Shortly before starting our journey towards London, we began hearing a consistent sentiment from current and former expats: “Oh, Americans love London because it’s just like the States.” In some ways, that is absolutely true; the history is shared, the population is diverse, and the language barrier is minimal (notice that I didn’t say “non-existent”). However, when you look beyond those limited—though certainly not incorrect—frames of reference, there is obviously a wide array of cultural experiences that are new and exciting, even for a couple of Americans.
Chapter 1: Landmarks
When most people think about the United Kingdom, what do they picture? Of course, the royal family; you can’t get away from William & Kate and their growing troupe of bambini, and Harry’s latest romantic endeavors are growing the hopes of another royal wedding. But when you think about British royalty, what do you picture? That’s right, palaces and castles! These are large, ornate, large, beautiful, and large buildings that—for the most part—have stood for longer than the US has existed. So, considering the historical and cultural importance of these structures, Kiley and I have made it a point to visit a few.
First, and most visibly, there’s Buckingham Palace. We have visited the palace a few times; however, they’ve been relatively brief, with most of the time spent taking selfies and yelling “Hello Queen!” at less-than-respectable hours alongside other former pub-goers. There’s also nearby Kensington Palace, which is lovely to visit during a long afternoon walk through Kensington Gardens. Next is Dover Castle, which we passed during our hike from Dover to the nearby White Cliffs. Note that I said “passed” and not “visited;” you see, you need tickets to enter the castle grounds and said tickets were a bit too rich for our tastes considering that we were just passing by. Allora, maybe next time.
Saving the best for last (in my opinion) is Windsor Castle. Located about 45 minutes via train from central London, the Queen’s official weekend residence is enormous and incredibly beautiful. Sitting high above the Thames, Windsor Castle completely looms over the cute (albeit, touristy) town of Windsor in a way that we’ve certainly never seen. Visually, everything about the structure is impressive; even the lawn is manicured with lines so straight that my father and brother would be envious. It’s definitely worth a visit!
Okay, castles are great; however, our experience with them so far has been admittedly limited, since we’ve had Schaefer with us during all these visits, which restricts our access to all the sites (despite our assurances that he’d get along great with corgis). As such, we’ve found our trips to the museums (during which we can leave Schaefer on the boat) to be more valuable from a cultural perspective. Besides, for a history buff like myself, London has the best museums in the world, bar none. Don’t get me wrong, I love the Smithsonian museums, but let’s not forget that for several hundred years, the sun never set on the British Empire. This means that a LOT of artifacts (read: “booty”) were transported (read: “stolen”) from around the world and made their way to London’s extraordinary history museums. Personally, I don’t have a strong opinion about how these artifacts made their way to London, I’m just glad that the public is able to enjoy and learn from them (although several of Kiley’s Greek, Italian, and Arab classmates certainly disagree).
Anyway, in a city filled with world-class museums, the British Museum is at the top of the class. It’s so large and comprehensive that I’ve visited three times and haven’t even seen half of the exhibits. Aside from the big-ticket items, like the Rosetta Stone, the coolest exhibit for me has been the Clocks and Watches gallery. Somewhat paradoxically, this exhibit is pretty light on history, focusing instead on the varied mechanics of different timepieces. It seems like the stereotypical magician clichés were actually on to something, because I found myself just staring at individual clocks for minutes at a time. I wasn’t hypnotized (at least, not that I was aware of), but it was a strangely relaxing experience. Definitely different, but definitely interesting.
I understand from other people that there are actually other types of museums, aside from those that concentrate on history (I know, right?). It turns out, London is great for those as well! Our big visit in this respect has been to the National Gallery at Trafalgar Square. Featuring works by Rembrandt, Picasso, Van Gogh, da Vinci, and other ninja turtles, the art at the gallery is dizzyingly expansive for a novice onlooker like myself. Kiley—who will surprise you with her art knowledge—was able to help me along, but we’ll definitely need to make another few visits. And for those of you wondering, we both like the Renaissance art the best.
Aside from the National Gallery, we’ve also explored some smaller galleries and shops/stands, mainly looking for a local piece for the boat. We’ll keep you updated on how that goes. Of course, there are many other art galleries/museums in London to experience. We will visit Tate Modern at some point; however, modern art tends to provoke some… interesting discussions between the two of us (we just had a heated debate about this article a few nights ago), so we’ll have to let the water cool a bit before jumping back in. Stay tuned on that, there’s enough color there that we might just have to record our first visit to Tate Modern…
Chapter 2: Activities
To truly experience a city’s culture, you have to do more than visit boring museums and landmarks, you have to get out and LIVE IT. And while we haven’t done as much as we’d like, we’ve racked up a decent list of fun cultural activities. Please note that I am not including the LBS Golf Club or watching John Oliver on YouTube in this section; despite spending substantial amounts of time doing both, I don’t really consider either to be British and I’d probably have done them had we still been living in the States. Rugby, on the other hand, is quintessentially British and something completely new. Kiley has joined the LBS women’s rugby team and is excelling at looping (whatever that means). The main draw for her is having a physical group activity to enjoy with classmates outside of school. And based on how sweaty everyone’s been when I meet her after practice, I’d say it’s going great.
Aside from rugby, our only other experience with British sports has been cricket, and that’s been while walking Schaefer through the park. We haven’t directly participated yet, but considering that all matches seem to be accompanied by a lavish and well-stocked picnic, it’s definitely on the list. Then there’s punting, which Kiley experienced on a day-long trip to Cambridge with classmates. While, technically, some people do race punts (which is like a tiny gondola), her trip was more of a local college tour while drinking Pimm’s. Kiley did learn to punt, although she’s not quite ready to quit the MBA for a career in punting yet.
Moving on from sports, one of the most London-y things one can do in London is to attend the theater (or “theatre” if you’re Canadian). The West End ranks right up there with Broadway as the most prestigious theater scenes in the world, and you know it if you’ve spent more than 30 seconds in a Tube station. There are literally dozens of musicals advertised, from the classics like Les Miserables and The Phantom of the Opera, to newer blockbusters like Wicked and The Book of Mormon. In fact, there are currently at least three musicals focusing on Motown alone; the selection is endless.
So, with all these choices, what did we choose as our first theater experience? Why Aladdin, of course. This should come as no surprise to anyone that’s ever been within one nautical mile of Kiley when any portion of any Disney song is played. Anyway, we went, and it was fantastic. The set was amazing, the songs were solid, and choreography was excellent. There were some noticeable differences from the movie—no animals (except Iago), Aladdin had a pack of bros, and Aladdin had some interesting mommy issues—but they all made sense in the slightly altered storyline (plus, it’s probably pretty tough to teach monkeys and tigers proper timing and delivery). If there wasn’t a LONG list of other shows to see, we’d definitely see Aladdin again.
Moving east from Agrabah (we all assume), we also need to share our experience with Diwali, the Hindu festival of lights. Every year, LBS hosts a Diwali party that includes bands, traditional clothing, authentic Indian food, an open bar, and—of course—a dance competition… it’s a blast! There’s no wonder why it generally turns out to be the school’s biggest event of the year. This year’s highlights included Kiley rocking the dance competition (Go Stream C!), two respectable showings at the limbo contest, and cutting a rug with a T-Rex. Ah, good times…
Chapter 3: Food
Those who have travelled to the UK before know that it doesn’t have a stellar reputation for native cuisine. And by “doesn’t have a stellar reputation” I mean “most people hate British food.” While one can understand that perspective (the taste palate is essentially based on salt and vinegar), there are some relative gems in the British food culture. Case in point: the Sunday roast, which is a weekly tradition in the UK. From neighborhood pubs to upscale restaurants to home kitchens, the day-long meal is centered on roasted meat, potatoes, other veggies, stuffing, and Yorkshire pudding. And I’ll go ahead and say it: Yorkshire pudding is weird. I get that it’s a tradition and the Brits take it pretty seriously, but to me it’s just a confusing flaky taste void. Other than that, the Sunday roasts are great; those in the States can compare the occasion to an afternoon/evening brunch. Oh, and there are a lot of good veggie roast options available too, depending on the establishment.
We certainly can’t discuss British food without talking fish and chips. We’ve ordered the dish perhaps a dozen times from several different pubs and it continues to be a solid choice, especially for a couple that tries to avoid meat where possible. Surprisingly, there is some variety in the fish and chips dishes from joint to joint; each pub has its own batter and their own spin on the fries and accompanying veggies (usually mushy peas). Now, we’ve had a touch-and-go relationship with mushy peas so far. In our first trip to London in 2016, we were eating at what would later become one of our favorite pubs, The Alice House in West Hampstead. Visiting as tourists, of course we ordered the fish and chips, which included mushy peas made with mint leaves. It was awful guys; not sure why exactly, but we remember it being awful. Flash forward almost one year, we still order fish and chips from that same restaurant and those same mushy peas are great. I’m not sure what happened; maybe it was a bad batch the first time, maybe now that we are locals, our taste buds have unknowingly changed, maybe they put some kind of mind control chemical in the water to make you like mushy peas—whatever the reason, I now love me all kinds of mushy peas.
Now, if you ask any large group of Londoners their favorite restaurant, you will be surprised by how many mention some sort of Indian restaurant. As far as we can tell, London is sort of known as a hotspot of excellent Indian food, and we definitely agree. That also holds true for wok, sushi, Mediterranean, and other ethnic food; there are vastly more ethnic restaurants than those that could be considered more traditionally British. My current theory is a combination of large immigrant communities and a pretty low bar set by traditional British cuisine. Anyway, our best experience with Indian food so far (and perhaps our best meal in general) came shortly after Kiley began classes. Along with other members of her study group, we were invited to her teammate’s flat to enjoy an authentic home-cooked Indian meal. It was amazing! There was chana masala, dal, samosas, and about a dozen other dishes that we can’t identify but remember were absolutely excellent.
The last foodie experience we’d like to share was a similar situation. It took place during reading week, which is essentially a break week for students across the country. Another one of Kiley’s classmates, this one from Argentina, invited us for home-cooked empanadas. Served with a variety of fillings (ham and cheese, spinach and ricotta, onion and cheese), they were so warm and flaky… MMMMMM!
It’s definitely been an amazing few months in London. Although we always want to do more, I think we’ve done a great job at exploring our new city and experiencing some of the big-ticket sights here in town. And with the holidays around the corner, we hope to have additional time to see and do more… maybe even spending some time outside of the UK. Stay tuned!