London Week 1 – First Impressions and Casual Annoyances

So, I’m doing a semester study abroad in London with a program called CTLS [Center for Transnational Legal Studies]. It’s kind of my first time out of the country, so to document this entirely way-too-momentous occasion for a 28 year-old, I have decided to chronicle the escapades, concluding each entry with a list of tips I learned that week.

The first leg of my trip started in Houston, TX. My cousin was getting married and I was a bridesmaid. Clearly 2018 is going to be a year of firsts for me, because I had never been in a wedding before in my life. For those of you who haven’t been in one before… omfg. The dress, the shoes, the flight, the bridal shower, the bachelorette party, the party bus… I think I shelled out like 500 bucks in total.

… Well, my dad shelled out like 500 bucks. I’m a student.

 

The entire wedding festivities lasted from Wednesday to Saturday, and over the course of those 4 days, yours truly got a grand total of 10 hours of sleep. My cousin was having one of those DIY weddings, which means the bridal party helped put together both the wedding venue and the reception venue. Yes, we did a damn good job, if I do say so myself, and yes, she’s now a married woman. Rah, rah, rah. Sorry, fellas.

I had to dip out from the reception early to get to the airport, and was less than thrilled about the 10 hour flight ahead of me. I was already three days late for class, but had gotten special permission to miss them for the wedding.

The first leg of the journey, to Calgary, was f*cking delightful for several reasons:

  1. Apparently nobody in TX wants to go to Canada because the flight was almost empty and I got an entire row to myself.
  2. I had inadvertently purchased a ticket that got me a full, three course meal on board (for why, when it’s a four hour trip, but whatever), so while the other 10 passengers snacked on pretzels, I got a salad, sandwich, and dessert.
  3. I recently downloaded the Harry Potter books on Audible, both because I love HP and because I was hoping to use it to do a British accent immersion before I got to the UK… you know, to blend in and all… so the trip went by wicked (*cue British accent*) fast.

Upon arrival in Calgary, Murphy’s Law kicked in. There was some sort of snowstorm going on (but, like, isn’t that the case every day in Canada?), so my flight to London was delayed for 5 hours. So, I sat in the airport, people-watched, charged my various electronic devices, and downloaded movies. I did not do any of my homework, of course.

On the people-watching front: Have any of you ever seen the movie The Circle, with Emma Watson and Tom Hanks? It’s about a girl who decides to live-stream her entire life by wearing a camera attached to her chest in order to promote full transparency within the human race, which, surprise, surprise, ruins her relationships with her friends and family. Well, there was a guy sitting across from me in the airport Chili’s doing just that. Literally. I feel like he thought he was Logan Paul, or something, cause he kept pulling the camera off his chest and addressing his ‘viewers,’ like “Hey guys, so-and-so here, still stuck in the airport, can’t wait to get home.”

I was 90% sure there wasn’t actually anyone on the other side of the camera, and he was just solo-documenting his life for posterity, which, you know, is cool, if you’re into that sort of thing. But, just in case, I politely asked him to sit on the other side of the table he was at, because him and his camera were facing me like we were on some sort of weird, faraway date, and my eating style is very similar to that of a turtle munching on a piece of fruit larger than its face. That doesn’t need to be recorded, sir, whether for your fans, yourself, or just your super proud parents. 

Side note… Airport Chili’s in Calgary doesn’t serve fajitas. You can’t call yourself a Chili’s and not serve fajitas, I don’t care if you’re Canadian. It’s offensive.

5 hours later, the flight was ready. This leg of the journey was f*cking heinous for several reasons:

  1. Apparently everyone in Canada wants to go to London because we were on that plane like sardines. I had to go four rows back to find an overhead bin for my carry-on.
  2. We sat on the runway for an additional hour because of the snowstorm. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a death wish, but let’s goooooo! A little snow never hurt anyone, especially not a pilot trained in aggressive Canada winters.
  3. I had gotten faux locs put in for the wedding (great choice aesthetically, terrible choice for literally everything else) and the severe itchiness was starting to kick in. Apparently witch hazel is great to calm the tugging on your roots from all the extra hair, and thank you, woman sitting three rows ahead of me with the judgey-attitude regarding why I didn’t know this before getting the weave. Ma’am, unless you’ve got some in your purse to share… hush.

Nevertheless, I finally arrived at the Gatwick airport, 6 hours after I was originally supposed to arrive. As this was my first time outside of the country, I was intrigued to see what would happen with customs and the passport situation.

I was low-key interested in seeing some drama, you know, like in almost every spy movie dealing with someone going abroad, but as I was neither (a) a spy, nor (b) a person of relevant interest to either the US or UK governments, there was literally no issues. I honestly wasn’t even aware I had gone through customs until after I arrived in the parking lot, realizing I had walked through it and had been so nondescript I was ignored by all of the officers on duty.

I had chosen to live in Central London, close to CTLS, and since I had fortuitously arrived at Gatwick during rush hour, my uber ride took almost 2 hours. I spent the first 30 minutes peering nervously between the empty seat on the left where I was accustomed to seeing the driver sit, and to the right where my uber driver actually sat, while he chuckled at me.

I was pleasantly surprised at the size of my studio apartment, as well as the kindness of the staff, the 24/7 availability of the concierge, and the existence of a decently-sized gym that, let’s be honest, I’ll probably never use. I was absolutely horrified at the arrangement and size of the bathroom, however. The toilet was literally inside the shower, so I legitimately have to remove the toilet paper from the bathroom to avoid it getting wet. I brush my teeth leaning into the shower to look into the mirror and, yes, it’s weird.

London, in general, is absolutely glorious. I’m trying to reserve judgment because I thoroughly loved DC when I first arrived, but within a month I was ready to get the f*ck up out of there. I don’t know if this will happen with London, but my inclination is that it won’t. A couple of observations I thoroughly enjoyed:

  1. When you go into a cafe in London and sit alone at one of the small circular tables, the expectation is that a stranger-patron may join you at some point if all other empty tables are taken. I love this concept because, in a place like the US, having a stranger sit across from you at a table is a huge faux pas and will likely be met with a quick “WHOOOOOOOA… what is you doing?!” Here, I saw a girl around my age sitting with her coffee at a table, and a woman approached her with a tray, set it down, then proceeded to eat her lunch. The girl adjusted the placement of her items on the table to make room for the woman, and carried on with her life. When the woman finished eating, she got up and left, as casual as you please. I love it.
  2. The number of people out and about 24/7 is glorious, which likely has a hand in the lower obesity rate in the UK versus that in the US. On my walk to school, there are hordes of bicyclists that go by, as well as people ages 12 to 70+ out walking to get wherever they need to go, whether by Tube or just plain walking. Nobody really speaks to each other, possibly owing to the pure frigidness of the weather (cause, like, what if I opened my mouth to speak and the saliva froze inside of my mouth? That’s not cool). When the sun comes out, however, there is quite a bit of chatter. I personally love walking down the street and hearing a myriad of accents and languages. I have never felt more pathetic being unilingual in my entire life, so I signed up for a weekly lunchtime French class on Tuesdays. Hopefully this will make me less of an American dud.
  3. Those of you from the US may notice that the number of bookstores and cafes that are not Starbucks or some other commercialized chain are rapidly decreasing. Where’s the culture going?! To the UK, apparently, or more accurately, back to the UK. I’ll probably spend my study time in a bookstore, rather than the King’s College library, just to soak up the lovely, old school, bookstore smell I used to love as a child. I find it so comical that our Founding Fathers dipped out of England to create their own country, and then copied everything straight from England. They couldn’t even come up with their own town names: “We’re gonna be our own country! Forget England, we don’t need them! Let’s be New England!” Y’all are soooo clever. Now, it seems like all the best parts of the US that are disappearing are to be found back where the US began.

In other news, I’ve started putting together my list of places to jettison off to on the weekends I am not doing my London immersion experience, and have set the list so far at Amsterdam, Scotland, Italy, Tenerife, and France. Am 110% open to additional suggestions.

Travel Tips from Week 1:

  1. The International Phone Plan: My two hour-drive with my uber driver ended up being extremely fortunate, as he was originally from Holland and had experience researching various phone plans between himself and his friends. Apparently, many people end up getting Vodafone [20 pounds, 1000 minutes, 6 GB data per month] for some reason, when Three exists [20 pounds, unlimited talk & text, 12 GB data, and usable in every country, including the U.S.] Boom. I got Three, obviously, so do not incur extra charges for anything, and I just make sure to talk to my parents via FaceTime when on WiFi. As an aside, with Three, you really only need WhatsApp if you or your friends don’t have an iPhone (BUT WHY DON’T YOU?!) or if you desperately cannot wait until you get WiFi to call your parents. But seriously, there’s WiFi everywhere. Literally.
  2. Internet Entertainment Services: This a complete bitch, but workable. YouTube Red is basically obsolete abroad, including in the UK and Canada. While you can still access YouTube, of course, the $12.99 you pay to be be able to listen to the music even when the app is closed is a complete loss, because it reverts just to standard YouTube. Useless, so I will be switching to iTunes for the time being. Amazon Prime is another one. You need to access amazon.co.uk in order to get delivery to the UK, and also to make sure the things you are buying comport with UK standards, and guess what? Your Prime subscription does not transfer, particularly not your purchased movies. Here’s what I suggest. Keep your US account so you can access all of your items, and make a list of everything you’ll need to purchase in the UK. Once you have your list, sign up for the free 30-day trial period for UK Prime, make all your purchases in those 30 days, and then cancel the account before you get charged. #Swerve
  3. Plugs & Outlets: This one got me good. My Abuelo & Abuela spend a lot of time abroad and were kind enough to coach me on the outlet situation while abroad, and I was kind enough to not pay attention, clearly winning as an adult. UK outlets are completely different from US ones (as are all other countries, pretty much), so you need an adapter. Don’t be like me, panicking as your phone and computer each die in succession, and wondering how you’re going to GPS your way to class because you literally have no capability of charging any of your devices. I recommend getting a couple of these bad boys to the right. They sell them at the airport, as well as most convenience stores in London. They do not, however, sell them at Waitros or Tesco Express (some non-express Tescos do), which I found out while tearily explaining to the cashier that my life was over if he did not find me an adapter. He was not sympathetic.
  4. Money & Passport: Contrary to popular belief, you do not need to carry wads of pounds around with you, and you do not need to carry your passport. I’ve been carded 5 times already (possibly due to the fact that I look like I’m 15 and keep trying to buy alcohol), and every single person was fine with my Connecticut state driver’s license. Leave your passport somewhere safe, or, if you’re super squeamish like my adorable mother is, make photocopies of your passport and carry that with you, as well. Further, I’ve made purchases at more than 15 stores, and only one small convenience store did not take cash. A few places have a credit card minimum, but that problem can be solved if you travel with a friend, put their purchases on your card, and have them Venmo or Cash you. I changed roughly $300 US dollars to pounds at the airport when I arrived, and still have all of that. When it comes to credit cards fees, Wells Fargo charges some ridiculous conversion fee, so don’t use them, but the Mastercard AAdvantage, which I use, has no conversion fee whatsoever, so I am using my credit card the same way that I do in the US, no bubbles no troubles.
  5. Packing: Pack light and pay attention to the baggage requirements of your international airlines, both for your trip there and your return trip. Some borders require proof of return flight upon arrival to the country (because apparently the fact that someone purchased a $200 flight back home will deter them from remaining illegally in the country if they really want to), and if you end up flying an airline that only allows you to check two bags but you brought three over… uh-oh. This happened to me and I had to redistribute, remove, and repack my suitcases four hours before leaving for the airport. WestJet allows multiple checked bags weighing no more than 50 pounds (3 will run you about $130, 2 runs you about $50), as well as a carry-on and a personal item, but Norwegian only allows 42 pounds per checked bag and imposes size requirements. The fee for checking bags is also greater, running closer to $200 for 3 bags. Don’t even think about shipping, either. My friend was going to ship me an air mattress from DC to London, and this 10 pound box, with a size no more than 1.5x3x1, was going to run her almost $230. Hard pass.

Till next week, guys!

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