So, I finally arrived. I landed in London Heathrow Airport the morning of Thursday, September 29th, where I was met by several smiling IFSA-Butler staff members who shuffled all of us who arrived on the group flight onto a bus and swept us away to the center of London where our orientation was being held.
And center of London it was! Right off Tottenham Court Road, we were within walking distance or short tube rides of many of the sites to see in London, and you can bet we were all ready to go explore. But first things first, everyone jumped through the shower (trust me, you too will feel gross after traveling all night on a plane), then a few of us headed across the street from the hotel to the nearest Carphone Warehouse to purchase our new mobile phones that would get us through our term abroad. I highly recommend this store to all because it offers probably the widest range of phone and pay-as-you-go carriers than others. You can truly find the one that is best for you.
Unfortunately, shopping and comparing carriers took awhile, and add that to all of our complete and utter exhaustion, by the time we were all through at the store, it was time to head back to the hotel where we could rest for a few minutes before meeting up with the entire group and heading out to dinner.
Dinner was delicious-a selection of typical British fare, we were told-as was the opportunity to meet several of the other students we had not met yet. By the time it was done, most of us were dead on our feet, so we simply headed back to the hotel and called it an early night.
On Friday, our IFSA-Butler orientation took off in full swing. We meet in the conference rooms of the hotel where we had a cultural orinetation meeting with Lynne and Andrew, the two directors of the Butler London office. It was quite entertaining and a lot of fun. Following that we had university-specific academic talks with suggestions on what to expect academically at each of our host universities. Next, Lord Taverne was a guest speaker from the House of Lords who updated us on the current political, social, and economic concerns in Britain, which is actually quite useful so that you know what some of the hot topics are and can seem somewhat knowledgeable when they come up in discussions!
After lunch, our meetings continued with a safety talk from a former London police officer, who was quite helpful in giving tips and tricks to keep ourselves safe and avoiding being targets of petty crime while abroad. While somewhat frightening, it was actually refreashing to know that Butler cares enough to ensure that we are at least aware of some of the dangers facing us while we live here, since we as Americans are apparently a lot more trusting than the rest of the world.
Finally, that evening, the truly fun part of orientation began. We were met outside the hotel by several tour guides who split us up into small groups and took us on a grand walking tour of London, helping us get oriented to where we were locally (though most of us ended up terribly turned around) and pointing out a lot of destinations and culture of the surrounding area. The tour ended at the Fortune Theatre where we had the privelege of seeing “The Woman in Black,” a thrilling ghost story. It was amazingly well done-essentially a two person play, that definitely had me jumping at times.
Afterwards, we walked back to the hotel, and Megan, Krystal, and I then ventured back out to explore London again. We headed back to Trafalgar Square, then walked up to Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey. It was positively breathtaking, so much so that I was mad that I had left my camera back at the hotel. We ventured out a little bit on Westminster Bridge over the Thames, and as I looked out over the water, at the Eye of London and Big Ben all lit up, it finally hit me: I was in London. I was, for the first time in my life, in England, in London, the place I had always dreamed of going. I couldn’t believe it.
Saturday brought the last of the orientation meetings and the first departures of students out to their individual universities. Megan, Krystal, Lauren, Clark, and I spent the afternoon wandering around London, exploring, taking in the sites, and taking lots of pictures. It was a very long day, and by the end of it I was exhausted and footsore, but I would not have traded it for the world!
Sunday, for those of us still left in London (another wave of students departed for their hosts), an outing to Greenwich was planned. We met up with one of the tour guides from Friday night, and headed down to the Thames where we caught a clipper that took us down the Thames and deposited us at Greenwich. It was a lot of fun seeing London from the river, and a lot of things look so much more striking from that point.
After a quick orientation tour, we were turned loose for two to three hours to get lunch an explore where we wanted to. Krystal and I grabbed lunch, wandered through the market, then ventured up to the Queen’s House. While we didn’t spend much time inside, and the outside was surrounded by scaffolding, the parts that we did see were beautiful. The Tulip Staircase is also just as amazing as it could possibly be. Afterwards, we headed back to the Royal Naval Academy grounds where we went into the Painted Hall and marveled at just how ornate it was. When we were finally done with that, we headed back to the group randezvous spot.
From there, we hoped on a train back across the river and got off at Stratford. Stratford is the location of the 2012 Summer Olympic games being held in London, so we walked up to the lookout point so we could see what they had built so far. Our guide told us about how the Olympics were changing the face of the area they were being held in. Stratford used to be home to a lot of soap factories, which left the soil unusable, and not much used to be there. Thanks to the Olympics, all of the soil has been washed, all sorts of new developments are going in, and the area is now being considered the new up-and-coming area of London. It is amazing how the Olympics can change an are for the better, and I can’t wait to go back when everything is completed!
Monday saw the rest of the students venturing out to their host universities with the exception of those of us attending St. Catherine’s College, Oxford. Instead, we were given the day free to continue our explorations of London and the surrounding area. Jon and I set off and visited Buckingham Palace, and were even privileged enough to see the Royal Horse Guard go by. I think my favorite part of that was the little cleaning vehicle that followed the horses to ensure that any manure was cleaned up. Coming from Texas, this seemed a bit ridiculous, but the English are a very different breed than us Texans.
After we had had our fill of the Palace, we caught the underground to Tower Hill, where we bought our tickets and spent the afternoon exploring the Tower of London. We opted into taking a short tour with one of the Beefeaters, and I have to say that we had the best one. He was funny and knowledgeable, and you could tell he loved his job, loved telling stories and history, and most of all loved cracking jokes with the tourists. After the tour, we went and saw the crown jewels, toured the White Castle where they had armor on display, walked through the Bloody Tower, and then wandered through the mideival castle. It was amazing to be surrounded by so much history. Finally, though, we called it a day and headed back to the hotel, where we met up with all the other St. Catz students and went out to dinner.
Tuesday morning was our last bit of time in London, so a small group of us headed over to the British Museum. An important note: almost all museums in Britain are free, so I highly recommend making the most of them! The British Museum is home to so many wonders, including the Rosetta Stone. We spent an hour or so wandering through different parts, though I think my favorite was the clock rooms. Finally, though, it was time to head back to the hotel to meet up with Andrew and the coach that was going to take us out to Oxford and to St. Catherine’s. We were finally headed to Oxford!