When I arrived in England the FIRST time, it was merely a transit station between the Isle of Man and Scotland. Now, it was time to see England for its own sake. Off to London!
The bus ride to London took a full day. Even though I sat in a “coach” (as the Brits call it) all day, by the time I arrived in the city I was thoroughly exhausted. Anybody who has traveled extensively knows this feeling. Not a good kind of exhausted, like after a long bike ride or hike, but a miserable, stuffy-headed kind of exhausted, in which your joints are stiff and your reactions dulled, and you smell like a pig. Fortunately I had a contact in London (yes Lauren, you WERE a “contact”, now I’m proud to call you a friend!), one of Gill’s daughters (do be so kind as to recall that Gill and Rose were so kind as to take me in when I was lost in Lancaster). After getting off the coach, I had to find the London underground, figure out how it works, and beat back Londoners with my tent poles whilst attempting to secure a one-inch-by-one-inch space on the subway during rush hour whilst wearing my very large and very wide backpack (I highly discourage riding the tube during rush hour, especially with a backpack. Also, notice the “whilst?” I’ve been cultured). To make a long story short, I met up with Lauren and her boyfriend Tim, had a wonderful home-cooked pasta dinner, and enjoyed great conversation that evening. Lauren and Tim are fantastic, and kind, and generous, and interesting. Just like all the other wonderful people who have taken care of me over the past several weeks. The next day I was off to explore the city!
I began my London studies by hitting up the Natural History Museum. I won’t bore you with specifics, but I DID get to see some full-sized dinosaur skeletons. How jealous are you?
After that, I paid a visit to the Science Museum next door, and then visited the Victoria and Albert Museum across the street. Lots and lots of cool stuff, and that’s all I’ll say. If you’re really curious go to London yourself (or just Google some stuff and look at pictures).
After spending half the day between these three great museums I adventured my way over to Buckingham Palace, dwelling place of the Queen herself, when she did indeed decide to dwell there. One can always tell when the Queen is in residence because there will be a special flag, the Royal Standard, flying over the palace; otherwise, it’s the Union Jack they fly. After leaving the Palace I headed down the Mall. Quite a lovely walk, I must say, with lots of geese and more than a few swans swimming in the canal beside the road. Soon I found myself inside the National Gallery, face-to-face with fantastic paintings by artists like van Gogh and Monet. I was able to walk through a goodly portion of the Gallery before I was informed that my hideously large backpack was not admissible in such a fancy-schmancy place. After relieving me of the dozen or so large paintings I had managed to sneakily stuff into the bottomless pit of my magical backpack, I was promptly booted out the door. Oh well, at least I had taken advantage of their toilet. Walking around all day sure gets your bowels going.
Having thwarted the Gallery’s no-magical-backpack policy, at least for a time, I felt emboldened to tackle Westminster Abbey and Parliament. By “tackle” I mean walk around and stare at the outsides of the buildings. I didn’t even bother trying to enter Parliament; I just assumed they wouldn’t let my bag in or, if they did, my pocket knife wouldn’t pass the security check. Oh well, I’d had enough indoors for one day. Standing for hours in museums really takes it out of you. I proceeded to cross the River Thames by flying machine (this I had stolen from the Science Museum and also stuffed in my magical backpack that is clearly used for stealing things from museums), heard Big Ben chime, got a close-up look at the London Eye, and boarded a train at Waterloo Station to meet my next host, John.
John is a kind, gentle soul, a historian and a teacher, and a very pleasant man to talk with. We had Italian food for dinner. How I do love Italian food. The next morning I was off to see the city again, but not before stopping at a cafe for my first full English breakfast of bacon, sausages, fried egg, and grilled tomato (three tomato halves; what do they do with the fourth?). The great thing was, I left my magical backpack at John’s house, so I didn’t have to worry about thief paranoia!
An acquaintance of mine in Ireland, Marília, had informed me that another CouchSurfer she knows was in the area. Josh, from the States, was exploring London with his fellow CS’ers, Cecilia (from Mexico) and Medhi (from Algeria, living in London). We toured the city together for the afternoon. That evening we split up and went our separate ways, and I stopped along the Thames to watch an outdoor play, a comedic rendition of Sherlock Holmes. I ask again, how jealous are you?
The next day my other new host, Chris, picked me up from John’s house, and we returned to Chris’s place to meet up with his other CouchSurfer, Sebastian, from Mexico. Chris is a certified masseur and a fantastic chef of Thai food. After the obligatory British cup of tea, we headed off to the city for more exploration! This time Chris got to play tour guide, and we had an awesome day of wandering. We visited a street market by the Thames for some meat pies for lunch, then took a train to Greenwich to seen the Prime Meridian. We walked across the Tower Bridge, visited China Town, and went to a pub during an afternoon downpour for a pint of English ale. In the evening Chris cooked us a wonderful green curry on rice and I contributed a tub of ice cream, making for a fantastic bachelor feast.
I stayed several days with Chris, during which I (we) did lots of exploring, relaxing, movie-watching, and even a little cooking. I visited the British Museum and saw, up close and personal, the Rosetta Stone (once again, I got myself in with the backpack and wandered around for two hours. I left the building to eat lunch and, when I returned, I was informed that I couldn’t enter with… the backpack. Huh.) We walked through Hyde Park and saw a swan with her little swanlings, and even one clever swanling sitting on mommy’s back. I even got to pay Lauren one more visit, all before leaving London. After a week in that great city it was time to move on, but the friends I met there made leaving difficult. Once again, the kindness and generosity of the people I meet has blown me away. On the morning of the 20th of June I said my goodbyes to the generous Chris and made my way to Victoria Station, where I boarded a bus bound for Rotterdam, Netherlands. I was finally going to Europe (or the “mainland” for all you UK/IOM/Irish folk who define your country as European; I’ve heard it both ways and don’t have any opinion myself), where people actually drive on the RIGHT (and I mean CORRECT) side of the road!