On July 4, I stepped out of St. Pancras train station and into my storybook land.
I was one of those kids who grew up with a weird obsession with England. I was raised on a diet of British fantasy novels by Roald Dahl and Eva Ibbotson. I pretended to be Hermione Granger, and I dreamed about the mystical fairytale places from these books. This magic was, in my little head, inseparable from the country across the pond.
And suddenly there I was, not just visiting there, but living there for six entire weeks. I was studying abroad at the London School of Economics, or LSE, and I was excited for a summer full of world-class communications classes and adventures in the city I had been dreaming about visiting since I was a little girl.
Stepping onto the streets of London for the first time was exactly like I had always imagined. The brightly lit sign of the Underground shone before me. As double-decker buses passed by me on the wrong side of the road, I couldn’t help but feel like I was in some sort of movie.
I arrived at my dorm the next day on a cool, foggy morning, ready for my international experience to really begin.
As I walked onto the campus for the first time, I realized it was very different than anything I was used to. The London School of Economics is pretty small, only covering about one city block. It looked more like a criss-cross of streets and tall buildings than the type of campus I had grown to associate with a university. But I loved it all the more for that — for the pubs on other side of the student center and the city park I walked past between classes. The campus truly felt integrated into the city. I still couldn’t quite believe that I was studying here, just a few blocks away from the River Thames and some of the best theater in the world. But I couldn’t think about all of that just yet — I was, after all, a student first.
I began classes with my usual, unconcerned beginning-of-semester attitude. I had time to figure everything out and relax into my schedule. I envisioned short days of class and afternoon adventures around the city.
As it turns out, that wasn’t necessarily the case.
The LSE summer school takes place over two three-week sessions, with students taking one class per session. From Monday to Friday, I was in class for three hours of lecture before lunch and then an hour and a half of afternoon discussion. I had three weeks to write a paper, prepare for a final and learn a semester’s worth of material. And, in planning these afternoon adventures, it hadn’t really occurred to me that I might have to — you know — study.
Luckily, right off the bat, the classes proved to be worth my time. I spent the first session studying journalism under a veteran of the field who brought in guest speakers every day. We heard from an editor for the British Broadcast Corporation, the world news editor for Buzzfeed and a combat zone reporter for Al Jazeera who was a convicted terrorist in Egypt for her writing. I loved this approach to learning, which was so much more hands-on than the theoretical focus I was used to at home.
The amount of time we spent in class, however, was definitely frustrating. My friends and I had all been focusing so much on getting our bearings in our classes that it felt like our trip had already begun to slip by. We hadn’t seen much of anything aside from the 20 minute walk from our dorm to campus. So we decided to change that.
That Saturday, we took a trip up the London Eye, which was was our first chance to really see London. From that point on, I was a wide-eyed tourist at every opportunity I got, whether I was walking along the River Thames on my way to tour the Houses of Parliament or standing in the back of a crowd attempting to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. I was determined to see this city and everything it had to offer. I spent the afternoon I should have spent reviewing for my first final meeting friends from home and seeing the Rosetta Stone at the British Museum. I walked by 10 Downing St. and took photos of a hat at a souvenir stand that was a spitting image of the one Joey Tribbiani had worn in the season 4 finale of Friends. I took the Tube straight from campus to the British Library to gawk at hand-written Jane Austen manuscripts, the remains of an original Beowulf copy, scrawled-out Beatles lyrics, and the original Magna Carta. I took a day trip to the University of Cambridge and explored a campus that felt like it had fallen straight out of Harry Potter.
Not that I wasn’t getting my Harry Potter fix. On the contrary, I was in nerd heaven.
I did it all. I walked across Millennium Bridge. I visited the Leaky Cauldron at Leadenhall Market. I took my dorky tourist photo at Platform 9 3/4. My walk around campus involved a near-daily stroll by Australia House, the filming location for Gringotts. And of course, I made what I like to call a pilgrimage to Warner Bros. Studios in Leavesden to tour the studio that created the film series.
If I felt like a kid in a candy store before, it was nothing compared to the sensation of touring the Harry Potter sets. Getting the chance to step inside the world that had been so formative to the person I am now wasn’t just a fun opportunity to play pretend — it was a deeply moving experience.
I was loving my adventures through this storybook land. So you can imagine how guilty I felt for feeling homesick after my first month in London.
At seven weeks total, my trip to Europe was more than double my personal record for the longest I’d ever been away from home. And as amazing as my trip was, I found myself missing the little things — the Bay Area sunshine, football season, sitting on the couch with my best friends. I was longing for the comforts of California after spending as long as I had abroad.
But thinking about home didn’t help. I threw myself into the remainder of my classes. I planned more sightseeing, more trips. And I booked theater tickets, desperate to fit in all of the shows I hadn’t yet seen in what remained of my time there.
In some ways, those theatre trips were the most surprising experiences I had. I didn’t expect to cry during Wicked or War Horse. I didn’t expect to get a photo with West End star Carrie Hope Fletcher after seeing her in Les Miserables. I definitely didn’t expect that my outdoor standing tickets to see Much Ado About Nothing at the Globe Theatre would be accompanied by a thunderstorm.
And it’s safe to say I didn’t expect to meet Benedict Cumberbatch.
At some point, I found out that Benedict Cumberbatch would be starring in a three-month run of Hamlet in London starting in the last week of my trip. The catch was that aside from 30 same-day tickets released per show, the play had been sold out entirely for over a year. So, naturally, my roommate and I got in line at 4 a.m. to get Hamlet tickets even though we were in the middle of our last week of classes.
The show in itself would have been a once-in-a-lifetime experience. But the truly magical part of the night didn’t happen until we were waiting at the stage door after the show.
The embarrassing truth is that I couldn’t really tell you how the interaction happened because my entire brain was short-circuiting. I think my roommate asked Benedict for a selfie, and I think he said okay. And the only thing I have to convince myself that it wasn’t all entirely a dream is this.
In many ways, I wish the the trip could have lasted forever. I wish Benedict and I (because we’re totally on a first-name basis now) could have had more time together. But only days later, it was over. We had our last classes, our last weekends spent straddling the prime meridian, our last adventures out to take group pictures crossing Abbey Road and our last night sitting around the dorm building’s crappy common room sharing drinks and stories.
As I sat on the plane headed back to Oakland flipping through the photos on my camera, I thought about my trip and what it had all meant for me. I had come to London to experience these tales I had grown up with — the Harry Potter books, Beatles songs and Shakespeare plays that had inspired my wild imagination and lifelong love of stories. And I felt I had succeeded. I had wandered through my heroes’ stomping grounds, tasting a life they might have had and finding inspiration in the same city they had called home. But I’d found my own home there too. I was going to miss the beautiful old buildings, the sharply-dressed men scattered outside the pubs in the late afternoon, calling fries “chips” and calling chips “crisps,” Cadbury Flake chocolate bars and even the way the city panicked and basically shut down during Tube strikes. I was going to miss the professors I had and the friends I’d made.
My trip wasn’t perfect. But it was everything I could have ever asked it to be.
Contact Kelsi Krandel at [email protected].