September 29, 2010

New York, London

I was starting to get used to Heathrow by my fifth visit and found my way to the Heathrow express to Paddington. With a student fare I was in the city within 20 minutes and made my way to the underground. At the Euston square I was confronted with ever more stairs to haul my year stay suitcase up and down. I whipped out my little map and headed to Astor Hall which was just a 15 minute walk away. On the way I passed the main entrance of University College London (UCL) and what seemed like one of the older buildings, a red brick colossus with all sorts of turrets and 4 distinct wings. Immediately I was in awe of this old institution I would soon be involved in. It wasn't long before I was re-directed to my permanent halls being told that the document I had received regarding early check-in at this Astor wasn't happening. It was just around the corner so I was happy to be able to move straight into my permanent residence rather than having to move out of Astor in a couple of days.

Ramsay hall looked pretty utilitarian with the entrance being composed of the currently open big steel gates framed by the two turnstiles, administering the entry of each student in single file. I was given my new key at the reception and negotiated the basement passage passing two of the other blocks being Rome and London. I arrived at the first floor of New York, number 155, my new home for the year. It was small, basic but with a sink, a little wardrobe and desk, it would be all I'd need.

I went for a little walk in search of the breakfast I'd be providing myself for the next week before meals at the dining hall were provided. I found Weetabix, their attempt at Weetbix back home and some basics, beginning the process of stocking my room. On my way in and out, I met Jordan, an American exchange student. I passed on what experience I'd already gleaned about the way of Ramsay hall, helping with the various locked doors and the door numbering along the corridors. I met Leyla a little later, an Egyptian girl studying in Toronto who was also on exchange. Once we observed more people coming in, It seemed like our part of New York was a rather exchange student rich place with about 80% of the place coming from outside the UK.

It was a matter of just getting used to a different style of living. The little kitchen at the end of the corridor would be shared with a about 30 people and the showers all used push buttons to work. Being me, of the three showers it wasn't long before I knew which one went for 6, 13 or 22 seconds between pushes. I met Kim from Hamburg on the way to UCL for enrolment. This being the week allocated for exchange and international student enrolment, the non-EU passport que was a mile long but lucky for me, I was about to get some more use out of my new Swedish passport. With all of the paperwork done for internet access at UCL and at home, I was back online again. After a couple of inquires at the 'Car Phone Warehouse' on Tottenham court road, I also fixed up one of the connection settings on my phone so I also had mobile internet around London.

It was time to meet David Trendell. I made a slow walk to Kings College London on the Strand (KCL) via the Russell Square Gardens. I found the place eventually having had plenty of buffer time to find my way into the heart of the main building where the chapel was located. It was a beautifully decorated with the colours even stretching onto the painted organ raised above the main entrance. Despite having finally fallen ill after a good month travelling and singing, I did some simple sight reading and technical work for David, quite a moment of truth given the fact that he would have heard all of the other choristers at least once in the audition process for the choir. Rehearsals would begin the following week when uni started.

With some new found friends on the corridor, we all went to Goodge street nearby, eventually settling with the cheapest food we could find. Soon after it was back to Ramsay where we found a corridor party on the 4th floor. It was truly a strange sight to see a good 40 people lining the walls in a big frenzy of newcomers hype. One thing lead to another and before we knew it, we were on the road to The Roxy, the nearest student club which is apparently all the rage every Wednesday night. This small little club/hole in the wall seemed to be exclusively for Ramsay hall students that night with our brigade having just arrived to fill the dance floor with an alcohol fuelled fervour. While the place certainly wasn't the best in the world, it was the people and the raw sense of excitement that seemed to bound alongside the midnight throb of sub woofers.

The next couple of days shot past with various introductory talks about life in London, finances and the services offered by the student union. Having read up on account types months prior to visiting, i already knew what the scene was like so when the special student offer was made from Santander with a relatively low monthly fee of 5 pounds. With a debit card offered and reasonable interest and overdraft conditions, it seemed sensible to go with this account especially since a branch was located on my daily direct route to uni. The most important part of the conditions associated with this account though was that you only required a passport and a letter of acceptance from UCL to apply. This did distinguish it from some of the other student offers since it became so easy to initiate the account. Since there were so many applicants it did take a while until I received my card and account details.

All of the talk around Ramsay seemed to be dedicated to deciding on which of the many union sponsored clubbing parties to go to in 'freshers week'. It seemed this was the way first years introduce themselves to their new found university life. I got fast selling tickets to the Freshers Fiesta at KOKO and a guided bus tour for the following day.

This bus tour ended up being a great way to get a well rounded view of the city and overview of the historical significance that seems to be entwined with every building, park and statue. Armed with rain jackets and umbrellas, we were assaulted by the wind and rain from the top of the double decker bus. We passed fantastic places such as Trafalgar square, the departments along Whitechapel??? and on through to Westminster Abbey and the houses of Parliament. The big glossy adverts that you may have at some point seen showing off the London Eye and Big Ben tower, these images were suddenly being seen in real live (albeit in the grey gloom of a rainy day rather than the ideailk blue of a marketing image), bring home the reality that home was now a major city of the world. Passing Kings College, the bus driver introduced and fostered the rivalry between KCL and UCL, repeating the renown words of historian Thomas Arnold in his description of the secular UCL being "that godless institute in Gower Street". That very day, I walked into the college chapel for the second time and met the rest of the choir in our first rehearsal for the academic year. Something I chose to keep quite about at just that moment. It was so great to get started with this choir which was composed entirely of KCL students (with some exceptions). The standard of reading was good with progress going toward the first couple of services the following week. I got to know a couple of names and knew I would be in good company for the rest of the year, getting a good weekly dose of new music every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

With the formalities of the week complete, it was time for a bit more socialising with the other occupants of New York. That evening I joined a couple of american people I had met only the night before at the UCL union bar. Even in this week before the local UK students had graced the scene, the union bar was still busy with people heading out for the night. The popularity of the bar was certainly solid with pints generally below 50% of the normal 3 pound London standard. Having the requirement of being over 21 in clubs in the US, Devan and Dylon had taken to the task of going clubbing every night since they had arrived in London. I joined them for 'pre-gaming' in Dylan's room before heading to the clubbing central of Leicester Square. At 11pm this part of London was just coming to its peak life with night goers filling the malls and club sprukers spilling onto the streets to beckon people onto their dance floors. After wafting around the square dazzled by the lights, we eventually settled into Bar Rumba, a small club with some serious R&B beats. It was 3am and after a full night on the dance floor with the others, it was time to head home. With the tube closed and since Devan insisted on getting a cab to Ramsay, we ended up walking all the way to Piccadilly square where we finally found a late night black cab to Ramsay.

With some time off over the weekend, we banded up a group of 1st floorer's to explore some more of the surroundings, revisiting some of the destinations visited by the tour bus earlier in the week. On top of the typical sights like Piccadilly and Trafalgar squares, we went into the Covent Garden Markets, right next to the Royal Opera House. After vast amounts of walking, it was time for the pub with all of us rolling into the UCL union bar together for some games. The festivities continued the following night with the freshers fiesta taking place at KOKO in the evening. This amazing venue is an old converted theatre with a full dress circle and balcony setup. The stage acts as a massive platform for the DJ, pumping sound though the floor for an awesome night out.

One important initiative with regarding transport in London came with my adoption of the Barklays hire bike scheme. This program was set up in London in early 2010 and since then has been growing exponentially as Londoners take up the congestion friendly alternative. Having figured out part of my timetable for the following term, it is likely that I will have to make some weekly dashes from lectures to rehearsal. These clashes will require that I waste as little time in transit as possible and since the tube trip to KCL is not very direct and takes almost as long as walking direct from Uni. Having looked at the likely routes and pick up/drop off stations for the bikes, I calculated that making a walk/bike from uni to the KCL chapel would take around 40% less time, leaving that bit more time in clash lectures before sprinting off to rehearsal every Tuesday and Wednesday. Having reviewed all of the membership options available on the Barklays bike site, I settled on the annual access fee for just 45 pounds. Just 4 days later I received my membership key in the mail, letting me approach any bike at a docking station, insert my key, wait for the little light to go from yellow to green then give a sharp pull on the handle bars to get it out of the station. The bike is then mine for up to 24 hours but to avoid any fee on top of my 45 pound annual access fee, I can return the bike at any station within 30 minutes. After 30 minutes, I will be charged an extra 1 pound then an extra 4 pounds after the next hour. That being said, my main journey is not more than 15 minutes by bike.

Today I got a surprising message from one of my oldest friends, Felipe! It seemed that he would be arriving to London in 2 hours. I left Ramsay with Mel, planning to take the opportunity to see some of London by bike in the morning. We cycled through Hyde park and ended up at Buckingham Palace just as people started to amass for the changing of the guard. Over the deluge of drums, tourist delight and the inevitable crush of the crowd, we found each other and both continued the tourist behaviour with our cameras. We headed towards Westminster after the ceremony had finished, aiming to take in this iconic district of London with the towering Abbey and clock tower gazing down on all of the people pouring through the area. I said goodbye to Felipe for the meantime and it didn't take long before I was back home, preparing for the afternoon at uni and then to my first evensong with the KCL choir.

I had been wondering what would happen on my 20th birthday, wondering who I would celebrate with in my new environment and also what I would be doing to mark the occasion. I hadn't expected my birthday to begin with my first proper lectures in the mechanical engineering department but that was how it was. I left soon after the commencement of the second of my clash lectures, heading out to the bike stands and to KCL where I would be till the 4:30pm. With the coming of the 29th of September came a whole series of surprises. The first came in the form of a big cardboard box at the reception upon arrival after rehearsal. I opened it up when I got up to my room and to my great surprise it was full of red roses from Ariel back home. It came with a glass vase and before long the stems were cut and the flowers were sitting on my windowsill. Not more than an hour later, Mel came into my room with a tray of freshly baked cupcakes.

Purely by chance, I stumbled upon the news that the band MGMT were to be playing at the Brixton O2 Academy in the evening. With the company of some willing friends on the corridor, we all got tickets and were soon on the tube (after a prerequisite pre-game...) and on our way to the end of the Victoria line: to Brixton. The atmosphere was slow on arrival but we were all ready to see the show and had fun throughout the supporting acts. The excitement continued until MGMT set the stage with their dazzling light show and memorable rhythms.

After a long night of dancing and many spontaneous smiles, the clock ticked over and it was no longer the 29th. Time for another year to begin, this time in a different part of the world with one old friend and a whole lot of new ones. London has been so new and exciting so far and I'm sure the unique facets of the city and the people that I inhabit it with will make the year just as exciting for the up and coming months. The introduction to university in the UK so far has been a smörgåsbord of parties, cultural excursions and insights into new people and the places they come from. Ramsay hall will be a great place to live and with its location and the people living so nearby, there is so much to come!

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