Disclaimer: This is an account of a poor University at Buffalo student of Indian origin about her study abroad trip to London for 20 days. (So I’m basically writing about a British study abroad program while studying abroad in America..) All the Londoners – this is not your cuppa’ if you can’t stand tourists, especially those with wide eyed wonder and weird accents. Everyone else who don’t mind details, read on!
Day 1 : Heathrow Airport, London cabs and the Greek Dinner.
The one major instruction that we had got from our instructor Debi Street was to pack lightly. So I basically had only the things I really needed and it was a lot of effort to filter out stuff because I always pack more than I want. My flight was at 10.35 pm Eastern Time – a dainty medium sized Virgin Atlantic plane with purple interior. After about 7 hours at 10.35 am London time, I landed at Heathrow, one of the busiest airports in the world. Thankfully Immigration and Customs did not take too long as I already had my UK Visa. I could already hear British accents and Hindi and a lot of French and other foreign languages.
From the airport we were told to take the Heathrow Connect train that took about 20 mins to reach Paddington Station and that’s what I did (Debi had given us exact instructions to get to FSU or the Florida university Study Centre).
The sights outside the train were rather suburban.There was graffiti and marshy land and houses with slopped roofs. They looked like the houses children draw in elementary schools – simple, yet iconic.
From the Paddington Station I took a cab – or a taxi, as I should say- to the FSU; then I really felt like I was in London. There were the iconic red telephone booths like proud guardians of a lost communication channel or rather like Time Machines (Tardis!). There were black taxis that resembled the Ambassador cars that Indians are familiar with.
There were well-dressed pretty people with long-handled umbrellas and rain boots and double-decker buses with ads stretched like colorful banners on their sides. I did not know where to look. It was like the first time I was in New York City except that this time, it all looked more old fashioned, like I had traveled in space AND time. The architecture, the cobbled streets, the lone British flag that suddenly jerked me to the realization that this is an entirely DIFFERENT western country hit me strongly while sitting in that taxi. It was rather disorienting. I passed signboards that said King’s Cross, Elephant and Castle and buses that said Liverpool or something that sounded so familiar, it was almost like I KNEW the places except that I really did not. And then I passed a place that said Bonham Carter House and couldn’t help gasping out loud. Not sure if the driver noticed.
Debi and most of my fellow students had already reached FSU. The basement of the place was labyrinthine but I made my way to the Lecture Theater where I found the others. Almost all of them were sprawled on the ground, sleeping. It was bizarre to see everyone just lying on the floor next to their luggage, tired and jet-lagged and waiting for the keys to our flats. Debi left us there to fend for ourselves. Some were figuring out the wifi or whispering excitedly. It was almost 1 pm and I helped myself to some snacks they had served and passed out on the floor for a hour or two. I don’t think we could have asked for a more lethargic and refreshing bonding activity than sleeping on the ground in a basement together… Maybe a customary “Introduce yourself” would have been good but I guess that was really not needed since everyone just knew everyone through Facebook. Debi later remarked that we had slept like toilet-trained babies.
At 3.30 pm we walked for 20 minutes from FSU to Crawford House in the Clerkenwell area of Central London where we would be staying. Debi and Virginia, an FSU person, pointed out the nearest convenient stores, landmarks, markets and taverns as we walked. I was really just trying to take it all in. There were a lot of grey buildings – an actual building called the Gray’s Inn- that looked extra grey and some modern colorful diners, placed like cherries in a porridge. I had also noticed lewd photographs (of call-girls presumably) inside the telephone booths. What! I’m sure I wasn’t the only one. And it does seem more decent than having strip-club advertisements on the top of cabs like in NYC…
The flat seemed okay but we would get wifi access only the next day. After a long-awaited shower and some snacks, we went to a Greek place for dinner. The food was good and the waiters were more than excited to have a group of sixteen dining there. It was a nice end to a long day. I was already in love with London. The place just seemed right out of a book or a movie. The time difference was closer to India and it wasn’t unnaturally cold like Buffalo. I almost felt as if I was home, except that I still was an ocean away from my real home. Just one ocean though, not two. 🙂 I tried reading the assigned textbook chapters but fell asleep soon enough.
Day 2: Borough Market, London Bridge, Imperial War Museum
Started my day with some textbook reading. Since we had class at 9.30 am we left our rooms at 9 and walked to FSU. We still couldn’t take the bus since we hadn’t got our Oyster cards (traveling cards). We had an hour and half of lecture and then we made our way to Borough Market. (Interesting fact about our classroom – there’s actually a fireplace, antique lights, high ceilings and a chandelier. Almost felt Hogwarts-y 🙂 ) After getting our Oyster cards, we took the Tube (London Underground is APTLY named so) from Tottenham Court Road to Bank and walked east from there to Southwark across the LONDON BRIDGE. Yes, this was really exciting because as soon as we started crossing the Bridge, rain came pouring down on us. How fitting that our first London shower was on the London Bridge while walking across Thames! 🙂 I was actually skipping, forgetting all about being careful not to slip and fall. 🙂
The Borough Market is, as my roommate Nicole puts it, a foodie’s heaven. With all kinds of smells and flavors wafting in the rainy atmosphere, it was so alien to anything that I had encountered in America and closer to my experience in a market in India.
All the salesmen and women had exotic accents too, as they pleasantly offered people free samples of cheese, chocolate, pastries, Thai curry and even Argentinian empanadas that gently reminded me of Jewish Knish or an Indian samosa. We actually bought some real English muffins and as my American friends exclaimed indignantly, they were NOTHING like the English muffins available in the U.S. There were dead ducks and turkeys and God-knows-what-else hanging from the ceiling of one shop while another place had rows and rows of wine, beer and vodka. The cheese samples tasted like half melted American cheese and smelled unlike the processed ones that usually don’t smell. The Thai curry was so good and I was pretty sure it had a good coconut base. I bought something called chilli chocolate that tastes like chocolate but also leaves a bit of a spicy trace in your mouth after you eat it. Edible souvenirs. 🙂
Our next stop was at the Imperial War Museum. We took the bus there. Debi told us how the old Bethlehem Royal Hospital, a lunatic asylum had been converted to the Museum. The word “bedlam” which now means a noisy and confused state apparently originated from the name of the Hospital.
The place actually looked haunted, with its old architecture and creepy skeletal trees standing tall around it. We spent an hour and half looking at exhibits of weapons and photos of distraught Holocaust victims. I almost teared up reading a Jewish girl’s letter to her parent. Maybe it all hits you more when you read personal accounts than just reading about how much people died in a particular war. There was also something about that letter that sounded hopeful, like the girl was optimistic enough to maybe imagine a peaceful future. The model of a concentration camp was ghastly. Overall, the Holocaust Exhibition just blew my mind. Too bad they don’t let us take photos.
From IMW, we got on a bus to Trafalgar Square. Being there, at the center of buzzing activity with the famous obelisk and the four majestic lion statues was probably my best moment in London until that point. The sun was just setting and I loved how it all looked, with the fountain glistening lightly in front of the National Gallery that is home to works of Da Vinci and Monet and Picasso. Should go there again soon.
On the bus ride there we caught a glimpse of the Westminster Abbey, the London Eye and the Palace of Westminster. All these places are just there, a few kilometers away (yes! metric system!) and I can’t wait to see all of it. Ended the day with the first Sherlock episode of season 3 – not at all a bad one though I did feel that they were trying to please the fandom a bit too much. So much of Sherlock-Molly being hinted, but I still root for Sherlock and Irene. Speaking of which, Sherlock shooting locations have to be hunted down too. Gosh.
Day 3- British Museum, National Gallery, London Eye, Big Ben.
As it was an “Open Day”, which means we had no course-related activity or field trips, most of us woke up around 10 am. We split up into smaller groups and decided to head out towards major attractions like the British Museum and so on.
It was pouring down on us as we crossed the Bloomsbury Park and the Grange Holborn Hotel to get to Great Russell Street. Our first goal was to visit the British Museum on the Great Russell Street, the same street as FSU, where we have our classes. We were on our own without Debi, so we had to rely on maps and signboards.
The British Museum with all its grandeur is a storehouse of cultural history. Designed to imitate Greek architecture, it looked ancient and majestic, so many tall thick pillars holding up the triangular sculptured center piece that I don’t know the name of. The collections were outstanding, ranging from the ancient Egyptian, Assyrian and Greek artifacts to statues of Indian deities and Chinese artifacts.
The Rossetta Stone just sat there in the middle of the entrance hall to the Egyptian gallery – an innocent looking oddly shaped rock with inscriptions. How funny that something so famous and valuable should look completely… normal. The next room contained the mummies and I was so fascinated by how they still seemed to have preserved so many old, old things. People back then must have been so brilliant, differently brilliant than today’s brilliant people who concern themselves with computers or atom models, but probably more culturally brilliant.
We also saw an “Orrery”, a mechanical model of the Copernicus solar system that showed both the movement of planets and the zodiacs. That would have been a really cool thing to try and make if I had pursued engineering!
Overall it was a nice experience but I couldn’t help thinking how much of these objects were “collected” or rather taken away from their respective original locations to build a collection so comprehensive. It’s all great that they have a Museum that houses so many valuable things from around the world but it’s also interesting to think how this was an unexpected side-effect of the colonial culture. It is reflective of the British history as much as world history itself.
After a small stop at a nearby Starbucks, we took the bus from Tottenham Court Road to Trafalgar Square so that we could explore the National Gallery next. The paintings of Da Vinci and Monet and Raphael adorned the walls. I was so disappointed that we couldn’t take pictures inside. It wasn’t very different from the paintings at the Metropolitan Museum in New York but the sketches were older and more famous. The Virgin of the Rocks and Sunflowers and the likes were just sitting there and I really couldn’t believe that these famous artworks of such talented masters had survived for so long and was still preserved, probably for generations and generations. That’s what I like about museums; they might be boring and really tire your legs out, but they give you a perspective of beauty, history, art and culture at different periods of time and the lengths to which humans go to preserve the past. Refreshing and tiring at the same time. And I also got a little souvenir from the National Gallery that is sure to be one of my prized possessions from now on. Here it is…
As we could see Big Ben already, we figured we’d just walk there. On the way, we passed the Cavalry Museum and I took a photo with a royal guard who was rather scary with his piercing watchful eyes and loud voice that boomed out every time a clueless tourist crossed the ‘No Entry’ threshold. We also crossed the Ministry of Defense and by then we could see the London Eye. The blue light that shown out from the edge of the large vertical circle in the sky, lighted up the water beneath it too. It was a beautiful sight, something that you couldn’t look away from.
As if magnetically attracted we just started walking towards the Ferris wheel- which is what it is, to put it crudely- almost forgetting the Big Ben. Near the Thames River the County Hall stood out and the Big Ben and the House of Parliament stood on the opposite side.
Rivers had held civilizations together for ages but Thames seems to have a lucky place indeed, amidst beautiful monuments and flowing admiration from so many tourists. What a lucky river.
From there we headed back, taking a bus to Oxford Circus and walking from there to Tottenham Cout Road. The Oxford Street was lined with Christmas lights, which looked like antlers.
Shops lined the streets and we walked past hustling shoppers and tourists and cars to our flat. I was glad that we did a pretty good job for an open day. In spite of losing a set of gloves and an umbrella in the space of two days, London was turning out to be a splendid host indeed.
Day 4: Street Art Tour, Brick Lane, Shakespeare’s Globe.
We were scheduled to meet at the Moorfield’s Eye Hospital and had to find our way there. Using the ever-reliable Google Maps some of us found out that it was a 15-20 minute walk from our flats. And so we walked, savoring the rare sunlight and the sights of a weekday morning in London. After some confusion in finding the hospital entrance (“Why can’t they just have big glass doors?!”), we ran into Johnny, a British man who introduced himself as our guide. He seemed intimidated to find a large group of 21 American students and told us how he is more used to smaller groups and conversational tours. He was also surprised by our claims about the price of food in London and seemed to know where Buffalo is. Debi joined us at exactly 11 am and we started our ‘Street Art Tour’.
Now I was really excited about this for two reasons- 1. We were actually going to see a Banksy original! For those who don’t know, Banksy is a notoriously famous street artist from Bristol, U.K. who also has painted the walls of New York City and the wall of Palestine with meaningful and unique street art. I discovered his work through a documentary called ‘Exit through the gift-shop’ and since then I’ve been a huge fan. (I have even written a set of poems on street art and a couple on just him! Yes, that’s how crazy I am about this guy’s work. ) 2. We had a British tour guide! Accent. Enough said.
Johnny led us through the Bunhill Fields Cemetery (the name evolved from bone-hill) and showed us the graves of William Blake and Daniel Defoe. Apparently Defoe was in deep debts and not famous while he was alive; his tombstone was perfected by his fans long after his death.
This was the first time I have ever been inside a cemetery. Never had to; we burn our corpses- there’s almost always just a burning pyre or a pot of ash that you associate with the dead. It only felt sad while walking across those graves, nothing even remotely unusual or creepy. Johnny told us about the disasters London has faced over the years, including the great plague, the great fire and the bombings in World War II. Every time something happened, London recuperated, building something new on top of the old, something modern right next to the ancient. London could be called the Necropolis- the City of the Dead because it has been built above the graves of so many people. During the plagues, the affected people were locked away at ‘pesthouses’ and left to die and when they were dead, corpses were dragged out and put into ‘plague pits’ and burnt. Nobody knows exactly how many plague pits there were or their locations.
When the underground railway was built, they had to dig through these old plague pits or graves. If you look at the London Tube map, The Piccadilly Lines and some others turn at an angle after running straight for a while. This was because they had hit too many graves; they were simply forced to turn rather than dig into more human remains.
I wasn’t sure why Johnny was giving us such morbid details, but I felt sure that this information would not have made it into fancy tourist sites or popular guide books about London. Those would be concerned only about painting a rose-tinted dimension of the city. I also realized that perhaps I had walked on top of so many graves without realizing it. The whole world is a deathbed to many creatures at different points of time, isn’t it ?
A short walk from Bunhill Fields, Johnny showed us a plank of wood on the road, that had blackened enough to match its surrounding tar. This was the only remaining bit of the wooden roads of Victorian London where the horse – drawn carriage used to cause a ruckus as they rode on top. While renovating the city the authorities had left this bit of past as it is, like Londoners like to do. That street led to other narrow streets and now I could see the street art. The walls seemed to come alive, a glaring difference from the wanton grey of London. There were faces of women, stick figures, giant cartoonish animals, abstract art with swirling colors that could or could not have deeper connotations. There were quotes from books, depictions of families, religious figures next to a mocking side-figure. The motto seemed to be to fill every bit of the walls with colors, with meaning, with poetry. I loved it.
Soon enough Johnny stopped us and showed us an original Banksy piece! It was on a white wall, with black paint – an image of a cop with a poodle and the whole thing was encased in glass. I was glad that steps had been taken to protect his work.
Johnny’s story of how the Moorfields Eye Hospital authorities had removed and sold the tile with his iconic ‘rat with an eye-patch’ painted on it had broken my heart. How could they do that?! But then, thy had put the money got from the sale back into their charity. I guess he would have preferred that over his work being washed or withered away after a while… Johnny also told us about a particular street artist who paints on all the chewing gums that Londoners indifferently spit on the streets; trust me, there’s a lot of them too! He paints the elements on the periodic table or the monuments and famous locations in London. How creative is that! His fans hunt down the elements marked on the ground, almost like he arranged a treasure hunt for them. Another artist plants giant mushrooms made from color paper on top of random buildings! Yet another one installs a single marble tile on the wall with the image of a little alien. I had seen this particular artist in the documentary ‘Exit through the Giftshop’, but I forget his name…
We walked to Colombia Road where a flower market runs on every Sunday. As we approached we could smell the fragrance and passed people carrying bouquets and flower stalks wrapped in black plastic paper. The market was a treat to the eyes, with flower shops on both sides of the narrow street.
There were small shops of trifles and garden tools on the right side of the street, half hidden by the flower vendors who were calling out in enthusiastic voices to the customers. As one started, so would the others, in a mild competitive spirit or like song birds that join in as one starts to sing. There were people selling potted orange trees and pouches of lavender seeds. There were buskers (busking means to sing /play an instrument in a public space; it is a new addition to my vocabulary, thanks to the random Brit guy who explained its meaning) on the street, one girl actually singing in French. She wasn’t attracting a lot of attention though I found her voice and tune mesmerizing. The others sang in English and received monetary appreciation as well as a crowd.
We walked away from Colombia street, across a famous church and to Brick Lane where Indian and Bangladeshi restaurants lined the street on both sides. Before that Johnny showed us a pub called Truman’s Beers and told us about how Jack Ripper had found his last victim, a prostitute (they were all prostitutes) outside this pub and killed her at her place a small way across the street. Oh, Johnny.
At Brick Lane we had some great Indian food. It was honestly the best Indian food I’ve had outside India. For three of four people with me it was their first time trying the Indian cuisine and I was nervous if they’d find it too spicy. But other than interpreting and translating the Bollywood songs playing at the restaurant, the lunch went smoothly enough.
From Brick Lane we split up and half of us went to the nearby Spitalfield’s Market and the other half made our way to Shakespeare’s Globe on the riverbank. Debi had told us that the Twelfth Night festival was happening and that it would continue until 5 pm, having already started at 2.30. I was excited and felt lucky that we were going to visit the Globe on the day of the festival. We hopped on the bus and walked along the beautiful Thames at sunset (which was around 4 pm) but alas… We had missed it. Debi had got the timing wrong, it had ended at 4 pm. I felt crushed but there in front of me was the Globe. The white inverted bulb-like building with black straps all over it. His theatre.
How could I feel too sad near a location of such importance in British and world literary and theatre history, that changed the lives of so many great writers and even in some way, my life that’s constantly in a state of flux? I knew it was a replica. I knew this wasn’t where the great bard wrote or performed or lived. But it was the official replica, where his plays are still enacted under an open roof during the summers (yes, I missed that too. Can’t see a Shakespeare play in winter. Nope). What more could I ask for? I was a very happy person.
After buying some souvenirs where we ran into a few others from our group (this always happens. We have a knack of visiting the same place at the same time even after we consciously separate our ways. Tourist problems) we walked across the Millennium Bridge to St. Paul’s Cathedral. The Bridge was a modern one with white metallic flooring and colorful lights on the sides, casting glowing and rippling reflections on the river below. Kids skated with their normal shoes on the smooth metallic flooring. The dome of St. Paul’s stood in direct opposition to us as if daring us to miss it. You could not miss it.
It was a giant white dome brilliantly lit up, like a twin of Taj Mahal on the other side of Thames. As we reached near it we saw that it stood amidst the throng of the city, unaware of the busy people, just existing in all its glory. I loved the sight of it. One of the many sigh-inducing sights of London.
We walked back to Farringdon. It was a long walk, almost a diagonal across the map of London. But if not sure about losing weight then I was sure of at least experiencing London in all possible ways. You don’t hear too much of British accent if you get on a bus ;). The day ended with the best episode of Sherlock I’ve seen until now. John and Mary got married and Sherlock.. was as brilliant as ever. I have a feeling that this was the best day of my life as an English major. Banksy art, Shakespeare’s Globe, and best Sherlock episode on one day. This is the high point of my life! How in the world could things get better from here?!
Day 5: “Wicked” musical
We had class at FSU only at 1 pm, so it was a slow beginning to the day. The course we’re studying is Sociology of Food by the way, so stupid of me for not having mentioned that before! It opens your eyes to the importance of food in our life, other than its biological functions. For example on how food acts as a force of social coherence, how depictions of food in art conveys class, gender and religion and why and how the food distribution system is to be blamed for the prevailing hunger in the world. Yes, we actually study about such things… sociology is weird like that. 🙂 Like Debi says, London is the perfect setting for this because whatever cuisine there is in the world, you can find it in London.
At 7 pm we were supposed to meet up at the Apollo Victoria Theater for the “Wicked” musical. We took the 38 bus from Clerkenwell to Victoria Station, which was the last stop. One could not possibly miss the Apollo Victoria Theater after getting down at the Victoria Bus stop; the pickled-frog green shone from the theater that proudly proclaimed the musical’s name. To be safe we had started out early and had to wait 15 minutes for Debi to arrive with the tickets.
Finally she arrived and we made our way, in our loud and young and American touristy demeanor amidst the polite and quiet British natives. The seats were not too bad, rather to the left but the view to the stage was fine. The stage setting looked metallic, almost as if it had been made out of spare rubbish (oh, that word has slipped into my vocabulary from the British. Yes!!) from an electronic store. On top of the stage, overlooking the audience was a giant dragon, with its wings spread out and its mouth open. I figured it was somehow rigged to move and be a part of the musical. The curtains showed the map, showing the Emerald City and the land of Oz, complete with its neighboring kingdoms. I’m ashamed to admit I had only scarce knowledge about the Wizard of Oz, having not read the book but I knew that this play was supposed to be a prequel for the story.
As it turned out, the musical was very good indeed though I definitely rate ‘Shrek- the Musical’ from Broadway that I saw earlier this year above this. Glenda the Good and the Witch herself were amazing and I was close to tears a few times… yes, it’s embarrassing. I usually tear up for the silliest of things which others find quite tolerant. Regardless, it was a wonderful experience as musicals always are. I deeply admire the theater artists who perfect each step, each move and each expression along with their voices to match the expectations of the audience and not lose the thread of the story even for a moment. I know I’d never be able to do that! I think I actually worry for the actors when they undertake particularly challenging moves; I always feel that one of them might trip and fall or slip from the edge of the stage or something. Thankfully, none of that happened. This was only the second musical I had ever seen and I’m sure I will be watching more whenever I can. 🙂