Summer has FINALLY come to London

So I wore shorts today for the first time since…last August. Not exaggerating. I have a new appreciation for why Brits have the bad rep of being extremely pasty (sorry for the people I blinded today). In conjunction with my personal understanding of the pale Brit stereotype, I also have a new awareness of how precious the sunlight here is. Brits (and all of us expats, too) cherish their sunny days and squeeze what they can out of every ray of sunlight. Which means the 7-day forecast for a heat wave has put a summer spring in my step, not the least because 4th of July is in that 7-day forecast. I’m really interested to see what the 4th is like in England…it’ll be an experience, I’m sure. 🙂

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My heart on the 4th. Thanks, Zazzle, for the accurate depiction.

 One thing that has become increasingly charming for me since moving to London is to just enjoy an afternoon in the park. It’s a very European (or rather, non-Midwestern) thing, I think, because in the Midwest usually the only people you see lounging on blankets in a park are families enjoying a picnic. But here, if the weather is above 60F/15C, you’ll see all sorts of people lounging in the park–families, couples, friend, and even people enjoying some solitude. I think it’s due to various reasons:  perhaps because yards are much smaller if not non-existent, the weather is much more mild so when we get a nice day people want to enjoy it and on the other side, it almost never gets unbearably hot here, people are allowed to enjoy adult beverages in public and the legal drinking age is 18 (hellooo Sunday funday), there is a significantly higher number of parks in London than anywhere else I’ve lived, and people simply live in much closer contact here than in the Midwest so getting together with friends isn’t necessarily the drive-across-town production that it can be in the States. And for me, spending time in green spaces is a way for me to feel closer to home when I’m missing the Heartland.

Whatever the reason, it’s one thing that didn’t make sense to me when I first moved here but after a year I fully appreciate the charm of a day spent lounging with friends in the park. And now that the sun is here to stay, the park is calling my name. 🙂

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Enjoying St. James’ Park. And studying. Also, didn’t know you had to pay to sit in those chairs. Word to the wise: bring a blanket for your lounging pleasure, those are free 🙂

Takeaway Tidbit: London teaches you to appreciate the finer things in life, on so many levels.

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Happy Holidays! Christmas in America and New Year’s Eve in London

Getting upgraded to first class with Delta on my 9-hour flight home to America basically set the standard for how the rest of my vacation would go…free drinks and a reclining seat all the way home, baby. It was a fantastic break, and SO nice to be home with family. Saw lots of friends, spent most of our time with family (aka drove back and forth a lot between Nebraska and Missouri), AND I shot some guns. Lucky for my boyfriend, a friend let me borrow her shotgun and I was surprised how much I enjoyed shooting that gun. It might just become a hobby. Hunting though…that’s another ball game. Good luck, Jarin 😉

2014_12_20_6109Best Christmas present ever: a cookbook with handwritten copies of mom’s recipes.

DSC_0182Jarin’s family, wearing the hats from the Christmas crackers we brought home from London.

DSC_0183 (2)Bald eagle in front of the house….so cool. America.

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Shootin’ school. I was taking notes. (And pictures.)

We headed back to London before New Years because we wanted to celebrate in London, and I’m so glad we did. Unfortunately, this year was the first year that you had to buy a ticket to see the fireworks. We didn’t get tickets because we thought we could just meander down that way and surely find a decent spot to watch from. WRONG. They weren’t joking when they said they’d have all viewable places blocked off. And heavily secured. We were steered through the Embankment station up to the Strand on a very inflexible route…which made for a crowded walk.

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Once on the Strand the crowd dissipated a bit because, thankfully, they had the street blocked off from traffic. We walked down the Strand towards Somerset house and really lucked out, because the security working Waterloo bridge decided to gift everyone with a free entrance to the bridge.

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See the green security gates on either side? They were everywhere.

Made for a tight walk through security, but once we were on the bridge it was perfect. Room to take some beautiful shots of London at night:

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And had time to spare to get set up for the fireworks. As cheesy as it sounds, I used some of that time to reflect on how lucky I am to be pursuing my dreams in this marvelous, historic city. I’ve touched on my story previously, but it really has been an incredible ride getting everything in place for London to happen – and it wouldn’t have happened if this kid hadn’t brought up the idea. So I owe a lot of this journey to him, and am grateful that we get to experience it together. 🙂

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I had time to get switched over from camera to video, and was able to record the first part of the show. With no further ado, for your viewing pleasure, here is our view of the 2015 New Year’s Eve celebration in London. (Listen for Big Ben…coolest thing ever!!)

(goshdang WordPress isn’t letting me embed the video. Boo. Check it out on YouTube!)

Home will always be the Midwest for us, but while we’re living in London we’re absolutely making the most of it.

Here’s to a fabulous 2015!!

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Takeaway Tidbit: Make 2015 your year 🙂

Sunday Funday :)

One thing that’s really different in London compared to the States is their Sunday activities. For us Midwesterners, Sundays in the winter are basically ‘me’ days. Church for the church-goers, sleeping in for the night owls, then NFL (National Football League–American football, of course 😉 ) games to rally around before gearing up for the week. In London, however, they have a much more social Sunday lineup. Take your time, do what you choose in the morning, but in the afternoons get ready for a good time.

If you live in London, you know Sunday roasts are a must. If you’re a visitor, word to the wise: don’t miss Sunday roast. Most pubs have their own versions of Sunday roasts, but I was fortunate enough to have the opportunity to eat with my Ambassador friends at The Barrowboy & Banker, a beautiful old banker’s building converted into a pub.

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Sunday roasts are basically hearty, warm, filling meals–meat, veggies, and potatoes. A traditional side in Britain is Yorkshire Pudding, which is not anything close to ‘pudding’. I’ve found that the word ‘pudding’ can be applied to almost anything over here…yikes. Yorkshire pudding are the two little bread cup things in the picture (front and center and back right), and are delicious. Our server gave us an excellent history of the Yorkshire pudding and explained how he makes them himself–cold batter, hot oven. The dough is essentially crepe dough. Can’t wait to try out a recipe or two back in the States…bring a little British flavour to our American traditions. 🙂

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The ‘bun’ in the back left is a veggie pie, which The Barrowboy & Banker are famous for. It didn’t disappoint!

My theory is that it’s called Sunday roast rather than lunch or dinner because you eat it right in between the two meals, around 3pm. I was 100% ready to eat when we sat down and didn’t need to eat again for a day or two afterwards. So filling. And because I was with the ambassadors we decided to do dessert too. Those chefs knew the way to my heart…can’t go wrong with chocolate cake. Sunday roast is a perfect way to spend a Sunday afternoon with good friends having fun conversation.

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We ♥ Kim!  🙂

Another cultural novelty for me were pub quizzes. Although they’re not exclusive to Sundays, that particular day of the week lends itself quite well to some rowdy competitions. I have to say, they are rapidly climbing up my list of favorite activities in London. Get a group of friends together (for a Sunday roast, perhaps?), pay a quid or two, and get ready for intellectual warfare. Pub quizzes here are no joke. I played my first pub quiz earlier this month with a group of friends and was floored by how challenging the questions were. Team Bacon had a great time, but we definitely need to brush up on our knowledge of…everything before going back for another quiz. Being from the States probably doesn’t help much either.

Takeaway tidbit: Social time and intellect make for a really fun combination.

London for free..in the Winter!

My first winter in London has been a pleasantly surprising experience so far. In the Midwest winter is a chance to spurn all social relations and rekindle that annual romance with your couch and comfy blankets because you’re not moving until spring. Or at least, you’re not going to be near as active because it’s just too much of a hassle to go out.

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Unless you’re a kid. Then it’s the best thing ever. (That’s me…queen of the mountain over my siblings 😉 )

But in London there is NO excuse for your couch to develop a derrière- shaped indent. Winter is your chance to enjoy the copious amount of free indoor events that you skipped during the summer in favor of enjoying the weather. Just because the temperature is plummeting doesn’t mean you have to abandon yourself to the friendless, magnetic pull of your couch. Or at least, not every night.

A few of the free activities I’ve had a chance to experience this winter so far are:

Tate Modern: I had always wanted to visit the Tate, but didn’t realize it was free until I went with the LUIP Ambassadors. It still blows my mind how many museums are free (basically all of them), especially considering the quality of the pieces on exhibition. There are exhibits you have to buy tickets to view, but we had a great time walking through the free exhibit halls and “contemplating” the artwork. Luckily we had some really intelligent ambassadors to help clarify some of the pieces 🙂

IMG_0595Fellow Ambassadors Sarah, Beatriz, Jamaal, and Brittany

Volunteering: Queen Mary offers quite a few one-off volunteering opportunities, which is awesome. Although it might sound kind of selfish, my primary motivators for getting involved with one-off opportunities are:  it means I get to see a lot of the city I wouldn’t have sought out otherwise, I get to make new friends, and it’s not a weekly or even monthly time commitment if you don’t want it to be. Less selfishly, it means I get to help out in my new community. I’ve only done a couple so far, but they have been really fun!

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Whitechapel Mission clothing drive

volunteering1St. John’s Christmas Fayre workers

Christmas markets: Markets are some of the most fun things around Christmas time. We have them in the States of course, but it’s a slightly different twist when you walk around a London Christmas market. For starters, there’s usually a lot of mulled wine around…tried that for the first time at a Christmas market. YUM. On top of that, there are lots of new, different food stalls. And then the icing on the cake: there are fun, new, British goods being sold in the stalls. Wine, and shopping, and Christmas…well, what more can a girl ask for? One thing to be aware of though–some of the best markets are only one day long. So make sure you scout out which ones you want to go to in advance to ensure you don’t miss the good ones!

P88Mulled wine stall at the market outside of the Tate volunteering5Rides at St. John’s Christmas Fayrep91Rows of books and prints and vintage maps at Southbank’s Winter Festival

Decorations: They’re not explicitly offered on most of the ‘Activities’ lists, but just walking around and seeing all the different decorations is a really fun way to spend a day. Since it’s London, most places are done up right. 🙂 The unusual thing (for this Midwest girl, anyways) is that it’s the businesses and shops that are decorated much more than the houses. Of course, there aren’t really any yards for people to decorate, but there are some admirably tenacious souls in London who decorate their windows, doors, or ornamental trees.

p93Covent Garden treep92Covent Garden baublesp82Random beautiful (and huge!) blue wreath on my walk to the tube from Senate House Library

Concerts and Lectures: If you look at the list of lecturers and performers who put on free events around London, you’re moronic to not attend some of the concerts and lectures offered at institutions around town. As a student you’ll have access to more than a tourist would, so take advantage of it! Visit other universities, go see a concert at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, or attend a late-night event at one of the museums. My friend Brittany wrote a great blog on her night at the Natural History Museum. If you Google “free concerts and lectures in London”, the results will give you more than enough to start.

79St. Martin-in-the-Fields after a free lunchtime concert.

 This is obviously just a cursory list of activities available in London for free. To find out what else is available, Google is your best friend. If that gets too overwhelming or frustrating, TimeOut London and Londonist are two of my favorite websites to use when looking for free events in London. They always have a great, comprehensive lists of free activities going on around town. Even if you’re only here for a short time (tourists, I’m talking to you), you can use these sites to help you get the inside scoop on what’s going on in London during your visit.

Takeaway tidbit: London offers so many free, awesome activities — there’s no excuse for you to sit on your bum all winter.

Houses of Parliament and the no-good-very-bad night bus

This weekend I had the opportunity to go on a tour of the Houses of Parliament with my London Ambassador program (for those of you who don’t know, I was chosen to represent Queen Mary as a LUIP Ambassador for the year–It’s been an incredible experience so far, with more to come!).

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The tour was absolutely perfect, thanks to our tour guide Joanna. We weren’t allowed to take pictures once inside the official Houses of Parliament, but if you’re in London and interested in politics and/or history this tour is DEFINITELY worth your time. Ask for Joanna if you can, our coordinator Kim said Joanna gave the best tour she’s experienced (and she’s been accompanying the Ambassadors on tours since the program started, so she should know!).

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The tour gathered in Westminster Hall, on the Big Ben side of the building. Joanna themed our tour around the events of the State Opening of Parliament, which marks the start of each new parliamentary session and is the only day of the year when all three parts of Parliament come together AND the only day on which the Queen enters the Parliamentary buildings. (If you’re interested in finding out more about the State Opening, this website has an excellent, short overview of the day.) Since the theme was the State Opening we began our tour on the opposite side of the complex, in the Victoria Tower:

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We proceeded through the Palace of Westminster (commonly referred to as the Houses of Parliament) from the Victoria Tower to the clock tower (aka Big Ben) accompanied by Joanna’s excellent commentary on the history of the building, the explanations and historical significance of the traditions associated with the State Opening, the current practices of Parliament (which can change relatively easily in comparison to the US, since the UK doesn’t have a written constitution), and the general history of the English monarchy which was illustrated by paintings  throughout the tour.

We finished the tour where we started, in Westminster Hall, where in 1649 they chopped off Charles I’s head and simultaneously planted the seeds for the eventual development of modern-day autonomous government.  I should have put it together prior to my visit, but the current practices of Parliament are a direct result of the English Civil War, the Glorious Revolution and the subsequent cultural shifts that happened over the course of the Enlightenment era. Aka everything I’ve been reading, writing, and talking about in classes for the last three months. It was fun to see how the time period I’m studying connects in a very real, powerful way to today’s 21st-century government.

IMG_0582Inside Westminster Hall

After the tour, my boyfriend and I headed over to a friend’s house for homemade pizza, drinks, and good company. We chatted, ate, made some new friends and ended up enjoying the atmosphere so much that we missed the last train for home. At that point, we realized were left with some pretty unfortunate transportation options.

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Fun times with friends=don’t want to leave=miss the train=night bus 😦

I knew the night buses existed but had always been cautioned against taking them if it could be avoided at all costs. Now I know why. BUT, since neither Jarin nor I had taken one before, we figured it couldn’t be that bad. Plus we were extremely far away from home and financing a cab ride for that distance would have required another loan. The fact that it was raining didn’t really lend itself to the enjoyableness of the experience, but to sum it up quickly: night(mare) buses don’t have the fleet size or run as frequently as regular daytime buses SO you wait longer for one to arrive, ride longer since they have extended routes, get some…interesting characters considering they are the cheapest form of transportation after 1am, and have much less personal space than usual on a bus. And did I mention the ride is longer? Like, significantly longer. What is normally a 45-minute tube ride turned into a 3-hour marathon. Didn’t get home til 3:30.

Good thing the next day was a Sunday 🙂 It was worth it for the experience, but I’ll be making it a point to get to the tube on time from now on.

All-in-all though, it was an excellent Saturday!

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 Takeaway Tidbit: Visit Parliament. And avoid night buses. Most importantly, pizza parties with friends are the best.

“Why London?”: The Academic Version

International students hear that question all the time, particularly from native Londoners. My response is usually a quizzical eyebrow raise coupled with, “Why not?!?”

For me especially, London made sense. English literature was born and raised and still exists today in England (crazy, right?) so why would I study anywhere else? London in particular has several advantages for students that aren’t found anywhere else: first-rate research facilities, world-class universities (London has 7 universities in the top 200, more than any other city in the world), eminent and acclaimed professors and a plethora of free lectures and other cultural opportunities. And these are only the academic benefits! …Social benefits will be its own post 🙂

The British Library, which is arguably the world’s best research library. A library card here provides access to around 150 million items, with 3 million added each year. They house the Magna Carta, some of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, and Beatles manuscripts, among other treasures. The other items include manuscripts, journals, magazines, newspapers, prints and drawings, videos, and obviously much more. You’d be hard pressed to find a topic for which resources don’t exist in the British Library.

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The British Library (photo source: Sussex Doctoral School Blog)

Senate House Library, to which I owe my ability to participate in class discussions. The University of London system allows all students within the cohort to access this library, which has over 150,000 books. Because of its size and ease of access many of the professors at Queen Mary assign secondary reading material housed there. The staff doesn’t know me by name yet, but I’m currently sprinting my way down that path.

Archives abound in London. Most universities or public institutions have archives associated with the organization, so if you’re doing research on a specific topic there is probably an institution to help you with your research. The National Portrait Gallery has the Heinz archive and library, the Poetry Library has every piece of poetry published in Britain from 1912 to today, the Dr. Williams’s Centre for Dissenting Studies has a unique collection of puritan, Protestant, nonconformist and dissenting literature…Essentially, if you can’t find resources for your research in London it means you’re not looking hard enough.

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The National Gallery during a festival. (The Gallery faces Trafalgar Square, where a lot of free events are held. The square is also the ending point for most protest marches in London.)

Museums here are often free, which is even more impressive when you see the caliber of exhibits on display. The National Gallery features work from masters like Rembrandt, Monet, van Gogh, Michelangelo, Raphael, and da Vinci–for free. The Natural History Museum, also free, has an incredible dinosaur exhibit, a volcanoes and earthquake gallery with an earthquake simulator, and life-sized models of animals and creepy-crawlers both living and extinct (they have a life-sized blue whale in the mammals gallery). These are just two of more than 240 museums that exist in London, and most institutions also have seasonal exhibits (although these exhibits usually have an entry fee). The British Library is currently featuring an exhibit on the Gothic Imagination, which I can’t wait to visit.

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View of Hintze Hall, entryway of the Natural History Museum. That’s a Diplodocus ready to greet you as you arrive.

For factual information about why London is truly the best place to earn your degree and to figure out how you can get over here yourself, check out this blog post.

Takeaway Tidbit: For research and general academia, there’s no place like London 🙂

Differences between America and London

One of the most common, vague, hard-to-answer questions that EVERYONE from America asks is, “So what’s it like over there?”. Personally, I love this question because it gives me an open invitation to talk that person’s ears off (which I am exceptionally good at doing, according to my boyfriend). Plus I know I was most interested and concerned about the differences between America and London before I moved over here.

The thing is, there aren’t many BIG things that are different which Americans don’t already know about. Yes, people drive on the opposite side of the road here but I don’t ever deal with that since, like half of London, I don’t use a car. Yes, people have an accent and are sometimes hard to understand, but then again I’m the foreigner-therefore I’M the one with the accent that’s hard to understand. Although it’s fun adjusting to the big differences, it’s the little, quirky, day-to-day things that catch me off guard and, for the most part, make me love London more. I’m sure I’ll find many other tiny twists as life progresses over the next couple of years so we’ll call this part one of an ongoing list.

♥You don’t have to use the designated crosswalks when crossing the street. You still get honked at if you cross at inopportune moments, but you can cross wherever you want. No tickets for jaywalking. (Just make sure you read the street markings and look in the right direction to check for traffic. The nice, international-friendly city planners remind you which way to look. Or, like me, simply look back and forth constantly because you’re so mixed up on the direction of traffic flow. I wish all streets were as small as the one in the photo.)

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Don’t ask me what the yellow or blue markings mean. I haven’t the foggiest.

♥Definitely don’t love this part, but heads up: it takes significantly longer to get things set up here than in the States. Getting wi-fi hooked up took a solid 3 weeks. Thankfully most cafes have free wi-fi. I really enjoyed that part; I visited a lot of different cafes around town that way. 🙂 It also took  about 3 weeks to get a bank account set up. The requirements to do so are much more elaborate than in America.

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♥On the plus side, you can use any ATM- there are no surcharge fees. Doesn’t matter which bank you use or which bank sponsors the ATM, there’s no charge.

♥Because a lot of people don’t have cars, and because apartments/kitchens/fridges are miniscule compared to the States, there are grocery stores EVERYWHERE. Literally. There are at least 3 on my 2-block walk home from the tube (aka subway). Which is fantastic because now stopping at the store 4-5 times a week isn’t crazy. I don’t have to plan and purchase a week’s worth of meals anymore, I can just do it a day or two at time.

Blog13Oh hey dorm fridge and small freezer. And dorm…stove? …at least it works.

♥That being said, the UK rules on food and processed stuff make it really difficult to find things that we use all the time in the States. Besides not having most of my favorite junk food, just this week I’ve had to look up the UK equivalent to corn syrup (doesn’t exist here), corn bread (they don’t do pre-made mixes here so I made it from scratch using polenta. Had to look that up too; that’s what they call corn meal here), sour cream (crème fraîche here), cilantro (coriander), and powdered sugar (icing sugar). That’s on top of discovering that eggplants are called aubergines, zucchinis are courgettes, they don’t have maple syrup bottles larger than 250g or refrigerated rolls of biscuit dough, and they have a significantly smaller selection of gum (apparently Extra bought the rights to be the Royal gum). Among other things.

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Also, corn starch is called corn flour here (not to be confused with corn meal, aka polenta). Forgot that one.

♥You may have noticed my use of ‘g’ in the previous bullet point. That’s because they use the metric system here. Which is really a mental exercise when you’re using American recipes for things, because you constantly have to do conversions. Grams, cups, ounces, milliliters, tablespoons, Celsius (non-food related: things got really complicated when I attempted to mentally convert distance on a treadmill)… Thankfully, I’m not the first American ex-pat to experience this frustration so there are conversion charts aplenty on Google. I’ve copied a few out and scattered them around the kitchen. On the plus side, weighing myself in kilograms makes me feel REAL good. I haven’t weighed double digits since I was in middle school…or if you use stones as your weight measurement (yes, that’s a weight measurement here. Look up the conversion yourself. Alright fine, I’ve converted it enough times I have it memorized…one stone=14lbs.), I’m in the single digits. Hellooooo newborn baby weight! 😉

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Everything is metric. Even my stove is in Celsius.

See, I told you I could talk your ears off. This is my longest post yet. I’ll call it quits for now, but more to come on this subject later 🙂

International friends, what else have you experienced that’s different? Add yours in the comments!

Takeaway Tidbit: There’s more adjustments to life in London than accents and driving on the opposite side of the road.