1. Mind the Gap
This really won’t be that hard to do considering those exact words are painted on the ground and announced from the speakers at every single tube station stop. You’ll actually grow quite fond of it and may even find yourself reciting it to your friends in your best (or worst) British accent. Regardless, this is an important tip because there is indeed a gap between the train and the platform and falling victim to it would really put a damper on your London adventures.
2. Buy an Oyster Card
An Oyster Card is a handy, dandy little card that holds the amount of fare that you load onto it, and you scan it each time you enter and exit the Tube station. If you don’t purchase a card, then you’ll have to buy a ticket for each trip. The card itself costs a few pounds, however, if you return the card to a kiosk before you leave London, you’re refunded that fee. Stay aware of how much money you have on your card because if you don’t have enough for a trip, the gates won’t let you through and then you’ll have to reload, or “top up”, which can take a while depending on the crowds.
3. Avoid Rush Hour
Just like you experience “rush hour” on the highway, the Underground also experiences this dreadful occurrence, especially considering most people use this public transportation to get to and from work. If you’ve ever heard the saying “like a can of sardines” and never actually experienced what that may be like, hop on the Tube during the evening rush and you’ll soon find out. You’ll be packed in with as many people that can squeeze into that car, plus a few extra. My best advice here- try to get to the back of the car and find a standing spot. Not only is it convenient to have the wall to lean on, but there is a sliding window that creates a marvelous breeze that will be a lifesaver when the temperature is rising and you’re feeling Closter phobic.
4. Blend In
This technically could be general advice for the American traveler in any country. Americans are notoriously known as loud and obnoxious and you don’t really want the stares that accompany this idea. The British are quiet and reserved people, especially on the Tube. Most people are by themselves, listening to music or reading a book. Those in pairs or groups either sit silently or converse in hushed tones. Hopping on the train with you girlfriends and giggling loudly will cause you to stick out and reinforce the “noisy American” stereotype, and you’ll probably earn yourself some dirty looks.
5. Map Out Your Route Beforehand
If you haven’t seen the Underground route map yet, go ahead and take a second to Google it right now. It’s a bit overwhelming, but once you learn how it works then it’s a breeze to navigate. Before you depart to a new place, I’d recommend going to http://www.tfl.gov.uk/plan-a-journey/, and you’ll be able to map out the journey. Just be sure to pay attention to the station names as you’re going along and hop off the train at the correct one! If your destination requires you to get off of one line and then onto another, don’t panic, just prepare ahead of time and pay attention while you’re on the Tube, and you’ll be fine!
6. Take Advantage
London is a marvelous city, and the fact that the public transportation is at your fingertips is just another reason to step outside of your comfort zone and explore. You can get from one side of the city to the other in such a small amount of time, so utilize this incredible underground transportation and have a blast in London!
Cliche tourist photos and selfies in front of iconic attractions are great and all, but here are some tips I learned in London for different types of pictures that will help you remember your time abroad differently.
We are so used to taking pictures at eye level. We typically capture skylines and silhouettes, but I challenge you to look up when visiting a new place. Check out the architecture, learn the uniqueness of the city, explore from a different angle. I honestly have no clue where this picture was taken, but I can remember the story behind it clearly. We were on a photography excursion for class, and this was during our lunch break. We ate at a nearby café and, while eating outside, I noticed the interesting building art and string of lights connecting to the apartments. This picture allows me to remember unique parts of that day, because it is different from all of the other photos I took. Just look up.
Teach yourself about extended exposure and shutter speed. Learn techniques to capture motion and you’ll remember your trip in a whole new way. Luckily for me, I was taking a photography class in London and was supplied with a tripod and instruction on how to take such a picture, but a street bench and Google will do the same thing. This intersection is not relevant or important, however this picture captures the iconic red, double decker bus in a non-traditional way. When I look at this, I remember the constant bustle of those busses and their movement throughout the city. You can hop on public transportation and see all of London, traveling from one end to the other.
Don’t be afraid to look silly getting up close and personal with a plant or inanimate object. If it looks cool, take a picture, because those pictures will last forever and there are just some things you don’t want to forget. Photograph signs, flowers, animals, books, food, and your coffee cups. Embrace it! Don’t just take pictures of yourself, but really capture your surroundings. I took this picture at South Bank next to the Thames River at a little farmers market. They were selling plants and flowers and I remember the fragrances filling the air and the shelves of burlap. Yes, I probably looked ridiculous taking this, and no, the plant isn’t even that appealing, but it’s a detail of my day and a pleasant memory of South Bank that now I won’t ever forget.
Be creepy, be brave, don’t be subtle. Photograph the locals, their activities, and their culture. You’re in a new place and it’s inevitably going to have some cultural aspects that are different than back home. Embrace it! This photo is another shot from a class project, and my professor asked permission for us to set up tripods across the street. We all thought it was awkward and creepy, but a cool picture came from it. One thing I won’t forget about London is all of the business people gathering around the pubs after work for a casual drink and conversation with a stranger. There is movement, there is laughter, and there are stories. We received some humorous comments from our subjects, but nobody had an issue with a group of Americans capturing a scene that was routine to the locals. This picture encompasses what I learned of London culture.
Sometimes we forget to take a picture of the things we see every day or that are typical to us. Hotel rooms, rental cars, your morning coffee shop, the view from your window. These are the things that make your trip special and so why not capture them! This is a picture of the incredible floor-to-ceiling windows in our dorm room. Firstly, we were incredibly lucky to even score a triple room accommodation, but then the room ended up being gorgeous, so of course I took a bunch of pictures. This one is my favorite because it shows the amazing window, the light that it would let in, and the exterior of the buildings on that street. I also love that the window is open, because that’s how it remained for the duration of our stay because our room did not have air conditioning, which is typical in Europe. I am also reminded of the fact that, during the time we were in London, they were experiencing an abnormally hot summer and the longest drought they’d had in a few years, another fun tidbit from my trip.
Usually, when someone begins the process of looking into studying abroad and researching all of the different programs and countries, one of the first thoughts that come to mind is, “well, I’m not sure I feel comfortable traveling to and living in a foreign country alone.” That’s actually completely normal and makes a lot of sense considering that the unknown can be very frightening.
If you talk to anyone who has studied abroad alone, they will tell you that it was one of the best experiences of their lives because they were able to meet new people, make new friends, and form lifelong connections from all over the globe. I encourage you to go alone, to test your limits and learn about who you are while exploring a whole new world full of independence and adventures.
However, if you feel more comfortable knowing that you have a familiar face by your side, or if you and your best friend have been planning to go abroad together since you were kids, then by all means, do it! I studied abroad with AIFS during the summer of 2013 with my two very best friends, and it’s been the greatest experience we’ve had together. Nevertheless, there are still some dos and don’ts that I recommend in order to get the most out of your time abroad.
DO: Embrace the touristy and cliché together
Let’s be honest here, we all see the artsy pictures on Pinterest of a pair of friends candidly laughing next to the Eiffel Tower or pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Ask someone to take your picture and don’t be afraid to look silly because I promise you that memory will be worth it. Take a million photos. Sightsee. Try new foods. And do it all together! You’ll gain so many great new inside jokes and stories that will only strengthen your friendship! Did my best friends and I all hang outside of a classic London photo booth and make telephone shapes with our fingers? You bet we did!
DON’T: Miss out on what you want to do
A great aspect of studying abroad is that you’re inevitably going to meet other Americans on your trip, as well as the locals where you’re living. If there is something that you’ve been dying to do, but the friend(s) you came with aren’t interested, do not sacrifice it. Make a new friend who shares that interest and go together! In fact, it’s sometimes easy to miss out on meeting new people if you’re constantly in your tight-knit circle, so I encourage you to make plans with different people, and encourage the friends you came with to do the same. It’s okay to leave the group and explore new things. Make a list before you leave of the things that you don’t want to miss out on, and hold yourself to that. One of my best friends went on the Harry Potter Studio Tour with a few of the other girls in our photography class and she’ll tell you that it was one of her favorite things she did in London. Which then leads me to my next point.
DO: Explore on your own
You’re in a foreign country, you may not speak the native language, and you aren’t familiar with the area, so obviously use caution and common sense when exploring independently, but don’t miss the chance to do so. Sometimes it’s nice to be alone with your own thoughts instead of constantly doing things with the same people. I attended the Aston Martin Centennial Celebration car show in Kensington Gardens alone and had so much fun. No one was interested in going with me, but I knew I didn’t want to pass it up, so I went anyway. You’re a college student, you’re young, and you’re figuring your life out. Why not do it in a beautiful foreign land? Grab some coffee, take a stroll, find a bench with a nice view, and journal your thoughts. You’ll be amazed at how you see things differently in solidarity.
DON’T: Let your friends define your experience
Ultimately, this is a once in a lifetime experience and something that is so much more meaningful than the fact that you’re traveling with your besties. Don’t forget to really take in your surroundings and the culture. Define your time there independently from the way that your friends define it. Challenge yourself to discover new things and to change your outlook on the world. Your friends are going back with you to the States, but your time abroad is limited, so don’t leave with regrets.
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Prince George Alexander Louis, Son of Prince William and Duchess Catherine, was born on the twenty-second of July, summer of 2013, and at the time of his birth, I was casually chatting with a group of Australian cricket players outside of Kensington Palace in London, England.
When my two best friends and I decided to study abroad in London through AIFS, we didn’t plan around the upcoming birth of the United Kingdom’s newest prince, however, it ended up being one of our greatest memories and cultural learning experiences. At that point, we had already been in London for two weeks and were aware of Kate Middleton’s due date. Actually, I was constantly updated every morning by my best friend who has an obsession with William and Kate and the entire Royal Family. First thing every day, even before the proper amount of coffee, she was inspecting the online news to check the status of the pregnancy, but with the conclusion of our time abroad around the corner, we were beginning to think we’d miss it completely.
So on July 22nd, we decided to stroll through Kensington Park after dinner and enjoy one of our last nights being charmed by the beauty of London. We took a break on a bench to watch a cricket game, because after all, cricket is a foreign and strange sport to us Americans and fascinated us. Long story short, a few of the lovely Aussie fellows decided to give us some company and we stuck around to hear their stories and exchange ours. One of the boys checked his phone during our conversation and casually stated that Kate had her baby. Cue emotional freak out by my crazed best friend. She began running, skipping, and leaping around, shouting that the prince was born and crying tears of joy. This is where our cultural confusion first began. As we were celebrating, we were also informing some of the passer byers who were walking by, and to our surprise, nobody cared.
Most of the responses we got in return of the good news were lackadaisical and apathetic one-word answers or blank expressions. We assumed that the British would be elated at the birth of their newest prince! That clearly was not the case because even the next day, it still was not a huge deal. Of course, at the request of my friend, we went to the convenience store and stocked up on all of the newspapers and magazines headlining the birth. I think that all of the other tourists in Kensington had that same idea that morning. We choose to buy those newspapers as souvenirs and historical keepsakes, while the locals were buying for the weather forecast or the story on page three.
Per tradition, the golden easel was placed outside of Buckingham Palace with the birth announcement on it, signed by the royal doctors, and of course, we went to see it. Once again, tourists filled the outside gates of the Palace and were lining up just to get a peek. Guards were ushering the crowds and only allowing for a quick picture and then you had to be on your way. In addition, it has also historically been the case that the name of the new royal baby is not released to the public for a few days to a few weeks, but lucky for us, Prince George’s name was announced while we were still in the country.
After bike riding through the gardens, we stopped at Kensington Palace to see why people were crowding the gates. Turned out, someone spelled out George’s name in boxes of baby powder on the grass. We spoke to a British woman that evening and asked her why the locals didn’t seem to be as excited as the tourists. She explained that it just isn’t a huge deal to them and compared it to our reactions to the President and his family, which made a lot of sense.
This really exemplified cultural variations in the public and media response to a pop culture event like such. Friends and family back in the states were being bombarded by the news and it remained a vital part of the media for a few days. But regardless of resident reactions, it still remains one of the highlights of my study abroad experience and I can certainly say that businesses and souvenir shops made a good deal of money off tourists and their infatuations with the Royal family. July 22nd was just another day for most of the British, while I will always remember being right next to Kensington Palace when I received the news of Prince George’s birth.
Now Will and Kate are expecting their second child, and my friends and I want to find a way back to London for round two of royal baby celebrations.
It's coming up on one year since I spent a month studying abroad in London, England with my two best friends and there isn't a day that goes by that I don't wish I was still there. I'm most happy when I get to talk about my trip and how amazing London is, so here are the top five things that made it so special to me. There are so much more, but I do not have nearly enough time to put them all into words.
1. Parks, parks, parks. The weather is getting warmer here in the states and all I can think about it how deeply I wish I was strolling through Hyde Park in the sunshine. I’d give anything to be back there sitting on a bench and watching all the handsome British businessmen take their dogs out for their evening walks. Or laughing at the awkward couples out paddle boating on the lake. Or running through the groups of swans eating breadcrumbs off of the pathway. Please, someone get me back to the Princess Diana Memorial Fountain so I can take off my shoes and walk the length of the stream while my best friend rambles on and on about how perfect Diana was. And if only I can rent a Barclay’s bike and cruise through Kensington Park and casually ride by Kate Middleton’s house. But of course, the night wouldn’t be complete without stopping to watch a group of Australian guys play cricket, and then maybe joining in for a round or two. And all of this magic is only a ten minute walk from our house, perfect for a daily routine. Mother Nature cures all sadness and seeing the majesty of these Royal Parks day after day is sure to foster positivity and happiness!
2. One word: Tube. Would you like to casually take a ride underground and end up face to face with the most iconic building in London? Yes, you would, because it’s amazing. One of the first Tube rides we took was to get to where our photography class was meeting and as we walked up the stairs, Big Ben was right in front of us. Like I’m not joking, you walk out of the station and good ol’ Ben is staring at you saying, “Welcome to London, everything is better here.” The fact that we could get on the Tube and go anywhere we wanted within minutes was awesome. Want to have lunch on the Thames River today? No problem, fill up your Oyster Card and you’re on your way. As expected, the ride itself was always entertaining as well. We quickly learned that during “rush hour”, we would feel like sardines all squished into the smallest, hottest, sweatiest space possible, but we’d somehow be alright with it. Oh, there’s a hot British guy next to you? It’s no big deal if you ‘accidentally’ bump into him as the train comes to a stop and hope to make small talk as you stare into each other’s eyes and he’ll invite you to live happily ever after with him and his European Greyhound. But usually it just resulted in creepers asking us if we were Americans and then explaining in great detail about how much they love Canada. On the occasions when the cars weren’t packed, then there was plenty of room to spread out, find a seat, and enjoy the lovely British voice repeat, “mind the gap” over and over again.
3. The yummiest food. This is not a drill. Some of the food I ate while in London was the best I’ve ever had (and probably ever will). First and foremost, I so desperately miss the weekly trip my friends and I took to eat gluten-free fish and chips at a lovely place called Oliver’s. We would take the Tube about 45 minutes, switching trains twice along the way. And after arriving at our stop, we’d walk another 25 minutes through some random neighborhood before we reached our destination. The first time we set out on this adventure, we had to huddle outside of a closed Starbucks to use their free Wi-Fi to access the GPS on our phones. But during the second and third trips, I’m sure anyone of the streets would have assumed we were locals (that’s if our loud and obnoxious American accents didn’t give it away). Regardless, it was all worth it because that celiac-friendly authentic British food made your mouth water and we craved it on the daily. Not to mention they also had [gluten-free] deep-friend Mars bars on the dessert menu.
Which brings me to the next thing that I miss oh so much; Mars bars. Seriously, this candy bar is heaven in your mouth. Apparently they used to be sold here in the states, but I haven’t been able to find them. There was nothing like a late-night stroll down the street to the convenience store to grab a Mars bar, or a frozen Mars bar, the perfect treat in our non-air conditioned dorm room. Thirdly, I will still wake up in the morning craving one of these so badly, and I am well aware that I can make it myself, but it will never be the same as arriving to class early in order to stop at the café and grab a tomato and cream cheese bagel sandwich. Yes, cream cheese with tomatoes on top. Don’t knock it till you try it because those Europeans really know what they’re doing when it comes to breakfast.
Another prime example- crepes bigger than your head, for only 5 pounds. Another weekly tradition that my friends and I shared was walking to My Old Dutch to indulge ourselves in, what were actually large, thin pancakes on American terms. Pick anything you want and they offered it on a crepe; Nutella, peaches, cheese, chicken, ice cream, spinach, and the list goes on. Bonus points for offering gluten-free crepes for my glutard of a best friend to enjoy! Really, I could probably write an entirely separate post simply of the cuisine in London. No wonder I gained weight while I was there…
4. History is everywhere. This is pretty self-explanatory. Everywhere you turn there is history to be learned about this magnificent city. During our month there, we made sure to do all the touristy things and took multiple tours through the must-see places such as Westminster Abbey, Shakespeare's Globe Theater, and the Tower of London, and we even traveled to see the Roman Baths (which were so cool!) We took a bus tour the second day we were there and our kind and hilarious tour guide showed us Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Trafalgar Square, and so much more. The architecture everywhere you turned was phenomenal. I’m sorry, but you just don’t see beauty like that in the US. And the museums! We were lucky enough to walk through the Tate Modern, the V&A, and the National Gallery and last time I checked there weren’t any Van Gogh or Picasso pieces in any museums around here. I just felt like it was impossible to go anywhere and not learn something new and fascinating about London, and maybe it was solely because we were tourists, but I never wanted it to stop. In addition, I also forced my friends to go on a ghost tour with me, which was also super neat!! (Our room was haunted anyway, so we really didn’t need to go looking for the paranormal)
As if that wasn’t enough history, Prince George Alexander Louis of Cambridge was born while we were there and we got to watch William and Kate bring him out of the hospital!
5. Dream cars, everywhere. Now anyone who truly knows me would occasionally describe me as a dude, and that side of me definitely came out in London. I mean, how was I supposed to contain myself when we walked right by a jet black Ferrari everyday while walking to class? I could sit on our balcony and wouldn’t be able to count the dream sports cars that passed on one hand. Granted, we were living in Kensington, the richest borough in London, but I was still taken aback every time I saw (or heard) one of these drive by. One of my fondest and favorite memories from the entire trip was going to the Aston Martin Centennial Celebration at Kensington Park. Aston Martin was celebrating 100 years and they had a car on display from each and every year from 1913 to 2013. There were also race cars and cars from the James Bond movies too! Everyone there was in fancy clothes, trotting about the grass with champagne in hand. Of course, my friends decided to be super girly that day and didn’t want to go with me, so I went alone. Again, anyone who really knows me would know that I don’t go places alone, but I wanted to see those cars so badly, and I’m so glad that I did. I must have spent close to two hours wandering around and marveling at the cars that I’ll never be able to afford as the men behind me discussed payment plans and transportation arrangements. It was great to ride the London Eye and do all of the London-y things, but this celebration was a once in a lifetime chance and easily one of the coolest things I’ve ever been too!
Pretty much the moral of the story is that I need to get back to London, ASAP.
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