Tag Archives: london

London Take Two: Day 9 – May 31, 2017 And Beyond

Last May, I traveled to London solo. Each day I wrote about my adventures in my London Take Two series… and never quite finished it! I still had one last post, about my final day, which sat in my blog folder for these past seven months until I finally brushed it off, polished it up, and decided it was time to publish it. I think it’s taken me that long due to me really needing to soak in my trip. After all, I jumped right back into chaos once I returned from across the pond!

And so without further ado: Day 9 – May 31, 2017 And Beyond.

~

On the day I woke up knowing my only outing would be to walk down to the Tube and head to the airport, I felt an awful sense of loss.

I was ready to come home and yet I wasn’t.

I wanted to see my family and friends again and yet I wanted one day more.

One more look at Buckingham Palace. One more meal at Pret a Manger. One more walk through the square between Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. One more day of hearing different languages and seeing different people with different faces and different purposes.

The day before, I’d broken records in squeezing into my backpack and suitcase souvenirs I’d bought for friends and heavy books from the British Museum. After I put my final belongings away that morning and made my bed I just stood in my room and looked out my window one last time. I walked out into the kitchen, the living area, gazing out at the London skyline that I knew I wouldn’t see again for a long time.

The first time I left London, I’d written how I knew all good things must come to an end, but that I didn’t know it would be so soon. I think this is the case with all of life, really, which is why – looking back – I’m glad I soaked in every moment and didn’t miss a single thing.

My suitcase was much heavier as I pulled it down the pavement towards the Tube station. I wore my new Stonehenge hat and carried Paddington Bear since he wouldn’t fit into the suitcase or my backpack, which felt like it did when I was in high school and carried textbooks around every day. As I walked I drank in my surroundings of Shoreditch for the last time. The London cars parked on the streets. The narrow roads and old, beautiful buildings towering over them. The grass by the sidewalks. The small cafes on the corners.

I had known all along that this time would come, that eventually my days of wandering the streets of London would be numbered. I had known all along that I only had so much time.

I turned onto Old Street and met the roar of the traffic, the red buses and the gaggle of people carrying on with their lives. Eventually, down the stairs I walked to the Tube, passing the little shops in the station for the last time. Turned the corner to get to the ticket machines for the last time. Pulled out my Oyster card – which I had seen as a rite of passage – to place onto the scanner that would get me into the station for the last time.

For the last time… for the last time…

Every detail was so precious to me. Walking across the station to get to the escalators. Watching the poster advertisements go by on the way down below, many of which were so familiar to me now as I’d spent eight days looking at them at Tube stations.

I boarded the Northern line, got off at King’s Cross to transfer to the Piccadilly line as I had done nearly every day to get everywhere in London… for the last time. 

I sat on the train, holding Paddington Bear in my lap, as my first experience in London the week before reversed itself as the Tube brought me closer and closer to the airport. It occurred to me that my very first time in London, a bus had taken me and my fellow students to our dorms; all I’d had to do was show up and I was pointed in the right direction and delivered safely to my destination. This time, I’d navigated everything by myself with no problems.

It’s a 40-minute Tube ride to Heathrow from Kings Cross Station and I savored every minute of it as we ticked off the stations one by one until finally, finally the automated voice announced our arrival at the terminals.

I got off the Tube with my backpack and suitcase and Paddington Bear and stopped to gather myself a bit.

And I paused before moving on to the escalator that would take me up, tears filling my eyes as I heard the roar of my train fade away. It hit me with awful finality that this was it, leaving this underground station at Heathrow was my final break before I entered the world of airports and traveling and going home and ending everything.

I drew up to the side as the platform emptied as my fellow passengers either made their way up to the airport or got on other trains. For a while, I just stood by myself as the trains passed by, Paddington Bear in one hand and my Oyster card in the other, ready for its final use.

I felt like such a little girl. I wanted someone to point me in the right direction then.

And as I stood there on the platform in a foreign country that felt like home, my belongings by my side, I realized with great magnitude that the world is a great, vast, confusing, exhilarating, uplifting, provoking, mysterious place and holds the answers to questions I never knew dwelled inside me. That the answers to those questions could be found in the most unlikely of circumstances.

That nothing can replace being able to walk the same steps of monarchs from centuries past or reach out and touch the stones onto which people had carved messages hundreds of years before, that doing so harkens back to those who came before us and did things that scared them and pushed through their doubts to do the impossible.

That each phase of life will always be met with mixed emotions, that it may be with uncertainty we keep putting one foot in front of the other. But when we move forward, each step of doubt is matched by one of faith.

It was with this knowledge I took a deep breath, gathered my things, and finally walked towards the escalator to let it carry me up to the airport, where the final ticket scanner awaited, where I took my Oyster card and scanned it for the last time.

And the booth doors opened, and I walked through them, towards the terminal and the plane that would take me home.

~

“Better to see something once than to hear about it a thousand times.” ― Asian Proverb

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London Take Two: Day 8 – May 30, 2017

You know that feeling you get when you’re trying to grasp at something barely there, how in your half-asleep stage in the morning you’re trying to remember a dream that is fading fast from memory? Or when you have a sudden thought surge through your brain when – just before you can put it into words – it vanishes and you’re left scrambling to describe it?

That’s how I feel now.

I’m holding tight to the feeling of my last day in London – May 30th – the magic that was walking through the city, drinking in everything so acutely and solemnly and joyfully for the last time – and this past week I’ve felt that putting the pen to paper would make it all disappear.

Every minute of my trip is still fresh in my memory, and somehow writing down the last day makes the fact that I have been home for a week final, absolute. It defines my days as nothing more than what they are now: memories.

So it’s not that I haven’t had time to write. I just haven’t been able to. But, if I wait until the day I stop wishing my time in London was still happening, and more than just happy memories in my head, I don’t think my last day there will ever get blogged.

So… here we are.

~

On my last full day in London, I woke up with both the reality of knowing it was my final day and an eagerness to get out and explore just one last time.

I got out of bed and ate breakfast, taking my time getting ready, then – after getting some tea at Pret – walked to the Old Street Tube station.

My first stop was – of course – Parliament Square, which houses Big Ben (and the rest of the Houses of Parliament), and Westminster Abbey. This day, I walked across Westminster Bridge to look at the Square from the other side of the Thames. I wasn’t disappointed!

Very sweet memorial.

Then I went back up to Parliament Square to just sit and look at Big Ben and Westminster Abbey for a while. And, of course, admire the statues they have there.

This shot of Westminster Abbey might be my favorite I took throughout all my trip:

There is nothing like Westminster Abbey. I’ll travel the world in my lifetime and will never find anything that makes my heart skip a beat quite like this place does.

After drinking in every second I could in Parliament Square, I decided to head back towards Buckingham Palace so I could walk the Mall again. Buckingham Palace is about a 15 minute walk from (20 if you’re slow like me) and I thought it was the perfect time to take that walk through the city.

Loved this shot of Big Ben through the tree!

A shortcut is to go through the beautiful St. James’s Park, which naturally I took.

And while I was just stepping into the park, about to get onto the path that would take me towards the Palace, I caught sight of a cool little cottage a few hundred feet away so I turned right to check it out.

And while on this little detour, I came across two families of ducks that absolutely stopped me in my tracks.

The first flock had three babies, with Mama Duck resting and watching them pick around in the grass while Papa Duck strutted between them and kept a lookout for trouble.

The second family was waddling around together, Mama and Papa Duck keeping order while they walked, little ones following and looking around with wonder. One little guy kept lagging behind, curiously picking at the grass every now and then, then hurrying to catch up to his mom and siblings while Dad Duck chided him for being tardy.

It was fascinating. They were fascinating. I couldn’t watch them long enough, couldn’t marvel enough at the perfect little family units that they were.

It was so clear – so clear! – that each little member of the family had a role to play, a different place, a unique personality… and yet they all fit together perfectly.

Finally, I walked away to keep moving towards Buckingham Palace – the ducks, waddling as a unit, perfectly together, and me, headed down my path… but alone.

Such a cool bird!

Loved the markings on this one!

Knowing it was the final day made everything that much more special.

Knowing I could only wake to the sounds of the city one last time, see new buildings and statues one last time, experience the living, breathing culture of London one last time… it made me wonder just a bit. What things at home would I do if my time there was limited? What every-day occurrences would I experience while thinking, I just did that for the last time?

I had one last place to which I had to say goodbye before leaving. And the sky darkened with rain as I walked closer and closer.

Piccadilly.

Back on the Tube I went. I explored a few other stops, including Kings Cross Station again, in a quest to find a few more postcards to take home.

Then it was time to head back to the Old Street Tube station, closest to my Airbnb flat, me completely aware of the bitter fact that I would only have one last Tube trip to make tomorrow.

As I packed my things that evening, cramming clothes and books and gifts into my backpack and suitcase and realizing Paddington Bear wouldn’t fit in either… I thought of the duck families again.

And as I reflected on my week of traveling solo – freeing and wonderful as it had been – it occurred to me that for all my wanting to embark on this journey alone, I knew exactly what had been missing the whole time.

London Take Two: Day 7 – May 29, 2017

When I rolled my suitcase off my plane a week ago and made my way towards the Tube, full of happy anticipation for what lay ahead of me, I knew that it would feel like no time at all had passed before I had to do it again, this time headed the other direction.

Rather than focus too much on the fact that tomorrow is my last day, I’m really trying to just live for each and every moment that I have left in this place!

Today, I spent another morning just sleeping in, writing, and leisurely strolling down to grab a latte and chocolate croissant and pomegranate seeds from Pret a few blocks away from my Airbnb flat. After almost an entire week of blue skies, London weather finally kicked in yesterday afternoon and it was drizzling this morning as I walked.

There is something about London in the rain during the summer (or, technically, late spring) that takes my breath away. The damp smell of the trees and the cobblestone, the old buildings darkened with water… Maybe it’s just the simple fact that I’m there to witness it.

In the afternoon, I took the DLR train down to Greenwich to see the Royal Observatory.

It was so fascinating to learn more of the history of setting longitude and latitude as well as using them to tell time. Plus, I got to stand on the Prime Meridian!

On the way back to the train, I stumbled across the church in which Henry VIII had been baptized. A single red poppy grew next to it – something I thought was amazingly cool.

I had to walk through Cutty Sark to get back to my train station – it was quite a view.

After the Observatory, I stopped by the flat to make myself dinner then headed back out around 6 for a little more exploring. While on the Tube, I decided to get off at Kings Cross station to poke around a little (and of course to see Platform 9¾).

Then, I spent one of the last few hours of daylight going to Green Park and looking at Buckingham Palace again, just because I could.

I’m going to miss that desperately, just going things here because I can. Going anywhere I want, exploring what I want.

A Canadian war memorial is in the park, and I stopped by for a few minutes to stand in silence in honor of Memorial Day and those who gave their lives for their countries.

 

I still can’t believe it’s been a week since I landed here in London and that the day after tomorrow, I’ll be flying back home to the desert.

Can I have two homes?

Can’t I just go back and forth between here and the desert forever?

London Take Two: Day 6 – May 28, 2017

Where did the time go?

When I wake tomorrow morning, I’ll only have two full days left head of me to explore London before I make my way to the airport Wednesday.

Part of me feels like I’ve been here forever. I’m so used to the Tube, the sounds of the city, the traffic, the little eatery places on the corners, being just a few minutes from Big Ben and Buckingham Palace and Westminster Abbey….

But, all the more reason to just soak in every moment I get in this amazing place.

Today I went to the Tower of London, the famous military fortress and a place of imprisonment that is centuries old and has seen the rise and fall of monarchies. The place has witnessed accusations of treason, actual treason, redemptions, battles, and dire consequences for some. Its most famous prisoner was Anne Boleyn during her final days as Henry VIII’s second wife.

Last time I was there, I only saw the Crown Jewels and the famous scaffold site, but today I spent over four hours wandering around, exploring all the different towers and battlements.

There were the apartments of Edward I and his father, Henry III:

the royal beasts “exhibit”:

the fighting platforms and the extensive armory display in the centered White Tower:

and so much more.

Knowing I might not get another chance, I stood in line to get into the Bloody Tower and see one of the biggest attractions: Torture at the Tower. What I’m sure many people take as a cool touristy room was nothing but completely sickening to me. The torture devices were so awful, I couldn’t take pictures of them. Yet so many people are desensitized and snap their pictures and move on to the next room without comprehending the horror of what they see.

Speaking of desensitization, allow me to have a mini rant here for a second.

Parents took children into this tower; their small, innocent children with no comprehension of the horrifying concept of torture.

While I was eating in the café, I actually overhead a family discussing their next plans and the mother said to her kids, “You want to go see the torture chamber?” And the kids, with all the enthusiasm of those agreeing to go on a ride at Disneyland, responded, “Yeah!”

Like no.

No.

I firmly believe that if kids are old enough to ask the questions, they’re old enough to know the answers, but that doesn’t mean we should give them the entire truth when they’re so young. Until they’re old enough to understand and fully appreciate the severity of topics like torture, they shouldn’t be exposed to it in the form of being brought in to examine devices that were used to carry out such crimes.

Okay, rant over.

As terrible as the Bloody Tower was, the place that gave me the most chills was the Salt Tower, where prisoners were kept and wrote messages on the walls.

I reached out to touch the messages at one point and was struck with so. many. questions.

Who were those people who lived within these stone walls? What were their stories? How did they come to be imprisoned at the Tower? What happened to them?

What must have run through their heads as they waited in that room, as they ticked the days on the walls and waited for their fates? Did they stick to their truths or redeem themselves in the hopes of being forgiven and released?

Studying history is putting yourself into the shoes of those who came before you and trying to know them, to make sense of their circumstances. I wish everyone around me at the Tower had acted with reverence and respect. Several were the stereotypical loud, self-entitled tourists (sad to say most of these people were my fellow Americans) that blew through each room and got visibly impatient behind me when I was pausing to read the plaques on the walls and let their kids run wild like they were at a theme park.

I moved on to the White Tower after the Salt Tower. I couldn’t take pictures (although I snuck a few) but it was cool to see the armor used by kings of the past! There were plasters of horses on display, too, with their armor, and I found myself automatically looking at their hooves and thinking how they needed to be trimmed differently, or looking at their eyes and laughing at the round pupils (horses have horizontal pupils). Once a rancher, always a rancher!

I grabbed a biscuit and jam at the little cafe before heading over to see the ravens. Legend has it that if the ravens ever leave the Tower, the kingdom will fall!

It started to rain!

Finally, there were the Crown Jewels (actually did this before the ravens, but who’s keeping score).

Pictures aren’t allowed inside, but I didn’t care. A photo wouldn’t have done those amazing jewels justice.

Last time I saw the Crown Jewels four years ago, I wrote that if I closed my eyes, I could still see them sparkling. And that remains true today.

Nothing in the world comes close to the brilliance of those crowns and scepter and robes. Nothing.

Then, there was one last thing worth seeing…

The scaffold site!

Finally, it was time to head home.

Got to see the London Bridge open for a ferry!

Though of course I had to go through the gift shop too. And I saw this display – among many other cool things – which did not help my baby fever….

I may or may not have bought one of those squishy red buses for my cat.

Overall, it was an amazing day of rediscovering history and exploring and learning. And it also turned into a day where I reflected on how I want to raise my future children to behave around tourist attractions with such grave importance and how I want to take them by the hand and show them everything they can handle given their age.

Tomorrow (or today, which is when I’m finally publishing this) I haven’t decided if I’ll spend just wandering around Piccadilly Circus or Green Park or the Westminster/Big Ben Square or if I’m going to take a bus to Greenwich to see the Royal Observatory. We’ll see what happens!

London Take Two: Day 4 – May 26, 2017

Be warned: This blogpost – very much like this entire day – is a long one!

I’m beginning this at 10pm London time (2pm Arizona time) while sitting at my Airbnb flat’s dining room table with the terrace door open behind me so I can feel the fresh air and hear the sounds of the city.

It’s amazing because even though it’s dark, there’s still the faintest hint of light near the horizon… London summer days are long! Even though I woke up at 6am (11pm Arizona time), there wasn’t just a faint bit of light – there was tons of it. Sunrise here is before 5am!

(EDIT: I finished this blogpost a little after noon, 4am Arizona time!)

I got to my station at Golden Tours a little ahead of schedule which turned out to be great since it took some time to find the right bus. We headed off around 8:30am to Windsor Castle first, taking the bus out of London completely and heading into the seriously green English countryside.

And before I talk about Windsor… let me just get real here for a minute.

Even in the early morning today after a good night’s sleep, I was tired.

Exhausted, really.

And to me it was finally a wakeup call about the reality of packing so many adventures into each day, or selecting quantity of quality, if you will.

Honestly, it was a wakeup call about who I am as a human being.

I’m sure there’s a little jet lag I’m getting over but really just the excitement of being here has been pushing me to walk miles each day, to travel literally all over the city via the Tube, to see everything my eyes could soak in before it’s time for me to go home. The excitement is still there and it will always be there – and not just about London, but about life in general, I think – but now the tiredness is sinking in.

And this trip has taught me more about a side of myself I think I have always known: that I am always trying to do more and I tend to think that no matter what I do in life, it’s not enough. I strive for perfection, which as we all know is a fruitless path as it just doesn’t exist. And while it’s good to want to be the best and do the most… there have to be limits. There has to be a time where you stop and say, “I’ve done all I can do, and it’s enough!” There has to be a time where you stop and say, “I am who I am, and I am good enough!”

So for the rest of my trip, I’m slowing down. And part of that starts tonight, where I can debrief and write about the whirlwind trip that was Windsor and Bath and – my favorite –  Stonehenge. Where I can reflect and savor every moment that made today so amazing without hurriedly planning what I’m going to do tomorrow.

On the way to Windsor Castle our guide told us a little bit about its history. As a lover of English history, this was heaven for me. Apparently, Windsor Castle was built along with nine (?) other castles around the Tower of London so that if the Tower needed troops, they could be sent for within a day. He talked a bit about William the Conqueror’s defeat of the Anglo-Saxon King Harold during the Battle of Hastings (by “cheating” a bit, apparently) and how the new king set up the site for Windsor. It’s one of the oldest castles in England and apparently is still the summer home of Her Majesty the Queen Elizabeth. Apparently, in 1992, a fire broke out in the castle and her own son, Prince Andrew, was among the heroes who dashed through the flames to save invaluable paintings and furniture.

That, by the way, is a leader to me. It got me thinking of the days kings rode into battle, leading their troops rather than command the forces from behind a desk. Someone who risks his or her life as much as – and even more than – those who follow.

We pulled up to Windsor and I was abruptly reminded of the touristy side of exploring when it took over an hour to get into the castle. My guide handed out our tickets and maps and we waited to get through the hefty security measures that many sites are imposing after the bombing in Manchester.

Another random thought that hit me as I stood in line: I think I’ve heard just about every language possible here (though I know I’m sure I haven’t yet heard hundreds)! It’s amazing to me how nearly everyone speaks at least two languages fluently. My tour group was so diverse – Chinese, Korean, German, Hindi, and other European dialects I didn’t recognize (probably Slovakian).

Then, finally, we made it inside.

It was absolutely stunning. I am always blown away by the fact that I get to walk in the steps of thousands before me, many of them such incredible influencers of history. And Windsor Castle is a thousand years old.

I loved seeing Windsor but I do wish it hadn’t been so touristy. Parts of the castle were blocked off that I would have loved to explore.

I couldn’t take pictures inside, where the state and private apartments were, but it was absolutely stunning and rich with detail from the paintings to the carpets to the cushioned seats to the engraved, painted ceilings. But again, there was a walkway tourists were to stick to and I was among hundreds of others listening to their audio guides.

There was the king’s bedchamber, his closet, his dressing room, the queen’s bedchamber and dressing rooms, the receiving rooms, the king’s writing room (adjacent to his bedroom), royal halls… My favorite was the long, narrow great room, with a thick red carpet and the walls lined with saluting suit of arms and the ceilings full of sigils that probably go back a thousand years. (I found a picture of it here if you’re curious!)

One thing I didn’t have time for was to make the Long Walk. But, another time!

We were told to get back to the bus by 11:40, so I was slightly stressed keeping an eye on the time. Again, I like to take my time with something as splendid like Windsor Castle.

Once we were back on the bus we started the hour-and-a-half long trek to Bath. I was so tired I fell asleep for a while. Then of course when I woke up I was even more tired and – unfortunately for me – slightly carsick. But, I powered through it and was happy when we drove through more gorgeous English countryside and into the historic town of Bath.

The Roman Baths plus the museum were interesting. When I’d selected the tour I did so because of Stonehenge and Windsor and honestly was not that excited about seeing the city of Bath, but it turned out to be intriguing. The Baths were built as a public bathing place on natural hot springs, and to this day the original architecture and aqueducts stand.

Our guide made it a point to tell us a) to be careful on centuries-old cobblestone uneven surfaces near the baths, and b) not to touch the water! I found it amusing that he immediately followed with, “But if you care to drink it, they sell small cups for 50 pence at the back of the restaurant.” (I didn’t spend 50 pence on a cup of gross, murky, god-knows-what’s-in-it water but I did make a wish on 50 pence and offer it to one of the fountains.)

Then again, by this point I still wasn’t feeling all that great (something I found ironic, because thousands of people would travel to Bath with diseases like leprosy or other ailments to be cured!), so I didn’t enjoy them as much as I could have. Plus, it was actually hot!

But then we got on the bus again and began another hour-and-a-half trek to our last destination (while I munched on some almonds to get something on my stomach – worked like a charm!). And this one, I’d been waiting to see for so, so long.

~

Let me have another moment of what I call getting real to explain how meaningful seeing Stonehenge was for me. And this time, this is a little more personal. But it’s relevant.

It was assumed by everyone I knew that my fiancé would be making this trip to London with me, and most were astonished when I said I’d insisted on going by myself. Because I quite honestly see this trip as a pilgrimage, if you will.

A time to just be. A time to just do things on my own and conquer my anxiety just like I did last time I was in London.

My friend from the ranch – who also recently got engaged and went through some of the same feelings I went through – recently lent me a book called The Conscious Bride. I’m not done with it yet but what I read on the plane really put things into perspective about what Western civilization has done to the life transition of getting married.

We’ve de-ritualized it. Weddings are no longer seen as a rite of passage but as large, expensive, detail-oriented parties that perfectly display the correct emotions of love and happiness and utter bliss.

Seriously though. From the moment a bride-to-be gets a ring on her finger, she is expected to be SO. BLISSFULLY. HAPPY. LIKE OMG OMG GONNA BE A MRS 4EVER!!!!!1 Everything has to be perfect, and any negative thought or concept that comes with a wedding is immediately combatted with, “Well then are you sure you’re meant to marry him/her??”

But the reality is, as this amazing book puts it, weddings are a rite of passage, and “all rites of passage – adolescence, the wedding, the birth of a child, a geographic move, a job change, midlife, old age – involve a transformation of identity as the initiate sheds the old way of like and makes way for the new role” (p. 12).

Women (and men) go through a separation phase, a transition phase, and an incorporation phase during their engagements because “If a rite of passage is to be complete, it must involve a letting go, a shedding, a separation, indeed, the death of the old identity before the new identity and the new life can take hold” (p. 17).

And now I understand the deeper complexity of my anxiety that returned with a vengeance upon getting engaged. The separation had begun. The Conscious Bride calls it the transition from ‘maiden’ to ‘wife’ and it’s one all brides must make if they so choose. And believe me, I so choose.

So this trip is a bit of a ritual for me. A time of transition and reflection and welcoming the new phase of life that is to occur.

As it happens, Stonehenge was a place of rituals, thousands and thousands of years ago. It was a place of many things. Maybe this was why as our bus got closer and closer to the site, I was filled with an anticipation that I couldn’t quite explain.

As our bus got closer and closer to the site, our tour guide talked briefly about the mystery of Stonehenge, and someone asked if it was ever truly known why it was created and for what purpose it was used.

“Ah,” the guide said. “Was it used to lay out the winter and summer solstices? To tell the stories of the stars? Aliens may look down at us today and wonder why humans are grouped around a bunch of rocks in the English countryside. No one knows.” And he smiled. “It can be whatever you want it to be.”

~

The countryside grew – if possible – even more magnificent as we drove closer. I was amazed by something so simple as the horizon between earth and sky. Such a stark, stunning contrast.

We parked the bus by the other coaches carrying tourists and our guide turned us loose, telling us to be back at 5:40. The parking site and visitor center/café/shop is a mile away from the actual site as so not to disturb such a sacred place, and free shuttle buses carried people back and forth.

I boarded a shuttle and watched the greenery go by, completely filled with anticipation and something else I couldn’t explain.

There are more than 80 rocks in the famous ring (you can see a map here). There’s also the Heel Stone about 250 feet away, which marks the spot on the horizon where the sun rises on the summer solstice. But the Stonehenge site isn’t just the main circle we see in pictures – it extends many meters around it. Recently, it was discovered that the mounds of earth around Stonehenge were actually burial sites, so the men and women who came before us must have found it important to have them buried in sight of the stones. But past being a burial site, the purpose of Stonehenge is not really known.

But as I eventually climbed off the shuttle bus and began my walk towards the stones, I realized that the possibilities were endless.

And that’s what makes them so magical.

It was more than awe I felt, looking at them, seeing something that thousands have seen and experienced and flocked to and have felt drawn to.

It was the energy of our ancestors who might have danced and sang and celebrated and mourned and birthed and died and healed around them. It was the possibility of miracles very much like somehow creating such a structure with impossibly heavy stone. It was the wildness of the human spirit that has sustained for over thousands of years, the wildness that still lives within us all.

I could have stayed there for forever and a day, and it wouldn’t have been enough time.

I wanted to soak up that magic forever. The wind – something I have long associated with the universe speaking to me – was blowing fiercely, and I wanted to stand and listen until Time ended.

It almost hurt to walk away from them. In the end, I took a few blades of grass from the earth next to the stones, then on the bus back to London I was struck with a horrible thought, which was what if it hadn’t been right to take something from such a sacred site for the selfish purpose of wanting something for myself?

I wondered for a long time, then I thought perhaps that those that came before me had taken roots and herbs and other plants from the grounds for selfless reasons like to cure the sick or to feed their families. So I am resolving to use those few blades of grass to keep as a reminder of the wild, mystical energy I felt at Stonehenge, to inspire it in others – perhaps myself most of all.

I think in our society we try too hard to focus on the good and push away the bad. Be positive, and wave away anything negative. Celebrate birth with enthusiasm, and grow quiet when it comes time to grieve death. Plan the big, fancy wedding, and push away the emotional roller coaster that comes with it. Begin the next chapter of your life, and don’t take time to let go of the last one.

Transitions in life come with joy and responsibility and sacrifice. Seeing Stonehenge in person was somehow a reminder that life events – birth, early adulthood, marriage, children, old age, death – are gifts life has been giving mankind since the dawn of time. Deep down, I think we all understand this – only in our rush from phase to phase, we lose sight of the importance of slowing down and taking it all in, both the good and the bad.

But we are made of stronger stuff than we realize. And it took staring at a bunch of rocks in the middle of the English countryside for me to realize it.

Was that the purpose of Stonehenge, to make hundreds of generations of humans reflect on their lives and the lives of those to come after them? Who knows.

But that’s their beauty and their power.

It can be anything we want it to be.

London Take Two: Day 3 – May 25, 2017

My brain and body were yelling at each other all day today.

Brain: “Let’s go here! And here! And keep moving, keep moving, we have to go there, over, and also there!” 

Legs, feet, neck, back, arms: “BUT WHY.”

Yep. Jet lag struck, and it struck with a vengeance.

I woke up around 7:30am (11:30pm Arizona time) feeling like I’d been hit by one of the Tube trains on which I practically live now. Everything hurt – especially my legs and feet that had covered seven and a half miles on foot and like forty flights of stairs the day before – but also my back, my shoulders, my neck…

Oops.

I hadn’t meant to completely wear myself out. As intent as I am to pack as much into this trip as I can, this is still a vacation. So, today I compromised. A bit. Kind of.

Because at first I was so sore it literally hurt to walk, I decided to spend most of the day at the British Museum, where (as my brain justified to the rest of me) I could walk leisurely around at my own pace and take frequent breaks to sit and relax. At the end of the day (well, as of 7pm) I’ve only walked….er…oh. Just checked. Six miles. Still less than yesterday.

I video chatted with my fiancé to let him know I was still alive (or rather he talked while I blinked sleepily).

Then I dragged myself out of bed, ate breakfast, and s-l-o-w-l-y got dressed while trying to stretch. When I was feeling somewhat put together, I set off into Shoreditch. It was 68 and sunny around 9:30 when I started my trek and I was actually a little warm throughout the day. (Even now, as I type this at 7pm, there is not one cloud in the sky.)

I took the Tube to Warren Street not only because it was relatively close to the British Museum, but because it was the closest stop to the dorms at which I had originally stayed four years ago. My plan was to first find those dorms for old times’ sake and walk a bit around the area I’d familiarized myself with the very first time I’d been here.

And – just like yesterday in Green Park – upon walking out of the station at Warren Street, without even looking at a map, I knew exactly where to go.

Time is an incredible thing. Four years ago, I’d walked out those doors with my backpack and suitcase and I’d looked back over my shoulder for a final glance, wondering if I would ever see them again. And there I stood.

I still can’t believe four years have come and gone and how much has changed since my last stay here. I’ll go more into this in another post, but this trip is more than a vacation for me. It really is a period of reflection.

As happy as it made me to see my old dorms, I was still pretty out of it. Jet lag, man. So I grabbed a latte from Café Nero before walking my way over to the British Museum. (And by the way – if Café Nero ever makes an appearance in the U.S. outside of Boston, I’d bet money on it running Starbucks out of business in a year.)

Harry Potter fans, anyone? 😉

I’d been to the British Museum before, but my group and I had blown through something like half the rooms in under an hour. This time, I could go where I wanted to go and stay for as long as I wanted.

It. Was. Awesome.

It was also overwhelming. Incredible, mind-blowing, humbling, but overwhelming. It will take me some time to fully soak in everything I saw today.

I’ll let the pictures talk. I didn’t want to run the battery of my phone out by taking too many pictures so I stuck to my favorite pieces and rooms.

Ancient Egypt – mummies (including Cleopatra’s!), the actual Rosetta Stone, early Egypt, Ethiopia and Coptic Egypt, Sudan and Nubia

Ancient Greece and Rome – Alexander the Great, the Roman Empire, sculptures and vases and bowls and statues: Athena and Hercules and more

Then, I just started taking pictures of a few items in exhibits here and there as they struck me.

Early Americas – both North American and Mexico

There were rooms on the Middle East – the Islamic World

Sculptures from the early Spanish conquerors

The Enlightenment

There was also a room with the theme Living and Dying, which was intriguing.

It was beyond incredible.

I will be researching and reading and learning about these amazing things I saw today for a long time.

Also, a bit random, but I had to laugh over what I saw written in one of the bathroom stalls:

I had a fun time looking around the gift shop and getting some things before I walked to the Holdborn Tube station (pronounced without the “l,” I’ve heard). I headed back to Paddington Station because I had my heart set on getting a famous Paddington Bear.

And I did.

Then I grabbed a bagel from the station platform (an enormous area of space with shops and people bustling around to get to their subways) and sat to eat before finally making the trek back to the Airbnb flat on the Tube. I was exhausted – I still am, honestly! I’m writing somewhat quickly so I can shower and go to bed ASAP.

Tomorrow is going to be a long but amazing day. I’m taking a day trip out of London and going to Windsor Castle, the city of Bath, and Stonehenge!

London Take Two: Day 2 – May 24, 2017

I briefly entertained the thought of taking this day easy when I woke up with the sun this morning (6am London time, 10pm Arizona time).

And then I proceeded to explore city for nine straight hours.

I woke up with no plan, really, though I did have a two-hour Tube tour booked to which I hadn’t been 100% committed. I ended up going, then filled the rest of the day with impromptu stops and visits and tours. And thirty-nine flights of stairs (that Underground, man!), 18,848 steps, 7.5 miles, and forty-seven thousand pictures later, I’m back at the flat, making myself rest so I can write it all down. Plus my legs are killing me.

I thoroughly enjoyed staying in bed for an hour after waking up then taking my time eating breakfast in my host Farah’s gorgeous little dining area with panoramic views of Northern London. After 36 hours of looking like a total zombie, it was nice to also take some time to put on makeup while trying to decide the answer to the only question I had to ask myself: “What do I want to do today?”

At 8:30am, I left the flat and decided I would take the Tube’s Northern line (nearest line to the flat in Shoreditch) to Piccadilly’s line and go to Piccadilly circus. If you didn’t know this about me, I’m kind of obsessed with that name. 

Piccadilly Piccadilly Piccadilly Piccadilly Piccadilly Piccadilly

I have a pretty good sense of direction and have already figured out how to get to my closest Tube station without looking at my phone for directions. I got to Piccadilly Circus with no incidents and happily climbed up the stairs up to see the famous statue with my own eyes once again.

I’ll have to go back when it’s out of the shadow for more pictures.

Then, because I still had just under two hours before having to show up at Paddington Station for my tour of the Tube, I made the short trek over from Piccadilly Circus to Buckingham Palace.

I hardly looked at the map. Instinct. Pure instinct and memory guided me towards Buckingham Palace. Rather than walking through Green Park first, I wanted to approach the Palace through the Mall (the street leading directly to it).

It was like seeing an old friend once more.

There were at least a hundred or two hundred people – well dressed – handing blue tickets to armed guards in front of Buckingham Palace’s gate and being admitted to walk through the side gate for what was clearly an upscale event or showing of some sort. A few of them were wearing what resembled Boy Scouts of America uniforms. I asked a few fellow observers if they knew what was going on but they had no clue. Later, while I was talking with another tourist on the Tube tour, I mentioned what I’d seen and she wondered if it had anything to do with the Manchester bombings. I wish I knew.

Also, horses!

I poked around Buckingham Palace for a little while then walked through the beautiful Green Park to get back to the Tube.

And maybe it’s just because I’d been dreaming about every detail of my first trip to London for so long, but four years later, I still remembered the same path I walked the very first time I went through that park.

I still remembered which little gate I’d stopped in front of to adjust my flats I’d worn back in 2013.

I still remembered which field I’d run to in excitement over seeing tall grass, the field where this picture was taken:

Me, 21, June 2013

Four years later, I knew exactly which way to go.

Me, 25, May 2017. Same field, completely different person.

My brain has a funny way of doing things like that. I might forget what I had for breakfast last week, but throwing me back into London was honestly like throwing a fish into water.

That time around Buckingham Palace and my time in Green Park were just amazing. As in, I was amazed by my surroundings and by how I truly felt like I’d melted into the backdrop and had become a part of them.

On I eventually went back to the Tube and to Paddington Station. I arrived with just enough time to meet my tour guide and four other tourists so I didn’t get a chance to explore, but I do plan on going back and getting a famous Paddington bear. (Because they’re so well known and I don’t know when I’ll be back in London during my lifetime, the super mushy part of me wants to bring one home for my future son or daughter. No, that’s not an announcement.)

For the next two hours, I hopped around the Tube while learning some interesting points about its creation. The Tube was the world’s first underground train system and it was incredibly innovative for its time – so innovative, in fact, that so many people were opposed to it, church leaders going so far as to say its creation would be the beginning of the end of the world since they would be digging straight to Hell. With the idea first introduced in something like 1830, the first few stations weren’t launched until the 1860s and then the trains that ran underground were still steam powered, causing health hazards for everyone involved.

As we jumped around from line to line – District to Circle to Central to Piccadilly to Westminster – I also learned about the early rivalry between two lines (Central and Metropolitan); some of the most influential people involved in its creation including Frank Pick who came up with the circle brand; and the ongoing creation of more and more stops underground and how efforts were taken to ensure they were built under roads as to not disrupt the foundations of old buildings. In fact, our tour guide said, Big Ben tilts slightly to the northwest due to excessive digging underground back in the day!

A rather morbid fact is that apparently while they were digging to build one of the stations (can’t remember which one!) they found thousands of human skeletons. Turns out they’d stumbled upon a body pit from the time of the Black Death!

The tour was great, but truth be told I was glad it was only two hours as jumping around the Underground so much (after walking a few miles around that morning) was draining! Many of the stations are accessible only through flights of stairs although escalators play a big role, too.

Since we ended the tour at Westminster station (the Big Ben/Parliament/Westminster Abbey stop), I headed out to gaze up at Big Ben again, got a wrap and a latte from my favorite London coffee shop of all time ever and ever, and happily sat to eat by Westminster Abbey and with Big Ben right in front of me.

There was an experience. Casually eating lunch with two of the most famous buildings in the world right beside me.

The line to get into Westminster Abbey was extremely long and I wanted to be a bit more full of energy before exploring it again, so instead I walked down to see more of the Parliament building and then down the bridge over the Thames about halfway so I could get some shots of Big Ben with the river.

I also ventured away from Parliament Square because I heard a band playing in the distance and wanted to know what was going on. A parade of sorts was occurring near a war memorial, and it turned out that soldiers and onlookers were paying homage to fallen warriors.

As I was walking around I couldn’t help but notice – most particularly surrounding the parade – heavily armed and uniformed police officers and soldiers, eyeing everyone solemnly and patrolling the heck out of their areas. And this could have something to do with the awful bombing in Manchester … but I couldn’t help but notice that most of these men and women are heavily armed. As in, AK-47 machine guns in their hands, fingers on the triggers, ready for immediate action.

Like, holy hell.

But there’s another side to that, too, which brings me to another incident I witnessed. As I walked by Parliament, I saw one woman outside the main entryway (blocked off and guarded, of course) was yelling to the passing crowd about the importance of electing one particular man. She was angry about something, but I missed the first half of her rant so I can only guess she really wanted her person of choice in office. People passed her uneasily.

A female police officer, a tall and beautiful woman with blonde hair, approached the shouter quietly. And she proceeded to put a gentle hand on the woman’s shoulder in what I swear seemed to be a motherly fashion as she concernedly inquired about the woman’s level of noise. The protester – if that’s indeed what she was –  finished her sentence in ringing tones, then nodded to signal she was done and finished with a loud, “Thank you, officer.”

As I was walking away, the angry woman and that police officer were engaged in nice conversation.

It was amazing. But then again, everyone here is orderly and respectful and polite. Everyone quietly goes about their business, murmuring a soft, “Sorry,” if they have to cut in front of someone or else chatting nicely with their friend or business partner. Even on the Tube, commuters are silent as the grave besides the rustling of papers every so often. No one talking loudly on their phones, listening to music outside their headphones, or otherwise being disruptive. No one has a sense of entitlement, and it’s wonderful.

I had to take Westminster to the Green Park stop (right next to Piccadilly and even closer to Buckingham Palace) to switch lines to get back to my Airbnb flat, but on a whim I climbed the stairs, rode an escalator or two, then walked back outside at Green Park, thinking I’d go see if Buckingham palace was quieter and if I could perhaps find the Royal Mews.

It was, and I did.

The Royal Mews tour was amazing, and seeing the horses? Just heavenly.

I asked about their hooves, and apparently they wear heeled shoes for extra support against the hard, concrete ground and receive farrier work once a week! (For you non horse folks, typically a horse gets newly shod and trimmed every six-eight weeks.)

We got to see the Royal Mews’ version of a tack room, filled with harnesses and bridles that are a century old and still in working condition (and one of the worker’s dogs – the families and pets of workers live on site at the Royal Mews).

And we got to see the beautiful carriages, which remain in use today.

I explored the gift shop a bit, and then, with 4% phone battery left, I finally decided to head back to the flat, stopping first at a grocery store a few blocks away so I could cook something simple for dinner and also got some snacks for later (buying to-go food was getting old).

Today was amazing, truly. And tomorrow I have another day of doing whatever I want, then Friday I set off for a day trip of Bath, Windsor Castle, and what I’m looking forward to the most, Stonehenge.

For tomorrow, I haven’t decided if I’ll go to the Tower of London, the British Museum, the Natural History Museum, or finally to Westminster Abbey’s walk-in tour. I also want to go to the Royal Observatory sometime, and Kensington Palace. And get my bear from Paddington.

So much to do, so little time. As the tour guide on my London Underground tour jokingly told me today, “You’re going to need a vacation after your vacation!”