“I’m in heaven!” was the first real thought that entered my addled brain as I sat on an actual horizontal bed after exiting my hellish air-borne home of 24 hours. I felt euphoric – exactly what I had wanted to feel! Whether that was from lack of sleep, recycled plane air, or the actual reality of my surroundings, I’m not sure. Neat, English-looking houses lined the streets, leafless trees stood next to them, and the cold air was brisk and clear. To complete the day, I saw both a squirrel AND a fox for the first time. Life was wonderful, all the good stereotypes were fulfilled (so far), and my next 6 months were full of possibility.
Bluebell Woods in Marlborough, Wiltshire
I probably should have written all this while it was fresh in my memory, but I now have the gift of hindsight, perspective, context, experience, and all those fun, dream-shattering things that come with time. After 4 months living abroad, here are several warnings. Don’t worry, this story does have a happy ending. This list is just the honest truth:
- A feeling of ‘normality’ will settle on you quickly
- You’re probably not as confident as you think you are
- You will hate your clothes very soon and probably have to work through body issues, or an identity crisis or something (just go to Primark and buy a new top, trust me)
- If insecurities surface, you won’t be able to escape them easily
- You’ll probably feel guilty about not ticking enough things off your tourist list (but don’t, because there is ALWAYS more to see and a lifetime to see it!)
Tower Bridge, London
About 3 weeks into my trip I wrote in my diary: “I’ve been trying to think how being here makes me feel. Much of the time it feels normal, which I’m not sure I particularly like. Travel is certainly different from what I expected.” I guess I didn’t realise that eating meals, going to the toilet, sleeping, and studying would still feel exactly the same as they do back home. Now, 3 months on I’ve written in my diary: “I’m not sad about life here feeling ‘normal’ anymore. I’ve created a new life for myself. All the expectations I had of travel are slowly easing and reshaping themselves into reality.” Which means I’m learning. Good girl.
Ok, so here’s something VERY important that I had to learn: reconciling myself with the fact that reality is often different from expectations. I hate writing such a cliché sentence, but I’ve always struggled with the feeling of disappointment after building up an experience in my mind as something that it isn’t. I had spent a year and a half making every decision with a single thing in the back of my mind, and so I couldn’t help but have big expectations of the magical ‘study abroad’ experience! But trust me, once I learnt to enjoy things for what they were and not for what I wanted them to be, I had a lot more fun. The truth is, I didn’t want to believe those stupid flow charts and bar graphs about cultural readjustment and homesickness, but they’re not far wrong. You’re in for a wild ride: see my own simplistic chart below.
During those middle two months I scribbled down a lot of emotionally-fuelled thoughts. I’ve included the nicest one I could find below. Context: I was feeling overwhelmed with all the newness of things (living by myself, the thought of making friends, lacking confidence).
Now onto the good stuff! When I wrote that I’ve made a new life for myself here, it’s true. A few of the ‘normal’ things I enjoy: making good food for myself and watching Gossip Girl on Netflix, going to the theatre regularly, exploring new places in London and sometimes returning to old favourites, riding the tube and doing the Metro or Evening Standard crosswords, sitting in a pub and drinking a pint of beer, to name a few. And I love these things! Which is why I’ve compiled the following list.
St James Park in spring, London
My Top 15 London To-Dos:
1. Climb to the top of St Paul’s Cathedral (528 steps) and enjoy a 360 view of London! It’s better than the London Eye, trust me, I’ve done both. Your butt will thank you. Then enjoy a cream tea in the crypt and undo all that exercise.
2. Walk from Westminster tube station to St James’ Park and tick off the following things from your list: Big Ben, Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and Buckingham Palace. Walk across the bridge in the middle of the park and look both ways – this is my favourite view towards Whitehall Palace.
Whitehall Palace from St James Park, London
3. Walk across Tower Bridge and take in the amazing history of the Tower of London as you marvel at the juxtaposition of this 950 year old building and the modern Shard behind. Have a pint at Dickens Inn in the nearby St Katherine’s Dock area.
4. Find St Dunstan’s in the East – peaceful church ruins in the middle of the city formerly designed by St Paul’s architect, Sir Christopher Wren.
5. Stroll along Regent’s Canal towards the Camden Markets. Buy a ten pound leather jacket then enjoy grilled cheese at The Cheese Bar.
Regent's Canal, London
6. Visit a jazz club and sip on cheap wine – I recommend Jamboree in Limehouse on a Thursday night (get your dancing shoes on).
7. Buy lunch at the Borough Markets, then wander Southbank and pop into Tate Modern (I personally loved Salvidor Dali’s paintings).
8. Buy cheap tickets to a music gig of an up-and-coming artist (these are some of my best memories!)
9. Have a night out in Shoreditch, Brixton, or Limehouse and come home at dawn on the night tube - nothing like hearing the birds sing as you drift off to sleep.
10. Cross to the south side of the Thames and visit Greenwich! Shop at the market, walk through the Royal Naval College (many films were shot there – Thor, Les Mis, Young Victoria), and walk up to the observatory where you will be treated with this view!
Greenwich, London, from the Observatory
11. Visit Holland Park and their Japanese Gardens in spring! The walled garden makes you feel as if you’ve escaped the city.
12. Watch a musical and/or theatre in the West End. My two favourites were Les Misérables and Don Juan in Soho (featuring the magnetic David Tennant).
13. Watch a rugby game at a pub with a pint or two of beer. Seriously, do this.
St Patrick's Day in London
14. Walk up Brick Lane and buy chocolates from Dark Sugars, eat them throughout the afternoon, and finish your day looking out over the Thames as the sun sets.
15. Take a day trip out of London to Oxford! Explore the historic, cobbled streets, eat by the river in Christchurch Meadow, walk through the Botanic Gardens, and climb a church tower to see the magnificent city from above.
Oxford from above
Some Final Bullet-Pointed Lists
Top things to avoid:
- Free toilets by a main street. If you don’t pay to get in, they probably aren’t clean or include the simple luxury of toilet paper.
- Likewise, always carry small change on you. London is NOT a cashless society.
- Wet feet in winter. You WILL get sick if this happens. Don’t do it.
- Walking in shoes with no support. You will never be fitter while living in London, but you will also discover strange new pains in your feet if you don’t buy a good pair of sneakers. My top choice? GoRun Sketchers.
- The tube at 6pm. It’s amusing watching humans voluntarily pack themselves into an airless container like sardines, so maybe do it once, but never more than that.
Warwick Castle Gardens
Top Tips to Remember:
- London is NOT England. Escape the city and travel to Cornwall, Brighton, Oxford, Bath, the Lake District. Once in an interview, Ed Sheeran expressed his frustration at the irony of people saying they had ‘visited England’ when they had really only seen London. Don’t be that person.
- Travel is tiring! Plan some downtime and don’t feel guilty about it.
Travelling in Ireland
- Take the tube! It is daily comedy. I often have to suppress laughter. There is an unspoken code of etiquette on the tube that everyone knows (next blog post!).
- NEVER stand on the left hand side of an escalator. You will be subject to the kind of silent and passive English hatred that I have come to admire and fear.
- Find a local spot near to where you live that is devoid of humans. Go there when you need space or a breath of literal fresh air.
Cliffs of Moher, Ireland
- If you’re strapped for cash, don’t buy meals out. Make your own food! Fruit and veges are really quite affordable in London.
- Make a weekly budget and stick to it – I record every single thing I buy and tally up my total spent at the end of the week.
- Brush up on your own country’s general knowledge. I discovered I am severely lacking. Among other things, I was asked what the population of NZ was, how old our oldest building was, how many sheep we had, what our parliamentary system was like, what our biggest native mammal was, and which official languages we have. If you hate sounding ignorant (like me), BRUSH UP!
Hampton Court Gardens
The thing I have missed most about home is being around people who truly know me. That’s something you just won’t have when you travel alone. For better or worse it reveals strengths and weaknesses about yourself that you might not want to know, but it also makes you more self-aware and teaches you to find the people worth your time, like the four wonderful girls above! Become friends with yourself too, that’s important.
Rough Tor, Cornwall
Despite all this, being in a new city will make you feel on top of the world. I’ve just come across a diary entry that reads: “It’s past midnight, but I have just had the most incredible day. Among others, here are 3 things that I feel: I don’t want to be anywhere else but here. I feel alive. And life is beautiful.” It’s worth the uncertainty, fear, lack of confidence, and loneliness to feel those three things.
Royal Naval College Chapel in Greenwich, London
One Last Thought:
When I was in Cornwall for a weekend during my semester, I stayed in a little mining town called Boscastle with my cousin. It was a short walk up to the cliffs of England’s west coast - they dropped off to reveal a great expanse of ocean. The next country to come across would be America. It felt like the end of the world to me. As I stood there at the edge of an ocean, listening to seagulls, feeling the dusky sun, and watching waves crash mesmerically against the rocks, I felt proud of myself, for coming here and doing things that I was afraid to do, for learning to be kinder to myself when life doesn’t go to plan, and for achieving what has really been my first big dream.
Cliffs at Boscastle, Cornwall