Back in the Good Ol' US of A

March 27th, 2009

2:33 p.m – Minnesota Time; 7:33 p.m. - My Time

I'm Home! I'm Home. Actually, I'm in Minneapolis airport waiting for my connecting flight but in the background I can hear talk radio and American accents and I'm surrounded by fast food places, signs that say restrooms instead of toilets, and coffee, - wonderful, wonderful coffee shops.

I have been mostly awake for . . . more hours than I care to figure at the moment. But, a lot. The walk to the tube this morning was the longest walk of my life, and it felt like that when I was only half-way to the station. I packed through the night, attempting to fit as much stuff, and the heavier the better, into my backpack so that I could put more little things into my larger rollie bag without exceeding the weight limit. In the morning, after a dismal 2 hour nap, I somehow managed to maneuver my bags down the narrow flight of stairs, past the stuff Katie has accumulated in the landing, and over the threshold of a door I will probably never see again in my life. I thought I'd be all nostalgic on the walk to the station, “oh, this is my last time walking this street, tripping over that paving stone, and seeing that corner store” . . . this was not the case.

I was more preoccupied with my aching back and getting to that tree, that corner, that spray paint mark so that I could take a well-earned break than anything else. A walk that usually takes me 15 minutes on a bad day took me closer to 25. I had a bag that towered over my head on my shoulders, a purse bulging with my laptop, 3 books (one of which was a Tolstoy, still not quite sure how that managed to fit), and other odds and ends, slung over my shoulder, the largest bag on wheels that the airline will admit before charging extra strung out behind me, and perched upon that my carry-on backpack loaded down with presents for everyone back home. I must have looked a sight, especially as I finally climbed that slight rise in the road that was quickly becoming a mountainous obstacle and sweat was pouring down my face and I was panting like a rabid dog. Then, I couldn't get the gate open, and then I encountered steps. Lots and lots of steps. Usually, not an issue. I don't even think about the steps. But then, I've never had 4 very heavy bags to maneuver down those steps, and only 2 hands to make that happen. Thank heavens 2 very wonderful people took pity on me as I stared ominously down that horrid flight of stairs and with 6 hands we managed to get them all down with no problem. Then, some other guy just grabbed my bag for me and threw it on the train. And the goodwill didn't end there. At the transfer I had to heft my bags UP the stairs this time, and then back down the other side. Not caring for the state of my bag, I simply tugged on the handle and thumped my way up one painful stair at a time. Half-way up another women offered assistance and together we found our way to the landing without much problem. Two steps from the top some man stopped on his descent to the platform below happened to mention the existence of a lift around the corner. Brilliant. Luckily for my mood, that said lift was taped off, so I wouldn't have been able to use it anyway. But I could use the one on the other side of the platform, going down. Praise God.

I successfully made it to Heathrow, Terminal 4, minus a little hiccup getting out of the train where my bag began to dangerously tip over, with my arm still attached, but between my leg and a fellow traveler's helping hand I managed to divert a potential problem. And so began another long journey up a corridor that was slanted, into an elevator where I so stupidly decided to bypass a cart, and into the airport and the longest check-in line I have ever seen. Now I understand why people say get to the airport 2 hours early. Between check-in and security, I needed every last minute. Luckily, I did have time to make one last stop at HMV to pick up a last minute gift I had been intending to get forever. And then the long journey back to the states. This journey was actually shorter than my initial flight to Europe but in my mind it took longer. I managed to lose both of the earbuds to my earphones as I hefted my backpack into the overhead compartment and caught the cord on the way up and viciously tore the phones from my ears. So I was left with those dinky airplane ones, which have definitely gone down in quality since I last used them. I guess the airlines got fed-up with people stealing their still cheap, but semi-okay headphones, and so they replaced them with you'd-have-to-be-crazy-to-steal-these-pieces-of-crap headphones. I can't really blame them, and they got the job done, it just sure wasn't a Bose listening experience. I also managed to pick some truly crap movies – Twilight? I was a little embarrassed to know that the people beside and behind me could see my selection. Slum Dog Millionaire was pretty decent and the kids were ridiculously adorable. And then I proceeded to watch half of Australia, but I was cut off, and I wasn't too upset about that. Of course, Hugh Jackman in dungarees and his hot accent doesn't leave much room for complaint, even if the movie was pretty cheese. In between movies and snatches of sleep I was entertained by the two British girls on my right – Emily and Arabella, 5 and 4 respectably. Arabella was 3 before she was 4, and 2 before that, and 1 before that. There was a big British bloke on my left and despite being from the UK he didn't quite get the whole dry humor bit. When he didn't realize that the remote popped out I asked him “First time on a plane?” rather wryly and he responded in all sincerity, “No, just first time to America.” I didn't push it.

I love that before I left the people sending out information and setting up orientation make a big to-do about not calling ourselves strictly Americans. We are US Americans, because we wouldn't want to offend all those people who are from either North or South America and who are also Americans. I personally think that's a load of bollucks and those people who get offended by that are simply looking for a reason, any reason at all, to pick a bone with the US, or anyone for that matter. And then you get to the UK and everybody there refers to us as Americans and the US simply as America, never the states, nor the USA, nor even the US. It's always America.

Anyway, that was my life for the last 13 hours. And in another 5 or so I should be stepping off the plane into beautiful, gorgeous Oregon and into the loving arms of my best friend. And then a much needed stop at Red Robin for a real burger. I can't wait. I was more excited for this trip than both Ireland and France, combined.


I am going home.

March 24th - You Sink, You Drown, You Die

March 24th, 2009

Dublin, Ireland.

The tourguide informed us more times than I can count that 62% of the population is under 32 years of age.

I can believe it.

Also, that the number of tourists exceed the actual population by some obscene number that I can't remember, but I think it was a good 6 times more, or so.

And that I can most definitely believe.

Maybe it's because I had spent the last 3 months in London -- A city that is no stranger to tourists, but a city that owns itself. London does not bend over for foreign visiters or seek to cater to their every whim. You go to London, the city does not come to you --

But as I walked down the streets of Dublin and couldn't help but think "kitch."

The main streets are wide and patterned with paving stones. O'Connell Street strikes a pose with its towering spire that marks the way back to our hostel. Irish flags flutter from every pub, on every corner, down every street. Pizza shops, corner stores, and bag shops line the cobblestones of Talbot Street. And every time I side-step one smoker, I'm hit in the face with the next plume.

City sweepers never sleep in this city. They can't. We walked down a freshly cleaned O'Connell street and 2 hours later there were cigarette butts littering the ground. People think that Parisians smoke a lot, but Paris has got nothing on Dublin.

One bus load of tourists gives way to the next and Temple Bar is chock full of drunken college students doing their best to not remember a single minute of their trip. There are more tour buses and taxis on the streets than average cars. People mill around in groups and snatches of different languages and accents are picked up as I walk by.

If green, white, and orange weren't blasting me at every step, I may very well have forgotten I was in Ireland. Where were the Irish?

Robin and I tried to find them. We walked until our feet were about ready to fall off and then we turned around and walked back, stopped at one of those pizza joints, and hunkered down for some Van Helsing in the common room at Jacob's Inn.

Earlier that day we visited the Wicklow Mountains and Glendalough -- home of some the grandest beauty I have ever encountered. You'd recognize it if you've ever seen Braveheart or P.S. I Love You. In that day I discovered why people come to Ireland. Why this country can get under your skin. And why you're guaranteed to come back at least 3 times in your life. Our guide, Damien, told us that. 3 times, guaranteed.

I believe him.

I don't know if I can even begin to describe the majesty of those mountains or the way the sunshine tumbled off the hills into the glistening water. You just have to go. Stand on an outcropping of grass, away from the groups of Italians, feel the wind whip through your hair, sting your eyes, and just simply look,
and look,
and look.

My only regret is that the heather wasn't blooming. If it had been, the fields would have been a riot of blazing purples, whites, greens, and yellows. We got to see some yellow, but had to imagine all the rest. But then, I have only one trip under my belt. Sometime in the next 2 I'll see that purple. I just have to now.

On our trip back, Damien told us that we needed to be individual travelers, not tourists. I couldn't agree more. It's difficult, but worth the time to do something beyond the money-sucking traps that are the tourist hotspots. Maybe it's why I'm not in love with Dublin. You can't help but be a tourist. There doesn't seem to be much option for anything else.

And so we took Damien's advice and avoided Temple Bar. Instead, we headed to the River Liffey, took a right after crossing O'Connell Bridge, and 5 bridges later we were to encounter Bridge Street and the Brazen Head. Right, 5 bridges down, including 2 footbridges we came to . . . not Bridge Street. So, maybe the footbridges weren't supposed to count. Another 2 bridges and 20 odd minutes later we came to . . . some other street. We were beginning to think Damien either didn't like us, or the man simply couldn't count. Whatever the case, we ended up a good 8 bridges down with no Brazen Head in sight, sore feet, rumbling stomachs, and 2 hours gone from our lives.

I'd say that was the epitome of my experience of Dublin. All this build-up and hype for some real Irish passion only to be utterly let down.

But I will come back. Not for Dublin, but for Ireland. Because I encountered it up in those hills and by that lough. And I know it probably exists in Dublin, too. You've just got to scrape off the layers of tourists before you can really see it.

But if you don't, and you get stuck in that tourist trap - you sink, you drown, you die.

Damien meant it as a reference to the peat bogs, but I'd say it's pretty apt for Dublin, too.

You Sink. You Drown. You Die.

If you ever go to Dublin, remember that phrase and for the love of everything good in this world, don't get sucked in. The traveler inside you just may die.

March 21st - A Little Bit of Dublin

So, I'm sitting here in this dingy Internet place in Dublin with a train rumbling overhead every second or so and I thought I'd take advantage of the 50 cents I paid for an hour usage and jot a little in my ill-used blog.

There's actually quite a bit I could say, but I'm reserving that entry for when I have my laptop back and I can use a normal keyboard and find time to pretend to be prosaic.

Most of this trip has been spent at the hostel. This may seem more pathetic in hindsight, and I'm sure it sounds so to those who are not in my position. But to be honest, Dublin isn't much of anything. I'm preparing myself for an onslaught of jeers from you Irish wannabes out there. . .

Yesterday Robin and I arrived and managed to find our hostel without any problem, and were pleasantly surprised at how tidy it was - especially after our last experience in Bath. We went out for a little lunch and tried to muster up some enthusiasm but after a week of sleep-deprived studying we didn't have much to go on. So, we returned for a short nap. Or a long one, whatever. We ventured out on the town a little later in the evening and found some snacks and one of many Carrolls. These are like the ABC shops of Dublin. You'll probably only understand that reference if you've been to Hawaii, so allow me to elaborate -- tourist shops. Tourists shops with the exact same merchandise as the last Carrolls you walked into, each about one block apart.

And then we went home. Watched the evening movie - What Happens in Wegas, as the foreign boys with the pungent BO pronounced it, and that was the highlight of the evening. Then, we slept for another blissful 8 hours, got up for an early breakfast of toast and OJ, returned to bed, and then got up again 2 hours later to set out for a walking tour of the city. Came home with numb fingers, new books, and some oh-so-lovely Toffee Crisps and settled down for some hours of reading and napping. Really, quite a perfect afternoon.

And now I'm here, around the corner from my hostel, giving Dublin another go. This time I think we'll head off for Temple Bar to enjoy a pint in a real Irish pub. And maybe, encounter a real Irish man with a lovely rolling accent and not, yet another, group of Americans. But that's just wishful thinking.

March 12th - Riding the Metro

On the Metropolitan, I have to balance on my toes so as not to crash knees with the woman sitting across from me.

The girl sitting to my left works her frizzed side-pony like it's 1986 and entertains the boy opposite of her with a story about a phone call. Katie would say she speaks “common.” The woman three seats away and diagonal to us continues to glance at her from time to time. She's telling her to quiet down with her eyes. Pony tail doesn't see her. Her story continues to entertain the whole carriage.

Periodically the train pops as it rattles down the track. The smack reminds me of my older sister, who taught me the magic of swiping your finger across the inside of your cheek in order to make the 'pop!' during the Lollipop song.

The woman to my right has her head inclined towards me and from the corner my eye it looks like she's trying to read my notebook, but her eyes are closed. The Japanese teenager across the aisle from her looks like he is about to be sick. His head is slung low between his knees and he is clutching his ears. Maybe he has been to the Fat Duck.

My leg begins to shake uncontrollably as my muscles buckle. The girl on my left has finally stopped talking and now music rockets out of her earphones. I'm not sure which I preferred.

Graffiti has been scratched into windows with No Smoking, Please Keep Your Feet Off The Seats, and CCTV stickers pasted in their corners. The CCTV sticker has a picture of a helicopter on it. I'm not entirely sure why. Cameras are everywhere in London, but I think this sticker is a lie. Maybe the helicopter pushed it over the edge. Or maybe it's because “Dorpz” managed to tag two separate windows. He did choose the windows without the stickers, though. Maybe that's the secret.

I'm 7 stops away from my station and none of my seatmates have left. The lady next to me is still sleeping and now the woman with a daffodil pin on her lapel who is sitting kitty-corner to me has nodded off. I don't know how much longer my legs can take this. I'd like to switch the song on my i-pod but it's in my pocket and I don't want to jostle the sleeping woman beside me.

I can't wait to get off this train. Another Metro just passed me. Fast Track. I never catch fast tracks. I think it may be a cruel joke.

Neil Young will be in concert on June 27th in Hyde Park. I know this because the woman directly in front of me, the one with whom I've been trying not to collide knees, has sheltered her face with her newspaper and the full-length, orange advertisement has caught my eye.

I'll bet Neil Young doesn't ride the tube I'll bet he hires a private car service.

I hate you, Neil Young.

March 2nd - A Case of the Uninspired Mondays

March 2nd, 2009

10:20 pm

On my walk home today I smelled freshly cut grass. I breathed in deep and smiled. The day was redeemed.

Not that there was anything particularly horrible about this Monday. It wasn't even necessarily bad, as far as Mondays go. It was simply uninspired.

I woke early so that I could finish, scratch that, begin the paper that would be due in 6 or so hours. My schedule was a little out of whack since I had spent most of my weekend catching up on the sleep I had lost the week before. This left me wide-awake at midnight on Sunday, and before you ask why I didn't write my paper then, you should probably know that I thrive on procrastination. Actually, that's a lie. I get by with procrastination and I only abide by deadlines because I have to or else I'll fail. Ironically enough, if I live without a schedule or short-term goals for too long I go a little bonkers. I'm hoping that one day I'll grow up a little and break this tension, but at present I've reconciled my lifestyle with the insipid reasoning that at least I'm being honest with myself and my shortcomings. Overcoming denial is one of the first stages to healing - or in my case, revamping my habits.

This blog doesn't bear the title of Tangents for no reason.

So, there I was, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at 6 in the morning, one hour later than I'd promised myself I'd wake up, ready to get down to it. Two pieces of toast, some facebooking, and 30 minutes later I cracked open my book and began hunting for quotes. A half-page of notes and another 20 minutes gone by I decided it was time for a shower. Clearly this day was getting off on the right footing. A morning of leisure with plenty of time to get to class without the quip from the professor about my choice of arrival was the perfect way to begin the week.

Except for the fact that I'd yet to write even the opening sentence to my paper.

And the bright-eyed, bushy-tailed thing was a lie. It usually is. I don't understand "morning people." While I'm not necessarily grumpy in the morning, I'm definitely not overly chipper. I don't do chipper. Even the word itself is annoying. 'Chipper' should be eradicated from the dictionary and everyone who embodies it should be re-adjectivized 'annoying.' Or at least chained to their beds until 11 am.

In case you're wondering, yes, I made that up.

I eventually manged to get myself out of the house, lugging my laptop along with me so that I could spend some quality time with my nonexistent paper in the coffee house on the corner by school. On the especially crowded train I attempted to sort through my thoughts and at least get a rough outline of how I'd approach the topic. Unable to concentrate I finally leaned over and tapped the boy sitting opposite from me - "Dude, I'm sorry but could you turn that down? Much as everyone would love to sing along to Akon with you, not everyone knows the words."

He didn't laugh.

Actually, he didn't hear me. You'd think that would have been a sign. I tapped him again and this time just simply asked him to turn it down a bit. He looked rightly contrite and turned down the rap to a more tolerable level.

It lessened my annoyance but it didn't really help my lack of inspiration. Time was running short and my paper resisted any attempt at growth. The topic wasn't even hard and I had all the materials before me, I just simply couldn't get past my block.

A change in my normal route, 3 trains, and my quota of strangers pushed up against me filled for the day and I was resolved to break out. Literally, I couldn't handle the people. We stacked up before the escalator, winnowed our way through the ticket barrier, and then I finally broke out of the station at a half-run, into the glorious sunshine, and away from the moldering smell of winter that clung to everyone's coats.

Settling down with my cuppa' and muffin I was finally ready to get down to business. An hour on the clock lit a fire under my fingers and they flew across the keyboard. My trial subscription to Microsoft Office having expired, I was truly unhampered by red and green squiggly lines and words leapt onto the page. I was using notepad, which is just one long continuous line, and so I was doubly unfettered because I couldn't reread what I had written, and thus no proof-reading. I must have been butter because I was on a roll.

Clearly, the lack of inspiration that accompanied me this morning hasn't really gone away . . .

To make a short story which is turning into a longer story than it should be, shorterish, I finished the paper. I can't say that it's my best work because I don't know. I didn't read it. But I'd say it's probably up there, given the amount of time I invested in it.

I think my lack of inspiration was catching. The class bussed it on over to Parliament to watch a lively debate on some political matter or another, and despite my heavy eyelids and growling stomach I was looking forward to it. The MPs were not. I'm still not entirely sure what the issue was about. The man in the front bench with his feet propped upon the table and his nodding head must not have either. Or the man who was texting throughout.

The wigs were great though.

And so was the not so veiled insult from the Minster of some department that I never caught.

A grueling hour of fading in and out of consciousness later, we left the hallowed white halls and climbed onto the train. Or more accurately, were shoved - shoved - into the train. I ended up between some man's legs. That was a comfortable experience.

So, walking home at the end of that tirelessly long day it's little wonder that I was uplifted by the smell of cut grass. My one inspiration in a city steeped in history and architectural wonders and literary giants was grass. Go figure. But I guess it was enough - it inspired this blog.

If my friends actually read this they would understand why I feel I have so little to say about my so-called adventures in London. I'm living a country and an ocean away, but I'm writing about how grass has inspired my day. Grass.

If they read this, they'd stop asking.

February 24th - The Day Before Pancake Day

February 24, 2009

Today was Pancake Day in the UK, but other than that there’s not much to note. As Boswell said “Nothing worth putting into my journal occurred this day. It passed away imperceptibly, like the whole life of many a human existence.”

Ah, but yesterday was a day worth writing about, if only for the little things. A day for Birkenstocks. A day that smelled like rain, softball, and spring. A day to make me miss home.

After classes I set off for the train station with Heidi and Robin with the goal of purchasing tickets to Paris. The idea alone was enough to put a smile on my face and the honest to goodness most sincere ticket agent in the world only added to my good humour. Ticket in hand we headed down into the underground and while turning to respond to one of my friends I ran smack, full on into this woman. My automatic response (as a girl raised up properly) was an “Oh, I’m sorry.” As I looked up expecting a similar reply all I got was a face full of gap-toothed derision. Apparently, this episode was entirely my fault. I suppose I should expect it by now. One day in Eugene I was gunned down by a biker. Again, my automatic response was an apology. That girl simply looked back at me, hopped on her bike and took off. It wasn’t until I recovered that I realized I had done nothing wrong. Not only had I looked both ways, but I was at a cross-walk, and yet my first response was to apologize. I suppose I’m just perpetually in the world’s way.

In the evening we all went to see a production of 39 Steps, playing at the Criterion Theatre in Piccadilly Circus. It was funny enough for what it was, I guess. I laughed. But sometimes the comedy was a little inflated – as though the play thought itself funnier than it actually was. A bit like Jim Carrey. Actually, exactly like Jim Carrey.

Afterward, I sat waiting on the next train and happened to cross my legs the same moment a girl happened to be standing up with her shopping bags. One of the bags barely skimmed my leg and she turned, smiled down at me, and offered an apology. She must get in the world’s way too.

February 22nd - Bath, Baath, Bahth - My Adventure in the East

February 22nd, 2009

12:41 am

First order of business – Happy Birthday, Dad!

I don’t know how two weeks have managed to pass since my last entry. In one sense it feels as though I just wrote it yesterday, and yet when I think back to my break it feels as though it occurred ages ago. This tension between wanting time to slow down so that I can experience everything that London has to offer and looking forward to going home and essentially “getting back to life” is almost irreconcilable. I don’t know whether I should look at the time I have and feel elated that I still have 5 weeks left or look at the time left and think, I only have 5 weeks left? Or sometimes, in those moments when the experience would be that much better if my friends were here experiencing it with me I think, wow – I still have 5 weeks here . . . The fact that I have no source of income while I’m across the pond is also slightly depressing as I see my bank account slowly empty itself of every last dollar. As much as my job is mediocre at best, I’m looking forward to getting back to work. I suppose I’m definitely over traveler’s euphoria.

In fact, the other day I was returning home around 6 and I had to shuffle up the steps and wait in the queue to swipe my oyster card in order to leave the station. As I was doing so, I felt the oddest sense of belonging. Here I was in the midst of all these other people, each face as strange as the next, but there was a sense of kinship merely because we were all doing the same thing – heading home after a day in the city. Eastcote is about an hour outside of London and therefore relatively foreign to tourists. It’s actually fairly foreign to even native Londoners. Thus, every face in that crowd belonged to England and wasn’t merely passing through for the weekend. And finally, I too, was one of those people who belonged, be it ever so briefly. I have a house key, not a hotel card, an oyster card, not a ticket, grocery bags, not gift shop bags, and best of all – a sense of direction, and not a map.

It’s a feeling I’d like to hang onto, even if it’s only for one more month.

Tied up in that is not just wanting to belong, but simply just not wanting to be a tourist. Everybody who travels is a tourist at some point or another, and yet everyone has derision for tourists. It isn’t entirely logical, but it still makes sense. I was a tourist over the weekend, and even knowing that, I still got my hackles up when I overheard a group of people in the middle of the circus in Bath comment on all the tourists taking over the town on weekends. I was one of the teeming hundreds and the camera slung around my neck and the map peeking out of my backpack couldn’t disguise that, and yet I didn’t want to be identified as one of those tourists. Silly, I know. And while I enjoy the touristy things, I also sneak off into back roads, parks, and neighborhoods little trodden by the picture-snapping, postcard buying masses. I like to pretend that I know where I’m going by wandering with intention. Bath is a perfect place to do this because it’s tiny and no matter how many turns you take you always seem to end up back at the Roman Baths and Pump Room. I always seem to end up back at Trafalgar Square when I wander in London. There must be some sort of pull that draws me back to city centers and people. Or it could simply be that most major roads tend to go that direction.

Saturday was an absolutely gorgeous day. I woke up around 7:30, stretched, and happened to glance to my right. At the same time, a guy that had gotten into his bunk after I’d been fast asleep for probably hours, happened to lift his head off the pillow and our eyes met. I gave him a nonchalant nod and he flopped back onto his pillow. It was kind of a weird moment, but a moment that fits in so well with the hostel experience – especially the one we stayed at. It was called the Funky Hostel, and I’d say it was pretty well named, what with the multi-colored walls, the threadbare carpet, and the funky smell emitting from one of the bunks that hadn’t been laundered yet. You never really know what you’re going to get or who you’re going to meet in a hostel, but I think that in order to truly appreciate the European hostel experience, you’ve got to stay in at least one “funky” hostel. Oh, and a tip for anyone planning on staying in a hostel: don’t make fun of Canadians. Ever.

At 8:45 our minibus headed out of Bath, into the countryside, and onto Stonehenge. We were the first bus there and the parking lot was relatively empty. I got many a photograph without any people in the frame and enjoyed the recorded tour. I was a bit surprised at the highway that runs right past the henge. I’d always pictured this archaic ring of stones in the middle of a sprawling field, surrounded by an ominous silence. I wouldn’t say I was necessarily disappointed or even distracted by the traffic, it was just merely unexpected. The henge demands a respect that the highway violates. It has outlived hundreds of generations and its unknown purpose casts it in a mystery without which is probably wouldn’t be nearly as interesting. Put it to you straight, the thing is old and things that are old should be respected, not jarred against the new and far less mysterious present. Well, at least in this case.

We wrapped up with the tour with a short stop in the little town of Lacock, where scenes from Harry Potter and Pride and Prejudice have been filmed. I appreciated the crooked windows, tiny doors, thatched roofs, and more than anything else, I respected the town for its untarnished innocence and its resistance in becoming a dot on the movie town map. People probably tramp through that town on a daily basis and yet there’s not a single sign of it catering to tourists. No “Harry Potter filmed here” plaques or snapshots of the stars in the postcard racks. It was delightful. It was perfect.

It was kind of boring.

I enjoyed the weekend and the trip east. I enjoyed walking the same paths that Jane Austen and Franny Burney trod. I enjoyed marveling at the engineering of the Romans and their baths that still work after 2000 years. And I enjoyed watching the English countryside sweep by in the fading golden light of the evening as I headed back to Paddington and the grit of London streets and home.

February 9th - Puddles, Puddles, & Food

February 9th, 2009


Today was a typical London day. I don’t think it has stopped raining since yesterday at 3pm. My umbrella had a great workout and of all the things I brought with me, I value that bright green, spring-loaded contraption the most. (Except on the days I lug it around and there’s not a cloud in sight; those days I consider chucking it.) All day I hopped over little puddles, skirted midsized ones, and merely trunked through the ones that simply couldn’t be avoided. In London there is no golden rule and on days such as this everyone’s the worst for it as pointed umbrella ends crowd the sidewalks, smashing into shoulders and taking out eyes. I especially love it when I’m leading the legally-blind-at-night girl and people merely shove you into the street in their harried attempt to get wherever they’re going seconds before anyone else. Love it.

I had big plans for the day, and while I mostly checked every box I still feel as though I spent most of my day in eating establishments. I probably feel that way because I actually did spend most of my day eating, or watching other people eating. It all started with a mad dash to AHA to recover my notebook, print up a coupon, and rush off to the tube again to meet Genevieve at the Museum of London by 12:30. Of course, I was late, but if we’re going by London train standards, I wasn’t; apparently a train isn’t considered late if it arrives within 10 minutes of its expected arrival time. Okay, actually, I was still technically late by even those standards. But, not because I didn’t give myself enough time, I just simply couldn’t figure out how to get into the blasted museum. I got off the tube, managed to take the right exit, miraculously saw the giant black roundabout with “London Museum” emblazoned on the side (I love when I don’t have to pull out my map) and I ever so ignorantly thought that I was home free. Um, not so much. Because while the sign is big enough, the entrance isn’t quite so obvious. I wandered around for a bit, feeling like an idiot because I couldn’t find an entrance, found one of those poles with the signs pointing every which way, and the stub which announced the museum had no arrow because apparently I was there. Well, yeah, I was there – I could see it and its massive presence taunted me as the entrance ever eluded me. Finally, I admitted defeat and called Gen who told me to take the escalator up, walk the sky bridge, and presto, I’d be there. Great, I had a route. Oh, but once again, I was foiled. The only escalator near me was owned by a private business complex and I sure-as-shooting wasn’t going to go in there and make a fool of myself in my quest to find the entrance, so this time I called Robin, hoping for more gentle directions. As I pleaded my case I happened upon a bright red sign tucked into a corner ( the words were certainly big enough, but not so helpful if people can’t see it when they walk around the museum) and figuring I’d found redemption at last, I followed the arrow and . . . walked into a parking garage. Seriously, I don’t know that I’ve ever felt like more of a dolt in my life. Robin consented to come down and lead the idiot in (Oh, and by the way, Robin is the blind one. Ironic, isn’t it?). While I waited I went back to that big red sign and discovered that it wasn’t in fact pointing around the corner, but was serving its purpose quite well as it was actually announcing the entrance merely feet from where it was plastered to the wall. Brilliant. Maybe if the smokers hadn’t used it as a refuge to get their hourly dosage of cancer I would have realized that the clever inlet was in fact the means to the museum. Robin had by now sauntered around the corner and I gave her my you’ve-got-to-be-kidding-me-face, pointed towards the sign, and shook my head. So, I’m hopeless but I figure it out eventually. Usually. Mostly.

And then, after all that, we spent about 30 odd minutes in the building. Maybe. We went for our Tudor assignment, completed it, and while initially I had thought we’d do a bit of exploring, the call of the stomach was greater. And so we left. Once you’ve figured out how to enter a building exiting is that much easier.

Nearly everyone had a hankering for some bangers and mash, that would be sausages and mashed potatoes for all you less well-versed in the language of the Brits, and so we headed for one of the millions of local pubs. We shook out our umbrellas, wiped our shoes, looked at the menu and then we left. £8.95 for some bangers and mash? I think not. So, then we walked a ridiculous 5 minutes to the next pub (really, there should be more of those in London), went for the “credit crunch” deal at the Feathers and Hats, ordered our meal from the less than friendly server and sighed with the relief that we would soon be full. Foiled again. This was not my day. Three dismal sausages hardly larger than those frozen Jimmy Dean ones, and a squiggly squirt of taters beneath were all that graced our plate. First off, this could hardly be called substantial, and secondly, no self-respecting pub would ever desecrate potatoes in such a manner. Mashed potatoes are meant to be heaped, not squirted through a pastry bag like cake frosting. Their so-called deal was a bigger lie than our excuse of a meal and we left feeling hungry. Pizza Express had proved to have over-the-top delicious dessert and we made use of its close proximity to satisfy our persistent hunger and sweet tooth.

Again, we ordered and again we waited expectantly for our food. I don’t know why I continue to get my hopes up. Robin and Genevieve were served and then the waitress walked away without a word as to where my dessert was or when I could expect its presence. Wonderful restaurant etiquette. She was destined for a large tip. A couple minutes later she came up to me and in a barely audible whisper to match her equally indistinguishable accent she informed me that my chocolate cake was out – at 3pm, before the dinner rush had even started. I refrained from ordering anything else. Bad service doesn’t warrant any of my money. I can see why the Brits don’t tip, or if they do, tip horribly. Or maybe, since they don’t tip, service is bad. Whatever the case, I’ve yet to find stellar service on this little island, which is rather unfortunate. Anyway, while I watched the others eat their desserts (which, by the way, weren’t as large or as delectable as last time. We think this may be because previously we had a male server? It’s certainly probable) we made plans for the rest of the evening. With the ever pouring rain and driving wind only indoor pursuits were considered. The movie idea was thrown out, after all, we’d just spent a ridiculous amount of money on rather mediocre food and more money didn’t need to be spent. So, where else but the obvious coffee shop for a bit of reading and what else but more food – naturally that would be the answer.

Several thousand puddles and a squished tube ride later we were back at AHA to collect a book for Robin, and then onto the corner coffee shop. I love that the rest of the group is in Amsterdam, Paris, Brussels, and other corners of Europe while I find myself back at school and the usual coffee shop on my week off. I suppose even 5,000 miles away I’m a creature of habit. I’m directionally challenged, I like my food, and I love my books. Okay, let’s be honest, food is pretty much on par with books, let’s not kid ourselves. So, for all the exotic tales people would like to hear I’m afraid the sum of my London adventures have more to do with rain, puddles, museums, food, and books. Thrilling, I know. I hope for many more of them…

But with better food, of course :O)

January 20th - A Night of My Own

January 20th, 2009

Today I was left to myself for a few hours, as some of my peers headed off to class and another ditched our Madame Tussaud’s adventure for a paper deadline. At first, I went in search of a television and the inauguration, but along the way I stumbled upon a pink-hued sky with thunderheads tugging at its corners. The sun is so little seen on the streets of London that the brief reminder it left behind as night ushered in was all the more reason to the cherish the moment.
The man on TV calls most London days “grizzly” – a mixture of grey and drizzly. I’ll take those most everyday if I could get an evening like that every night.
After my time on the pier I wandered along the path still with a pub and telly in mind, but instead I found something much better – a lane squeezed between two rising business conglomerates; the funky boutiques and quirky jewelry shops outlined by twinkling white lights which faced each other across a terrace of jumbled curly wrought-iron patio furniture, weather-beaten picnic tables, and gnarled stumps turned benches and chairs seemed impossibly out of place and almost too good to be true.
At the end of the lane my curiosity and my rumbling stomach got the best of me when I encountered a French crêpe shop advertising homemade soup and breakfast all day. They called themselves the French House of Crêpes – the French Hole in the Wall probably would have been more apt. The sign which advertised all this in blazing red, white, and blue was almost the size of the shop itself. Three tables and thrice as many chairs blocked in by giant refrigerator housing Fanta, Coke, and various juice and a counter piled high with plates, puce paint in the background and a wall menu the size of a snookers table (they must like their signs big) all came together in a charming, discombobulated, backwater-kind-of-way.
Peering between the towering plates I kept it simple and ordered the #1 off the savory menu – the cheese and ham crêpe. And savory it was. I enjoyed my crêpe whilst listening in on a group of boys, all but one (poor boy) fresh out of the puberty gate and nearly everything was “gorgeous.” (I’ll tell you this, eavesdropping is in the UK is far harder to do than in the states.) I’m not sure if a girl was gorgeous, a car was gorgeous, or if it was a football team that was gorgeous. Maybe it was all three. Or maybe the gorgeous one was me . . . I’m going to go with that theory because it’s the most probable. Once the boys left with a chorus of “cheers!” I was forced to turn to my reading for entertainment and after I’d studiously plowed through five pages I picked up my bag and left with a decidedly more American “thank you.”
I continued my trip down the Thames, now enshrouded in a darkened blue, still as beautiful but it seemed that with the dismissal of the sun the city had come back to life. That brief moment on the pier only an hour ago when I could imagine everyone had stopped to savor the beauty had been replaced by screaming girls and blaring taxi horns. My time with a London seemingly simple and frozen disappeared altogether as I stepped across the theatre threshold and into a mass of school uniforms all proudly bearing their school crest. Everywhere I looked there were children, sitting on the stairs, taking over the toilets, leaning against walls, and all in total neglect of that fundamental lesson we learn in elementary school – “inside voices.” The jazz band meant to entertain the waiting audiences could hardly be heard above the din and realizing that I wasn’t quite ready to break my solitude I promptly turned right around and exited the way I’d entered.
London is exciting for its shapes, sizes, smells, and of course, its people, but tonight I wanted more of the former and less of the latter. After all, sometimes people-watching is that much better when you can’t actually hear the people – especially when the only adjective in their vocabularies is a pitchy “gorgeous.”

January 14th - A Walk in London

January 14th, 2009 9:05pm

I’ve officially been in London for 10 days and I have managed to settle into a routine. I can tell it’s routine because I’ve found myself stretching every last second into the snooze button, rushing out the door without breakfast, and walking a mile a minute along the London roads so as not to be late to class – again. The Underground doesn’t exactly help, although it does provide a great excuse for why I’m late. Unfortunately, being one in a class of five doesn’t make for the most inconspicuous arrival and the tube can only be blamed so many times, even if the Metro line is a lurching, stuttering, perpetually breaking down pain in the ass.

But to be fair, it’s actually quite convenient. It’s almost impossible to be truly lost in London as you all have to do is wander until you see the blessed red circle with the blue line slashed through it pronouncing “UNDERGROUND” in hard to miss white lettering. Genevieve and I went out on Sunday to explore South Kensington, get a bite to eat, and view the ice sculptures at the Museum of Natural History. Dinner at a little Italian restaurant with my chair backed right up into my neighbor’s (really, it was great knowing every time she shifted or tossed her hair as I could feel it whip me in the head) gave us our very first experience with an actual English server. Thus far, everyone else had clearly not been British, which to tell you the truth, may be a good thing. That famed English politeness? All lies. Well, probably not completely, but I seem to have run into all the people who haven’t yet discovered coffee. Or alcohol. Or Prozac. Or maybe they simply had discovered far too much of it and I ran into them on the day they decided to give it up.

But to get back to the story, we ate and after deciding it was sufficiently dark enough to view the ice sculptures we set off for the museum. Because the thing about ice sculptures is that they’re always better in the dark. Anybody who has seen them would know this. In fact, most everything looks better in the dark when the imperfections are hidden, or in the case of grand buildings or art, when all else is forgotten in the illuminated grandeur of that which is being spotlighted. London may have gotten this memo on buildings, but clearly they have yet to realize the same is true with ice sculptures. By the time we arrived, not only were the 4 sculptures cast in shadows, but the outdoor exhibit was gated off and closed to the public. Because here’s the thing nobody tells you before you come to the huge metropolis that is London – the city doesn’t seem to fully realize that it is a city. As in, 24-hour-service, late night shops, a city that never sleeps, etc., etc. Instead, shops close at 6 o’clock on a weekday. Seriously. It’s kind of ridiculous, actually. And yet, one more reason why I love London. Yes, it’s huge and its transportation attests to that, but with a pub on every corner, a coffeehouse down every lane, apartments built over marketplaces, and squares plopped down in the middle of all this, you could virtually live in one city block and never have to leave. It’s lots of little small villages jam packed into a very small space that has been jumbled up into one very large city. And for all the reputation the British have for being staid and uppity, it’s complete crap. Walking to school could be a dreary experience, what with all the stone and concrete everywhere, but the monotony of brick-faced, flat apartment buildings is broken by glossy -sheened red, blue, and green doors and stoops of varying patterns and color. How could anyone with a grass-green door be considered staid? I only wish that the British would discover shutters and window boxes.

But seriously, Sunday evening. So, the ice sculptures being a bust, we decided to take a stroll and see where our feet took us, and hopefully work off the 25 lbs. of Italian food we had just consumed. We managed, quite without knowing where the deuce we were, to see the Royal Albert Hall in all its rounded, illuminated beauty, the gorgeous white-washed, black iron-wrought fenced £2 million flats of South Kensington, and a decked-out Harrods with enough lights on its face to put the Griswold’s house to shame. Even with such fascinating landmarks, without a map, we couldn’t have told you where exactly in London we were nor did we know how exactly we were going to get home. Which brings me back to my original point - we didn’t care that we didn’t know exactly where we were because it didn’t matter. All we had to do was keep an eye out for an Underground sign and we were home free. Interesting enough, we happened upon the same station that we’d emerged from. We’re still not entirely sure how we managed to come full circle after walking for a good hour and a half or so, but it all worked out in the end. The city is still romancing me, so it’s hard to say if I’ll still be so ga-ga in weeks to come, but with a list a mile long of places I have yet to see, I think it may be some time before I get over the honeymoon. If, in fact, I ever do . . .