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!

Banking in the UK

Disclaimer: Everything here comes solely from my research and shouldn’t be construed as actual financial advice or complete or even, frankly, correct. I have been known to be wrong before. This is for your guidance if you’re going through this process and if you aren’t, it’s for you to feel better about your stress levels. Mine are ridiculous.

My goals when I started out were to find someone who wouldn’t charge me for moving money from a US account (like, say, my parents) to a UK account and to have the account started before I moved (that didn’t quite work out).

A note on terminology: what we might call a debit account or a checking account in the US is known as a current account in the UK.

Here are the banks I looked into:

Lloyds Bank

They offer a variety of accounts – however, international students are ineligible for their student account and they suggest you look into their Classic account. This offers balance alerts via text, a debit card, and a service called “Everyday Offers” which is a certain percentage cash back on certain purchases if you meet their criteria. Interestingly, they also give you a sort of grace period wherein if you overdraft, you have until 3:30 PM UK time that day to add money or arrange a planned overdraft.

You must appear in person with two or more options from a list of documents within 14 days of your application in order to open an account. This is pretty appealing to me as an international student because it means I can begin the application process from home and appear a few days later, after arriving in the UK, to finish opening the account.

Lloyds also offers a helpful checklist for moving to the UK; my school also has one, but I think you can never have too many checklists to cross-reference. They have an international account service specifically for people moving to the UK, but you have to make £100,000 a year. Since I qualify for that only in my wildest dreams, I was a little disappointed. However, they do say that even if you don’t qualify, they’d be happy to meet with you and do what they can to help.

Royal Bank of Scotland

RBS offers international students the same account they offer domestic students with the exception of arranged overdrafts. This means that the international student account includes a debit card, cash withdrawals, 1/3 off coach travel if you use internet banking (I have a lot of questions but I’ll take it), digital banking, and a mobile app. The app has a service called Get Cash which allows you to make ATM withdrawals using your phone. They also do a cash back program and text alerts. RBS also has a program that allows you to pay your friends using only their cell phone number.

Barclays

Once again, I am too poor for an international account, although Barclays only wants me to be able to deposit a quarter of what Lloyds wanted. However, they have an account specifically for international students. They have an “award-winning” mobile banking app, as well as a similar cash back program. I did notice that the names Barclays gives cash back with are places I think I’d be shopping more often. Barclays also has a similar program called Pingit that allows mobile money exchange. Along with the standard eligibility requirements, Barclays stipulates you’ll need to pay your “main source of funding” into this account. You can apply online and then confirm your identity in person. Unless I’m reading wrong, it seems like I don’t get a debit card? I definitely don’t get text alerts or e-statements. Those things are really what disqualified it for me. I rely on that kind of notification.

HSBC

It looks like I’d be applying for their Basic Bank Account, which is Lloyds Classic Account but a £200 lower threshold for ATM withdrawals in a single day. HSBC makes a point of saying they allow direct debit (like for paying recurring bills) but I honestly don’t think anyone else doesn’t allow that, so much as they don’t advertise it as an advantage of their account. Stay tuned to see if I’m wrong. HSBC also lacks the cash back and savings programs that I liked about Lloyds.

 

To help me narrow down further, I took a look at which banks were near my flat – there is an HSBC branch, a Lloyds branch, Barclays, and a Santander branch. So not actually narrowing anything down any further. After consulting my mom to confirm my decision, I’ve chosen to start a current account with Lloyds. I’ll let you know how that actual process goes around Sept. 13th. I can begin the application online, but I’ll have to appear in person as well. Let me know if you have any advice or questions about the bank account process.

Until next time!

Getting There, Part I

As I am leaving the US to go to London, the only practical avenue by which to travel is air. For those of you seeking a boat, perhaps, or a subterranean train, or the world’s longest (maybe soon to be less impossible than you think?) road trip – this is not the post for you.

I booked my plane ticket on March 12th – a Saturday, for those of you who subscribe to the arcane witchcraft of buying tickets on certain days. This was a few days less than six months before departure.

I watched prices using Kayak, which I don’t regret as of yet. Kayak offers a lot of useful flight price tracking options, including periodic emails with price tracking. The site is easy to use, pretty intuitive, and displays a lot of information really comprehensively. You can save flights to watch to a “Trip”, so you can come back and check the same flights every time. Kayak will also offer up a comparison of what the other sites like them are quoting. Probably my favorite feature is that I never got annoying, unsolicited email from Kayak. I got the fare tracking emails I asked for and nothing else. Personally, I didn’t see a huge shift in the price like I have with some other international fares; I attribute this to it being LHR, but it could be anything. Honestly, I don’t think there’s any certain time to buy with this one, other than “soon” – flights were selling out pretty fast, even in March. They seemed to have the best prices on offer. They don’t serve as a booking agent, and I was referred to vayama – I don’t know if that’s because of the flight I booked or if that’s who does all of their booking.

I definitely did not use the “Trips” feature to its fullest extent – it also has hotel and car rental functions.

I was trying to watch for a major drop in prices – when I was looking to buy a ticket to go to Dublin, about eight months out there was a sharp drop of about $200, after a slow descent that totaled about another $150-200. I’ve decided, though, that no such precipice exists for London Heathrow. There was a slow downward trickle, and a few days of the price bouncing back up again, but honestly the total difference wasn’t more than $200. There is a very real risk of all the flights being booked, however, if you wait too long. Flights were filling up seven months out as I was waiting to book my ticket.

Look for updates from the airport when I actually leave to find out how it all works out.