LONDON

My relationship with London

I don’t know where my obsession with London came from (I suppose it had something to do with Harry Potter, Love Actually and the British accent); I just know I liked it more each time I travelled there. At some point I decided that I’d like to spend some time living there in the future, and I had this thought in my mind until the day I applied for Erasmus. The strange thing is, though, that I’m generally someone who likes summer and the sea; Thames is quite a lousy substitute, and while it doesn’t usually rain heavily in London, the weather changes quickly and it’s often cloudy and wet. And then there’s the fact that London is enormous and crowded; it can take ages to get somewhere and walking around the centre at weekends can be a nightmare. Also, it’s ridiculously expensive.

Views from Parliament Hill, Hampstead Heath

And yet, none of these things made me dislike it. I spent nine months there having a laugh and enjoying every minute of it, loving every part of the city; even the dodgy Cricklewood where I lived sort of grew on me. Of course, there were times when the slow traffic made me nervous, when the amount of people in Primark made me leave everything and walk out, or when I was shocked by the price of a glass of mediocre wine in some random club (8 pounds). But all that was nothing compared to the times when I walked London’s streets, lied in a park on a sunny day, or visited one of the markets. I was happy to be there all the time; I liked travelling by tube, going to Co-op and sometimes I even liked the rain. I wasn’t scared of moving there all alone and I was next to depressed when I had to go home. But there’s a good reason for all that: I was an exchange student.

Erasmus life is like living in a bubble; it, sadly, isn’t real. Everything’s temporary and you’re aware of that, which is why you try to make the most out of it while you can. I had few classes and didn’t have to work, which meant that I didn’t have to commute to another part of the city every morning. I also didn’t struggle with loneliness; I had my Erasmus flatmates, and I basically forgot what it’s like to be alone; I don’t think I saw two films by myself in the entire year. And then I had the scholarship, I paid my rent in advance and whenever I was running out of money, my mum and my grandma would help me. I was free as a bird and I didn’t have any real worries.

London itself

The cons of living in London therefore didn’t affect me as much, but I did enjoy the good stuff, the things everyone loves. I’ll focus on these, and I’ll leave out the main tourist sites because I’m sure you already know everything there is to know about Buckingham Palace and Madame Tussauds. The best things about London are the mixture between old and new architecture, the many enormous parks, the amazing markets and the fact that there’s always something going on. There are so many events, concerts, clubs, pubs and restaurants that it’s hard to run out of things to do or places to go to.

Views from the top floor in Tate Modern

PARKS

It’s no secret that London is full of amazing parks, but it’s not all about Hyde Park and Regent’s Park, there are many other ones. I had Clitterhouse Playing Fields and Gladstone Park near to my residence, and I often ran there. The first one is basically just lots of grass and some benches, while the second one is more park-like. Neither of them is very special, though, while the ones listed below absolutely are:

Hampstead Heath: there’s a hill, a forest, small lakes (in which people actually swim during summer; I guess they’re just that desperate), an amazing old palace called Inverforth House (you can walk through a part of its garden), rich people’s houses and Parliament hill (a very cool viewpoint).

Golders Hill Park: basically, a zoo; you can see various kinds of birds and other animals, including squirrels, like in every London’s park.

Richmond Park: enormous, be prepared to walk a lot or rent a bike; you can see deer.

Holland Park: a big pretty park that includes a Japanese garden.

Battersea Park: next to Thames, it has an adventure park, and it’s right next to Battersea Power Station which was on the cover of Animals by Pink Floyd.

The usual ones which are definitely worth a visit too: Hyde Park, Kensington Gardens, Regent’s Park (you can walk to Primrose Hill from here, another amazing viewpoint), St. James’s Park, Victoria Park, Green Park, Greenwich Park, etc.

Richmond Park

CEMETERIES

It might sound bizarre, but I really like cemeteries. I prefer older ones with interesting tombstones. I think it also has something to do with the fact that cemeteries in England differ a lot from the ones in Slovenia; for one thing, there are a lot less candles and flowers and I find that reasonable. There are lots of them in London and I have only visited two:

Hampstead Cemetery: near Cricklewood. There’s a path that goes through it with a fence on both sides and people run, walk and cycle there. It’s beautiful, the tombstones are surrounded by trees and it has a creepy gothic vibe if you walk through it when it’s getting dark. It’s free of charge.

Highgate Cemetery: it’s divided into the West and the East Cemetery and I only visited the Eastern part. For the Western part you must book a guided tour (around 12 pounds). I only had to pay 4 pounds for the East Cemetery which is also where Karl Marx is buried. Douglas Adams is also among the people buried in the East Cemetery. The West Cemetery is supposed to have amazing architecture, and George Michael is buried there, but his grave isn’t visited during the tour.

Otherwise, London has the “Magnificent Seven”: seven big private cemeteries, all established in the 19th century because there wasn’t enough space in the existing ones. Highgate is one of them, alongside Kensal Green, Abney Park and Brompton, which are also supposed to be worth visiting.

Hampstead Cemetery (a very bad picture, but a good representation of its creepiness and of English weather)

MARKETS

Markets are among the things that make London such an amazing city to live in. They are just screaming London as they are crowded, you can buy/eat things from all over the world, they are loud and there’s music everywhere. Keep in mind to check the opening times online before visiting them: some are closed on Sundays (Borough Market) while some er only fully open on Sundays (Brick Lane). I’ve been to the following five markets several times and I really can’t decide which one I like best: Borough Market, Camden Market, Brick Lane, Portobello Road Market and Covent Garden. There are also other famous markets in London but I either haven’t been to them or have only been once and don’t really remember them, so I won’t write about them (Old Spitalfields Market, Greenwich Market, Broadway Market etc.).

Borough Market: my first memory of London. It’s near London Bridge, it’s full of amazing food (they sell fresh ingredients and ready meals, but nothing except food and drinks) and you can eat sitting by the Thames because it’s so close. It’s a nice stop when taking a walk from Tower Bridge towards Tate Modern or vice versa. As already mentioned, make sure not to go there on a Sunday and try to go between Wednesday and Saturday because not all traders are there on the first two days of the week (you won’t be hungry though). My all-time favourite dish is a mix of veggies from the Ethiopian stall.

Camden Town is another old memory and simply a classic: full of tourists, music, graffiti, crazy shops and various food stalls with all the possible junk food you can imagine (you can find healthy stuff too though). Camden Market is open every day from ten to six. ​You can buy everything, from T-shirts, to hand-made jewellery and paintings.

Brick Lane is probably one of the best markets I’ve ever been to. There are always amazing street performers, there are various food halls and they sell a lot of art work. Perhaps because of the bagel shop, but I swear I sometimes felt as if I was in New York when walking through it. Brick Lane is officially only open on Sundays from 5 to 10. There are things you can do in the lane also on other days and there are some stalls, but I would definitely recommend going on a Sunday at about twelve or so (if you don’t mind the crowd).

Portobello Road Market: it’s in Nothing Hill where the film with the same name was filmed, and where you can see cute colourful houses and majestic white ones too. It’s where I ate the best falafel in my life (I can’t remember which stall it was but I’m sure I’d find it again). It’s open every day except Sunday, the hours differ slightly, and the best day is Saturday.

Covent Garden, a covered market that’s slightly posh. It’s adorable during the holidays and great to wander around when the weather sucks. Otherwise, I don’t think I ever bought anything there or ate in any of the restaurants (I’m not rich enough). Covent Garden is open every day.

Brick Lane and chocolate (the shop is called Dark Sugars)

FREE STUFF TO DO

PARKS: Needless to say, but anyway: all parks are free as far as I know. Sometimes there are also special events with not enter fee, for example Winter Wonderland which takes place around Christmas (so from sometime in November) and is in Hyde Park. It’s free to enter but you’re naturally going to have to pay for taking any rides or if you’re going to buy some junk food from the stalls. It’s worth just seeing it as it’s enormous and colourful. There are also various other events in parks, like concerts, and one thing you can always do on a sunny day is having a picnic.

MARKETS: You’ll probably be tempted and buy something but there’s no enter fee, and markets are fun to just look at as there’s so much art and so many street performers. Plus, the food is cheaper than in most restaurants.

WANDERING AROUND: If you like walking, you’ll enjoy losing yourself around London, finding a way from wherever you’re staying to the centre. For me the most interesting parts are Soho, Brixton and Camden Town (these also have many pubs and clubs and a very lively nightlife).

SKY GARDEN: If you book online in advance (you can do it three weeks before) it’s completely free and the views are amazing. If you’re too late to book it, you can still reserve a table and have a (costly) meal.

MUSEUMS: Most of the museums in London are free (minus the special exhibitions they are holding at the moment), among those: Natural History, British Museum, National Gallery, Science Museum, Victoria and Albert Museum etc. I would really recommend Tate Modern if you’re into art. I didn’t understand anything when I first visited it but the thing with contemporary art is that you got to read the description. When I went there for the second time I found it a lot more interesting, but the best thing for me is still the fact that you can get to the top floor for free and enjoy amazing views of the city.

Victoria Park

London is an amazing place to visit as a tourist, as it is a great destination for an exchange or for studying. It’s the best place for outgoing people because it really offers a lot of basically everything. It has been more than a year since I left it behind and I miss it daily. Luckily, I’m going there for a few days in November to catch up with some friends, and I’m really looking forward to visiting the same old spots. London just never gets old, I guess.

MY ERASMUS EXCHANGE AND INTERNSHIP

Exchange in London

I’m writing this during my second Erasmus experience: an internship in Valencia this time. The fact that I’m here is a direct consequence of the year I spent in London; I came to Spain for a guy I met on my previous exchange in England, where I met a whole bunch of cool people from various parts of the world.

I always knew I would take part in an exchange at some point, I just didn’t know when exactly that would happen. There was always something making me stay: a boyfriend, my family and friends, the comfort and simplicity of living at home. And then, on a random December day in 2016, I had lunch with a friend who had recently returned from an exchange in China, and she got me so excited that I decided to apply, even though the deadline was in two days. I thought: if she could do China, I sure as hell can do London. I spent a day preparing the documentation and writing motivation letters, and then I applied. And that changed a lot of things.

I went on exchange because I had this vision of myself becoming a proper Londoner, getting some British accent, travelling the whole UK. None of that happened, though. In the whole nine months I spent there I haven’t made a single British friend, haven’t acquired a trace of British accent and the only proper UK trip I did was to Edinburgh. And despite all that, I had the best Erasmus experience I could ever wish for. I met people from different countries with whom we partied a lot and, more importantly, became great friends. I’d still say that my exchange was a classic, nothing I haven’t heard of before. I believe most people have an amazing time studying abroad and experience similar things as I did. Except for falling in love, maybe, but that’s not out of the ordinary either: roughly one million Erasmus babies were born since 1987, they say.

The point is that it was a great year: the most special, different and interesting so far. It also changed me in many ways. Before I left, home was an easy notion to understand and describe, but it isn’t so anymore. When I’m in Slovenia, I always feel like it’s temporary, like it’s just a period I’m spending there before I pack my bags and disappear for a few months again. And truth be told, it doesn’t just feel like that, it is like that. The past academic year felt like trying to get the uni stuff over with just so that I can spend the summer working in Spain.

The best part of my first Erasmus were the people; I love London but, to be honest, we would’ve had fun anywhere. I’m still in touch with the friends I made there and we’re trying to get ourselves in the same country at the same time every now and then, even though that’s easier said than done. It’s hard enough to organize trips with friends from my hometown; imagine doing it with people from Spain, Italy, Poland, Finland, Greece, China and so on. But hey, from time to time we succeed.

Internship in Valencia

You can do 12 months of Erasmus during your bachelor’s and 12 during your master’s. I haven’t used any of the months during my bachelor’s but decided to use them all during my master’s. After 9 months in London I still had 3 left, and where else would I spend them if not in Valencia, the place where my boyfriend lives, a cool city, and an opportunity to improve my broken Spanish. On top of that, I found a translation related internship (that’s what I study).

It’s safe to say that it’s nothing like London was, and I don’t mean that in a good or in a bad way. The place is completely different, it’s summer and I primarily came here to be with someone, so that’s what I’m mostly doing. I’m working from home most of the days, so I don’t see my co-workers every day; the interesting part is that most of them are Erasmus interns too, but that’s not a rule, it’s an exception. We’re quite lucky when it comes to that as we always have people to hang out with (and the gang is great this time too). I think the biggest difference is that I don’t have flatmates, except my boyfriend. That changes a lot of things; some of the greatest and funniest memories I have of London happened in the kitchen, in the hall or in one of our rooms.

The biggest difference is the amount of time: one summer is nothing. Two and a half months are over in a heartbeat and here I am wishing I could do it all over again. The work isn’t exactly what I was expecting; I’m not learning as much as I thought I’d be. The co-workers, though, were a very positive surprise. When you put a group of exchange students from different countries in the same place, amazing friendships and funny memories are bound to happen. I thought I’d just be spending a cool summer with my boyfriend and his friends, so making international friends was a big plus. As for Valencia, if you’ve read my previous post you already know I love it here.

So, study exchange or internship?

I’d say study exchange is the one that’ll give you the proper experience. Studying abroad as an exchange student usually isn’t that hard (it was very easy in my case), you have less classes, and you don’t have to work if you don’t want to (and if you have enough money; the scholarship won’t make you rich or anything). All of this means a lot of time for all the nice things: parties, trips and hanging out. If you want to go abroad for a shorter period and get some working experience, an internship might be the right option for you. It’s harder to know what to expect, though, and you might find it harder to meet people, as you may be the only Erasmus intern at the company (but you have Erasmus groups on Facebook, so no worries). As for applying and getting accepted, it’s easier to get accepted for an internship (that’s just because you find the employer after you’ve been accepted, while for the study exchange you apply to a certain university, to three, actually, in order from your first choice to your third choice). The places are limited for the study exchange, but they aren’t for the practice. At least that’s what I’ve been told.

For how long should you go?

As for the internship, that’s completely up to you and your employer (I found mine, or better said he found me, on erasmusintern.org). You can go for anything between a month or two and a whole year. An exchange is usually for one or two semesters, some are for a whole year. I’d recommend going for at least half a year or one semester, because that’s roughly how long you need to really get to know a place, a country, and to understand how it is to live there properly. Two months is cool, but they’ll pass faster than what you think. For me nine months passed incredibly fast, not to mention the summer that’s coming to an end.

Where should you go?

That’s a completely personal choice, of course. I went to London because I love it, and because I like the accent and the culture. You should think about any possible languages you’d like to learn, any culture that interests you or place that really appeals to you. The scholarship does vary according to the country, but, for example, you get the same amount of money for Italy and the UK, and the latter is much more expensive, especially London. I got around 500 euros per month (80% of the whole amount right away and 20% after I came home), but that depends on the country you come from; that’s what Slovenian students get for going to the »first category countries«, so the more expensive ones. In general, you will need more money than what the scholarship gives you, so if that concerns you, you should go to a cheaper country. You might get some money from your employer if you’re an intern, but that’s not a rule (it’s more like an exception).

Student residence or private accommodation?

Student residence forever. That way you’ll meet people, it’s even possible that they’ll put you in a flat or block with other exchange students (they did it with me) and you’ll have to try hard to be lonely. If you get private accommodation it’s possible you’ll end up living with people who are older and working full-time or just with people who, you know, already have a life and don’t need you in it. In case you’re going to England, you’ll get a single room, and I think that’s the case in many other countries too (not in mine, though).

Conclusions

Erasmus will give you more than it will take from you, that’s for sure. Your friends, family, boyfriends and girlfriends will wait, you’re not going for that long. Your independence will increase because you’ll have to find your way around in a foreign country, and your mum won’t be there to wash your clothes or cook your meals. You’ll learn how to communicate in a foreign language with ease and you’ll meet people from all over the place (which also means free accommodation in the future, wink wink). People who participate in exchanges are generally open-minded, into hanging out and into travelling, so you’re bound to find people you have something in common with. Basically, you’ll feel like you’re on a long holiday: you’ll party like you’re back in high school, uni won’t be that demanding, you’ll take random day trips and you’ll have fun, I bet you will. And really, have you ever heard of anyone regretting Erasmus? Me neither. So just apply before you get old because the only thing you’ll ever regret is not doing it.