Recently, Jen took her first ever trip outside the United States. She went to England, stayed in some Airbnbs, had some adventures, ate some amazing food, met some lovely people, and of course, came back with some stories. Please enjoy Part One of this multi-part series chronicling her tale abroad, along with the requisite musings.
Incidentally, this trip was also the reason Jen slacked off on her Horror Movie Month posts. Bad form, Jen. Bad form.
Plenty of smart, photogenic people have taken loads of selfies at England’s most famous landmarks, so I will restrict this travelogue to actual personal thoughts, including things I found fascinating and/or hilarious. Off we go!
Some Back Story
For the first twenty years of my life, international travel was something that happened to other people – People Of Means, such as those who go snowskiing in Aspen or own 5-bedroom vacation homes and staffs to clean them. When my lower-middle class family took vacations, we visited other family and crashed in guestrooms, stayed in inexpensive hotels or vacation cabins with minimal plumbing, or went to theme parks.
In my twenties, a lot of my friends traveled. Some of them lived abroad in study programs for weeks or even months at a time. Others traveled with their parents, and still others simply packed their bags and went with friends or significant others, staying in hostels or sleeping overnight in train stations or campsites. This latter group convinced me that it was possible for a country mouse like me to travel abroad, too.
Some day, I said to myself. Someday.
Years passed. While in relationships in my thirties, my significant other and I would say we would travel overseas some day. In fact, on one occasion my partner of ten years finished reading an early novel draft of mine and said it was so good I’d sell it in a few months and we could use the money to go to Europe. Obviously that never happened, but I have always appreciated his enthusiasm and confidence in my writing. Other relationships came and went, but the traveling never seemed to happen and my thirties slipped away. We never had the money, or the time. Eventually ‘we’ became ‘I’ and has been that way for a while.
Since I would be turning 40 this year, I decided I was done waiting, and (to quote The Shawshank Redemption) it was time to get busy living, or get busy dying.
In February, with tax refund money and some careful saving, I started planning. Since it would be my first trip out of the country, I decided on England. I’ve been an Anglophile since age 5, so the language, culture, and practices would be somewhat familiar. I planned to stay in Airbnbs, and Achariya linked me to The Landmark Trust, a European organization that offers everything from cute little cottages to full, honest-to-god CASTLES. Haunted castles! I couldn’t afford that this trip, but some day. Someday.
Also, and this is probably dumb, I liked the fact that England is quite small. Everything is sort of close to each other, and so I imagined it would be easy to get around and see a lot of things. This would turn out to be both sort of true and hilariously naive.
I looked forward to the trip as the year passed, but as summer wound down I started to get cold feet. I got up a few mornings hoping for some reason to cancel. I suppose it was just the usual anxiety; thankfully my anxiety has lessened over the years to a low drone, so worries like What if I have a bad time? What if something bad happens? are almost drowned out by the louder mantra of What if everything goes fine and you have a great time? SHUT UP ANXIETY YOU ARE NOT WELCOME HERE.
Eventually the bags were packed, the cat was with my folks, the house was clean, and it was time to go to bed. Understandably, I barely slept.
Crossing the Pond
The actual day of, I repacked my bags for the umpty-hundredth time and made sure I was carrying nothing that TSA could misconstrue as a weapon, nor had I absentmindedly packed any bottles of molecular acid or firearms. I called an Uber, and was on my way.
I flew from Orlando to New York, and then New York to Heathrow, on an overnight flight of about eight hours. I figured I’d sleep well, and this was grossly inaccurate as I had an aisle seat. Sleeping while dangling into the aisle didn’t work (kept getting hit by the drinks cart and people on their way to the bathroom), but I had no right to complain because my tiny elderly seatmate was flying to India from Heathrow and she was a trooper.
The Eagle Lands
Woozy from lack of sleep and emotionally drained after making the poor decision to rewatch Inside Out, I arrived in London about 11, GMT. Getting off the plane and through Heathrow was incredibly easy. I figured it would be, since the English are pros when it comes to moving large numbers of people around efficiently. They’ve been working on crowd-control since the bronze age.
My Airbnb host recommended the Underground (or tube, pronounced ‘CHEWB‘) to their place in Fitzrovia, a neighborhood in Central London. Once my stuff was dropped off, I decided to get something to eat. While wandering, I found The Smuggler’s Tavern and had my first English meal. MY GOD.
Tipping, Shoe Transport, and Geography Class with the Locals
First, meet the Ugly American.
“Ugly American” is a pejorative term used to refer to perceptions of loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant, and ethnocentric behavior of American citizens mainly abroad, but also at home. Although the term is usually associated with or applied to travelers and tourists, it also applies to U.S. corporate businesses in the international arena
Because I was terrified of exemplifying the stereotype of the Ugly American, I went above and beyond when it came to interacting with serve staff and basically everyone. I listened. I spoke softly. I asked questions. I begged pardon when I didn’t understand. I apologized profusely when I did something wrong. At all times, I broadcast the low-fi message ‘Please be patient with me, I am trying my best but I am American.’
And I tipped. GOD, how I tipped! Even when I wasn’t expected to. Generally, you tip 10-15% to wait staff. I tipped 20 because that’s just how I roll, but honestly I never had any bad service. I also felt pretty cool leaving a couple pound coins on the table, like I was a character in a D&D game. “For your troubles” I murmured, slinging my sword (backpack) up and heading on to the next adventure as coins tap on the table. Also, English folding money is very colorful and anyone who says it’s confusing is not to be trusted.
My backpack turned out to be one of my smarter ideas. Everyone in London uses some kind of similar bag for carrying dress shoes and water bottles. Sneakers or walking shoes are worn in the street, and then people switch, just like in New York. My backpack held snacks, the various mementoes I bought, my water bottle, and my raincoat. It also made me look slightly more local than wandering around with a huge plastic Union Jack bag. Although my tendency to stare up at the architecture (so much! so beautiful!) probably identified me as a tourist WAY before opening my mouth did.
Most places search your bags. When the security people found out I was American they always joked about all the guns and pepper spray I had brought with me. We would have a good laugh, and they’d ask me where I was from. I’d say Orlando, and they would ask if that was in Miami. I said no, it’s in Florida, and they would say ‘isn’t Florida in Miami?’ This would be a recurring theme – people were familiar with Miami, and have vaguely heard of Florida. So basically I walked the land providing short lessons in American geography.
(Non)Rainy Night in Soho, Minus Ghosts
My first night in London I wandered down to Oxford Circus. Although I’d bought a ticket for the Tower of London, I wouldn’t have got there in time to see anything, so that will just have to happen on the next trip. But! I saw something that was just as awesome.
If you like reading about hauntings and the paranormal, you’ve heard of No. 50 Berkeley Square. It was once considered one of the most haunted houses ever, and was so terrifying that people were driven maaaaad by the horrors within, or even died of fright. In recent years the owners of the house have tried very hard to dissuade people of the notion that the house is haunted, since they’ve never encountered anything unusual during their tenure there.
I’ve read about No. 50 since I was 8 years old – in fact I had quite a few sleepless nights imagining that ghosts could just hop continents and find me. Over and over I read about No. 50, but the idea of ever visiting it was as remote as walking on the moon. However, while fooling around on Google Maps I realized I could actually visit this font of my childhood nightmares – yay!
Although I saw no revenants, I still felt satisfied. Berkeley Square! In the flesh!
I wandered back to my Airbnb, passing through Oxford Circus and seeing things like Boots (sort of like Target), the Muji Store (also sort of like Target? Kind of?), and a whole lot of London street life.
Rummaging in the Empire’s Swag Bag
My first full day in London, I visited The British Museum, that bastion of imperialist hoarding. Throughout much of history the English ventured forth to new locales, and much like giant bipedal raccoons, absconded with anything valuable while leaving behind literal and figurative messes. Americans have done the same thing, so I can’t say too much. Anyway, in recent decades the British Museum, embarrassed by the attitudes of their predecessors, has been giving back a lot of the treasures, and doing a slow motion apology to the rest of the world. Not too much though, since they’ve still got the lion’s share of the good stuff, but just like any recovery process, admitting there’s a problem is the first step.
In this pic you can see a coin on my necklace. When my parents visited England in 1999 (international travel started happening to them when I moved out of the house, coincidentally) they brought me back some treasures from the museum gift shop. That coin on my necklace was one of them – it’s a reproduction of one of the denarii that Julius Caesar minted after conquering and returning from Gaul (France). I had hoped to find the original on display so I could take a pic with it, but it was in storage. Bummer. Maybe next time!
Here are a few more pictures of things I thought remarkable enough to include.
Caption says it all. I heart this so much. PREDATORY. I want to work at the British Musuem writing captions. Hell, I’d do it for free.
This sculpture of a strong woman fascinated me. She was strong, but not perfectly cut with zero body fat. Such images of women seem rare, to me. I’d never heard of Omphale before, but apparently she figures in a Heracles myth – he lived with her for a year as her house-husband in order to pay off a debt, during which she wore his iconic lion-skin while he spun cloth and kept house. Once the debt was paid off they got married and went on adventures together. So – #lifegoals, basically.
The sculpt is a scientific imagining, based on the painting behind it. He’s as beautiful as any of the Roman Emperors immortalized in marble, but he’s not as famous because of whitewashing. Museum basements are full of things like this that are slowing seeing the light of day as their value is being recognized. But many, many more have been destroyed because of sociopolitical prejudices.
The Sutton Hoo helmet is special to me because a picture of it was on the copy of Beowulf I read in AP English Lit my Junior year of high school. That was my first AP class, and it was the first time that school really, really became interesting to me in terms of coursework. My teacher had us read Beowulf (the Rebsamen version), John Gardner’s Grendel, Iris Murdoch’s The Green Knight, and Tolkien’s Sir Gawain and The Green Knight. I was sort of aware of postmodern fiction and intertextuality, but I’d never encountered it in school. Also, Sutton Hoo is mentioned in my favorite TV show, The Detectorists, and so visiting the museum was thrilling for that reason too.
Which reminds me! I’m pretty sure that this shop:
…is where Lance visits. I can’t remember the context (The Xmas episode about the curse?) but it looks a LOT like it. I didn’t go in, but I am pretty sure that’s the one. I am also too lazy to look that up right now.
Biology – Of the Types Fascinatingly Dead and Horribly Alive
The second day in London, I visited the Natural History Museum. Most of it was amazing but my enthusiasm was dulled by 1. HUGE crowds of school children and families, 2. Menstrual cramps so painful I almost passed out a few times. This is normal for me, my doctors say it isn’t PCOS, Midol does nothing, and I am afraid to start taking pain medication. It’s just my own biology betraying me on a monthly basis. But I still took LOADS of pictures and was able to appreciate some of the skeletons and models. Like this!
I will admit to also liking the Geology wing because of the lack of children, since they find rocks boring. There were less crowds and some benches. Sweet, sweet benches.
I love dinosaurs and natural history. I wish I could have spent more time in that museum, possibly while alone.
As an American who has traveled a bit within my own country, I feel confident saying that my countrymen can’t handle spaces open to crowds below like that. In the US there’d be a guard or some kind of netting to keep people from throwing sippy cups or MAGA hats over the railing. Or maybe I’m just thinking of Floridians. Florida Man, definitely. I love my country, but we can totally be trying, I admit.
I also saw:
- The London Eye (from across the River; I didn’t cross the Thames)
- Picadilly Circus (briefly)
- Buckingham Palace (guards in hats)
- The Prince Albert Memorial (gooooooold!)
- Hyde Park (crunchy fall leaves and magpies!)
- Harrod’s (didn’t go inside)
- The Ritz (too poor to go inside)
- Marylebone Station (just poor enough to fit in here)
- Nelson Square (trampled by crowds of tourists)
- Parliament (no thoughts)
- Westminster Cathedral (again from across the street, because I was tired)
- And Big Ben, which is undergoing restoration until 2021:
As I mentioned I had monstrous cramps, so I missed one thing I had been looking forward to – Ian McKellen in a West End production of Lear. On Wednesday, my actual birthday, I was exhausted from walking all over and also from pain. I fell asleep/passed out in a pub during dinner and realized if I tried to see the show I might faint for real, so I decided to head back to my room for some rest. I’m a little disappointed, but I was on my own in a strange country, so I am not too mad at myself. And there’s always next time!
So that was a tiny, tiny nibble of London! I hope you’ve enjoyed this rambling travelogue, and that you’ll stick around for the next entry: Part 2 – A Sultry Oxford Night. It involves wandering the Bodleian library, an amazing Airbnb, some weird mannequins, and *gasp* …DRIVING.
Thanks for reading, and have a great day!
Have you been to London? Done any traveling lately? Want to? Chime in!