Wednesday, June 03, 2009

UK Holiday, Part 1

I imagine that if I were an English literature, history, soccer, Shakespeare, or Beatles fanatic, going to the UK would have felt sort of like going home. But I’m none of the above, the truth is I just wanted to go somewhere different and far away, and plane tickets to London were cheap and I knew it would be the perfect place for a vacation. I went to England not really knowing what I would find. It would be something new, a place to discover. Accompanying me on the journey was my younger sister V., the New Yorker.

A vacation is supposed to be relaxing, right, but in the weeks before I left vacation planning started to feel like a second job. I had never planned a trip before, much less an international one. My copy of Fodor’s was dog-eared by the time I got done. I spent hours combing through reviews of hotels and hostels. I bought a voltage adaptor. I memorized the approximate dollar-pound exchange rate and looked up train schedules and Tube fees and museum opening and closing times. I typed out itineraries and e-mailed them to V., what do you think? It was like I was back in school doing a complicated group project.

The day finally arrived. I ate a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and an apple in my car outside the airport. What the heck am I doing? What if something goes wrong?

The nine-hour plane ride was not nearly as fun as I expected. Sleeping in such cramped quarters was not easy and I ended up losing my headphones.

After getting off the plane V. and I stood in line for immigration.

“Where are you staying?” a dark-skinned woman with a British accent asked after she had scrutinized our passports and immigration cards.

I named the hostel we were staying at. She eyed us suspiciously. “What is the address?”

I stated the address on my reservation printout.

“What area of town is that in?”

Ummm…the South Bank? I really did not know exactly where this place was other than what I had read on She probably thought my sister and I were running away from America with no place to stay. Oh no.

“How long are you staying?”

“A week,” I said.

Finally she stamped our passports and handed them back to us. We were in.

First impressions of London: busy and diverse. The racial diversity surprised me, even starting at Heathrow Airport. Workers at shops and hotels were more often than not Indian, African, Middle Eastern, and Eastern European, and tourists from America, Germany, Australia, Japan, China, France, etc. lined the streets. In America, racial diversity is kind of a given, but I was surprised that it is also the case in London.

It was a mob at the ticket line at the Tube station where we bought our all-important Oyster cards and we were off.

It was a 30-minute ride through the suburbs of London to where we were staying. A British woman’s voice announced the stops and reminded us to “mind the gap” between the train and the platform. People read tabloids and I stared out the window and was amazed at how vines grew on walls and wild flowers grew between the train tracks.

Our hostel was above a café on a street with lots of little shops and bars and restaurants that V. said reminded her of NYC. I thought so, too, except for a few unmistakably old and English buildings and the red double-decker buses that ran up and down the street. We checked in and lugged our suitcases up about five or six steep flights of wooden stairs into the girls dormitory.
My first thought was to collapse on the bed and go to sleep after the long international flight. The perils of jet lag. But sleep could wait. We were in London. I thought about how far away from home we were, the seemingly never-ending miles of ocean traversed on the plane. We were on the other side of the world.

We went for a walk on the London Bridge, walked through the financial district, saw about a million more red double-decker buses drive by.

Eventually, we encountered Millennium Park and the London Eye and had to take a ride. The Eye feels like you’re in space pod, but I suppose that’s the idea.

The next day was the Tower of London, which to me is THE haunted castle, complete with thick walls and dark chambers, narrow stone spiral staircases and history of executions, murders, and dungeon imprisonments. You can feel the ghosts even when it’s broad daylight outside. I think it would be a scary place to be at night.

In one area, a moving sidewalk takes you past the Crown Jewels, which are too opulent to be believed. The U.S. has no equivalent, which I have to say I’m glad for.

The grandest cathedral I’d been to before London was the cathedral at Notre Dame in South Bend, Indiana, and I didn’t see how anything could be any grander, but of course St. Paul’s Cathedral trumps it. Princess Diana married Prince Charles there. John Donne is buried there. ("No man is an island, entire of itself..."). I ask myself now, how did I not get a picture of St. Paul's? Here's a good picture.

It was V.’s idea to see the National Portrait Gallery, Britain’s "Hall of Fame" where countless royals are immortalized. I loved it. I got misty-eyed in the 20th century portrait exhibit because it reminded me of me and my friends, the people I’d read E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf and James Joyce with. I thought about our conversations, our desires to achieve, our attempts to see the world differently. Would they ever amount to anything?

On Saturday V. and I decided to escape the crowds and go to a place called Blenheim Palace near Oxford. It was here where I felt like we could be at Mr. Darcy’s Pemberley in “Pride and Prejudice.” A very proper elderly man greeted us at the door, and I realized later his picture was also in the tourist pamphlet for the palace. I wonder how he must feel showing off his family home to busloads of tourists.

We bought sandwiches and sat outside overlooking the gardens. I tried to imagine living at a place like this but couldn’t. “Now do you feel like you’re in England and not New York?” I asked V. She nodded. I think she enjoyed that part of our trip the most.

Saturday night V. and I stayed in a real hotel rather than a hostel. I loved our hotel room, which was small but very continental with the most comfortable bed you can imagine. Thank God for a private bathroom. We ran out to a store and I bought pretzels claiming to be made with a “Genuine American” recipe (chuckles) and a 7-UP. Did you know that 7-UP tastes totally different in Britain? V. bought some yummy ginger cookies to bring back to the hotel. Once I figured out how to turn on the TV we watched part of a documentary about British music and watched a panel of comedians take apart the week in UK culture, which we laughed at despite our lack of cultural context. I decided I like the BBC.

On our cloudy last day in London we took in Westminster Abbey. It’s beyond majestic, everything I’d imagined it to be and more. I have a thing for Gothic architecture, which up to this point I’d only seen in history books and in movies.

The abbey is lined inside with chapels that contain tombs of notable people. It gave me goosebumps to see where Elizabeth I is buried. The coronation chair dating from 1300 is there. It looks old and wooden, somehow I was expecting something grander. The throngs of tourists with their audio guides kind of killed the reverential ambience, but I stayed a long while at Poets' Corner, where T.S. Eliot, Ben Jonson, John Milton, William Shakespeare, etc. are memorialized. Somehow I had always imagined Poets' Corner to be a real graveyard with gravestones and tufts of grass growing between them, but instead the poets are memorialized on tiles beneath your feet or with monuments on the walls inside the abbey.

A priest offered a prayer for world peace at the top of the hour. V. bought a coffee in the cloisters, the quietest part of the abbey.

Like at St. Paul’s, it struck me that Westminster Abbey was as much about power on this earth as reverence for God. Why so much effort into a building when there are poor people living to be helped? But it’s hard not to feel that God dwells among us in Westminster Abbey.

There was no changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace on Monday due to the Bank Holiday. Darn, my planning had failed.

But we did see Big Ben.

I decided we couldn’t leave London without seeing Trafalgar Square.

Near Trafalgar Square V. and I tried the obligatory fish and chips at 10 pounds a plate. Tasty, especially soaked in malt vinegar, but I kind of felt like we were at Applebee’s. I think the stereotypes about British food are true, unfortunately.

Our last stop in London was Kensington Gardens, where I promised a friend I’d take a picture of the Peter Pan statue.

Maybe I didn’t know much about London, but I know I expected it to be old and beautiful. Which it was. I loved all the antiquities among the new buildings, the bridges, the narrow staircases, the endless monuments, the grassy green squares where people lay out on blankets to enjoy the weekends.

What I didn’t expect was for London also to be hyper-charged, tough, and crowded. I think I spent as much time in the Tube as I did seeing the sights, the dark and dank Tube with its constant streams of people rushing in and out of the stations, the hardened faces in train cars where standing room only is the norm. Tourists just like us were everywhere. Traveling through the city exhausted me, and I know I could never live in a place like that. But it’s the beautiful London I’ll remember, the London that exists in my pictures.

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