A Thank You to My Roommates

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To the girls of Flat 5,

Thank you for this semester, and all of its ups and downs.

Thank you for taking care of me when I was sick, and being way more assertive in the situation than I would’ve been on my own.

Thank you for making sharing one bathroom among the five of us remarkably easy, despite the toilet seat’s tendency to loosen.

Thank you for our Sunday brunches, from fangirling over acai bowls to sneaking cookie butter off the spoon.

Thank you for our late night Sainsbury’s runs and always encouraging a constant stock of cookies and ice cream.

Thank you for the movie night tradition – that five-minute tube ride, the snack selection process, and cracking up over awkwardly delivered lines (sorry, Anne Hathaway).

Thank you for the LTI inside jokes and stories.

Thank you for all of our “crushes”, most of whom we’ve yet to ever speak to.

Thank you for the Pizza & Wine Night, and the mantra that every pizza is a personal pizza if you believe.

Thank you for the night in Camden, for cheering me on, and making me comfortable in that atmosphere.

Thank you for Brighton, which we finally reached after chasing down buses far too early in the morning.

Thank you for all of the belly laughs at night, caused by anything from sleep-talking to Facebook stalking.

Thank you for my nickname, which makes me feel way more badass than I’ll ever be.

Thank you for becoming my London family and being part of the reason this city feels like home.

Love,

Kristen

 

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The Things I’ll Miss Most

Yesterday I finished my last class of the semester. Today, I made my morning commute to my internship for the last time, visiting the corner Pret for my favorite yogurt and getting a nod of recognition from one of the cashiers (I really did try to limit my trips there, but it was just so darn convenient). My boss surprised me with a gift and mince pies from a bakery, after she’d heard me mention one day that I’ve never had them. It felt so odd and sad to walk out of that building not knowing when or if I’d see her or any other coworkers again.

Now, with both elements of my study abroad experience completed, I truly see what I learned this semester. Although it was slowly coming back to me through Her Campus and personal blogging, my creativity returned after getting lost under the mountain of work that was high school. My class assignments included a short story, a sample screenplay, and the wonderfully familiar lit analysis essay, all centered around bits of London life. Maybe it’s because I’m living in such a busy hub, but creating stories feels more natural for me here than it has in years, and it makes me very excited for the future.

I used to do this far more diligently, in a notebook that I’d whip out whenever something worthwhile happened, but this semester I’ve been keeping track of little daily details I want to remember. Anything from a certain tube ad to a particular joke with my roommates is recorded in an iPhone note, and then I’ll copy everything into my journal when I have a chance. By doing this, I remember those tiny flashes of seemingly insignificant moments that actually sum up what I love about this city. Here are a few of my favorite recurring moments that I hope to always remember:

  1. The seemingly unspoken rule that men will gesture for you to board the tube or the elevator before them.
  2. I complain about it in the moment, but I want to remember the hordes of families with small children at South Kensington Station on the weekends. It’s really the only time you see children everywhere, and I have to remind myself that most of them are probably kids who are living right outside of a major city, as I do at home, and love nothing more than a day exploring a metropolis.
  3. The smell of a vendor’s roasted chestnuts as you begin the walk over Millennium Bridge.
  4. The Brits’ odd habit to abbreviate words – in both speech and print – that Americans wouldn’t think to shorten at all. Thanks to my internship, I’ve become very used to seeing ‘veg’ and ‘mag’.
  5. Everybody, from children to adults, zooming around on scooters.
  6. Musicians at the tube station, particularly the saxophone player that would always be at Marble Arch when I left work to go to class and the guitarists that hung out next to our local station.
  7. Seeing kids in their uniforms on their way to school. Although uniforms are the norm here, the sight always makes the longtime Catholic school student in me smile – probably because those kids walk around the city with their blazer and tie still intact. There was no day in high school that I didn’t rip off both of these offending items as soon as the dismissal bell rang.
  8. The tube – riding it, people-watching, its adverts, and how easily it’ll make you feel connected to the city.
  9. The literary culture. As the semester wound down, I began to accept that I wouldn’t make it to all of the independent London bookshops I had heard so much about. This is fine with me – it’s a reason to come back!
  10. All of the markets. Again, there are numerous ones throughout London, and I didn’t see all of them, but I love that they are such a big part of life here. I have a special fondness for Borough Market pre-10 A.M, but love the area of Portobello Road Market. I’ve also gone to Camden and Spitalfields, both of which are amazing ways to spend a morning.

Although I’m so happy to be going home, now that departure is so close I feel that I’m in denial. It’s very strange to leave a place you love so much and not know when you’ll be coming back. But, until then, I have these little moments to look back on.

 

“Hogwarts Will Always Be There to Welcome You Home”

It was July 2011 and I was almost sixteen years old. In a matter of days, the hardest period of my life thus far would begin, bringing forth several months of sadness and frustration. But for now, I sat in our family computer room, still two years away from having my own laptop, and devotedly watched YouTube’s entire livestream of the last Harry Potter film premiere in London, a symbolic touchstone of the end of my childhood.

J.K. Rowling’s speech at the end of the red carpet arrivals struck a chord with me, as it did with millions of others who grew up as the books and films were released. With that twinkling, comforting smile, she looked directly into the camera and said, “Whether you come back by page or by the big screen, Hogwarts will always be there to welcome you home.”

Within a blink of eye, the quote was splashed across social media and became one for the record books and biographies. I mourned the end of an era and, like many others, felt that this was the last we’d see of Harry Potter. Of course, now that thought is laughable, as we visit a Harry Potter theme park, prepare for a play about Harry’s son, and await the film Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them. 

There was never any question about whether I’d make it to the Harry Potter Studio Tour in Leavesden when I was studying here. I booked my ticket early on in the semester, picking a random November Sunday that seemed ages away at the time. But, before I knew it, we were past the halfway point of our semester and my tour date had arrived.

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It’s fairly convenient to get from Central London to the studio. You can catch an Overground train from Euston Station to Watford Junction. Depending on the train you catch, the ride out there  ranges from 20 to 50 minutes. When you arrive at Watford Junction, there is a Potter-decorated shuttle bus right outside the station that will bring you to the studio. You pay 2 pounds for a return trip.

The first thing I noticed about the tour’s atmosphere was how many families with small children were present. We’re talking as young as five or six years old – kids who were just barely around when the last film was released. Surprisingly, the kids I overheard chatting in line were very informed about the stories and knew their stuff. The ones that came garbed in Hogwarts uniforms were also ridiculously cute. It thrilled me that a new generation of Potter fans is already growing, but this also made me, a 20-year-old solo guest who can still remember refusing to read the then-incomplete series because her eight-year-old self thought “they were boy books”, feel absolutely ancient.

I hesitate to reveal too much detail about the tour, because there are some magical moments that I feel are better if you’re not expecting them. That being said, the tour is absolutely worth it and is quite the emotional experience for lifelong fans – or maybe that’s just me being gushy.

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The original (and better!) Fat Lady portrait that mysteriously transforms into a different women in Film 3.
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A view of the Great Hall doors from within the Hall.

Certain areas and moments of the tours stirred up such a response for me that I had to just stand there for awhile and take it all in.

Like the Gryffindor boys’ dormitory, holding the same five child-sized beds for all the films, despite the actors’ growing bodies:

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Or walking along Diagon Alley’s Main Street:

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Or the costumes from the very last scene of Deathly Hallows: Part 2, arranged opposite from a set-up of Harry and Ron’s first ride on the Hogwarts Express:

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Or, you know, the actual Hogwarts Express:

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Another sentimental highlight is the wand room at the end of the tour, where boxes containing the wands of every and any cast member reside. They’re not in any particular order, so it’s your job to find the wands of any character actors you’d like.

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Mrs. Weasley’s wand.
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The original Dumbledore’s wand.
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Ginny’s wand.
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Bill’s wand.
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Ron’s wand.
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George’s wand.
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Mr. Weasley’s wand.

In an unintentional nod to my favorite fictional family, it seems I had a knack for finding Weasleys’ wands.

And the penultimate stop on the tour, the moment timed perfectly with me entering the room just as the soundtrack music playing overhead swelled:

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This is the model of Hogwarts used for all of the film’s exterior shots. I had read that seeing it can be emotional for fans, but I was actually surprised at how it basically stunned me into silence.

It’s a sentiment encouraged and kept alive by ABC Family marathons and the perfectly-themed scenes in the earlier films, but Harry Potter movies easily stir up feelings of Christmas and homecoming for me. Today marks one month until I return to the States. Although I know I won’t want to leave when the time comes, not much else can beat the thought of watching Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone at home at Christmastime. While it wasn’t quite like coming home, entering the world of these films was a reminder that I’m almost there.

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Missing from ‘Murica

So, apart from the obvious things – family, friends, not feeling that my voice just sounds lazy compared to everyone else’s accent – there are a few standout American luxuries that I’ve found myself missing more than I thought I would. AKA I didn’t even realize I would miss these until I spent a few weeks here. Don’t laugh, because it really is simple things like this (so, yes, basically food) that you find yourself wistfully dreaming about in a down moment while abroad.

  1. Dunkin Donuts coffee – A nearby co-op grocery store claims to have their doughnuts, but every time I pass by and peek in, the doughnuts on display look very sad and wilted. What I’m really craving is their gloriously cheap, gloriously simple coffee. I’m not a huge Starbucks fan, but have indulged in it way too often here because there’s one right near the CAPA center. I like to go there in between classes to eat lunch, thus I feel obligated to buy a coffee so I can sit there undisturbed with my homemade sandwich. Needless to say, I find Starbucks even more disappointing here than it is at home. There aren’t as many options and I always feel like I’m missing something when I go there. Other major UK coffee chains like Caffe Nero and Costa are okay, but I just need the plain old basic coffee Dunkin prides itself on.
  2. Panera Bread – Like with Dunkin, I don’t even go to Panera when I’m at school (it’s a go-to when I’m home though) but I miss it desperately now. When I tried Pret’s hazelnut coffee (just don’t bother), I began dreaming of Panera’s wonderful version. Joyous will be the day that I return to Panera for hazelnut coffee and broccoli cheddar soup.
  3. The Middle – This ABC comedy recently came back for its seventh season and it’s an underrated classic. It’s the one show my family and I all enjoy and watch together if we can. I probably wouldn’t be keeping up with it if I was just at school, but I think because I don’t have a very good online connection to ABC or any of those American networks I noticeably feel that I’m missing out.
  4. Siena’s Roots Cafe – Anyone else noticing the trend of food on this list? Roots is a weekly lunch held in one of my school’s dining halls that contains all local, organic, sustainable, or Fair Trade food. It’s usually the best meal I eat all week. My friend sends me pictures of her Roots lunch every Wednesday, and I’m pretty sure I drool over them. Definitely looking forward to their warm and hearty winter meals when I’m back on campus!
  5. Clothes dryers – So, London is an old city and plumbing is something that is often behind in the times. As a result, we just have a washer in our flat and resort to clothes racks to dry clothing. On warmer days, when we can leave our windows wide open, clothes will dry fairly quickly, unless you have very heavy sweaters lying out. Now that it’s damper and chillier, clothes take ages to dry naturally. My roommates and I are still trying to recover from our post-vacation laundry situations, so we currently have clothes hanging over racks, doors, the lampshade…all in a desperate attempt to dry them. Doing laundry at school can be a pain, but I will never complain again if my clothes are still a little damp after going through the dryer there.

That’s Amore: A Week in Italy

Although I expected to respond enthusiastically when someone in London asked me how my fall break touring Italy was, I was still surprised by how genuinely ecstatic I sounded when telling flatmates, “It was absolutely amazing and I would relive every second.”

I spent my week-long break traveling to Rome, Florence, Tuscany, Venice, Verona, and Milan with the company Bus2Alps, which I highly recommend for anyone interested in tours for college students. The company covers a wide range of European areas and offers break, weekend, and day trips. Compared to other fall break tours, my group was small – 50 students, the majority of which currently studying in London – and only led by two guides. Two of my roommates went on their Northern Loop of Europe tour with over a hundred others and multiple tour guides.

However, Bus2Alps is Europe’s leading student tour company for a reason. Their itineraries provide the perfect mix of group activities and free time, and have amazing insight into restaurants, shopping, and sightseeing. Our tour guides were incredibly friendly and helpful, and even made travel time on the bus fun by playing a great lineup of movies.

In the long run, the great organization was only a tiny detail of the trip. Such precise scheduling was quickly overshadowed by this gorgeous, ancient country that made me so proud to be half-Italian.

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As the week approached and I hurried to finish midterm assignments before leaving, all I could think about was chilling out over some great food. Obviously, Italian food is not only comfort food to me, but it also reminds me of home and my family. Being from downstate New York, I have even higher standards for its quality.

And do you want to know a secret?

Every single thing they say about the food in Italy is true. It’s amazing.

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Calamari, cheese and tomato, and bruschetta at our seven-course welcome dinner in Rome.
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Ravioli and penne at the Rome dinner.

I don’t think any of us were truly prepared for how incredible our first dinner in Rome turned out to be. We left the restaurant with full bellies, light hearts, and a palpable sense of glee and anticipation for the days (and meals) to come.

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Only in Italy can you get away with ordering gelato several times a day, eating a full pizza on your own, and even sampling chocolate cheesecake from a Verona McDonald’s (Italian McDonald’s is quite classy).

While the food was definitely a major highlight of the trip, I’m still trying to process all of the once-in-a-lifetime things I was able to experience. Like I said, get your butt on a Bus2Alps tour if you ever have the opportunity. Touring with a group will usually make your trip as stress-free as possible and give you a semi-local perspective of the cities.

Through the tour, I was able to sample Italian wine in the Tuscan hills and have lunch at a family-owned winery,

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attend a Murano glass-blowing session and witness a craft that requires 25 years of experience to be considered a master,

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watch a waterside sunset in Venice,

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write a letter to Juliet and leave it in the cracks of her brick house,

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and marvel at gorgeous churches hundreds of years old.

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Italy definitely won me over and I can’t wait until I’m able to go back and see even more of it. I feel so grateful to have had this experience, which was the perfect blend of relaxation and exploration that I needed to get through the mid-semester slump.

London vs. The World

Like any other ambitious study abroad student, I planned for this semester with a list of six or seven other countries I wanted to visit in addition to the UK. I worried if I would find travel companions, informed my bank where I might be going, and tried to fathom casually jetting off to a city in another country for a weekend.

However, after settling into London and a routine, I realized just how much there is to see here and how free time during the week is sparse. My program includes classes and a internship, so my “easy” day is Tuesdays, when I have two classes and am finished by 3:30. I usually spend that extra time afterwards grocery-shopping and doing homework, although after midterms I should be able to use it for some exploring.

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A row of pretty houses found in the mews alley right near my flat. You can find totally unexpected things right in your own neighborhood.

I’m extremely lucky to be in classes that frequently go on field trips around the city; otherwise I would feel even more stressed about seeing everything I want to before going home. As several of my classmates have said, we came to London to be here, not take off every weekend to another place. Actually assimilating to your study abroad city – especially if it is one as busy as London – shows you that there is no shame in wanting to stay there to see as much as possible.

That being said, I’ve accepted my smaller number of outside trips. I already went to Dublin and am hitting up Amsterdam and Bruges in November. I’m going on a week-long tour of Italy soon and taking a day to explore Cardiff in Wales. Do I wish I had included a weekend in Paris, land of Shakespeare and Company and Nutella crepes? Kinda, but at the same time I’d rather go to Paris with family or friends from home when I have more time to enjoy the city (and preferably don’t have to stick to a student budget!).

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Baguettes in Bath – see, who needs Paris?!

Also, I’ve absolutely fallen in love with England. I’ve actually spent several days outside of London and have now visited Oxford, Bath, Stonehenge, Brighton, Stratford-upon-Avon, and Kenilworth Castle. I wouldn’t trade these experiences for any other, more elaborate trips. Seeing these places only reaffirms my love for the British culture and strengthens my desire to learn even more about the people’s lives and concerns. Although I think my love for New York slightly trumps my love of London, I could definitely see myself happily living here if friends or family were with me.  I wouldn’t have been able to grow so certain about this if it weren’t for class trips and weekend jaunts to other parts of the country.

One of the first things staff members told us during orientation was how bizarre Europeans find it when American students study here and want to see as much of the continent as possible in such a short time. It simply isn’t feasible. Sure, we’re all young and energetic, but when the dream becomes a reality, things get in the way. Contrary to popular belief, you do take classes abroad, and, while every program’s workload is different, you will have homework. Sometimes, you’re just tired – this is okay, too, but try not to make it a habit. If you’re like me, you could fall in love with your home base and not want to leave too often. Granted, some cities have more to do than others, so if you find your city slows down over the weekend, by all means go travel. Now is the time to be a little selfish and see what you want to see.

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Oxford was one of those places I really wanted to visit, so I made it happen! I’d definitely recommend looking into nearby cities for easy day trips when you’re abroad.

Do I worry about when I will get to come to Europe again after this trip? A little, but I also know that it is something important to me and something I’d be willing to save and plan for. You will have far less pressure on yourself if you accept what can be done in a semester and not try to overbook your time abroad. Your most cherished memories could be something as simple as people-watching on the Tube or walking around town with housemates. Don’t settle, but accept what is possible and what is not.

To the Motherland: A Weekend in Dublin

If you asked me to name a city in Ireland, Dublin would be the very first one to come to mind, but if you asked me before this weekend what it had to see, I would stare blankly at you until it got awkward and one of us looked away. While it’s the capital city, Dublin is a place you need to visit to really know what it has to offer.

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A view of the city from the Guinness Storehouse’s Gravity Bar.

Upon the first hour or so in Dublin, spent on a double-decker bus taking us from the airport to our hostel (we ended up missing our stop and just going straight to the Guinness tour), I was a little indifferent to the sights we passed by. From the top level of that bus, the city felt small, like one of the American cities I find okay but nothing special overall.

As the day wore on, I grew more fond of the sights – like in London, the capital is centered around a river, and we navigated based on its placement the whole weekend. However, I also realized how spoiled I’ve become living in London, where everything is clearly and almost excessively labeled. It took us a few hours to catch onto Dublin’s geography, but the same rule that applies to the Thames works with the River Liffey – follow the water and you’ll find something worth seeing.

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Dubliners make up for any confusion tourists descend into. We must’ve asked three or four friendly bartenders for directions, and people passing us on the street would often overhear us questioning our location and stop to help. The city gained another dimension at night, when the twinkling lights of pubs glowed in the dark and street performers played music on every corner.

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Wine and Toblerone cheesecake at an outdoor cafe, where we sat and listened to a Celtic rock band right next to us.

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When you come to Dublin, you quickly learn that it is extremely possible to see it in a weekend. We toured both the Guinness storehouse and Jameson distillery, hit up the Book of Kells exhibit and the Old Library at Trinity College, wandered around Temple Bar and Grafton Street, and – my favorite activity in a new place – browsed some bookshops.

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I still wonder if I would’ve bothered with Dublin if I didn’t have Irish heritage. The real essence of Ireland is obviously the countryside, but no one has the time for that in two and a half days. Being able to explore the half of my heritage that often gets lost under my louder, more vibrant Italian side definitely made the trip more meaningful. Pardon the cheesiness, but just seeing such Irish things made me feel connected with my grandpa on my mom’s side. He passed away a little over four years ago, and not a day goes by where I don’t miss him or wish that we could talk about how my life is now. During those moments when I came face-to-face with a display of flat caps or saw an old man with a similar build, I thought of him, hoping that he’d be proud to see me in the land of his ancestors.

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