Posted in Study Abroad

Ring Out, Wild Bells: A London New Year’s

The December I was in London while getting my Masters was busy. Once the Michaelmas term was over, a friend who was studying in Poland visited. As soon as he left, my sister arrived. Then the two of us flew home for Christmas. When I returned to England, I brought with me my parents for their requisite trip. While my parents were visiting, a friend from undergrad and her sister were on a bit of a European vacation so they stopped by.

The next thing I knew, New Year’s was just days away. Barricades were going up from Trafalgar Square all the way down to Parliament Square. This was the largest city I had been in for New Year’s. I was excited. My personal goals for the approaching evening were rather simple: I wanted to be with good friends, make sure I heard Big Ben ring out at midnight, and enjoy the fireworks.

The initial plan was to meet up with a small group of friends at the one smoke-free pub in central London and then head down to Parliament near midnight. I left my parents up to their own devices. They had been to London many times before and it was sort of a belated anniversary celebration for them. I wasn’t being a bad daughter, I swear…

But as the best laid plans go – in the end, my visiting friend and her sister decided to spend the night at the airport for their crack-o-dawn flight, and two other friends ended up hanging with their respective flatmates. But that didn’t stop me and my friend, Julian, from having a fun time.

With 20 minutes till midnight he and I made our way with countless others through Leicester Square, around Trafalgar Square and down Whitehall towards the Parliament ensuring my desired view of the clock and Big Ben. People filled the street, drunk and sober, young and old. My eyes were glued to the clock face for fear I might somehow miss the moment. Then we hit a wall of people indicating the end of our journey. We actually made it closer than I thought we would.

Just a few minutes to go and I got my camera out and ready. Then Ben made his baritone bang. Midnight! I quickly snapped my photo and then reveled in the sights and sounds around me. Being a block off the Thames we could see the highest of the fireworks being set off at the London Eye on the south bank of the river.

My parents rung in the New Year on Victoria Embankment with a front row view of the fireworks. They enjoyed watching the revelers around them noting that the age, dress, background, economic situation or other markers of status (or lack of) didn’t seem to matter to anyone. Drunk or sober, sipping champagne from crystal or beer from a bag, most everyone was partying boisterously yet treating one another politely.

Once the celebrations had settled down it was time to about-face and head home. Leaving was different from arriving. People arrived in their own time, but were leaving all at once. The streets in London are organic in layout and narrow not allowing much room for movement for a group this size. A bottleneck formed as the crowd neared the Leicester Square tube station. The mood changed. Panic crept up my spine.

I’d never been in a crush before. People were trying to move across a limited space heading in all directions. Some were pushing very hard to get their way, many were pissed (in the British sense) and not caring who they stumbled into, and others seemed to be swallowed up and swept away. Unless you really pushed, you had little control over your direction.

My parents also felt the atmosphere change as they approached Leicester Square on the way to their hotel on Tottenham Court Road. They found themselves in the middle of a shoving match between two groups of men. Fearing the match would escalate, my father pushed his way through not caring who got in the way as long as he removed the pair of them from the situation.

I lost Julian in the crowd right outside the Underground entrance. I fought my way on towards Holborn station hoping to gain access more easily. Amazingly, not two blocks from the Leicester station, the streets were deserted. I could breathe again.

I made it home to Holloway having enjoyed – and survived – my first big city New Year’s. Not even the panic of being in the crush could take away from my being in London (my favorite city) and hearing Big Ben (my favorite London icon) ring in the coming year.

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Posted in Issues, Study Abroad

One Rx for Homesickness Coming Up

My mother gave me some pretty good advice before my first study abroad experience. She said that if I felt homesick to just head to my nearest museum or major tourist attraction and soon enough I’d feel better. She was right.

Her thinking was that if I went to a place where other short term visitors went I would 1) be around people from all over the world thus potentially diluting the concentration of the culture I was feeling homesick in and 2) I’d feel like a tourist too for a couple of hours and escape whatever was stressing me out. This advice has worked for me a couple of times when the homesickness really hit hard.

After a particularly tough few days in Utrecht I headed to the south of side town to the Utrecht Centraal Museum. Van Gogh and Rembrandt are probably the most well-known Dutch painters, with perhaps Mondriaan right behind. But at this museum I was introduced to Charley Toorop. She was a part of the Het Signaal movement (something I hadn’t heard of before).  I particularly liked her self-portraits. I enjoyed her so much that when I was at other art museums in other cities in the Netherlands, I would look for more of her pieces.

I picked up a postcard of one of her self-portraits

Learning new things by going to the museum, and scoping out the surrounding neighborhood helped to alleviate some of the homesickness I was feeling. I felt like a traveler again aka unstuck. It got me out of my house and my head for a few hours. I was rejuvenated to deal with whatever the next day would bring.

When I was in London, my go-to spot for comfort was the steps in Trafalgar Square looking down passed Nelson’s Column and its lions to the Westminster Clock Tower, the home of Big Ben. The square is usually flooded with tourists being at the crossroads to many London sites. It is right in front of the National Gallery and close to Leicester Square. Westminster is a quick walk down the road and the Mall up to Buckingham Palace is also a spoke off the square.

What I love most about this view to Big Ben is the thoughts of fairy tales it evokes. Be it the distance from the steps to the tower or the London fog, but the tower always seems a bit hazy and soft around the edges, mystical. Both Peter Pan and Mary Poppins made trips to this icon of London. And with the way the road descends from the square down to Westminster, sitting on those top steps puts you at level with the clock face making the whimsical and nostalgic seem tangible for a little while. I always left this spot feeling anything was possible.

Going to a museum or a favorite tourist spot was straight-forward and easy to do. At these tourist locales it was nice to be surrounded by other visitors, just like me, and to feel not alone. But, I think the real key to my mom’s advice was the getting out of my own head for a bit and these places facilitated that. Once out of my own head I could re-appreciate where I was and why I was there.