August 26, 2012

I arrived in London Heathrow on Saturday morning. My friend Elizabeth picked me up, and I am currently staying in her adorable home with her husband Pete and her almost-toddler Gracie. Elizabeth lives in Redbourn, which is a little village within commuting distance to London.

Though I had only slept for an hour on the plane, I wasnít the slightest bit tired when I arrived, so I dropped my things at the house and then we all went into St. Albanís for lunch. (Side note: My only visual frame of reference for foreign locales is from books and movies ó you may remember my admission that I expected South Africa to look like The Lion KingÖ because, you know, all of Africa is animated and full of talking animals ó anyway, I was delighted to find that St. Albans looks like a cross between Hogsmeade and Diagon Alley.)

After lunch, we strolled down to the cathedral, where there was conveniently a full choir singing Latin mass (they totally knew I was coming), and we then stopped in at Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, reportedly the oldest pub in all of England (an 11th century structure on an 8th century foundation). With its low ceilings, exposed beams, uneven floors, and whitewashed walls, I smilingly thought it looked just like the Green Dragon in Hobbiton (because Iím a dork).

It must be amazing to live within such vibrant history. I once thought that the house in which I grew up was old, and it is, by American standards (1780s). But the houses at the center of St. Albans? I donít know when they were built, but I do know they were occupied by the Dauphin and his troops in 1216. 1216.

By 10pm, I still wasnít tired BECAUSE I AM IMPERVIOUS TO JETLAG OR EVEN TIREDNESS, but I fell asleep anyway and woke up at 8am, bright eyed and bushy-tailed, BECAUSE I AM IMPERVIOUS TO JETLAG OR EVEN TIREDNESS.

Because Elizabeth is awesome, she made pancakes for breakfast, and because Pete is awesome there was Nutella on the table, and because Gracie is awesome there was wonderful breakfast entertainment.

Full of delicious pancakes, I was soon riding into London on the train, fighting the urge to continuously smile. I was so excited and felt so free and happy, but I didnít want to be the crazy person madly grinning to herself. But then I remembered that I dowant to be the crazy person madly grinning to herself, and stopped suppressing the urge. Combine this with the fact that I talk to myself on a regular basis, and look totally batshit crazy.

So far, I love traveling solo. Donít get me wrong ó I do like traveling with other people, but the appeal is entirely different. For example, my first stop upon entering the city was the Tower of London (you know, because nothing starts the day off like torture chambers). After gazing at the exterior of the building for a while and standing in line to purchase a ticket, however, I decided that I didnít actually feel like touring the Tower of London, so I stepped out of the line and got on a ferry down the Thames instead. I didnít have to take the feelings of my traveling partner into consideration to do this. I didnít have to explain my decision. I just did it. And it was so liberating. I may change my tune in a couple of weeks, but itís really great right now.

I got off the ferry and saw Big Ben!!! I mean, of course I saw Big Ben. Iím in London. But actually seeing something so iconic with my own eyes, something Iíve only ever seen in photographsÖ I donít know, I just tickled me. (Fun fact: Big Ben is the name of the hour bell for the clock. The Elizabeth Tower is the name of the tower.)

After looking up at Big Ben for awhile, I started wondering around the north bank of the Thames. My absolute favorite way to see cities is on foot, and I marveled at the architecture and the double-decker buses and the different police uniforms (I know that doesnít sound exciting, but it totally was). There were guards in funny costumes and horses and beautifully manicured gardens and taxi cabs that looked to be out of the 1940s. There was brick and granite and cobblestone. There were a million different people and a million different languages. So bright, so colorful, so clean.

I eventually made it up to the Waterloo Bridge (after randomly looking at a pretty doorway and discovering it was a side door to Scotland Yard ó Scotland Yard! ó which made me laugh out loud) and crossed the Thames to the National Theatre, where I had a ticket to a matinee. Hereís something: while crossing the bridge, I finally put my finger on why everyone keeps bumping into everyone else. When I was in Ireland, it for some reason amazed me that people kept to the left while walking on the sidewalk. It makes sense, as people drive on the left in Ireland, but it surprised and delighted me nonetheless. When I got to London ó where people also drive on the left ó I expected it to be the same. Much to my confusion, however, THERE IS ABSOLUTE SIDEWALK ANARCHY. I think this is because Central London is not just filled with English people. The Londoners are at least matched (if not outnumbered) by foreigners, most of whom drive on the right. THIS LEADS TO CHAOS. There are no rules. Walk left, cut right, cut left, jump out of the way, bump elbows. Itís an entertaining mess.

The National Theatre is a big old building on the South Bank of London, housing three gorgeous performance spaces. I honestly wasnít a huge fan of the play I saw (The Doctorís Dilemma by Bernard Shaw), but it was nevertheless impeccably produced and excellently performed. And it was nice to just be in a theatre, which always feels like home, no matter where I am in the world. And there was ice cream at intermission! And it was OK to bring it back into the theatre!

After the show, I took the Tube over to the Notting Hill Carnival, which takes place every summer over a three day period. As far as I could tell, the Carnival is primarily made up of thousands of drunk people randomly blowing on whistles, beer cans and jerk chicken all over the sidewalks, hundreds of police officers, and boarded-up storefronts. After walking around aimlessly for about half an hour (the whole thing feeling a bit post-apocalyptic), I finally asked a cop if there was any kind of central attraction I should see. He told me to walk over a few blocks to the parade route. So I headed in that direction.

Now, when I think of a parade, I imagine floats, marching bands, veterans in uniform, that sort of thing. But this parade ó as far as I could tell ó was entirely made up of 18-wheelers putting flatbeds of speakers, which were blaring Carribean music at insanely high decibel levels. And then, behind every truck, there were people walking in the road, blowing whistles. The occasional person was dressed in a Carnivale outfit (sequined bras, booty shorts, head dresses), but most people were just wearing street clothes. Perplexed, and concerned that my ears were going to start bleeding, I found a Tube stop and continued on.

I got off the train in Soho and walked to Covent Garden (an open-air market with lots of people and street performers) and then walked on to the West End, with its sloping streets, old and pristine buildings, bursts of color, and beautiful variations in texture. There are something like twenty-five theatres in the West End, but the marquis are smaller than in Times Square. And so, walking along the narrow streets, it was like coming upon little gems ó the Gielgud, the Haymarket, the New London, the Drury Lane.

By this time, it was getting dark and I thought my feet were going to fall off, so I decided to head back to St. Albans. The train got in at 9pm, and the streets were dark and sleepy, a far cry from the city. I thought I would get a bite to eat at the pub, so I set out for the long walk from the train station to the center of the village. I feel so comfortable in St. Albans, I think because I grew up in New England, where many of the villages are modeled on these Old England villages. Mossy brick, winding streets, cool air, night sky. I felt contemplative as I walked, a part of a Bradbury novel, or maybe Thorton Wilder, or maybe Dickens. Beautiful and happy and melancholy all at once.

And now, I am finally tired, and am off to sleep. More tomorrow.