I’ve spent my entire life surrounded by many people. Like so many Jersey kids, I lived in towns with quick and efficient transportation to New York City. My dad commuted there daily and continues to do so.
Typical of the overly crowded towns in New Jersey, my high school had more than 2,500 students enrolled.
Following graduation, I attended Rutgers, a school comprised of more than 25,000 undergraduates, with a New Jersey Transit train station on campus that I took too often for trips to the Big Apple.
“Small town” was an anomaly to me. So, it's still curious to me why, as a 20-year-old college junior, I chose to study abroad in a super obscure English city.
I went to the University of East Anglia in Norwich, England for five months because that’s where Ian McEwan went. That was where Kazuo Ishiguro went. It's a city with a history of great literature.
I thought it would be well-known and widely visited by Brits and internationals alike. After all, it was a medieval city with a soaring, gorgeous cathedral and hundreds of pubs, centuries older than the United States. What wasn’t to like?
When I told people of my decision, I was met with blank stares. Even British exchange students stared at me, confused, and asked,
Why would you go there?
I soon learned that Norwich, England, in the eyes of the English, was equivalent to America’s Heartland. It evokes the same sense of rural isolation that hearing “Kansas” or “Iowa” might.
Norwich is in the English county of Norfolk, a place often identified by the phrase “Normal for Norfolk,” which is meant to jab at the strange, country characters one might encounter in the eastern, rural place.
Upon arriving in Norwich, I immediately realized I had never been in any place quite like it.
Not much was happening. Shows didn’t come too often to Norwich. There weren’t great events in the city.
Highlights included a dragon trail meant to pay homage to Norwich’s dragon folklore. Tourist attractions included the famed Norwich cathedral and a castle. That was it.
It was a two-hour train ride to London and the rest of England was only accessible through London, making travel within the country tedious and difficult.
I would be lying if I said it wasn’t difficult for me at first. It wasn’t so much about being in another country that was so strange, but being in a place that was significantly less “happening” than where I came from tested me.
What did I do, then, in Norwich?
I quickly understood that Norwich was not a place where I could entertain myself by attending events alone, as I could in London and Paris, by just walking around and catching glimpses of people and places. I couldn’t just walk into anywhere and expect an experience the way I do in New York.
Naturally, I turned my attention to the people around me.
My neighbors were among the most interesting people I have ever come to know. On the block of my accommodation in Norwich, there were three flats. We were all friends by the second or third day of the spring semester. We were English, American, Manx, French, German and Australian.
We went to clubs and pubs every so often, but that became almost an inconvenience to us. Instead, we sat around in our flat kitchens, which was the only common area we shared.
We exchanged stories and philosophies. We cooked dinner together. We debated ideas. Some of us fell for each other. We got in fights. We cried. We laughed hysterically. We became tried and true genuine friends.
And, with each other, we started taking walks. We started planning trips. We shopped together, took to the cobblestone streets, the small bookshops and the little restaurants. We drank tea and coffee together, explored the pubs and the little wonders of the small, medieval, English town.
I’ve been back stateside for three years now, but I talk to my Norwich friends through Facebook. A few have visited New York. One of my closest friends there was an American from California, who now lives in Athens on a Fulbright.
She and I had dinner on two different occasions in New York City this past year. We always talk about England.
“I’m glad when I chose to go to England that I didn’t go to London,” she said. “There’s no way I would have made as many friends.” I agreed with her. I never, even for a moment, regret my decision to live in an obscure, English city, and it’s for exactly the reason she articulated.
Though it seems contradictory, as it makes more sense that you would be more inclined to make friends in a city of millions, it was in Norwich that I found my place.
It was only in Norwich, an isolated town, where I was forced to take a step back, analyze my surroundings, recognize the beauty in the people and things and places right next to me, and learn to love them.
I lived in a dingy, concrete, university accommodation with cinderblocks for walls that was located in an isolated, rural corner of England — and I had the time of my life.
I have never been more inspired, never written more and never been more confident than I was when I lived in that lovely, hidden nook of Great Britain.
Today, I live in New York City, arguably the world’s capital, but it was small-town living that breathed me life.