth seeing within the city limits, Bristol is more than just its parts. Bristol is a vibe, a way of life–something about it only reveals itself to residents, in a cumulative way, so that you wake one day and find that the city has in some way wrapped itself around your heart. Sure, the Christmas Steps are charming, Blaise Hamlet is quaint, the Clifton Suspension Bridge is astounding, the docks are exciting. Bristol blue glass, Harvey’s Bristol Creme, Cary Grant, ship shape and Bristol fashion. The city isn’t hurting for claims to fame. From what I’ve heard about Austin, Texas, I think it’s kind of like that. In fact, many university students never move away after graduation. Bristol has a thriving creative community and was the birthplace, and current location still, of Aardman Animation, creators of Wallace & Gromit.

My physical viewpoint of Bristol was from northwest of city center, from the neighborhood near Clifton. My home for the year was in Wills Hall, opened by none other than Winston Churchill himself in 1929, when he was Chancellor of Bristol University. I had my own room, with a bed, a gas fireplace, a hob near the fireplace for one-pot cooking (and kettles of water for tea), a sink in the closet, and a set of leaded glass windows looking toward the outside of the quad. The toilet was in the main hall, down a set of stone steps. The bathtub/shower was up a level. The hall was open to outside, since the main door was mostly left open, and the trip to the bathroom in the middle of the night was usually a cold one. You, quite literally, froze your ass in the winter. I didn’t care. I loved Wills–its architecture, its history, the fact that it was so different than my dorms in Rutgers.

Meals were served in the refectory, at long wooden tables that became something out of Harry Potter during Friday night dinners with the warden–if, of course, Harry Potter had been created then. We all wore requisite black robes over our dresses and suits, and usually imbibed a bottle of wine a piece. It was all as un-American as it could be, and I drank it in (quite literally).

Wills Hall Christmas Formal

Wills Hall Christmas Formal ’91

I worked at the refectory as well; something unheard of with the British students, but another American on the Rutgers JYA program, Jim, joined me as well. As Americans, we were impervious to class distinctions, and it was a nice place to be. The kitchen staff consisted of native West Country women, and Jake, who was younger than me and didn’t attend the Uni. They all spoke in the rolling, wide syllables of the region and gave me an inside look at their lives as British working class. They looked after me and Jim–making sure I had a salad plate put aside on curry night and always greeting me, “Arright, me duckie?” I got to know them, and earn pocket change at the same time.

I not only received British wages, but I also had an introduction to the NIH health system when I came down with mono. It’s likely that I simply ran myself ragged trying to do and see everything, but I ignored the doctor’s advice to take it easy for a few weeks. Who had the time to just sit around? I joined the Explorers Club, the Hot Air Ballooning Club, the RAG charity group, and more. I visited with my new friends’ families in Oxford, York, Surrey, Wales, and so many other places. I had liquid lunches in the middle of the day, and hopped on the train to visit the sites. Towards the end of term, I remember making sure my schoolwork was done and then taking the train to the ferry and across to Ireland on my own for a week. I stayed in hostels and traveled alone, making friends as I went. One day I rented a bike and biked around the Aran Islands, before heading back to my hostel in Galway.

Three friends from Wills and I hitchhiked to Paris to raise money for RAG, spending the night at the ferry station sleeping propped against the wall, before convincing a trucker to drive us the rest of the way. My first time seeing the Eiffel Tower was through bleary eyes, sitting in the dirt with my backpack and 50 other students. Hiking through Dorset, hot air ballooning somewhere in Somerset, seeing the White Cliffs of Dover, wandering the streets of Oxford. Though you’d think Americans are far from an anomaly, people were interested in me, interested in my views, loved to try out their version of American accents on me.

Bristol roomCream tea, high tea, pub crawls, chip shops with hot, greasy chips drenched in malt vinegar. The Bristol Suspension Bridge, the Rose of Denmark pub, the Cori Tap, bakeries that advertised bagels but whose attempts didn’t even come close. I had good friends and a boyfriend who was a great guy, and whose heart I ended up breaking. I walked at least two miles to class one way, each and every day. I bought a used bike and rode that to class some times, or just around the city.

Although I don’t have many memories of classes, they were excruciatingly small, with maybe 10 students and the professor around a table, discussing. I took Russian Lit, and an assortment of English Lit classes. I remember doing work, but it didn’t make nearly as much of an impression on me, although conceivably, it was the reason I was there. I came home with all “A”s, so I obviously did what I had to do.

I lived that year, in a way I hadn’t really lived before. And instead of satisfying my appetite for adventure, it merely whet it.

You don’t get past a year like my year in Bristol easily. I returned the winter of my senior year to visit friends, and it was both wonderful and painful at the same time. I didn’t go back to Bristol, though. I was too afraid that my new memories would overlap my old ones, making them harder to remember. So, really, the decision to include Bristol on our family trip was a big one for me. And I was both scared and excited by the prospect.

Next: Returning to Bristol

One thought on “My Year in Bristol

  1. Pingback: England Is Calling: Our Trip Ends at Bristol | challaandhaggis

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