On June 3, I set out on a weeklong journey to London to observe the snap parliamentary elections taking place in the UK with a group of fellow Hoyas, sponsored by the Institute of Politics and Public Service and the SFS. Having at last fully recovered from our tightly packed schedule and excessive amounts of walking, I want to share some of the highlights from my UK experience.
- The tube. To a resident of D.C., metro delays, breakdowns, and an occasional fire or flood are all familiar aspects of a commuter’s daily struggles. To a resident of the tri-state area (AKA an ashamed New Jerseyan pretending to be a New Yorker), the pains of deciphering the colorful knot of subway lines and a free-of-charge heat stroke in the summertime all add to the ultimate underground experience. Naturally, I expected nothing less of London’s underground system, lovingly referred to as the tube. How wrong I was. The first thing that stands out is how pristinely clean each station is. After NYC, where I refuse to even lean against the walls of the subway fully clothed in fear of catching ten diseases at once, the shining surfaces of the London tube came as a shock. The maps are also significantly more comprehensive and legible, with each train car displaying the entire route of the line you’re on…in an actual line instead of a messy jumble. Still not sold on the tube? Well, if you want to take a ride on a train that actually arrives when it says it will and gets you to your destination faster than the approximated travel time on Google Maps, the tube is a must!
- Tea. As a committed tea lover who will refuse your coffee in favor of English Breakfast, unless it’s finals season, the prospect of having tea at the Kensington Palace was almost as exciting as visiting platform 9 ¾ . [An important note: do NOT attempt to trek from Westminster Palace to Kensington Palace on foot under any circumstances. Although there are multiple top ten tourist destinations on your way, your feet will hate you for the rest of your life.] Kensington contains a café, housed under a magnificent dome and adorned with top notch palace décor (fancy plants and marble statues of half-naked women), where you can take your afternoon tea, as one does. On the menu, naturally, are tea and adorable tea sandwiches, which do not look too filling, but seem to expand in your stomach until you wonder if there is a menu option of taking a royal nap. 10/10 recommended for a true English experience.
- Pubs. If you are under 21, this will be your favorite item. Yes, the quintessential London pubs: English, Irish, you name it. They are e-ve-ry-whe-re. Coming out of the tube? A pub! Walking across a lush garden? Somehow, a pub! Resting in your university dorm? You guessed it, a pub! Although I was not particularly a fan of the ale, it is a crucial part of your tourist experience to brave the taste at least once. Fair warning: they serve it at room temperature, which to American taste, accustomed as it is to cracking open a cold one, may seem shocking at first. But, if you are unfortunate enough to get caught in the rain without an umbrella (which happened to me at least twice because I do not learn from my mistakes), you will be grateful for the warmth, external and internal.
- It’s so clean. Despite the profusion of drinking establishments, the streets of London, like its underground, are spotlessly clean. Strangely enough, however, I had difficulties locating a trash can many times. There just don’t seem to be any around. And yet, there isn’t any trash. I don’t know how they do it. When we had a banana peel and no trash can in the vicinity to deposit it in, we resorted to wrapping it in a London Pass brochure. Perhaps the citizens of London just carry their trash around with them. The mystery remains unsolved.
- Royal family. Nobody does royalty quite like theBrits. I mean, we all watched the royal wedding, and we’re the ones who threw a fit and some tea and started a revolution because we didn’t like the monarchy. Admittedly, Elizabeth II has much better PR than George III did. We were lucky enough to be visiting the week before the Queen’s birthday, just in time to watch the birthday parade rehearsal. Imagine our amazement when we found out that Prince William himself was participating in the rehearsal. In 80-degree weather. In a bear hat. Riding a white horse. To be perfectly honest, I am not sure I even saw a white horse in that parade because in the blazing sun, they all looked pretty much identical. But, let’s pretend that I did. Bottom line: if you love the royal family, mid-June is the time to visit, as long as the Queen is still around.
- Campaign laws. This trip was about politics, and even in this realm, the UK bested us in some ways. As we learned about the electoral process, we were surprised to discover that UK law placed strict limits on campaigning. In this particular race, the parliamentary candidates only got six weeks between the dismissal of Parliament and the election to campaign. Meanwhile, President Donald Trump (and other potential candidates) has already launched fundraising efforts for his 2020 campaign. Further, candidates face strict spending limits. For the June 8 election, members of Parliament could spend £8,700 plus 6-9p per registered parliamentary elector in the boroughs and counties. In contrast, the Georgia congressional race, which concluded this week, cost the candidates over $30 million. Corporations may be considered people in the US, but the moderate approach to campaigning in the UK is something to think about as we approach our next out-of-control election spending cycle.
- International food. The classic fish and chips attraction quickly loses its luster after you try it once and it continues to haunt you (and your wallet) in every establishment.The selection of international food – particularly Indian and Asian cuisine – is worthy of mention. Two notable restaurants include 1) Dishoom, a modern Indian establishment near King’s Cross station where the infamous platform 9 ¾ is located, and 2) Eat Tokyo in the Holborn district, where you can order a massive sushi boat and teas with sake, which require some DIY orange squeezing to prepare. As someone who eats the same breakfast every morning and dreams of a world where eating pasta daily is socially acceptable, I was inspired to make out-of-character, bold food choices in the London atmosphere. I can only imagine how much better that journey could be for committed foodies out there.
- Roads. For all its perks and all its glory, I just have one question for the UK: why do cars have to drive on the left side of the road? Driving in the passenger seat is by far the most terrifying experience because you constantly feel responsible for the movements the car is making, but you don’t have the wheel. I was so frustrated that I actually looked up why the UK and its former colonies developed this strange habit. It turns out driving on the left side of the road dates back to the days of feudalism, when men fought on horseback: swordsmen, who were for the most part right-handed, preferred to ride on the left side so as to keep their right side open for possible combat. A perfectly sound explanation, if you are looking to bring back the days of Robin Hood. Fortunately, the Brits pity us poor tourists and mark up all crosswalks with arrows pointing in the direction you need to look before crossing the street. Spoiler alert: it’s left.