June 8, 2017 § Leave a comment
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!
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.
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.
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?
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.
May 30, 2017 § 1 Comment
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?
May 29, 2017 § 1 Comment
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!”
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!
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…
Finally, it was time to head home.
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!
May 27, 2017 § 2 Comments
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.
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.
May 23, 2017 § 2 Comments
Earlier, as I dazedly walked through the crowded, bustling streets of London, rolling a small suitcase and double-checking my phone every five seconds to make sure I was getting where I needed to go, I found myself humming a line from the opening song from La La Land:
“I could be brave or just insane… we’ll have to see!”
And as I sit here, in my Airbnb flat, writing this and looking out at the quaint subsection of Shoreditch with the London skyline silhouetted the darkening sky, I’m still not entirely sure which one I am.
Was I brave or just insane to do this??
Here’s the great thing about going back to a place you’ve been before: you know what to expect, at least a little.
I was prepared for the sense of feeling out of place. The culture shock. The exhaustion from flying a total of eleven hours (and let’s be real, we’ll add on another hour of sitting on runways) plus jumping ahead eight. The inability to eat due to nerves and excitement.
Last time I was in London, I hadn’t expected all that and my first day sucked. This time, I’m coping fairly well, although I’ll feel better once I finally meet my Airbnb host who left the keys for me at a farmer’s market right across the street from her cute little place. Part of me feels like an intruder! EDIT: Host came home and is so, so lovely.
But I’d anticipated that I’d be too anxious or motion-sick to eat, and brought lots of mints (good for upset tummies!) and light snacks that would tide me over until I could locate a Pret a Manger, an organic café I fell in love with during London Take One. I’d anticipated that I’d have to carry my luggage through the streets and invested in a small, carry-on bag and squeezed all my belongings into it, which made walking through the streets of London super easy. I’d studied and restudied the map of the Tube and knew exactly where to go.
So I guess what I’m trying to say is that for me, traveling isn’t all sunshine and rainbows.
But it’s part of the freaking journey.
And I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
Earlier, when I finally got to my Airbnb room and collapsed on my bed, I tried to plug my dying phone in using my U.K. adapter and promptly had a complete meltdown upon realizing my adapter worked for my laptop cord but not my phone charger.
And my anxiety-stricken mind immediately jumped to scenarios of not being able to use my phone as my primary camera anymore or getting lost since I wouldn’t have the map and I wouldn’t be able to stay in touch with my host through WhatsApp and and and
And I dealt with my problem by doing what I think we should all do when confronted with a crisis. I took a power nap. Once I woke up 30 minutes later, my stomach was still churning with anxiety but I took a deep breath, looked up some places on my laptop, and set out to go find an adapter that would work for my phone. Voila, the first place I walked into six steps away from the flat had one for 5 pounds.
So then I went to Pret a Manger and got some soup and a sandwich then brought it back to the flat to nibble at them.
It really is true when they say how you don’t know how strong a person can be until being strong is the only option they have. That’s how I felt earlier. If I wasn’t going to solve my problems… who else would??
As I was going through customs at Heathrow Airport, the man who checked my passport had to screen me a bit, as is expected of them.
“And what brings you to London?” he asked me as I handed him my passport and information card they make you fill out on the plane if you’re not from the U.K.
“I’m on vacation,” I said with all the cheerfulness I could muster for someone who was so sleep deprived she couldn’t think straight.
“And this address?” he asked, looking at my identification card. “Airbnb?”
“Yes, it is.”
He nodded and circled it. “You’re traveling alone, then?”
“Yes,” I said. Then I blurted out, “Everyone I know thinks I’m crazy.”
The customs guy smiled.
“It’s a crazy world out there,” he said, and he handed me back my passport. “Might as well be part of it.”
After I’d eaten a tiny bit of food, I knew there was one more thing I had to do before I called an end to my first official day in London.
I’d seen the English countryside coming in to the airport. I saw all the cars driving on the lefthand side of the roads. I’d seen the Tube and ridden the Tube and interacted with the people on the Tube (some on a very intimate level as we crammed together to fit in the trains). And walking up the streets of London, I saw all the red buses and old buildings and heard all the accents and languages and soaked it all in.
But I still couldn’t end my day. Not until I saw what changed my life four years ago.
So I put my walking shoes back on an headed down to the nearest Tube station, which I rode south for a time then switched lines and rode further west.
I anticipated being at my destination in about 20 minutes. What I didn’t anticipate was that it would be commuting hour, when all the London workers and employees would be making their ways home, and boy was it a crazy few rides on the Underground! It’s amazing how many people can pack into one train.
Finally, finally, my train stopped at Westminster.
I got out, heart pounding, and followed the “Way Out” arrows up a few flights of stairs and escalators. I swiped my Oyster card to get out of the ticketing booths, and climbed the last steps to the great outdoors above.
And there it was. Waiting for me.
And tourist behavior be damned, I gazed up at Big Ben in complete and utter awe that I was there, seeing it again, and just about cried.
Then I walked around a bit, because Westminster Abbey was peeking over at me, too.
On my to-do list is to tour it again. For today, I’m thrilled I got a glance.
Because that’s when it hit me, just like last time.
I’m in London.
I stupidly scheduled a two-hour tour of the Tube for tomorrow morning at 11, and quite honestly I think I’m going to ditch it. I overestimate myself, sometimes. And I need a day of relaxing, of leisurely walking to whatever I feel like doing in that moment, of being able to eat without feeling sick (good old anxious stomach!).
That said, I write this now through the lens of someone who is running on like five hours of sleep in 36 hours, other than my mid-crisis power nap, so we’ll see how I feel in the morning.
Thanks for reading if you’re still with me. I’m hoping this made some sense to you! It is definitely a little scary, overwhelming, and nerve-wracking to be back… but it is also thrilling, exciting, awe-inspiring, and incredible.
Light doesn’t come without shadows, and I’ll take each hand in hand. I am so grateful to be here again, having this experience.
It’s 11:30pm here… or 23:30. Good night, y’all!
May 15, 2017 § 1 Comment
I repeat: It’s actually happening.
A week from tomorrow, I land in London after close to four years of dreaming of the day I return.
In June of 2013, I participated in a two-week long study abroad experience for the ASU School of Sustainability’s program during which I studied sustainability policy in governance. One week was spent in Washington, D.C. and the other in London. I blogged about each and every day.
Before my trip four years ago, I’d never been to London. Hell, before that trip, I’d never been out of the country.
And London completely changed me.
Sometimes, in my half-awake daze between sleep and getting out of bed to start my day, I remember the bustle of the city: the backdrop of old and regal buildings, the sweep of the buses and cars weaving through the streets, the people pulsating through the crosswalks with authority and purpose.
Sometimes, if I close my eyes in a dingy, quiet room, I can see the glistening of the crown jewels in the Tower of London, sparkling against the darkness.
Sometimes, if my car jolts under a bump in the road, I remember the Tube chugging along underground, passengers swaying slightly back and forth as they wait patiently for their stops.
Other memories are as sharp to me as though I lived them yesterday: my otherworldly moment of walking into Westminster Abbey for the first time; the day I got lost on purpose and wandered the streets of London in a happy daze for two hours before finding my way back to my dorm; my train ride up to Cambridge where I watched the English countryside go by for an hour and never wanted the train to stop.
But one moment stands out above all.
All throughout 2012 and the first half of 2013, my anxiety was so bad I quit my job, took online classes beginning in the fall, and avoided even leaving my room if I could help it. I signed up for this study abroad trip in the blind, wild hope that throwing myself out of my element would ‘fix’ me. And, naturally, on my first day in London, I was completely terrified, had major sensory overload with everything, and threw up whenever I tried to eat.
On the Sunday we arrived, we took a van from the airport to the dorms at which we were to stay, and I was in such a daze of exhaustion (red-eye flights are the worst!) and suffering from such severe anxiety that I didn’t notice anything about the city. The nasty thing about anxiety is that the most incredible things can be dancing right in front of you, but you cannot see them if you’re trapped inside your own head.
When we got to the dorms, I curled up into a ball on my bed and stayed there most of the day until I plucked up the courage to walk around the corner with some classmates to get food. Still, the sweep of the city was a haze of confusion and noise and color and threats – I navigated it all the best I could and got something to eat, walked backed to the dorms, tried to remember to breathe, locked myself back up in my room, and slept.
On Monday morning, I got up and dressed in our required business casual attire, force-fed myself oatmeal, and met my class and professors downstairs to catch the Tube to the Houses of Parliament, where our first speaker awaited us.
Again, as we began the short walk to the nearest Tube station – Warren Street by Euston Square – I took in nothing. Breathing in and out and focusing on talking to my classmates and putting one foot in front of the other took all my strength.
We walked down the steps at the station, boarded the Tube, rode to the Westminster stop (changing lines along the way), and got out with about a billion other commuters to walk through the station towards our destination.
We climbed the stairs to the entrance of the station, the Underground ceiling slowly falling back to make way for a cloudy gray sky. My eyes were on my feet the whole time, concentrating on not tripping, still talking, still willing myself through the fear clouding my head.
And suddenly, we were outside, the air fresh and cold and unexpected on my face, and everyone in front of my stopped in their tracks, so I did too.
I looked up.
out of nowhere
out of nothing
was Big Ben.
And a thought struck me with the force of the train like the one we had just ridden to that iconic structure; it pushed through every barrier in my head; struck down every fear; threw every shred of doubt to the winds:
I was in London.
I was in LONDON.
That moment changed my life.
And by the day before I departed for home, I was taking the Tube all over the city by myself, walking fearlessly in and out of crowds in the steps of hundreds before me, visiting more iconic structures and sites, wondrously taking my life into my own hands with my anxiety trailing in the dust.
And I’ve never forgotten that feeling of complete and utter independence. Of possibility. Of adventure.
Some time last year, when I was talking to my therapist about my abrupt return of anxiety, she asked at one point, “How did you cope with it the last time?”
And I said, “I went to London.”
I know such feelings can be recreated without going to the places in which they were felt, but going back to the city that gave me the confidence to combat my anxiety honestly feels like making a pilgrimage.
It’s my time to decompress a bit after dealing with the stress of getting my master’s degree while working full time, the grief of losing my beautiful mare to laminitis nearly two weeks ago, the craziness of my job, the struggle of wedding planning, and the continuous efforts to breathe through anxiety.
It’s my time to just be.
And I’m ready to just be.
So far, I’ve got a list of places to go.
I have two full-day excursions planned: one for tours of Oxford, Stratford, the Cotswolds, and Warwick Castle; the other, for tours of Bath, Windsor Castle, and what I am excited for the most: Stonehenge.
As for the other days? I have a two-hour Tube riding/walking tour planned and then after that, the sky is my limit.
Westminster Abbey. The Tower of London. The British Museum. Elizabeth Tower/Big Ben. The Houses of Parliament. Piccadilly Circus. Buckingham Palace. Maybe even a train ride back up to Cambridge. Those places I’ve seen before and have dreamed of seeing again for what feels like ages. But other places await: The Royal Observatory. The Royal Mews. The London Eye. London Bridge.
That all said… I know I’m going to get there and be tired on my first day. I probably will have to cope a little with culture shock and nerves. I know I’ll probably wear myself out at some point out of eagerness to pack as much as I can into each day and need to just relax.
But that’s the amazing thing: my trip can be what it will be and it will still be absolutely amazing.
You know how people who travel sometimes say something like, “Watch out, world, here I come!”
To me, it’s the opposite. Because what the city has brought to me and will bring to me again is more than I am and can ever be.
So… watch out, me.
Here comes London.