Wednesday, July 31, 2013

London vs. Cincinnati: Pros and Cons

I leave to go back home in three days! Time has flown by over here; it hardly feels like I've been gone almost six weeks at all. Most of us on the trip have spent a good amount of time reflecting this week on what we're going to miss...and what we are dying to get back to back home. Family and friends top the list, of course, but I figure I'd list some of the best things about London compared to Cincinnati and vice versa:

What I'll Miss

  • The Tube. This might sound weird, but I thoroughly enjoy riding the tube (aka London's subway system). Its expensive for someone who isn't on a yearly travel plan, but it is incredibly convenient to get anywhere in the massive city, and best of all, its relatively clean and easy to understand. It only took me about a day to go from a nervous traveler who took his time at the check-in machine to annoyed local who got angry at people taking their time at the check-in machine.
  • The variety of cultures. A list of the various different kinds of cuisine I've had here: Scottish, British, German, Indian (and lots of it!), Chinese, Japanese, Lebanese, Italian, Spanish, French, Turkish, and maybe Swedish (not really sure what the restaurant was, but it was good!). This kind of variety (and authentic variety, I'm not counting something like Panda Express as Chinese here) just can't be found in Cincinnati.
  • Little kids talking in British accents. It raises their cute factor by at least 100%.
  • Street musicians/performers. Scattered throughout the city and Tube stations are some incredibly talented street musicians, magicians, and various different performers. These aren't your typical people playing the same song over and over hoping to get change after a sports event; some of these guys are amazing performers and professionals, and it gave the whole city a fun atmosphere.
  • Borough Market. My favorite place in the city, it's an open-air market underneath the London Bridge on the South Bank. It's open Thurs-Sat every week, and has such an amazing variety of fresh foods, dishes and desserts. So many different options to choose from, with your only choices being to purchase so many different foods that you stuff yourself or just to come back at least one a week. I chose both options.
  • Tax already included in sales price. Its a small thing, but its really convenient. If something is listed as £4, that price almost always already has the tax included. 
  • Student discounts and free museums. Every state owned museum is free to the public (and seeing as we have been staying in the museum district, we took advantage of this), and even the museums that did charge you almost always had a discounted rate for anyone with a student ID. This discount could be found at a variety of places (sometimes even food places) throughout the city.
What I Won't Miss
  • Lack of free water/no free refills on drinks. You can't just order water here, and if you order something like a Coke, you pay £2 for a small can and would have to pay another £2 for more! Which leads me to my next point...
  • Prices. The pound is stronger than the dollar, so I'm already losing money there. Factor in the fact that London is one of the most expensive cities in the world, and I'm paying the equivalent of $15 for most every meal. I think the cheapest meal I ever ate was around £4 or so, or roughly $7...that starts to hurt the budget after 5 weeks...
  • Not being able to eat Skyline Chili. 'Nuff said. If you aren't from Cincinnati, you wouldn't understand.
  • Not having any cell service/WiFi. In one sense, it was nice not having an international plan, as it kept me disconnected from the addicting and somewhat pointless worlds of Facebook and email. However, when it came to looking up directions to a location, or restaurant closing hours, it was definitely an inconvenience.
  • Restaurant hours. I'd venture to say that 4/5 of places in London close down their kitchens after 7 or 8 pm and only serve alcohol for the remainder. If you want to eat a later dinner, your options are quite limited.
  • Lack of AC. This one was only inconvenient because we happened to be in London during the hottest, driest period of weather they have had in years. Still though, sleeping in a room hot enough to sweat in was not exactly luxury.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

A Few More Trips: Brighton and Munich

Been a while since my last post, I've been pretty busy almost every day. Over the past weeks, I've been able to take two different trips to two very different locations. About a week ago, a few of us took a coach ride to the city of Brighton, a city on England's southern shore facing the channel. Unlike most beaches I have seen in America, the coast here is not made of sand but large pebbles, giving the beach a very unique look. It's also a complete tourist trap, which is not necessarily a bad thing. The Pier was definitely fun to walk around and there were great shops and restaurants along the coast, but it is not exactly a quiet, relaxing beach by any means.

The next weekend, I got to travel to Munich, Germany to visit my friend Ryan from back home. He is spending the summer studying and working there, so it gave me an easy way to visit another culture for a few days while still overseas. Flights between European countries are surprisingly cheap compared to the flight costs across America, so traveling for the weekend is actually quite doable. Of all the things about Germany, the one thing that left the biggest impression was the FOOD. London has a large variety of foods from just about every culture, but German food in Germany was a special treat. Schnitzel may be my new favorite food ever. I'm not even sure what exactly makes schnitzel different from other meats, but whatever it is, it's amazing. There's also bakeries on just about every street corner with amazing baked goods, and the bier gardens (outdoor eating facilities in parks) were a blast as well.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Things to Know About Food.

There are quite a few differences in regards to food and restaurants here in London. Some of them are pretty obvious or publicized to America, but some of them really took me, and the other students with me, by surprise:

1) Portion size. This goes in the "highly publicized" category. Most people have heard how, for example, a medium-sized order of fries at a European McDonald's is similar to a small size in the U.S. This is definitely true, and applies to the food and drinks at just about every chain restaurant. For the local places, it can be a little more challenging to judge how much food you are going to get for the pounds you spend. It often times just ends up being a guessing game, particularly if the servers are not fluent in English. Which brings me to point #2...

2) Variety of culture. Central London has just about every culture of food imaginable, with the exception of Mexican food. Because London is such an international city, these establishments are usually run by people who are from the country that serves whatever dish you are having. Having so many different styles of high-quality, authentic food is definitely a large change from suburban Cincinnati (although Clifton does a good job of having variety).

3) Free Stuff. In America, we tend to assume a lot of things are complimentary for the customer. An example of this might be when your server asks if you would like bread for your table. When you have that approach here in London, you end up paying a much larger bill than you anticipated, especially when the servers of the restaurant seem to try to rip off innocent-looking American students...
Kwality Indian Cuisine, less-than-kwality price. I am still kwite unhappy about my kwarrel with the server in there.
4) Drinks. Staying on the same topic, do NOT assume water is free. If you ask for water, you will often be given a bottle of water (if in a group, oftentimes a large jug for the table to share) which will end up on your bill. However, you can get around this. Ask specifically for tap water, and (like in America) they cannot charge you for it and will give it to you free. However, many places are not used to doing this. If the restaurant is in a non-tourist location, they may give you a funny look or even resistance to your request. Additionally, there are two types of water in the UK: still water and sparkling water (what we would call club soda). Most places will ask you to specify which you want, although tap water of course only comes in the still variety. As for soft drinks, you will be hard pressed to find soda fountains. Most restaurants will only have cans or bottles available for you, so the refills won't be free.

5) The Bill. Here is one that caused a lot of problems for our group initially: many restaurants will not split checks for you. In America, 12 young people can go into a restaurant and assume they can all pay with different combinations of cards and cash. This is much harder to do here in London. One incredibly useful tip is to ask to split the check BEFORE ordering anything. Sometimes they will write entirely different tickets for each person, or else tell you what their policy is. Most places do not have the ability to split a check on their machine, but can use multiple cards to pay for individual items when cashing out. Also, servers will not usually bring you the bill until you request it from them (I was told it is considered rude to bring the bill before the table signals they are finished).

6) Tipping. Far more restaurants will add a "service charge", or tip, onto the bill no matter what size your group is. If they DON'T, you are expected to tip around 10% at restaurants. You are NOT expected to tip bartenders, however.

7) Restaurant Hours. Places seem to close up their kitchens much earlier here in London than in America. Most pubs will stop serving food around 6 pm or so, and after 8 pm most regular establishments will only be serving alcohol or dessert-type foods. That's not to say that NOTHING will be open (chain restaurants, for example, tend to have typical 10 am to 10 pm hours), but you have to find places that designate themselves as "late night" foods, rather than just a dinner place.

Friday, July 12, 2013

This Is Far Too Cool To Be Considered "Work"

Being able to study abroad in London would be a cool enough experience if the classes I were taking were dull and not creative at all. My class schedule, on the other hand, has actually been one of the major highlights of this trip so far (I almost can't believe I'm saying it). Both of my courses give me unique and entertaining insights into British culture in a way that is only possible when studying the material here in the UK. In British Film, we are studying the history of England and its film movements from the 1960's till now. For each of our 10 classes, our tutor (or what we would call a professor in America) discusses a certain time period in England's history and different aspects of film that were impacted by the current events. Then, we watch a British film from that time period. In summary, that means each class consists of about an hour lecture and then a two hour movie, followed by brief discussion. One paper at the end of the course, and that's it. The films are not mainstream Hollywood by any means, but they are definitely interesting, and at a certain point, a movie is a movie.

As cool as British Film might be, my favorite course is Theatre in London. It shouldn't be too hard to figure out how this course works: during class in the morning, we discuss the history of theatre (both in the UK and around the world), read through different acts of famous plays and do a few acting exercises. Then, in the evenings of each day we have class, we go see a play from various theaters around London. So far, we have only seen four of the ten plays we have scheduled, but I am already blown away by the performances we've attended. Standing out so far was last night's performance of A Midsummer Night's Dream, by The Bard himself, at the recreated Globe Theatre in London.
The stage of the Globe. They kept it pretty bare in terms of sets and props, similar to what would have been done in Shakespeare's time. 
We had tickets as "groundlings," which meant we stood on the floor just in front of the stage to watch the performance as the peasants would have in Shakespeare's day. Not only did we have the opportunity to see as near an authentic performance of Shakespeare as possible, but the cast and production were FANTASTIC. It was one of the funniest plays I have ever seen in my life, and every player fit their part just about perfectly (I don't know that it is possible to play the role of Nick Bottom any better, to be honest). Regardless of your interest level in theater, seeing a performance at the Globe has now become a must-do recommendation for me when someone travels to London.

Of course, there has been other plays as well, which have ranged from pretty good to mind-blowing. I guess it makes sense that Ellie (our theatre tutor and director of the USAC Study Abroad program) would only take us to see good shows, but it has still been eye-opening to see so much good theater, and to see it in one of the theatrical centers of the world in London.

Sunday, July 7, 2013

We Saw Old Stuff.

For the first week I have been in London, the weather has been in the high 70s/low 80s with no rain and a slight breeze most days. In other words, the weather has been incredibly un-London-like. Because of this, I have spent a great portion of this first week traveling around and seeing some of the historical sights in and around London.
A view of the Tower of London from outside its walls.
First up: On Wednesday, a few of us went to visit the Tower of London. Pretty deceiving name, because its really a castle more than a tower per say. Still filled with lots of cool things, from the entire collection of England's crown jewels to torture equipment put into use while the Tower was a prison. In between those were collections of old British armor, buildings from various ages, and a tour guide wearing a cool garment and ridiculously dark sense of humor. All in all, a solid trip.

The gateway into Christ Church College of Oxford. Apparently, one does not simply walk into Oxford.
On Saturday, the entire program hopped on a bus and visited the prestigious city of Oxford and its even more prestigious University. We walked around the various colleges, learning about said prestige and the various ways they maintain it (for example: when the rest of the world standardized their clocks to Greenwich Time, Oxford felt it was distinctive enough to be on their own time system. To this day, clocks in Oxford run on "Oxford Time", which is about 5 minutes behind the Greenwich Standard). Jokes about the high standards aside, some amazing architecture is found in the colleges and city, including the room used as the infirmary in the Harry Potter films!

A good portion of Stonehenge time is spent taking potential Facebook profile picture photos.
Sunday involved a two part trip. First on the tour was Stonehenge. To be honest, there isn't a lot to do at Stonehenge. I don't really know what I was expecting. I mean, its a bunch of rocks that no one knows anything about. You get an audio guide and walk around the stones (as you can see in the photo, ropes prevent you from getting too close) and listen to a voice tell you that no one really knows anything about the rocks. And then you leave. Its an extremely cool, enigmatic formation that is interesting to look at and just only takes 20-30 minutes.

A view looking down into the main bath of the Roman Bath complex.
Lastly, after we finished up Stonehenge we traveled over to the ancient Roman city of Bath. I was thoroughly impressed with the actual Roman Baths Exhibit. Throughout the entire complex, they have done their best to reconstruct the stones they have found in the shape and structure they would have been, and give you an incredibly good idea of what the original buildings looked like. We were told not to come in contact with the water at all, as it is apparently not safe to drink or even touch. Naturally, I still stuck a finger tip in anyways to confirm that the pools were still incredibly hot (they are). Nothing horrible has happened yet, so let's keep our fingers crossed (pun absolutely intended).

We also got a backstage tour of the reconstructed Globe Theater, the famous stage where Shakespeare produced many of his plays. I will go into more detail about that later this week, since I am going to see A Midsummer Night's dream performed on Thursday evening.

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Remembering That We Have Work To Do...

Up until Tuesday, the trip has been a big tourist vacation. It was on Tuesday that we actually began our classes at Imperial College. Most of us seemed to forget that we are in fact studying abroad, rather than traveling abroad. Having to wake up in order to get to class, sitting through a lecture and taking notes...these are things that I was not exactly preparing myself to do, and getting back into the "school zone" has been a little difficult...

That being said, I am honestly excited about the courses I am signed up for. In British Film, we watch a movie each class produced in England and discuss it and the history and culture surrounding England at the time, starting in the late 1950s and progressing till the early 2000s. Our class periods are 4 hours long, so watching a movie and discussing it makes for a much easier (and more entertaining) time than a 4 hour lecture grind. My other class is Theatre in London, in which (no surprise here) we go to see various plays and performances throughout the city, then spend our class time talking about them and the different theories and techniques used in them. Since my dad is a playwright here in Cincinnati, I have grown up with an appreciation for theater my whole life, and to get to experience it in a city like London is an absolutely amazing opportunity. We get to see plays of all shapes and sizes: from A Midsummer Night's Dream at the Globe Theatre, to The Cripple Of Inishmaan starring Daniel Radcliffe, to a small postmodern play that takes place in a pitch black theater and is entirely audio-based, we are going to experience it all.

One of the reasons I chose the USAC program (the external provider that organizes my study abroad trip) is that they offered these classes that really allow me to explore the culture. Some other programs (and some other classes offered through my program as well) are more standard classes that could be taken while in America. For some students, this might be completely necessary, as they might need to achieve certain credits while abroad to gain progress in their major. However, since I had some flexibility, being able to basically study British art and culture while I'm living in the country is an incredible, in-depth experience. After only a few days here, I already feel like I am starting to understand the acute yet important differences between British and American cultures. I can only imagine how I'll feel at the end of the trip.

Tuesday, July 2, 2013

Finally in London!

Obligatory picture of Big Ben, taken from a tour bus, with a different tour bus also featured in the picture. This is tourism at its finest...

A week in, and I've finally started classes on my study abroad trip. It has literally felt like ages since I left the States behind. Everything in Edinburgh was awesome, and in a sense I miss it (especially since by the end, I finally felt like I knew my way around!), but London has been a cool city so far as well. Unlike Edinburgh, which is an extremely old and historic city, London is much more modern and feels far more like Cincinnati, but much, much larger. Imperial College is also somewhat similar to the University of Cincinnati, although its location is DIRECTLY in the middle of the city.

The courtyard of Beit Hall, the dorm I am staying at.

The area we are staying in, South Kensington, is one of the nicest communities in London. While this doesn't make finding a cheap meal an easy task, there are some amazing benefits to that. Within 5 minutes walk of our dorm are three massive museums (Natural History, Science, and the Victoria and Albert Art Museum) that ALL have free admission, every day of the week! Apparently, this is true of all the publicly owned museums in the city. Additionally, we are next door to the Royal Albert Hall, one of the most famous concert venues in the world and home to a different musical performance every night of the summer, all for under 10 pounds. We also have the massive Hyde Park in our backyard (literally behind our dorm), which makes for a fantastic place to go for runs.

Conserving money has definitely been a priority while I've been here. This is the trip of a lifetime, and I don't want to miss out on anything on my bucket list, but I only have the funds to accomplish so much. I'm trying to save as much money as possible on food, for example. Breakfast is covered by the college, so I fill up on as much eggs and bacon as I can in the morning and try to eat a small lunch. I am also carrying around a super hi-tech change carrying device (a plastic ziplock bag) to keep all my coins in. In America, I wasn't concerned with losing a penny or two. Here, the highest value coins are 2 pounds, or over $3. 

Where I am investing the money is the various trips and activities I have planned. So far, my list includes visiting Stonehenge and Bath, touring the entire Harry Potter sets at Warner Brothers Studios, the Tower of London, seeing a professional football match and touring Emirates Stadium (the home of my favorite English team, Arsenal), and a weekend adventure to Cork in Ireland!