Dear London,

I am writing this on my phone at Terminal 2 at Heathrow airport while I am waiting to get back on a plane to Germany. The sun is shining through the huge glass walls and I have never felt more miserable in my entire life. This will be my last blog post and I thought a lot about what I was going to write and how to write it. The first thing I came up with was a sentimental summary of the last couple of weeks, a flashback to all the wonderful memories I get to take home with me, but that seemed rather impersonal and just not like me. That’s why I decided to write this very last post the way I would write it if I were to leave a dear friend behind – by writing a letter.

Dear London, you are – quite frankly – an amazing city. I always suspected as much due to my many holiday trips, but over the last six weeks I got to know you in a completely new and different way. You have been more open, more friendly, and more welcoming than I could have asked you to be and I will miss this unconditional hospitality when I’m back in Germany.

I will miss the underground staff at Victoria station who turned into motivation coaches every morning, shouting “This is a beautiful city, today is a beautiful day, and you are all beautiful people” or “Go out there and spice up your day, Ladys and Gents”. I will miss being greeted with “Hello, love” when I enter a shop or the occasional “Take care” upon exiting. I will miss the smiles people casually threw my way despite the hurry of rush hour. I might even miss the uncomfortable train rides among far too many strangers to safely fit into one carriage.

The truth is that I feel more at home here than I ever did in Germany. Here, I feel like I fit in, like I can be who I am. Thanks to you, I have overcome the last nine years of constant self-doubt and insecurity in a matter of days and for that I cannot thank you enough.

My flight has just been announced for boarding and here I am, blinking back the tears, physically forcing myself to walk towards the boarding pass control. There’s nothing in this world I’d rather do than stay here. Right here. I’d be happy with sitting on my suitcase in the middle of Heathrow airport for the rest of my life, for all I care.

In terms of my career, this internship has been the best experience of my life thus far. In terms of London, this has been the biggest mistake I’ve ever made because now I know what kind of life I’m most likely never going to lead and it breaks my heart to leave it behind.

The first few days were overwhelming, frightening, scary at times, but beautiful altogether. The last few days have been a misery of goodbyes.

I’ve just passed boarding pass control, and I wonder how many people are sitting on Primrose Hill right now, enjoying this beautiful spring evening. I wonder if they are eating Ginger Nuts or Vinegar Crisps and whether they know how lucky they are. London, I don’t know when I’ll see you again. But this time, it will be a much longer wait until our paths cross once again – of that I am sure. Thank you for the best time of my life!

Love,

Leonie

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A day out in Windsor

Or: Who wants to queue forever?

“There are no rules of architecture for a castle in the clouds.”

– G. K. CHESTERTON

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Windsor Castle as seen from the train.

In order to escape the Easter weekend’s madness, I decided to cross another tourist sight off of my To-Do-List and spent a day in Windsor, the home of Queen Elizabeth II. Located approximately half an hour train ride outside of London, Windsor is a small town with probably more tourists than residents. Nonetheless, rumour has it that visiting Her Majesty’s home is something you shouldn’t miss when you’re in London – or should you?

The train for Oxford leaves Paddington Station at around half past ten in the morning at a speed that would put every ICE in Germany to shame and I’m not nearly awake enough for that kind of experience, but who’s the British railway service to care about sleepy tourists? Adding to the blurred green-brown-soup beyond the train windows, the train is packed with foreigners. The only indicator that we’ll all be changing trains at Slough together is the occasional “Windsor” that filters through the incomprehensible mix of languages that echo through the train compartment.

Indeed, we arrive at the monorail train station of Windsor exactly 26 minutes later and it’s nothing like what I’ve expected. In Germany, I grew up in a small village with barely more than 5,000 residents and even our train station is busier than Windsor’s. Though maybe not as posh. There’s an old steam locomotive on display, a signpost pointing towards a castle that is hidden behind little cafés and pubs. In all fairness, the first impression is that Windsor is surprisingly down to earth for the home of the British Queen.

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Leaving the train station and a handful of designer stores behind, I stumble up a cobblestone street and need a moment to process that I’m already standing in front of Windsor Castle. Didn’t I just come out of a train station? It’s probably handy for the Queen to live in close proximity to public transport – but it’s not like she uses it, does she? The town layout is nothing what I expected and it throws me off a bit, but before I get to adjust to this strange environment, people start to line up alongside the street. It’s 11.30 a.m. – time for the changing of the guards, apparently. It’s not nearly as spectacular as their colleague’s performance in London, but it satisfies the curious tourists and their need to block everyone’s view with their selfie-sticks.

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A part of the queue (which was twice as long as seen on this picture)

After roughly five minutes, the guards have walked past us and I’m patiently waiting for the crowds to scatter into all kind of directions so that I can finally find the queue for the tickets. Only they stay right there where they are, lining the streets as if waiting for a parade and I’m starting to sense that queuing might be the same as the changing of the guards: very different from London. After a short chat with one of the castle’s staff members, I have been informed that yes, this is in fact the queue for the tickets. Approximate waiting time: little more than an hour. Well, it can’t be helped, I’ll have to endure it. On the upside, it’s neither raining nor is it particularly cold, so the waiting could be far worse. I don’t know if I really queued for an hour, though it felt much longer, to be honest.

Eventually, after having succeeded in Britain’s national sport number one, I am finally standing inside Windsor Castle. Prince Philip greets me through the headphones of my audio guide and I can’t help but admire the beauty that surrounds me. The fantastic thing about British castles is that they seem so simple and plain on the outside, but once you set a foot inside the great halls, the splendour will render you utterly speechless. And Windsor Castle is – much like Edinburgh Castle – no exception to that rule.

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If you’re not much of a history fan and have little to no knowledge of the British kings and queens, the audio guided tour through the castle might be a bit overwhelming and too much at once. Since I have studied this culture for two years now, there was hardly anything that was news to me, but those who are familiar with the Tudor dynasty, the Wars of the Roses, and Henry VIII won’t be disappointed.

The entire interior architecture is based on this time period, playing with the Lancaster and York symbols and referring to the legend of King Arthur and the knights of the roundtable on many occasions. No matter how long you look at the wallpaper, paintings, furniture, and ceilings, you’ll always find something of a deeper historical meaning. And this very architecture, the way of interlacing a country’s history to the very last detail with the present, made me fall in love with Britain in the first place. You can see that this castle wasn’t built to blind you with wealth. It was built with the purpose of displaying centuries of history to a foreign visitor, almost as if it demands every visitor to understand where this nation comes from.

I would have loved to take photos, but sadly it’s strictly forbidden. Also, I won’t bore you with historical facts because you have to stand in the very room where Edward III was born in 1312 in order to marvel at the many, many faces this old hoar castle has seen. If you consider to visit Windsor Castle, I recommend an early train in order to avoid long queues (especially if you’re visiting with children). Since I visited on the Easter weekend, there were special events just for kids where they got to dress up like Elizabeth I or Henry VIII – I’ve listened to the host for a couple of minutes and it was really entertaining and the costumes were amazing!

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Windsor itself is rather unspectacular but after leaving the castle, I was quite thankful for the quiet little streets and the relaxing atmosphere. In terms of budget, Windsor is slightly more expensive than London due the Royal neighbours. While there are cheap restaurants, I don’t recommend dining near the castle – you pay more for the view rather than the food and staring at a huge stone wall gets boring after five minutes – even if it’s a royal stone wall.

Some of you might know that Windsor is not only famous for being the home of Queen Lizzy but also of one of Britain’s most exclusive colleges: Eton. No less than 19 Prime Ministers were educated there and if you’re in town for a royal visit, you might as well walk the short distance to Eton College. Although it is not always open to the public, the exterior alone suggests how posh the students must be who are privileged enough to study here. It’s strange when you think about it – this college was founded by Henry VI in 1440 as a charity project for poor choir boys. Today, parents pay £12,354 per school term, registration, acceptance, and extra fees excluded. That alone tells you everything you need to know about the direction British culture has taken.

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Eton College

My visit to Windsor ends in the most un-royal way possible: with a hamburger and a milkshake. Long live the Queen!

Mind the Gap

or: How to survive the London underground

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“Mind the Gap” has become a synonym for English transport over the last decades. Although this caution is present at almost every big railway station around the globe (“Bitte achten Sie auf den Abstand zwischen Zug und Bahnsteigkante” in Germany), nowhere else has it achieved even remotely as much fame as in the UK.

“Mind the gap between the train and the platform” is the long version, occasionally spiced up with an insisting “Please stand clear of the closing doors”, but I’ve got a feeling they just play it on repeat for tourism’s sake. Let’s be honest – minding the gap is your last problem when riding the underground in London. A train journey in Britain, and London in particular, resembles a hurdle race – at least if compared to the German train systems. Here are some advices to help you to get along with the English public transport.

 

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The Ticket

When visiting London as a traveller, buying tube tickets is as easy as child’s play – in theory. The reality is much more confusing and sometimes a bit overwhelming. The most common tickets tourists choose are the London travel cards which are usually off-peak, meaning you can take the tube only outside of rush hour (something I strongly recommend if you don’t fancy full-body contact with strangers in a claustrophobic environment). Travel cards vary from one-day to seven-day tickets and are really the easiest and cheapest option for anyone on a short trip with the intention of using public transport at least three to four times a day. For a seven-day travel card, you pay £32.40/32.00€ as an adult for zones 1-2 (Heathrow not included) and there are no significant differences between Euro and Pound. visitbritainshop.com also offers you to book your tickets online in advance and you’ll find them in your mail in time for your holiday.

However, London wouldn’t be London if there wasn’t a VIP-no-mortal-human-being-can-actually-afford-this-option: the much advertised London pass. I’ve never used it, but according to the official website, you pay £129.00 (~152.00€) for a six day pass as an adult (without travel card included!). If you don’t fancy paying expensive taxi fees, you might be interested in the second option of the pass which also includes the use of public transport. In that case, you will have to pay £172.00 (~203.00€). In return, you get discounts on various attractions such as The Tower of London. My personal opinion: far too expensive and not worth the money! I payed less for a monthly Oyster card.

If you’re on a budget or generally interested in saving as much money as possible, here’s an insider tipp for you: You’ll get the best deal in buying an Oyster card at the airport you fly in at (in most cases London Heathrow), upload five pounds to it, and alight at the National Railway Station closest to your hotel. If you then buy a National Railway Ticket (including a photograph of you – it must have a photograph on it!) for £32.00 (~ 38.00 €), you can make use of the 2for1 discount most London sights are offering. In short: You pay for one ticket and get the other one for free. That way, you save much more money than if you use the London pass. Just be aware that you are required to bring a printed coupon from the 2for1 website for the sight you plan to visit alongside your travel tickets. I strongly recommend this since I tried this with a friend and it was the cheapest London trip I have ever done.

 

The Gates

When you’re on the underground for the first time as a tourist, you do get a great impression of what the annual famous Ascot horse race must be like. If you happen to stumble through the tube gates for the first time during rush hour, I’m truly sorry for your terrible experience. There are only very few things in this world that will put as much pressure on you as struggling to hurry through the gates while impatient Londoners are lining up behind you. But don’t worry about causing a pile. If your card doesn’t work (which happens frighteningly often), just step aside and ask a staff member of the National Railway Service to open the gate for you. At every station, there’s usually at least one member of staff and they’re very kind, patient, and understanding. And unlike the Germans, nobody will murder you with their looks. We’re in the UK, after all, and the British are far too polite and have way more class.

The Stations

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Now that you’ve got a valid ticket and have passed the gates, the only thing left to do is to get on the right train. Well, if that were so easy… London is known for being the city with the oldest underground network in the world. The first tube line was opened in 1863, connecting Paddington Station and Farringdon. Due to the impact of the Industrial Revolution, it quickly developed into the longest underground network in the world. With a growing railway system, stations were expanded as well. One of the oldest, biggest, and most chaotic stations is Baker Street. With 10 platforms in total, it is quite easy to confuse the lines and directions of travel. When a friend and I went to a theatre performance back in 2015 and had to change trains at Baker Street, we had to run in order to catch a train leaving five minutes after our arrival at the station. Maybe that gives you an impression of how big and confusing it can get. Never underestimate it, especially not if you’re on a schedule!

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The Trains

More than 265 people have died on the London underground in tube accidents over the last 14 years, according to the Guardian. And one journey is, quite frankly, enough to make one start to wonder why it haven’t been more. The most deadly trap: doors! Other than German trains, the carriage doors don’t open again if something gets stuck in between. So if you’re running late and try to keep the tube from taking off without you, don’t put a foot in the door! There’s a high chance you won’t get it back or even lose your life. Just surrender to the cruelty of bad timing and wait for the next train. Two more minutes of patience might save your life…

Busses

Ocassionally, when taking the tube, you might hear something similar to this: “Customer service update. Central line: no service between Marble Arch and Liverpool Street.” If you’re German, you won’t be too surprised about service problems as our trains are almost always late or cancelled due to construction work, accidents, etc. In case of such an event, you have to exchange the tropical heat of the London underground for the sub-tropical environment of a red double decker bus. When using this form of public transport, there is only one important rule: Whoever runs the fastest will get the luxury of the 180° panorama view of the front row seats. And since the view is really worth it, you IMG_0931don’t only have to fight other tourists but Londoners as well, so run as fast as you possibly can, but don’t skip the queue!

Another insider tipp: If you don’t want to spend money on a tourist city tour, just take bus line 11 or 15. Westminster Abbey, St Paul’s Cathedral, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square and The Tower of London are only a few of the sights that you can enjoy from the comfortable (and sometimes disgustingly damp) seat of a double decker bus. Also: A bus trip in the evening can be a really relaxing way to experience London’s night life without walking your shoe soles off.

And eventually, upon returning home from your visit to London, this sentence will most certainly be stuck in your head on a constant repeat – at least it is already stuck in mine:

“This is Green Park. Change here for the Jubilee and Piccadilly lines. Alight here for Buckingham Palace. This is a Victoria Line service to Brixton. Please mind the gap between the train and the platform. Please stand clear of the closing doors.”