This past weekend, I went on a four day trip to our friends across the pond, the UK. One of my best friends on campus, Sid, is studying abroad at the London School of Economics this year. After a combination of spontaneous flight booking and having no classes on Thursdays or Fridays this semester, I was jetting off to London, England. After staying in London for four days, exploring the different boroughs of London, and going to all the must-see tourist spots, I can finally check London off my bucket list. But was it even worth being on my bucket list in the first place?
Right after my GB320 day bomb, my mom picked me up (had to save some money on an Uber!) and drove me 25 minutes from campus to Boston Logan. The night before, I spent two hours frantically packing – there was no way I was spending $75 to check a bag, so I was trying to cram my extensive wardrobe for the weekend into my tiny, little carry-on. I’d be there all day Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and then flying back on Sunday morning – while this probably sounds like I’m just taking a quick weekend trip, I see it as four full outfits, with two or three other outfits thrown in incase it rains, or is hot, or is cold, or I spill something all over my outfit. Regardless, TSA was a breeze with my one backpack and carry-on, and I settled down at my gate to wait to start boarding. Fun fact – this was my first time ever flying alone #adulting.
My pre-flight gate experience was pretty run-of-the-mill except for the older gentleman I sparked up a conversation with. His name was Arvi, he was from India, and he was also flying to London. We talked about where in London we were staying and how this would be my first time visiting. But little did I know, Arvi was the exact expert I needed – he has traveled to every country in the world. He showed me pictures of his travels from his Facebook and talked to me about how he’s been to Vietnam (my parents’ home country) and how he loves the food there. The only thing he couldn’t answer was which country was his favorite – “it’s too hard to choose!”
After parting ways with Arvi, boarding, and settling in my assigned seat, I suddenly remembered why I wasn’t too fond of flying. Sitting in the middle seat for the next 7 hours felt like my own personal hell – just 30,000 feet in the air instead. I spent parts of my flight sleeping, snacking on Jet Blue’s complimentary oatmeal cookies and plantain chips, and watching season 4 of You off of the girl next to me’s laptop. It wasn’t the best flight, but it definitely could’ve been worse.
At 6:55 AM London time, I landed at Gatwick with only a couple hours of sleep under my belt and an undying urge to stretch my legs. I went through customs and got my passport stamped before making myself at home in the airport for the next two hours – I had to wait for my boyfriend Ben, who was flying over my Barcelona, to land at 9 AM. But I had no trouble busying myself – I took some much needed time freshening up, bought a croissant from an airport cafe, and browsed Boots (basically a British CVS). Before I knew it, it was 9 AM, Ben was coming through the international arrival gates, and we were on our way.
First, I have to admit that the public transportation system in London is great – the tube is fast, clean, and reliable. But rides are more expensive – they charge you more as you ride the tube longer unlike other cities, who just provide a flat rate regardless of the distance traveled. Thus, my ride from Gatwick to London cost me £14 (almost $17 USD!), but it was still cheaper than an Uber.
When we finally met up with Sid and one of my best friends Kat, who was coincidentally visiting her family in London that same week, we dropped all our bags and immediately headed out for Big Ben. The Westminster Bridge gave a stunning view of Big Ben and the London Eye, making it the perfect, scenic photo opportunity – and you know damn well that Kat and I took advantage of that.
After going to Big Ben, we ate lunch at Borough Market – basically a British version of Faneuil Hall where I ate the best Japanese rice bowl of my life – and checked out Camden Market, the hub for knick knacks and counterfeit products in London. After shopping around and looking through all the small stores there, we stopped at a local pub before dinner to enjoy some drinks (don’t forget that the drinking age there is 18!) and then took the tube to Covent Garden to make our dinner reservation at Din Tai Fung – a famous Taiwanese restaurant.
By the end of the first day, I was exhausted. I was so jetlagged and disoriented from flying, and the rainy, cloudy weather wasn’t helping. After dinner, we turned in for the night and said bye to Sid, who was leaving the next day to go to Berlin with some friends from LSE.
The next day, Ben and I got breakfast alongside the Thames River as we waited for Kat, who was staying with her family an hour away from us. Ben and I ate a delicious breakfast, a traditional English breakfast meal and strawberry compote pancakes, before we finally met up with Kat. There was only one goal for today: go to Soho.
Going to Soho on a Friday afternoon was our first mistake. The streets were crowded with locals who knew their way around and confidently walked on the left side of the road, and tourists (like ourselves) who constantly stopped in their tracks to check their directions and cluelessly walked on the right side of the road, causing major foot traffic on the streets. The weather still hadn’t let up – it was still cold, gloomy, and rainy – and almost every store we went to was either way too crowded or way too expensive. All I ended up getting that day was a silk button down from Zara and tan parachute pants on sale from Urban Outfitters – other than that, I wasn’t too impressed and I found myself thinking that Boston and New York’s Soho neighborhoods were much better. But London’s Soho definitely had some things that Boston and New York lacked. For example, Selfridges is a major department store in the UK, and they specialize in luxury goods from every high-end brand you could ever think of – Prada, Chanel, Dior… the list goes on. Selfridges also had plenty of classy restaurants inside and fun attractions like a skate bowl for one of their skating brands. It’s clear that Selfridges is not just a department store but rather a surreal experience for shoppers and it’s definitely paying off, unlike department stores in the US that are slowly going out of business.
Ben, Kat, and I ended the night by going to another pub and enjoying some drinks while also eating the best fish and chips I’ve ever had in my entire life. The pub scene was so fun in London, and there was a level of excitement and energy that I had never experienced in the US. Pubs obviously meant more to the English – they were a place to meet new people and hangout with friends, not just to eat and drink. To top the night off, Ben and I got gelato – one of our favorite desserts that was friendly to my lactose intolerance.
Day 3 is where things started to really go downhill. Ben was up all night sick as a dog, but we still took the tube to Kensington and Chelsea because we wanted to explore the area. However, after just a little bit of time in Harrods (another luxury department store in London), both of us were hitting a wall and Ben particularly needed to rest. A quick power nap and a bowl of ramen from Wagamama later, we were up and at ‘em and decided to visit the Tate Modern – a contemporary art museum right across the street from Sid’s dorm. The Tate Modern was amazing – it was free entry and had so many exhibits on display, and was one of my favorite parts of this trip.
Ben and I freshened up for our last dinner in London after returning from the Tate Modern, and we set out to see Tower Bridge before going to Piccadilly Square to eat. I think of Tower Bridge (or ‘London Bridge is falling down…’) as the Brooklyn Bridge of New York. Many locals were crossing it for a night out and plenty of tourists were there taking pictures and admiring the view. Ben and I definitely fell into the latter group and took tons of pictures of the bridge lit up at night before hopping in a cab for dinner. However, who knew that restaurants would be busy on a Saturday night in London? Please note my sarcasm.
Ben had curated a list of highly-rated restaurants in London from TikTok but every time we walked to one, there was an hour-and-a-half wait out the door. We finally came to Imad’s Syrian Kitchen in Kingly Court which only had a 3-minute wait. With a home kitchen type feel and a rustic vibe, we ordered hummus, pita, falafel, and lamb skewers – probably one of the best meals of my life. But by the time we were halfway done with our entrees, Ben gave me the same look from across the table that a sick child gives their parents. He was burning up, had chills, and was hit with a wave of tiredness. It was a sign that we’d have to take the rest to-go and get an Uber back.
But it’s never that easy, is it?
We waited outside for our Uber in the 30 degree weather – Ben was shivering and I was trying my best to warm him up, but my vintage Guess jacket that I thrifted wasn’t really made for that purpose. I was constantly tracking our Uber to see how close it was until I finally saw headlights coming through the crowds of people. We rushed along the street to meet our Uber and were glad to climb in and get out of the cold, but we unfortunately weren’t out of the woods still. There were road closures in London everywhere for God knows what, so our 15 minute drive turned into 30. Ben was sitting in the back of the Uber silent with his head pressed against the cold glass while I texted Sid asking where I could buy medicine close to his dorm. But everything nearby closed at 11:00, and we were sitting in standstill traffic miles away from his building at 10:45. Before I knew it, Sid was giving me the WhatsApp contact of his dorm neighbor, Katie, and I was texting her to get Gatorade and flu medicine from the nearby Amazon Fresh and Venmoing her for all her help. At 11:01, we reached Sid’s dorm building and ran into Katie on the way in and before I knew it, we were back in Sid’s room with me pouring cough syrup into a spoon and Ben blowing his nose like there was no tomorrow. All I wanted was for us to go to bed, get a good night’s sleep, and wake up at 6AM tomorrow feeling better for our flights back. But once again – it’s never that easy.
The whole night was spent up with Ben dry heaving and me doing all I could to help (which wasn’t much). The trash was piling up with tissues and cough drop wrappers and I shuffled through Sid’s drawers until I found a bottle of ibuprofen. Soon it was 6AM and after what felt like the worst night’s sleep ever, we had to gather our things and rush out the door for our hour-long Uber ride to Gatwick Airport.
The Uber ride was silent – Ben was burning up with a 100-degree fever, I had a migraine from not getting any sleep, and I was getting more carsick every minute I spent in the backseat. By the time we got to Gatwick, I felt like I could throw up and the idea of getting on a plane for nearly 8 hours sounded like my own personal hell. Ben and I stumbled through the TSA line and just tried to hold it together until we got to our gates and could finally just sit and wait for our flights to board. But God had other plans for us.
As I was reorganizing my things on the other side of the TSA, Ben came running to me in a panic.
“Banmai, I don’t have my passport.”
If you have never experienced sudden-onset panic before, I suggest Ubering to the airport in a foreign country, slipping your passport out of your back pocket without realizing and dropping it into a random bin at TSA, tearing apart every piece of luggage you brought with your girlfriend hoping to find your passport, just for a TSA officer to find it for you. And having a 100-degree fever during all of this.
This really was just not our trip.
After the universe tried to test us in every way possible, Ben and I walked hand-in-hand through TSA and sat down at a restaurant for breakfast. We were high off of the adrenaline of thinking Ben was stuck in the UK with a fever, and suddenly the whole situation just felt funny. We shared buttermilk pancakes topped with strawberries, bananas, and raspberries, and we walked to Ben’s gate where we shared a hug and kiss goodbye, and I walked to my own gate to wait for boarding.
I waited at my gate going through pictures from the weekend and I couldn’t help but feel bittersweet. Even though the trip had its lows, it also had its highs – experiences I wouldn’t trade for anything. If I had to lose a passport while going through TSA again just to experience seeing Big Ben, going to an English pub, or walking on Tower Bridge at night, I would do it all over again. But I don’t think I’ll be back to London anytime soon – I don’t think we mix well together. Next time I book a trip, I think I’ll look at places like Turks and Caicos instead – not so much our neighbors across the pond.