Words and photos by Jeanne Robinson, a CAPA study abroad alumna and communication arts major from Hood College who spent fall semester 2015 in London.
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I would like to think that any study abroad student chooses which international city to live in based on a desire to really experience their host city. However, I realize that not all study abroad experiences are created equal. Some people want to go, go, go all the time and see as much around them as possible. Living in London, it seemed as if all of Europe was in my grasp just waiting for me. And I did have many friends who seemed to be away every weekend jet setting to places I had only dreamed of seeing one day.
Despite this temptation, I would remind myself that I chose London to see London. While I did spend a few weekends putting my passport to good use in other countries, or conquering the National Rail network to visit neighboring English cities, my favorite moments involved exploring yet another London street, gallery, museum, etc.
Thinking back fondly on my many memories I created last semester, here are some tips that I developed along the way and applied to my once-in-a-lifetime London experience:
1. JUST GET OUT THERE. It seems simple, right? To truly experience any place, it definitely helps for you to actually go outside and be in the glorious city you’re now living in. Don’t get me wrong, I gave myself some nice sleep-in days, but don’t let the day get away from you. Go outside and see what's going on in the city each day. One of my favorite things about London was that something different was happening wherever you turned your head; you just had to be there to catch it. Going out of my comfort zone gave me the opportunity to meet some of my favorite celebrities (and find that Bryan Adams concert in Hyde Park) and see more than I ever imagined possible. It is difficult to happen upon pop-up shops, local markets or score cheap day tickets to a show if you stay in your flat all the time! And the majority of galleries and museums in London are free, or ask for a small donation- perfect for a student budget.
2. TAKE CARE OF YOURSELF. While I tried to see and do as much as my mind could absorb, I avoided attempting more than I could handle. Nothing sucks more than planning an event-packed weekend, but then feeling too burned out by mid-Saturday to enjoy everything you wanted to do. Unless you’re one of the most energetic people ever, it’s important to pace yourself for long days. And be sure to stay hydrated! Whenever there was something that I was really interested in seeing and wanted a good amount of time to get the most of, I would make that activity my focus for the day. If I got to more afterwards, that was awesome. But, I wouldn’t start out trying to fit too much into one stretch of time. The British Museum is not a place to be conquered in one morning, and it sure doesn’t fit in the same day as the National Gallery. Not if you want to see the best of both places, and many buildings close around 5-6 pm. Which leads to…
3. MAKE SOME PLANS AHEAD OF TIME. I like to be a spontaneous person when I can. However, I quickly discovered that sometimes there’s a time and a place for spontaneity, and it isn’t all the time. This is most relevant when visiting indoor attractions, as many places close around the same time in the evening (just like in the States). Some places are also closed on weird days, like Tuesdays. So, be sure to check a place’s hours of operation beforehand. (I got messed up with that more than once.) Also, some places have extended hours on a certain day of the week. Many choose Wednesday or Thursday to be open an extra hour or two into the evening. Don’t be afraid to visit some of the top attractions listed on sites such as TripAdvisor. One of my favorite places in London is Borough Market, which is also one of the more touristy markets. But there’s a reason it’s a top tourist attraction. You can spend hours there trying the best breads and cheeses, meeting vendors with products from all over the world and sourcing enough ingredients to last you for a week.
4. DON’T BE AFRAID TO TRAVEL SOLO. One of the most important things I learned about myself while studying abroad is how much I enjoy traveling by myself. I also loved going out with my friends and discovering new things together, but sometimes it was nice to be alone and be able to move at my own pace. When you’re alone, you are free to make your own decisions about where to go, what to eat and how long to stay at a particular place. There’s a different sense of freedom to exploring by yourself, just be sure to always have a buddy once it gets dark.
5. TAKE LOTS OF PHOTOS: The best souvenirs I brought home from Europe are my thousands of photos (I still haven’t looked through them all). Some people like to say that you should be in the moment and not looking through a viewfinder. However, the opposite is true for me. Looking through my camera helps me to experience my surroundings even more. Seeking that perfect photo causes me to approach my environment from a different perspective, and I tend to notice more detail than I would otherwise.