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Goodbye London (For Now)

December 10, 2014

This is perhaps the weirdest time I have spent in London. Finals are now over. We have about three days left to explore – and to pack. It feels odd not having to think about classes while we are here. It also is very bittersweet. Some people really want to get home and others do not want to leave. But most of all, we do not want to say goodbye to London and to each other. I am luckier than most. My parents are flying out and I get to stay in the UK until December 22nd.

Although it seems that after finals we should be celebrating, it is not that simple. We are exhausted. And there are still so many places to see, which is overwhelming. I feel we have taken advantage of the city as much as possible. There is simply too much of it to see it all.


I think I will end this last blog post talking about random observations of London. It is too sad to contemplate really talking about what my time here has meant to me. So here it goes. Londoners are not overly concerned with second hand smoke. Directors have actors smoke on stage and the smell travels into the audience (I experienced this twice). You also see plenty of people rolling cigarettes with a tobacco case that says, in huge letters, smoking kills. And yet, they are healthier than Americans in a lot of ways. Their food has far fewer preservatives. This, though good, can sometimes be frustrating. Tesco (a grocery store) frequently sells food that expires in two days.

When dropping our friend off at Heathrow last week, I noticed that Heathrow smelled like bad eggs. This is in contrast to the Dublin airport, which smelled like cow manure, and the Barcelona airport, which smelled like bacon. I honestly cannot tell you if I prefer one of those smells.

In London, police do not carry guns. This has been especially significant when looking at recent events in the United States. However, in certain places, special police officers will carry huge guns, which is intimidating. Piecing this all together makes what I witnessed on Sunday extra strange. As we were walking down Pentonville Road, a tank drove past. It was actually just an advertisement for an American movie, but it was very startling.

One of the things I love about London is that you do not have to spend the whole day exploring. You can go out for an hour just to see one thing. I was getting stir crazy last Sunday, so I took a study break and went to Brick Lane Market. How amazing is that? I could just go to a world famous market on a whim. I cannot take that for granted. And I cannot express how much I will miss being able to do this. I fully believe IES when they tell us it will be harder to adjust back in the US than it was when we came to London in September. And though it will be nice to be home, I’m glad I have more time in London. And I just have to keep promising myself that I will come back.

A London Thanksgiving

Studying abroad is an emotional experience. I feel like a million people have said this before. In fact, I’ve probably said this before. But it is worth repeating. When you first arrive, you are exhausted and exhilarated. But at some points during the semester it is inevitable you get homesick (even if it is just for a short period of time). I have actually been doing really well, which I think is partly thanks to my going so far away for college in the first place. For most of this semester, I have been very happy in London. However, it is hard not to miss family over Thanksgiving, especially when they are all gathering together like my family does.

I feel that I must add that feeling homesick does not mean you should do something different. It is all part of the experience. It does not mean you do not value where you are.

Luckily, IES is helping us. They bought us the ingredient and we are cooking ourselves a Thanksgiving meal. My roommate and I made six pies – three apple pies and three pumpkin. Plus, with the leftover dough and ingredients, we are also making individual pies in a cupcake pan. Tonight, we (35 of us) will get together and eat.

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There are other ways of making this time easier. I have already Skyped with my family. I also ate a bagel for breakfast. This information might seem out of nowhere, but it is part of my tradition. Every year at my grandparents’ house in Philadelphia we eat a large breakfast, including bagels, and then do not eat again until 6pm. It works well for us.

The funny this is, I keep expecting it to be Christmas here. In London, some Christmas decorations came out before Halloween (they do not really celebrate that holiday here). So I’m more surprised it is Thanksgiving than that Christmas is soon.

For instance, I went to the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland festival last weekend. This was fantastic. It was a strange combination of an amusement park and a classy Christmas market. It also had strange food for sale – and alcohol. There were so many stands for hot chocolate that listed another price if you wanted brandy in it. There were stands that solely sold corn on the cob. I ended up getting a huge slice of garlic bread and walking around the park. It was great – like nothing you would get in the US.


So even if I cannot have my family here for Thanksgiving, there are tons of other great things to do. And I will see them soon.

Sick in London

November 19, 2014

Being sick is never pleasant. But being sick away from home is worse. And even worse than that is being sick in a foreign country. This is especially bad when you want to go exploring. Unfortunately, even if I was feeling well, I do not think I would be out and about. I, along with my fellow classmates, am starting to get very stressed out. I have a research paper, two presentations and five finals to work on.

But I guess I should have seen this coming. I mean this is a study abroad semester, not a travel to your heart’s content semester. I have to admit, I wish it was the latter. (Though I have been enjoying most of my classes here.)

Having strep throat in London has started me thinking about some more differences between the US and England. These differences are less obvious. I mean it is easy to hear unusual words walking down the street or to order distinctive food. It’s not quite as easy to contrast the health care system and attitudes unless you are truly experiencing them.

For one, the British tend to use the appropriate, official names of medication. They do not call medicine “Advil,” but something else entirely that I cannot remember. When I went to the doctor, she asked me if I had taken certain medications. I stared at her blankly until she translated them into their brand names.

The British also have a different word for strep throat. They call it tonsillitis, which sounds much more intense to me. In fact, some people have not been as lucky to come across people who will translate for them. I heard, second hand, one American went to the chemist (not called pharmacists here) for strep throat antibiotics. When he asked for it, the chemist had no idea what he was talking about. I’m glad I didn’t have to go through that. I’m also glad to be in a country that, though different, is probably a lot more similar to the US. I don’t think it would be fun to have to navigate a completely different system.

During my playwriting class a few weeks ago, we discussed doctor visits. Our British professor was horrified to learn that doctors (actually nurses) always weigh you in the US, no matter what you are coming in for. They do not do that in the UK unless you wish to discuss a weight issue. I can confirm this. They did not weigh me or even take my blood pressure at the doctor’s office in London.

The last huge difference that I’ve noticed has been the British attitude toward health care. The British have the NHS (National Health Service). I have heard at least three different people raving about the NHS. One guy said it is what makes him proudest about being British. One woman said that she considers the NHS to be the jewel in the British crown. These are wonderful sentiments, especially when compared to the very negative press coverage ObamaCare frequently gets in the US. Of course, I know not everyone in the UK agrees with the people I’ve talked to, but it still pleases me to hear support for the NHS.

On a completely different note, I would like to share pictures of London because I’m sure people don’t want to only think about being sick while abroad. Below is a picture from the completed poppy memorial for Remembrance Day (November 11) at the Tower of London. And beneath that is a picture of one of the amazing fruit and vegetable displays in Borough Market.




Close By

November 7, 2014

It’s amazing what you don’t realize is so near to you. I mean, I have thought a lot, over this semester, about balancing travel with adventures in London. But I don’t think it fully registered that those cultural London adventures could happen about a five or ten minute walk away from me. (I already knew that the social ones could happen within that distance.)

On Thursday, I set out to do one thing on my list. I went to the Sir John Soane Museum. This museum had been separately recommended to me by at least four people, one of whom is a professor at Whitman. I was really impressed by the museum even though I heard so much about it before going. It is the house of the architect of the British Museum and it is packed with artifacts. The museum was also surprisingly close to the IES center where I take my classes. It’s in a lovely area facing a quiet little park. I had no real concept that this great place was so close to me. (Maybe I should’ve guessed considering how close the British Museum is.)

Walking through the Soane Museum, you pass through a 1800s drawing room into a room full of marble busts into one with original William Hogarth paintings behind a false wall. And since it’s free, you can pop in just to see a few things or spend hours there investigating. I particularly liked looking at all the old, original books just to see if there were any I recognized.

As I was walking home, I decided to stop by the British Library (again, less then ten minutes away from home). I’ve gone past it so many times without realizing how nice and big its courtyard is. And there’s a great view of the top of St Pancras. I loved seeing the old building peaking over the top of this newer one.


I went to see the British Library Treasures expecting to just stop by. I was shocked by what was there – and how long I took looking at everything. There are documents from the 1100s. There are pages from Leonardo da Vinci’s journals. They have Jane Austen’s writing desk. And they even have a copy of the Magna Carta with an official wax seal. I’m a little embarrassed by how ignorant I was of all that was there. But now that I know, I cannot wait to show other people. I may even go back by myself to see more – or just to stare at Jane Austen’s desk for inspiration.

I guess that I was too caught up in seeing the big London places that I neglected the little ones close by. But, from now on, I will try to be more balanced in my explorations.

And on a side note, I experienced fireworks for Guy Fawkes Day (November 5th) and the lighting of the Christmas lights on Oxford St (November 6th). I was caught off guard by how giant a celebration the latter was. Christmas (and the burning of a Catholic) are big deals here.


Another Part of the UK

October 29, 2014

This past weekend, through IES, I went to Scotland. It was an amazing trip. Something about Scotland really grabbed me and I can’t seem to shake it off. The Highlands and the cities are beautiful; it doesn’t matter if it is cold or rainy.


Our midterm break trip to Scotland involved petting and feeding reindeer, sailing on Loch Ness, going to a seaside town and finally making our way to Edinburgh. And every single place we stopped, no matter how different, seemed practically perfect. (The one complaint I have is that it was hard to find vegetarian meals.)


I was struck by the fact that I was so comfortable in Scotland in such a short time. Perhaps if I had stayed longer, I would have found sides to the country that rub me wrong. But for now, I can idealize Scotland in my mind and memory.

It’s an odd feeling to return to London (the city in which I chose to study) after experiencing such a connection to another place. Plus, getting off the train at King’s Cross, I was struck by the difference in air quality. There’s no denying that, especially compared to Scotland, London air feels like you’re inhaling smoke.

However, none of this is meant to put down London. I do love it here. There’s so much constantly happening that you could never see it all. But you feel like you’re in the midst of something big. I feel like I really am a part of London. It’s just sometimes nice to experience a slower, cleaner, cheaper city.

London and Edinburgh are both part of the UK, and yet they are so different. I suppose you could say the same thing about any number of cities in the US, but Edinburgh has a completely different cultural feel to it. I’m sure many Scottish people would agree with me given the fact that I saw so many signs to vote “yes” for independence.

One major difference between London and Edinburgh is the level of preservation. I love seeing modern art next to a department store in a four hundred year old building next to a newly built structure in London. I find the contrast irresistible. But in Edinburgh, none of the buildings I saw looked modern. It made the city seem slightly sleepy. And that’s lovely too. Walking through Edinburgh, one is transported into the past. It’s no wonder that so many authors, including JK Rowling, chose to write there. What could be better for inspiration?


I know it’s not being asked of me, but I think I would recommend studying abroad in London and visiting as much of Scotland as possible. London has so much – and can easily connect you to so much more – that it will have something for everyone. It definitely has something – actually, many things – for me.

Theatre Shifts

October 17, 2014

So far, I have seen six plays through my acting and playwriting classes. At the beginning we seemed to focus on new plays, often in smaller venues.  I thoroughly enjoyed these fringe plays, even if there were some problematic moments. These, mostly funded by the arts council, were supposed to be daring and able to fail. And they most definitely were. What a freeing way to develop art! In this way, the UK supports the arts far better than the US does.

Those plays, including the fringe ones, were very much about the UK, though focusing on very different parts of society. However, with our past two plays we seem to have transitioned to a different form of theatre. They may be new plays or new adaptations, but no one would call them fringe.

Last week, we saw Electra with Kristin Scott Thomas as Electra. I enjoyed the small details within her performance. When she flung herself on her brother, she held on with her toes gripping his calf. It was a startling choice that seemed to weirdly fit with her character. However, I know many people who were not nearly as impressed as I was. Then again, many members of the audience gave her a standing ovation. And here’s where the difference between American and British theatre comes in. In the US, it has now basically become an expectation that people will give standing ovations at the end of performances. In other words, standing does not mean anything in the US. In London, people do not stand unless the performance was brilliant. Before Electra, I had only seen the occasional audience member stand. It could be said, based on that information, that I was incredibly lucky to see Electra. But, talking after the show with students and professors, we seemed to come to the conclusion that some people stood because she was a star. She was good, but maybe not that good. Leaning toward this interpretation, I felt a little cheated out of my British theatre experience.

But that’s not being fair. I’ve been trying to look at things in a less pressured light. Really anything that happens to me here is part of my London study abroad adventure, even if it does remind me of home.

Last night, we saw The Scottsboro Boys musical, which is based on an American story. I was uneasy about this play given that the topic is so harsh. It’s definitely not a comfortable one to watch, but it shouldn’t be. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about seeing this piece of American history turned into a musical while in London. I cannot wait to hear my British acting and playwriting professor’s opinion. I wonder if the play hit as close to home with her as it did with me.

However, despite being midterm time, theatre is not the only thing I’ve done recently. I did get out and explore more markets. I went to the Portobello Road Market. There were people everywhere – it was crazy.


I definitely prefer Old Spitalfields Market because it felt less touristy. And I enjoy feeling more like a local here.


October 10, 2014

I think I am truly settled in London. I feel comfortable here. I get on the tube or bus without a map or a phone with a GPS. Sure, I have to look at the maps around the city or ask for directions, but with my navigating skills, I will always have to do that. But the final sign that I am at home here is the fact that I haven’t done as much touring around as I should have.

Having lived in the Washington DC area my entire life, I have noticed a strange phenomenon that is at least applicable to my family. People travel from great distances, spending lots of money to get to DC and see the sights. I am lucky. All I have to do is hop on the Metro to get to those same places. And yet, because I live there, I don’t go and see as many landmarks as others. Recently, I haven’t gone and wandered around London, which I should be doing. So you see, it’s really like home.

I have to say that I feel like I’ve been constantly going for so long that all I want to do is sleep. So it’s not that I haven’t been doing things (I went to Dublin last weekend and midterms are coming up), it’s just that I haven’t really explored where I am as much as I should.

Sometime soon, I am going to take the advice many people have given me. I am going to hop on a random bus and ride until I stumble upon an interesting area. Then I’ll get off and walk around and see what that area of London has to offer.

Today, I went and truly explored Borough Market, unlike the last time I was there. It was wonderful. Each stall is appealing and much less repetitive than some markets, like Camden Market. Though Camden is good for other things. Simply walking around to see all the displays of fruits and vegetables is a treat. The layouts are works of art. If only I had brought my camera! I think it would be impossible to walk through without purchasing anything. Of course, once you sample the cheese you are done for. It’s all so good. Plus, they sell everything from pumpkins to sangria. You could probably find a more reasonably priced market, but Borough is too fun (and it’s right next to the London Bridge Tube Station).

Next week, my uncle (a Whitman graduate) is coming to visit. I can’t wait to explore more of London with him! I think sometimes you just need another person to explore with (and to motivate you to go, even if it’s raining).

Even though I didn’t really talk about it, I thought I should share a picture from Dublin. It’s a beautiful city.



September 26, 2014

Without seeking out these by myself, I have stumbled upon many experiences that remind me of my childhood. From seeing the props from the His Dark Materials show at the National to going to the Harry Potter Studios, I have been transported back to past delights. The concept of living in another country can be frightening, but so far, ignoring the occasional bouts of fear and worry, I have been enjoying my time. I believe that part of the reason is finding comfort in these items from my childhood.

Last Friday, IES took us to the Harry Potter Studios. I was amazed by how huge the studio was and by the quality of the work. The sets were elaborate with every last detail meticulously selected. However, more importantly, I felt like a kid experiencing magic. What could be better?


The next day, we went to Cambridge. It was beautiful and almost like a continuation of the Harry Potter experience. The quiet feeling of the place combined with the beauty of the water and old buildings brought me into a different world. Too bad it was cold or the day would have been perfect.


In addition to the Philip Pullman and JK Rowling novels, I also grew up with Jane Austen and William Shakespeare. This may not be a traditional mix of authors, but I love them all. I was introduced to the works of William Shakespeare when I was seven years old and Jane Austen when I was eleven. Both have stayed with me since.

Yesterday (Thursday, September 25), I was exposed to Shakespeare and, indirectly, to Austen in London. (This is ignoring the fact that I am taking a Shakespeare class here.) In the afternoon, I went to see Julius Caesar at the Globe. As a groundling, I was able to lean right on the stage and watch a powerful production. The very idea of it made me so happy, the fact that it was a good version was icing on the cake.

That night, through my theatre classes, I went to see a show called Wolf from the Door. It was a weirdly funny show involving nudity, anarchy and laughter. It was here that I indirectly got a glimpse of Jane Austen in England. Starring in the show was Anna Chancellor, who played Miss Bingley in the 1995 Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth. Though she was playing a very different character in a very different story, she was brilliant (and so were her fellow actors).

I came home last night thrilled by what I had seen and experienced. It means a lot to see childhood books brought to life in different ways in the country of their origin. Tomorrow, I head to Bath. I hope to experience more Jane Austen while I’m there!

Touring London

September 21

I’ve been in London for about twenty days now. That revelation was quite startling to me – I feel like I only just got here and like I’ve been here for months. But, I have to remind myself, it’s just been twenty days.

Recently I’ve felt guilty about not taking advantage of more of the history that London has to offer. I’d seen many of my fellow students not only posting pictures of themselves at major London sights, but also talking about trips (present and future) to places outside of London. I felt like I was (and still often feel like I am) falling behind. Adjusting, going to class and figuring out the immediate area have taken up a lot of time. So last week I decided to go to many of the major tourist attractions. Not only was I interested in feeling better about my choices of activities, but I was also genuinely interested in exploring these places.

Wednesday, I set out on my own to see what London had to offer. I went to the Churchill War Rooms first and I must say, it was quite an experience. Seeing the cramped quarters, hearing that the toilets didn’t flush and learning about the British perspective on World War II was fascinating. Churchill was quite the boss. He pushed everyone, including himself, very hard, working from 8am to 3am most days.

Next I went to Westminster Abbey, which was beautiful. Having not read much about it, I was delighted to stumble upon the grave of Queen Anne – Richard III’s wife. As an admirer of Shakespeare, I had a strong notion of who Anne was based on renditions of Richard III. That surprise, and so many more, made the Abbey worth exploring.

Happily, the rest of my day was spent with other people from the program. I got to wander around the staterooms of Buckingham Palace and the Tower of London. One of the most stunning parts of the day was the moat surrounding the towers. In it are thousands of ceramic poppies in remembrance of World War I. The poppies combined with the war rooms reminded me of the much closer connection England had to both wars. Though the US participated, the war was not as immediate in the states.


Most of this weekend has been spent exploring the Harry Potter Studios and Cambridge. I can say that both are lovely to visit. Harry Potter was huge and exciting, while Cambridge was peaceful and lush. Now, though I feel like I’ve done my part in terms of being more involved in where I’m staying, I am exhausted. I guess the lesson is to take things slowly here. It’s just hard to relax knowing there are so many things going on and that I’ll only be here for a few months.

Week 1

It’s hard to fathom describing my first week in London.  From day to day, hour to hour and minute to minute, my experience changes, just like the weather here. However, the one constant part of my experience so far has been jet lag.

IES had us hit the ground running. In addition to a traditional orientation, I have taken a bus and walking tour of London, visited Hampton Court Palace, and more. I cannot even guess how long I have walked each day. Though it is probably longer than expected considering my embarrassingly frequent tendency to get lost.

I think that this first week in London with IES: Study London has been similar, emotionally, to my first week at Whitman College. Two years ago, I (and every other freshman) faced the daunting task of trying to make new friends and feel at home as quickly as possible.  Originally from Maryland, I also had to accept the large distance from my family and friends.

In London, I am faced with the same challenge; however, this time could be considered more difficult because we have so little time to get to know each other. Additionally some students came together, which makes inserting myself into their groups both off-putting and necessary. Oh and this time around, I can’t just call my parents because of the expense and the five-hour time difference.

But that is enough of my difficulties and fears. One of my favorite things about London thus far (other than the accents) is looking at the mix of modern and historical architecture. I find that this combination almost makes my living here feel real. There are beautiful old buildings sitting right next to skyscrapers. In fact, adjacent to one side of Saint Paul’s Cathedral is a rather odd looking sculpture clearly created relatively recently. Another example of this is the posted picture I took that looks at the Millennium Bridge and Saint Paul’s Cathedral. This juxtaposition is not what I typically expect from a European city. However, locals have repeatedly told me that Brits don’t consider themselves part of Europe.


There are quite a few other peculiarities I have stumbled upon. I will only enumerate the ones I did not expect. First of all, the Brits do not seem to use a full set of sheets. Our rooms came only supplied with a fitted sheet and a comforter, no top sheet. Second, in London, the yellow streetlight comes on both before the light turns red and before the light turns green. It becomes a warning to pedestrians and gives cars sufficient time to rev their engines. Some cars even start moving before the green light officially comes on. And this brings me to my third fact: often cyclists are crazier and more dangerous to pedestrians than the vehicles on the roads. I have been told this is because cameras record intersections, fining cars but not cyclists. Though unusual, I hope these tidbits have been enlightening, or at least entertaining.