Sunday, Jan. 17, 2016
It is hard to believe a week ago I was sitting around the flat screen television in my living room with my family watching Big Ben and the rest of the Steelers completely dominate the Browns in the first round of the NFL Super Bowl Playoffs and now I’m sitting in my flat (or “apartment” to my American friends) on the third floor of the Kings Cross Student Accommodation staring out at a city that is home to an entirely different Big Ben. A year ago, I would have never imagined that I would have the opportunity to study abroad in London, England, for a full semester. The 8th-grade girl in me who used to talk in a British accent and dream up a fairy-tale romance with Prince Harry is finally realizing this experience is a dream come true.
London, here I come.
For those of you who don’t know already, I transferred to Saint Vincent College last semester. My decision to come to Saint Vincent was heavily influenced by the practicality of the study abroad programs offered at the college. Granted, study abroad experiences are hard to manage as a traditional student,* but it is even more difficult to plan as a transfer student.** At first I thought studying abroad would be impossible for me considering I was a transfer student, a double major and planning on graduating a year early, but somehow with the help of SVC’s study abroad adviser, Sara Hart, I was able to take 18 credits here in London through the CIEE Global Institute London Open Campus Program.
*Note to any student thinking about studying abroad: Do it. Don’t listen to the doubts in your head telling you can’t afford it or it will put you behind on credits. The experiences are worth it.
**Note to any transfer student thinking they can’t study abroad: You’re wrong. It does require a lot of careful planning and tedious scheduling, but you need to take the time to follow your dreams.
My journey to this point was not an easy one. From getting a passport, receiving approval for my credit hours from SVC professors, booking a flight, obtaining a student visa and packing five months’ worth of clothes in one checked bag it seemed like the to-do list never ended. I packed and unpacked countless times and the stress of leaving overwhelmed me a bit more than I thought it would. Traveling out of the country, let alone living out of the country, was something I had never experienced. I was anxious and apprehensive because I didn’t know what to expect, but I was also excited for everything this journey had in store for me.
Sunday, Jan. 10-Monday, Jan. 11, 2016
My flight to London Heathrow Airport was booked to fly out of Philadelphia International Airport on Jan. 10. I chose to fly out of Philadelphia rather than Pittsburgh because I could get on a direct flight to London from Philadelphia and considering my lack of flight experience, this seemed like the better option. Up until this point in my life I had flown twice — to Florida and back to Pennsylvania. The maximum amount of time I spent on a plane was two hours, however this flight was closer to seven hours. I was scheduled to leave Philadelphia at 9:25 p.m. and arrive the next morning at 9:20 a.m. in London (seven hours on the plane, plus a 5 hour time change), which meant my parents would have to drive me to the Philadelphia airport (almost a four-hour journey by car).
Leaving home was probably one of the most difficult moments for me, mostly because I was leaving behind everything that was familiar to me especially my parents, my brother and my seven-month-old puppy, Toro. I thought about everything I’d be missing while I was away — mostly birthdays, Easter, grandparents, new baby cousins, and so much more — but I forced back tears as I walked out of the door to begin the long journey ahead hoping it would all be worth it in the end.
Saying goodbye to my not-so-little puppy.
On the way to Philadelphia I slept for the most part. We made it to the airport around 4:45, so my parents took me out to dinner at Ruby Tuesdays for one last meal together before I left. After dinner we headed straight to the airport. My parents helped me through the luggage check-in and walked me to the security gate. This is was the hardest part — the final goodbye. Overcome by different emotions I started crying as I hugged my parents one more time. Turning away, I realized how hard it was going to be apart from them until the end of May. Nevertheless, I ‘kept calm and carried on’ through security toward my gate.
After I made it through security I had about two hours to wait until my fight departed. So I spent the time sitting at my gate listening to music and trying to relax. I boarded the plane around 8:50 p.m. and found my seat next to an older gentleman. Thankfully, I had a window seat so I could look out at the amazing views and city lights along the way. I got settled in and at 9:45 p.m. the plane took off. Throughout the entire flight I struggled to fall asleep. Despite how tired I actually was I could not get comfortable. Around 1:00 in the morning the flight attendants began to distribute “dinner.” The options were chicken or pasta (neither seemed appealing but I chose pasta anyway). I had never had airplane food, but I had heard horror stories from family and friends. I took a few bites of the pasta and salad, and finished the roll, but it was less than appetizing. After our trays were cleared, I tried to go back to sleep. At daybreak we were flying over Ireland and much to my surprise, breakfast was served as well. Airplane breakfast was much better than airplane dinner (or maybe I was just hungry?), but I had yogurt and granola and saved the dried fruit for later. At 9:20 a.m. we landed at London Heathrow Airport and I felt like I could finally breathe … well sort of.
Once I got off the plane I had an hour to make it through immigration and customs, claim my baggage and find the terminal I was supposed to meet up with the rest of the CIEE group. Fortunately, I managed to accomplish everything and found the group with 10 minutes to spare. Upon arrival I was introduced to Hanna, the activities director for CIEE, Ray Casserly, the director of the CIEE program in London and some of the other students in my program. At 11 a.m. we left the airport and headed to the London Underground, also known as ‘the Tube,’ to catch our train to our accommodation.
This is the view of Queens, New York, I had from my seat on the plane to London, England. Goodbye America, hello Europe!
My next challenge was transporting my luggage all the way from the airport to our accommodation. I had four bags all together and I’ll be the first to admit I definitely overpacked. Against all better judgment, I was convinced I had to take my whole closet with me and my arms were feeling the repercussions. On the way to the Tube I dropped my bags once, which was super embarrassing for me. Things got even worse when I attempted to get all my bags on to the train before the doors closed, but luckily Hanna was there to help. Once I boarded the Tube, I piled my luggage into a corner next to the doors and found a place to stand nearby.
My first impression of the Tube was surprisingly positive. It was relatively clean for public transportation, people were very quiet and minded their own business (mostly reading their daily edition of The Sun or other London newspapers), and I felt safe the whole time. There were plenty of seats on the train, but I stood with Hanna and some other students and chatted about our trips and we got to know one another. Although almost everyone was from the States we were all from different areas including California, Texas, Minnesota, Iowa, Maryland, South Carolina and New York. It was a good mix of students, but even though we had a common nationality we were all used to various lifestyles and came from different backgrounds. Hanna told us she is actually Swedish, but studied abroad in London when she was in high school. In many ways, she said London was a lot like America in the sense that it is a melting pot for different cultures. I noticed this on the train especially because people weren’t just speaking English; there were different languages being spoken everywhere and even the British version of English had its own vocabulary and pronunciation differences.
The train ride was about an hour long. Along the way we passed a lot of historical-looking buildings and houses as well as parks, gardens and a few junkyards. When we finally made it to our stop at Kings Cross Station, we rushed to grab all of our things and exit the train as quickly as possible. From there we made it up several elevators to the turnstiles. In order to exit through the turnstiles, we had to tap out using the Oyster card CIEE provided us. An Oyster card is a pay-as-you-go smartcard used for public transportation throughout London. It’s basically your lifeline for navigating through London, and losing it would be a traveler’s death sentence.
By this time it was afternoon and the streets outside the station were filled with people rushing in every direction. Thinking back on that moment, it seems like a giant blur. The walk from the station to our accommodation was longer than many of us expected. We were all struggling to carry our luggage — me especially. At one of the last intersections my bags completely toppled over and I was in the middle of the street trying to pick up my bags, while simultaneously trying to avoid getting hit by a car. It was stressful and I could feel myself on the verge of an emotional break down. London and I weren’t off to a great start.
As soon as we made it into the accommodation I dropped my bags in complete exhaustion. I was sweaty, tired and annoyed with just about everything. All I wanted to do was sleep, but it took the accommodation staff forever to get our rooms sorted out. First, I had to fill out my personal information; then, I went over the policies, signed the contract and finally, I was assigned a room and a roommate. My roommate, Kenzie, and I met downstairs in lobby briefly and then took the elevator up to the third floor of the South Tower in the student accommodation. When we entered our room I was surprised to find a small kitchen with a sink, stove and dishes. It was a relief to know that I would have the access to cook my own meals, since my program did not provide any meal plan for students. Aside from the kitchen, there was a bathroom, two beds, two wardrobe closets and two desks. The beds, I thought, resembled something like what prisoners would sleep on. The entire room was white, plain, unwelcoming and nothing like home. More and more I was beginning to question whether I was going to be able to handle this whole study abroad experience, but I kept reminding myself that this was an amazing opportunity that I needed to take full advantage of. So I began to unpack some of my things hoping I could make this foreign place feel a little more like home.
At 3:00, Kenzie and I went down to the lobby where we met up with the rest of the students in our program to take a guided tour of the accommodation. The owner of the accommodation spoke to us first about the health and safety issues involved with the facility and then we split off in groups to check out the other amenities in the building. Outside there was a courtyard with a small turf field for playing football (or soccer as we know it in America). There was also gym with weights, bikes, and treadmills, a fitness studio, a café, a screening room, and a study lounge. The most unique feature of this building was that almost every common area had at least three televisions playing music videos nonstop. Overall, it was the perfect environment for students with plenty of space for studying, exercising, and relaxing.
After the tour all the CIEE students went out to dinner with the director of the program, Ray Casserly and Felicity Inns, the academic director. We met at a diner called The Marquis Cornwallis. It was how I imagined the classic British pub — low lighting, wide bar, wooden tables and of course good food! After Ray gave a brief welcome speech, I devoured my first classic British meal — fish and chips! Ordering food at a British restaurant is a lot different than it is the States. First of all, you order at the bar — there is no waiter or waitress that comes around to take your order, and also tipping is not a thing. For this meal, Felicity and Ray took our orders but assured us we would have to get used to ordering our own food from now on. When my fish and chips came out I was a little apprehensive because I’ve had fish maybe one other time in my life. But after one bite, I was hooked (fish pun absolutely intended). It was a great dinner and I was able to get to know a little bit more about the rest of the students in my program.
When Kenzie and I finished our meals, we left the restaurant in search of the nearest grocery store. We ended up at Waitrose where I purchased some of the basic necessities, shampoo, face wash, hangers and hand soap. British grocery stores aren’t all that different from the United States. One major difference through was the fact that you have to pay extra if you want a plastic bag. Most of the shoppers brought backpacks or eco-friendly shopping bags to cart their groceries home. Nevertheless, we gathered our things and headed back to our flat to unpack the rest of our things. That night I was so exhausted or jet lagged from the entire journey that I fell asleep just before 9: p.m.with my first day in London officially complete.
Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016
The next morning I woke up around 8 a.m. and got myself ready for the day. I was supposed to meet the rest of the CIEE group in the lobby at 9:15 a.m. to walk to Hamilton House (the building where my classes would be held) so I figured I left myself plenty of time; however, Kenzie and I, and some other girls from the program didn’t make it downstairs until approximately 9:16 and that one minute was too late. One thing I’ve learned so far is that British people do not wait around for anyone. They are all very prompt and when they say they are leaving at a certain time—they leave at that time, not a second later. Fortunately, there was a large group of us who showed up late so at least I wasn’t alone.
We started down the street and eventually caught up to the rest of our group. It was about a 15-minute walk to Hamilton House, but I’d imagine it varies daily depending on the traffic. Along the way we passed places like Kings Cross Station, St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel, and the British Library. The whole area where we are staying is considered Central London, so it is convenient being within walking distance from key locations.
Hamilton House is a place used primarily for corporate and private meetings and events, but it is also the location of CIEE London’s Open Campus Program. Our student orientation was held in one of the meeting rooms on the ground floor and was conducted by Ray and Felicity. Basically, Ray gave us a brief overview of what to expect during our time in London, including how to adjust to British culture, how British history shapes society and how the British identity differs from the American identity. I thought the most interesting point Ray made was that he didn’t think there was a real “British” identity or a concrete “American” identity because everyone has his or her own unique identity. He also discussed the diversity of London and pointed out that the CIEE program was a good representation given that he is from Ireland, Felicity is from South Africa and Hanna is from Sweden, but they all live and work in London. We wrapped up the first day of orientation with a few icebreaker exercises and then we had a few hours before we had to meet back at Hamilton House for a tour of the City of Westminster.
Following orientation, I had lunch at O’Neill’s, an Irish pub, with a few of the girls from the CIEE program. Instead of going for the fish and chips, this time I tried a BLT. Another thing I found out: British bacon is not American bacon. Lesson learned.
After lunch, we met outside of Hamilton House where Felicity was waiting to begin our tour. We took the tube to Green Park and then walked to Buckingham Palace. Seeing Buckingham Palace in person almost made me tear up a little — it was honestly a dream come true. Unfortunately, there were no Prince Harry sightings, but I still have about five months to spot at least one member of the Royal Family. On another note, I was surprised to see the British guards at Buckingham Palace in gray uniforms considering I always pictured the stereotypical red-coat British soldier with the black fuzzy hat, but apparently during the winter months they wear the different-colored uniform. The more you know!
“Where’s Harry?” at Buckingham Palace
After Buckingham Palace, we made our way to Trafalgar Square. Multiple foreign embassies, the National Gallery and several monuments surrounded this area. I caught my first glimpse of Big Ben here as well. Our next and last stop was the Palace of Westminster, which also included an up-close and personal view of Big Ben.
Later that night, I met up with rest the CIEE group again for dinner. This time it was at an Indian restaurant called Tayyabs. I had never tried Indian food before, but I can honestly say that after trying it tonight I’m not really a fan. Overall, today was a great day of exploring and immersing myself in the cultures of London.
Loving these London street views