“Do you really use those big red cups in America?” Of all the questions about the U.S. that I thought I would get asked regularly being abroad in London, ones about the ubiquity of red Solo cups never occurred to me. From a European perspective, red cups, apparently, are what American partying life is all about—well, red cups and not being legally able to drink until 21, a concept I’ve stopped attempting to explain (mostly because I barely understand it myself).
In response to the cups question, I run through a standard list: yes, we have red cups, beer pong, kegs, and toga parties; yes, a lot of people go to bars in cities even if they’re underage; yes, nearly everyone drinks illegally during their time at college.
It may be the standard cliché of “American twenty-year-old goes abroad,” but one of the most obvious differences of being in England is the lower drinking age (18) and the significant, national drinking culture. (You thought the drinking culture at Bowdoin was intense? Brits drink in noticeably larger amounts with significantly more frequency.) Like any novelty, the “thrill” of drinking legally wears off after the first few days, but it never gets old.
Of course, London is not just sitting in pubs all day, downing pint after pint of cider (although that in itself would be a hilarious cultural study); there is endless sight-seeing—Parliament, the Tower, the Globe Theatre, the London Eye, and dozens of cool markets and neighborhoods—and, finally, the actual “study” party of studying abroad.
The British higher education system is highly specialized and not particularly conducive to “counting Nature a familiar acquaintance and art an intimate friend”—you pick nature or art (or pharmacy, philosophy, geography, history of art, etc.). I picked political science for my time at University College London (UCL).
The actual subjects of my classes are interesting and narrowly-focused, though they are not nearly as engaging and challenging as Bowdoin courses. They do, however, continue to prove how tiny the liberal arts college world is: there are three Middlebury students in one of my seminars, and last week we played the classic party game, Do You Know This Person at Your Tiny NESCAC School? (The answer is always yes.)
One of the biggest struggles I have had adjusting to university life in London is just that: university (as opposed to college) life in London (as opposed to Brunswick). The sheer number of students at UCL can be overwhelming—it’s common for me to spend a day on campus and not recognize a single face, the polar opposite of life at Bowdoin. Though I certainly have mocked the “Bowdoin Hello” before, I now know that I will never take a forced and awkward “hey” from an acquaintance walking across the Quad for granted again.
But within five minutes of meeting a British person, they do inevitably ask who I’m voting for in the American presidential election. The first few times I was surprised, and then I loved it (give me a chance to talk about politics and I will jump at the bait), but now it mostly just reminds me of how much this choice we have in November affects our standing in the world. (Like it or not, foreign perceptions of the U.S. matter significantly in an increasingly globalized world.)
The campaign season has concentrated so heavily on domestic economic and social issues that I think we tend to forget that these candidates and this choice matter not just domestically, but abroad as well. If you break out your Solo cups tonight, remember that they are not the only thing that people on the other side of the Atlantic are talking about.