Hiya! I’m Stacy, holder of a Tier 4 student visa. I moved to London from Chicago in August and find this a fine place to inform the world on how to become a British-American – that is, an American anglophile in Britain. I travel frequently so am thus immune to culture shock, homesickness, and all that silly business, allowing me to focus on the differences between here and America, both positive, negative, and neutral.
Hopefully I can use this column to enlighten future travelers, students, or other interested parties as they attempt to blend into this exciting culture. I will mostly focus on the issues faced by young people and students – accommodation, communication, administration, and intoxication (or at least how to handle a pub quiz). I will also branch out into food, fashion, language, customs, and getting around. It’s difficult to be a young person on your own, as I discovered, and much more difficult when you are a young person alone in a big city in a foreign country. However, that big city is London, the Capital of the World as far as many are concerned (New Yorkers can feel free to disagree, but just know they’re wrong), and proves a constant source of excitement and surprise. London is a paradise for the thrill-seeking, club-going set, but it’s just as easy to find oneself at a book club, free tour, or taking night classes in Swahili. The city is your oyster! Let the adventures begin!
I think it might be appropriate to start off with journeys on the Tube. The London Underground, with its epitomic roundel logo, is perhaps more symbolic of London than Big Ben, and it’s infinitely more useful. Approximately 3-and-a-half million journeys are made per day – that’s half the population of London! It was the first underground train system in operation and the first to introduce electric trains. The system covers central London so effectively that one is never more than a five minutes’ walk from a station, and maybe ten minutes’ walk in Zone 2, which forms a ring around the center.
The Tube is remarkably easy to use. It is well-signposted, well-lit, safe, and actually premiered the geometric map design now in use by many subway systems. It even has the general appearance of being clean, or at least free from trash, grime, and graffiti (I can’t say the same for body fluids, especially on the 11 o’clock “drunk train” when the pubs close), making it much more welcoming than the Paris Metro. For a newcomer, I think the Tube is much easier to use than any public transit worldwide.
Chicago’s El, the other system with which I’m familiar, utilizes the same map design but has slower trains and outdoor stations. While these seem wonderfully quaint at first, an experience with blazing summer heat and bone-chilling winter cold makes one think again. An improvement idea for the Tube could be taken from Beijing and New York, which have equipped their new trains with digital screens in each car showing the direction and next stop. Having recently gotten on the last train of the night in the wrong direction, I can say these could be great help.
The main detriment of the Tube is that it operates from around 5:30 am to 12:30 am (11:30 on Sundays). London has the most exciting night life, but if you miss the last train home it can take up to two hours by night bus to cross central London. London isn’t like most European cities that party from midnight to dawn – the party hours on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday are from around 11 to 3 at the latest, which is when most clubs and bars with a late license close. But thousands are then left with nowhere to go until the Tube opens save the bus stop, where the night bus driver just might decide not to stop. It’s best to figure out the best route home before the night begins, and definitely dress warmly for the wait. There are also semi-frequent strikes – not as bad as Paris, of course – but they just seem to be one of those “keep calm and carry on” moments when Londoners band together and keep that stiff upper lip.
Student status makes one eligible for a student Oyster card, which is useful if you use the Tube or bus every day. The student cards take a few weeks to arrive, but will have your picture on them, which is helpful if it’s lost or stolen. If your time in London is shorter than a month or involves less frequent travel (or more walking), a regular Oyster card will be adequate.
There are also fun activities to do on the Tube: there’s “the Tube game” popular among die-hard fanatics, which involves attempting to ride the entire length of each line in one day. There’s also the hunt for “ghost stations,” or stations that have been closed from above but are still visible from the tracks. There’s at least one on each of the older lines (thus not the Jubilee and Victoria), and it just makes a boring journey more fun if you see one. (The best I’ve found is the Museum station on the Central between Tottenham Court Road and Holborn. Not that I’m a Tube nerd or anything.)
To conclude: Plan your evening. Keep calm. Have fun!