Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Welcome to London

The EasyJet pilot took me to the wrong city. He did - I'm sure of it. I know this because I was supposed to be flying to London last weekend, but on a Saturday in the month of February the weather in London is not 62 degrees fahrenheit. If it is 62 degrees fahrenheit, it is definitely not sunny, and by sunny I mean not a cloud in the sky for the entire day. In February, the weather in London is in the upper 40's, lower 50's, with cloud cover, ALL DAY, and constant rain. And if it doesn't rain on Saturday, then it definitely rains on Sunday, right? I knew the pilot didn't fly me to London.

For whatever city I did go to, I arrived late on Friday night and took an hour bus charter into the city center where Hayley lives. For those of you who don't know, Hayley is one of my best friends from high school, is studying abroad in London through a Mizzou program, and has a flat in the city with 5 other girls. I got to call the living room couch my home for the weekend, which had a big plus and a big minus. The Plus: I am a cheap college student and did not have to pay for a hostel / had a place to stay for the weekend. The Minus: the London Tube (train) is incredibly noisely and just happens to be located 5 floors below and directly adjacent to their flat. No reason to bring an alarm - this makes for a wonderfully pleasant 6am "good-morning to you sir." Anyway, Friday night Hayley and I and some of her friends just sat around her flat, hung out, and eventually crashed for the full day on Saturday.

Saturday morning: I met all 5 of her roommates before 9am. Seriously, how the hell do you meet 5 (6 including Hayley) college students on a Saturday morning before the hour of 9am? One huge difference about London is the city is on a completely different time schedule than Berlin. For nightlife, pubs close at 11, 12 if you're lucky, and clubs usually close at 2 or 3. This means that you actually get in much earlier and do not wake up in the middle of the day. Kinda nice, although weird when at 9pm people are freaking out because you haven't yet found a bar to start your night. In Berlin, I would be getting into the shower at 9. Anyway...we woke up early Saturday morning and headed out into the city for a day of sightseeing. I literally came to London with no idea about anything in the city - what I wanted to do, history, tourist spots, etc. - so I just told Hayley to show me what she thought I should see. It worked out great because I saw a ton and everything is located relatively close together so you can pack in a full day. First of all (if you didn't catch on already), the weather was 62 and sunny all day - by far the most beautiful day yet in Europe and reminded me exactly of what the weather is like back on our California campus many days in the winter. To start the day, we headed to Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, and then made our way back toward the Thames and walked along the river to the Tower Bridge. Luckily Hayley was still alive at this point after almost being impaled by a guard's golden sword at some random place we encountered earlier in the day. We were walking under an achway (no idea where we were) and upon exiting the other side there were two guards on horses on either side of the arch. Naturally, Hayley and I both turn around to look at them, when suddenly we hear a man yell, "STEP ASIDE FOR THE GUARD" in the deepest voice known to man. I turn around to see Hayley narrowly escape death by a few feet because this guard was not about to halt for anyone. After making it to the tower Bridge, where we passed by a sweet looking castle by the river, we hopped onto the Tube and made our way to Hyde Park. We grabbed a sandwich for lunch along the way and ate as we strolled through the park. Hyde Park is massive by the way - probably similar to the size of a Golden Gate or Central Park. After walking through the park for about half an hour, we stumbled upon a sizable lake packed with people in paddle boats. How could you not rent a paddle boat on a day like this - it should be a crime to pass this up. As you can imagine, we rented a boat and cruised about the river for a while as we mastered our crew skills. Being modest, I dominated Hayley in the rowing competition. The lake was great, but it actually is fairly difficult to navigate a little boat via a couple wooden oars that keep popping out of their harnesses. Upon leaving the lake, we walked to Harrod's - the world's biggest and most ridiculously expensive department store. (Random info: Berlin has the 2nd biggest with KaDeWe). We had the best chocolate sunday I've ever had - although I'll still take Rome's gelato over Harrod's ice cream any day. After an ice cream break, we made our way back to the Thames river, walked along and looked at Parliament and the London Eye, and eventually made our way to dinner...at 5 o'clock. The area below the London Eye was great - packed with street performers and vendors which reminded my a lot of the area along Fisherman's Wharf in San Francisco. We packed in almost more than possible Saturday, and as is fitting with London's early time schedule compared to Berlin, sat down to eat at 5.

We had dinner with a couple of her friends at an Irish pub where we also watched the Man United game. I played the role of your stereotypical tourist and had fish-and-chips (f.y.i. - chips=fries, crisps=chips, and biscuts=cookies). After dinner, we made our way back to her area and went out with some more of her friends to a couple pubs before finding a bar/lounge type place in East London. Hilarious moment (one seems to happen on every trip): we are leaving the lounge at the end of our night and for some reason everyone wants to go get hotdogs. Really? I get it that we are all drunk at this point and people want food, but seriously, a hot dog? Anyhow, we pay 18 pounds for a taxi to take us to Picadilly Circus where the owner of the hot dog stand knows half of our group by name and gives them discounts for being regular customers. Unfortunately, I do have to admit this was the best hot dog I have ever had - so thank you to our drunken hosts who dragged my reluctant self to a hot dog stand in the middle of the night. (And sorry if these moments aren't actually funny - I am sure that they're probably much funnier in my own memory).

Sunday morning we were out of the house by 10 to go to a market that we thought would be open. Theme of the trip: it was not open. This is not necessarily the theme though because of this particular market. This was the theme because the London Tube sucks! Apparently the train works great during the week because the city of London does not shut down lines during this time so that it does not interrupt the working day. However, on the weekends they shut down probably about 20% of the lines to do repairs, construction, whatever, and most of these lines happen to go to the tourist spots. Not exaggerating, we probably had to take round-about ways 1/2 the time we travelled in the city because a certain line we needed was closed. It was comical for the weekend, but it would drive me insane if I lived there. So after getting to the awesome food market that was not actually open, we made our way to Abbey Road and saw the Beatles recording studio and where the famous album cover was shot. Not much to see, but cool to be in the spot of one of my favorite groups of all times. The first music purchase I ever made was 2 Beatles cassettes, "The Magical Mystery Tour" and "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely," so it was personally cool for me to walk across a seemingly random intersection just for those purposes. To finish up the weekend, we went to a pub as one should to watch the Fulham football match before I caught my bus back to the airport. Great and fitting way to end the weekend - the pubs were one of the things I loved most about London. There is literally a pub on every corner and everyone has their local pub they go to regularly. After the game, I unfortunately had to say goodbye to London as I truly did not want to leave.

After having now visited three cities outside of Berlin, London is the only place I can actually say that I wish Berlin were more like. Most of this stems from the program that Hayley and the other Mizzou students are in - so I'm actually saying I wish our program was more like theirs. First of all, they all live together and in the center of the city. More so, all the other Mizzou students live in surrounding flats within only a few blocks. In Berlin, everyone is very spread out for living quarters. Personally, I am in a very residential area, which unfortunately I grow to dislike more and more every day. Luckily though, I am moving in the spring quarter to a very commercial area that I am sure I will enjoy the new location much more than my current spot. Also, because it will be commercial, it will be extremely nice (like London) to have pubs, restaurants, cafes, and stores on every street. Another thing I really like about their program in London is that they have class in an actual London university. This makes it exponentially easier to make friends and get connected into the local scene. Not to mention here in Berlin our university is way out in the suburbs, which has very polarized pros and cons. After leaving London, I now have a much more keen perspective on what is good and what is not good about our program here in Berlin. In most ways unfortunately, I'm starting to wish it were different. However, don't confuse this with the idea that I do not like the program I am in here. I love most of it. I'm just more aware now that there are many ways in which I would change it to make it better and more receptive to college aged kids.

All in all, I'm extremely glad I went to London. London is a city that I would have never visited had Hayley not been there, so thank god she was because it is now my favorite city I have travelled to. It is not necessarily the best time in a city (Rome is almost untouchable in that category) but definitely my favorite city. There is nothing in Rome or Istanbul that I would wish to bring back to Berlin (except Roman gelatto, which Berlin has, just not as tasty), but there are aspects of London that I would love to see here in my northern European home. I would also go back to London in a heartbeat if I knew that it was going to be 62 and sunny again, but being realistic that is rather unlikely to happen. Anyway, thanks to Hayley for a great time in a great city. I'll definitely be back.

"The Photo Collection" album from January has been updated.

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