As I venture through my last summer as a Hopkins student, I am beginning to realize that writing about my highly anticipated abroad adventures is much harder than I originally thought it would be. I’ve been waiting for this for a long time, and I’ve jealously read so many others, hoping to feel and portray the same magic that they have over the last few years on this website. I’ve sat down to write this blog several times, and I’ve deleted what I’ve written every time, because none of it seems to entirely encompass everything I’ve seen, felt, and experienced in my first few weeks across the pond.
This Friday will mark exactly one month since my arrival in London. I’ve seen so much and crossed so many things off the “London Bucket List” note that remains open on my computer, but I’ve also found time to make a “London Bucket List” and spend a few days binge-watching Mad Men. Yesterday, I got on a tour bus to take a solo day trip to Stonehenge and Bath, and the woman sitting next to me on the bus asked how long I had been in London. When I told her I had been here for a little over three weeks, she looked at me and said “Wow, that’s a long time.”
I think that what she said is true. Being on that bus was weird yesterday, because I felt out of place. My visa says short-term student, but my lab schedule is variable. The people in the residence hall I live in see me as new (and lucky — a lot of them are still taking exams and I’ve been done for over a month now), and I don’t necessarily feel like a tourist anymore either. I still stop in the middle of the street to take a picture when I see something I don’t want to forget, but I don’t need to use Citymapper to navigate campus or South Kensington anymore. Being on that bus made me realize that I’m not on vacation, but I’m not a long-term resident either. I don’t really know where I fit in this city with a population of 8.6 million people, but I do know that I’ve appreciated every minute, even when I’ve been homesick or lonely. And that has happened.
My journey to this point cannot be spoken about without a brief discussion of the Vredenburg Scholarship. I’ve written about the Vredenburg Scholarship before, but it’s worth mentioning in this blog that it is one of many opportunities Hopkins gives to its students to study abroad. For people like me who can’t swing a semester for any number of reasons, this couldn’t have been more perfect. The Vredenburg Scholarship funds students with a major in the Whiting School of Engineering to participate in research, internships, or service projects related to engineering anywhere in the world. The scholarship covers up to $8,000 for 8 to 10 weeks, including funds for airfare, housing, food, any program fees, books, supplies, and a flat amount to go to any cultural sights of interest.
My top destinations for about as long as I can remember were London and Paris — simply put, I like cities and I’m a travel newbie, although I don’t think I’ll still be able to say that after this trip. Since I haven’t dusted off my French in about three years, that eliminated 10 weeks in Paris (though it didn’t eliminate a weekend trip, I’ll be there in July) and left me with London. It became such an obvious choice. Imperial College London is ranked #2 for Chemical Engineering in the U.K. and #6 in the world. In the last three weeks, I’ve started training in basic cell culture techniques, cell counting and viability assays, and I’ve developed a (very) rudimentary protocol for preparation of cell extracts. My project for the summer is a small part of a larger project to develop a cell-free protein synthesis system to optimize production of therapeutic glycoproteins. My “job” is to help with optimization of the cell extracts, but I’m still in the early stages, so I have yet to determine exactly what that entails.
The best part about this summer is how much I have been able to do. For my entire life, I’ve lived in New York, but since I live in the far reaches of Queens, the city that never sleeps is largely unavailable to me unless I carve out a chunk of a day. Here, I live in central London, and the entire city is right outside my doorstep. Until July 1, I will be living in South Kensington, less than a 5 minute walk to Imperial’s main campus, and after that I will be about 35 minutes away in Waterloo — a touristy, but trendy and central location nonetheless. I imagine that living in central London is something like living in Manhattan. There are endless opportunities and places to explore at a stone’s throw away (sometimes even spitting distance).
Thanks to my location, traveling couldn’t be easier. I’ve been to many of London’s museums, including the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Modern, the British Museum, the Victoria & Albert Museum, and the Science Museum. I’ve also seen plenty of iconic sights, like Westminster Abbey and Big Ben, the Tower of London, Millennium and Tower bridges, the Changing of the Guard Ceremony at Buckingham Palace, Carnaby Street and Soho, Piccadilly Circus, Hyde Park, and Sky Garden. I’ve also seen a concert at the O2 Arena, had afternoon tea, traveled to see Stonehenge, drank cider in Somerset County, and eaten a Bath bun.
Perhaps the best part about being abroad are all of the things you couldn’t possibly learn unless you experience them yourself. People don’t tell you that the tube is tiny and generally not air conditioned. The only exceptions to that are the Circle and District lines, but they are a bit slower than the Piccadilly line, which is the alternative in Zone 1. Each tube line has a fun but uninformative name, like Jubilee or Bakerloo, and the tube cannot be called “the train”, because there is also a train system separate from the tube. None of the streets are numbered, and everything in London is “walking distance,” even though that means that an hour walk is completely normal. I still don’t know what the proper response to “Cheers!” is and I still can’t define “cheeky.” Apparently, I have an accent (who knew?) and the way that I say “weird” is weird.
Even stranger, the cars drive on the wrong side of the street, but the city of London knows that. At your feet at every crosswalk, it tells you which direction to look before crossing. There is a 5p charge for a plastic bag at most stores to encourage people to reuse their own bags. Primark sells everything from carry-on suitcases to clothes to home goods, and all at incredible prices. The average cocktail here costs £10, or $13, and student unions often feature bars because most people are of drinking age when they go to college (which they call uni here). Iced coffee is scarce and air conditioning is even scarcer.
There are so many things about this city that I’ve learned in just a few weeks. I thought that going to college made me an independent adult when I left home for Hopkins three years ago, but for those of you who fancy yourselves independent people, I challenge you to travel 3,636 miles away from everyone you care about and explore a new place entirely on your own. It’s made me realize that I love my friends, but it’s also made me realize that not having familiarity doesn’t stop me from doing what I want to do. I have gone to each of the places I mentioned earlier completely alone. I took my phone and a portable charger, and I went, and for that, I’m pretty damn proud of myself.
But here’s the real kicker in all of this: I didn’t think it was possible, but I think I’ve found a better place than New York City. I love you, London, and I can’t wait to see what the next 6.5 weeks hold for us.