I always research the “wrong” things before I travel. Maybe it’s because I romanticize it—and scrolling through perfect Instagram beach pictures from professional wanderlust-ers doesn’t help that problem. Before coming to London, I was swept off my feet by the notion of old-world Europe, dwelling more on the “what was” than the “what is.” I couldn’t help but glorify the history, the architecture, the art, and the literature as most important to this city rather than the everyday lives of eight million people that work, breathe, and exist here amongst it all. While this tendency makes me an excellent tour guide for my friends, I’m often left idealess when it comes to daily life: where to eat cheaply, where to buy shampoo, where to find the locals.
A few weeks into my program and I’ve noticed that, yes, London is idyllic. But idyllic London is not real London, and I’ve barely begun to understand that. My research about the history of the royal family or the best museums or the Kensington architecture is just one tiny detail in a city that has so much more to offer. Those photos you find on the internet of Buckingham Palace don’t do it justice — all the grandeur is pressed up against this bustling, international city. Juxtaposed, perhaps, but also somehow maintaining a sense that every aspect of London fits together perfectly somehow.
Two equally unique sides to London!
And besides, I don’t spend most of my time gazing at portraits and statues anyway. If I’m here to live as a Londoner, that means finding the best pubs, restaurants, grocery stores, neighborhoods, and friends like anyone else. These are the things I should’ve been prepared for—and the postcard-picturesque London is a lucky side effect, not an expectation.
For AIFS London in particular, you’ll be living in one of the most beautiful, posh neighborhoods in the city. While you’ll probably never be able to rub shoulders with royalty or afford to live here again (soak it up, people!), don’t be afraid to get out and explore—every day, if you can. Creating a bubble can be comforting at first, but remember that you came here to push yourself out of your comfort zone.
Overall, don’t have too many expectations, but still do your research. If you’re a type-A personality like me, remember to strike a balance in your to-do list between the bucket list sites and the best cheap eats. Time Out London is an excellent resource for the “best of” London, as well as events going on around the city and deals on drinks and food. Take advantage of what’s currently going on—the National Portrait Gallery will still be there when you’re done (and it’s free)!
While most people say London is the ideal jumping-off point for the rest of Europe, to me London has been a true mix of people from all over the world, finding their place amongst its iconic past. The fun is seeing where you fit in, too.