The Long Way to Leeds

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Lennart discusses his experience of moving from Heidelberg, Germany to Leeds as an Erasmus student, and the affect that both the pandemic and Brexit has had on the experience of students studying abroad.

On 17th September 2020 at about 15:30 I left Terminal 3 of Manchester Airport — heavily loaded with a suitcase, a large black travel bag and my rucksack. I was to arrive in Leeds on the Transpennine Express. Without knowing exactly where the station was supposed to be, I took a routine look to the left and started to cross the road just outside the terminal – when I was almost hit by a car coming from the right. I was startled to see the large white writing that had been written on the asphalt directly in front of me: “Look right!”. In a way, this was my first encounter with British culture and also the moment when I realised: I had arrived.

A lot has led up to this moment. Six months had passed between the time I first considered studying abroad and my arrival and near-death-experience at Manchester airport. Months of anticipation, but also months of doubt and uncertainty.

As late as January 2020, I could not have imagined that less than a year later I would move into a student room in Leeds. On the one hand, I did not think at that time that an Erasmus exchange to England was still possible. Brexit had also made waves in Germany, where the majority of the population was critical of the whole process, and the impression was created that the UK and the EU would go their separate ways at the latest on 1st February 2020 — hence no more Erasmus exchanges. At least that is what I believed. But on the other hand, my law studies in Heidelberg were in full swing. Between the stress of the exams, social activities and the general organisation of my life as a second-year student, there was no time at all to think about a possible year abroad.

In this way, there were two aspects that dissuaded me from spending a year abroad, Brexit uncertainty and the possibility of leaving my friends behind. These uncertainties led me to start reconsidering my choices, especially panicked because the application deadlines for the Heidelberg Erasmus programme expired in mid-March. Firstly, it was now clear that the exchange with England would continue until 2021 and secondly, many of my friends had also applied for a year abroad after the fourth semester. Although I had always intended to spend some time in an English-speaking country at some point in the course of my studies, this exchange was always something that I felt to be a long way in the future. Right now, though, seemed like the perfect time for a year abroad, which made me ask myself: “Why not now?”.

After some deliberation, with just four days to spare I decided to apply. I aimed for one of the two study places that the University of Leeds makes available annually to law students through its Erasmus partnership with Heidelberg. The application documents were processed quickly, and to my astonishment I received an acceptance letter only one week afterwards.

At first, I was overwhelmed. Within a few days, my perspective for the next eighteen months had shifted completely. But despite my initial apprehension towards leaving Germany, over the next few weeks I realised that I had made the right decision and was getting more and more excited about my new adventure. At the same time, I couldn’t be one hundred per cent happy because all social life was about to be turned upside down. While the coronavirus pandemic kept the international community on tenterhooks, it was not possible to make any predictions that extended to more than a week into the future. So, from the moment I applied, the thought of my forthcoming stay in Leeds was always linked to the underlying question: “What if everything is cancelled again?”. This concern intensified in the following months, when several friends and acquaintances from Heidelberg received cancellations from their partner universities. The University of Leeds, on the other hand, remained silent, the only information available being on its website: “We are currently evaluating the situation and its consequences for international student exchanges.” Therefore, I assumed that it was unlikely that I would be moving to Leeds.

This uncertainty made me even more pleased when I received the University of Leeds’ acceptance letter in July. Finally, I was certain and could start preparing for my year abroad without any reservations! Sure, a few remaining doubts persisted, but the university’s guarantee that it would do its best to adapt its studies to the new situation made me optimistic. Now there was a large pile of paperwork to be done, travel arrangements to be made, and last but not least, I had to find a place to live for the next year. Due to all this organisational work, there was no time to contemplate saying goodbye. It was only in the very last days before my departure, when everything was organised and I was gradually saying goodbye to friends and family, that I realised that I would not be seeing Germany again for a long time.

Now the time had come. The day before my departure, I had already printed out all the necessary travel documents and put them on a clipboard in my hand luggage. Things were ready to go. Primarily, I was really looking forward to the coming months, but I also felt slightly nervous: would everything really be as I had hoped? After all, I had never been to England before, but now I was going to live there for a whole year! I had been taught English at school, but I didn’t speak the language perfectly: would I be able to cope with the English language and the Yorkshire dialect? On the plane I spoke to a man from Manchester, who at least calmed my nerves a bit.  When I told him about my plans, his eyes lit up: “Leeds? Beautiful city, especially for students. You’re going to have a great time.”

“TransPennine Express” Credit: Cumbria Crack

And then I was standing at Manchester airport. During my train ride, I gathered my first impressions of “Great Britain”, the country I had only known from books and films. First the train meandered through the narrow gorges of Manchester. Here, where the industrial revolution had its beginning at the end of the 19th century, one now passed modern buildings. And yet in some places I could still make out the typical chimneys and factory buildings that have survived the 20th century, and the economic structural change of the region. After leaving the big city, the train passed through the region between Manchester and Huddersfield. The closer we got to the city of Leeds, the more excited I became. Behind Dewsbury I could already see in the distance the town where I was to spend the next ten months. Once there, I became acquainted for the first time as a road user with the concept of driving on the left, which had been firmly etched in my memory at the very beginning of my stay in England: On the bus ride to my student residence I felt quite lost. Apart from the fact that we were driving roughly north, I had no idea where I was and accepted that I would probably have to rely on Google Maps, at least for the first few weeks.

“Montague Burton” Credit: University of Leeds

I soon found my way to Montague Burton Residences, my home for the next year. Just like the preparations for a possible year abroad, the choice of student accommodation had been fraught with uncertainty. Although the university guarantees every Erasmus student a place in one of its accommodation facilities — a privilege I greatly appreciated when applying — even with this guarantee it was overwhelming to choose one of the 20 or so student residences that the university offers for undergraduates alone. With the help of evaluation platforms like studentcrowd.com, I tried to get an overview. Although this enabled me to definitely exclude at least a few residence halls, the importance of the experience reports on the internet should not be overestimated, as they are sometimes not only unhelpful but downright confusing: If one student complains that his accommodation was “a terrible place” and another student apparently had “the best year of her life” in the same residence, you are more likely to leave the website non the wiser. After much consideration, I finally chose “Montague Burton Residences”. It was centrally located, yet not directly on campus and also relatively inexpensive. However, because of coronavirus, I didn’t have the opportunity to visit the residence before making my choice, so the selection was essentially a shot in the dark. This made it all the more relieving for me when I opened the heavy, metal entrance door to Monty B and entered a small campus, which gave a good first impression. Now I had finally arrived in Leeds.

I have now been here for a fortnight. As it is always the case after arriving at a new place, I absorbed a lot of first impressions: new city, new language, new people. Despite coronavirus, it was possible to go out almost every day, and as for the conversations, my fears that I would hardly understand anything while talking to the “locals” have not been confirmed. It is much more interesting to talk in a foreign language from morning to night and watch yourself progress. In other respects, too, I am slowly beginning to explore the English culture and to familiarise myself with my new surroundings. This cultural adaptation takes many different forms and certainly does not solely consist of consuming earl grey tea in ridiculously large quantities. Sunday trips to the Yorkshire Moors, drinking a pint or two in Leeds pubs, laughing about “The Inbetweeners” with my flatmates in the early hours — the list goes on and on. The nice thing is that I don’t even have to make the effort to get to know all these things. They come naturally by spending time in England and with English people. And when I sit in my student room in the evening and look out of the window at the lights of Leeds city centre in the distance, I am grateful for all the steps that have led me here, and that despite all the aggravating factors, I have the opportunity to spend this exchange year in Leeds.

Header image credit: Wikiwand