When I arrived in London I was immediately greeted by my friends Isaac and Elston. Isaac is who I will be traveling with for the rest of my trip, so I’ll talk more about him later. Elston is from London but studied abroad at UNC last year where we met in Connor dorm. The two of them could not have been a better welcoming party. Elston seems has had many opportunities to show tourists such as myself around his city, so we got right to exploring.
My first ride on the tube immediately made me fall in love with London’s underground system. I’m not sure why but it seemed to make more sense than both New York and Boston. Once we popped up in Piccadilly Circus, London’s smaller version of Times Square, I was following Elston blindly. Everywhere we turned my mouth was a little bit agape. The city practically sparkled in the snow. We started at Buckingham palace, and because of the snow, all the infamous guards were standing inside their own personal little huts. As we walked through town Elston would point out where different famous and pop culture events took place. We made our way to St. James Park and strolled along the river; I chose to watch as other visitors feed the beautiful swan and potentially rabid squirrels.
As we made our way out of the park I asked Elston about the stunning building that had just caught my eye. He just smiled. A few more steps and Big Ben appeared from around the corner soon followed by a glimpse of the London Eye. We worked our way across to Millennium Bridge and watched dusk fall around the London skyline.
Finally we made our way to Bloomsbury to meet up with yet another kind host, my friend Jonathan. He is studying abroad this semester on the UNC honor’s program, so I got to stay in a flat with a whole bunch of UNC folk. It ended up being a surprisingly nice taste of home. There is something about the Carolina community that makes it easy to talk with just about anyone. We all shared in some decadent crepes the girls in the downstairs flat made and I soon found myself in a heated debate.
Explaining my major, Women and Gender Studies, has always been an interesting conversation. Trying to explain my study abroad program, the International Perspectives of Sexuality and Gender, has proven an even greater feat. People tend to get stuck on the word “sexuality” and zone out most everything else. I don’t mind simply because of the great conversational opportunities it provides. Somehow we maneuvered from the question “what do you think about sexuality” to a conversation on the role heartbreak plays in being in love. Although I had only known these friends for a few hours, I already felt at ease and was very encouraged for the rest of the trip.
The next morning was my day to be touristy for myself. I refused to buy an underground pass, energized to explore the whole city on foot. I began right around the corner at the British museum. Starting my visit just as the place opened let me have some rooms all to myself. The most exciting piece of history to see was, of course, the Rosetta Stone.
Next I wandered my way to Covent gardens. My navigating techniques got immediately thrown askew when I took a look at one of the many helpful roadside maps. The maps are not oriented due north, instead each map is made to position you directly the way you are looking. Sounds helpful, but this scout trained brain was not ready to have maps facing so many different directions. I found my way easily enough and enjoyed a traditional jacket potato while listening to the street performers. I stayed just long enough to hear everything from a quartet of fiddles to opera solos.
A stroll along the Thames was less frigid than I had feared and dropped me right at the foot of St. Paul’s cathedral. Being the cheap traveler that I am, I rarely pay to enter any of these famous monuments, but the massive size and outwardly displayed beauty was enough for me. On to the captivating Tower of London. This stunning castle emerges among modern city buildings and casts silence over the bustling crowds. So much history, war, and fortune are held in those stones. Eventually I pilled myself away from the castle and made it in to Borough Market for some free samples and the Tate Modern Art Gallery for some thought provoking confusion.
Isaac and a friend from Jonathon’s flat joined me to attend the Evensong at Westminster Abby. Both the service and the building were remarkable. The regimented structure of the service was printed so we could follow along in proper standing, sitting, kneeling order. The choir men’s echoing voices filled the hall with Latin prayer. To top the service off, the priest said his closing prayer and mentioned America on this day of Obama’s inauguration. We could not help but to smile.
After dinner with the Connor crew at a very nice pub in Bloomsbury, Elston showed us and a few of Jon’s flat mates around the Camden neighborhood. Rumor had it Ron Wesley hung out in Camden sometimes; much to my dismay, apparently not on Monday nights.
Tuesday too was filled with mostly independent exploring. I am learning more about my travel style every day. Although I enjoyed visiting the National Gallery and National Portrait Galley (both visits made much more interesting by tagging along on school tours) I realized I would much prefer to be out in the fresh air taking in all the sights of today. As I wandered through Chinatown and Soho I began to realize what it is about exploring that I find so refreshing. It is almost physically impossible for me to switch off my brain. I always have an excessive amount of thoughts swirling around in my head. When I’m adventuring in a new place however, that’s all I’m thinking about. It’s so much of a sensory overload – people watching, new architecture, bright colors, curious stores – that every other part of my brain shuts off and I am simply in the moment of novel adventure.
I had a few more must sees to check off my list from friends, so Isaac and I headed to the pub Princess Louise. It was full of several little tiny rooms separated by glass doors. One of the most bizarre yet refreshing set-ups I have seen. Princess Louise had their own brew of Chocolate Stout (Isaac’s favorite beer) and apparently it was the best he’d ever had. We are now on a quest to find the best chocolate stout. Suggestions are welcomed.
I finished off my last night in London by cooking for my splendid hosts. A thank you dinner for the 5 boys who’d given me their couch turned in to a feast for everyone in the program I’d come to know. I would not have wished it any other way. It always amazes how easy it is to impress those who don’t get a home cooked meal often (and how beneficial cabinet searching can be). Garlic bread and fresh pasta sauce never cease to amaze. Apple crumble made with a cereal crust. Perfection.
Jonathan and I shared a traditional tea for breakfast at Tea and Tattle (my last must see!) before I took off for Bath. Scones and clotted crème are quite deadly. Saying goodbye to friends gets easier and easier as I realize how incredible of a foundation I have with them and how much I still have to look forward to.
I loved exploring the old Roman Baths (one entrance I was more than willing to pay for). I wish such bath houses still existed. The fact that the natural springs still fill these historic stone structures astounds me. Sure, enough has changed in the surrounding area that no one would want to immerse themselves in the now green water. The sacred aspect of these warm springs gave the Romans hope for just revenge and ailment curing. We’ll see if the 47 minerals in the water I tasted will keep me healthy for the next 7 months.
Then I got picked up by the cousin’s family of one of my best friend from UNC. Florence had been more than willing to show me the English countryside. Not only did I get to see the country, but I got to help them take care of their horses. It was so refreshing to get out of the city and in to some fresh air. They got the horses to show me some of their best tricks. We sat curled in front of the fire of this English cottage talking about the differences between England and America for hours. Travel perpetually amazes me at the kindness of strangers and eagerness to share what you can. I dearly hope that one day I will be able to return the favor.