Monday, May 30, 2011

London: “Where is London Bridge?" "We’re ON London Bridge.”

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve always wanted one thing: to travel to Europe. I don’t know why, but I’ve always been drawn to movies and literature set abroad and I’ve always fantasized about strolling down the rues of Paris and sipping wine under the Tuscan sun. When I grew up I was drawn to its history, culture and art.

Finally, I decided to do something about it. I worked hard, saved, and just booked it. No one else could go with me at the time and since I’ve seen Hostel 1 and 2 as well as Taken, I wasn’t gong to backpack through Europe alone. I decided on a tour group that catered to young 20/30somethings.

The Mission: 5 countries in 2 weeks. London, Paris, Lauterbrunnen (Switzerland), the French Riviera: Nice and Monaco, and Italy.
The Agency: Topdeck “Western Spirit” tour.
Artillery: Passport, about 1000 Euro spending money, and a Global SimCard

The Flight: I boarded the plane a nervous mess; it was my first overnight flight and there were so many variables that could go wrong: terrorist retaliation for Bin Laden’s death (occurred a few days before my flight), hardware trouble, snakes. With that in mind, I claimed my window seat and met my neighbor for the next 8 hours: a cute Brit with an English accent to boot! But of course, while I was celebrating the next 8 hours of what would surely involve him reciting Shakespeare, singing The Beatles, and pouring me a spot of tea, he immediately asked me if I could switch places with his friend. I obliged (I cannot say no to an adorable accent) and found myself sitting near the bathroom next to a less adorable American in his late forties.

Fast forward 8 hours, and I was so glad I’d switched. I made fast friends with the American and learned he was headed for Prague. Taking full advantage of the complementary wine, I began chatting up the passengers around me: learning where they were from and headed.  I, of course, had Taken in the back of my mind and remained vague. And through my schmoozing, I met an American guy around my age that was backpacking through Europe and playing his trip by ear. I’ll call him Mr. T.

By the time we landed, Taken was long forgotten. Mr. T and I bonded over our American sensibilities, and since were both alone in London, we decided to stick together. Best decision ever! The minute I get off the plane I felt as if I’d been drop kicked out of a chopper into the wild; I can’t read a map, have no comprehension of public transportation, and realize I don’t understand a word British people are saying. Believe me, they don’t all sound like Colin Firth playing Mr. Darcy. More like Colin Firth in “The King’s Speech”.

While I threw my map to the floor and wailed to the heavens, “Does anyone enunciate in the country?” Mr. T took control of reigns. He grabbed the map and my hand and led me, like a frightened child, to the “Tube”. After an hour ride through the slums of the UK, I arrived at King’s Cross, none the wiser and still in need of a navigator. 8AM on a Monday morning meant the streets were bustling and nobody had time for my “lost tourist” act.

My first impression of London: It was sunny, warm, and eclectic. Everything was green vine, red brick, and grey stone. Every building seemed to have its own agenda and personality. The townhouses had this quirky look to them and there was every selection of ethic food you could imagine.

I was in London! I had to keep saying it aloud wistfully. London! I had no time to stand around looking lost while Mr. T rubbed his eyes and complained about needing a nap. I needed to see it all, and I only had one day. Jetlag be damned!

We threw our things into our Hostel. Let me note that I was expecting a dark prison cell infested by torture porn enthusiasts and Eastern European thugs. What I got was a quaint looking, 200 year old converted courthouse that was as sunny and clean as its inhabitants. The employees were super friendly and from all over the world. They couldn’t wait to find out where I was from, where I was going, and to share their own experiences.

I grabbed my jet-lagged Mr. T and got back to the London streets, ready to see it all.

London in a day: Thank god I purchased a day pass for the Tube. You can pretty much get anywhere in that city in 5 minutes. Buckingham Palace disappointed but the massive Victoria monument did not. Hyde and Regent Park convinced me that the British call any strip of grass a park and Westminster, oh Westminster! Big Ben did not disappoint.

Surprisingly, I packed in a lot for one day on no sleep and jetlag. If I hadn’t run out of money, I probably would have gone to Abby Road, but alas, I spent my last pence paying for the worst excuse for fish n’ chips and buying $12 restaurant water. I should’ve opted for Indian.

Out of pounds, we headed to our hostel to finally shower and clean up and made plans to re-group at a pub for a real English pint. I found out that many of my tour mates were staying at the same hostel and linked up with a few of them: a group of Aussie girls who were extremely jetlagged from a day’s flight and layover in Dubai. They had little patience for my American enthusiasm and it pretty much set the tone for the first half of our tour.

Day 1 was counted as a success. I actually didn’t get my pint but I did have my English beer, made a friend, and passed my first test as a first time traveler: How to find a cute guy to take you everywhere so that you don’t have to read maps yourself.

I exchanged numbers with Mr. T for future navigation services and went to sleep early; knowing that the next time I went to bed it would be in Paris.


SD said...

I loved this entry! It's very well written and enchanting to read. I loved the story, especially your overall impression of brits: incomprehensible accents, a twisted idea of adequate park space, and awful cooks. I look forward to reading your future entries, and I think your blog is a great success!


Anonymous said...

I enjoyed reading your very lively account regarding London, however, as a Londoner I felt quite offended by how you described Hyde Park and especially Regent's Park as just some green space. The Royal Parks especially Regent's Park are not just any old inadequate green patch of grass. Clearly, you need more time to explore these two iconic parks, perhaps you only saw the entrance of the said parks. Regent's Park has the most beautiful rose garden called Queen's Mary Garden with its own outdoor theatre, not to mention the many other gardens, waterways, and even palatial mansions within this park alone. Kensington Palace (Princess Diana's official home, and now William and Kate's official London residence) is in Hyde Park. The only park that's actually "just a patch of green" is Green Park (appropriately named) near Buckingham Palace. the English take their parks and even their gardens seriously, I assure you. After living across Central Park for two years, one of the things I actually missed about London are the Royal Parks with its polished sensibilities and elegant landscape architecture, and yet I would never call Central Park just "any strip of grass".

Lish said...

You could be absolutely right. I did not really explore the park very much. I just breezed through and possibly, I didn't really get past the entrance. I was so underwhelmed by what I saw but perhaps I should give it another chance. Let's hope I have another chance to visit London soon! Thanks for your reply