February 24th - The Day Before Pancake Day

February 24, 2009
7:05pm

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

8:36pm

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)