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 . . .

January 7th - Welcome to London

January 7th, 6:15am
Here I was thinking I’d journal most everyday but obviously that didn’t work out so well. I still haven’t quite kicked the jet lag and by the time I get home and eat dinner all I want to do is sleep. But as I still can’t sleep all the way through until my alarm I thought I’d do something useful with my time.
I arrived at Heathrow and passed through customs relatively quickly and got my bags almost right away; followed all the yellow exit signs and found my name amid dozens of white signs, shook the driver’s hand and away we went. London drivers are mad. I could get used to the reverse direction but the weaving through lanes without a signal, literally driving down the middle of two lanes, and coming within centimeters of side-swiping every car on the road is a bit much. Part of me was gasping while the other was thoroughly enjoying the ride and my brief brush with death – sort of.
I live in a charming little flat with Katie, my host, and her house rabbit, Rodney. When I first learned that I’d be living alone with a single lady I was a bit nervous but we get on quite well (It’s inevitable that I’m going to be throwing in some British speech along the way, so may as well get used to it). At some point I’ll take pictures, but have yet to do so.
On Monday I met Heidi, another girl in the program, at the Eastcote tube station and after an encounter with a frustrated ticket man we eventually made our way down to the platform, onto the Piccadilly line, and 15 or so stops later to Russell Square. Apparently this is one of the deepest stations in London and our directions specifically said to take the lift but the stairs looked far more convenient as there was a giant mass of people surrounding the lifts and so we decided that 175 stairs couldn’t be that awful . . .
About 75 windy, steep steps later we were thinking that they put up the cautionary sign with the exact amount of steps for good reason.
But once reaching the top and stepping out onto the street all was worth it. I could definitely fall in love with this city. It’s massive and there are people everywhere, yet it doesn’t have an overwhelming quality. Maybe that’s because the streets twist and turn, so it’s impossible to see all the buildings in one go, but it’s also because there are hundreds of little shops, all individually owned, without any neon lights advertising the usual chains. You could spend an entire week with your head upward looking at the myriad of architecture. From 600-year-old buildings to modern skyscrapers to row houses with crooked doors and wonky steps all within yards of one another. The city exudes so much history I don’t know how I could possibly take it all in. I don’t know that anyone can, otherwise it’d be impossible to get anything done.
Yesterday we all took a boat ride down the Thames and froze our noses off. At some point in the day I lost my mittens which I was sorely regretting as I attempted to keep my hands out to take pictures. The life returned to them about an hour later. We went past the Globe Theatre, the Tate Modern, St. Pauls, and hundreds of other buildings that I’m sure are significant in some way before pulling in past London Bridge and up to the Tower of London. Unfortunately, my camera died somewhere in there and so I didn’t get all the pictures I would have liked.

January 4th - Hello Amsterdam

January 4th, 2009

I arrived in Amsterdam after a 10 hour flight, give or take a few minutes. Actually, I’m not entirely sure just how long it took since apparently flight control allowed for an alternate route. At any rate, it doesn’t help me one way or the other since my layover is beastly long. And I can’t access the free wi-fi b/c I’m computer illiterate and while I can connect to the network, I can’t get onto the internet. Silly me, I always thought those two went hand-in-hand. Hopefully I’ll figure it out before too long as I’m going to need some type of connection with the homeland. Pretty sure my mom would die if I didn’t. She wanted me to let her know where I was in my journey, and I considered calling until I realized it’s about 3 am back in Portland. I think my mom can wait.

I’m only in the airport, but I’ve discovered some things of note. First off, the toilet seats are round, as opposed to oval. I wonder why. Also, rather than toilet seat covers there is a dispenser of ‘toilet seat cleaner.’ Basically, you squirt some liquid stuff on your toilet paper, give it a good wipe, and wa-la, you’re completely protected from crabs and other creepy crawlies that latch onto toilet seats. Granted, I’m pretty sure paper-thin tissue doesn’t do much either, but the actual separation between my bum and the ever-used toilet is more comforting than some supposed disinfectant.

So, that isn’t exactly worthy of note, but when there isn’t much else to say and you’ve got 5 hours to kill you work with what you’ve got. But then, if I put my head up for even 10 minutes I’d have more than enough information. Airports are great for people-watching; especially international hubs like Amsterdam. Some Japanese tourist group literally engulfed me while their guide went on, and on, and on. Thank you ipod and wonderful, irreplaceable, noise-canceling Bose headphones. I think Japanese would be easier to learn than other languages b/c they enunciate so well. I was sitting next to some people and it took me a while to figure out that they were speaking English b/c the kid was mumbling so badly. I like trying to guess people’s nationality by their clothes. European men tend to have dress shoes on with their jeans, while Americans are notorious for their tennis shoes. Or say, flip-flops and a cowboy hat. Very nice. Way to represent.

Oh, I just remembered a thought from the flight. So, you know how people always compare clouds to butter or whip-cream or whatever dairy product fits their winsome mood? It’s all lies. It straight up looks like mold. Like when you open up that left-over chili that has been in the Tupperware container far past its due date and the mold rises from the surface a good inch or so, a slightly grey-white, and although it’s a solid mass, there are slight delineations that give the mold an almost quilted look. That is what the clouds looked like today. Not exactly a pleasant thought when your eardrums feel like they are being ripped from their proper place. Have I mentioned how much I hate flying? The cramped legs, the extremely tall British man beside you who sleeps through the whole flight and sprawls into your precious space and the uncomfortable tapping on the shoulder so that you can get out, go to the tiny bathroom and hopefully get some circulation to the knees that have swollen up like water balloons. People who say they love to fly are either a)rich and in first class, b)flat out crazers, or c)liars who want to impress people because they travel. Also, two addendums – children and people with little legs. At least technology has afforded us with distractions. That little television in front of me with a wide selection of movies and games was a God-send; especially since tripadviser lied and my seat did not have a power port for my laptop, and I forgot my DVDs anyway. So, for all the swollen limbs, the trip wasn’t so bad (at least, as far as airplane rides can be considered “good”).

I still have the flight to London, but it’s only an hour. My only real concern with that is short flights don’t tend to have the greatest cabin pressure (at least, not in my experience) and my ears still haven’t recovered from the last bout in the atmosphere. Once at Heathrow I’m hoping customs is super fast because I will have a car waiting for me and I don’t want to pay extra, not to mention I may need the extra time to find the car… Heathrow is freaking huge, what’s to say there isn’t more than one airport information or that it’s not on the opposite side of the airport? I guess I’ll find out.