“I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award me on that day.”
2 Timothy 4:7-8
They drive cars the size of jellybeans.
They drive on the opposite side of the road.
Their newspapers are all written like American tabloids.
They all wear black coats.
They calmly accept paying to be sealed in metal projectiles and hurled around rapidly underground.
They eat either cucumbers or watercress on their sandwiches.
They calmly charge ?40 per night for a room little bigger than the bed it contains.
They have a museum full of portraits.
They charge money to use public toilets.
Water isn’t free in restaurants.
They have video cameras watching you everywhere, and I’m not kidding.
Elevators are called lifts, the subway is called the tube, and an underground walkway is a subway.
They have a glass bathroom in front of a museum.
They smoke cigarettes from packs that are covered with anti-smoking warnings (“Smoking will kill you and is harmful to others. Please seek help to quit smoking.”) – and they all seem to smoke!
The Scots sell Scotch tape in their tourist shops.
We’re back! It was a wonderful week… Where to start? I left Friday, March 5th, at 2:40 or so. Arriving at Logan about an hour later, enormous hordes of college-age people appalled me, especially the line for American Airlines that stretched alarmingly long down the concourse. Thankfully, after standing in that line for only a little while, I investigated further and discovered a special line for those of us taking the flight to London – and I was only the second person to discover that joyful fact! Needless to say, I was checked in ridiculously early and doubly pleased at the fact that I’d managed to bring only carry-on luggage with me! While I waited, I checked the news on my cell phone and found with glee that Martha Stewart had been convicted. It’s hard to sorry for an almost-billionaire who lied to save herself $52,000. The plane boarded, and I found myself seated next to an exceedingly loquacious sophomore from BU; we talked sporadically during the duration of the long, long flight. When we debarked it was Saturday March 6th. The kind persons hustled all the Americans into an exceedingly long line, which made me wonder: how many Americans are there in London at one time, on average? Seemed like half of Massachusetts was in the line to have our passports checked – a process not expedited by the fact that only two checkers were on duty at the time. Needless to say, I zoned out and answered the questions (No, I wasn’t a terrorist, no I didn’t want to stay in Britain illegally, no I didn’t want to sell drugs to their innocents, I was on vacation to see my long-lost husband, etc)… zipped through the baggage claim, not needing to claim any baggage, and Woo! There was Ian, in his spiffy English hat – my Ian! I’ll skip the sappy part, which lasted for probably three hours after we reclaimed each other… Suffice it to say, we felt and acted like we were first dating again, only it was of course infinitely better since we could take advantages of those privileges granted to married couples.
Enough said there, moving on. Frankly, the first day felt ridiculously long: possibly because I didn’t sleep a wink on the flight over and barely any the night before, and was suddenly required to walk – walk – walk – everywhere. First of all, we took the tubes (“Hey, keep it on the road, man! We’re on the tubes back here!” – what’s the quote from?) to Victoria Station, from whence our “hotel” was a brief walk away. I put “hotel” in quotes to emphasize the non-hotel qualities thereof: a shared toilet which had never felt the touch of a scrub brush, a bed that felt like chicken-wire stretched taught on a wooden frame, pillows akin to plywood, tattered and ageing curtains of questionable origin, and the room’s overall area, which was to our bedroom here in Worcester what Rhode Island is to Australia. I did manage to squeeze my two bags into the room and we decided that outside was the place for us. As a result, we walked everywhere in tourist London. We saw the Tower of London, the Thames River for a very long time, the Tower Bridge, London Bridge (the new one, very boring), Buckingham Palace, several museums whose names I forget – we saw William Blake’s art and it was about on par with his poetry; take that as you will – saw the glass bathroom, Green Park and a couple of other parks, lots of the inside of tubes, Big Ben and the Parliament building, and lots of other tourists. Best of all Ian had found the White Hart pub, possibly unrelated to Tales from the White Hart, but still thrilling to me. We took pictures. The whole time I spent in the UK I didn’t want to say a word because I felt so conspicuously American, and though my clothes didn’t match those of other people anyway since Seattle’s idea of a nice raincoat runs along bright blue lines, I still felt extra-awkward because of my accent. However, I felt better after we saw a highly amusing play, the “Complete Works of William Shakespeare, Abridged”. Three actors did it all themselves, and to fit everything in they condensed all his comedies into one, ran through “MacBeth”’s highlights in ridiculous Scottish accents, and generally carried on ridiculously. Ian estimated that 20% of their acting was improv, and I had to agree, for they interacted constantly with the audience. I enjoyed the show very, very much, especially their bringing “Hamlet” into a 30 second scene in which everybody dies and that’s it. They also did that scene backwards, which was especially amusing when the actor playing Ophelia reverse-drowned himself by spewing a mouthful of water all over the stage. That day ended early, right around 9.00 London time, and that was fine with me.
Twelve hours later I awoke feeling infinitely more normal – and happy, for I hadn’t dreamed the last day. Our second day in London we spent rather like the first: walking around, seeing sights. I’m going to have to stop doing days eventually here because everything went in such a whirl of walking and seeing things, and I didn’t write anything down, that I can’t remember everything quite right now. The second day we went to Merton, the focus of Ian’s project: he showed me Wimbledon Common, a big open space, and I liked it very much. It’s somewhat like Marymoor Park but wilder and somehow distinctly British – and we ate at Weatherspoon’s, the pub Ian and his group frequented for lunch every day. Exceedingly mediocre food, but that seems somewhat English as well. You don’t go to Britain for the food unless you like cucumbers, which I don’t. Merton seemed a mix of not very nice and nice areas. Happily we caught a bus to Wimbledon Common, and it was a double-decker! So inadvertently I got to take a double-decker bus and act like it was no big deal because everybody else took it with a grain of salt. They’re quite common in London, and also in Edinburgh as it turns out. Still, I had a great time sitting up in the top and looking out the front top window. Also, it started raining while we were out there so in the hopes of shelter Ian and I scooted to a windmill… which sadly didn’t open until April. That’s when the Ferguson-tartan scarf he bought me began to smell woolly (which is better than cigarette-smoky, so I took what I could get: wet wool).
Other things we saw: Primrose Hill, which along with Green Park ranked among Ian’s favorites, and frankly I enjoyed that one very much too. It had some stunning views of London, nearly panoramic, because London is nearly flat. A hill even as low as Primrose Hill thus commands fantastic views, which we enjoyed. Regent’s Park is beautiful as well, and because the weather had begun warming up daffodils bloomed where a month before on Ian’s birthday only barren dirt showed. Also crocuses popped out among the grass just growing wild, a lovely purple-and-white chaos. Birds filled Regent’s Park (I think it was that one), and by filled I mean they were everywhere. Ian and I stood on a footbridge and watched some rather large and odd-looking ducks follow each other around in perfect lines. They moved in multiples of three, which makes you wonder if they figured out multiplication before we did or if not, what they did before we invented multiplication? Birds flew and swam everywhere, including two large black swan-like birds that were making a large, not-black nest and three ducks that inexplicably huddled closely among some low, leafy plants. Indeed, we found a little island devoted entirely to the birds, and which the park keepers closed to public during mating season. Very discreet of them, if you ask me. Oh, and we walked by where Ian lived during his project, the IES building. He felt strange seeing it again, but I was glad to be able to walk the route he took to the tube station every day and be able to listen to his happy explanations/comments as we saw familiar sights.
Also we went to the British Science Museum, which is full of all sorts of science-y neat stuff. We learned that I’m something like 52 kilograms fully dressed, and all sorts of things about medical technology. Also they had a really, really amazing exhibit on optics which Mom would have given a limb to take her class to see. My favorite thing was to demonstrate polarized light; they made a model train bridge out of clear plastic over which a model train drove. As the train drove over you could see the changing stress patterns in the bridge because of how the light was polarized. Also they had lots of stuff with lasers and lenses. We looked at the British Museum, too, and wanted to buy a “map of antiquity” (fake old map), but they were rather out of our price range. I actually saw the Rosetta stone though, and touched its replica. I could see how that was an amazing find. We looked at Greek and Babylonian sculptures, part of the friezes from the Parthenon, at the print gallery and at some Eastern sculptures of Buddha. The British Museum, however, is coolest because it’s comprised of four buildings joined into a square with a courtyard in the middle—I mean big buildings, where one alone would be remarkable. In the courtyard they had the reading room, which was cylindrical and capped with a beautifully painted (inside) dome of sky blue and gold. And the books! Well, that was impressive, but bridging the gaps between buildings was an enormous glass ceiling. It was, frankly, astounding. The four buildings were so big, and the reading room enormous as well, and overarching it all this glass roof. Wow.
That night the somewhat unthinkable happened: our source of money stopped working. Ian had thus far withdrawn money from a special account that charged him only $1 to withdraw money from any ATM in the United Kingdom; suddenly it just didn’t work. That evening we barely restrained our panic, then calmed down enough to thank God I’d brought my Washington Mutual card and my family’s Alaska Airlines Visa: if I hadn’t, we would truly have had no source of money, and we still had several very large charges to pay, namely the ?120 for our bed and breakfast in Edinburgh and ?50 for our last night in London. Don’t multiply by two, because that will give you the dollar amounts we had to pay for those places. We withdrew ?200 from the WaMu account, enough to pay for the whole Edinburgh trip, and breathed a little easier. The last night we put on hold in an effort to enjoy our fish and chips as well as the following days. However, the rest of the trip was shadowed with doubt regarding our financial situation, for the WaMu account didn’t have that much in it and withdrawing large volumes of money in pounds concerned us both. Using the Alaska Air credit card would indebt us to my family even more, an option we did not want to take.
On Tuesday we went to Edinburgh, and Ian worried greatly about the travel. He’s very conscientious about wanting things to work out so on top of the money horror, he worried deeply about our both surviving London’s morning commute and such. There were huge crowds on the tubes for some reason when we left to go to King’s Cross St. Pancras (their names for things are also very strange; Ian’s favorite is Cockfosters. I just goggled at the amazingness of actually being in Paddington Station, or Kensington Gardens, or Piccadilly Circus, any of these places I’d read so about), but all the same we and all our luggage emerged safely and quite early to the station. The train ride to Edinburgh was beautiful, and I could begin to see why Wordsworth raved about being brought up in the country. Frankly, I would like to have been brought up in that countryside. Finally I understand hedgerows too: they plant hedges along wooden fences so that they grow along the fence. When the wood rots away, you’re left with perfectly straight hedges just where the fence was left. Very clever! …Also seeing sheep grazing in fields really struck me, since we don’t see much of sheep in the United States. I did enjoy the train ride, though it took over five hours (“We have been delayed 45 minutes by trouble on the tracks at Station X”) and we sat across the dinky train table from a young child, her mother, and her father. Seemed a bit crowded over on their side.
Edinburgh should be named the Windy City – but it’s infinitely more wonderful than Chicago. Upon arriving we straightaway found our bed and breakfast, a wonderful charming row house possibly built before America was even invented. The only drawback was you had to drag your huge, heavy bags up a nearly interminable spiral staircase; that’s the nature of a building that’s an up-and-down design quite unlike our sprawling American messes. I can’t gush enough about the B&B;, so I’ll just stop now: suffice it to say that compared to the last place it was heavenly. The breakfasts were so filling—sausage, “bacon” (if you can call flaccid, lightly grilled bits of ham bacon), eggs, beans, cereal, toast, and fruit—that Ian and I forwent lunch altogether and subsisted on premade cucumber sandwiches that train stations seem to specialize in. Generally the buildings looked older than those in London, but I have this feeling that people in London periodically scrub their buildings to make them look prettier, while in Edinburgh any of the exhaust and dirt stays as it sticks. We saw the tourist part of the city, walked up big hills that they don’t have in London and whose names I have forgotten along with many other names. One had an old observatory at the top, along with a half-built neo-Classical monument that apparently ran out of money (an easy thing to do, the pound being worth what it is!), and another building whose use I couldn’t fully comprehend. We walked up that hill the night we arrived, just looking around and stretching our legs.
Wednesday was our full day in Edinburgh, and we worked to make it quite full—a real feat, since we trekked everywhere on foot and Edinburgh’s joys tend to be rather far stretched out. We went and looked at, but not in, Edinburgh Castle… ?10 a head to get in made it that or our dinners for the rest of the trip. It’s an amazing sight, this heavily fortified old building perched dauntingly on the very edge of a crag. It looks impenetrable. The whole old part of the city seems to focus on it and around it, and the Castle makes those newer “modern” glass buildings look shabby and cheap. There’s a lovely sunken park along the main road from which you see great views of the castle as well as long sweeping green fields dotted with flowers and trees. They also have a “floral clock” for no adequately explained reason; it is exactly what it sounds like: a working clock laying set into a bit of hillside and on it are planted low ground plants. The hands move and really keep time. I took a picture because I thought Deborah would like to see it, and after all, how often do you see a working clock made of flowers? The day really started with our climbing a rather steep crag to the top, Arthur’s Seat. The steepness reminded me of Tiger Mountain because it was unrelenting; but when you reached the top you could see from one end of Edinburgh to the other, and out across the water as well. I wish we could have seen more Scottish countryside, for what we got to spend time in I enjoyed very much. Tired but happy we trudged back up and looked in literally every tourist shop on the King’s Mile in search of gifts for Ian’s family (and were generally successful, considering our tight budget). Eventually we really felt we’d worn out much of Edinburgh, so we just wandered around and got the feel of the “real” city. My assessment: like any city, has both seedy parts and safe parts. Stick to the safe parts and you’ll enjoy yourself very much.
Frankly, after that the trip seemed like mostly traveling. We traveled back to London Thursday morning after a deliciously filling breakfast prepared by Irene and her black poodle Murphy (though I doubt he did much of the cooking). This time we sat “backwards”—facing the rear of the train. It made me rather motion-sick to have the landscape rolling by in the wrong direction like that. I read my first “Metro,” the free tube paper, and found it quite tabloid-like. We got back and had difficulty at the hotel, for we’d had to use the Alaska Air credit card and that left me feeling blue and indebted even more deeply. On the bright side, we spent time in Paddington Station, which will always have a place in the hearts of those of us who know Paddington Bear. The night passed both quickly and slowly, for neither of us slept well but we had to leave at 6.00 anyway—which we did with alacrity. The tubes were crowded with people going to Heathrow, but generally we skimmed through various checks and all went well. Lines long, but not terrible, and the British were wonderfully efficient about everything, putting my last Friday’s experiences to shame. Every line was well organized and everything was clearly marked. We said goodbye to the United Kingdom at 10:30 this morning, arriving (oddly enough) at 12:30 in the afternoon in Logan International Airport.
It was snowing in London when we left, and it was snowing here when we arrived. A somehow fitting transition, although when we got our long-overdue gas bill–$596, of which we accrued $171 this month—I bemoaned all the snow. But London…London was cold, blustery, and somewhat like Seattle. It was beautiful, but dirty; the tubes impressed me with their efficiency in people-moving while the people themselves distressed me with their incessant cigarette-gasping. It is full of wonderful parks and I wish every city had so many well-cared for places: even special private garden-parks for residents of the street, since living in row-houses you miss out on the whole backyard experience. The prices appalled me because of the exchange rate. Overall, I’m honestly glad to be home and back to what I know, despite all the positives of London. Though it’s a place to visit and be amazed at, given the choice I’d return to Edinburgh over London any day.
And for those of you who are picture fiends, don’t worry. We’ll sort our 500-odd pictures and post a few for your enjoyment.
– KF –