After seeing family in France for about 2 weeks, I spent the night at my cousin Delphine’s apartment who conveniently lives 3 metro stops away from Gare du Nord. And from here, I took the Eurostar to St. Pancras Station–meaning my final destination was London. Most of you know the Eurostar is a train linking Paris and London (and Brussels) and the train actually goes beneath the English Channel. In fact, the tunnel built beneath this body of water has been dubbed the “chunnel.” Construction on the tunnel was completed in 1994 and it’s apparently been dubbed one of the “7 Modern Wonders of the World.” At the time we actually were in the chunnel, I was napping. I could tell we were below the water though due to the pressure closing up my ears, which is a feeling I always get when a train enters a tunnel (in order to get into Grand Central, the Metronorth trains at home always enter a tunnel for the last 10-15 minutes of the ride which drives me and my poor ears nuts).
Two hours and a half later, I was in London and met up with my friend Raphaelle (who I’ve known since elementary school, definitely my oldest friend 🙂 ) at St. Pancras. From there I got an Oyster Card which would allow me unlimited access to the London Underground (or more colloquially known as the Tube) for the next 5 days. Raph then took me to her apartment in the east of London in a neighborhood known as Hackney. While it is definitely east of the city center, it’s not as far east as I originally thought when I looked it up on the map.
I didn’t do much my first day which was fine with me. Raph did take me around her neighborhood which was pretty cute. She lives in these strip of apartments along a canal not too far from London Fields park. Raph explained to me the history of the neighborhood which is where much of the lower class used to live. She described her apartment as an “ex HLM,” referring to the French acronym for “habitation a loyer modere.” This acronym is used to describe the really ugly, concrete high rise apartment buildings built around France in the 60s to replace all the buildings destroyed by WWII (and my father also grew up in many of these ugly buildings). However, these “ex HLM” buildings were a lot nicer than the French ones and are where a lot of young professionals move in when they get their first jobs once out of school. In fact, according to Raph the Hackney neighborhood is becoming more hip and the new “it” neighborhood to go out in (sort of like what is happening in Brooklyn in New York).
Also can I just say it was SO WEIRD to be in a place where people were speaking English. After four months of hearing constant Spanish and a few weeks of French, it was bizarre to see signs in English and people speaking in English. Granted the British accent is very different from the American one (or at least the Westchester one since there are about a million different types of American accents) and they use different words. It was just so strange when I passed through security at Gare du Nord to get onto the Eurostar and the British man looked down at my French passport and remarked in English, “Huh Princeton, very prestigious place to be born!” (Yes I was born in New Jersey and no I’m not embarrassed about it)
So the first day was pretty chill. However the second day, I met up with my friend Duoyi who also went to Dickinson (but originally from China). Duoyi is currently doing a master’s at London School of Economics (also where Raph got a degree, it seems to be a very “hot” school to apply to) and lives in central London. So Raph helped me figure out what tube stop to get off at and Duoyi came to meet me in Russell Square. It was soooo amazing to see someone from Dickinson! Especially since I hadn’t seen Duoyi since graduation.
The weather was momentarily cooperating when Duoyi took me to visit the British Museum briefly. What I love about London is that all the major museums are free (kind of like the Smithsonian museums in DC). The museum is huge of course and it is impossible to visit everything in a day. I saw the Egyptian collection which included the Rosetta Stone which was a huge surprise, since I had no idea it was there! While the Egyptian collection in the museum is impressive, I do have to wonder how and why England took possession of so many artifacts and took them away from Egypt. No wonder Egypt has become stingy with its mummies and refuses to relinquish them to other countries. Many artifacts in various collections of the museums have been a source of controversy since many of the countries they were found in have demanded them to be returned. However the museum has so far refused to return any objects in its collection.
We did some shopping on Regent Street and Oxford Street, two of London’s main shopping thoroughfares. It gets dark very early in London during the winter (around 3 pm) so by the time Duoyi got me to Trafalgar Square, “night” had already fallen. I was able to see the National Gallery from the outside and my first glimpse of Big Ben. Duoyi then took me along for a walk along the River Thames (not sure why it is not called the Thames River but anyways) and I was able to see the London Eye, Parliament, and Big Ben up close (never realized Big Ben was actually part of the same building as Parliament). It was raining as we walked but I didn’t mind too much. The view from the bridge looking out at the Eye, Parliament and Big Ben was just breath taking. However it was pretty cold! Brrr.
On Thurday, I went out to lunch with Raph at a Thai restaurant with another one of her friends. She then had to go tutor so I went to the National Gallery by myself, the same museum I had seen the day before in Trafalgar Square. Again it was free to go in and I really liked this museum. I only visited two wings and I sped walked through some of the rooms when I probably could have spent the entire day in there. I think the earliest paintings date from the 1300s and some of the modern stuff dates from the 20th century. I’m not going to go into detail about what there is to see in here but here is more info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Gallery_of_London
Friday afternoon after Raph got back from tutoring, we decided we wanted to visit Westminster Abbey. Raph is leaving London to go live in Lima, Peru for a year and despite having lived in London for a year and a half, there are many sights she has never been to. I understand what she felt like last year’s doing her master’s–you don’t really have time to be gallivanting around the city taking in the sights. So we got there (after being forced to take a double decker bus because for some reason the tube was closed) only to find out visiting hours are between 10 and 3:30 during week days! However every week day at 5 pm there is a service called “Even song” that you can get in for free if you want “to worship.” We decided this would be worth a try. And it totally was!
Westminster Abbey is where many British monarchs have been crowned, married, and buried (also where Prince William and Kate Middleton are getting married in April). More recent British monarchs are buried elsewhere and I didn’t get to see the actual tombs of any kings or queens since that part of the church was not open to us at the time. However the service we went to was beautiful. We got to listen to the Abbey choir sing and all members are educated at the Westminster Abbey Choir School. The service began with the choir entering the area where we were seated singing. The service lasted about an hour and it was interesting to see an Anglican service. It was pretty much the same as a Catholic service except for the part where they added a blessing for the Queen, the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Charles and “the rest of the royal family.” Oh and we got to enter through the main abbey doors for the service and not through the lame visitors’ entrance off to the side. And like I said, it was absolutely free. I may not have gotten to wander around too much or see any tombs (except for Isaac Newton, spotted him buried next to the main altar) but I got to see the spiritual side of things which was pretty cool. Also there were a bunch of other tourists in there aside from me and Raph so don’t feel like you have to be religious or Christian in order to go to these services. The priests (or vicars, whatever they are called) are totally used to dealing with tourists. I’m glad I went, it’s absolutely beautiful inside. In fact Raph and I sat in the old wooden choir seats not too far from the choir: Westminster Abbey choir seats
After this, I met up with Duoyi one last time for dinner in her LSE dorm (she has a huuuuuge room!). It was so nice seeing her again and I really hope I get to see her before the year is over.
On Saturday, I met up with my French cousin Nat (who is actually my dad’s cousin but anyways) for lunch. Nat worked in California for about 3 years before quitting his job and wandering around Asia for the summer before getting a job in London. (Yes, I come from a family of globe trotters) It was really good catching up with him and we walked along the River Thames so I got to see the London Eye, Parliament, Big Ben, and Buckingham Palace by day (including the famous Buckingham guards in their hilarious uniforms). The sun actually came out while we were in Hyde Park walking along the river (and I discovered here they have the same squirrels we have back in America!). Then I briefly met up with another friend at St. Pancras and another cousin before heading back to join Raph and another friend to see the movie “The King’s Speech.” Which of course deals with a British king (King George VI, Elizabeth’s dad, who had a speech impediment) Really good movie by the way! Colin Firth plays the king and I definitely recommend it.
And that was London! I really enjoyed my stay there and loved seeing old friends + family members. Major thanks to Raph for letting me stay for free in her “flat” (since London is notoriously expensive). I definitely want to go back because there are so many more things to see and do there. Though I just realized I never actually had any fish and chips while I was there. All the more reason to go back and visit again!
Now I’m back in Madrid and enjoying my last days of freedom before classes start again next week.