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Notes from the Underground

From my little room at Claredale House I can see over the courtyard of the estate. I can see straight through the kitchen windows of the opposite flat, and I’m sure that they can see through mine. The courtyard is quiet during the day, but in the evening the sound of laughter, and yelling echoes from the high walls, this is what London sounds like at night – pure energy. Since September I have been studying at University College London, whose main complex is nestled comfortably in the fashionable area of Bloomsbury, just North of Soho, which was seedy in the 19th century, and still is today. There is no place like Leicester Square to get bamboozled. The trick to going out in London is to step off the tourist route and do as the locals do, which is different in every borough, but which in Bethnal Green means going out for Indian food and then off to the pub, which is carpeted and furnished much like one’s living room. Beer is expensive, but at least it comes in copious amounts. Three beers in Leiden means you are having a pretty mellow evening, three beers in London and you will be on the floor wondering where your sense of balance went. All hail the imperial pint!

But there is more to London than booze and low morals. This city is not just the cesspool of crime and poverty that it is made out to be. In my first couple of months in London I made sure to visit the Tate Modern, the British Museum, the V&A, the Science Museum, the Museum of Natural History and the National Gallery. The wealth of knowledge and art that is lodged in these beautiful old buildings alone is reason to visit, if not move to London, depending on your enthusiasm for art I suppose. The National Gallery especially continues to fascinate me, and -insider tip- whenever I was feeling a little bit nostalgic, I stood in front of the beautiful paintings of Vermeer, Frans Hals, Jan Steen, Rembrandt and Hans Holbein and I felt a little bit closer to home.

That is of course, if I could find the time to be nostalgic. Already in the first couple of weeks of term I found myself swamped with work. I had to keep up with the weekly reading, which was much more than I was used to. I was also expected to do reading of my own in preparation for the exams, and I had to turn in a 2500 word essay every other week on a topic of my own choice. The amount of freedom I was given was difficult to manage at first. Every time I read a book there was an anxious little voice at the back of my mind wondering whether this book was going to be useful. I never used to read books that way. Fortunately, because every student is assigned a tutor in the beginning of the year, there is always a person whom you can turn to regarding academic or personal worries. Your tutor is also the one who marks your essays, which never takes more than a day! As a result you get your mark back almost instantly, as well as some very good feedback. As such the marking process is completely transparent, and very human. I once managed to up my grade by 1% because I argued my point so well. Isn’t that fab?

Both London and UCL run at a much faster pace than Leiden. The year at UCL is crammed into two trimesters, both 11 weeks. Third term is meant for revision and exams. The work is hard, the expectations are high, and the level of interest and motivation demonstrated by peers was just through the roof. It is this stark difference between the casual, laisez faire attitude of students in the Netherlands (cf. zesjescultuur) vs. the drive and ambition of the students at UCL that will stay with me the most. If you think about it, the difference is understandable if you were to have passed a gruelling selection program, and paid 9000 pounds a year for college, you would take it a little more seriously as well. Plenty of people in England do not go on to apply for a master’s degree because of financial reasons, and just as many graduate with crippling debt. The situation is still not as bad as in the USA, but I might be going there in the near future.

Now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, a catalogue of London highlights:

1) The second hand clothes market at Brick Lane is not only happy times for your bank account, but also great fun because of all the hipsters and grunge-monsters you can spot. Keep a lookout!
2) All you can eat Chinese food for a mere eight pounds in China Town. Service is rubbish, but what would you expect?
3) A five-story bookshop called Foyles. I am talking the size as the V&D in Leiden. ‘Nuff said.
4) A tour of the Freemason Headquarters in Holborn, posh guide, crazy architecture and all for zero pounds! But please be aware that they might try to recruit you.
5) For those fed up with the busy traffic, people bumping into you, and the incessant noise of sirens (which are about twice as loud in London than in the Netherlands), there is always Cambridge Heath, an oasis of serenity, and big enough to get truly lost in. I speak from experience.

That was it, Cheerio! See you in London.

by Laura op de Beke