I landed in London’s Heathrow airport two weeks ago, sweaty and confused. My plane ride from my hometown, Dallas, Texas was nine hours long and I was majorly jet lagged (London is six hours ahead of Texas). My biggest fear was something going cinematically wrong as soon as I stepped off the plane: being arrested at customs, getting lost in the airport, someone stealing my bag, etc…
But everything went frustratingly smooth.
Which is nice. But it doesn’t make for a very good story, now does it?
Preparing for studying abroad in London was a lot of work: visa forms, proof of support, passport…blah, blah, blah. Also, I’m sure my wallet shed a single tear when I converted from dollars to pounds (Britain’s currency). Great Britain’s currency is stronger than the U.S. dollar. It takes one dollar and sixty-four cents to receive one pound. That makes it very important to me to be money conscious. But that’s hard when there are so many great stores in London: Topman, All Saints, Selfridges…I should stop!
The only real calamity was my denim jacket becoming decorated with sweat stains. After three months of nothing but dog-hot summer days, the Texan in me shivered when I saw it would be sixty-degrees Fahrenheit when I landed. But because of all the lethargic drizzling rain and sad grey clouds, London’s really humid. It’s important to dress in layers because it can be nice and sunny one second and then raining the next. It’s amusing how insignificant rain is to Londoners. They just walk through it, no umbrella or hood over their head. That’s because it’s usually a mild drizzle and only lasts for fifteen minutes.
Prior to my arrival, there were talks of The Tube going on strike the day I arrived (The Tube is London’s subway system). The Tube always closes at midnight, however the city wants to begin all-night service on weekends despite Tube workers’ protests. Thankfully, the strike was called off. However, as a precaution, my university (New York University) had ordered double-decker buses to transport us students from the airport to our dorms. I forced myself to stay awake and take in everything as we drove through the city. Immediately, I was surprised by how many American chains are here: American Apparel, KFC, Starbucks, Urban Outfitters, etc. There are enough similarities to America (especially New York City) to make me feel comfortable, but enough differences to make me feel excited.
Of course, the good Fashion Journalism major in me took in everyone’s street fashion. Londoners dresses sharper and more polished compared to New Yorkers. In New York, wild hair colors and wearing black head to toe is the name of the game. In London, even young twenty-something guys can be found wearing Burberry trench coats, loafers, and cable-knit sweaters. To be fair, NYU’s London campus is located at Bedford Square, a more posh area of London. South London is the more funky and young area. There, it felt more like New York. There were girls with completely shaved heads and some with purple hair. The teenagers were wearing an eclectic mix of clothes they’d purchased at vintage stores.
One misconception I had was that everyone would be snobbish as soon as they heard my American accent. For the most part, everyone seems to be really warm and interested in hearing about my life back home. They do poke fun at Americans’ large portion sizes (a size small drink is the only option at their fast food restaurants), and different way of doing politics. Through the deep conversations I’ve held with Londoners, we’ve seen that America and Britain share many of the same fears and issues- they are just wearing different outfits.
I am beginning to miss the familiarity of America. In Manhattan, the city is always alive. If you have a late-night craving for a dollar slice of pizza at 2:00 a.m., you can roll out of bed and go get it. Here, most shops close at 9 or 10 p.m. It’s really weird for such a big city to have such an early bedtime. Also, there are a lot of differences in British slang that I always forget until I receive playful laughs from my British friends. For example, here, “pants” refers to underwear. “Trousers” is what you’re supposed to say. So next time I go shopping I have to make sure I don’t say, “Do these pants fit okay?”
Then there are differences in how Brits say time (14:00 is 2 p.m.), measure weight (170 pounds is 12 stones) and measure temperature (70 degrees Fahrenheit is 21 degrees Celsius). It gets frustrating but then I have to remind myself: the world wouldn’t be interesting if everything was the same.
I really love it here. What I want to bring back home isn’t a post card or key chain. It’s politeness. People are just so nice here. And in a very real, unforced way. When I had trouble figuring out the correct change to give my cashier, she took the time to go through each one and explain their value to me (there are so many!). It may just be because all my NYU friends and I are obvious wide-eyed foreigners but still, everyone just seems so much happier and relaxed compared to Americans. So that’s definitely something I’ll try to take back home with me. Hopefully I remember this the next time I’m on the 6 train and have someone’s sweaty armpit inches from my face.