(NB: Hello there! It’s been a while since I’ve blogged here for Exeter student blogs – I’ve only just come back from a year abroad studying in Canada as part of my degree. If you’d like to read more about how my year went and see what I got up to, I kept up my own blog at https://tesstakesoncanada.wordpress.com/. I’m back for final year now, but will most likely talk a bit more about Canada in future blog posts and how I’ve found readapting to life back in sleepy Exeter! For now, here’s how my Freshers Week 2017 went.)
Out of the front door and into the sun I go.
One of my favourite parts about our student house for final year (four bedrooms, brown carpets everywhere, living room sparse of all but essential furniture, a broken washing line in the garden, but a blackboard in the kitchen my housemate has already decorated with stars and smiley faces) is the view from our top step. Over the recycling bins and bikes belonging to the neighbours, over the rooftops and past the telephone wires, there’s a perfectly framed view of the Cathedral, towers imposing and ancient, the Devon hills that have been here even longer, just visible on the horizon.
It’s warm in the sun on the top step. I’m still determinedly wearing a dress or shorts or a skirt, even though it’s edging into Autumn by most accounts, and it rains more than it doesn’t. It’s always a little bit warmer here than back in the Midlands anyway, this far south of the Gloucester services on the M5.
On my walk into town seagulls screech overhead, chasing clouds that unfurl across the sky like stop-motion animation in the wind. I see someone I recognise crossing the zebra crossing, smile and wave to them. On the corner there’s a battered red phone box that’s seen better days, three Carlings cans lined up neatly on the wall nearby; British student life summed up on a street corner.
I see someone else I know, a new friend from a new committee for a society. I wave, more awkwardly this time, and he grins, unexpectedly pleased that I’ve recognised him. The town centre is sedately busy, fewer children and families now that schools are back, but new students in their place, wandering down the high street, looking torn halfway between lost and awed.
It’s their home now, this city near the coast, nestled in a valley so far away from the rest of the country somehow. A city I came to three years ago and walked down the high street in much the same way; a little bit hungover, a little bit homesick, but hungry too, hungry to learn and explore and know my way in and around the nooks and crannies of a place that neither friends nor family knew, not like I did, not like I could.
It’s been an odd first week in that sense; a hello and welcome back, as much as a goodbye. This is my last Freshers’ week, and to say I feel old is an understatement. Last weekend was Arrivals, and I’d signed up to help move in some Freshers as part of the annual Welcome Team. Standing there in my bright pink tshirt, parents and students alike asking me for directions and assistance, clutching welcome packs and key fobs and accommodation maps; it was a strange feeling. I greeted new students, asked them about their journeys, and then helped them to their rooms, carrying suitcases and kitchen equipment, pillows and potted succulents, guitars and golf clubs. Most new arrivals were quiet, buzzing with the same excited nerves of all new students, the exact same emotion my younger brother, who has just started at his university, has been buzzing with all summer.
I’m a veteran here now. Co-President of a society, comfortable member of the basketball team, where I tell the nervous freshers at trials that I was too once like them, once without a clue, and now look where I am. I’m a fourth year, final year, I should know everywhere like the back of my hand. But on occasion I find myself stumbling over directions, momentarily disorientated. In town, my brain goes completely blank when I realise I have no idea which coffee shop I should go to, or where I’d even find them. Ottawa and my year abroad in Canada lingers; in the photos on my wall documenting the roadtrip of a lifetime, adorned on my kit duffle I lug up the hill to training sessions, on the waterbottle I take everywhere. On a stall in the centre of campus for my society, two students come over, point to the water bottle. “Who went to uOttawa?” the girl asks, in an accent I hadn’t realised how much I missed. They’re here in Exeter for the semester, and I gush in my enthusiasm, write my name on a business card in case they have any questions, any at all, I’d be happy to show them around, introduce them to a city that I’m still getting reacquainted with myself. I’m acutely aware of not wanting to be ‘that year abroader’ who goes on and on about their time away, but give me any opportunity to talk about it to someone who wants to listen and there’s no stopping me.
Some things are different now; Cathedral Green isn’t as whole anymore, with the scaffolding and gaping space where the old hotel that burned down last year once was. The university has opened some buildings which were under construction, and closed down others. My friends are all a little older, a little wiser, growing into their faces and personal styles, somehow all a little more comfortable in their own skin than they were before.
But many things are the same. The tattered sports hall where I first forced myself to pick up a basketball – to take part even though I was acutely aware of how terrible I was. The Forum in the middle of campus, with it’s trees and sweeping high ceilings. The roads and shortcuts and alleys I take to class. Even my friends, though a little older, are much the same. On Sunday we watch the gaelic football final with my Irish housemate, and even though Mayo lose, the pints that begin in the afternoon lead to a tipsy game of Articulate in the evening, before morphing into a convoluted game of charades. 20 minutes in and still no-one has managed to guess my frankly excellent interpretation of ‘passion fruit’; suddenly my housemate gets it. I yell at him that he’s the only one with any common sense and we’re all laughing too hard to speak and I hug them, the three I missed most from Exeter when I was in Canada, and think “this is what home can feel like.”
In the morning we eat branflakes and toast and drink peppermint tea around our kitchen table, and I think that if anyone else manages to end up with such a good group of people by their final year, they’ve lucked out on the university experience. It’s going to be a tough year, I don’t doubt that, but I think it has the potential to be my best year here in Exeter as well.