Most of my pictures have been of places we’ve gone which have all incredible. I left out one important thing though: the people who made them truly unforgettable. So without further ado, here are a handful of what I think are the best portraits that I’ve taken on this trip.
A few days from now will mark the end of the second month of our trip to London. As the semester progresses into finals and we have to say goodbye not only to the families and our new friends, but to the city who took us in for two and a half months. There has been a bit of a divide in our class: those who are counting the days down until they can go home and those who are hoping that neither their visas nor their money would ever run out. I can sympathize with the first group, but I’m definitely in the latter.
Whether it’s that their money is running dangerously low, or they miss the comforting familiarity of home, I understand where they’re coming from. For some, this their first time out of the United States and for most it’s the first time being on their own. That’s a scary prospect. And to do it five and a half thousand miles away is admirable. But they’ve all made it (hopefully not jinxing anybody for the last three weeks), and they’ve all had amazing and probably life changing experiences, not just in London but in all the places they’ve gone in Europe as well.
My group has a lot of different reasons for being a bit apprehensive to return home. Some may have unfinished business: a sight not seen, a friend they didn’t connect with, or maybe have found a future home in this hectic, beautiful mess we love called London. Whatever the reason may be, when a member of the first group excited yelps out how many days we have left, we die a little bit inside. Some can take comfort in the fact that this is not the end of their adventure. They have planned out their travel visas and will spend more time in the UK and Europe. While I’m returning to the States, I’ve got another month until I actually get back home. Some just have to be dragged metaphorically kicking and screaming back to a job, summer school, or some other obligation. I feel for these people.
No matter which group we fall in, however, the point is that we’re very close to being able to say we’ve done it. About half of Americans don’t even have a passport, and if they do ever get used, it might only be for short periods of time, thirteen European cities in two weeks or something like that. While almost everyone left the country for Spring Break, we all had time here to experience — though, probably not fully — what it’s like to live in London.
Proper prior planning prevents piss poor performance. This phrase is known as the 7 P’s in the Marine Corps. One could argue that a few (major) mishaps during my spring break are evidence for the profundity of this alliterative warning. I planned a trip to hike the West Highland Way in Scotland on Wednesday night and left Friday for Glasgow. On the first day, I somehow lost 200 pounds (the money, not the weight) and couldn’t pay for my campsite that night and had to walk two more miles into town to stay at a bed and breakfast. Having gotten my trip’s tragedy out of the way early on, I started day two of my trip blissfully unaware that later on that day, I would watch my phone fly into a river and float into Loch Lomond.
Mishaps like these are only tragedies if you don’t learn anything from them. You might think that I’m going to rant about the importance of securing your possessions, but anyone who knows me knows that I’m far too introspective for that. Losing my money was a minor inconvenience of having to cut down miles from my next day. “It’s only money,” I told people. My classmates politely reminded me that only people with a surplus of money say stuff like that. Noted. But, I wasn’t going to let the mere loss of currency ruin my trip. Losing my phone was a bit more impactful. Not only did I lose my ability to communicate both recreationally and in the case of an emergency, but I lost my entertainment. The next morning, I realized that by losing my phone, I also lost my alarm clock. This was a moment of, “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.”
What the lack of aural entertainment taught me was that by closing myself off from everyone else on the trail, I was really robbing myself of the experience. Trail people are the best people and I was letting them go by because I wanted to listen to the same podcasts I always do. After I lost my phone, I hiked with three Yorkshiremen for the rest of that day and all of the next. What wonderful people. I had seen them along the Way, but had given them nothing more than polite nods and, “How are you”s. On the third day, they were hiking six more miles that day, so I found myself alone again.
That is until I went into the pub in Inverarnan, Drover’s Inn. I was met immediately by faces that I had seen and they invited me to dine and imbibe spirits with them. We got along and I ended up finishing the hike with them. These people became my tribe for the next four days. We were all focused on completing a common goal through grit and teamwork. I felt at home, because it felt like my time in the military, but thankfully without the military. There was a Belgian guy there who was about my age and after one day of hiking together, we split a twin room at the next B&B. I was only in the group for 96 hours and by the time we had finished the hike, we’d already planned a reunion in Paris next month. Where else do you find people like this?
I feel better after having completed it. There are the obvious physical and health benefits that come from hiking for hours a day with a thirty pound pack for 96 miles. But could through-hiking actually make you a better person? I found myself being generous, open, and honest with people who days before were not only strangers but from all over the world. We worked as a team and got people through the times that were tough for the individual. I just hope that I can keep this outlook on life and apply it on a broader scale.
As a part of our program, we have had Excursions that have been either made free or very cheap through the program through which we’re studying. If you’ve been following the blog, you might have seen or heard of some of these. The most recent two have been Oxford and Stratford upon Avon. They are both amazing in their own right, but I thought that in order to better appreciate their cultural gravitas, it would be better to view some pictures. So let’s start with Oxford:
How could it get any better than that? I’ve asked myself this upon the completion of the activities on this trip. Well, you go to Stratford upon Avon, the beautiful birthplace of the bard. This is the city in which William Shakespeare both was born and died.
Entering our fourth week here in London, the first wave of excitement has worn off, and we’re starting to envelop ourselves more and more into the culture. Just by existing here, we’re experiencing another government at work. Whether it’s utilizing the underground trains, National Health Services strikes, or even visiting one of the hundreds of museums of London, we’re faced constantly with the effects of both local and national government.
One of the things we will definitely take away from this trip, whether in this election cycle or far off in the distant future, is the ability to look at our own political issues through the lens of having lived under another government. Barring some very specific examples, no matter what the topic of discussion is, we can all refer to the three months we spent in England and give a more thought out argument as to why we are for or against something. This makes us better voters and better suited to participate in the democratic process.
Another benefit is that we have access to the Student Central building, which is a building with study areas, restaurants, rooms in which clubs can meet, and even a pub! The best part is that it’s open to any student who is studying in London, so it’s not just those people at UCL. Being in London, which often boasts that its inhabitants speak over three hundred languages, creates an unspeakably diverse crowd of people who not only can, but want to participate in an often boisterous discussion of international politics. This not only allows us something to compare our government to, but an ever wider range of ideas from people who have either lived here their whole lives or have traveled here from all over the world.
This is obviously just one of the many, many benefits of choosing to spend the semester abroad, but it has the potential to be the most important. The changes may not be very drastic, or even immediately noticeable, but the fact that we’re going through this will make us more well-rounded people.
With our classrooms being almost dead center in London, it’s easy to get lost on purpose and run into something new every day. These are a few pictures that I think gives an idea of the breadth of experiences that you can have in an hour-long walk.
Today marks a week of being here under the gorgeous gray London sky. From the moment we stepped off the plane, we saw an endless stream of some of the greatest tourist attractions in the world. We’ve taken tours of monuments recognizable all over the world like Salisbury Cathedral’s tallest spire in the United Kingdom and the mysterious boulders that make up Stonehenge. We took a bus tour of Central London and got to see the outsides of even more famous places: the often mislabeled Tower Bridge, the even more mislabeled Elizabeth Tower, the grandeur of Buckingham Palace, and the giant dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral. The experience thus far has been, as they say here, lovely!
Then Friday night came around and my classmates and I went our separate ways, all knowing subconsciously where we would see each other next: class. Some went partying, some just went to quiet pubs, some went sightseeing and shopping. The one thing no one mentioned in the litany of weekend activities was studying. I went to visit my oldest brother who has lived in London for a decade now. Until this week, I had never come to see him. My brother, his girlfriend, and their friends took me out for a welcome-to-London dinner. They chose an American themed restaurant just in case I had gotten homesick in three days. After that, we went to a craft beer pub on the South Bank and had a few pints. We finished up our night with a few drinks at the Arts Club, which had such notable members as Charles Dickens and Claude Monet. This night kicked off a fantastic weekend of fun but Monday was right around the corner.
My classmates and I all learned our lesson about studying in the following week. In our starry-eyed wonder, we forgot about the “study” part of study abroad. Now, this obviously isn’t all inclusive. I’m sure some people read what was required, but anyone who thinks they can land in another country for the first time and immediately put their nose in a textbook is just lying to themselves. I’m the oldest on the trip and have traveled to other countries before and even I fell victim to the pure excitement of this bustling city.
Studying and living here will teach us not only British literature, and Western Civilization, but also small differences in the everyday lives of different cultures like looking to the right as opposed to the left before darting across a busy London street. However, I believe one important thing that we will all come away having learned, if not mastered, is balance. This is one of those intangible perks of participating in a program like this and it is a skill that can be used for the rest of our lives. Even the most irresponsible among us will find a balance between the excitement of being in one of the greatest cities in the world and the discipline of having to explicate different scenes from a Jane Austen novel.