I am in London. “The Borough of Kensington and Chelsea,” specifically, in my 14th floor room at the Holiday Inn-Kensington Forum. I’m watching some HGTV-type show with British people (surprise) buying antiques.
Everything about my journey thus far has been incredibly novel. All of Britain is novel to me. Charles Darwin is on the back of the £20 note. Right now I have these coins: 1 penny, 2 pence, 5 pence, 10 pence, 20 pence, 50 pence, and 1 pound (which, incidentally, is much smaller than most of the other coins, but weighs considerably more). You have to put your room key in a slot by the door and leave it there in order for the lights to function. You have to hold the toilet flusher in for as long as you want it to flush; not push it once and have it flush everything down like in the US. These types of things.
I got on my British Airways flight at 9:20 last night, Chicago time, and arrived at Heathrow about 11:30 this morning, London time. (I think we are 5 hours ahead of home here.) The flight was surprisingly enjoyable; it went quickly; it was the most comfortable and posh flight I have ever been on. I rode in economy class, of course, so to get to my cabin I had to walk past First Class, where each passenger gets his/her own private compartment, and some kind of “Club Europe” class, where each passenger gets a special reclining seat and footrest. But in my cabin, my seat was equipped with a little TV screen in the seat in front, and a package laid on the seat that contained a pillow, a British Airways blanket, a pair of headphones, and a little pouch with socks, a toothbrush, toothpaste and eyeshade. (I have never felt like more of an easily amused American than when oogling over my plane care-package.) I watched the BBC World News, a terrible Ashton Kutcher movie that was filmed in Silverlake (it was pretty cool to recognize scenery in a movie), and listened to the new Bruce Springsteen and Aimee Mann albums on the in-flight radio while I dozed off a bit. We got dinner sometime during the night — beef lasagna, a salad, a roll, a little bottle of white zinfandel, and a little piece of chocolate chip cake. In the morning, we got a little breakfast pouch with orange juice, blueberry yogurt and a blueberry muffin.
So, we got to London, got our luggage, got our passports stamped, and got in a funny 9-passenger VW van and drove, on the wrong side of the street, to our hotel. I rode all the way from Pittsburgh with a kid named Zac, who is from Pittsburgh and goes to Mercyhurst in Erie; my roommate here in London is a girl named Tina who goes to school in Austin, Texas; they’re pretty much the only people I’ve connected with so far. We got checked into our rooms, Tina got in the shower and I went downstairs to touch base with Mom and Dad and Jut. (We were told not to use the phones in our rooms because they charge £1 a minute or something.) But by the time they connected me with Mom and Dad, my phone card had gone from 180 minutes to 37 minutes — absurd! So I talked to them for a bit, called Jut and unknowingly got him out of bed, forgetting it would be 6:30 am in New Mexico. By the time I got back up to my room, Tina had gone, and Zac wasn’t answering his door. So I got in the shower, washed off the airport dirt, and decided to venture out on my own.
I suppose I should be able to manage on my own in London for a few hours; I am an adult. But I was particularly proud of myself, just meandering around the neighborhood, getting used to Europe. My goal was to get to the bank a few blocks down to change my dollars into pounds, but I took the long way and got to see lots of cool old apartment buildings, cafes, pubs, shops, and Brits. Everything is very light here; even the smaller side-streets are wide and bright because of the nice, white-painted houses lining them. It definitely feels more open and vibrant than other cities/neighborhoods. I didn’t get hit crossing the streets because at each sidewalk crossing, the words “LOOK LEFT” or “LOOK RIGHT” are painted on the ground. I guess the British get confused, too? I did have a bit of trouble navigating because the street signs are posted low to the ground on fences in front of houses, and are sometimes obscured by shrubbery. So, I peeked in a few coffee shops, found an internet cafe that charges £1 for 20 minutes, perused a used bookstore, and ended up at the bank. I got $60 changed into £31.25 by a nice Asian lady who didn’t charge me commission because I am a student. She also offered to get me some Czech crowns before I leave for “a good deal;” I think I’ll just wait until Praha.
I decided to find a grocery store next, so I wandered into a small mall-type conglomeration called the Gloucester Arcade, and found a Waitrose supermarket. I think I walked around for 20 minutes just looking at prices, figuring out what I wanted to get, how to get it cheapest, working up the nerve to go to the cash register. It definitely felt like a foreign country, although I’m not sure why. I finally decided on a small loaf of Irish stone-ground wheat bread, a package of English cheddar cheese, and some bananas — all for £3.37!
I was hungry and wanted to find a nice park or bench to sit and eat my bread and cheese, but this is a pretty densely concreted area, with the exception of Hyde Park, which is quite a few blocks North. So I started walking back toward the hotel on a side street and came across an awesome old stone church — The Parish of Saint Stephen or something. It had a little courtyard and a bench in it, so I sat there and enjoyed my own private pocket London and a snack. I was kind of glad I lost track of all my “new friends,” because I needed that time to just get my bearings here, go out on my own, fend for myself, and get a personal taste of London.
I’m still at the point where I want to remember every single thing that happens here, write it down, tell it to everyone back home. I’m sure this will wear off.
We have a meet-and-greet-and-have-a-few-drinks with the rest of our group at 6:00, and I’ve been relaxing in my room, watching BBC, and writing for the last half hour or so. Zac came back and wanted to go get something to eat in a bit, so I will probably walk around some more then. He walked up to Hyde Park this afternoon; something I definitely want to do tomorrow. We are doing a 3-hour sightseeing tour in the morning, which ends at the Tower of London. I think I want to walk down the Thames after that, see the Globe Theater and go to the Tate Museum of Modern Art (which is free, I think!). Then perhaps hop on the Tube and go up to Hyde park, Bloomsbury. I want to just walk around and explore and be a tourist, but my own tourist. This is a cool city, not obnoxious (at least not in this part), and I’m excited to see more of it.
I might take a nap now, to get over my jet-lag a bit and not be anti-social at the gathering.