A couple of years ago, I was given the opportunity to travel to England and France with a group of students from college. A very generous person paid my way entirely, and I was only too thrilled to take him up on the offer. While there, I recorded my thoughts and impressions and then put it together in a narrative that my family and friends could read. It was truly the highlight of my year and the needed vacation gave me the extra energy to finish my novel, “The Pursuit of Elizabeth Millhouse,” when I got home.
May 2, 2010
It rained cats and dogs this morning. I thought it might rain all day, but it stopped before lunch. Justin drove me to the school parking lot. Everyone was there early. Naturally. We’re going to London today!! The luggage was quite a sight. Such a mound of bags, of all different sorts! But I think it’s fairly safe to say that mine with its black and white stripes with big, black pokadots on it stood out from all the rest. Where do you get such outrageous stuff? Kohls.
M— was in fine form, grinning and cracking jokes, and J— was simply himself, the self that I will hopefully know a little better at the end of this trip. Ah, poor fellows! How will they fare amongst all these females? Mrs. C— took a picture of the two of them before we left. A before picture.
Well, we loaded the bus down with all that baggage while the driver, a tubby fellow with a curly-haired ponytail, sat and looked on. (I suppose he was only hired to drive.) Then we were off. We got to Chicago without a hitch, accept for the time when the GPS gave some bad advice and we ended up in China town instead of O’Hare. Re-computing. We got back on track pretty soon.
While we waited to board the plane, I sat between H— and an Indian woman heading back to India whose name I failed to ask for. She was very sweet and we had a nice chat.
It wasn’t until I pulled out my tatting, though, that I really started talking to people. Rather, people started talking to me and sending curious glances my way. An elderly Italian lady behind me praised my skill in the loveliest accent. I chatted briefly with two Muslim ladies on the way to Saudi Arabia. That’s about as close as I every want to get to Saudi Arabia.
Now I’m on the plane flying over Quebec, hearing the roar of the engines beneath me, feeling the vibrations through my feet as we hurtle through the air at 715 miles per hour. I’m thinking about how much faith all of us have in this big metal contraption. So much faith, in fact, that we all sit calmly in our seats, drinking pop, eating snacks, reading and sleeping thousands of feet above ground. It’s absurd. We should be freaking out. I think about the strangest things.
That’s all for now. Maybe I’ll check in again at some point in the next five and a half hours. In the morning, London!
May 3, 2010
I slept in fits and spurts on the plane. But it helped the time pass. We reached Heathrow airport around 6:30 in the morning. We got through customs and found our luggage in a snap, then navigated through tube tunnels and streets to our lodging. It must have made quite a spectacle, all of us trudging through the streets, huffing and puffing as we dragged our luggage behind us. Our rooms are very nice, more like apartments, really. They are, however, purely functional and not scenic at all. With a name like “Ability Towers” functional is all you’re going to get. I was quite pleased to find an iron and an ironing board, though. I can’t stand going around in wrinkles. There’s also a convenience store down below where we bought some food.
At the moment, I have a severe case of jet lag. I was so determined to stay awake until nine or ten in the evening, but I gave in and took a nap. I think a lot of us did.
It’s quite chilly and rainy out. I hope it warms up a bit for later. We’re going out around two o’clock to see some neat stuff–Big Ben, (Oh, pardon me. Not Big Ben, but the tower that Big Ben resides in.), Trafalgar Square, and Buckingham Palace.
Well, I’m about ready to give in to my exhausted body and sleep.
So, I slept.
1. London is blessedly free from America’s big, baggy sweatshirt plague. In fact, I’ve noticed that, as a rule, Londoners look quite spiffy. Though the styles may be a trifle bizarre and the tights and flamboyant flats everywhere you look may be a little too much, Londoners still manage to appear very sharp and put together on the street. No sweats, no big, floppy t-shirts with garish slogans plastered on them. Heavenly.
2. Londoners don’t talk about the weather or anything else, for that matter, with strangers. They don’t catch your eye and smile. They don’t say, “Excuse me,” when they bump into you on the street. They have the ability to maintain the classic poker face in all circumstances, which brings me to my next observation.
3. The tube is so neat. Somehow, watching the constant stream of people flowing through the system, all going their own ways, captures my imagination. I could stand at the exits and watch people for hours. I get a kick out of how the recorded voice says, “Mind the gap,” as you step from the platform to the coach. But about the London poker face…I got on the tube today to get back to my room, and we were so crowded in there, stuffed in like sardines in a can, treading on toes, someone’s elbow in my side, hanging on to the rail for dear life. People were practically sitting on top of each other. You’d think that in such close quarters, people would talk to each other, at least joke a bit. But did they? Certainly not. I was literally standing so close to a lady, our noses were about three inches apart. One good lurch, and we’d have been black and blue for the rest of the week. So there we were, eye to eye. I wanted to laugh, but really, how do you laugh at such a sober person? In the tube, people stare at you or stare at the floor, but they don’t smile.
We walked up around Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, and then we had dinner at an Italian restaurant. It was very good. Just as our food was arriving, though, somebody said, “We’re missing H— and J—!” M— went out to look for them, but they were no where to be found. We lost them somewhere around Trafalgar Square. So we were all quite worried. Thankfully, when I got back to my room, there was H—, safe and sound, and J— was in hers. They had the good sense to get lost together and then navigated the underground back to the hotel. Not bad for the first day in London, huh?
May 4, 2010
Today was the day of Stonehenge, Bath, and Windsor, though not in that order. A bus picked us up and took us to the main station, but not before stopping to pick up more passengers and giving me the worst case of motion sickness I’ve had since childhood. The crazy man jolted and swerved around corners, narrowly missing pedestrians and cyclists. I was so sick by the time we got to Victoria station, my legs were like rubber and I thought I was going to lose breakfast. Thankfully, V— had Dramamine along with her. Good old M— swiped a plastic bag from a bin nearby just in case, and even risked sitting by me all the way to Windsor. I closed my eyes and talked to myself through the next thirty minutes, “You’re not going to throw up. You are not. You are NOT!” And I didn’t. By the time we got to the castle, I was feeling almost myself.
Windsor was pretty spectacular, but Bath was beautiful. I liked it the best. There were hardly any modern buildings. All were regal, old stone ones. The streets were narrower and the city was sort of nestled in a valley. It was a lovely drive into and out of it.
Stonehenge was pretty fun, but I still think Bath was my favorite part of the day. I’ve been told some people get strange vibes off of Stonehenge, but I didn’t. I must have been too cold. I intended to pay a visit to the cows grazing nearby, but they had all moved farther away when I got around to it.
When we got back to the hotel, Hena cooked a very yummy Indian dinner since the others had decided to stay out. J— came and ate with us, and I sewed a button back on his jacket. We talked for quite a while until the others came back and then went to bed.
May 5, 2010
We started out the day by getting on a bus tour of London. M— was in fine form once again, saying the most outrageous things and generally being funny. After a while, we hopped out and walked through Westminster Abbey. All those dead people! I stood on top of one of my most favorite authors, Charles Dickens. That was a strange feeling.
After our walk through the Abbey, we stopped in at the Westminster Abbey Coffee Club located just before the exit. Just think about that for a moment and see if you don’t laugh. After I pointed it out to M—, he remarked, “Coffee to keep you awake through morning prayers.”
After the Abbey, we got on a boat sailing down the Thames. It was very cold. While most of the group went topside, me and M— went below where it was warm. Then began the funniest tour commentary I have ever heard. They guy had such a dry way of saying things combined with perfect timing. Add the accent in, and there was the crowning touch. I laughed so hard, I had tears running down my cheeks, and I thought M— was going to choke on his coffee.
We took the bus back and then stopped at the Sherlock Holmes Pub and Museum where we ate fish and chips. The “museum” was a boxed in little room where you could look in at Holmes and his fiddle, pipe, and collection of chemicals that he’d mix together to solve cases. Poor Watson would come home to clouds of noxious fumes.
It was getting on towards early evening when I headed back to my room with H—. A few of the others went back out and came home at various times and in various stages of inebriation.
Another day, another night.
May 6, 2010
The day got off to somewhat of a rough start on account of certain members of the party suffering from hangovers.
We started off at the Tower of London, looking first at the armory tower or the “White Tower,” where there’s a huge collection of armor that belonged to the various kings of England. I always manage to go wandering off by myself, so by the time I got out of that specific tower, my group was way ahead of me. So, I continued on into the tower where the crown jewels are kept. Funny thing is, once I saw them they didn’t seem that impressive. Just a lot of glittering stones stuck in a funny-looking hat. What a silly girl I am! Don’t I know that those sparkly rocks are worth millions?
Well, once I was done with the jewels, I grabbed a sandwich and hunted for the rest of the group. I found them near the entrance and we took the boat back down the Thames and trekked back to Trafalgar Square to look in at the National Gallery. We saw paintings by Van Gogh, Pissarro, and all those guys. Rooms upon rooms of paintings. After a while, I was on painting overload and made my escape. Of course, I’d lost track of the group, but I came across a few of them in the gift shop. We sat and talked to J— for a while. I noticed a sign on the wall said, “Pickpockets operate in this area.” Gulp.
After the gallery, we headed back to the hotel. The others went back out to the streets to get a walking tour of Jack the Ripper’s haunts. I never liked that guy, so I stayed behind. I am now at Burger King, (yes, there is a Burger King in London), sipping coffee and scribbling away.
4. I’ve seen next to no obese people in London. Practically everyone is slim and trim in spite of Burger King. Hmmm…
5. “Mind the gap,” is becoming quite the thing among us tourists. In fact, we expand upon it. “Mind the puddle.” “Mind the pole.” We’re very careful to use the same vocal inflections as the recorded voice at the tube.
May 7, 2010
Passed most of the day with M— and H—. We went first to the Tate Modern Museum which charges no admission fee for good reason. It fulfilled my wildest nightmares. Ugly, ugly, ugly. And depraved in some instances. One “artist” had filmed herself standing by a river, stark naked. She poured blood all over herself. (Wonder where that come from. I shudder to think.) To put the crowing touch on this masterpiece, she rolled around in a pile of feathers and stood up. By the way, the title of that little horror was, “Blood and Feathers.” Very original.
After the Tate, we walked along the Thames until we came to a restaurant and had lunch. Our waitress had a French accent. I ate mussels for the first time. They were really good.
I had kind of wanted to see Harrods just to see what it was all about, so we headed down in that direction to look around. Well, it was pretty much what I had expected–a big, fancy building with lots of expensive stuff in it. We saw a dual-duty butterfly, diamond-studded broach/hair clip thingy for about 23,000 pounds. Crazy. It was quite a dazzling display. We sauntered around, sampling perfume, trying to outdo each other in finding the most expensive item.
When we left, we stopped at a few shops, then met the rest of the crew at Westminster. Suddenly, it got really chilly and looked like it was going to storm. But that was okay because we were just boarding the London Eye. The Eye is pretty much a gigantic Ferris wheel. If I understand it correctly, it’s the largest observation point in the world except Singapore. From the top you can see the entire city.
We got into these enclosed “pods” as they’re called and made the trip. It was pretty fun.
By the time all that was finished, it was around quarter to eight in the evening and the group dispersed. A bunch of people had said they wanted to go to a concert with me at St. Martin-in-the-Fields, but it was pretty chilly and they decided to head for cover. But A— and M— went along. The Feinstein Ensemble performed. Truthfully, I’ve never heard of them before, but they were really excellent. They played one of the Brandenburg concertos, the Bach double violin concerto, and a Vivaldi recorder concerto. During the course of the concert, Angelina asked me some questions about the music, quietly. At least, it seemed quiet enough to me. But the old geezer in front of us turned around and glared balefully at us. That stopped the questions pretty quick.
We went to an Indian restaurant after the concert. The food was so good. I had tandoori chicken and naan. We discussed religion, Oxford, and A—’s desire to go to the zoo. At any rate, those were the topics that stuck out to me.
It was probably twelve when I got back to the hotel, and I called it a day and went to bed.
May 8, 2010
The weather had not taken a turn for the better by the time we were all up the next morning. Damp, dank, drizzly, dastardly…well, I’m getting a bit carried away. It was cold for sure. We went to Oxford anyway.
We took the above ground train, about an hour’s distance from London. We ran to catch the first one so we wouldn’t have to wait a long time for the next. Once we got on, though, there weren’t enough seats for everyone. So…we made ourselves comfortable on the floor. Some of us were so comfortable, in fact, that we fell asleep.
In spite of the rain and cold, I think Oxford was my favorite place of all. We walked around all the colleges. It was graduation day today, so most of the colleges were closed to visitors. We did happen upon one that wasn’t closed somehow. It was so picturesque with it’s own chapel and gardens. I took some pictures, but pictures never do justice to those kinds of places. Some day, I’m determined to have my own garden like, “The Fellows Garden.”
I fell asleep on the way back. Thankfully, I had a seat.
When we got back to the hotel, C— and S— decided to make dinner for us–spaghetti, salad, bread. While they prepared the food, I sprawled out on the bed and chronicled. A—, not one to mince words, ordered from the bathroom where she was fixing her hair, “Amanda, sing something!” So I did once I finished laughing.
The food was good. While we ate, we watched, “Britain’s Got Talent,” the episode filmed in London no less. This grand, 80-year-old lady floored everyone by singing a song called, “No Regrets.” We played dictionary and charades for the rest of the evening. Charades was fun, and I believe A— was the best at it.
It was a good day.
May 9, 2010
Today was Sunday, so I convinced A—, C—, S—, and M— to go to church at Westminster Abbey. I heard the choir sing from where I sat in the Poet’s Corner. It was a bit dreamlike. I never thought I’d attend a service at Westminster Abbey. It was the Sung Eucharist that we attended. Westminster is Anglican but M— said that the Mass was the same as a Catholic Mass. I couldn’t help wondering, as I looked at the people around me, whether they really, truly believed. Especially when we said the Nicene Creed, “We believe in one God, the Father, the Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father; through him all things were made…” Or was it just a nice, soothing activity to indulge in once a week? Was it just a break from the workaday world, something to take down on Sunday and put away after the service? Or does it color everything in life whether it’s eating, sleeping, talking, walking, loving like it does me? It’s hard to know.
We went into the gift shop at Westminster Abbey, and when we came out, A— handed me this cute, little pewter violin pin. “I got this for you,” she said. I thought it was very sweet of her and I’ve been wearing it on my jacket ever since.
We had lunch, then went to Trafalgar Square to help A— find a friend. Then C—, M—, and I went to the Regent Gardens and walked around Queen Mary’s Garden. That was beautiful. There was a little section set aside for a Japanese garden, and that was my favorite.
At supper time, we all met in M— and J—’s room and ate another wonderful meal made by H—. We stayed up and talked for quite a while, then bedtime.
6. Everything costs money around here. They know how to juice it out of you! If it’s not already built into the price of goods and services by way of taxes, they’ll charge you to use the toilet. Seriously, at some public restrooms, you have to pay fifty pence just to get in. That’s how they pay for the tube, I guess.
May 10, 2010
We’re in France, where smoking is the national sport. Truly, I’ve never seen so many people smoking in my life. We arrived via the Chunnel, (the tunnel underneath the English Channel). I was kind of disappointed because I was looking forward to going through it. But we went through several tunnels, one of which must have been the Chunnel, and then suddenly we were in France. I was none the wiser. Oh well, at least it was painless and we didn’t get stuck down there or anything.
We dragged our luggage through the streets once more in a single file. We walked and walked and walked and walked and walked…anyway, we had a hard time finding the hotel. By the time we did find it, the right wheel on my suitcase was busted. I scraped instead of rolled it along. It was nice and warm at first, a blessed change from London. But later on in the evening, when we set out for the Eiffel Tour, the wind blew and blew and the rain came pouring down. We soldiered on, anyway, and went up. I only got a few pictures of a very murky-looking Paris before the cold drove me inside the café. We went back to the hotel that evening, (which, by the way, was much cuter than the Ability Towers in London.). I put on a few more layers of clothes and went out again with H—, A—, C—, and M—. We walked around in the rain for quite a while and saw some pretty neat stuff. Once we reached the Notre Dame Cathedral, we walked along the river until we came to the gigantic Louvre. Then we walked along the Champs-Elysees to the Arc de Triomphe and took some pictures. I wasn’t able to get many good pictures in the dark with my little camera, but the others got some.
By the time I got back to the hotel, it was 1:30 and I was thoroughly wet, cold, and tired. But I slept like a log the whole night and woke up ready to go the next morning. So there’s something to be said for tramping around in the rain in the middle of the night.
May 11, 2010
We woke up to yet another cold, wet drizzly day, but we hit the streets with a vengeance, determined to make the most of the last day in Europe. We headed towards Notre Dame on foot, stopping in at the Palace Luxembourg on the way. We didn’t go in or anything, just looked at it. There was a really beautiful park in front of it that we wandered around in for quite a while.
There were so many shops on the way to Notre Dame, but the only one I stopped at was Starbucks. Pathetic, I know, but it was a familiar face. Once we got to the river, we split up and did some window shopping. Everything costs a lot of money, at least it seems like a lot of money to me, so I just looked. I did get a few posters for the folks back home at one of the cheesy tourist traps that abound in that area.
We went inside Notre Dame today. It was pretty amazing. It was a little spoiled for me, though, because some guy was playing this awful dissonant music on the organ the whole time we were in there. He must have been a reincarnation of the Phantom. I guess it fit–gothic cathedral, creepy music.
My favorite part of Paris that we saw was Montmartre. To get there, we had to climb this colossal flight of steps. I loved it, but A—’s asthma kicked in on the way up and she was feeling pretty awful by the time she reached the top. Thankfully, it seemed to subside enough for her to enjoy the rest of the day. The cathedral was lovely, and I decided right away that I liked it much better than Notre Dame. The people in charge there took the job seriously. “Monsieur, your hat,” the man at the entrance would say very sternly if the guys didn’t take their hats off right away. They had this little machine in the cathedral where you could put in a euro or two and get a medallion with the cathedral etched on. So I put in my money and down came the medallion with a loud clatter. That very instant, I heard a resounding, “Shhhhhhh!” directed my way. It’s amazing how universal that sound is. Cringe. I couldn’t help it, honest!
For our last dinner in Paris, we went to kind of an upscale place nearby. At least, I think it was. I’m not very knowledgeable about restaurants. I don’t eat out often, but when I do, it’s Subway or a Bob Evans type of deal. So, for me, it was fancy! Presentation, presentation, presentation. Everything was good and it looked beautiful too. Somehow, we got on the topic of love and relationships, a common thread throughout the trip. Unfortunately, we were unable to solve the problems involved with that subject.
After dinner, we dispersed to shop for a while, agreeing to meet at the top of the stairs at the cathedral. I wandered around and bought some cards at a shop. Then I went to the cathedral and waited for the others. I was sooooo cold! But I enjoyed watching all the people milling around. I struck up a conversation with a guy who was also waiting for a friend. Rather, he struck up a conversation with me, in French no less. I had to apologize and tell him I didn’t know any except the basics. He had a good laugh and then started back up in English. We talked about France and bakeries since I work at one at home. I told him about some of the pastries we make. When I told him I hadn’t had a chance to go to a French bakery yet, he groaned and threw up his hands in dismay. I was kind of disappointed about that myself. Well, maybe I’ll make it to France again someday.
Anyway, after about ten minutes of this, I noticed my group at the bottom of the stairs waving and laughing at me. So, I said goodbye and left. They all took the opportunity to rib me about my gentleman friend. “He was hitting on you.” “He was not!” I replied. “He was just being friendly.” “You’re naïve.” Sigh. All you can say to that is, “I am not naive,” which makes you look more, well, naïve. So, I held my peace.
On the way back to the hotel, one of the girls wanted to see Moulin Rouge, and we ended up hiking through the equivalent of a red light district. But I was too naïve to appreciate it.
Two more impression:
7. Gypsies. They were all over the place in Paris, especially crowded places. They’re great beggars. I had the misfortune to have to wait for my group by myself in front of Notre Dame Cathedral. They’d come up looking very pious and mournful. “Do you speak English?” they’d ask then hand me a hand-written note with a sob story on it. I gave them a couple of euros. Why? I don’t know. I knew better, too. This happened twice–two different women, same note. When I came out of the cathedral, the police had them all rounded up. M— says that their men drop them off in the morning to make some money then pick them up later. Sad.
8. I thought fifty pence to use the bathroom in London was ridiculous. I got the shock of my life in Paris. We were in the subway station that’s closest to the Louvre, looking around at some really nice shops. We followed the signs to the bathrooms, and at first, I didn’t see anything resembling a restroom. I noticed a lot of vibrant hues first before I realized the whole place was decorated in brightly-colored rolls of toilet paper. “One euro, please.” Guys to the left, girls to the right. It was pretty doggone swanky. You could even buy a roll of toilet paper and bring it back with you. I can just imagine some silly American bragging on their roll, “See this toilet paper with dollar bills printed all over it? I bought it in, (punctuated by a loud clearing of the throat and a significant lift of the eyebrows), Paris.” Well, I had a good inward chuckle over that. M— called it, “Pay per poo.” I didn’t buy any toilet paper.
May 12, 2010
Time to pack up and leave. Sniff. I was up early, getting all my things stuffed in my suit case. We ate breakfast in a hurry and took taxis to the airport. I was sad to leave, but happy to be going back home at the same time. While we waited at the gate, we saw that Spanish and Morocco airports were shut down due to ash. Phew! Glad we left when we did.
Well, nothing terribly exciting happened. We boarded the plane, slept a lot, arrived in Chicago in the early evening, took the bus back to school, and went home from there. I had a lot of nice conversation, though, which made the traveling process more interesting. That’s about all. Back to work the next day, with lots of fun stories to tell and snapshots to show off. The best part was unpacking the things I brought back for my family and friends and thinking about my favorite moments.
I’m so glad I could go. Who knows, it may be the only international trip I ever make. I wanted to write all this down so I could remember it, and I also wrote it with Kristen, Constance, Katie, Forrest, Lydia, Miles, Elise, Adrianne, Levi, and Benjamin in mind. I thought about you all the time when I was over there. Someday, when you’re all grown up, if not before, I hope you can see some of the things I saw.
I love you guys,