Study abroad diaries: London Calling

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Camden Market

Camden Lock is a marketplace area in Northern London, and off the beaten path for many tourists. (Carolyn Duff / The DePaulia)

During my first few hours of my study abroad trip to London, I found myself seated between two other girls from DePaul whom I had just met, waiting to check in at Westminster University’s freshman move-in day.

The three of us attracted a lot of attention. This could have been because it seemed odd that we weren’t accompanied by our parents like the other students, or perhaps because we looked and sounded foreign. However, I’m sure that the majority of the stares we received can be attributed to the fact that three of us were loudly and hysterically laughing, with tears running down our cheeks. It had just hit us how completely unprepared we felt for the adventure that we had just started and in that moment, it seemed hilarious.

As my suitemate from Luxembourg said, it felt a lot like we were being “thrown into cold water.” We started our trip with nothing but our luggage, a few enthusiastic e-mails from the leader of our Study Abroad Program, damaged optimism that our credits would transfer back to DePaul and the hopes that when we told the check-in staff our name they would actually have a place for us to stay.

Once we got settled into our tiny dorm rooms, which they did indeed have reserved for us, we became a lot more comfortable. The campus that I was placed at is really nice because, located outside central London, it is a quiet neighborhood filled with cute houses that look just like Privet Drive from “Harry Potter.” As much as I’ve enjoyed sight seeing, it is really nice to come back to a place where I can escape from the tourists.

During my first week, I fought my jet lag at all costs to do some exploring before classes start. There was no way I would let my sporadic drowsiness keep me from jumping into my travels.

What I’ve especially enjoyed is discovering the parts of London that make it unique. I walked down the Thames River and encountered one famous monument after the next. In just one afternoon, I saw St. Paul’s Cathedral, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, and the Millennium Bridge (perhaps more commonly known as the bridge in “Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince” that gets destroyed by Death Eaters).

All right, how many Harry Potter references can I make without mentioning my trip to the Warner Bros. Studio Tour – The Making of Harry Potter? It only took me two days to make friends with someone who is as passionate as I am about Harry Potter and would go with me to the tour. It was quite literally the most magical day of my life.

The next day, my friends and I decided that we had enough of London’s mainstream tourism for the week and ventured to the north side of the city. There, we visited Camden Market and which was another one of my favorite excursions in London so far. Vendors there were selling cheap clothes, beautiful hand-crafted jewelry and amazing food.

Hogwarts is Beautiful

A model of Hogwarts castle at the Harry Potter Studio Tour in Watford, England. The studio tour is one of the most popular tourist attractions in the London area. (Carolyn Duff / The DePaulia)

Travelling to these places was a learning experience. A few days before I left the United States, I came across an image on Facebook  of a map of the London Underground. This map wasn’t organized in a way that is easy to read, like the famously designed tube map by Harry Beck. It showed the realistic knot of the trains’ twists and turns, weaving in around the entire city. The CTA, which neatly extends from a center point of Chicago’s Loop, is child’s play compared to the London Underground system. It is very rare that you can get to your destination without transferring at least once.

My frightening lack of directional skills made me hesitant to even step foot on the train. To my surprise, navigating the complex routes of the city’s public transport has proven to be much easier than expected, and extremely convenient. Having used Chicago’s public transit system made it much easier to learn how to use the tube.

When you decide to study abroad, you have to learn to deal with things that make you uncomfortable. For example, flying across the Atlantic Ocean by yourself, attending a school where you’ve never even stepped foot on the campus before, or being surrounded by people who live by completely different habits, values, and norms.

I was prepared to encounter cultural differences between Britain and the United States, but actually experiencing them is really strange. One unexpected side effect of being an American in England is that I’m honestly having a hard time walking down the street. As American customs have taught me, I instinctually move to the right side of the side walk as I walk towards someone to make room for them to pass. Since cars drive on the opposite side of the street here in England, people also walk on the opposite side of the sidewalk. So as I move to the right, they move to the left and I just end up walking right into them.

As stressful as it has been to prepare for and travel to London, and adjust to a brand new culture, I can already tell this is going to be the experience of a lifetime. Living in London for three months sounds like a long time, but I know the time will pass by really quickly. I’m challenging myself to take advantage of every moment, and am excited about all the possibilities that this experience holds.