From Britain to the Big Apple, an exchange student’s journey

By Jenny Rae

As a young girl growing up on the south coast of England, New York City featured prominently in my life. With every movie, TV show and song exploring the depths of the concrete jungle, my fascination grew for what it would be like to visit this glittering Mecca of my dreams. After securing a place at the University of Massachusetts for a year’s exchange, I knew my dream would finally come true. Alas, here I am now, no longer a stranger to the Big Apple, but a girl in love — deep, passionate love — with NYC.

Jenny Rae/Collegian

Before arrival, I was bemused. How, as a student with very little money, would I get the true Manhattan experience? There would be no way of following in the footsteps of the almighty Carrie Bradshaw (Sarah Jessica Parker’s character in “Sex and the City”), with Jimmy Choos to navigate the sidewalks of Soho, when I could barely afford Target sandals. I pondered. Would I ever feel like a genuine “Gossip Girl” on the Upper East Side? Or just like one of the “Girls”? Would I feel the Central Perks of the Villages or find myself with an “Empire State of Mind”?

The first step was my transport. For $59, I was on the Peter Pan bus cruising south through New England. Luckily for me, a friend from my years in Texas had taken up residence in Astoria, Queens, while studying at Parsons — the fashion school from Project Runway — and offered me a place to stay. After a tearful reunion, we set out to see the sights.

On day one we trawled the villages: East, West and Greenwich. On the way there, I had a real New Yorker moment when I stood next to Olivia Wilde on the subway. In the pleasant heat we witnessed an Occupy Wall Street protest, which struck quite a chord with me, and not just because of the awful guitar being played by a man wearing a severe amount of camouflage. I could call myself one of the 99 percent, yet I doubt I’d ever have the courage to rise up and stand for a cause. That’s one thing I truly admired about the New Yorkers I would meet later that night on a rooftop in Williamsburg (quirky, I know), as well as all the others: an ambition and purpose I had never seen the likes of elsewhere. People I spoke to seemed to be truly grasping the American dream by both hands. I met artists, photographers, designers, film producers (and a special Google intern who I will talk about later) all my age and all on the path to stardom. It was as incredible as the Empire State Building shining green like Gatsby’s light at the end of Daisy’s dock.

On day two, feeling slightly weary and awestruck, I was truly left with no money when my British debit card was cut off suddenly and my bank was closed. This would truly be the test I thought, of how to survive in the Big Smoke with no dollar and still immerse myself in the culture. Firstly, my companion and I dragged ourselves to Grand Central and took photos inside its beautiful walls, before strolling abruptly through Times Square (one cannot briskly walk through), and then onto the rooftop of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where we witnessed a stunning view of the city as well as a stunning view of history inside the museum. After this, we laid in Central Park watching the clouds go by and I felt truly content. As my companion left me to have dinner with a friend in Harlem, I navigated the subway to Battery Park to see the Statue of Liberty and witness the immigrant beginnings of the city on Ellis Island. However, I didn’t get a chance to reach the ferry before the Google intern gave me an offer I couldn’t refuse.

He was a guy my friend and I had bumped into on the subway on Friday night. He was talking to a girl from my English neck of the woods and after she departed we talked and talked until he left in a curly-haired, big-eyed blur. With a sigh we concluded that we would never see him again. Surprisingly, we spotted him on the same platform as us on Saturday night. Coming from different places, we had collided into each other again and this time I felt brave enough to ask for his number. It seemed like fate. Flash forward to day three and the Californian invites me to see the Book of Mormon on Broadway as he had tickets and got two box seats for $30 each. How could I say no? Surely I could borrow the money from my friend. Quickly, I ran, down escalators, and upstairs to reach the other end of New York for the show. I was Cinderella running through the neon walls of Times Square to meet my prince. Okay, slightly dramatic, but you catch my drift.

The show was amazing.

Afterwards, we meandered through the bright lights and Naked Cowboys to my friend’s school, where the Google intern left me once again in a curly-haired, big-eyed blur. Not before paying for my ticket, like a true Prince Charming.

Thus ends the first chapter of my West Side Story: a fairytale in a city of fabulous gay men, pigeons and lady Liberty herself.

After attempting to equate my experiences to the TV and movies of my youth, I realize this: mine is a new beginning. Even without the riches of Serena van der Woodsen, I found myself in love with the beauty and opportunities of New York, New York.

And as the saying goes: “if I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” I am truly rejuvenated, invigorated and inspired on my return to UMass. I realize you don’t need a million dollars to live and breathe New York City, just a vision, and hopefully one day I’ll find my own American dream. I dare you to do the same.

Jenny Rae can be reached at [email protected]