The First Week: Tourist-ing

Hi gang! I am here. I made it safely to my AirBnB and from there to my apartment as of today. It’s been, frankly, an exhausting week. I am so glad to be where I’m living for the next year, though. It’s a big relief. Today was rainy but luckily the worst of it didn’t start until after I had moved my bags in. I only had to walk back and forth to the shops in the drizzling rain – and I own waterproof combat boots and a raincoat, so I’m basically invincible. So, here’s how the past few days have gone:

Day 1: Arrival

I got into Heathrow at about 9:30 in the morning. Just so you know, the walk from international gates to passport control is ETERNAL. It was warmer here than I had anticipated, as well as more humid, so I was wearing a few too many layers to be comfortable. The passport control line wasn’t the worst, but it certainly wasn’t short. If you can, take advantage of the ePassport line – if you have this symbol:

biometricpassport

…that means you can use that line. It’s for biometric passports and it’s much easier. I went through the regular line because I wasn’t sure about how my student visa affected that, but now you have been forewarned and can do research! And know for yourself!

After passport control I collected my checked bag, went through customs, and then was out of the airport. From there I requested an Uber – I used Heathrow’s wifi because my cell phone account in the US was suspended (this means I can keep my line at home but not have to pay much) and I didn’t have UK service yet. This actually ended up working out well. The Uber driver was very nice and drove me to the AirBnb where I checked in. The host was very kind and helped me with my bags. I got settled in and FaceTimed my mother who was anxiously waiting to hear from me. By now it was noon or so. Before I left I had ordered a Visitor Oyster card to use until I got my 18+ Student Oyster card. Using an Oyster card is cheaper than buying single fares and London buses don’t take cash, so it’s really your best option.

I slept almost not at all on the flight – in terms of elapsed time, it was only 8PM or so when I tried to sleep, and I was anxious and overstimulated. I catnapped for maybe an hour or so, but that is not a substitute for a night’s sleep. So I took a quick nap and then when I woke up, freshened up a little and then went exploring.

Ok, so in the interests of journalistic integrity or telling the truth or whatever I have to confess that I woke up from my nap pretty distraught. I was far from home, I didn’t have anyone I knew, I missed my mom, I didn’t know how to do anything or get anywhere, there was nowhere familiar, I didn’t have any favorite restaurants and I was living out of a suitcase… What I’m saying is I had some emotions. So I cried about it for like 15 minutes and then pulled it together and went for a walk. I walked as far up and down the nearby high street (Walworth) as I felt comfortable and then discovered a cute little Thai place to have dinner. I ate by myself but made friends with the waitress who taught me how to count change when I paid. The coins here make about as much sense as in America, which is to say – very little.

I’m pretty sure I was asleep before the sun went down.

Day 2: Tate Modern & The Globe

On my first full day in the UK, I had a pretty low-key day planned. Earlier this summer I bought a ticket to Midsummer Night’s Eve at the Globe, and as it was a matinee I decided I could spend the morning next door at the Tate Modern. They’re literally right next to each other.

I got up, put on a cute dress because it was about 80 (Fahrenheit) here, and before leaving the safe haven of wifi, I made sure to save my routes between the place I was staying and the Tate, as well as my route from the Globe back. Citymapper has a great offline save feature where you can star a particular route and it saves it to be accessed offline. Simple.

I successfully made it to the Tate on my first-ever bus ride in London. It was a great confidence booster, and the beautiful weather also helped. Public museums in Britain are free, so it doesn’t cost anything to get in, but they do ask that you donate if you can. The Tate also has free wifi, so if you use iMessage or any apps that use the internet to send messages, you’re set within the Tate’s boundaries. It actually reaches pretty far – later in the afternoon I was making my way down the riverwalk along the Thames and had reconnected to their wifi several hundred yards away. They also have a cafe, which is where I got lunch, but if I’m being honest the food was not great. It was nice not to have to leave the area though, so beggars can’t be choosers.

I was done a little earlier than I had planned on – I finished one floor and there really was no time to start a new one but also it was far too early to go to the Globe. So! I walked along the aforementioned riverwalk, down to the Millenium pedestrian bridge. It’s a lovely place to just wander around if you’ve a spare hour.

The Globe is literally next door to the Tate, but you’ve got a bit of a winding path to get there. If you follow the signs mounted along the street, you’ll find it easily, or you can walk down the riverwalk and also find it very easily. It’s hard to miss. I saw Midsummer there and I have to be honest, I teared up a little during curtain call, thinking about 450 years of theatre happening in that same spot. That exact play, even, those words, echoing through four and half centuries. You can trace a through line from that place all the way down to me, a humble stage manager just starting her career. It’s any theatre kid’s Mecca. I made the Western thespian equivalent of the hajj. Of course I cried!

Be aware, friends, that as a rule there is no central AC in British homes or public spaces, and if there is – say, in the Tate Modern, for example – it isn’t used to the extent you will be accustomed to. Most homes, even those built recently, are built with the expectation that you just leave windows open for ventilation in the summer/early fall. Restaurants are the same way, as are shops. As it has been particularly humid these past few days, you can imagine how I feel about that.

I braved the London bus system today and it was actually much easier than I expected. If you aren’t familiar with the general idea of a bus system, you’ll need a few pointers:

  • Many bus stops have similar names. For example, Elephant & Castle is a different stop than Elephant & Castle London Road. You’re only a few blocks apart, if that, but if you mean to get off at one and end up off at the other, it will be noticeable.
  • Citymapper. Citymapper Citymapper Citymapper. It has saved me. It will tell you all the possible routes to a location from a location with near-endless customization, and tells you how long it will take. Want just bus routes? Want to leave at a different time? Citymapper does it. They cover most major cities and are adding new cities all the time.
  • For the love of God make sure you’re getting on the correct bus and that the bus is going the correct direction. You can get on the same bus on both sides of the street at most stops – the difference is what direction they’re going. Also, the route maps that are posted at each bus stop don’t list every single stop the bus will make, just major ones along the route. When you figure out where you’re staying you might want to note which major stop is near your nearest bus stop, in case you ever have to navigate without the use of the internet or if you want to double-check your digital directions. These posts will also tell you when buses are due and when the first and last bus runs.
  • Don’t confuse night buses (N#) and express buses (X#) with the bus you’re expecting. For instance, X68, N68, and 68 are all different buses that will not all get you where you’re going. Night buses, as the name implies, run at night; express buses are more direct buses to a certain destination; 24-hour buses, indicated on the placard that has the route number, run 24-hours. Pretty self-explanatory.
  • If you want to stop at a bus stop and the STOPPING sign at the front isn’t illuminated/the digital readout on the sign doesn’t say BUS STOPPING under the stop, press the red STOP button that is on a pole just about every seat. A bell will ring. The bus will stop at that stop. This is relevant because if no one is at the stop to get on, a driver will just keep going unless they know someone needs off.

Also, I need an explanation – do I have to hold my hand out to hail the bus? If there are people at a stop on its route, will the driver not just stop automatically? I’ve seen several people do this, but it’s like the hivemind only ever elects just one person. Someone weigh in. TfL should distribute some kind of “buses for dummies” guide.

I spent the rest of the afternoon and early evening wandering. There’s a Starbucks across the street from the Globe (Shakespeare would love that) and I stopped and got my first pumpkin spice beverage of the year. Honestly there’s no better end to a day like that. I spent the late afternoon walking up and down the Thames; I considered striking out and trying to get to my campus but I was tired, a little hungry, and not at all confident in my ability to find it or my way back once I had either found it or given up. So I hopped the same bus route I had taken down there and rode back up to where I was staying. So ended my first proper day in London.

(There is no wifi at the Globe.)

Day 3: British Museum

Today, I had planned for a visit to the British Museum in the late morning through the afternoon. Then, I intended to go back and change because I had tickets for the evening performance of Yerma with Billie Piper at the Young Vic. Honestly, if you’re going to the British Museum, you could spend multiple days there. I would take some time beforehand and figure out what you most want to see. I saw the Rosetta Stone and that was very nearly a religious experience for me, so do a little research and figure out your can’t-miss list. I plan to go back many, many times.

To cover all my bases, they also had little cafés set up and free wifi, but their wifi was much slower than the Tate Modern’s. The food was, however, better. Qui pro quo, I guess.

And, hey, no one tells you this, but London smells. Not bad, necessarily, but definitely not like tea and lemon. Sorry Bath & Body Works. There’s just a scent that’s different from other places I’ve been, and I’m still puzzling it out, but. You know. Just fyi.

The Young Vic is very easy to find. The box office is inside, and you should definitely not get in line outside without asking what it’s for, because you will get in line for returns when you already have tickets, thinking it’s the line to pick them up. If you have tickets, go straight inside to the box office to pick them up. There’s also a cute little restaurant and bar inside that I didn’t arrive in time to enjoy, but if you’re planning a trip, I would suggest it. It looked nice. There are also a lot of other restaurants up and down The Cut that look appealing. You have options, is what I’m saying. There is, however, no wifi.

Yerma was incredible. From minute one I was captivated. Billie was amazing and carried the show. It was touching and hard and I cried more than once. I had worried, briefly, that I wouldn’t be able to connect to a show about infertility because I don’t want kids but boy was I wrong. It closes in a few days so I’m sorry to everyone who will never get to see that show. I will be thinking about it for a long time. Huge kudos to the design team and to the SM calling the show – she may as well have been calling a musical, with the amount of precision she had to have.

Day 4: Imperial War Museum

I slept in a little today because I knew I still needed to be at the house at 10 AM. Donmar is doing a program for their Shakespeare trilogy in which they give away free tickets to under 25s – I wanted to make sure I got tickets, and the next batch opened at 10 AM. I also finally got my SIM card in the mail, so I tried to set that up in the morning. As it did not go to plan, I went ahead and left for the Imperial War Museum, planning on finishing that evening. I spent quite a while at the IWM and could easily go back and do more; it’s got a lot of information and thousands of artifacts packed into four or five floors. The Holocaust exhibit was especially emotionally resonant for me. Until I got there and had gone through the WWI exhibit, I didn’t know that the IWM was founded explicitly as a WWI memorial/educational site. It then expanded during/after WWII, and now also has an exhibit dedicated to Peace and Security from 1945-1995, including the Cold War and the War on Terror (all my issues with that phrasing aside). They also have a few other specialized galleries, including one on the stories of decorated British soldiers and armed forces members. For consistency’s sake: they had free wifi and the best museum café so far. Schools here are back in session, so I did have to share the IWM, The Globe, and the British Museum with school groups. They were mostly entertaining and rarely a nuisance. In the end, I did get my phone set up and then ended up going to bed at like 7 PM. You win some, you win some.

Day 5: Moving Day

This is the day I was most excited about. I got to move into my apartment and see the neighborhood where I’ll be living for the next year!

I took an Uber from the house where I was staying to my apartment – no part of me wanted to deal with the hassle of moving three pieces of luggage on public transport. Uber is much less expensive than a cab and I’ve never had anything but good experiences. Granted, my entire two experiences are both described on this post, so take that with a grain of salt.

Turns out, my apartment building is literally right next to a huge transportation hub – Stratford station has Overground, bus, taxi stand, DLR, National Rail, Underground…I have no excuses for not being able to get somewhere. It is also right across from a shopping center that includes one of every major bank, Boots, and Sainsbury’s. I bought two pillows from a linens shop in it for £10 total, and then did some grocery shopping. Let me tell you, grocery shopping in the UK is definitely grocery shopping in a foreign country. You speak English but you don’t speak British grocery store English. I struggled so hard. Also I bought a Kinder Surprise Egg, because they’re illegal in the US and I’m that kind of a person. I’m not sure the soy milk I bought is actually soy milk and what I wanted was almond milk but Sainsbury’s was having none of that. Also, milk and poultry and who knows what else is labeled “British X”? So there was “British Chicken Breast” or “2% British Milk”. I require an explanation.

Also! It is so rude to me for them to package THE EXACT SAME PRODUCT I purchase in the US differently here in the UK. All I needed was my tea and my digestives and both of them look completely different here. Same brand, same product. Completely different.

Also, update: I am still tired. A day that I will not be eternally tired has been promised, but I am beginning to doubt that it will ever come. I am glad I came so early even if it had just been to get this constant low-level exhaustion out of the way.

Because I am a millenial, I checked out the snapchat geotag for the neighborhood almost immediately – I don’t love it. However, I can learn to live with it, because we have two really cute general “London” geotags that I like.

Anyway, you have been updated.

Good night!