Winning London

What a whirlwind weekend. It seems like everything that could have gone right in London did go right. London was also my last international trip until I go home, and the only city that made me wish I studied abroad there (*important note: not instead of Madrid, maybe in addition to though…). I went with the Madrid girls in my sorority (minus Anna and Rachel) Allison, Eliza, Morgan, and Alexa, and I even ran into my friend Vic from high school and my sister’s boyfriend David!

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‘Ello there!

I flew into London Gatwick airport late at night, but had to rush through customs (only other passport stamp I’ve needed to get disappointingly), withdraw some pounds (feeling that exchange rate, thanks Econ), buy a ticket to Victoria Station in downtown London and change two metro lines all before public transportation closed at 12:30 am. At least these people speak English! London was the first time I’ve been in a native English-speaking country since August. That’s crazy.

After so many close calls lucky breaks, Morgan, Eliza and I arrived at Palmers Lodge Hostel in Swiss Cottage, which was nice, clean, conveniently located, and appeared to be a renovated mansion. We were with Allison and Alexa in a room of three rows of three bunk beds which we affectionately called “The Treehouse.” We ate the most delicious croissants and toast at the included breakfast, and set off to Abbey Road. We also met up briefly with our friend Sarah who is studying in London, but she was off to Scotland that weekend.

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After narrowly avoiding some traffic incidents trying to take this picture (Abbey Road is indeed an actual road), we explored Baker Street (The Great Mouse Detective anyone?!) and ate lunch in Heaven at Chipotle before heading off to ok now I mean Heaven Harry Potter World (!!!!!!!).

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Harry Potter World is the movie set compound for all eight movies and is unlike any other place I’ve ever been. I can still remember my Auntie Elise giving my sister Michelle and I our first copies of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets and how Harry, Ron and Hermione’s coming of age paralleled my own. I was one of those kids lucky enough to get into Harry Potter at a young age, but even as I’ve grown up I have continued to re-read the stories and get lost in the, well, magic of it all. J.K. Rowling is an inspirational storytelling visionary, and people of all ages can take something away from reading her stories, even the Muggles. 

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First Christmas at Hogwarts since filming. Bring on the Butterbeer!

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When it was time to leave Harry Potter World, we went back to central London, explored the Oxford Circus Station metro area decorated for Christmastime and had dinner and hard cider (YUM) at Garfunkel’s before catching the metro back to Swiss Cottage. The London Underground, or “Tube” took a little getting used to because rides are more expensive, tickets need to be checked at the entrance and exit, and the lines are named instead of just going by the stops (“Jubilee” was our lucky line). It wasn’t the most confusing metro I’ve been in, but it was different to have cushioned seats and not have people staring at you like they do in Madrid.

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The next morning, we caught a FREE walking tour from our hostel around London from a struggling British actor Eddie (how Study Abroad/European is that?!).

London Walking Tour:

  • Green Park where we saw people training and fathers playing with babies.
  • Caught the Changing of the Guard in front of Buckingham Palace (LOOK WHO I WAS STANDING NEXT TO).
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My friend from high school Vic is studying abroad in London this semester!

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  • Big Ben/Houses of Parliament/St. Paul’s Cathedral

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  • Westminster Abbey

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  • London Bridge

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Montgomery cheddar cheese with leeks and onions on sourdough bread…

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My sister’s boyfriend David now lives just outside of London, but met my friends and I in the city for a tour of Tower Bridge and coffee. I really missed him too, and we FaceTimed Michelle and my parents from Starbucks. It was great for both of us to see a familiar face, and I’m so glad my friends got to see how great he is! Anonymous was overheard saying, “It sucks he’s her sister’s boyfriend, because I think I’m in love…” 🙂

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Sunday morning, Morgan and I got up a little earlier and went back to Westminster Abbey to walk around the monastery and surrounding gardens (we couldn’t go inside because we didn’t have time to stay for the whole mass). We also got another view of the London Eye before meeting up with the others at King’s Cross Station to take the famous “Platform 9 3/4” photograph that all Harry Potter fans will recognize. We took a train out of the station back to the airport, and I spent my last few remaining pounds on a sandwich, a UK version of Cosmopolitan magazine, and some candy in the Gatwick airport.

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Leaping through the platform on my way to Hogwarts!

Overall, I was enamored by London. The jolly yet refined accents, the helpful and stylish people, the cosmopolitan and clean look and feel of the city itself, and the overwhelming amount of history in such a large place made me feel like I’d need at least a week to even cover the basics. I definitely need to go back to London. The city is so big that transportation to and fro requires so much time, money, and energy, but I feel like I was able to cover a lot in the weekend I had there, and it was definitely a top weekend of the semester with my friends. The lifestyle and daily routine is SO different from Madrid, but as my new friend from the Pub Crawl pointed out, “traveling to new cities is what makes you cultured“.

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[M]eloise at the Plaza [Mayor]

Hey, guess who came to visit me (a month ago…)!

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Madre y Padre

Yes, worlds collided about a month ago when my parents came to visit me in Madrid. I crossed a lot of milestones while I was away, traveling to/living in Europe for the first time, turning 21, speaking a foreign language, coordinating international travel plans and a whole bunch of others things all by myself. I’ve always been a pretty independent person, but I didn’t realize just how much I missed my parents until I saw them standing in my new home country.

Fortunately, they had booked a hotel right near school, so when we met up on Friday morning, I showed them where I had been doing all my “studying”…

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Instituto Internacional

It had been a long overnight flight for them (and a long Thursday night for me) so we spent the afternoon catching up and strolling around Parque del Buen Retiro, which was a perfect way to incorporate some natural beauty and history of Madrid with my mom’s love for gardens and flowers.

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We started in the Banco de España metro area and I showed them my favorite building in Madrid, the Ayuntamiento as the sun was setting. I just can’t get over how beautiful Madrid is at any and all hours of the day.

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From there, we walked up and down Gran Vía, which is the only real “New York City-esque” part of Madrid. There are theaters, shops, hotels, luxury stores, and restaurants EVERYWHERE and up and down every side street you pass.

After that, we took the metro back to the hotel, and enjoyed the self-serve open bar (perks of parental visits) and then went to Dona 59 for dinner, based on the concierge’s EXCELLENT recommendation. I got paella, Dad (daringly) got squid ink paella, and my mom got a tuna and avocado dish that I kept “trying.” We went back to “The Club” for dessert, which included chocolate-covered strawberries, cookies, fruit, and “dessert shots” which were creamy coffee or fruit-flavored deliciousness served in a shot glass. It’s amazing how different traveling abroad can be when you’re not on a student budget…

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Luckily for a true Madrileña like me, I didn’t have to end my night around midnight because my dear friend Madison was in town! I met up with a group of my friends at Dubliners in Sol and got chocolate and churros at St. Ginès Chocolatería with them after. It was so great to see Madison (who is studying in Strasbourg, France), I miss that chica.

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Photo cred to RDobbs

The next day, I had breakfast at “The Club” with my parents. Eggs, ham, fresh orange juice, espresso, pineapple, these yummy red pepper things and several other goodies was a huge step up from traditional Spanish homestay breakfast of sugarless cereal and coffee.

I got a guidebook before I left for Spain, and thankfully it included a “Self-Guided Walking Tour” around Sol and Plaza Mayor. PERFECTO. (Gracias, Rick Steves.)

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Rick Steves’ Self-Guided Walking Tour:

  • Puerta del Sol– Spain’s city center.
  • Plaza Mayor– 17th-century cobblestone plaza.
  • Mercado de San Miguel– Stations of gourmet tapas, perfect for a snack or a meal.

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  • Church and Convent of Corpus Christi– Charming old Hieronymite church where cloistered nuns sell sweets (closed when we went, but still on my bucket list).
  • Town Hall– Madrid’s ceremonial Town Hall from the time of Philip II, when the capital was located in nearby Toledo.
  • Almudena Cathedral– It took 100 years to build, and the colorful ceiling and 5,000-pipe organ are worth the peek inside.

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  • Plaza de Oriente– Spaniards sure love their plazas…
  • Plaza de Isabel II– Not déjà vu, keep reading.
  • St. Ginès Chocolatería– We stopped here for churros, my second time in 24 hours.
  • Joy Eslava Disco– Old-style theater turned nightclub.
  • Back to Sol. 

After all THAT, it was time for a siesta, so we headed back to the hotel and passed out for a little bit, then went to a restaurant for gourmet roasted lamb and potatoes, more wine (obviously) and then some anisette dessert liqueur. YUM.

We went back to “The Club” and talked some more. Whenever it’s just my parents and I,  I always feel more grown up, and it was really nice to be able to show them how well I had adjusted to living in a foreign country and having to speak a different language every day. Of course, I did miss my siblings too… just a little.

That night, I went off to Kapital, the 7-floor dance club with different music on each floor to meet up with some friends. I have yet to find anywhere else in Europe that can top Kapital, and I don’t think I ever will.

Photo cred Madison D.

Photo cred Madison D.

On Sunday, after another delicious breakfast with my parents, we went to the Prado Museum, where I was able to explain some of the art I learned about in class, and then we walked around the city some more, stopping for a bocadillo de jamón y queso cut right off the leg, just like my dad wanted.

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After another quick siesta, we went out to dinner where I had a delicious mozzarella cheeseburger and we all got chocolate cake. We met some older American women who had been traveling around the north of Spain, completing a portion of the religious pilgrimage Camino de Santiago. Meeting them and hearing their stories reminded me that even though I go home in December, the end of study abroad doesn’t have to be the end of my travels. I slept in the hotel room with my parents that night, and after they left in the morning I ate breakfast at “The Club” and then walked a block over to school at 10:30 am.

My parents went off to Barcelona for a few days on their own, but I am SO happy I got to spend so much time with them in my home city! They came at the perfect time for the perfect amount of time, and I’m happy that they were able to see at least a few reasons why I love this city so much.

City of Light & Love

In an old house in Paris that was covered in vines, lived twelve little girls in two straight lines …”

Anastasia, Passport To Paris, Madeline, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, La Vie en Rose, Taken, and about a million more books, movies, and TV shows have inspired a lifetime of interest in visiting Paris (not to mention the fact that several of my best friends went in high school with the French class… I obviously took Spanish). Therefore, I felt that I couldn’t say I studied abroad in Europe for four months without visiting the City of Light & Love. Off to Paris I went, and I must say, Eiffel for it (ba dum tss!).

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Unlike the other cities I’ve visited (Amsterdam being the exception), I didn’t really have any idea what Paris would hold, obviously aside from the famous monuments. Paris is a HUGE city, but I had some helpful guidance from my Uncle Steve who has visited several times on business, and of course “Mr. Google” as my marketing professor calls it.

This trip, the old Imperium crew was back together (along with two other SU girls I had never met before, but had included us in their hostel booking) and I was very excited. After being on so many trips with those girls, I know that we not only get along well, but we travel well together, which I have realized is an essential part of studying abroad.

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We arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport to find that the train we had been instructed to take was no longer in service, so instead we blindly faithfully hopped on a bus “to Paris” which I guess is in the right direction. To avoid some illegal substance vendors, we took a cab to our hostel, located in Montmartre (the artist district, north of the Seine river) and about a 40 minute metro ride from the main monuments. We had two private rooms for the eight of us, and breakfast was included. Score!

Friday morning the weather was gray, rainy, and chilly, and I instantly missed the blue sky, sunshine, and 60 degree November weather in Madrid. BUT, as I have continuously reminded myself this entire vacation abroad experience, I must live in the moment. We hopped on the metro and stopped first at the Eiffel Tower. We were immediately swarmed by men selling keychains and gypsy women trying to get us to sign petitions attached to slabs of cardboard, so we stuck together and watched each others’ backs. It was a little unsettling, but if you hold your ground and don’t let them approach you, they lose interest and move onto other seemingly easy tourist targets. It started to rain at the Eiffel Tower, but we got some great pictures. I had heard mixed reviews; some people impressed by the tower, and some not so much, but personally I was astounded by the beauty and sheer presence of arguably the most recognizable structure in the world.

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While I hate rain and gray weather, I compromised with myself, saying that Paris is one of the few cities in the world that is equally or perhaps even more beautiful in the rain.

Things I did/saw/ate in Paris:

  • Eiffel Tower

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  • Walking along the Seine River

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Chicken and cheese, or banana and Nutella. Take your pick.

  • The Louvre Museum
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The Da Vinci Code anyone?!

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Onion soup, mussels & french fries, creme brûlée, fondue, and wine.

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  • Café au lait and Chocolate Croissants
  • Window shopping at Champs Elysées
  • Arc De Triomphe
  • Outdoor market near where Fashion Week Paris was held

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Underground tunnels lines with bones of over 6 million skeletons. Also voted one of the world’s “most unsettling places.”

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Authentic Parisian tea house. I had hot chocolate, salted caramel ice cream and a coffee, chocolate, vanilla bean, and raspberry macaroon. Coffee was my favorite.

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  • Eiffel Tower at night!

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From the Alhambra in Granada to the Duomo in Florence, I’ve seen some pretty incredible views of some of the most picturesque cities in the world, and I have to say that the view at night from the Eiffel Tower was definitely one of my favorites. It was fitting for us to begin and end our trip here, although only one weekend was definitely not enough to feel like I’d covered the whole city. The rain and distance from the city center held us up a little bit, but I am surely adding Paris to my (growing) list of cities to visit again, maybe next time with a petit ami