Its about 10pm on Thanksgiving evening (local time) and the bus from airport suddenly pulls over on the side of the freeway. When I get over the shock that the driver pulled over on the left side, I wonder why we’re not making our way from the airport in the middle of nowhere to the city we seek so desperately. The driver tells us something, and no one understands; not the Spanish speakers, not the French, not even the Americans. The driver’s accent is thick enough to completely destroy my understand of English. Waiting for the bus to get moving, I think back to how we got to this left side highway shoulder in England on Thanksgiving.
The promise of reunion and the excitement of seeing London brought my buddy Nick and I to London thanksgiving weekend. We chuckled at the irony of spending Thanksgiving in the very country the Pilgrims ran away from, but whats a study abroad student to do? We came to France to experience a new culture, not to drag our cultural baggage along with us. The thrill of exploration was much more important than a proper Thanksgiving. In order to save money (and a lot of it) we flew Easyjet into Luton airport instead of taking the train directly downtown. Luton is completely in the countryside, and does not deserve the title of a London airport. Regardless, round trip tickets were less than one direction of the train, so we figured any hassle worth it.
Getting off the plane, we saw a police officer at the front of the plane interrogating a darker skinned man saying “are you Mr. Yussein?” (I kid you not, that was his name) and the man responding that he didn’t speak English. He ended up walking away in cuffs, while Nick and I headed to customs, stoked on the fact that we may have survived a terrorist plot (he turned out to have smoked a cigarette in the plane bathroom – what an idiot). Customs brought real problems though. We were planning to sleep on my friend from UPS Trey’s floor. Trey studies at Queen Mary’s University, but I didn’t know it at the time. So we left the address section of the naturalization card blank. After an hour in line, we finally got to a customs agent, and she wasn’t having it. Most likely, she was wronged at American customs (I guess it is pretty hard for Europeans to get into the land of the free…) and yelled at us, sending us back to “figure it out.”
Luckily, before panic could set in, an American girl from Napa studying in Dijon that we had met came to our rescue, urging us to “stay with her” at least on paper. It was blatantly obvious, as we went through with the agent right next to the first lady, yet they let us in. However, that wasn’t until after an interrogation about the person we were staying with, why we were going back to Paris and not America (the concept of study abroad was way over this dood’s head) and how we were going to afford a weekend in London. Sheesh. It was like they didn’t want to let us into the country.
Regardless, we got through, witnessed the first of the painful exchange rate between dollars and pounds, eventually made it through the bus and the tube to Trey’s street. It was nearly 11 so we stopped at the first fish and chips place we saw. The chef was gracious enough to cook us a fresh batch, and soon we had over a foot of fried goodness each. It was a good introduction to the incredible lack of concern for health that the English seemed to have.
We started our next day with more unhealthy food, but one of my favorite parts of the trip. Unlike the French, who sort of pretend to eat breakfast, the English have a traditional breakfast that includes mushrooms, a tomato, bacon, sausage, baked beans, toast, hash-browns and a sunny side up egg that they insist is a fried egg (its not). Needless to say, I’m infatuated by the concept and the taste. Especially when paired with a double espresso.
All fueled up, we hopped on the Tube for some serious sightseeing. We attempted to see, along with every other tourist in London, the changing of the guard. We saw the guard, and Buckingham palace, and at least 15 iPads being used as cameras (once again, don’t do it), but I think we missed the actual ceremony. That was allright, because we still saw cool things. From there we walked in St. James Park, to the Ministry of Defense and Horse Guards. We didn’t have maps, so we turned right and happened to come to Big Ben. What do you know, it was noon, which was a cool time to be there. From there we check out Westminister Abbey (it was too expensive to go inside, they don’t care about their youth like they do in France I guess) and then we crossed over the Thames looking for lunch.
Walking through a Christmas market on the Thames, past the London Eye (also expensive but cool to see) we found Wahaca, a burrito shop recommended by a friend from Berkeley (hence good taste in burritos). We got over the misspelling of the name, and enjoyed our marvelous burritos, which gave a nostalgic feeling of content that only good Mexican food can. Another delicious coffee at the National Theatre and we were ready for museums.
After spending some time exploring the Modern bridge and the “beach” of the Thames, we went inside the Tate Modern. It is a really cool museum, and its permanent collection is free all the time, for everyone. That automatically makes it good in my book. They also had a great collection, organized thematically, but you would really need to take a lot of time to digest it all and read all the signs. That was time that we didn’t have, so we took in the modernity of it all and when we came out at 4:00 saw that it was pretty much nighttime. Weird northern cities…
We met up with Nick’s friends David, another great tour guide who took us to the Arsenal stadium, which was pretty cool. More on that later. After that we headed out for a night of English pubs and partying…
The next day, after a start of another English breakfast we went to the British museum. I had studied the architecture in class, which is simply Greek Revival with a ton of columns, but didn’t know what was inside. I was pretty awed and overwhelmed, and would need a couples of weeks to see it all. Sort of like the Louvre here in Paris. We got to see some works from The Disasters of War by Goya, a ton of SE Asian antiquities, all the Greek and Roman and Egyptian statues, ceramics, mummies and coffins and some contemporary African art. The British museum is also free, so that was awesome and it definitely needs one of ten visits back. After that we got some Indian food which was so delicious and actually spicy. By the time our lunch was over it was almost dark out. We went to Picadilly circus, which was absolutely disgusting in the number of tourists there were. We only went because we were close and wanted to see, but I just don’t understand why tourists are drawn to areas like that, there’s not really anything to see.
Then we saw Trafalgar square, where I marveled at the huge stone lions. Fun fact, the sculptor had never seen a lion, so he modeled that hind legs of the lions after his dog! Then we went into the National Gallery, which could have been my favorite part of the trip. A beautiful building, and free once again, the National Gallery has a really good collection of paintings. Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures, but the building was so ornate with different marble everywhere, exquisite hardwood floors, ornate wallpaper and more. My mind was blown most by the British painters. I’ve always known I’ve liked them, but seeing the works by Constable and Turner in person blew my mind. There usage of color and eye for detail is unbelievable.
Feeling sufficiently cultured we started drinking. We went to a pub called 12 Pins, which is known as an Arsenal pub. There we cheered, sang, drank beers and watch the game with hundreds of Englishmen. It was a great experience and made my like watching soccer, pardon me, futbol, a lot more but Arsenal disappointed the whole pub with a tie. Luckily, no one got to mad or fought.
While watching the game, we realized how truly different British English is from American. First of all, they really do curse all the time. The C word, which makes me nearly cringe, is totally acceptable. And every sentence has some sort of curse. Even walking around the city or sitting on the Tube we’d hear a lot or cursing, and a lot of conversations we couldn’t understand. It was nice to be able to communicate with everyone so easily, but strange to have their English be almost a foreign language.
I liked London a lot, but prefer Paris. I don’t know if I can ever get used to the cars on the left side of the road and the Tube is not very enjoyable. Its way more packed, slower and super expensive. Things in London seemed a lot more spread out. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to check out a lot of the smaller neighborhoods that I wanted to, but next time for sure. The other problem was I felt like I was only putting unhealthy things in my body the whole time. Beer and fried foods were what we saw the most, which is a little frightening. After growing up with California cuisine and living in Paris, its not ideal for my stomach as good as it tastes.
Regardless of the nit-picky details, London is wonderful, even if customs didn’t want us in. Contrary to their worries, I was ready to return to Paris, which has become my home without a doubt. But there will be another London adventure at some point, we shall see when…