Alan in London

Alan, a junior from Austin Texas, is majoring in economics and foreign language. He is spending the 2006-07 school year studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

The Year is Done

It is now less than a month before I leave London. I have just finished with my final exams for the year, which is the reason why it has taken me awhile to submit another entry. Like I said before, the school year here is separated into 3 semesters, of which the last is mostly about preparing for exams. Exam preparation is intense and LSE allots an entire semester to this. For LSE students, these exams count for 100% of their grade for the entire year. That’s right, 12 hours of testing (3 hours per test), determines their grade for a whole year. The library becomes packed with students studying from the morning until the evening. There are times where one cannot find a single study space in the entire library. Needless to say, studying for exams has been a completely different experience compared with SMU. However, despite the difficulties and the long nights, I have to say that it has been a great experience. I feel that at LSE, you learn not only the material in your courses, but you also learn a different way of how to focus your studies and how to maximize your time. After spending a lot of time in the library, it is nice to finally be able to sleep in and not worry about finding a study space when you get to the library. I still have a few weeks left before I leave London and there are still many things to do and see.

In the weeks ahead, providing good weather, I am hoping to enjoy London to its fullest extent. There are certain things that are just not possible in Texas. For example, going to Trafalgar Square in the evening to watch the sunset over Big Ben and then enjoying a live broadcast of the Royal Ballet performing Swan Lake as the fountains light up. Or, you can go on a short cruise on the River Thames that takes you through the heart of London and even to the spectacle of Canary Wharf at night. Actually, today was the first day that I have worn shorts since I came to London. It took me awhile to find them in my luggage.

For the upcoming weeks, I will be headed to Greece and Turkey to see some of the most historic places in Europe and Asia. In addition, I am hoping to go to Wimbledon this year, seeing some of the best tennis players on the historic lawns of Wimbledon.

Since my exams have now ended, I have had more time to reflect on my year abroad in London. No matter how much I think about it, I always reach the same conclusion: that it has been a phenomenal year. Before I came, I spoke with others who had done the program before and one of the things they stressed was that this year was not just about academics, that it was a year to become more independent, a year to meet people from all over the world, and a year to simply experience being abroad. They told me that this year will expand your horizons and that when you return to the United States, you will be a different person. It was difficult to fathom what that meant back in late September, but now, I realize just how true their statements were. I was sitting down to dinner last night with a group of friends that I met on my first day here. I looked around the table and marvelled at how every single person had a different life story. No two people had the same experiences, even those of us from the United States had very different backgrounds. Half of the education here is speaking with these people, listening to their views, and allowing yourself the opportunity to open yourself to their opinions and knowledge. It is this experience that is so difficult to measure but that has also made this year one to remember for a lifetime.

Until next time, cheers!

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Ok Ok, I know it’s been quite awhile since my last entry but so much has happened in the last four weeks. Currently, LSE is in the middle of its Easter holiday, which is a five-week long break between its Lent term and the Summer term, when exams are held. During these five weeks, much can be accomplished in terms of studying for exams, but most tend to get away for a little bit before hitting the books. As for me, I spent a week in Scotland and also traveled to Geneva, Switzerland for several days before returning to London.

My first week of break, I went up to Scotland with a friend and stayed in Edinburgh. Being in London for so long, it was nice to get out of the city for awhile. The train system in the UK is very extensive, very convenient, and if you buy early, quite cheap as well. In addition, you get to see more of the British countryside, which is quite a contrast to the skyscrapers of London. Based in Edinburgh, we took two tours (these are daily tours that take you to the highlands to the West and North of Edinburgh) to see the Scottish countryside. Our first surprise, snow! Some parts of Scotland, even in late March and early April are still covered in snow. Being the lone Texan on board, it was quite a shock to see the tour guide walking around in a short-sleeve shirt. Their tolerance for cold weather is certainly way above mine.

I think one of the most interesting things about Scotland is its history. Throughout the tour, the guide talked about the history of Scotland, its sometimes violent conflict with England, and the famous figures that most Americans seem to jumble all together. From William Wallace to Mary Queen of Scots, it was fascinating to hear the continuous history that eventually led to the creation of the United Kingdom. Even Hollywood was incorporated into the tales, with Mel Gibson and Braveheart to Scarlett Johansson and the upcoming movie on Mary, Queen of Scots. Scotland also remains, to a certain extent, a separate state, with its own Parliament and can even print its own version of the pound sterling. I was able to find one with Jack Nicklaus on the back as a tribute to the British Open.

But, the most incredible thing about Scotland was its natural beauty. From Loch Ness, the famous lake, to Glencoe, Scotland has an endless stretch of natural beauty that was wonderful to see. The weather was cooperative when we were there and it provided for some incredible photos.

My second trip of the break was to Switzerland and the beautiful city of Geneva. Located in the French speaking portion of Switzerland (an opportunity for me to practice my French), the city is built around a lake that Switzerland shares with France and is surrounded by the Alps. Being one of the few countries in Western Europe to not use the euro, Switzerland operates by using the Swiss franc, which is one of the most colorful currencies that I have ever seen. There are also four national languages in Switzerland (French, German, Italian, and Romansh), which made many signs very interesting to read, although most signs in Geneva are printed in French only.

Geneva is a very important international center, with the United Nations and many other international organizations being located there. But my impression of the city is one that is very relaxed, where the locals make time in their day to sit by the lake, to take a coffee break with a friend, or to throw a Frisbee in the park. It seemed like everywhere we went, there were people relaxing in the middle of the day. Men and women in business attire would sit on one of the many piers for lunch and stay there for hours. It was the perfect place to take a vacation!

Spring time in London is why I came to London. The weather has been spectacular, just unbelievable how much difference a couple of months make. This last week has seen all sunny days with temperatures in the high 60s (Fahrenheit) and lows in the low 60s. You simply cannot resist going to Hyde Park and bringing lunch or a Frisbee to spend the afternoon. Londoners are also out in force during these great days. Hyde Park was filled with people out to enjoy their day, with people bring footballs (or what we call soccer balls), badminton, and many other activities to do for the afternoon. I finally got to put on those pair of shorts that I brought way back in September. Hopefully, this will last for the rest of the time I am here because now is also the time for revision. With exams in a few weeks, it is hard to balance enjoying London life with studying. But, all the work now comes with the knowledge that there is still so much left to enjoy. Until next time, Cheers!

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187th day spent abroad

As I write this, it is my 187th day spent abroad, outside the United States. I am currently studying at the London School of Economics and Political Science and am spending my entire junior year here. I remember debating whether or not I wanted to spend an entire year abroad because it is quite a commitment. In addition to being away from SMU for a whole year, there would be a whole new way of life awaiting me, one that did not include Texas sunshine. But in the end, after speaking with several professors as well as doing some of my own research, I decided that this was too great of an opportunity to pass up. So I filled out several applications, to St. Andrews University in Scotland, University College London, and the London School of Economics and Political Science, and decided to come to LSE in the end.

Packing for a whole year in London is quite an ordeal. You simply have no clue what to bring, what to send later, and what to buy here. I remember a friend telling me that to pack, you put everything that you think you need into a pile, and then take only half of that. After this experience, I am quite sure that it is one of the best pieces of advice I have ever received. Arriving in London way back in September, I really had no idea what was awaiting me here in this city that was the center of the world for such a long time. Classes began within 10 days of my arrival and I still had so many things to do.

New Places, New People
One of the best things about coming to London is the chance to meet new people. LSE has numerous international students, many of whom are the smartest and brightest from their countries. I have met people from almost everywhere in the world, from Mauritius and Turkey to Sri Lanka and Kenya. I go to class with students from Pakistan, India, South Korea, Germany, the Netherlands, France, Brazil, Japan, China, Bulgaria, Russia, and Finland. The list could be extended for quite a few more lines. It is so interesting to talk to these people, to listen to their life experiences, and to hear about their views on world issues and events.

Of course, another great thing about London is the incredible history that this city has. Walking to school, I pass the famed St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is just across the River Thames from the Tate Modern and the Globe Theater. Further up the road is the pub where Dickens did some of his writing and the Royal Courts of Justice. I live just 10 minutes north of Tower Bridge and the Tower of London. Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and the London Eye are a mere 10 minutes by Tube and the famous Trafalgar Square, Leicester Square, Piccadilly Circus, and Covent Garden are only a few minutes walk away from that. But, London is also famous for so much more. The numerous old markets, from Spitalfields and Borough to Camden and Portobello are all lined with great vendors and food stalls that are a great way to spend a weekend morning.

Being British
Also, there is a lot of jargon and British slang that really got me confused the first couple of weeks. It is very interesting because while you don’t really pick up the accent; you do pick up the slang very quickly. For example:

British Slang American Word
The lift = The elevator
A jumper = A sweater
Tube = Subway
Loo = Bathroom
A mate = A friend
A quid = one British pound (their currency)
Uni = University
I can’t be bothered = I don’t feel like it
Half-nine, half-ten, etc. = 9:30, 10:30, etc.
There are probably more; but these are the ones that really stand out to me.

Experiencing Europe
So far, I have done quite a bit of travelling. Being in London has its advantages because so many destinations are available through a direct flight with one of the discount airlines in Europe (Ryanair, Easyjet, etc.). London has 5 airports operating these flights so you can imagine the number of places one can go with all these options (London’s 5 airports consist of Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton, and City). Over Christmas holidays, I chose to stay in London and do a bit of travelling. I went to Lisbon, Portugal and Madrid/Barcelona, Spain. I was also able to go to Amsterdam/The Hague, Netherlands and Brussels, Belgium. There is so much to see that every holiday seems like a race to the finish. Everyone is always so tired coming back to London, but in a good way.

Easter Travels
LSE gives us 5 weeks off between Lent Term and Summer Term, when exams take place. Most students take a few weeks off before hitting the books again in the library. I have heard stories of students studying that would be almost unimaginable at SMU. Scotland and Switzerland are in the works for Easter break.

Overall, it has been a truly life-changing experience so far. My views have been challenged and reinforced. I have met so many great people that will become life-long friends. And living in London has been quite the journey. This city has so much to offer and I don’t think that even I will be able to experience this city fully this year. It is incredible how this city has become home for me. The remaining few months will be both hard because of exams but exciting because of the experiences that still lay ahead. Until next time, Cheers!

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