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Keep Left (mostly) and Expand Your Vocabulary: the First Three Weeks in London

Oh dear! It’s been three weeks since I last blogged about my pre-departure jitters and attempts to squeeze five months of life into two suitcases. Well, I succeeded in that endeavor (sort of) and made it to London oozing with excitement and even more jitters about living abroad. Upon arriving in the pouring rain (that all of the locals assured me was uncommon) and working on little sleep from the overnight flight, I explored Bloomsbury section of London where our IFSA orientation hotel was located. Right in the heart of the city, this area touches upon the West End theatre district (the Queen musical We Will Rock You was showing down the block) and I wandered through the shops with some fellow students, mainly in search of a cheap, simple phone to use for these few months. I learned two things on this first day: I am horribly addicted to my Blackberry in the U.S. (and instant connections to email and social media) and more important- keep left.

Pretty much everyone knows that vehicles in Britain drive on the left side of the street, opposite to our right-sided ways in America. This makes crossing the street a dangerous mission at times, compounded by one-ways and no entry roadways that are numerous in London. Thankfully, most street corners include directions on which way to look for traffic before venturing into the street. It’s a bit confusing for someone used to the checkerboard patterns of Philadelphia and New York, but three weeks in, I am amazingly getting the hang of it. However, when walking on the pavement (or sidewalk as we say in the States, again setting up a potentially dangerous miscommunication), keeping to the left is seemingly arbitrary. Most of the time, especially in the central part of the city, people move so quickly darting in and out and around that it seems there must be an intuitive system to it all. I haven’t gotten it yet. To further complicate matters, on Underground escalators, the rule is to keep right to stand and left to walk, much like the D.C. Metro. So-keep left, most of the time.

I’ve spent the majority of my first few weeks here doing touristy things and you’ll see a few pictures in this blog of those experiences. One of the best things to do in London is simply to walk around and enjoy it. Exploring the Southwark area of London in the southeast section (where my residence hall is located), you can stumble upon the Borough Market, which is a fantastic Saturday afternoon adventure when many goods go down in price. Located near the Southwark Cathedral and London Bridge and only a short walk from the Globe Theater, the Borough Market will certainly be a regular part of my Saturdays while here.

I also loved my day-long adventure into Westminster. Beginning at Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery (which is great for multiple visits), venturing into St. James Park and the chance to see the Horse Guards at the Palace of Whitehall, you can stroll leisurely up The Mall toward the East Front of Buckingham Palace and watch the Changing of the Guard. In the winter, however, the guards wear gray coats, rather than their famous red ones, so I’m holding onto those pictures for later in the year. After the Palace, it’s a short walk to Big Ben, the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey.  The Abbey has probably been my favorite tourist part so far. A truly beautiful building, I spent nearly three hours just exploring the different areas, including the tombs of Elizabeth I and Mary, Queen of Scots and Poets’ Corner, before staying for the weekday Evensong service to hear the Abbey Choir. And a small part of me definitely enjoyed the fact that I walked the same path that Kate Middleton did on her way to becoming the Duchess of Cambridge. Okay…a large part of me enjoyed it.

If you’ve stuck with the blog this long, I congratulate you! It’s hard to fit three weeks of amazing experiences into a short blog posting. However, I’d like to leave you with a few of my favorite moments of the last few weeks.

1. Even Londoners check Tube and road maps. Roads tend to change names often and the Tube is always undergoing improvements with the upcoming Olympic Games. Looking for an adrenaline rush for under £2? Ride the trademark double-decker red London bus on the top floor at the very front as it weaves through the narrow London streets. Just remember not to panic when it looks like you’re going to hit something.

2. Take time to listen to the sounds of the city, especially if you’ve never lived in a city before. Even then, the vibe in London, with its different neighborhoods and different cultures, is completely removed from any city in America. It’s fantastic to capture the old buildings like  the Houses of Parliament next to today’s technology and soak up the culture of nation both traditional and moving forward. Taking it a step further, create a London-themed playlist and watch the city against a backdrop of songs from British artists. Perhaps my favorite experience was having lunch on a bench in St. James Park with a view of Buckingham Palace beyond the trees while listening to Mumford and Sons (first introduced to me by their number-one fan, my U.S. roommate Sarah).

3. Pantos are one of the best British traditions ever. Usually shown around Christmas, pantos (pantomines) are zany, family shows with popular songs set to fairy tales and filled with double entendres for parents, crazy dance and joke routines for kids and generally, an all around great night out. I was so fortunate that IFSA took us to see Dick Whittington at the New Wimbeldon Theatre and it’s an experience that I would repeat again in a heartbeat.

4. London is gorgeous at night. Truly beautiful. My camera is not nearly good enough to do the images justice, so you’ll have to take my word for it. But exiting the National Gallery and looking out over Trafalgar Square to see Big Ben in the distance gave me one of those “Oh my Gosh, I’m in London” moments that have happened quite often these last weeks.

5. No one says awesome here. While awesome is likely the most widely and overly used adjective in America (and in my vocabulary), it’s very rare here. A few of my new British friends have chuckled, even though it’s becoming more used in the younger generations. Therefore, I will be focusing on replacing my use of awesome with lovely and fantastic. We’ll see how well this works.

So that’s it from me for now! I’ll see you in a couple weeks with adventures outside of London and maybe even a bit on my studies thus far. Maybe. Just to keep Mom and Dad happy. In the meantime, enjoy the pictures!

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