A Semester in London

London is a magical city; it has culture, history and a feeling of adventure around every corner. As a teenager, I became obsessed with everything British. I wanted to go to England more than anywhere else. When I was twenty, in my junior year of college, I signed up for a semester in London at Queen Mary College. My dream was finally happening.

I’d been warned about culture shock before leaving the states, but I had no idea. I had shrugged it off as unlikely. After all, they spoke english and how much different could it be? I was wrong. Now, if you are visiting for only a couple weeks, or have experienced culture shock before, you probably have nothing to worry about. It was my first time out of the country, however, and I suddenly became aware of just how alone I was.

The flight had been exciting, but it was a red-eye from Chicago so I was extremely tired in the morning, which definitely made it worse. When we de-planed, I started to notice how many things were the same, but slightly different. Phone numbers were formatted weirdly, bathroom stalls went all the way to the floor and emergency placards were different. I tried to calm myself with some authentic British tea but had to find money. The currency exchange kiosks were weird, but my bank doesn’t charge me for currency conversion so I just went to an ATM. The money that came out was oddly colored but I went along with it.

When I asked for a cup of tea the woman asked, “White or black?” She was asking if I wanted milk (white) or not (black) but I had heard of white tea as a type of leaf before and I was thrown off. I took my tea (I know longer remember what my choice was) and huddled up with the other exchange students awaiting our bus to the college.

I had one more nervous moment when we arrived at our flats. They handed me my key and my sheets and I set about making my room up, figuring that would let me relax. I was very much mistaken. I had never seen a duvet cover before, though I had seen a mattress cover… and I proceeded to try and force the mattress into the duvet cover. I actually got it inside before I learned what I was supposed to use the cover for. After that I felt just about defeated. I was alone in a foreign country. I hadn’t been able to talk to my parents yet and if I got lost no one would know anything about me. It was daunting.

One of my flatmates came in though and told me about his day exploring and I felt emboldened. I decided to get over my concerns and just start exploring. I’m glad I did.

I walked over to the nearest Underground station, bought a travel card for the day and looked at the Underground map to pick a destination. I found it very easy to navigate and, within no time, I was walking out at the Tower of London. I ended up not going inside, because it was pricey for a young student dealing with the horrible exchange rate, but I was starting to feel confident. I had set out to go somewhere and I had made it there without any problem and knew I could get back to my bed every night.

That was when the city opened up and became the magical city that it is to me now. For three months I explored the city, every day. I did most of the tourist stuff early on and eventually transitioned to just random tube stops to explore. There are so many places to visit that don’t cost you a dime.

I became a huge fan of the British Museum. It’s probably the best museum in the world, and it’s absolutely free. Most museums and historic sites in the United Kingdom are and I visited quite a few of them. The Tate Modern is a beautiful modern art museum nestled next to the Globe Theatre and across the Thames River from St. Paul’s Cathedral (recently restored and absolutely beautiful). The best part about not having to pay an entry fee is that you can come back time and time again. I never felt pressed to see the whole museum when I went anywhere, I saw what I wanted for the day and could come back later.

Probably the luckiest day I had exploring was when they opened the Houses of Parliament for a tour. It was the first time in years that they had allowed a tour group to come in and see the old hall, it was to be one day only and I just happened upon it without knowing it would be happening. It was a cavernous hall and even had one of the royal carriages for viewing. After making my way through there I walked across the street and they had a building from the 1300s that they had also opened for the day. Many of the buildings from that time period are lost to us, so it was a real treat.

I fell in love with Pret-a-Manger, a delicious and very fresh sandwich shop that has started to pop up in some American cities like New York. They only make enough sandwiches for the day and once they are sold out, that’s it. Anything left at the end of the day? Donated to local charities.

Most days I found myself in one of the many parks with a sandwich, reading a book. The park system in London is very impressive. The parks are beautiful and serene, and even when they’re full of people, they’re a great escape from the busy city life. My favorite parks were St. James’ and Hyde Park, both nearby to Buckingham Palace.

It was a real shame when I had to leave. I wish I had been able to explore more. It seemed my best days were always the ones I didn’t plan. I recommend taking the tube to a stop that sounds interesting and just walking around. You will find something to interest you. You can’t turn a corner in London without finding something fascinating. London really is a magical city.

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