Helen Luc

Helen
BA English - Study Abroad
I am a student from America studying at QMUL for the 2014-2015 school year. In my free time I like to watch birds at Hyde Park or browse thrift stores in Shoreditch.

The Small Things Count Too

The sun is shining in London, and the weather is now as I remember it when I came here in September. It’s surreal to think that I have just finished a complete school year in the UK. When I prepared myself for coming to London back in September, I was most excited for doing the typical touristy things in London–riding the London Eye, visiting the British Museum, etc. Although seeing these attractions was a priority for me while in London, I will also miss a lot of the more commonplace aspects of living in London.

For example, riding the tube.

In America–or specifically where I live in Los Angeles–public transportation isn’t a very popular means for commuting, but in London, taking the Underground was a typical part of my week. Although taking the tube seems like such a mundane thing, there is a sort of excitement about it for a foreigner like myself. For one, on the tube, you are surrounded by people of so many different backgrounds. While I read my course readings on the tube, I can hear accents and different languages around me, and I can quietly notice people carrying briefcases in front of me. It’s such an interesting experience to sit in silence with so many different people from all sorts of backgrounds as we all look down on our newspapers, phones, and books, minding our own business as we commute together.

Additionally, I’ll miss sitting in cafes to do coursework. There are just so many cafes in London, and it was such a regular part of my schedule to sit down and work on readings and coursework in cafes.

I’ll even miss things like grocery shopping in London because it is such a different experience than grocery shopping in America. The types of food that the grocery stores in the UK sell are a lot different than the types of food they sell in America, and it’s sometimes just nice to look around and see all the different UK food brands.

I guess even though I came to London not thinking much about the “little things”–such as riding the tube, buying groceries, doing coursework in cafes, etc.–it is essentially the mundane, everyday experiences that made up a large part of my time abroad, and so it is these things that I will miss a lot when I adjust back to living in America.

Edinburgh and the Scottish Highlands

This past weekend, I went to Scotland with my study abroad program. After class on Friday, I rushed to get to King’s Cross Station to board my train, which took around 5 hours to get to Edinburgh Waverly Station in Edinburgh’s city center. Since I arrived at Edinburgh late in the afternoon, I didn’t have as much time to look around, but I did get to see some attractions such as Edinburgh Castle, the National Gallery of Scotland, and St. Giles’ Cathedral. In general, I just enjoyed walking through the different areas in Edinburgh–both Old Town and New Town. On Princes Street, there are a lot of high street clothing stores. On Royal Mile, there are a wide variety of shops and restaurants. Edinburgh is probably one of the most beautiful cities I’ve ever been to. Many of the buildings in Edinburgh look as if they were stained with smog, and this is because, when homes were heated with coal fires, the soot and smog from chimneys stained the buildings, but the dark color of the buildings makes Edinburgh look even more historical and beautiful.

The next day we got up early for our bus tour around the Scottish Highlands. First we stopped by Forth Road Bridge to take some pictures. Then, we headed over to Blair Castle in Pertshire. The castle had large rooms with interesting displays and the entrance hall’s walls were impressively decorated with guns, swords and shields. Walking through the castle was like going through a mansion! The rooms were large, and everything looked so extravagant. After thoroughly touring the castle, we boarded the bus and traveled through Cairngorms National Park in North East Scotland. This is the largest national park in the British Isles, and it was a very scenic route. I enjoyed seeing the red deer and greenery as we drove by.  We then went to Culloden Battlefield. Here, we looked through the exhibitions, watched a four minute film of a reenactment of the Battle of Culloden, and walked around the battlefield on Culloden Moor. The tour was very informative, and visiting the battlefield was a great way to learn about Scotland’s history. Afterwards, we headed out to dinner in Inverness, where we stayed for a night.

On Sunday, we started the day at Urquhart Castle where we saw breathtaking views of Loch Ness and the Great Glen. It was nice exploring the various parts of Urquhart Castle and going up the tower to look out at Loch Ness. I was hoping I would find Nessie, the Loch Ness Monster, but sadly, that did not happen! Later, we traveled through Glen Coe, a volanic glen, where we stopped for a few minutes to take pictures. Glen Coe was such a spectacular sight! There was fog circling the tops of the mountains, and there were small waterfalls scattered around the area. The area was so beautiful to look at, but it was horribly cold and there was lots of wind. However, enduring the cold wind was definitely worth looking at the wonderful scenery.

I do wish I could have spent more time in Scotland because Edinburgh was so beautiful and I loved seeing all the greenery in the Highlands, but at the end of my trip (as with all my trips, actually), I just enjoyed returning back to London.

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Edinburgh with some street construction

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Entrance Hall of Blair Castle

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Culloden Battlefield on Culloden Moor

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Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness

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Glen Coe

 

Student in the City

London is a lively city, and it seems as if there’s always something to do–whether it’s attending a gig, watching a play, going shopping or browsing the markets. According to my Bandsintown App, which allows you to search for local gigs and concerts, there are literally gigs almost every day of the week! And they are all accessible with the tube. If you love theatre, you can attend one of the many shows in London’s West End, which is such a large and lively area at night. If you’re a shopaholic, you can go to Westfield Stratford which is one tube stop away from Mile End and is one of the EU’s largest shopping malls! And if you want to just socialize with friends, you can visit one of London’s many pubs. I really believe you can find anything that suits your interests in London. If you’re ever bored, you can just head over to the nearest tube station and the city is an Oyster tap away.

Although the universities in London don’t have large campuses, there is no lack of study space in London. There are so many cafes, especially in the East End near QMUL. These cafes are perfect to go to after class to revise and work on coursework.

And though living in London adds up to be expensive for students, there are still many frugal options available. For example, browsing the many museums in London is free–not to mention educational. Living in London is hard on one’s wallet, but it does end up being a good lesson on budgeting as a student.

So far, I have really enjoyed studying in London. In addition to having wonderful experiences exploring my interests in the city, there are also so many places in London that are relevant to my studies in English literature. For example, I’ve been to John Keats’ house and even visited the pub where Charles Dickens frequented while writing his manuscriptsand then I wrote about my visit for an assignment! When I first arrived in London, I admit I didn’t think the city was that great, but now that I’ve been here for seven months, the city has really grown on me, and I’ve come to appreciate the vast amount of options available. Whether you want to spend your day studying in a cafe, going shopping, or browsing museums, any option you choose will be easily accessible in London.

 

 

Dennis Severs’ House

For one of my modules (Text, Art and Performance in London – highly recommended!) I had to visit Dennis Severs’ House, which is a short walk from Liverpool Street. The house is lit only by candlelight (we were warned not to touch them because, yes, they’re real) and aims to capture the life of a family of Huguenot silk weavers from the 18th-19th century.

Rather than displaying artifacts such as a museum would, the house works by stimulating your senses and giving you the impression that you really are a visitor to an 18th-19th century family, who are absent for the moment and will seemingly be returning shortly. The house has fireplaces to keep it warm and is entirely furnished by antique furniture and china, coordinating with the time period each room represents. Scattered around the house are half filled wine glasses on the tables, half opened books lying on the couches, and half written letters splayed on the desks. The scent of perfume lingers in the drawing room, and you can hear the sound of bells chiming outside the windows. The house is meant to be explored in silence, in order to get the full experience, and it takes around 30-45 minutes to go through all of the rooms.

The aim of Dennis Severs’ House is to transport you to another time. Aside from the fact that the items in the house are not to be touched and that there are other people much like yourself wandering the house, Dennis Severs’ House really gives a sense of authenticity to your visit. The house is an invitation to your senses and going through each of the rooms is such an unique sensory experience. The house also aims to stimulate your imagination to “see what is not there.” This has definitely been one of the most intriguing things I’ve done in London because the concept of the house is quite unique. It was really interesting going through all the rooms and focusing on the various smells and keeping my ears open to certain sounds. Having spent so much time browsing museums and galleries since I’ve been in London, visiting Dennis Severs’ House was a nice change from merely looking at and reading about exhibitions to actually experiencing one.

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Musicals in London

During one of my first few months in London, I went out to eat with a group of students from a campus society, and I met a student who lives in West London. After leaving the restaurant, on our way to the tube station I asked him, “So, heading back to the West End?” He looked confused for a second and had to clarify to me that the term “West End” refers to the area in Central London where there are lots of theatres. I figured since East London is sometimes referred to as the East End, West London might also be the West End, but I was mistaken. Since then, I guess I can say I have a better knowledge of the different areas of London, but sometimes I can’t help sounding like the tourist I am!

Anyways, throughout my time here I’ve watched six West End shows, and they were all really good:

1. “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”-I watched this with my study abroad program during my second night here, and the general consensus among us was that the show was enjoyable. It gave a somewhat modern take on an old story, and the music and props were great!

2. “Wicked” – I didn’t search up anything about “Wicked” before watching it and only knew it’s based on “The Wizard of Oz,” so I wasn’t sure what to expect. The show was very innovative in its use of special effects, the music was outstanding, and the ending definitely was a surprise. Out of everything I’ve watched, I’d have to say “Wicked” is my favorite.

3. “Jersey Boys” – This show is based off the rise of an American group, The Four Seasons. It was really interesting hearing the actors speak with New Jersey accents, as I assume most of the actors are British. Overall, an excellent show with great music.

4. “Mamma Mia” – I love ABBA, and “Mamma Mia” is made up of their songs, so I definitely enjoyed that. The show was very funny and had a “feel good” vibe to it. The plot wasn’t too captivating, but the music and dancing made up for it.

5. “Phantom of the Opera” – Another musical with great use of special effects. At times it was hard to keep up with the plot because the show is made up only of singing, but the stage design and costumes were immaculate.

6. “Les Miserables” – This show boasts being the West End’s longest running musical. I always hoped to one day read Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables,” but watching the musical will do for now. There was one scene in the show that I thought was really great–during the war scene, there were loud bullet sounds and lights, and the actors were convincingly emotional. Like “Phantom of the Opera,” this show is also sung-through, so at times it was hard to keep up with the plot, but overall the production was highly impressive.

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Pancake Day 2015

I first heard of Pancake Day while shopping through the aisles of Sainsbury’s where I saw a shelf full of pancake ingredients such as flour, sugar, honey and syrup, with a sign indicating that Pancake Day was approaching. After searching this up, I learned that during Pancake Day, “rich” cupboard ingredients such as flour, sugar, and eggs are used up in making pancakes before the first day of Lent, during which these products may not be consumed. Besides eating pancakes, one can celebrate Pancake Day by attending one of the many pancake races held throughout the city. During these pancake races, participants must run through a course while flipping pancakes in a pan. Usually these events aim to raise money for charities.

Although I did not make pancakes during Pancake Day, I went to The Victoria Tower Gardens to watch a pancake race. The participants of this race included various members of Parliament who ran wearing aprons and chef’s hats, rather than their usual suits. There was applause from the audience, enthusiasm from the participants, and lots of pancakes dropped on the floor (which, of course, were quickly picked up by the event’s workers).  The race was a spectacle for pancake lovers and charity supporters alike, and it was definitely an entertaining experience for a curious onlooker like me. In addition to this race in Westminster, there were races in Shoreditch, Greenwich, Spitalfields, and Leadenhall, among many other places in London. If you’re in London for Pancake Day, definitely check out the races and, unlike me, try some delicious pancakes before Lent!

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Roman Baths and Prehistoric Stonehenge

A few weeks ago, I went on a student tour to Stonehenge in Wiltshire and Bath in Somerset. I am very fascinated with Stonehenge, because when I was a child I watched bizarre documentaries detailing its association with aliens, which of course sounds ridiculous to me now. I was also very excited about visiting Bath, because I had learned about the city last year after reading about the Wife of Bath in Chaucer’s Canturbury Tales.

At Stonehenge, we were given headsets for an audio tour, which was very informative. There was also a visitor center and museum-type exhibitions about Stonehenge’s history. I got to learn about how Stonehenge was used as a burial site and how people believed Stonehenge had healing powers. Our trip was very short, but definitely enjoyable since Stonehenge is such a historical structure.

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Stonehenge

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Replica of a Neolithic house

Afterwards, we went to see Bath, Somerset. The city was very beautiful, especially when you view it while walking along the River Avon. According to my tour guide, the river is a popular place for marriage proposals. There are also a lot of interesting architectural sites in Bath. Two famous structures are The Circus and Royal Crescent. The former was designed by John Wood the Elder and the latter by John Wood the Younger, two father and son architects. Together, the two structures are said to form a question mark.

Bath is also the site of the Roman Baths, which are now part of a museum. Tickets to this site are around 14 pounds. It was originally thought that the bath water in the Roman Baths was rich and contained healing properties. At the end of the tour, there was a fountain for visitors to taste the water for free. Although I can’t say it made me feel “healed,” it did have an interesting mineral taste. Overall, Bath is a very beautiful city and I am so glad I decided to spend the day here.

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The Circus (This is a bad angle, but when seen in full, it looks grand!)

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The Crescent (also a picture that does not serve justice)

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The Roman Baths

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One of the exhibits at the museum

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Roman Bath water to drink

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River Avon

 

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Bath Abbey

 

Back to School, Plus My Trip to Oxford

Lately, I haven’t been writing new blog posts, so hopefully I find the time in these next few weeks to update what I’ve been doing during my time in the UK. My winter break was quite interesting, and I’ll have to make a post about that later, but for now, I’d like to share my experience returning back to school after a month of holiday (or vacation, as Americans call it).

Since I’m an English major, my modules in Queen Mary don’t require final exams like the modules for sciences, etc. (Whereas, in America, most of the English courses I took had final exams at the end of the quarter. Some even had multiple choice exams!). Instead, all my modules required 2000-3000 word essays due about two weeks before the second semester. Writing these essays was stressful, especially since there’s a difference between the expectations of British courses and American courses, and it took a while for me to notice and adjust to these differences, but now that I’ve finished a full semester at Queen Mary, I have a better understanding of how to prepare myself for this new semester.

For example, I found that keeping up with my course readings was the most important thing to do. As a study abroad student, it’s easy to get distracted and make excuses for putting off readings, but with the few contact hours we get, it really is essential to come to class prepared and ready to discuss the material.

Another important thing is to go over the secondary material that professors suggest looking over. Many of the final essays I wrote last semester required the use of secondary sources, so it’s better to go over these throughout the school year, rather than spending a chunk of time sifting through multiple sources in order to find the relevant ones for your essay.

And while we’re on the topic of academics, here are some pictures of my trip to Oxford last semester:

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While we were in Oxford, there was a small march going on for the events that took place in Ferguson, Missouri this past Fall. It’s nice to see solidarity in the UK for an event of such significance in America.

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View of Sheldonian Theatre from University Church of St. Mary the Virgin

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Magdalen College

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Christ Church

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Ashmolean Museum

 

It’s actually very inspiring to go to a city that’s known for its education. According to my tour guide, Oxford is the oldest university in the UK. Isn’t it awing to think about the number of significant people who were educated there?

In terms of seeing Oxford as a tourist, you can’t go wrong visiting any of the buildings of the university, but my favorite was the tower in University Church of St. Mary the Virgin. From atop the tower, you can get a great view of the university, but the swirling steps are a bit  narrow and steep, and it was really crowded with a bunch of people going up and down the stairs. I’m usually afraid of heights, but going up to the tower was fine for me, so I would definitely recommend it for anyone who doesn’t mind a bit of physical exertion.

After our tour, an acquaintance said to me, “When I’m older, my children have to come to school here.”

Yes, hopefully mine too (I say this half-jokingly). But until then, I have a handful of readings and a full semester ahead of me to distract me from these hopes….

Overdue Post on Christmas in London

My holiday was relatively stressful (but still enjoyable). Although you’d think holidays were for resting, I think I got less sleep during my holiday than during my usual time at school. In addition to spending time on schoolwork, I went out to do Christmas shopping. I figured it would be a good idea to send home some gifts from London, so I went to Covent Gardent to look around.

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Gifts to send home, missing the box of macarons I put in the  middle gap pictured above.

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I bought Laduree macarons to give as gifts. They’re a bit expensive, but the way I see it, you can either give someone a box of macarons or spend the same amount on something such as trousers. So, yes macarons are expensive, but I would prefer to give someone a box of macarons than a pair of trousers or something else that can’t be immediately enjoyed (that’s probably not a sensible way to go about shopping, but Christmas is a one time thing!). Also, I sent home sweets and a cute Christmas hat for my dog. I got overnight shipping, so they arrived just in time for Christmas Eve, and the sweets and biscuits didn’t crumble or break in the box.

Although I am from America, I have family in London, so the week of Christmas, I spent most of my time visiting relatives.

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For Christmas, we had roast turkey and potatoes (which I was told is standard for English Christmas dinners), with the twist of some added Asian dishes.

The week after Christmas, I spent my time finishing up the last of my essays. One difference between my courses in America and my courses in QMUL is that in America, we are assigned multiple assignments throughout the school year, and so the makeup of our grade is more spread out; whereas, in QMUL, I only have two or three assignments per class, and our final essay makes up 50+% of our grade. Knowing my final essays could either make or break my grade definitely added some stress, but after some very tedious working, I finished my essays in time and turned them in. The day right after I turned in my essays, I went on day trips to Brussels, Belgium and Lille, France. Our bus tickets were only 9 pounds because iDBus had special deals, but the buses were overnight buses for inconvenient hours (which is probably why they were so cheap), so we got absolutely no sleep before spending the whole day exploring these cities.

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Belgium is famous for their waffles!

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Grand Place, the central square of Brussels

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Atomium

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Parc Elisabeth

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Sint Jacobswijk

It was nice to see Brussels, but my friend and I were so tired from being awake throughout our overnight bus ride that we just wanted to sleep the whole time we were exploring the city. The most popular tourist attraction in Brussels is Sint Jacobswijk, pictured above. Compared to other cities I’ve visited, there wasn’t as much to do in Brussels, and the streets were practically empty, but it is nonetheless a nice place to see.

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Lille, France

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Lille was very pretty. My friend and I actually slept a little on the bus, so the trip was more enjoyable since we were in better moods. We were hoping to see the zoo in Lille, but it was closed, which was disappointing, but we ended up exploring the park outside the zoo. Apparently, in France there are only two days out of the whole year where stores are allowed to have sales, and I was lucky enough to be in France during these sales. Initially, I didn’t think much of this since I always see sales in London, but it turns out the sales in France during this time are much more generous! Also, the lower value of the euro vs. the pound made the sales more appealing. I bought a winter jacket for about 29 euros, which is good considering winter jackets and coats are usually more expensive.

I’m grateful for being able to see European cities outside the UK, but I found that the language barrier made things difficult. Most associate students tell me they have no problem going to non-English speaking countries, but I felt so lost not being able to speak to people or understand street signs. In Brussels, most people knew English, but French is the main language used, so even though I could speak to some of the cashiers, etc., I still felt overwhelmed by the communication barrier. I want to visit cities outside the UK, but my main concern is not being able to communicate with or understand others. These two daytrips were my first experiences visiting non-English speaking countries while abroad, and they were both brief trips (we didn’t stay overnight) in cities that aren’t extremely busy, so maybe after visiting more cities, the language barrier will become less uncomfortable for me.

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