It Must Be the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee!

Because why else would I have stood in the cold and wet of a steady London drizzle for six hours on a Sunday?

This weekend is that much-anticipated event: the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, celebrating the 60 years since Elizabeth II took the throne. It’s been talked of for months in London, and for weeks storefronts have been decked out with red, white, and blue bunting; restaurants and groceries have been offering Jubilee specials and Jubilee commemorative items; shirts and scarves and bags and leggings emblazoned with the Union Jack have been on sale in all clothing stores.

And now? The big weekend is finally here. Brits from all over have flooded into London, clogging the transport system and taking scores of touristy photos with the major landmarks. Everyone has Monday and Tuesday (today and yesterday) off: national holidays were created, just to celebrate the queen.

The weekend features three major events: the Thames boat parade on Sunday, the Jubilee concert on Monday night, and the carriage parade to Buckingham Palace on Tuesday.

I had long-standing plans with a couple of friends to go to the boat parade on Sunday. The last (and only previous) monarch to reach her Diamond Jubilee was Victoria, but the last flotilla on the Thames of this sort was before even her time – it was some 300 years ago. So we decided to go (despite gloomy weather forecasts and that morning’s chilly air). We packed water, some emergency snacks, layers of warmth, umbrellas, raincoats, and our Union Jack scarves, and set out for the south side of the river at London Bridge around 10:30 in the morning.

The parade wasn’t due to pass us by until around 4 pm, but I had suspicions that even our five-hour head start would be insufficient to beat the crowds. I was right. Hordes of police were out, funneling eager patriots along the riverside. We finally found a place nearly a mile further upriver. The three of us squeezed into a space that had been left open; it was on some steps, so we actually had a great view over people’s heads.

For the first couple of hours, people were mostly rather cold, rather damp, and rather miserable. But then the beer and champagne started flowing. A group near us broke out a picnic. (I’ve noticed that the British are exceptionally good at making exquisite little picnics. These people had champagne, salmon, green salad, potato salad, and profiteroles.) Around 1:30, a group to our left started trying to get our section of the riverbank to do the Wave (apparently, here, it’s called the “Mexican” Wave). Around 2:15, the singing began. “God Save the Queen” and “Rule Britannia” were featured prominently on a list of about five songs, and I must have heard each of them five or six times.

Finally, the first of the boats arrived. The event had been given the tagline “1,000,000 spectators, 1,000 boats, 1 queen.” And it was quite something to realize what one thousand boats looks like out on the water. The whole event was kicked off with a huge barge bearing ringing bells, followed by an armada of rowing boats and a fleet of boats bearing the flags of the countries of the Commonwealth. And then, at last, it was time for the queen’s boat. The people around me were cheering, leaning forward, singing, and waving flags: the atmosphere was electric and contagious. Suddenly, I saw her: even from halfway across the Thames, her profile was recognizable under her white hat. People around me were narrating: “Queenie’s in white!” “That’s Kate in the red!” “Camilla’s the cream!” No one could seem to tell the men apart, but everyone could tell which blurry blob was their queen, and that was all that mattered.

The parade continued after the queen had passed us by, but the rain started up in earnest again, and my friends and I decided it was time to leave. We headed home, but the traffic was something else: it took us half an hour just to get underground and get on a train.

I had seen the queen on her Jubilee and stood amongst throngs of singing and cheering Brits – it was amazing. It felt something like the Fourth of July, but this is a Fourth of July that comes once in a blue moon, and it meant all that much more because it was a rare occasion.

I sort of figured that I’d done my duty as an honorary Brit. I’d been to one event and gotten soaked. There was no need to leave my cozy room and make the wet, crowded trek down to Buckingham Palace just to see the queen again.

But then, last night around 10 pm, some friends who were in from Italy for the weekend asked me if I wanted to just go check out the big Jubilee concert. So we went down to Trafalgar Square and walked onto the Mall (the big avenue that leads to the palace gates). It was busy, but not overwhelmingly crowded, and the whole place was decked out with flags and big tv screens so that we could see what was happening at the other end of the street. Just as we arrived, the MC said, “Please welcome Sir Paul McCartney!” I couldn’t leave after that. So we stayed and sang along to “Let It Be” and “Live and Let Die.”

We saw fireworks on the screens and in real life. We listened to Sir Paul’s jokes and HRH Charles’s feebler jokes. We gave three cheers for being British, and made our retreat just as everyone was singing “God Save the Queen.” We saw more fireworks over the lake in St. James’s Park, and then headed home. Once again, the atmosphere was electric.

And so despite the weather, I’m so glad I went out to see the queen. It made me feel so British – and with my time here quickly coming to an end, I love to feel British.

This Is Not a Rollercoaster

Its architects hope it will become “the next Eiffel Tower.” For now, it’s the puzzling centerpiece of the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park—which I was lucky enough to visit several days ago.

The park itself wasn’t really the highlight of my tour: I didn’t find it that spectacular. The stadium is, at best, functional and minimalist. The aquatics center is architecturally interesting, but most of it is temporary. The structure I started this piece with would probably be improved by addition of rollercoaster cars: it will function during the Games as a viewing platform and after the Games as a wedding venue. The whole park is surrounded by a soon-to-be beautified walkway called the Greenway. Why is it green, you might wonder? Possibly because it’s well fertilized: the main pipe taking sewage out of London runs underneath the Greenway, and yes, you can smell it. If all this weren’t enough, there’s the matter of the mascots. Wenlock and Mandeville—though interestingly named after towns in England where forerunners of the Olympic and Paralympic Games were held—are meant to be animated drops of steel and represent the industry of the area of London where the Games are occurring. Instead, they simply look like monocular alien cartoons.

Despite all of this, the tour was very enjoyable. Our tour guide was a cheerful old Englishwoman, who walked quickly, was very interested in the sewage history of the place, and used words like “whiz-bang” and “bonkers” in regular conversation.

She made things fun, but the most fascinating part of the tour was realizing just how much work goes into planning the Olympic Games. Here are just a few things you probably never thought about.

The National Anthems. There are 205 countries attending this year’s Olympics, and somewhere in London, a symphony orchestra has just finished recording all of their national anthems. This time, they did the anthems of all the countries, not just those expected to win a gold: a few years ago, Luxemburg won gold and no one had bothered to record their anthem. Oops.

The Medals. There are 805 sets of medals that will be given out this summer. They’re kept at the Tower of London. Actually, that’s just a rumor and probably completely false, but our tour guide liked the idea of them all being guarded in the Tower so much that she decided to perpetuate the rumor.

Dispossessed Inhabitants of the Olympic Site. The building of the Olympic Park required space. There isn’t space in London. So space was made, mostly by uprooting people and industrial buildings already on the site. Since the whole point of holding the Olympic Games is to bolster the economy of an area and a nation, it wouldn’t be good to leave all these people unemployed. The Games made up for taking away factories and businesses by offering all the people from the area any construction jobs of their sort of labor that the Games required. But the construction site is also riddled with canals and tributaries, which means that it was the home of more than just people: many species of newt and frog were uprooted by the construction as well. Don’t worry, though! The Olympic committees took care of them, too. They were all captured and removed to a safe temporary home. Then experts worked over the next few years to grow exact copies of their habitats. When the construction was finished, the habitats were installed back on the banks of the river and the descendants of the dispossessed frogs and newts were returned home.

Temporary Structures. The committees who planned and designed the Olympic Park were concerned both with holding impressive Games and with having structures after the Games that could be useful to the people who live in the areas around the Park. Every structure in the Park, therefore, has a sense of the temporary. And indeed, much of the Park is already up for sale. For instance, the Olympic Stadium currently holds 80,000 people. But it consists of three levels: the first one holds 25,000 people, the first and second hold 55,000 together, and all three obviously hold 80,000. The committees estimate that the area won’t need a stadium that holds more than 25,000 people once the Games are over. So both of the upper two levels are up for sale, if any of you are in the market for bits of a stadium.

Green Toilets. The Olympic committees are also very interested in being environmentally friendly—or at least as environmentally friendly as one can be when one is bringing in five trucks of construction materials every minute. They’ve decided, therefore, that the men’s bathrooms won’t have any water running through the urinals and that the women’s will use collected rainwater. As our tour guide said, “It’ll be a bit grayish, but what’s the point in cleaning toilet water anyhow?”

Landscaping. And finally, the Park is dotted with hundreds of fully-grown trees, which have been in the works since London found out it had won the Olympic bid. Likewise, a unique blend of wildflower seeds has just been planted. The mix is intended to be blooming best during the weeks of the Games: it has been the job of a group of people for the last five years to perfect a combination of flowers best suited to the climate and season of London 2012. Oh, and if you want, you can buy a packet of the official Olympic wildflower seed mix to take home for your very own Olympic garden!

These details amazed me. So many things that I would never have thought of have been the sole occupation of groups of people for half a decade! It’s crazy to think about.

P.S. Check out this excellent article by the BBC talking about how Londoners should behave to foreigners during the Olympics.

Bookish in Wales

Believe it or not, classes are already nearing an end. I will update soon with a series about the actual “studying” that goes into study abroad. But for the moment, I’m a little bit more focused on what I’m going to do with all my newfound free time.

I’ve seen quite a bit of London. Sure, there’s certainly more to see, but I have reached the point in my stay here where it’s not as easy as it used to be to just come across new things. In the first two months, I could rely on the fact that whenever I went out walking, I was bound to stumble upon something that I’d heard of but not yet visited. As I enter my third month here, that no longer feels true.

I’m redoubling my efforts to keep myself busy in London. For instance, while I’ve been to the British Museum, I’ve only been there once. And it is a place you could visit again and again and again and always find some room you didn’t see before.

But I’ve also decided that it’s high time I made a few more voyages outside of London. In the last two months, I’ve paid visits to Edinburgh, Stonehenge, and Bath. I’ve discovered that the Scots are exceptionally friendly, that Stonehenge is mind-blowing even though it’s just a circle of rocks, and that Bath feels like a gorgeous jaunt to the Continent. But there’s a lot more to see, and so last weekend I made a start at continuing my travels around the U.K. and Europe.

I went with a tour group on a trip to Wales, and it was amazing. It was really nice to get out of the city for a bit and see something of the famous British countryside.

Our first stop was the little town of Chepstow, just over the Welsh border. It had rained that morning as we were riding on the bus, but by the time we disembarked, the skies were clear and blue with fluffy white clouds. I was with two friends, one of whom had been to Chepstow before, and she led us to a little fish and chips joint. After a delicious lunch, we went to Chepstow Castle.

The castle is really more of a ruin. Standing in what used to be the Great Hall, I looked up and could see the sky (and yes, I am enough of a nerd that I immediately thought “Hogwarts!”). The walls were all crumbling, the steps were uneven, and there were few plaques to tell of the castle’s history. It was, in many ways, one of the only castles I’ve seen that have not yet been commercialized. I’m sure that in time there will be guided tours and red velvet ropes keeping visitors from all the most interesting bits. But for us, it felt like we were the first discoverers of the ruin, navigating rather treacherous staircases and slopes, imagining what it must have been like long ago.

Our next stop was Tintern Abbey, yet another ruin and the place referenced in William Wordsworth’s “Lines Composed a Few Miles Above Tintern Abbey.” After admiring the ruins for a bit, we turned our attention to the hills beyond, and proceeded (since we are all English majors and tend to geek out about things like this) to try to imagine where Wordsworth would have stood, composing his poem. Then we stopped in the gift shop, where I acquired some rather snazzy souvenirs, all embossed the red dragon of Wales.

The final stop for the day was in Hay-on-Wye, a town famous for its bookstores. Again, the three of us are all voracious bookworms, so this was like heaven on earth. The town has something like 25 different bookstores, all with unique selections of classics and secondhand books, first editions and ancient things that are all torn and mildewed, and brand spanking new editions of the latest hits, too. Every store has a different feel, but they are all their own little libraries, with rows and rows of bookshelves. Our time there was only too short, but we did manage to hit up five or six of the stores and find a few things to take home with us.

Around seven, we reached our hotel. I was expecting a dingy hostel with mysterious stains on the carpets, but to my pleasant surprise, we were staying in a manor house-turned-school-turned-hotel. We were staying in the servants’ quarters, but it was okay, because there was a grand staircase and grounds for us to stroll around in and a music room and a breakfast parlor. We took breakfast there the next morning (after taking a walk, reading in bed, and falling asleep around nine), and looked out the windows onto the greenest hills I’d ever seen.

Then it was off through twisty and hilly country lanes to the national park to go horseback riding. First, we all got to meet our ponies: mine’s name was Xanadu and he was black with a big white patch. Then we mounted up and rode off (at a walk, in a single-file line) into dirt lanes lined with hedges. About an hour into the ride, we left the roads and started off across a grassy mountainside. We could see snow-capped mountains in the distance, and it was magnificent.

After about three hours of riding, we were all sufficiently sore, and it was time to dismount and head home. Overall, it was quite the bookish weekend: for most of it, I felt like I was wandering around in a Jane Austen novel. It was perfect.

The Eight People You Meet in London

This past weekend, I met quite the collection of people.

1. Olive Boy. Friday afternoon, my friend Sara and I were wandering the South Bank and happened upon a market that we’d never seen before. We decided to wander around it, because we always check out new markets when we find them, and decided that it looked delicious. As we walked past a stand that sold only olives, the boy selling them called out to us and made us try them. We tried one and thanked him, and he started telling us about all the different varieties and insisting that we try them. “Where my family comes from,” he said, “everyone always tells me to eat more. So I’m telling you: don’t be shy! Eat, eat, eat!” We asked him where he was from, and it turned out he’d been born and raised in London (though his family was from Italy) and gone to UCL for his masters in Comparative Lit. When he asked where we were from, we said the States, and he was shocked. He’d mistaken us for British. After quite the nice chat and quite a few olives, we headed on our way.

2. The Suited Cyclist. Earlier that afternoon, I’d seen a man dressed in a smart gray suit riding his bike. He probably commutes by bike all the time, but it was quite the funny & unusual sight for me: his neatly pressed suit on top combined with hot pink socks inside clip-on biking shoes.

3. The Composer. I was on the tube Saturday afternoon on my way to Hyde Park, and I just happened to plop myself down next to a young, blond musician. Londoners don’t talk to each other on the tube, and in order to avoid any urge to talk during a ten to thirty minute commute, they bring something to do. I see lots of novels and Kindles and newspapers and iPhones with games, but the music notebook was a surprise. The song was called “Summertime,” and he was whistling it a bit. I was tempted to stay on the train longer and ask about it, but decided that I’d rather go to the park.

4. The Mentally Unstable Commuter. As I was looking over the Composer’s shoulder, this man started talking to himself in a loud, childish voice. All the passengers in our car sort of looked awkwardly away until the next stop, where he got off.

5. Vous Êtes Françaises? As I was leaving Hyde Park, this guy approached me. “Bonsoir!” he said, and I returned the greeting quietly, hurrying along the rather empty sidewalk. “Vous êtes françaises?” he asked. I do speak a bit of French, and so I laughed at this, saying, “Non!” Undeterred, he asked, “Are you French?” I looked at him like he was an idiot. If I were French, obviously I would have understood the question when he’d asked it the first time. “Where are you from?” he asked. “The States,” I mumbled, and, sufficiently creeped out, I ducked into the nearest underground station. Later, I marveled. He can’t have really thought I was French. No self-respecting French girl would’ve been caught dead in the sweatshirt and jeans I’d been wearing that afternoon.

6. The Harrods Shoppers. On the tube home from Hyde Park, I noticed a couple carrying three Harrods bags apiece – and they were big bags! Just in case you’re wondering, this is not normal behavior. It takes a pretty wealthy shopper (the sort who usually prefer taxis to trains) to buy that much at Harrods. When I was there a few weeks ago, the only things I thought I might be able to afford were the recyclable canvas shopping bags that said “Harrods” on them. I ultimately decided they were too expensive, though, and settled for keeping the store map (yes, there is a store map available at every check-out counter) as my souvenir.

7. Kiss Me, I’m Irish. Saturday night, I was out with some friends at our favorite 200-year-old pub (called the Princess Louise). We happened to be standing near the exit as a group of old Irishmen were headed out. One of them was particularly drunk, and decided that he needed to greet us (we were a group of three blondes accompanied by the male cousin of one of my friends who was visiting from the States). The Irishman flirted shamelessly with us as he kissed the backs of our hands, and then complimented the cousin on being in the company of three such pretty young things. Even though he was tripping over himself as his friends dragged him out, it was nonetheless pretty endearing.

8. The Master of the Sword. On Sunday, I went to the Globe Theatre (a replica of Shakespeare’s theatre that was built in the ‘90s) with one of my friends from Cornell. She’d been there midweek and talked to the theatre’s fight director, who told her that he gives free stage combat clinics on Sunday afternoons. So we got to wander all the back corridors of the Globe as we talked to this amazing director, and then we got lessons in swordplay for the stage. By the end of it, we knew a decently complex 10-move routine that ends with me thrown to the ground and playing dead, my friend trying to run me through, and then me rolling out of the way and swiping back at her feet. Quite the fantastic experience!

Quirks: How to Behave in a British Restaurant

So, you’ve found a place you want to eat at. You walk in, find a table, open the menu… now what?

Scenario 1: You’re at a pub, and you’ve heard that the food’s great, the service is fast, etc. So why have you been sitting at your table for fifteen minutes looking like an idiot while your stomach grumbles so loudly that it’s attracting the attention of the couple at the next table over? Pubs often don’t have staff members who come to take your order. Sitting there waiting for them to pay attention to you is just going to make you look like a dumb American (and make you hungrier). Have a look at the menu and then go up to the bar and order.

Scenario 2: You’ve just stopped into a café for a much-needed cuppa, and now you’ve finished and are ready to head out. You’re used to Panera and campus dining halls, where it’s a capital offense to not bus your own tray. So why don’t there seem to be any bins to put your trash and dirty dishes in? You have to overcome that well-honed Panera instinct and just leave the dishes at your table. Someone will come to clear when they have a moment free. If you try to take things up to the counter and ask where you can put them, you’ll just come off as pushy and rude. It’s like you want them to take your things right now! and not when there’s a lull and the staff has time to tend to it.

Scenario 3: You’re eating at a nice sit-down restaurant, and the meal’s been really delicious, but it’s getting late and you’d like to head out. You haven’t seen head or tail of your server for a half an hour, and you’re wondering when he’ll bring your bill. British servers tend to leave you alone while you’re eating. At first, this is a bit weird. But it ends up being really nice. You can just sit in a restaurant or café for a few hours with friends, and no one will bother you. They won’t interrupt, they won’t shove the bill at you, and they won’t try to hustle you out of the restaurant. But, if at some point you do want to leave, you will have to specifically ask for the bill.

Scenario 4: You’ve ordered successfully, gotten the bill successfully, counted out the change successfully, but – there doesn’t seem to be any mention of a tip on the check. How much should you leave? For the most part, tips aren’t expected. Again, this goes against every American instinct. We expect to tip our servers. But, British servers are paid like any other worker, so their income isn’t based solely on how much they earn in tips. Some restaurants will include a 10% service charge, but if they don’t, you don’t really need to leave any extra.

And there you are! With those basic tips, you should be good to go when it comes to eating out in the U.K.

The Quirks of British Life

When you arrive in a new country, there are—of course—going to be some cultural differences. They will be things that surprise you, things that amuse you, things that inconvenience you: they are inevitable. But hey, that’s the point of study abroad, right? Though I might write about pretty churches and yummy food more often, the real reason to study in a different place is to experience a different way of life.

However, I have to confess that I did think that the U.K., since it shares a language and a history with the U.S., would have fewer cultural differences for me to adjust to. I even worried that I might be disappointed by how international (and therefore American) London might feel.

To be sure, the cultural shift has not been a dramatic as that experienced by some of my friends who are studying abroad. Sierra arrived in Italy without a place to live: she had to go out on her first day and go apartment-hunting… in Italian! (She also discovered that many Italians—even the ones trying to sublet their apartments—don’t have voicemail.) Meanwhile, Jackie arrived in New Zealand less than a week ago and has already learned to shear a sheep!

But I’ve been here now for over a month and a half, and so I can tell you that there are plenty of things that are different about the U.K.. Some of these things are small and insignificant, but all of them took me by surprise. First and foremost amongst these differences is probably the unexpected language barrier, but there is also a very different code of behavior in restaurants, a very different expectation for social interaction, and a very different style of dress.

I intend to discuss all these differences at greater length, but for now, let me just leave you with a few quirky tendencies of the British.

The kitchen in my dorm doesn’t have a freezer. In the U.S., this would be unpardonable: where would we keep our tubs of Ben & Jerry’s and our microwavable dinners? But in fact, ice is in general something that is quite a bit harder to find here than at home (a shame, since I had an injury to my left ankle three weeks ago and to my right foot the other day and nothing to ice them with). As for ice cream—they don’t eat much of it here. And while they do have pre-made dinners that you can pop in the microwave or the oven, they tend to be quite a bit more gourmet than their U.S. counterparts: they are made every day and people go and pick them up from the store after work.

Another example: The street signs are not down at eye level on signposts. At first, this can make navigation really quite tricky. If you’re sharp-eyed, you will soon realize that the street signs are on the walls of the buildings on the street corners. But even this discovery doesn’t solve all of your problems. Every building-on-a-street-corner is different, and therefore every street sign is located in a slightly different place. And some of them are just missing, but you’ll spend a good thirty seconds looking all over the wall for it before you realize it’s not there. You eventually get a sense of where approximately you will usually find the sign, but even so, I was stumped yesterday by a street corner in a part of town I don’t usually venture to.

And finally, a few weeks ago, a group of my American friends and I went to see Iron Lady. We felt we had to; it was about Margaret Thatcher after all! We arrived at the cinema about 20 minutes before the movie started and asked for tickets. The guy looks at us and says, “I don’t know if you’ll all be able to get seats together.” We were flabbergasted. To be fair, there were eleven of us in the group, but come on! We’d arrived before the previews started! The show couldn’t possibly be sold out. And then the guy whipped out a seating chart and said, “Here, this is which seats we have left.” Ten shell-shocked minutes later, we’d bought £11 (that’s about 17 dollars, folks, and that was the student rate) tickets in the last two rows of the theater so that we could sit together. Since then, we’ve found out that not all cinemas allow people to come in several hours before the film, buy tickets, and book seats like at the theatre or on an airplane—but some do, and that came as quite the surprise.

That’s enough quirky for now, but I’ll write again soon with the difficulties of living in a British-speaking country.

A Portrait of Portobello

First off, if you are a girl who has not seen the film Notting Hill, go watch it right now. Then come back and read this post.

Go on, I’m serious.

All right, now that you’ve done that, we can move on. In my first post, I listed advice I’d been given by friends, family, and former Cornell study abroad students about things to do around London. One of those pieces of advice was this: “Go to Portobello Market in Notting Hill! It’s to die for!” And on Saturday, I went!

Places like Portobello Market are the reasons we travel in the first place. I mean, sure, you’ve got to go to Big Ben and see the London Eye. And if or when I go to Paris, I’ll take that iconic photo with the Eiffel Tower—you know, the one that looks like this (shout-out to my friend Anne for letting me borrow this photo of her)—and feel pretty snazzy when I make it my profile picture on Facebook.

But honestly, the thing about those places is that they look like they do in photos. And trust me, your average cloudy London day pedestrian’s view of Big Ben or the Eye will never match the blue-skied aerial shots you’ve seen in movies. And even though it’s pretty cool to have your own face in the frame with the sights, that’s really not what traveling is all about.

Traveling is about the places no one has adequately captured, the things that can’t be described with your ordinary worth-a-thousand-words picture—it’s about smells and tastes, sounds and textures, quirks and details. I’m not going to write a thousand words here (no one actually wants to read that much), but let me give you a taste of Portobello Market:

You’ve taken the tube to Notting Hill gate, climbed out of the weird air of underground trains into weak January sunlight, and walked a couple of blocks down a narrow street with tightly-packed houses—then you round the corner. In a city of gray skies and dull-colored buildings, Portobello Road comes as a surprise: a row of narrow houses, stretching around the corner and out of sight, in bold pastels. Pink, green, teal, yellow, purple—the colors take over the street, and for a moment you think that this can’t possibly be the same London you’ve known for the last three weeks. Back on street level, canopies extend out to the curb, with stalls set up in between them. Even from here you can see the eclectic displays on the tables, and the signs that announce that this place is well within your budget. You reach in your bag for your camera, planning to take a picture to upload to your blog. Then someone careens into your side, and you have to take a step to regain your balance. You’re half in the street, and one of the cars zooming along the crossroad passes terrifyingly close to you. People are everywhere, and you shove your camera in your pocket and rest one hand on your bag—wary of pickpockets—as the crowd surges and pushes you forward into the market.

This first section is essentially a flea market: the tables are stacked high with the sort of random old junk your grandfather loves to buy. One man is selling old compasses and telescopes and magnifying glasses, and “It’s all four quid!” It’s tempting, honestly, and you pick up the delicate old things, trying out a pair of opera glasses and peering through a telescope. Moving on, you walk past table after table of old jewelry: lines of rings, racks of earrings, heaps of little keys. A seller shouts, “I’ll cut the price in half for you, love!” One woman is selling old cutlery in bundles, and you wish that you had a kitchen to furnish. There are glass goblets and smelly old books all tattered and worn. There is a table stacked high with teapots and cups and saucers, and a woman who declares: “It’s all made in England! No china from China! Only China from England!”

Next, there are the clothes, and you just can’t keep from touching them. Racks and shelves and tables of clothes, like an ocean of fabric or some oriental palace, lighting up the day as it turns to dusk. Dresses: softly silky, all £5. Sweaters (or jumpers, as I should say): thick and woolly and luxuriously heavy when you pick them up. Hats: top hats and knitted hats and feathered hats and fuzzy hats. Scarves: literally every color and pattern imaginable, piled high so that you have to dig through them to see them all, hands buried in silky loveliness. The sellers beg you to try things on, but it’s gotten chilly, and their cloth changing rooms don’t look cozy enough to tempt you out of your coat.

You keep walking, dodging around people and being pushed by others, and suddenly, the most delicious scent reaches your nose. Rich and sweet and warm, it’s the smell from the crêpe stand you are passing, the first sign of all the food to come. You pass a man jamming on his string bass, and you toss a coin into his hat, thinking of how much your brother would like to see him play. The bass player thanks you with a “Cheers!” and by playing even more flamboyantly. A car honks behind you and you jump. All this time you’ve been walking in the street—it’s what everyone does, but apparently the street isn’t closed to car traffic, and so you hurry to make way.

Up ahead, you see more bright colors. The crisp air carries the smell of hot food and dead fish. You’ve arrived at the most delicious section of the market: the food stands. This part is like other markets you’ve seen, with heaps of fruits and vegetables loaded onto carts. But with the growing cold, you’re grateful for a hot crêpe, and it tastes far better than you were expecting—even when you have to risk picking it up with your hands, because the cheap plastic fork they gave you has snapped in half. And later, when you make stir-fry with the vegetables (called “veg” in the U.K.) you bought, the carrots will be the sweetest, carrotiest carrots you’ve ever eaten in your life.

You don’t want to stop walking, but there’s more than eight blocks of market to shop, and you forgot to bring your gloves. Your hands are cold around the handle of the plastic bag of vegetables, and you suppose you’ll just have to save the rest for another day. As you’re walking back the way you came, the crowd slowly thins. The stands start to pack up, shouting out end-of-the-day discounts.

You’ll definitely be coming back.



This is my 13th day in London.

It feels weird to say that. It both feels like I’ve been here forever, and like I’m on holiday and it must be coming to an end. I think it was last Thursday, as I was emailing my parents my London snail mail address, that it first hit me: I live in London.

I live in London.

I’ve done so many amazing things in the fortnight I’ve been here. I’ve eaten fish and chips. I’ve seen Big Ben. I’ve ridden the tube. I’ve visited the Tate Britain, St. Paul’s, the Monument, and the British Museum. I’ve been to Trafalgar Square and Leicester Square and Piccadilly Circus. I’ve (window) shopped on Oxford Street and Regent Street. I’ve been to pubs and karaoke nights. I know what white coffee is and that I have to bag my own groceries at Sainsbury’s. I’ve walked so much that I can’t remember the last day I didn’t have blisters and my old sprained ankle is acting up. I’ve seen Chinatown and Soho. I’ve been less than thirty feet from Prince William and Kate Middleton. I’ve taken a bus tour and made plans to see the Tower of London. I’ve passed for a local and been an obnoxious American who takes goofy touristy photos.

But today was excessively, completely, utterly normal. I woke up late, missed breakfast in the dining hall, scurried off to class, and then hid out in the library for several hours. Tonight I’ll go home, eat, and tumble into bed, too tired to even think of heading to a pub or a club (even though Monday is the big night for going out).

In fact, today was so normal that I kind of wondered if I was wasting it. When there’s so much to see, it seems silly to be in the library all day.

An anecdote for you: The other day, I walked to the Tate Britain to see an exhibition for my art history class. It takes about 50 minutes to walk from my dorm to the gallery. Along the way, you pass Trafalgar Square and Parliament. It was a Saturday morning, so when I started out, the city was nearly empty. Londoners don’t bother waking up early on the weekends. But as I neared the big tourist stops, I suddenly found myself being pushed and shoved around by masses of people. Fortunately, I made it through the crowd alive, only to find that the streets once again belonged to me as soon as I was a safe distance from the exciting touristy bits.

The brilliant part of all this? Yes, sometimes I am a tourist. But I also am a Londoner. I have the time, the leisure, to wander from place to place, to see the touristy bits and the stuff in between.

And so I consider these ordinary days the stuff in between. Not as thrilling or crowded or exciting, certainly, but beautiful and peaceful in their own way. Rather than rushing headlong from destination to destination, I am lucky enough to get to stop along the way, sit in a café with some tea, and see London the way a Londoner does.

London’s Burning!

Well, the first week of classes is complete, and so far they’ve been quite interesting! On Thursday, I had an absolutely amazing Shakespeare lecture with a really talented guest lecturer, and I only wish that the class had lasted a little bit longer. In general, actually, it seems that UCL classes don’t meet all that often or for all that long. I have a whopping seven hours of class each week, and I’ve a hunch that managing my “free” time is going to be a bit of an issue, especially when I have all of London just a tube ride away.

For instance, I don’t have class on Wednesdays, and neither do several of my new friends. So three of us spent all of this past Wednesday at St. Paul’s Cathedral.

It was unbelievable. I think it’s the sheer scale that blows you away: it’s hard to comprehend how a structure so big could be built with such attention to minute detail. The whole cathedral is an overwhelming sea of glittering mosaics and elegant paintings: you’d need some climbing gear and a few years to really see everything properly. You can’t take pictures inside, but I don’t think it really matters: they could never turn out as well as you would want them to. You just have to go and see for yourself.

But what was really striking was the sense of history, the sense of Britishness, that the place inspires. They call it “the nation’s church,” and the name rings true. Buried and honored there are soldiers and doctors, poets and musicians alike. It has been the site of royal weddings and state funerals. On days of national (and world) tragedy and celebration, the doors have been thrown open so that the people could come together. There is graffiti in the stairwells from the 1700s, but also an altar dedicated to the Americans who died fighting in the World Wars. And so, in many ways, St. Paul’s is a gigantic, opulent record of British history. As one tour guide said, every person remembered in St. Paul’s was important in their own day, even if we have forgotten them now.

And so the odd part is that the current cathedral has only stood for a little over three hundred years. There has been a cathedral on the spot where the present St. Paul’s stands since the year 604 A.D., but it has actually been a succession of them: three have burned to the ground and one was torn apart by invaders.

There’s a timeline of the history of the place in the crypt. It starts at the year 604, and as you walk along it, it gives you relevant happenings in the history of St. Paul’s, the history of Christianity, and the history of the world. One thousand years—the better part of the timeline—goes by before you even get to the event that preceded the building of the current cathedral: the Great Fire of 1666.

Honestly, I’d never heard of the Great Fire before this trip. But upon my arrival in London, it seemed to be everywhere, from the museums I visited to the classes I attended. After we finished our tour of St. Paul’s, one of my friends commented that she wanted to visit a structure close by called “the Monument.” She had no idea what it was a monument to, but I’d looked it up very briefly, and I seemed to remember it being about a fire. And, of course, it was the Great Fire again.

On the timeline in St. Paul’s, the Great Fire is near the end, and so when I looked at it, I briefly felt as though the fire must have been quite recent. But then I looked at the next event: Sir Isaac Newton discovers gravity. Oh. Okay, so it wasn’t that recent. This realization made me decide to do some research.

What I found? According to BBC History, the Great Fire of London of 1666 raged for three and a half days. The royals were slow to respond, thinking that the fire would quickly blow itself out, but a dry summer and strong winds caused the fire to leap from wooden house to wooden house. Water could certainly not be fetched fast enough, and the usual tactic of blowing up a line of houses to create a gap without fuel that might stop the fire was unsuccessful for the first few days. When the wind finally died down and the fire could be stopped, it had destroyed 373 acres of London—from the Tower in the east to Fleet Street in the west—and altered its skyline forever. Nearly 100,000 people were left homeless. The sign shown here was one I found on a spigot near the Monument, and I think it gives a sense of just how horrifying this fire truly was.

So what this all means is that the London of history books is not the same as the London of photographs. We go to London thinking that we are entering an earlier era, somehow more romantic and beautiful than anything we could find in the gangly, adolescent USA. And it’s true, in a sense. I went on a bus tour yesterday, and our guide told us, “We don’t like to tear anything down. We like to build with what’s there.” So you’ll see McDonald’s and Burger King in grand old stone buildings with swooping arches. You can go to St. Paul’s and feel like you’re afloat in a sea of historical glory. You can get lost in twisty, narrow streets that survive from when the Romans laid out the city.

But underneath ash and dirt, there is more. There’s a history lost, lost because a baker in Pudding Lane got careless with his ovens. Of course, this isn’t the only fire ever to ravage London. But it was one that changed the face of London forever. Wooden frame houses—packed together like sardines and hanging out over the street—were forbidden after the Great Fire. The new London was built of stone, built to survive.

And it’s lovely, no doubt about that. But it amazed me—and saddened me—to discover that there was a whole other London that I will never see.

Nonetheless, the British really do care about their history, and they’ve done so much to try and save it. It’s said that during the Blitz of World War II, Winston Churchill said, “We must save St. Paul’s! We must save St. Paul’s!” And so even with so much gone, there is still so much to see.

With that in mind, we’ve already made the plans for next week: we’re headed to the Tower of London.

Eat Lamb Chop, Not Mutton

Note: This entry was written in the JFK airport several days ago, but due to technical issues and Internet woes, I was not able to post until today.

I guess I kind of thought this moment would never come: I’m sitting in the JFK airport, bulging carry-on backpack in the seat next to me, about an hour away from embarking on my seven-hour flight to Heathrow. Almost everyone in the terminal is well dressed and talking in crisp British accents, which means that they are all heading home to familiarity and normalcy.

I am heading out into something I can’t even begin to imagine. I’ve never been outside the U.S. and Canada. My knowledge of the United Kingdom is culled predominantly from 19th century novels and their BBC film adaptations. Several more modern novels and films have recently entered my repertoire, I think I remember at least a few things from AP European History, and I’ve been pouring over guidebooks and newspapers these last few months. Relying solely on these sources, it seems the Brits are most notable for their love of tea, their fondness for gossip, their overabundance of Egyptian artifacts, and their penchant for beheading their wives.

It was when I was packing—and trying to decide what to pack—that it really hit me that I have no idea what to expect from this semester abroad. Fortunately, former Cornell study abroad students, family members, and friends have all been more than willing to talk my ear off about London and the UK.

Here’s an eclectic sampling of the advice they had to offer:

  • British cheese is delicious, but British peanut butter is just weird.
  • Take the Jack the Ripper walking tour—but wait until near the end of your trip, because it’s pretty creepy.
  • Don’t fly in through Ireland. You won’t get the right passport stamp when you enter England.
  • Visit Stonehenge and get there early: it gets crowded fast!
  • If a bed and breakfast looks nice on the outside, it’s nice on the inside.
  • Eat the lamb chop: it’s good. Not the mutton: that’s old sheep.
  • They don’t really have vegetables in London, other than mushy peas with your fish and chips.
  • There are actually a lot of vegetarians in London these days.
  • They talk about the weather. A lot.
  • They’re rather awkward at hellos and goodbyes.
  • American accents are exotic to them: they love us and we love them.
  • You have to go to the Tower of London and do all the touristy stuff.
  • Watch out: they’ll expect you to know a lot about the US and the UK.
  • Get an Oyster card right away! The Tube is wonderful. So convenient!
  • Take the bus. You’ll never see the city if you’re always underground.
  • Do you like flea markets? Well, you haven’t lived until you’ve visited Portobello Market.
  • They don’t have strict syllabi like we do in the States—you’ll have to stay on top of your reading yourself.
  • Open your bank account with NatWest. And they’ll try to offer you deals, but you don’t need a free pizza! You need an account without fees.
  • Buy a cross-body purse with a flap, and wear it backwards! The pickpockets are tricky there.
  • You’ve got to try fish and chips—but there’s no ketchup, only vinegar.
  • Books are more expensive. Everything is more expensive.
  • Don’t drive a car. We don’t cover that.
  • You have to go visit Europe. It’s so easy! You can go to Paris for a weekend!
  • You have to go to <insert famous city here>!
  • Travel to the Continent with a backpack. The checked bag is where the cheap airlines make you pay.
  • You’ll love the Shakespeare garden in Regents Park.
  • It’s all about the pub—but watch out for warm beer.
  • Do you have a good umbrella yet?

It’s all good advice, though each piece may actually say more about the person who shared it with me than about London itself. And I really am truly grateful that people were so excited to share their experiences with me; it gives me a sense of how I will feel about these next five months when they have come to an end.

But, in some ways, all this advice is useless.

It still can’t even begin to tell me what my dorm will look like; what sort of food I will eat; who my friends will be; what my favorite café will be called; if I will like my classes; if I will travel; if I will get lost my first day; if I will fall in love and never want to leave, or decide that cities really aren’t my thing; if I will come back to Cornell somehow a little different than I left it.

Sometimes I’m thrilled to be going, and sometimes I’m terrified. I think this is normal. It’s true that it would be much simpler to stay at Cornell, and sometimes I wonder why I’m forcing myself to start all over again when I already have people and places that I love so much. But somehow, this doesn’t really feel like leaving. It feels like stepping outside of time, outside of real life, outside of me. For one semester, I get to be a savvy, scarf-wearing, fish-’n’-chips-eating, world-traveling Londoner on an adventure so grand that I have no idea how to even begin to imagine it. I will miss everyone at home so much—but this isn’t a chance I’m willing to waste.