Day 6 – Broken Buses and American Dining

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Over the past couple days, I haven’t been able to sleep past 7 o’clock due to different engagements in the mornings. Today, however, was a beautiful change as I got to sleep in until 10:30 (GASP). I rolled out of bed, showered, made myself a glass of milk, opened a Poptart, and watched some Youtube videos until it was time to go to the 12 o’clock bus tour me and Jen signed up for. It was promising to be an exciting day!

I will admit I had a rough morning with homesickness (yet again), but I promised myself I wouldn’t ruin this day by being depressed and sad. I hopped on the open-air bus, climbed to the top, and enjoyed the gorgeous weather. Previous weather reports promised rain, but the sky was pure blue with beautiful white clouds. No rain in sight, thank goodness! While on the tour, we passed such iconic sights as Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, and the London Eye as well as many more. The tour guide was so helpful and informative; I learned so much!

However, once we passed the London Eye, our lovely bus broke down and we were forced to merge with the bus behind us. Obviously the bus behind us was already filled to the brim with QMUL students, so we had to stand in the aisles packed together like sardines and hope that everyone took a shower. Luckily Jen and I broke to the top of the bus and sat three-by-three with some lovely people kind enough to offer, but it was quite uncomfortable. I wasn’t able to walk for a bit after getting off the bus, I was seated so poorly.

Once we returned to campus, Jen and I made an impromptu trip to the Westfield Stratford Mall. Four floors of shops and restaurants greeted our vision once we stepped off of the Stratford Tube stop; I was completely in heaven. In addition to offering the British stores like Primark, America was also well-represented with an American Eagle and various other shops. We sampled face masks at Lush, gawked at expensive clothes in TopShop, and cheered at the sight of a Krispy Kreme (trust me, it felt like a beacon of hope). We stopped to eat at a Chipotle-like place called Tortilla and enjoyed some burritos that claimed to be “Real Californian Burritos.” I’ll take their word for it! Our friend Nicole also joined us for lunch and then we walked about the mall. We bought some delicious cookies from Millie’s, ate them in a Starbucks, and then departed for the Tube station.

We met our friend Danielle and another new girl named McKayla (I’m not sure about the spelling) and headed out for a fun night out. We journeyed to Covent Garden and, although we arrived too late for the markets that close at 6, we found there was plenty to do. The atmosphere was lively and exciting, probably due to the numerous pubs and street performers littering the, well, streets. We found a cute place called “The Diner” that advertised serving American foods. Since all of us were American, we figured we’d test how authentic this American food tasted.

By pretty much all standards, the food was good. I got a chocolate milkshake and gravy fries, both quite up to par. Everyone else seemed to enjoy their food as well! Shortly after paying the bill, we decided to explore more of what Covent Garden had to offer.

We happened upon the London Chinatown and I must say it was amazing. There were so many tantalizing smells wafting from the storefronts that, even though we just ate, I was willing to eat about twenty more meals. While in Chinatown, we came upon a couple theaters for shows we want to see like Les Miserables and The 39 Steps. Both theaters looked gorgeous and beautiful; I can’t wait to return! We made a pact to return on Saturday to see if there are any last-minute discount tickets to see any show. Hopefully we get something good for a decent price!

With Chinatown behind us, we stumbled into Piccadilly Circus and the M&M World London shop. In the shop there were plenty of statues of M&M’s in stereotypical British scenes like the Beetles’ Abbey Road, a double-decker red bus, and others. We took pictures in front of all of them and it was a great time! There were four floors to explore, so there was more than enough to see.

We left the M&M shop and decided to head back to campus; it was getting late. After parting ways with the other girls, Jen and I returned to our flat to see it blissfully empty. It seems like our roommates were able to enjoy themselves as well last night! We turned on Memoirs of a Geisha until about midnight and then I was more than happy to go to sleep. It was overall an exciting and amazing day; I hope to have plenty more of those in the upcoming months. And although the day was exciting and loads of fun, nothing beats a good night’s sleep.

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Day 5 – A Hodgepodge of Places & Events

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Ever since I have arrived in London, the weather has been uncharacteristically beautiful… and sorta hot. The only rain I’ve experienced so far was the brief drizzle from a couple days ago, but apart from that it has been beautifully clear and in the 70s. London has been treating us well, in terms of weather. Because the weather was gorgeous and awe-inspiring, Jen, Nicole, and I decided to take a bike ride through Hyde Park. You might remember the park from earlier in the week, but this time we went there with a purpose: ride a Barclays Cycle through the park.

The process to rent a Barclays Cycle was quite simple and pretty cheap, actually. Though I wouldn’t advise riding the bike outside of the park (traffic is absolutely terrifying), you can pretty much take the bikes anywhere and drop them off wherever there is a Barclays Cycle station. Basically you stick your credit card in the kiosk, select how many bikes you want to rent, how long (minimum is 24 hours for 2 pounds each bike), and then you get a printed bike code. You type the code into the area next to the bike of your choice, it unlocks, and then you’re free to go for a whole half hour! If you don’t return the bike before the thirty minutes are up, you are charged an extra fee. So it’s best if you keep to that half hour time limit. There are plenty of Barclays stations to return and rent bikes in Hyde Park, so doing so was no issue whatsoever. I felt like a proper Londoner with my bike and the wind whipping through my hair as a homeless man was scolded for sleeping on a park bench! It was truly wonderful, in all seriousness.

After biking, we noticed we were extremely close to Harrods, one of the biggest shopping places I’ve ever seen. We only explored part of the ground floor, but there are at least 4 other floors to explore (with floor four being “shoe heaven” as they call it) and ridiculous prices. There doesn’t seem to be any method to how the rooms are arranged next to each other, but I suppose that’s the fun of exploring Harrods. You walk into an entrance and see purses upon purses but then enter the next room just to see sushi and expensive deli meats. There was even a cooler in the back of one of the food rooms (yes there were many) that held a lot of common grocery items for high prices. Who in their right mind would pay so much for a carton of eggs? Probably the type who regularly go to Harrods. Don’t get me wrong, though, the place is beautiful. The outside architecture is breathtaking and the inside has its own brand of awe inducement. The displays in each room are phenomenal and worth photographing, but unfortunately security won’t let you do that. So, instead, we just gawked and made mental notes of how amazing everything was. I may have to go back towards the end of my stay and pick up a Harrods tea tin. You know, just to say I afforded something from Harrods.

We ate at a chain called “Eat.” and had some Panera Bread-like sandwiches and crisps (chips for you Americans) for a bit more than I’d like to spend. As the still water was more expensive than the sparkling, I sucked it up and drank seltzer water out of a bottle. I’m shuddering just thinking about it. All in all, though, the restaurant wasn’t bad and I’d probably go back again. It’s just your standard pick-up-and-go place that will heat up sandwiches, dole out soup, and serve coffee if you pay for it. Nothing special, nothing terrible.

Just down the road from Harrods is a museum called the Victoria & Albert Museum, home to cool exhibits and (again) large and many rooms. We only had about an hour before we had to return to campus, so we swept through only three or four exhibits. The first was called “Disobedient Objects,” a temporary exhibit referring to revolution through time. The items in the room were disturbing, but I believe that was the whole point. Overall, I thought it was eye-opening and interesting to read about considering I took a Youth Revolt class last semester. The other exhibits we had time to visit were those about fashion, Raphael, and one involving petticoats and family seals. The V&A Museum is definitely a place I need to return to, especially with how amazing the exhibits I already saw were. So far, London has yet to disappoint me with its culture and amazing history. You go, UK!

We ditched the museum in time to return to campus for a School of History Associates (that’s Study Abroad students) Induction, which was more of a Q&A social event. A very cool and entertaining man called Matt walked us through some of the changes we could expect in the history classes offered at Queen Mary. Since I am taking Architecture in London, a class mostly involving field trips, I don’t think any of what he said really applies. However, it was still quite helpful to hear some of my mental questions answered in a friendly environment. It was very eye-opening, to say the least. After the information session, we were pushed off to a general meeting room where there were drinks and finger foods for the taking. Yes, by drinks I do mean beer and wine as well as juice and water. I don’t think I’ll ever get used to the comfortableness that London has with alcohol. I met a girl from California here for an academic year, and she seemed quite nice. She, like so many others I have met and talked to, is an English major. We spoke for a while until some third year History students came by and introduced themselves. They were nice enough, but their insistence on joining in the pub crawl on Monday was a little strange to say the least. I explained to them how my home university is a dry campus and they gave me the strangest look almost as if to say “whaaaaaaat? no wild parties every single night of the week?” No, sorry. Even though I’m still in shock by the drinking culture in London, I’m sure I’ll get used to it in time. It’s just the adjustment that will take a little while.

After sitting in the social room for at least an hour and a half, Jen, Nicole, and I decided to leave. It was time for a relaxing night in the flat with some good dinner and a movie. While our flatmates had other ideas involving partying in our kitchen, we turned on Thor and ate grilled cheese with tomato soup. Almost immediately after finishing the movie, the fire alarm went off.

A sheet on the back of each flat door states that if the fire alarm rings for less than four seconds, there’s no need to evacuate. It is only a test. The fire alarm last night, however, was not a test! We all had to walk down the stairs in ticked-off pseudo-silence while everyone wondered who pulled the gosh-darned thing. The night was cold and getting late (about 11 o’clock), so sitting outside waiting for my flat to be called was ridiculous. Jen and I met some other people from our building and talked to them, but otherwise there was no benefit to being called out of the dorms at such a late hour in the night. Thankfully, we were back inside by midnight.

Jen and I tried to watch another movie now that we were wide awake from the cold air, but that was apparently not in the cards. Romeo + Juliet was turned on. While enjoying the ridiculous Leo diCaprio movie, the unimaginable happened. A second fire alarm went off. At 2 in the morning, the fire alarm sprang into action and forced us all out of the building. No one was happy, no one was smiling or joking. Everyone was dead-faced and miserable as most of us were thinking of sleeping. This time, the flat attendance procedure went quicker and we were released back into the building.

Even though I couldn’t sleep for an extra half hour for fear of the alarm going off again, I enjoyed a good night’s rest and woke up to the sound of the busy city outside my window. The promise of a new day was exciting, a feeling that completely erased the anger and frustration aimed at the fire alarms from the previous night. Hopefully I can go to sleep happy tonight hoping that I will enjoy my slumber uninterrupted.

Day 4 – Museums Are My Favorite Places

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Yes, it is true. While in the States, I don’t really go out of my way to make a trip to any museum. This may be partly due to laziness, but the main reason is because of the money it costs to enter any of the museums around and away from my area. Luckily, London knew just what to do with that qualm. Most of the London museums are free to the public, except for maybe an extra couple pounds to get into a specific limited-engagement exhibit, and that means that they are full of people. There is something amazing about seeing museums filled with wondrous artifacts and ideas just teeming with people eager to see those items. It makes the whole atmosphere more authentic, in a sense. People go to these museums because they actually want to see great art and monuments; you can tell from the avid picture-taking and gawking from afar.

Because Jen, Nicole, and I have gone to the Natural History Museum already, we decided to traipse on down to the British Museum. By far, this is my favorite museum out of the ones we’ve visited. They had so many amazing pieces (including the Rosetta Stone!). The building itself is so large that we have to go back to finish the rest of it, but I certainly don’t mind. I was constantly stunned by beautiful clocks, intriguing artwork, gruesome mummies, and strange stone horse heads. It is truly a place not to be missed!

After a rather brisk jaunt through the museum’s gift shop, we departed for Oxford Circus to do some impromptu shopping. Primark was our first stop and I purchased a pair of navy blue cat printed pajama bottoms and a maroon-and-white Hogwarts jumper (ooh that British terminology!). I have no post-purchase regrets. Then, after an extensive search through Primark’s three (or is it four?!) floors, we headed into Boots for necessities. As we exited Boots, I spotted a vibrant sign for Waterstones, the British equivalent of Barnes & Noble. Guess who went inside and guess who bought something? Yep, me.

I leafed through plenty of books and smelled them to make sure they were quality, but the only book I picked up and bought was “Fantastic Beasts & Where to Find Them” by J.K. Rowling. Now, you’re probably thinking “hey, you can buy that in the States!” and yes, you would be right. However, I don’t own any copy of this little book and thought a London-purchased copy would be perfect. I’m not sure if all of the editions have this, but my edition has scribbles in the margins from Harry, Ron, and Hermione that offer insight into the content each in their own ways. I am truly in love with this little companion book, and no I am not in the least bit embarrassed to say so.

We decided the trip home would be better done on the bus seeing as we had bags, but the cards were not in our favor. There was an accident (my guess is a horrible one) on one of the streets our bus was set to go down and the police blocked off the street completely with police tape. We sat at a light for at least a half hour watching it go green to amber to red to amber to green over and over again. We almost debated hopping off the bus and catching the Tube, but we ultimately remained on the bus. After a quick (she said sarcastically) U-turn, our bus took us on an accidental scenic tour of some beautiful churches and architectural structures that we wouldn’t have gotten to see otherwise. So, I guess, every moment has a silver lining. Though, I do feel bad for whoever was injured in the accident.

As I finish this blog post, I return from the second fire alarm of the night. I am tired, exhausted, beat. Goodnight, world!

Day 3 – I Wish This Was a 3 Month Vacation

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I hate to make this post already sound depressing, but it was revealed today to us Study Abroad students that life wouldn’t be all fun and games this semester. There are classes to go to, homework to complete, and various other side effects of being a college resident that dampen the experience. It’s not that I didn’t know these things, but life had been so fluid and easygoing the past two days that I assumed and hoped that life would continue being that way. Orientation showed me that that was not the case… obviously! I mean, it is still college, right?

Besides the fact that I made another friend (hey, Danielle!), there was an off-kilter feeling to the whole morning. I knew it was going to be an off day when I couldn’t stay awake for ten minutes during orientation. Every time I blinked I was in danger of falling into a deep slumber in front of Study Abroad students with surnames A-L. The information being given to us was interesting and most definitely helpful, but the lack of caffeine in my life these past days really took its toll on me. I was a zombie in human form, brain dead and unresponsive. Long story short: the morning didn’t go too well.

The afternoon, however, picked up slightly. Jen and I lounged around the flat for a bit, making lunch and watching YouTube videos of the “Apparently Kid” and, of course, some A Very Potter Musical. Lunch consisted of instant oolongmen (think Ramen but with little veggies and large amounts of sodium) for myself and udon for dear old Jen. Flatmates floated in and out of the kitchen; it is unknown whether they like us yet or not. They might just find us weird, which definitely sits between the two extremes.

With nothing on the docket until 4:00 pm, Jen and I decided to head to King’s Cross station and assess the line for the Platform 9 3/4 picture spot. Unfortunately, by the time we decided to get out of the flat and meander down to the Tube, it was already 3:00 and our arrival time was 3:15. The line was a bit too long for a fifteen minute time constraint, so we browsed the shop (of course there was a gift shop; everyone loves a HP gift shop). I saw the most amazing lithograph (pictures made from book text) of the first Harry Potter book in the form of a snitch and Hedwig silhouette to the pretty tune of 30 pounds. I haven’t seen anything like it back home, but there is that pesky question of how I will get it home… so I refrained from buying it. For now.

After browsing the many items I wanted to purchase but had the decency not to, we ditched the station and ran back to the Tube to (hopefully) make it back in time for our walking tour of East End London at 4:00 pm. We made it in record time and met our new friend there as well (how lucky!). Our tour guide was kind and peppy, which definitely made the slightly grueling walk a bit more bearable. It was clear she knew her information and wanted to share it with us, so naturally I wanted to learn. We made a complete square from the campus up and around to a park and back. She gave us helpful tips and tricks for daily living in London as well as pointers as to where to get the cheapest groceries. The only thing she didn’t help us with was how to deal with the “freshers” outside the dorms yelling at the top of their lungs. Of course I didn’t expect her to give any practical advice about living on a campus such as this one, but anything at all would have been extremely welcome.

If you couldn’t guess, the freshers like to party. I don’t mind that–I understand normal college students do such things especially when the drinking age is 18 and above–but I do mind the constant screaming outside my window. Luckily it has been dying down somewhat (maybe because the parties are elsewhere in London), but I can still hear the occasional song or chant drifting up to my room, waking me from a deep sleep. I don’t have to tell you that it’s unpleasant. I say they are freshers, but really it could be anyone from any year. Just the fact that the “fresher events” are this week makes me assume (probably correctly) that the freshers are the most common partyers. Just an educated guess.

The only downside to yesterday was that I had a bout of intense homesickness. I had a feeling this would happen soon enough, considering I hadn’t really thought too hard about home since I got here, but it rushed over me like a tidal wave. I was shopping for groceries when I realized I had no idea what I was doing and it was all I could do not to break down in the store itself. Luckily I held myself together for the ride home, but once I entered my room I was a mess. I am thankful to Jen for being there for me and helping me understand that this, too, shall pass and that we’ll both be home in a shorter time than we would like to admit. I also Facetime’d with my parents which helped in a major way. Just seeing their faces, hearing their voices, and actually talking to them about things helped so much. Sure, I may have shed a tear when I had to say good-bye to them after the call, but they told me the same thing everyone else has: enjoy your time here because it won’t last forever. Three months is shorter than you think.

With that thought in mind, I leave this blog post in your able hands. I miss my family and friends back home so very much, but I must focus on forging new friendships here for the time being. Friends truly help glue the broken pieces back together, especially when no one else is around to do so.

Day 2 – Of Churches, Museums, Palaces, and Parks

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The day began early when Jen and I decided to hit up a Catholic church close by for mass. It was cute in the sense that not many people were there and yet there was still singing. The “cantor” of sorts would start the songs in pretty admirable a capella pitch, but he also doubled as an altar boy complete with bell ringing and Communion clean-up. If nothing else, his multi-tasking was surely impressive. Everyone I shared the Sign of Peace with seemed lovely and polite and I would certainly go back based on that alone. There’s absolutely nothing worse than hostile church-goers, after all.

The day continued with some sightseeing for the tourist in me. Feeling ambitious, we decided to hit up a museum. Jen, Nicole (a new friend!), and I traveled to the place that seems to bundle up all the amazing details of London into one area, South Kensington. The Tube trip was a bit long and at times quite awkward (I was coughed on by an old man and had my arm in front of a coffee-drinking man’s face), but the destination made the trivial tribulations completely worth it. We stepped out of the Tube to see large, beautiful, historical buildings that served as apartments to many young and old. British (and maybe some not so British) families walked hand-in-hand between the many museums and small British-accented children exclaimed at the cool things to see. The entire collective sight was actually magical to behold. You can walk through your hometown and not even notice the different diverse families walking past you and how intricate the family system is, but just watching the different family groups interact within this unique setting was absolutely amazing. It wasn’t so much that the families did anything special, but the way some of the children spoke and the reactions from their parents was so interesting to see.

The first stop was the Natural History Museum in South Kensington. This building is the epitome of humongous, but we swore we could brave it. Well, let’s just say that we left half of the museum undiscovered for another day. After all, most of the museums are free, so no harm done! Plus, there is a certain dinosaur exhibit that a certain friend wants (and I also want) to see that reopens September 19th, so there’s more than one reason to return. If the contents of the building weren’t enough to bring us back, the architecture certainly stunned us. Though, I will say, the sections about the Earth and what it’s made up of really had me flashing back to Geology class. I’m not sure whether or not that’s a good thing considering the museum seems to be geared more towards the younger crowd.

A late lunch/early dinner was a necessity as all that walking made us extremely peckish, so we tried to balance our options. Budgeting is hard when everything sounds and looks fantastic, but I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that. We ended up at a small deli with the cutest little backyard sitting area (complete with snogging couple in the corner) and ordered tea and sandwiches. My first “cuppa” was absolutely fantastic! I didn’t think I’d like milk in tea, but don’t knock it until you try it. I felt so authentic in that moment… until I said in my twangy American accent “this tea is so fanTAStic!” I got some stares from the other patrons but, as the kids say, YOLO.

Since the day was still young, the three of us scampered off to Hyde Park. I was surprised by how large the park was, first of all, compared to what my hometown calls parks. If you thought (insert park name here) was big in any sense, it certainly looks dwarfish in comparison to Hyde Park. Complete with fountains, ponds, lakes, memorials that belong in St. Peter’s Basilica, and plenty of bikes to rent and ride, Hyde Park truly has it all. The thing I loved most about the park was that there were actually a lot of people around. Back home, I’m lucky if I see ten people tops. At Hyde Park, there were people everywhere you looked but it wasn’t crowded. There were plenty of large trees to provide shade should the sun get too warm, plenty of ducks for dogs to scare out of their wits, plenty of children screeching by on their scooters (it seems they all have one), and plenty of space to just unwind. It was truly a great feeling to look out at the park and feel like you were part of something important. Whether it was watching the volleyball game, or laughing at the impromptu street hockey match in the middle of the park road, I truly felt happy and relaxed. I would say that Hyde Park was the first place I felt like a true Londoner even though it included none of the typical London things. Long story short, Hyde Park is a place I will be going back to very soon.

Hyde Park’s sheer size made our legs and feet hurt more than we thought possible. So, after a random drizzle amidst blue skies, the three of us hobbled back to the Tube to get back to campus. Even though I’ve only ridden the Tube a handful of times, I already feel like a natural! I received a customary “huff” from a Londoner behind me as I failed to realize the gates opened to let me through and it just felt so real. I accidentally stood on the left side of the escalator instead of the right and was brusquely asked to move aside. Honestly, I feel so at home. Take that as sarcasm or genuineness, it could really be either.

To end the night, the three of us decided to stay in and pull an all-American night-in: pizza and Netflix. Jen and I donned sweatpants, shirts, and sandals (moccasins for me) to travel to an on-campus convenience store only to be told by Nicole that we looked glaringly American. To be honest, I had never received a better compliment in my life. If looking obviously American is looking comfortable and ready to watch some Burlesque, then I am totally okay with it. We walked into one of the stores and picked up some little bits and bobs, mainly snack foods for the movie. The cashier, bless her soul, tried her best to understand why were staying inside while all of the “freshers” (freshman for you Americans) were out partying like good normal college students. I had a feeling she wouldn’t be able to level with me, so I left our reasoning up in the air. Is Netflix-in-sweats time not a thing in the UK? I might be slightly concerned by this.

This whole week has a lot of exciting things in store as classes don’t start until next week. Free time most definitely equals sightseeing, if nothing else. I can’t wait to explore more of London and make it more “my own” as I’ve been told to do these past few days. It certainly helps that I’m making friends, both American and others, because they certainly make the trips more interesting. Even if I don’t walk away from this experience with a million new friends from every single country, I’m glad that the ones I’m making are ones I’d love to keep.