Tea for One
Hey! My name is Angela Thompson and this semester I get to live in one of the most famous cities in the world: London, England. I wanted to come to London because I wanted to experience that big city life and boy oh boy did I choose the right place. The diversity! The traffic! The history! London is a place that everyone knows about, and being able to be here, really be here, and experience what so many others have, is unforgettable.
In this blog I am going to walk you through a typical day of mine. I wake up at 9:00 a.m. and walk the up steep, narrow steps in my flat to get to the bathroom. I’m staying in one of many flats that are all connected side-by-side, which you might picture when you think of England. Successfully managing to not trip up or down the stairs, I get ready for the day and walk to class. The weather is seriously one of my favorite parts of England so far; I love cold, overcast days and London is full of them. When I get to campus I order an Earl Grey tea from the café on campus (there’s also a bar on campus! It’s wild. One of my lecturers insisted on taking “The Americans” to get a drink one day). I go to my Racism and Ethnicity class, where the lecturer (here they’re called lecturers instead of professors) is a sweet old Scottish man who really knows his stuff. We learned about the interaction between mental health and race in London, and there’s a good deal of overlap with my Social and Cultural Psychology class. The classes here are different than in Arkansas because they only meet once a week for 2-3 hours. I’m expected to do reading on my own to prepare for class, and the only grades are a midterm essay and a final paper. It pushes you to be self-motivated and develop time management skills, and allows you to see more of the city, but makes it difficult to build relationships with the peers in your class. I would recommend getting your classmate’s numbers (on Whatsapp — everyone in Europe has it) and meeting up to study and have a cup of tea outside of class.
After class I have the rest of the day to study and explore the city. I have lunch at a local café down the street. In Europe it’s a little more taboo to eat by yourself but I do it anyway, and the first time I ate here it seemed like my waitress was surprised. I order a halloumi, mozzarella and basil panini with salad. For all you ranch-lovers, I’m sorry to say that ranch is not really a thing in Europe. You’ll have to survive with a nice vinaigrette. And if you’ve never heard of halloumi cheese, it’s popular in Europe and is similar to mozzarella — it might even be better. If you ever get the chance, try it. After lunch I go to the underground station and get on the Piccadilly Line to Highbury and Islington, only 3 stops down, where I go by a couple of charity shops (thrift stores) and a bookshop. I’m looking for some reading books, because: 1. with my extra time I’ve been able to start reading for fun again, and 2. books are the best thing you can have when you travel alone, and I’m planning on using my three-day weekends to do a bit of traveling. Books in hand, or rather in backpack, I hop back on the tube and head toward a tea shop in Camden to do some reading for class. I get my tea with a mini teapot and a cute little teacup with a saucer, and settle in. For dinner I walk to a nearby pub and decide to forego a traditional English dinner for something more American: a bacon cheeseburger. It comes with chips (the British term for fries) and I hop on the tube to go to my flat feeling full, sleepy, and, in a way, at home.
A Strange Haircut
It was a Wednesday night, my Theatre in London class was attending a production, and I was getting my hair cut. Why would I miss a show that was both a requirement and a privilege to go to, you ask? My answer: I didn’t. I was getting my hair cut IN the play. The production was called Party Skills for the End of the World, and it is a type of theatre called immersive theatre. I get to see several cool productions like this one all over London both as a part of my class and on my own, and I’m going to tell you about them.
Immersive theatre is a type of production where the audience is integrated into the play itself and the lines between audience and cast member are blurred. There is usually a good deal of improvisation from the actors, and the experience is especially engaging and fun for everyone involved. I showed up with my theatre class and from the beginning to the end of the evening there was a whirlwind of activity. We started by each following directions and making a martini, then we were swept into a room where we were suddenly playing musical chairs. There was stolen chocolate passed around, an apocalyptic fashion show, a surprise concert and a thought-provoking monologue which asked us about all of the things we fear. Then there were stations. I learned how to play the musical saw, how to pick a lock, how to trick people with magic, and I also got a cup of tea. Oh yeah, and I got a trim.
On my own during my time in London, I have gotten to go to the West End and see The Book of Mormon, Wicked and Hamilton. The Book of Mormon was pretty hilarious. I sat in the theatre equivalent of nosebleeds and watched two Mormon missionaries get sent to Africa an learn a little something about cultural differences. A piece of advice would be to make use of the cheap theatre tickets you can get from Trafalgar Square instead of ending up in the nosebleeds. In Wicked I got to experience the best singing I have ever heard in my life. I was especially excited to get to see Hamilton, a musical with lots of rapping that centers around the life of Alexander Hamilton. Yes, the American Founding Father. Yes, I saw this in London. It’s a crazy concept, but believe me, it’s amazing.
Let me tell you a little more about my theatre class. We meet once a week for about three hours, will tour the National Theatre, and get to attend a number of productions, including Brief Encounter, Caroline or Change, Mary Stuart, Cathy and Party Skills for the End of the World. In class we learn about the history of theatre, read selections from plays and play different theatre/acting games. This is the class where I interact with my classmates the most and have made the most relationships. Theatre in London is graded the same way the rest of my classes are graded, which means essays, essays and more essays. Nearly all of the grades for my classes are from written essays, which is definitely a change from what I’m used to, and a challenge. I feel up for it though, because I have awesome places to work all over London, awesome lecturers and friends that I can ask for help…and an awesome new haircut.
We’re Not in London, Arkansas, Anymore
After I got off the plane in London, my second thought was “how do I get to my apartment?” (My first thought was “Oh my gosh oh my gosh I can’t believe I’m here this is great I’m so excited!!!”). In the end I figured it out, and I made some friends and learned some lessons along the way.
I looked up directions from the airport to my flat on Citymapper, an app that soon became my best friend. It told me to take the Piccadilly line from the airport all the way to my neighborhood, Finsbury Park, which would take about an hour and a half. I was a little annoyed at how long it took, but now I know just how lucky I was. I happened to be at the one airport with a tube stop, and my neighborhood stop just happened to be on the same line. I would come to change my perspective on travel times, and I spent a several hours riding on the London public transportation. What I didn’t expect was that all of this time allowed me to be alone with my thoughts, something I hadn’t done in years.
When I got off at the tube station in Finsbury Park I was prepared to read a map and go to my flat, but there was a little problem: I couldn’t find any street signs. I learned that the street signs in London are usually on the sides of the buildings on the corner, but at the time I did not realize that. I had no idea how to orient myself, so I asked some kids nearby and they helped me out. I learned that the people in London can seem standoffish, but they are actually really nice if you talk to them. There isn’t nearly as much small talk with strangers as I’m used to in Arkansas.
My flatmate was waiting for me when I arrived, and she became one of my best friends. After I got some rest we went out to run errands, and it was crazy. There were so many people on the sidewalk and in the stores, and there were a lot more local family businesses than there are in Arkansas. We went into one of these, a store for rugs and bedding, and my flatmate startled haggling over the price of a rug. I had never experienced haggling before, and my flatmate was very good at it. We got bread from a local bakery and shampoo from a local beauty store, and I thought about how excited I was to live in this other culture for a whole semester.
The next Monday I went to my first class, Social and Cultural Psychology. The structure of this class was very different from what I’m used to. First of all, we only met once a week for 3 hours, as opposed to meeting every other day. There was a lot of reading to do on my own, the only grades were two big essays, and the instructor changed three times over the course of the term. The first professor I had was very excited about the Americans in his class. He was so excited that he kept making American jokes throughout the lecture and insisted on buying us a drink after class. Where did he buy us this drink? At the bar on campus. During that class I learned so many interesting things and got to see a lot of different perspectives. I also learned what it was like to have a drink with your professor.
There were quite a few cultural differences in England, but strangely, it didn’t seem like it took any getting used to. London was amazing, and I had the experience of a lifetime.
One Sunday morning I woke up early, grabbed my flute, and went to a community band open rehearsal. I have been playing the flute and have been in band for over eight years, and I did not want to stop during my semester in London. So I looked up all of the community bands in the city (there were several), found the ones near to or beginning their rehearsal season (there were few), and searched for any accepting flute players (there was one). This one was in Lewisham, which was in South East London and an hour and a half away by public transportation.
I got on the underground, transferred to the overground, did some reading for my Psychology of Learning and Education class, and took in the scenery of the outskirts of London. When I got to my stop I wasn’t quite sure where to go but I saw a guy with a tuba and decided to take a truly wild chance and follow him. I ended up talking to him on the way there and learned that he was Scottish and had been playing in this band for several years. During the rehearsal itself I met a few other instrumentalists who were all very welcoming and I was also blown away (pun intended) by how great the band was. We sightread the most difficult music I have ever been expected to play, and I was happy, if a little overwhelmed.
After rehearsal the tradition was to go out to a local pub. I walked to the pub with a few of the band members, and ended up talking to an American oboe player who was a graduate student in the middle of a year abroad. I got several pieces of advice from her, including how to find cheap theatre tickets (TodayTix) and how to move more quickly in the tube station (walk down or up on the left side of the elevator instead of standing still). We all arrived at the pub and I realized that I had no idea what to order. In London the drinking age is 18, and my 20-year-old self had never ordered alcohol before. I ended up chickening out when someone bought a round, and I got the chips (the English term for fries). Let me tell you, those were the best chips I had the entire time I was in Europe. They were fantastic and I want to go back to England just to eat them. (If you also want to eat them you can find them at the Ladywell Tavern). I got to meet so many great people that day, including a guy from Iceland and an old English man.
This old English man’s name was Harry, and he told me a story about Tubby the Tuba, which was the most adorable thing I’ve ever experienced. It was a great tale of a tuba player named Tubby and it involved singing and other little musical elements and I still can’t get over it. He told me about his children and how they play in famous orchestras and symphonies and when everyone was ready to go he offered to drive me (on the left side of the road, of course) to the tube station. He was so kind and really gave me some insight into parts of the English culture I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise.
Playing in that concert band did more than sate my desire to be in a band; it made me a better player. I made more and stronger relationships in that band than I did from my classes or from traveling, and I learned so many things about the culture and the world. I got to be a part of something special, and I can’t wait to one day go back, see a concert and get some more of those chips.