Saturday, April 10, 2010

Cherrio, mate!

Happy late Easter to everyone. I had a three-day weekend (not Friday, but Monday--strange) and decided that I should make a trip up to London. It's close by but I doubt that I'll have another window of time to be able to visit before I leave. Even though May is full of plenty of bank holidays, they almost all fall on the weekend this year. How unfair! There goes my long weekend jaunts to the French or English countryside.

When I've taken the bus on previous trips, I've always had at least a stretch of 12 hours to waste on the bus. So even if I don't sleep the whole time, I still can sleep half of it and be okay to walk around the city the next day. Not so much for England, for a few reasons. The biggest being that it's really not that far away. In total, I think about 6 or 7 hours by car (90 minutes by train but I'm cheap). And hey, there's also a large body of water in between France and England. So we had to stop and get on a ferry to cross what the French call la Manche (the sleeve). So that blew an hour and a half of precious shut-eye. Also, the UK border control is almost as bat-shit crazy as their former colony across the pond. I don't know what it is about the English language but whatever country uses it seems to be overly concerned with security. I know we got attacked. I know that Britain had a bomb go off in their subway. I know Australia has body scanners for who knows what, but mannnnn seriously? It's 2am and I have to stand in line in TWO border controls--one for France and then one for the UK? And since I'm one of those dirty Americans without the coveted maroon-colored passport (EU), I had to fill out an extra form to prove that I wasn't going to kidnap small children or sell fake Prada bags on the streets or apply for British welfare. They asked me all kinds of questions, and my interrogator was curious as to why I was only staying for two days and was traveling by myself. Okay, lady, you got me! I'm a drug mule and I'm carrying a whole smorgasbord of drugs in my bum. Don't jostle me or I might die of a coke overdose! Nah. Not really. I gave that up. She seemed somewhat relieved by my official French visa and finally let me go on my way.

The ferry wasn't that cool. It was in the middle of the night and I was way tired, and the ferry was kind of gross. It felt like a riverboat casino from the 80's. Lots of little shops and whatnot. Everything payable in pounds, so I had to convert my money at the onboard bureau de change, with "no commisson," which I think is a trick. No one just gives money away for free, and their trading prices weren't at all close to as what I'd checked the day before. How is that legal? Oh well. Luckily, the euro is pretty strong right now against the pound. Makes me want to never go back to the shitty dollar exchange rates!

I finally got to sleep an hour before we got to London. I could feel the bus slowing down as we navigated through the south London streets at 5:30am, and I was so tired that I could barely open my eyes. Then we were at Victoria station, in the centre of London and voilĂ , trip over. Gah. I was so tired, and nothing was open. I couldn't take a nap at my hostel because check-in wasn't until 2:30pm, so I just dropped off my suitcase, drank lots of coffee, and walked around the barely-open Oxford street. Did some shopping (shoes are in my size!), drank some more coffee, went to a pharmacy to get some vitamins (the French don't believe in them), went to a bookstore to look around, rode around on a lot of buses. I love riding buses in cities I don't know very well. It gives me bearings for the city and I don't have to walk it all--which I like doing, too, but London is enormous. A few times, I thought I was going one way, but turns out was going the other way, but no big deal. Ended up in a few dodgy neighborhoods, but I just got out and walked across the street and took the next one back.
I know that it shouldn't be that hard to navigate London with the whole left-side driving thing, but it messed me up more than once. And even though the pavement is all clearly marked
<---LOOK LEFT or
I was still paranoid the whole weekend of getting hit by a ginormous red bus coming the wrong direction. I looked both ways at least seven times before crossing. Because a car might just creep up on you out of nowhere, you never know. There are quite a few one-way streets in London, so in that case, they actually are coming from the left, like in most other countries. So if ever in the UK, careful! Potential of getting killed from both directions.

It rained a bit this time, but I was actually pleasantly surprised that Saturday afternoon and most of Sunday, I could see a blue sky! SKY! In England! My last trip to the capital a few years back was totally ruined by incessant rain for four days. Awful. This time, though, I could see the city in the sunlight! Much better. I really do like the city. It's very European, but
kind of more modern and business-y looking. It actually reminds me a lot of Chicago. London, of course, had the chance to redo their whole city when it got burned, so it's got wonderful architecture, is well laid out and has plenty of public gardens.

And lets just talk for a second about British accents. I know that I'm being a typical American girl here, but I could probably just sit in a cafe all afternoon and sip coffee while listening to someone talk in an English accent. I tend to pick up accents pretty quickly, especially in my head. What I mean is that when I'm thinking, my thoughts get muddled with the accents, and when speaking, I find vowels slipping and saying things like "soh-ree" instead of "sar-ree" for sorry. If I lived in Britain, I wouldn't go as far as Madonna--speaking with a full-on English accent--but I know that my speech would become some crazy blend of American and English accents. It's like when I go to southern Missouri and come back using weird word tags like oh she has, has she? and words like keen and y'all. (Although I do not go as far as saying things like I reckon and youses and I might should go to the house. And I will always say pop instead of soda until the day I die.) I have a friend here in Paris that is American, but hasn't lived there for years. After going to college in Canada, South Africa, and Belgium, and working in South Korea and France, her accent is kind of a melange of everywhere. That's a world traveler for you!
St. James Park
Anyway. I finally witnessed the changing of the guards on Sunday morning. Last time I was here it got canceled twice in a row due to the rain. I had to wait in front of Buckingham Palace for an hour, but I was one row of people from the gates. And they happened to be French (I can't escape them!), so I talked to them a little bit and they let me sneak in for some photos. There were just masses of people. Craziness. I couldn't see everything, but I can tell you what happened: the guards changed. There. Now you know. Lots of marching band fanfare and anticipation, but overall, you know, kind of touristy. I felt so bad for the guards that have people taking pictures with them all day. I think I'd probably take a flask to work with me every day.

Natural History Museum
Went to a museum on Sunday afternoon, in South Kensington. Beautiful architecture. I walked through the exhibits and what's great about this museum is that even though it doesn't have all the originals of everything, it's had copies made of major things like skulls of a gazillion years ago, so it's really a complete history of the major things they've found around the world. It makes a prettttty good case for evolution. They recently opened the Darwin Centre, which is still getting filled with specimens.

Darwin Centre "Cocoon"
The two-story-high concrete structure houses a lot of specimens and also has research centers. I didn't walk around in the cocoon, but I'm not sure if it's open yet. The center itself just opened up last fall, and it's not totally filled. There were still lots of empty shelves in the back. In any case, it looks pretty cool. I'll have to return when it's all finished and get the whole evolution effect. Science rocks! (The chemistry equations, however, no thanks.)

Portabello Market, in Nottingham
Took the bus back on Sunday night to avoid paying for another night in the hostel. I wanted to stay an extra day in London, but the bus schedule was totally at the wrong times. I'd have gotten back on Tuesday morning at 6:30am and had to go straight to school from there. No bueno. At least I got two full days in the city, and had an extra day to recoup on Monday. I slept fine on the way back, go figure. Still had to get off in Dover to go through border control, but the French are much more laissez-faire about entry requirements. Visa? Check. Thud. Stamp. Next, please.

I'm quickly approaching my last vacation before I'm finished with teaching. One more week of classes and then I'm free for two weeks. The long stretch will be from May 3-June 30, the last day of my contract. Like I said, France usually gets a lot of bank holidays in May, but we're screwed this year. I think only one falls on a weekday. Boo. I'm likely going to visit my friend in Bern, Switzerland, and then I'll probably pop over to visit some old friends on the French/Swiss border from my first job in France. (Ha, I will NOT be visiting my former employers, aka the family from hell.) I really wanted to go to Barcelona for a few days, but not sure that it's going to be possible because the family in Paris needs me. I'm trying to negotiate a few more days of vacation because I'm not sure how much time (or money) I'll have right before I leave for the States in early July. Still deciding on next year, I'll be sure to write about it in the near future. Many decisions are coming up as I approach my quarter-century birthday.

In short, London is a beautiful city. And it was kind of like being home for a few days. English bookstores, Reese's Peanut Butter cups, cheap discount stores (think Dollar Tree)--what's not to love?

More photos here, although I was admittedly lazy this trip. (Too busy drinking Diet Coke and eating donuts.)