Two Months of English Student Life: My Stay Abroad in Plymouth

By Leah Süss

The perpetual calls of seagulls, the pitiless ocean breeze, the sweet-salty harmony of Roly’s salted maple fudge, the majestic tower of whipped cream on Costa’s indulgent hot chocolate, the inconspicuous covered Smeaton tower at the Hoe, the warm smell of Prime’s coffee and eggs, the artful masterpieces on Earlybird’s pancakes, Jake’s cheesy chips melted to perfection in my microwave, crooked pavements on which I stumble, bustling dancefloors that make me lose all sense of time. These memories come to my mind when I think of Plymouth.  

I started my exchange at the University of Plymouth on the 24th of January 2020. The future seemed full of opportunities then. I hadn’t booked a return ticket and my only task was to stay abroad for six months. I had quit my job and my phone contract, and I had found successors for my weekly voluntary tasks. I was ready to leave my life behind for half a year. Never had I been on my own for such a long time. A new area, a new university, a new temporary home. Would I feel at ease? Would I make friends for life? Would I start loving the sea? Would I travel a lot? A delicate sense of a blank-slate future, bursting with possibilities. I heaved my enormous suitcase and my towering backpack into the TGV at Zurich HB, and for the full 12 hours it took me to travel to Plymouth Station, I couldn’t help beaming in joyful anticipation. 

The City

When I arrived in Plymouth, I was welcomed by the colour grey. A grey, functional train station on a dull, rainy evening. No sense of orientation whatsoever, I decided to take a taxi, even though my hotel was supposed to be only five minutes away. I didn’t regret this decision, as the taxi driver offered me the warmest welcome to Plymouth that I could have dreamed of; asking a lot of questions, giving advice on how to orientate myself, and even offering to help me whenever I should feel lost in the next months (he had come to Plymouth as a foreigner himself 11 years ago, he knew what it was like). He made me write down his taxi number and drove off, cheerfully waving. Grateful for this first encounter, I entered the hotel, which was not what I had expected: struggling with my luggage, I found myself in a narrow hallway, crammed with old-fashioned objects and dusty carpets. The peculiar hostess welcomed me by making me pay for my room twice (a mistake, as she assured me when I confronted her the next day). She then showed me to my room, which I found was all but insulated; I could feel the wind on my face and I could hear the snoring of the person next door. At that point though, I was grateful for having arrived, and staying for one night seemed bearable. When I finally curled up in bed, my body instantly relaxed but my mind stayed awake for quite some time, pondering on the coming day. What would my flatmates be like? What would the city look like in daylight? I fell asleep imagining a bright, sunny city waiting for me to explore. 

My first days in Plymouth, however, were entirely characterized by grey. Knowing that Plymouth had just been awarded ‘second best holiday destination in the world for 2020’ by a travel magazine[1], I expected exciting landmarks and a characteristic tourist centre. But instead of finding that, I was reminded that Plymouth had been widely destroyed in World War II; the city’s buildings appeared ill-assorted and heartlessly built for functionality, and I could only detect few stereotypically beautiful buildings on the first glance. I also realized that, it being off-season, many advertised landmarks were under maintenance work, so they would only become appealing by summer. As if to prove its Britishness, the weather presented me with varieties of rain and wind that I had never experienced in Switzerland before, making it quite uncomfortable to walk around loaded with bags of groceries and essentials for my moving in. After some days, the sun finally seemed to have pity and the sky suddenly cleared (even though, what I learnt to be the rule, only for some minutes). Eagerly, my newly made friend from America and I ran down to the harbour with our cameras ready, hoping to capture some beauty of our new hometown after all. And indeed, I still think these pictures illustrate perfectly what I adore about Plymouth’s appearance: its contrasts, its unpretentious humility, and its charming compactness. During my whole stay, I not once had to use public transport within the city, and even though Plymouth has 260’000 inhabitants, its centre is perfectly walkable, with campus being at its heart. Plymouth, a city with many faces, transformable from bleak to majestic depending on the weather’s moods.

After having explored Plymouth’s touristy hotspots, the Hoe and the Harbour, I also came to like the more worn-down areas that interestingly appeared to have some oriental touch to them. There were solitary palm trees, sailor-like tattoo shops, and a market hall with shady-looking food stalls, where a plethora of scents intertwined. Compared to a tourist magnet like Bath, which my Erasmus friends and I visited in our first weeks, Plymouth seemed to be less uniform and shiny in its appearance; however, its diversity made it all the more interesting. 

The Campus

One of the major differences between being a student in Plymouth and in Zurich is the centring of English student life onto campus. We studied on campus, we ate on campus, we went to the gym on campus, we met friends on campus, we lived on campus, and we even went out on campus. And unlike in Zurich, everything was within 5-10 minutes reach. Campus became the centre of my stay, and I learnt to love it with all my heart, even though its appearance, reflecting the city, was all but beautiful at first sight. While the university advertises its ‘modern facilities’, only one building seemed to be newly built; the others were weather-worn blocks of grey. What counted though, was that campus offered us everything we needed: several cafeterias with appealing student deals, a huge library that was open 24/7 and in which some students basically seemed to live, and a cheap gym where you started to recognize people after some weeks. But most importantly, located at the heart of campus was the SU, the student union which was the centre of everyone’s attention. You could have coffee and cake in its integrated Costa, meet up with friends to play pool, order cheap pints from any time after noon, and dance your heart out until 4.30am several times a week. The SU also hosted society events, ticket sales, charity fairs, a vintage market, and even a cider festival. The student union’s main concern thus seemed to be that no one should ever be bored on campus, independent of weekdays and interests.

The University of Plymouth offers everyone a place to engage in, whether it’s a sports society, an art group, an environmental activist union, a boardgame team, or just a weekly karaoke, pub quiz or club night. Compared to Zurich, the University of Plymouth hosted so many societies and events on a regular basis that every student seemed to be able to find a new family and a new home. Thus, even though I couldn’t help perceiving the campus as ugly at first, I grew attached to it and I will miss its welcoming familiarity.

 
As for student accommodations, there was nothing essential to complain about; my flatmates did not turn out to become my best friends, but they were helpful and nice to chat to. It also didn’t matter that much, because I spent most evening with my friends, who all lived within 5 minutes reach. What mattered though, was that I was never cold at night (which I didn’t take for granted after my first night at the hotel), and I even got used to the nightly noise of drunk students who passed my hall. The best part about my accommodation: it was just next door to the notorious fast-food heaven Jake’s, open 24/7, and so I never had to end a night out with an empty stomach.

The view onto my hall with an obligatory seagull

To be fair though, the most iconic student accommodation in Plymouth was my Erasmus friend’s private accommodation called ‘Beckley Point’. It was built only two years ago and it’s the highest building in all of Plymouth. Countless afternoons, evenings and nights were spent in its spacious flats, and nothing could beat the stunning 360° view from its rooftop. A further plus: no matter where in Plymouth we should be, we could always look out for Beckley’s unmistakable peak to know our way home. Beckley Point became our true landmark of Plymouth, putting Smeaton Tower in the shade.

The People

During my first week of uni, I was asked the same question by almost every new British person I met: “Why on earth did you choose Plymouth?”. Admittedly, Plymouth had not been my first choice, but when I tried to suggest that Plymouth must be an exciting city to study in, most of them declared, “Plymouth is a shithole, it’s boring. I had applied for other unis, but I only got in here”. At first, this unsettled me and I started to think about the greyness, the lack of landmarks, the uniformity of the international commercial chains, the abundance of construction work, the everlasting windiness, and the lack of beach access, even though Plymouth called itself the ‘ocean city’. But after a short time, I realized that even if Plymouth might not be the most beautiful and characteristic of English cities, it offered enough exciting spots that made me appreciate it; and more importantly, it were its people that rendered it a unique place to live. 

A thing that I noticed from the first day on: the warm attentiveness of waiters and shop assistants, their friendly ‘Alright?’ when one entered and their assuring ‘See you later’ when one left the store. Moreover, the habitual and slightly ironic small talk about the weather, and the humorous chat about national peculiarities when they noticed you were from abroad. Independent businesses like my favourite coffeeshops, where students were allowed to sit for hours just drinking tap water, being surrounded by the carefree chatter of regular customers; the waffle stall run by a friendly couple that remembered us and our orders each time we came; the Royal theatre with its lovely staff members that spontaneously organized us free tickets for the next performance, even though they had only talked to me for a few minutes at a house party. Memories of a seemingly stern waitress of a posh-looking fish and chips restaurant who surprised us with her witty banter and her genuine tip to come back on the last Friday of every month for student deals (we did return several times). Being allowed to share platters and order tap water, without ever suffering an annoyed glance (unlike in some Swiss restaurants). Chatting with the Turkish owner of an inconspicuous pizza take-away about his business philosophy; and ending up bringing all my friends because he proved to make the best pizza in town, with everything being ‘2 for 1’. The cashier of the national book branch Waterstones that delighted in my purchases and recommended me further literature. The guy at the local fudge store that always recognized us and patiently described each flavour to us. So many people that I already miss and want to come back for. So many people who made Plymouth a warm and welcoming city to live in.

Finally, it’s the people who I have met at uni that made my stay unforgettable, and they became friends I don’t want to lose touch with. The Erasmus students from Canada, the US, Italy and Germany, who were always up for exploring and trying new things. My one friend from Italy who called herself an introvert but with whom I ended up passionately discussing gender roles and relationships over lunch, and awkward everyday experiences over pizza. My pal from Virginia who told me about American college life and American politics. My two buddies from Canada who joked about the Queen still being the head of their country, and whose visiting friends I met. They became my temporary family.

My classmates from English, who introduced me to their circle of friends; people with whom I could share my love for literature and food. My Irish friend who told me about the importance of St. Patrick’s Day and about life in her rural hometown. My mate from London who described her youth in a private Catholic all-girls school. My friend from Jersey who revealed that the tiny island had its own currency. My friend from Plymouth, whose family and dogs I got to meet, and whose creative writing I got to read. We had tea, toasties, and delicious pancakes on ‘National Pancakes Day’. We went for boogies, we worried about coursework, we discussed cultural differences and similarities, and we shared our personal stories. I wouldn’t have thought that I could grow so close to them in such a short period of time. 

Not to forget, the British mates I got to know in halls: the Nepalese-English girl from Kent who told me about her faith in destiny and her love for the sea; the guy from Cornwall who told me about stereotypes about his area. My flatmate from Jersey who told me that everyone knew everyone in his hometown; my friends from little towns near Plymouth who told me that their hometowns were not worth visiting. They were the ones who introduced me to the workings of British banter and to their perception of different British accents. They also taught me 10 English synonyms for ‘getting drunk’. So many people, so many stories. And best of all, they all assured me, “Whenever you’re in the area, just text me and you’ll have a place to stay!”. Generosity and new connections world-wide. We laughed and debated the differences between our countries, and eventually we realized that, being young, spontaneous and open-minded, we were able to connect without effort. No matter how different our personal backgrounds and our countries’ political systems might be. 

Overall impressions

On the 19th of March, I unforeseeably had to interrupt my stay abroad due to the sudden spread of COVID-19. However, two months have already allowed me to get a glimpse into British student life. If I were to summarize the main differences to Swiss student life, I think I would emphasize the all-encompassing presence of campus. A side product of this seems to be that life centres on student issues, such as maintaining friendships and relationships, joining societies, socializing and partying, and essentially, figuring out where to belong. I learnt that it is uncommon for British students to take a gap year and thus, they start uni from a younger age on than the Swiss average. University courses are also often strictly divided by year, which means that one remains with the same course mates for the entire degree, not like attending mixed lectures and seminars as students of English do in Zurich. The structure of classes thus seemed quite uniform to me. However, it’s easy to mingle with many different people in societies and events to widen one’s bubble. Another thing that I noticed was that to most (and especially to freshers), student life seemed to be inseparable from alcohol, drugs and nights out. Considering that students lived on their own just after leaving puberty, I had the impression that some struggled to find a healthy balance between education and leisure. Moreover, as university fees are extremely high compared to Zurich (see the table below), and also rents are expensive (I paid 739 CHF per month), some students struggle with handling their expenses, and they rather invest their money in spirits and drugs than in a balanced diet, for example. 

The tuition fees for an undergraduate English degree[2]  


That said, I think my exchange made me realize how lucky I am to study at a public institution in Switzerland; especially considering being able to study abroad while paying the fees from back home. While there seem to be some problematic aspects to English student life, I must admit that, overall, it enabled a sense of community and belonging that I hadn’t experienced before; everyone was living nearby and campus was always buzzing. As for some stereotypes of British people that I had in my mind when arriving, I can say that some of them have been confirmed (even be it in a conscious, self-ironic way), while others have not been accurate at all. The only thing I can say for sure though, is that I now understand why The Beatles put so much emphasis on ‘Here comes the sun’. And, lastly, if I had to name one common denominator for all the British people I’ve met, it would probably be their unconditional love for dogs. 

[1] https://www.cntraveller.com/gallery/best-holiday-destinations-2020

[2] https://www.plymouth.ac.uk/courses/undergraduate/ba-english

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