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Posts tagged ‘London’

A travelers guide to London

London underground with birds

English call it “Tube” but for the birds and the rest of the world it’s still an underground

This is not the cozy, ivy-ladened cottage land of your English literature course. London is where everyone is “with it” and trying to figure out what the next “it” is on top of that. Think Manhattan on speed. Color, lights, lots of cultural pyrotechnics, a hodgepodge battle of the traditional with every freaky thing you can imagine, and you need to be prepared to jump in and let your senses be boggled. It’s heavy on culture—the museums are free and the theater is dirt cheap, SO TAKE ADVANTAGE!

Oh! And if you’re going to get anywhere in London, you’re going to take the tube (the subway) so get a map as soon as you arrive and get to know it.

Staying in London is like living a warped bohemian dream.

House in London

Some historic neighborhoods look very chic and pretty

Something about it make you feel so incredibly hip. The only real problem with it is that the streets make no sense. One night we walked around in circles for a good hour. Even when we asked for directions, the locals seemed to have no idea what they were talking about. I must say though, Londoners are quite polite, especially if you happen to be an attractive teenage girl. The boys there pounce on the chance to take a girl out and show them around.

Bring an umbrella. When it says a cloudy day, it’s going to rain. When they say it’s a sunny day, it’s going to sprinkle.
Stella on her first day in London

Soho! Was I dreaming last night? Lights, lights, all lights! Tall buildings with pink windows, purple cars, restaurants with multicolored velvet seats, slanted mirrors, porn houses with flaming red signs down small, crooked roads! It went on and on. My head whirls— color, lights, people— and yet it’s only Thursday (our first night!) What would Saturday be like?
Florica on her first night in London


For a couple of centuries England was top dog on the International scene (the “colonies,” the “empire,” and the sun which “never” set on it) and so it was able to steal a ton of art from around the world to bring home. Much of it is at your disposal at this magnificent and eclectic museum. Plan to spend a few hours just wandering.

England’s answer to the Museum of Modern Art… and what an answer it was. Just the sight of this impressive building has made the people at MOMA run out and buy themselves a new one. Not to mention the collection. All your favorite modern artists and a good deal of those of whom you’ve never even heard. Take time to see their Duchamps collection; they’ve got several great pieces, and beware Rebecca Horn’s falling piano.

The Tate was really, really big, and that was nice because it gave you and opportunity to truly see everything… even if just walking from one exhibit to another tires you out.
Isaiah while still recovering from jet lag

I think that tired a lot of the students out, because by the time we got through the Morandi show everyone had just about passed out, and I was the only one who made it to the Arte Povera exhibition.
Tyson who clearly drank his coffee that morning

Another bonanza of the spoils of the British Empire. How much loot can one empire grab? Greek sculptures? Take a left as you enter. Egyptian mummies? Right upstairs. You name it, they took it and put it on display for you. But don’t be too hard on them. If they had not preserved any of this stuff, it might not exist at all. Incidentally, just seeing the building itself is worth the visit. It was recently renovated and the results are astounding. Just ask our students:

The greatest part is the architecture— the new part they added on is this huge beautiful glass dome—the way they put it together… it’s really impressive!
Tyson likes domes


WAGAMAMA (several locations in and around London)
Udon (Japanese noodles in broth) and lots of it. It’s served cafeteria style, and there is always a line which is how you know it’s good. The line moves fairly quickly though, and it’s not too expensive so give it a try.

Very good food, but even better atmosphere. You’re up near the top of the new glass dome which all our students loved so much. Not very cheap, but not very expensive. Splurge a little.

They’re all good. (Well, probably not, but we didn’t try enough of them to tell you which are the best. But seriously, it’s hard to go wrong.) Are you near Kensington?—try MEMORIES OF INDIA.

And do lunch in NEALS YARD
Look around. It shouldn’t be hard to find a place.


One of the centers of real London is off Neal Street in COVENT GARDEN…. all the pubs spill out into the streets at 5pm and you’ll see an obelisk… that’s the real hub… all the hip joints are around, wander and choose one that is full of happy folks.

Where it’s all happening. Hang out next door at the National Film Theater’s outdoor cafe, and get student seats at the last minute to any of the National’s fare. It’s usually terrific, especially the small theater.

Yes, you stand. Two hours standing in the pit really isn’t as bad as it sounds, especially if the play is good (which it often is). Besides, it costs next to nothing and you can smirk at all the tourists who paid extra to sit in the benches. You can look around for celebrities if that’s your thing. We saw two in one evening. (“Yes, Isaiah, that is Helen Mirren. No I don’t think she’s making eyes at you.”)

Oh, and take a RAIN COAT if it looks like you might need it. Wait! What are we saying ‘if’?

If you see an evening performance, go first to the PUB down the river for a bite to eat (about two blocks walk toward the National Theater). It’s genuine English food… the kind they warn you about, but really it’s not as deadly as you’ve been told. After the performance wander along the river. It’s—ahem—”smashing”.

Eye of London and Themes ferry

Eye of London wheel near Themes ferry

There’s also a bunch of TOURIST STUFF (but do you REALLY want to?)
Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s, the Tower of London, and you can ride the ferris wheel (the “Eye of London”) if you must, but don’t blame us if the natives scowl at you.

Photo credits, Creative Commons from top:

London by dChris

London Ferris Wheel by JohnGoode

This story was brought up to us by the San Francisco Art and Film for teenagers

London Heathrow Airport Disaster

Spending the night at the airport

London double decker bus covered by snow as snowstorm hits Europe

The volcanic ash cloud earlier in 2010 was followed by snowstorms hitting London just before Christmas. Which one was a bigger disaster?

We’d been stranded at London Heathrow airport since 3 p.m. the day before. It was now 5 o’clock in the morning, on Sunday December 19th, 2010.

My study abroad program -I’d been enrolled in London for the semester- had just ended and I was excited to be heading home to New Jersey with friends from my program. We had scheduled to arrive just in time to celebrate Christmas with family. But a freak snow storm had closed down airports all over the UK, and in other parts of Western Europe. We lay on mats clutching thin, tin-foil blanket (these had been given to us to prevent lawsuits resulting from hypothermia due to the cold temperatures in the Virgin Atlantic terminal, or at least that’s what it felt like).

Passengers Catch Much Needed Rest As They Wait Until A Flight Becomes Available

People wrap themselves in tin-foil -emergency- blankets as they dream of a flight home.

I peered over at some of my friends around me, sleeping, or staring blurry-eyed as movies played on their laptops.

Our group had decided to make camp right below the check-in desks, which we were told would open at 6 am. We figured being this close would give us an advantage over the crowds slowly amassing behind us. I’d thrown away my cheap pay-as-you-go phone that I’d been using during the semester. I hadn’t thought it necessary to keep it as I prepared for my flight home. Lesson: never get rid of a functional cell phone. My BlackBerry was working fine, but I was not covered by an international plan, so any texts or calls I had been making to my parents during this process were piling up for a very hefty phone bill.

Waves of snow and sub-zero weather conditions swept the european continent as far south as Italy

We’d been stranded at London Heathrow airport since 3 p.m. the day before, but 3 more days to go

The black winter sky outside was getting lighter. I’d maybe gotten 45 minutes of sleep, but I knew I had to be focused if I was going to speak articulately with the airline workers. My friends slowly started to rouse from their naps on the cold tiled floor. We gained our footing and began gathering our carry-ons. I wondered how long it’d be until we’d get our luggage back. We’d checked them the day before when we were told our flight to Newark, and one other flight to Boston, would be the only planes allowed to depart on the frozen runway. Virgin should have flashed “Just kidding suckers!!” on the flight schedule screens.

Trying to Get Home

Here we are at Heathrow Airport - putting on our best smiles. How long will this last?

Thrilled to be stranded in the Virgin Atlantic terminal

It was almost 6, and the terminal became flooded again with irritated voices, all in different languages. I was pretty sure that, after almost a day of this, any of these people would not hesitate to trample my gangly corpse to get a flight home. There were all sorts of crazy rumors: bribery and sexual favors, people paying up to $4,000 for a flight. There was even a story circulating that a flight had remained on the runway for hours, and was allowed to leave before everyone else only because pop-star Madonna was on board. Even if it wasn’t true, we hated her for it.

The Virgin Atlantic attendants slowly filtered out in front of us. They each had a look of restrained fear as they faced hundreds of exhausted, cold, and hungry travelers. As angry as I was at the situation, I knew it wasn’t their fault the runways froze over. But still, people need scapegoats in times of stress, and these very nice looking people were hostage to our wrath. I felt my BlackBerry vibrating, and saw that my dad was calling. It was 2 am back in New Jersey-my parents must have been up for hours talking to different airlines.

“Carey,” my dad said, “Marty can get you standby on a Delta flight that leaves at 8 am.”I felt drunk with relief. I’d forgotten my dad’s friend Marty was an airline pilot for Delta.

“You need to get to the Delta terminal immediately,” he said.
I remembered that the Delta terminal was a good twenty minutes away from where I was now. I hung up the phone and looked at my friends, who were staring at me, waiting for any news, good or bad. I told them about the Delta flight.

“That’s awesome, man,” Amir, who’d been my best friend during the semester, said to me, trying his best to sound enthusiastic. My other friends smiled and nodded, too. I suddenly felt a surge of guilt. How could I leave them behind? As horrible as this experience had been, we’d gone through it together, and I wasn’t sure how well I could fare on my own.

“I feel bad,” I said.

“Carey-just go, at least one of us can get home,” my other friend said.

In that moment I knew even in times of complete desperation, your friends still want the best for you. It was too painful for me to give each of them a hug goodbye, so I told them good luck, and ran out of the terminal.

Surrounded By Stranded Strangers

The cold air hit me like a good slap across the face. I hailed a cab and sprawled across the comfortable leather seat in the back. I rested my head back; it was nice to be sitting on something that people don’t walk on every day.

On the radio, British reporters were chiming in with news about the snowstorm, and the airport closures.

On the radio, British reporters were chiming in with news about the snowstorm

British reporters were chiming in with news about the snowstorm

It was weird to think this was making international news, and that I was on the inside. I was now the person other people back home in America, warm in their beds while watching CNN as they drifted into sleep, saw on the TV screen and thought, ‘I am so glad I’m not him right now’. Dawn was slowly rising in the distance. At least the snow had stopped.

“You sure you want to go to the Delta terminal?”  The cab driver asked without turning back to me.

“Yes,” I said, “I might be able to get on a flight.”

“Well,” he said, “that probably won’t be for a while. The Delta terminal just closed down, too.”

I felt like I’d been removed from my own body and I almost started to laugh. The cabbie dropped me off, and I headed inside. It was more of the same: people milling around, wearing tin foil blankets, talking on cell phones, crying. The only thing that was different was the overhead lighting. It was this intense yellow, and it made everything look sickly; I became nauseous. I wandered around, hoping the cab driver had been wrong. Various airline attendants and security guards each confirmed his story. I sat down against the wall and thought about my friends. They seemed so far away from me now. Had they gotten on a flight? I didn’t have any of their numbers since I’d thrown my go-phone out. Even though I was surrounded by hundreds of people, it was the first time I’ve ever felt truly isolated from the world.

A Haven in the Study Abroad Center

With the little money I had on me, I decided to make my way back on the tube to the abroad program headquarters in central London, figuring they’d know what to do. I didn’t even know the address, so I had to find it based on memory from some time we’d been there earlier in the semester. The snowy streets of London were silent and empty that morning. It felt like the world had ended, and I was was some weary survivor, aimlessly searching for other survivors, for answers. The program headquarters was in a beautiful old town house, and the British directors had been up all night, fielding phone calls from concerned parents, and taking in stranded American students so they could stay there till they found a flight home. I checked in with one of the friendly directors. He was so kind, asking me if I needed any food, or coffee. I drank some coffee, but didn’t even bother explaining my story to him. I went into the common room to charge my phone, and fell asleep on a couch. When I woke up, my friends had all arrived from Heathrow. We embraced each other, joking about our ridiculous 24 hours.

Home Sweet Home

4 days later, after lots of arguing and negotiating, my parents got me on a flight to Boston, just in time for Christmas. Landing on Logan Airport’s runway, I instinctively hugged the stranger sitting next to me. I watched the snow falling outside as we taxied into the gate. I thought about the friends I left behind in London (who also ended up making it home for the holidays), and how much I’d miss them. Part of me still wanted to be with them at the program house, drinking wine and watching the old VHS movies from the collection in the entertainment room-or finding some other way to distract ourselves from the situation.  Even now, almost two years later (and zero flights since) I can imagine that cold, damp smell of the terminal, the rustling of tin foil blankets as passengers pulled them tight around their bodies, the sunken eyes of dazed confused, sleep deprived travelers-all still as fresh in my mind as it was yesterday.

Statue of Liberty - Welcome Back Home!

Liberation from freeze and snow!

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