Monday, December 10, 2018

< One Week

Less than one week left. It feels as if time has flown by. I hasn't really hit me until this past week when I realized goodbyes to places and people may be permanent. The thought makes me sad honestly.

Things I'm going to miss: being forced to be active and walk places, the accents and phrases that I've only just now gotten used to, the rolling hill landscape, the beach being 3 miles away, the wild sheep roaming around, the cheap Tesco food, the tea/biscuit culture, the environmental awareness norms (the McDonald here has paper straws!!!), the kindness of the locals, the easier class schedule, the rainbow after quick rain, having my own space, cheap flights to and from places in Europe, my neighbors, my volunteer crew, my volleyball team, my Parkrun family, and especially my flatmates. 

Things I'm not going to miss: the money exchange rate, cooking for myself, relying on public transport, the rain, and not having to worry about thesis. 

Things I'm excited about: finally meeting my niece, being with my family, AMI conference in January, my Peace Corps interview in a week or so, graduating, and sharing my experience abroad with anyone who is willing to listen. 

The only thing that has remained the same about on/about me since I left is my toe nail polish and my earrings that I have yet to take off.

Monday, December 3, 2018

Thrifty in the City: London on a Budget (Roehampton Summer Program)

If you're worried that spending a summer in London might break the bank, allow me to be the first to say "Keep Calm and Carry On!" There are a number of ways to keep the cost of your trip down when completing the Roehampton summer program in London, and I have lots of insider tips, tricks, and knowledge from my own experience to help you save your pounds and pence without sacrificing fun experiences.

Dollars and Cents, Pounds and Pence

1. This first tip might seem like a no-brainer, but it's worth learning before you cross the pond: KNOW THE EXCHANGE RATE!!!! At the time of writing, £1 is equal to $1.27, so everything is marked up about a quarter of what it would cost you in the US. Still, if you learn to quickly calculate the percent increase between what you're purchasing in the UK and what the cost would be at home, you can learn to avoid overpriced items and make smart decisions even in the middle of big-city bustle. Some friends in my study abroad cohort were unfamiliar with the exchange rate, and shied away from buying anything that cost more than £20 or £30 because they thought they'd be spending the equivalent of $100 USD. Being familiar with the current exchange rate during your trip will help you stretch your dollars (or pounds) and get the most bang for your quid.

Cookin' Up a Storm 

"Dinky Posh Dogs"-
Even grocery shopping is fun in the UK!
2. Another thing to be mindful of when planning your stay at Roe is that you will not have a meal plan. It may sound scary to think about surviving in a new place without a  Pearsons-like solution to your meals. However, you will have a full kitchen available on your flat, and you will be graciously gifted a box full of brand-new kitchen utensils (each student receives one; they make great souvenirs!). Thus, the most cost-effective approach to eating in London is to cook in as often as you can.  If you can coordinate with flatmates to cook together, even better! You'll have fun getting to know your flatmates, and you'll all be saving money. There are two grocery stores within a 20-minute bus ride of campus, so grab a bus, take tote bags and a backpack, and stock up on groceries during your first week. There's an Asda east of the school and an M&S near Hammersmith Station; the M&S is a little more expensive, but they have lots of produce and individually-sized meals, and their frozen meals are WAY better than Asda's. Seriously, when shopping at Asda, don't waste your time with the £1 frozen meals; that's one instance where it's definitely better to spend more). Be sure to bring your own bags, because you get charged 5 pence for each plastic shopping bag you take in the UK (pretty cool, really). I tried to eat at least two meals a day on campus, and it helped a lot with my pocketbook and my overall health in a new place. 

Eating Out (While Staying In!)

3. Speaking of eating on campus, there are plenty of restaurants available to you at Roe, too! Between the hot bar serving a fish and chips and mushy peas special on Friday (definitely worth the £6 for the portion size), the student-run brunch joint with campus-grown peaches and homemade fudge cake, and the sandwich shop right next to the Aldersgate Court dorms,  just to name a few, there are lots of options for food on campus. Several of these run lunch combo specials, like a sandwich, chips, and drink for £5 or a £5 cafeteria-style meal. These are some of the cheapest lunch meals you'll find in London, so definitely take advantage of them. There's even a small convenience store, like our C-Store, but watch the price hikes there. One particular advantage of utilizing the campus restaurants is that there is no transportation cost involved.

"Mind the Gap!"

Paddington Bear will help you on your journey
at Paddington Station.
4. If you're wondering why transportation cost is a big deal, keep in mind that walking is the only free form of transport in London. Black cabs and Ubers cost a ridiculous amount of money, so plan to avoid them and use public transport whenever possible. Every bus, train, or Tube trip will cost money that you've preloaded onto your Oyster card. However, there are also some ways to get discounted rates when traveling via TFL (that's Transport for London). This link explains daily fare capping, which means that if you travel far enough during one day, your card "caps out" and you are no longer charged for using TFL services. Because of fare capping, you shouldn't be afraid to make several trips during a single day, because eventually you won't be paying for those trips anymore! I frequently capped out while traveling around central London, so it's definitely not hard to reach the cap. You should also take note of which Tube stops fall under the different "zones" of the Tube map (I promise this will make more sense once you're there, don't worry about it yet), because traveling outside certain zones can cost you more, so plan your trips accordingly to keep travel prices down. The TFL website is a really useful resource; if you have questions about traveling in London, look to it first.

See the Sights – For Free!

Hanging out at the British Museum!

5. Once you get into the city, you're going to want to see and do everything, and lucky for you, LOTS of London is totally free! Any major landmark you have on your list is guaranteed to be free–– Trafalgar Square, Westminster, the Buckingham Palace Mall, St. James' Park, and Abbey Road are all sites that are free to see and interact with. The Tower Bridge and the Thames are two of London's most famous landmarks, and you'll see and interact with them almost everyday. If you're planning to be abroad in June, don't miss the annual Trooping the Colour, when you can watch Royal Guards parade down the Mall in celebration of the Queen's Birthday; it's an amazing and truly British experience. Most of London's museums are also free to attend. During our three week term, my friends and I visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, the Imperial War Museum, the British Museum, and the Tate Modern (which is a great place to get some amazing views of the London skyline and the Shard). One of my favorite experiences in London was Richmond Park, which is less than a mile's walk from Roe's campus–– you don't even need to take a bus! It's a huge Royal nature preserve with protected populations of Red and Fallow deer, and it highlights England's natural beauty without requiring you to leave the city! If you're spending your summer at Roe, please do me the favor of visiting the park one afternoon; it won't disappoint.
A portion of the skyline view from the top of the Tate Modern

See More Sights – Not Free!

A picturesque day in Brighton won't set you back too much
6. Of course, not everything that you're going to want to do will be completely free. To get the best deals on sightseeing tours, tickets to plays, or landmarks like the Tower of London, start doing your research ahead of time. Booking tickets in advance is usually cheaper than purchasing them upon your arrival. Researching ahead of time also gives you the opportunity to compare prices and reviews between multiple tour companies and experiences; I spent weeks Googling around before I finally booked a daytrip that took me to Leeds Castle in Kent, then to Dover, the Canterbury Cathedral, and a river cruise up the Thames from Greenwich. Trips like these are expensive (mine was £99), but I was able to experience a full day of hands-free sightseeing across England, complete with professional tour guides; if you're able to save up the money for a trip like this, I recommend it, but there are definitely other ways to travel around the country. My friends and I took an overground train to Brighton for a day as well, and all it cost us was a £28 ticket for a full day of sightseeing.

To Market, To Market...

7. As you embark on your adventures, you're going to want some souvenirs. Some of my favorite souvenir finds were also the cheapest–– London has lots of incredible markets, and is also a great thrift shopping locale. After one of our class walking tours ended outside Old Spitalfields Market in Whitechapel, friends and I spent the day eating (CHEAP!) delicious market food and shopping for funky jewelry and antiques among the market stalls. Then we hopped the Tube and headed West to Wimbledon (yes, that Wimbledon) for some ritzy thrift shopping at the "charity shops." Not only were our market and thrift finds unique and authentic, allowing us to dig into real British culture, they were inexpensive, too!

Walkin' London

A bowl of prawn dumplings at Old Spitalfields Market will only cost you about £6.
8. You might have noticed that I mentioned visiting  Whitechapel on a class walking tour; when planning the cost of your experiences and activities while at Roe, keep in mind that your program will include walking tours to various locales around the city. These are professionally guided, very educational, and a lot of fun. Even if you're heading to London on a shoestring budget, you'll get to see and do some special things with your class on these tours–– just make sure you top up your Oyster card first! The walking tours are paid for, but your transportation into and back from the city is up to you. Talk to your professor and see if they can help you determine the most cost-efficient route; my professor was very accommodating to our class about getting to and from the tours, and the guides themselves were a great help at giving local tips for getting around the city. Make use of your resources–– they know what they're doing!

Waterstone's and Wifi!

Hatchard's, London's oldest bookshop,
is owned by Waterstone's–– and has free Wi-fi!
9. You might think that your chances of encountering a free  Wifi connection would be more scarce in the city than on campus. However, one thing London has plenty of is bookstores. The UK equivalent of Barnes and Noble is Waterstone's, and there's one on every corner. Seriously. Waterstone's always has a reliable Wifi connection, a cafe-style seating area where you can sit down and rest your feet, and–– pro tip–– it's got air-conditioning. Take advantage of these glorious little bookshops and their free internet; it's a good opportunity to refresh your Citymapper app, check in with your cohort on WhatsApp, and post your latest London selfies to social media.

Bonus Tip!

10. My last money-saving tip is one that might surprise you: don't ride the London Eye. It costs nearly £30, and the pictures you take of the Eye itself are better than any you can take while riding it.

The kinds of pictures you take while riding the London Eye
The kinds of pictures you take of the London Eye

London is a daunting city to tackle on a tight budget, but there are so many ways you can make it feasible without spending a fortune! Don't be intimidated if it seems expensive; studying abroad is truly a once in a lifetime experience and the ultimate way to treat yo'self. Follow these tricks and keep an eye out for more ways to save those pounds, and you'll have a fabulous summer in London without breaking the bank! 

Ultimate Challenge

So, my last few trips have been with others, but this past one to Nantes/Rennes, France was a solo trip that I planned spontaneously. I ended up meeting with an old friend I had in an "exchange" program 4 years ago. She came and visited me in Nashville, and I couldn't afford to visit her in France... But now that I'm in Europe, I figured might as well try and meet up. Everything turned out amazingly well, and I feel very accomplished.

Some issues that subconsciously haunted me prior to the trip: I don't know near as much French as I would like to, I don't have wifi on my phone, I can't call using my phone, I'm only staying in Nantes for one night---where and who with, I haven't spoken to my friend Camille in years-what if things are weird, my flight arrives at 10:20pm on Thursday, which is kinda late to get a taxi/bus/train to wherever I need to go.

All that I knew was I booked a flight from Dublin to Nantes on Thursday, that I was returning on Sunday, and that my friend was expecting me to meet up eventually.

I applied for a couchsurfer the Wednesday before I left, and luckily, one responded within a day. He was very, very nice. He picked me up from the airport that night, despite having to leave for work at 7:30am the next morning. We played talked and played board games that night, and he cooked me breakfast in the morning and gave me pointers about what to see and do in Nantes. I saw the ile de machines, the city jardin, the chateau bretagne, and walked around the streets Trentemoult. My couchsurfer also gave me tips on mapping apps like "MAPS.ME". It downloads large scale maps with wifi, and it's better than google maps, I promise. It saved my life. Once you have it downloaded, you can search anything from local food, markets, bus stops, train stops, popular sights, ect. Afterwards, I caught a bus to Rennes where I met up with my old friend. Of course things had changed in the past 4 years, but the visit was amazing. We visited a few coffee shops, a Christmas market or two, met up with her friends, and watched a French film. Her dad was especially generous and got us a hotel room that was spacious and in a good location. Also, she paid for all of my meals, so buying the ticket last second ended up evening out... at least that's what I tell myself :)

I managed to book another bus back to Nantes to catch my flight that Sunday. The couchsurfer was kind enough to pick me up from the bus stop and drive me directly to the airport, otherwise, I would've been cutting it close relying on the train/tram/bus system to get me there. 

I knew more French than I remembered. I didn't need to call anybody. with the app, I didn't need wifi constantly. The couchsurfer was amazing, and Camille was just as nice as I remembered.

Things worked out for the best, and I don't owe it to anyone but me that the trip went well. I often times find myself relying on others to do the planning of the trip, and I feel like getting their opinion on what they want to do, see, eat, ect. Our trips thus far have been amazing, but I feel as if things could have gone differently if I went by myself, whether or not that be because I wouldn't have stopped in that store, or wouldn't have eaten there, or I wouldn't have waited outside the bathroom, or I wouldn't have prioritized that site, ect. I have been on trips faced with plenty of issues and obstacles that were hard to overcome, but they turned out OK with collective brainstorming. I felt as if this trip was the ultimate challenge; I didn't have anybody's opinions; it was just me, myself and I. I feel like I made the most of it. 

Now--- two more weeks left ):) 

Time to check the last few things off my bucketlist.