London: Thank You

It seems like just a few days ago I was on the Gatwick Express, excited about the train’s fantastic Wi-Fi and the adventures that awaited me. Now, two weeks have passed in a blink of an eye and I am on my way back home, sullenly recalling my stay in London.

London now has a huge place in my heart, and dare I say it, it may be an even greater city than New York (is that possible?). I can tell stories of all the sight-seeing I did and recount the random facts I now have in my head, but I cannot even begin to describe the new friendships I have made.

I learned about “London Fam” basically as soon as I met Olivia, and I even spoke to them through her phone to explain to them about Greek life (which I did again in person). I know how much these friends mean to Olivia and it made me so happy that she would get to go back and visit them, and was kind enough to allow me to come along.

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As soon as I met them, I understood why Olivia is so fond of them. They welcomed not just Olivia, but me, a complete stranger, into their home with open arms for a whole two weeks. I cannot express my gratitude enough, so I would like to say, “Thank you,” to each of them.

Liam– I was so glad when you opened the door for us, because I was so nervous no one would be there when we arrived. Thanks for being so easy-going and always pleasure to be with. I love your piercings and your Australian flag!

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Jake– I was not sure if you would think it was weird that I was the one who welcomed you into Revolution the first night, since we had never met. However, you greeted me with a huge hug and I instantly felt completely comfortable with you. I am glad we got to talk that night as we walked way faster than everyone else. Thanks for taking us to the British Museum, going to Camden Town with us, dancing with me at Electric Ballroom and taking us around your hometown. I am going to hold you to your word about Skyping!

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Rhi– You are like a little ball of happiness with great style. Even though you are an “adult,” you still found the time to hang out with us and I think that is just awesome. You are naturally such a sweet girl and I know you’ll go so far in anything you do.

Elisha– I think the first words I said to you were, “You are so cute!” I also think I told you that about ten times after that. You are such a sweet girl who always knows a good time. Thank you for letting me sleep in your bed when you were away, letting us clutter your room, allowing me to wear your shirt, walking around with us the last day and basically becoming my sister. I will never forget when you became a bartender on the train back from Nottingham—that was the best!

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Olivia- Little of mine! I know I probably drove you crazy at times, but you have no idea how much I appreciated spending all this time with you. Thank you for dealing with my tourist self and most importantly, for letting me befriend your incredible friends.

I will forever cherish our confused conversations about each others’ cultures and differences in language and coming together at the end of the night to watch some interesting reality television shows. You all have a home in new Jersey, and wherever I end up living in life. Thank you so much for everything. I love you all!

 

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London: The Final Hours

Olivia and I were a quarter of the way done with our last full day in London. Up next? The Sky Garden.

The Sky Garden is a luscious garden, café and bar at the top of another modern building in London, which is nicknamed the Walkie Talkie. It is free to visit, as long as one makes reservations. We met Elisha and Jake there, and up, up and away we went! It is a quite modern space, and I really enjoyed the contrast between the thick green garden and the contemporary glass. This Sky Garden is supposed to offer one of the best views in the city; however, London decided to be stereotypically gray out, and we had virtually no view. Regardless, we still enjoyed our time together chatting and nibbling on some snacks.

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Me, Olivia and Elisha

After the Sky Garden, Elisha, Olivia and I wandered about the streets, visiting some shops and Leadenhall market, which is after what Harry Potter’s Diagon Alley is modeled.

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Leadenhall Market

Nighttime fell, and Olivia and I went back to catch our ride on the London Eye. We could have done this during the day, but we already knew there would be no view, and I thought riding it at night may be nice. Well, as suspected, we did not have much of a view, but it was pleasant to see Parliament, Elizabeth Tower and the rest of the city shining bright in the dreary night sky.

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Upon our return back to my favorite purple home, everyone was quite hungry and ready for our last dinner together. We chose to eat at Nando’s, a Portuguese chain restaurant that mainly serves chicken that comes in a variety of special sauces. It was a fine meal, but I definitely thing Wetherspoons has it beat.

After dinner, we headed home to chat and sip on some hot chocolate. I was already missing nights like this.

London: A Cruise on the Thames

I could not believe it: our full last day in London had arrived. Olivia and I had reservations for a London Eye ride and river boat cruise. I was super excited for both, as I have been on many rivers in many huge cities around the world (Paris, Berlin, Budapest), and I was glad to add onto the list. Plus, the London Eye was something that so many people brought up when I said I was visiting.

The day started with a trip on the Thames, which was narrated by a guide who gave us a blurb about many sites along the way:

  • Westminster and Lambeth Bridges: Also known as the green and red bridges due to their color, the Westminster Bridge was used by members of the House of Commons, while the Lambeth Bridge was used by members of the House of Lords, so the Houses of Parliament did not mix when entering the building.
  • Palace of Westminster: We learned that the fire that largely destroyed the palace in 1834 was caused by the burning of ballot sticks in its basement.
  • Ministry of Defense: With its windows completely shuttered closed, this building houses some of the most top secret information, and apparently dives 19 floors underground. Rumor has it that there is a bomb shelter, tunnels and a wine cellar from Henry VIII hidden underneath.
  • Royal National Theater: I would not expect this gray, cement building to host three theaters.
  • ITV Studios: Lights, camera, action! This is where This Morning is taped.
  • Paul’s: Amidst restoration work, the cathedral was absolutely gutted during the Great Fire of 1666.
  • Millennium Bridge: A steel suspension bridge opened in 2000 solely for human crossing, it is famous for its cameo in the sixth Harry Potter film.

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  • London Bridge: There have been many bridges that spanned the Thames that wore this name, with the first apparently being the original bridge in London. One would not not think it is so famous, considering the current 1973 London Bridge is simply concrete and steel.
  • HMS Belfast: This is the last remaining White Star Line ship in the world. It served in both world wars and is extremely famous for carrying first and second class passengers to the Titanic.
  • Tower Bridge: There is a set schedule for when this iconic bridge opens to let tall ships though. Also, the extra fancy stonework that decorates the bridge is completely unnecessary and is only there to complement the Tower of London.
  • Tate Modern: A modern art gallery located on the Thames. I would love to visit in the future.
  • Mooring Rings: There are lion heads that act as mooring rings along the river, and people say, “When the lions drink, London will sink.”
  • Somerset House: A historical building that I would like to visit. It holds London’s fashion week.

Although the day was foggy and gray and any color was washed right out of the city, I was glad I got to be on the water, my favorite place to be. After the cruise, we headed to our next destination: The Sky Garden.

London: The Tower of London

I was lucky enough to be in London for a day in sixth grade, and one of my most vivid and favorite memories is touring the Tower of London. I am so fortunate that I was able to revisit the fortress and take a step into its rich history.

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Outside the Tower of London

The tower has Norman beginnings, when William, Duke of Normandy, defeated the English and took the throne, and eventually had the White Tower built as a symbol of his strength. Over the years, many monarchs built onto the tower, which eventually became the Tower of London. The Tower has housed the Royal Mint, royal beasts, which would eventually be moved to the London Zoo, many prisoners, the Records Office, which kept important documents of the State and of course, the Crown Jewels. For those who do not know, the Crown Jewels is a collection of royal metalwork and jewels that belongs to past and current monarchs.

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The original White Tower

The Tower of London has a dark past, holding only six private beheadings (such as King Henry VIII’s second wife Ann Boleyn), but many, many public deaths. My favorite gruesome story that has stuck with since sixth grade is the story of a jealous uncle who most likely murdered his two nephews and shoved them under the staircase so he could take the throne.

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Outside one of the towers

There is so much rich history behind the walls of the tower, and I could go on explaining it forever. Olivia and I enjoyed the fortress for hours, as we explored its towers, The Chapel of St. Peter, the Royal Armories, its execution site, the Crown Jewels and more.

I did not expect to take so long in the tower, but I am beyond thankful that I was able to indulge in its history once more. The Tower of London is definitely a must-see for anyone visiting London.

London: A Walk Along the Thames

I was super excited for mine and Olivia’s last Monday in London because it just so happens my sorority sister was visiting, and we planned to meet up!

Our day started with a trip to the 1,000 year-old Borough Market, which is a charming and eclectic food market in Southwark. We got there just as it was opening, and the place already smelled of warm comfort food. Soon enough, my sister Shannon showed up with her friends and our official walk of sightseeing began!

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Another part of the market

We had a fun time exploring some spots along the Thames River: Shakespeare’s Globe, Milenium Bridge, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London and finally the Tower Bridge. I loved exploring the area, which was filled with both modern buildings and old-style restaurants.

After a walk over the Tower Bridge, Olivia departed and I followed Shannon and her friends the rest of the day. We strolled back to the Borough Market, where we enjoyed a fantastic lunch of mac and pork, which was a container half filled with macaroni and cheese and half filled with pulled pork, and a cheese sauce poured over. It was fantastic and I was glad to be supporting such a cool market.

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After our brisk lunch break, we went to the top of the Shard. The Shard is a 95 story skyscraper a block away from the market that boasts hotel rooms, restaurants, offices and gorgeous views of the city. The name is reflective of its design, as the building looks like a shard of glass rising into the sky. People can pay to visit the top; however, we went to a fairly fancy restaurant about halfway up to enjoy drinks with a view. Well, they enjoyed the drinks, while I enjoyed the view and their company!

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The Shard behind Southwark Cathedral

After the Shard, I said goodbye to Shannon and I was so thankful that I was able to see her and explore more of London. It was a relaxing night back at home with the London friends, as we chatted while watching some interesting English reality television.

 

London: Greenwich Park

I can’t believe it is our second and last Saturday in London! Olivia and I are so tempted to stay, but I do not think immigration would be too happy about that.

Today was another day planned with “London Fam” and we headed to Greenwich for a nice afternoon in the park. The town itself is adorable, boasting with shops and eateries.

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Once we got into the park, we realized entry to the National Maritime Museum is free (donations are encouraged), so we decided to take a look. There was so much to learn about, from huge British battles at sea such as Jutland and Trafalgar to the history of the slave trade.

We left the museum before sun down so we could walk up the hill that leads to the Royal Observatory and a view of the park with the city in the background. Also seen from this view is the Queen’s House and Old Royal Naval College.

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Before heading out, we strolled to the water which hosts more shops and also a member of the National Historic Fleet, Cutty Stark. This steamship was part of the tea and wool trades and then used as a training ship until she was retired in 1954.

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After Greenwich, we all headed back to the home to relax before an exciting night out. Hooray for another successful Saturday with the English friends!

 

London: Stonehenge, Bath and Windsor

Friday fun-day? Well that’ what it was for me, as I was fortunate enough to embark on a tour to Windsor Castle, Stonehenge and the Roman town of Bath. This too was a solo endeavor for me. Although I was super nervous I would miss the trip, I managed to find the stunning St. Pancras Renaissance Hotel and was picked up right on time at 7:30 a.m. and brought to the point of departure.

I could probably go on about each place I visited forever, but I will try to keep it short. Our first destination was Windsor Castle, a royal residence and apparently a beloved getaway by Her Majesty. I was super excited to explore a “real” castle. During my time here, I visited the Queen’s dollhouse and doll collection, which apparently are both famous and expensive. I then strolled through St. George’s Chapel, which is also the burial place of members of the Royal Family. Although the State Apartments were closed, I felt so fortunate to be able to view the Changing of the Guards outside the chapel. I was filled with emotion and gratitude as the Guard band came marching through playing their drums and bagpipes. What a sight!

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The second stop of the day was the mysterious Stonehenge. Although it is still based on speculation, it is believed that the sandstone and bluestone formation on Salisbury Plain was a temple to the sun and then used to track the shortest and longest days of the year. Stonehenge took many forms before if became what we see it as today, which interested me. There was plenty of research and information about the site in a brand new museum, and I spent most of my time in there. (I mean, how long can I stand there and look at rocks?) I am super glad I got to view the wonder.

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The last and final stop was the Roman city of Bath, which to this day, still has romantic charm with its limestone buildings and beautiful cathedral. The main reason for the stop was to visit the Roman bathhouse, which is a very well preserved site for public bathing. I may have been most excited for this because I visited a public bath in Rome, but it was in complete ruins. To see the main bath, still with warm mineral water and original columns, was absolutely amazing. I even got to taste the water, which tasted of iron, even though it has 43 minerals altogether.

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During the rest of my stay I explored the city. It reminded me of my visit to Venice over the summer when we were left to explore the beautiful city. Although it is nowhere near as impressive as Venice, Bath has a beautiful park along the water where I spent much time wandering.

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I did feel bad about leaving Olivia for the day, but I was so thankful I was able to see such incredible sights. Another solo trip, another fantastic experience and many memories that will last a lifetime: my version of a successful day.

 

London: Theatre Time

With all my excitement from my Harry Potter post, I almost forgot to mention I saw a show in London!

So many people told me the thing to do in London is to visit the theatre, and being the theatre-lover that I am, I was under my own pressure to see one. After the Harry Potter tour, I accepted the fact that I was not going to see a show. However, one of the girls in the house messaged me that she saw an advertisement to buy tickets and that she thought of me. It was a calling.

After some debate, I bought a 21-pound ticket to see A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime. I had no idea what the show is about, but I knew that people had great reviews about it when it was playing in New York. So, I figured I would check it out.

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This was the first time I was going to be out in London by myself. I was a bit nervous, but I have been wanting to practice being on my own, and thought this would be a perfect opportunity. Plus, I knew where I was going, because I had visited the area on a tour a few days prior.

I arrived at the Gielgud Theater with much ease and picked up my tickets. There were two things that shocked me. First, my seat, which was in the Grand Balcony section of the theater (equivalent to Rear Balcony seating), was better than I expected. Instead of being tiered back from the stage like I am accustomed to, the upper portion of seats seemed to be at a more vertical incline, making the the seats seem more above the stage rather than away from it. I was quite pleased!

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The second thing that absolutely astonished me is that London does not give out Playbills for shows. Instead, one has to buy a program. I was absolutely shocked. I am sure the program has a lot more meat to it than a Playbill, though.

The show was really interesting, as it starts off as a mystery and shows the journey of a teenager with high-functioning autism finding himself in a confusing world that does not understand him. It was filled with intense emotion and was beautifully portrayed through a minimalistic stage and the use of sound and light effects.

I am super proud of myself for being comfortable venturing off on my own, as I think it is a necessary skill to have (although my family was not too pleased). Now, I can check one more experience off my list!

 

London: Warner Bros. Harry Potter Studio Tour

Today is the day I have been waiting for (and part of my agreement to come to London): The Making of Harry Potter Warner Bros. Studio Tour!

After taking two trains, Olivia and I were greeted by a double-decker that was completely covered in Harry Potter graphics. It was awesome! The bus even had Mr. Weasley on video talking a bit about the tour and the studios.

A few minutes later, we arrived to the studio, which is actually a bit outside London. Upon entrance, we were welcomed into an open room with a ginormous snow-covered Christmas tree, a display of costumes from Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them and large portraits of the Harry Potter characters throughout the years.

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We waited in a short line next to the cupboard under the stairs, and it was time to enter. The moment I had been waiting for was here!

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There are a series of three rooms that guides take visitors through at first. The initial room has small screens that show Harry Potter movie covers from around the world, and then play a short video about how the franchise went global. The next room shows a short film narrated by Daniel Radcliffe, Rupert Grint and Emma Watson explaining what went into the making of the beloved films over their ten-year stay at the studios. I was almost in tears.

Lastly, the screen rose and revealed a door. This was not just any door, but a grand door. It was the entrance to the Great Hall. Slowly, the doors opened and the group rushed in with eagerness. I could not believe I was in the Great Hall, the place of so many memorable moments throughout the films.

The guides spewed out some facts about the Great Hall as guests walked freely about. For example, real food was originally used for filming, but then it was switched to fake food once the real food stunk up the place. The costumes of professors lined the head of the room, as they would be seated during any event in the hall. I always say this, but it amazes me how small the room seemed compared to the massive size it appears on-screen. That’s the magic of cinema!

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The rest of our two hours spent at the studios were self-guided. We first went into Studio J, which is compromised of original sets and props. I could not believe how many pieces of the set were still at the studios. Just to name a few, displayed in the studio are Dumbledore’s office, the potions classroom, the giant and still moving clock from the clock tower, the Gryffindor common area and Ron and Harry’s room. The list goes on and on.

After the first studio, we were guided to an outdoor area which houses the night bus, 4 Privet Drive, Potter’s cottage in Godric’s Hollow and a piece of Hogwart’s long bridge.

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I also tried the infamous Butterbeer for the first time. The foam on top was as sweet as anything with a butterscotch taste. Meanwhile, the actual drink tasted like diluted cream soda. I was not as impressed as I thought I would be, but I would definitely give it another try somewhere else.

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After this middle section, we strolled into Studio K, which is split into separate rooms. The first part shows the mechanics behind the movies. I was a bit uneasy when I found out that for some scenes, Hagrid’s head was a mechanical prop! We also got to see some blueprints used to create Hogwarts, which were super fascinating.

Then, the best thing happened: We visited Diagon Alley! I had no idea the famous street would be there, and I was overwhelmed with joy.

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Another incredible thing occurred next: We were able to go into the original Hogwarts Express that was used for filming! Each cart that was used during a movie is marked off and set up how it was seen in the movie.

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I was even more grateful when I was able to step onto Platform 9 ¾. I could not wait to do this. Fun fact: There actually is a replica Platform 9 ¾ at King’s Cross station in London.

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The tour ended with a massive and jaw-dropping model of Hogwarts followed by a room filled with thousands of wands, each box bearing the name of someone who helped with any of the films.

The studios definitely lived up to my dreams and even surpassed my expectations. Now I just need to go to Harry Potter World in Florida!

London: Road Trip to Nottingham

Road trip! The whole gang (well, almost) decided to travel with Jake to his house in Nottingham where he was dropping off his car in return for another day of good ole’ memory making.

The whole trip went smoothly, besides at the beginning when Jake realized his tire was completely flat. Before arriving at his home, we made a few stops.

The first stop was Wollaton Hall and Deer Park. Wollaton Hall is a late Elizabethan mansion perched on a hill that overlooks 500 acres of wetland, grass and woodland. Olivia could not stop talking about the deer park, which first of all, I did not even know was an actual thing. Were there actually loads of deer just waiting to be spotted by humans? Or was there a large population in the area and people often got a glimpse? Well, let the pictures do the talking.

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I was amazed. These deer were huge. There were big deer, little deer, brown deer and light gray and brown deer with spots. They were everywhere and it was fantastic.

After the shock of the deer calmed down, we strolled around the large pond in the park grounds. The low fog made the woods that surrounded the pond feel like an enchanted forest.

We also visited Wollaton Hall, which was unfortunately closed. So, we only got to see it from the outside. Fun fact: Wollaton Hall was Wayne Manor in The Dark Knight Rises.

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We said farewell to the adorable deer and then headed into Central Nottingham. I have to say, the city reminded me a bit of Philly or Boston with its clean streets and young vibe. We desperately needed to refuel, so we went to The Roebuck Inn, which is a Victorian pub. It is actually a part of the Wetherspoon chain of restaurants and hotels. The eatery really impressed me with its extremely affordable prices, great-tasting food and energetic vibe.

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After we re-energized, we walked by the Nottingham Castle, a Robinhood statue and what claimed to be the oldest pub in the world, which, according to the Internet, has resident ghosts.

We finally got around to dropping off Jake’s car and then headed back into the city for an hour to await our train. We relaxed in a pub on the Nottingham Canal, which is quite a charming area.

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The pub we chatted in before catching our train

About three hours and a very lively train ride later, we were all back in our charming purple home. I am glad I got to explore a new part of England today, even if most of the day was spent traveling. I made memories and enjoyed myself, and that’s what matters to me.