Tales from Abroad: London

Credit: Courtesy of Arjun Katragadda Credit: Courtesy of Arjun Katragadda

I decided to be a little productive during the summer after my freshman year. I knew that I still needed credit for a macroeconomics class, and the London School of Economics (LSE) was an obvious place to take it. I had been to London as a kid, but I couldn’t really recall anything about it except for Madame Tussaud’s and Big Ben, so I was excited at the prospect of spending a month exploring the city a little deeper on my own.

As I went to register myself on the first day at LSE, I was struck by how the cramped campus and its narrow streets contrasted the lawns and open spaces at Carnegie Mellon. This should have been expected, though, given that the school’s buildings are located right in the center of the city, with the shopping and entertainment districts of Covent Garden and Leicester Square just a few minutes away by foot. The proximity of all the buildings was ideal for summer school because it meant that you could mingle with a broad range of students from all over, even if the actual program was for a relatively short time.

The residence halls near the main campus were definitely worth writing home about — they seemed more like hotels than the dorms we are used to here. (I would recommend staying in High Holborn or Grosvenor House.) Some of them had a lavish breakfast buffet laid out every morning in the lounge area, while others had arcade rooms and full-service bars. As if we weren’t spoiled enough by all of that, housekeeping would clean our rooms and change towels and bedsheets every other day. We didn’t have an RA or a formal welcoming, so the responsibility fell on us to introduce ourselves to our floormates and others living in nearby residences as we got familiar with the exciting surroundings.

I had arrived in London after England was eliminated from soccer’s World Cup, but even then, the excitement and fanfare surrounding the tournament was palpable. The European students at LSE never let us forget that the tournament was reaching its concluding stages, and you could easily tell which teams were playing that night by looking at the dominant colors around the room. By the time the final came around, the streets were quiet and everyone without exception seemed to be wearing either orange or red in support of the Netherlands or Spain. The Spanish contingent roared loudly at every successful pass and took to the streets with its flags and vuvuzelas as its team pulled off a long-awaited win, much to the amusement of my friends from Vanderbilt, who were more than happy just getting used to the easy availability of pubs within the college grounds.

The classes themselves were pretty hectic, but the experience was definitely unique. In one class, I had the chance to work with central bankers from other parts of Europe who were either taking the class as a part of an executive education program or because they had retired and were in it “for fun.” We didn’t have any quizzes or graded homework, but the four-hour lectures each day were preparing us for two exceptionally difficult exams. Luckily, our Vietnamese professor and class teacher (equivalent to a TA) from Australia took the time to get to know each of us personally and pushed us to learn as much as summer students could.

During the weekends, I would spend time with some other friends from Carnegie Mellon and my old high school, who were also taking classes in England for the summer. The famed Tube made it easy for us to go anywhere we liked in a matter of minutes, which was great because there was so much to do that we kept changing our minds every couple of hours or so. Some of the highlights included watching The Lion King at the Lyceum, almost getting frostbite in an ice bar, and a night cruise down the Thames. And of course, living in central London meant that you would never have to eat at the same place twice and could eat at reasonable prices, too. The restaurants in the Seven Dials area and Oxford Street are definitely worth a visit, as is Nando’s, a Portuguese-themed fast-food joint.

The end came abruptly. I was just getting used to life there, but I guess separation anxiety is common to anyone who is just about to leave after spending time studying abroad. There is an impression among some that London is gloomy and dull, but for me it was an experience that represented the best of what life has to offer: good food and great people, with every locality having a mood and pace of its own — a city that is steeped in rich history and dotted with cultural landmarks and is at the same time absorbing for thrill-seeking college-aged travelers.