the united kingdom. part I.

i’m sorry this is so late. the last few weeks have been decently busy and obviously this took me a long time to write. so here we go.

a few weekends ago my good friend sean and i visited the united kingdom. we left on thursday and returned on monday. without a doubt, it was the best weekend i’ve spent in europe. there are so many reasons why, but a huge one is just the fact that i’m very intrigued by london culture. english culture in general, but the idea of london is so romanticized in my head, probably thanks to hollywood or american pop culture’s idea of it. it’s idealized like paris is idealized. but i also am a big fan of some british tv/movies, and the music definitely. my favorite show business entertainer is english (that’s gonna be a fun Top 5 list breakdown.), and i’ve learned a ton about english culture just from listening to his stand up, tv shows, podcasts, etc. i know a fair amount of english slang. i can understand their accents really well. i just love the culture, or at least the culture that was idealized in my head. little things, like the fact that i knew the garbage men are called “bin men” in london made me so excited to see london. and then dublin was just icing on the cake for me. and nothing disappointed me. so weird, i went with gigantic expectations and everything surpassed them. so many good memories. makes me wonder why the heck i decided to study in spain.

so anyway, here’s how it all went down. we left for santander on the bus around 11:30 in the morning. this was great, cause it gave me time to get up, pack, eat breakfast, shower, all that stuff at a nice slow pace. we met at the bus station, hopped the bus and then spent the two hour ride talking in spanish and then in english. it was fun talking to sean in english for a change. he’s the only person around here who actually has any desire to learn the language like me, so when we’re together, even if we’re around other americans, we speak in spanish together. but at one point one of us told the other a complex story in english, and we just stuck to english after that.

we got to the airport in santander and hung out for an hour or two until our flight left. while we were queueing up (queue = line in english, bit o’ slang for you.), these three cute spanish kids in front of us were playing tag. they grabbed onto their dad’s leg as base, and then they yelled “casa”. so cute. this was my first time flying with the cheap company ryanair. hopefully it’s my last. the company is so illlegit (it’s sweet to spell that word with three L’s.), they clearly don’t use computers, as you can see from this photo. look closely, our names are written on the tickets in pen.

how bogus is that? whatevs, they give cheap flights and you get what you pay for. the insides of the plane too are just hideous. bright yellow slash blue. a good mix for a college sports team maybe but not for the inside of a plane.

so we got on the plane, and i sat next to this sweet old english dude named terry in the emergency exit door row. the stewardess told us we could only sit in the emergency row if we spoke english in case of an actual emergency, and we told her we did, and then terry joked us that if we were from the states we didn’t speak english. good one terr. but he was cool, he told us he was from newcastle and a few things to stay away from in london and dublin cause they were tourist traps (we ended up seeing them anyway). coolest thing about sitting next to him: as soon as our plane touched the ground, he said to me, “welcome to england.” what a great way to start my visit.

we proceeded to meet the girls in the airport. sean was way excited to see them; he kept saying he hadn’t gotten a real hug this whole semester. the two girls, hannah and caitlin, are studying in the university of hull (northern london) this semester, and sean knows them from uni. they are super fun girls, perfect london companions. they had been to the city like four or five times so they knew it really well. amazing. you have no idea how much that can affect a trip until you’ve been on one without a tour guide and/or someone who knows the city even a little. madrid sucked when i went because we just wandered, hoping to find something great. paris sucked until we met up with a frenchman. and london wouldn’t have been nearly as great had we not had friends who knew it better than we did. the first thing we did was grab the train into town, about a half hour ride. super great, as we were coming into town i started seeing things that just matched up perfectly with london in my head. rows of identical brick houses with chimneys, a la the rooftop scene in mary poppins when bert describes the rooftops of london as a “endless jungle, just waitin’ to be explored.” and then the camera goes to this shot of the rooftop chimneys. another thing i noticed: garbage. the city, by no means, is a clean city. there was loads of litter everywhere. for some reason though, it didn’t bother me at all. it didn’t even gross me out. it just seemed to fit. so my first impression was exactly as i had hoped, dirty and reminiscent of mary poppins.

the first thing we did was visit king’s cross. we took the tube, or the london underground, the metropolitan subway system. it was a normal metro system, just like paris has, or like we rode in valencia, or any major european city that doesn’t use cars as their main form of transportation. i was mainly excited to ride it because i knew londoners call it “the tube”, and that there is a recorded voice that plays almost every time you pull into a station; it says “mind the gap”, referring to the small gap between the train and the platform that could be potentially dangerous for a person getting off the tube if they weren’t careful. i knew about this little piece of london culture from the ricky gervais podcasts; his friend/writing partner/also extremely hilarious working partner stephen merchant tells this story about a funny t-shirt he saw on the tube, and they mention the whole “mind the gap” voice. i don’t know why, i guess the fact that i knew a little extra about the culture made me more excited to experience it. and it was great. there is a lady voice that says “please mind the gap”, but there is a far cooler man voice that says “mind the gap”, and i was really excited when i heard the man voice for the first time.

so we took the tube to king’s cross train station, most famously depicted in the harry potter series. thanks to the popularity of the series, there is a little hole in the wall part of the station that houses platform 9 3/4, the platform that takes new students to hogwarts school of witchcraft and wizardry in the series. in the books, the platform is hidden by a wall through which you have to run. in the real king’s cross, away from the main platform area, they have a sign that says platform 9 3/4 and half a luggage cart in the wall. awesome. check that picture out though. on my way to hogwarts.

our second stop on the tube was covent garden. on the train ride into town the four of us decided which musical we were going to see the next night. it was a toss-up between wicked and the lion king. as much as wicked would’ve been great, the lion king grabbed sean and me right away, and the girls were cool with it so we headed to the lyceum theater in covent garden, which is actually the original theater where the lion king had its london debut. the box office was closed so we headed across the street to snack time, a little food shop that sold food like gas stations do in the states. i got a cheeseburger, some doritos (cause they only have tex-mex flavor in spain. tex-mex? what even is that? a terrible flavor, that’s what.), and a real cherry coke. they also had dr. pepper, the first we’d seen in four months, but i went with the cherry coke. i bought a cadbury creme egg as well. it was lovely (they use lovely in england like we use great/nice/pretty/etc. it can mean different things).

after that we decided to head to paul stanley’s flat. paul stanley was our couch surfing host for the weekend. let me explain a bit about couch surfing. it’s this community of world travelers that want to travel for cheap. you make a profile on this website and offer up your couch (or floor or spare room or whatever) to whoever is part of the community, and you can request to stay at other people’s places too. and it’s all free. it’s meant to further the idea of a world traveling community; experiencing new things, seeing new places, meeting new people, and this is a great way to do it for a lot cheaper. people stay on other people’s couches for free. i was a bit wary of it at first, i mean you stay in the home of a complete stranger? no thanks. but the website has legit safety measures: a references system, where you’re more trustworthy as people reference you, and especially if people who are already well-referenced reference you. so kind of the good guys vouching for the new good guys, the more vouches you have the better off your profile is. so the girls suggested this to sean before our trip began and we made up a profile and found this guy who lived in london, paul stanley (two first names, you can’t go wrong with a guy with two first names.), and we messaged him and he gave us the thumbs up. so thursday night after convent garden we headed to p.s.’s place. it was a bit weird at first, just cause for couch surfing newbies like us, we felt kind of bad just crashing this guy’s small flat. but he was way cool. he hosts loads of travelers, sometimes every weekend. so the five of us just hung out and talked for awhile and watched the telly (=tv). it was cool, we watched jonathan ross, england’s jay leno, with a legit londoner. a simple experience, but very cool and very memorable for me. we asked him things about london, stuff to go see, stuff like that. i did make a fool of myself at one point though. i once saw this cool interview with mark ronson, sweet london music producer, and he was talking about this song by lily allen called LDN and he said the song was really visual, when he heard it it sounded like “that road”. i took it to mean there was a road called LDN, when in reality he was talking about portabello road, the road on which he was giving the interview. he also talks about the road having lots of cool record shops, being a hip shopping district type place so i was interested in seeing if we could find it. i asked paul about it, and he had no idea what i was talking about. turns out LDN is just an abbreviation for london. way to go jon. it’s like going to new york and asking about the NYC district. good work.

so paul went to bed and the rest of us stayed up for a bit and just hung out. it was a really pleasant time. it was cool cause the girls were different than the girls we see a lot here. they just seemed more my type, closer to who i would be friends with back in the states. so it was a treat to spend time with them and sean. it was finally a group of friends who were more interested in spending quality time together and making fun memories than drinking and partying, etc. it was really good to experience that again; i’ve missed it so much since i’ve been here and to have a taste of good community again, even with people i’ve just met, was really good for my heart. so that was a lot of fun.

we woke up the next morning, got ready, and headed out to conquer the city. it was an absolutely magnificent day. i was decently nervous about london being rainy or dreary; nothing of the sort. it was perfect weather, a few clouds, mainly blue sky, a fair amount of sun, just the right temperature. i was perfect in a sweater. we headed off to covent garden to buy our tickets for later that evening, and then just started walking from lyceum theater. we were all pretty hungry so the girls suggested tesco. exciting for me. tesco is another weird piece of english culture that i was aware of, and it was so cool to actually experience it rather than just hear about it. tesco is just a grocery store, a bit like walgreens minus the other non-food items. we got our breakfast there: i got chips, a small sub, a big double chocolate chip muffin and a pint or so of milk. i was so excited about the milk when i saw it. i had completely forgotten that we were going to be outside of spain, and the possibility of me getting real milk was there. when i saw those beautiful pints of cold, white as snow milk, i flipped. and let me tell you, as soon as we got outside, i opened it up and took a big gulp. such a great moment in my life. the first gulp of milk i’d had in four months. so good.

so we walked and ate, taking in the feel of the city, the buildings, the atmosphere. it’s got a really great flavor to it; the buildings look really old, but it’s a completely different kind of old than spain has. it just felt so much more like home to me, like i recognized it or something. i’m not english. i’m american. but i’m also certainly not spanish so maybe the commonalities i had with england drew me to it more. we walked until we came onto trafalgar square, which houses the national gallery and also a huge statue surrounded by four big lion statues.

it was a really cool looking courtyard area. we got our picture taken on the lion and walked on towards big ben. on the way we ran into a crowd of people taking pictures of the classic london royal guards. i don’t even know what they were guarding; we hadn’t gotten to buckingham palace yet. they were pretty legit though, it would’ve been unbearably hot in these uniforms but this guy didn’t move at all, other than his eyes. i did tell him “you do good work” and thanks after our pictures were snapped. i got no reply.

we walked on down the street until we came upon big ben. ironically, it was smaller than i thought it was going to be. or maybe it was its location; i think we saw it from a different angle or street than from where it’s famously pictured, and so it just seemed smaller or different or something. but its still a really impressive, cool-looking clock tower. it’s part of the parliament building, which the whole is just impressive on its own. and we saw it right as it struck 12 noon, which made for some sweet pictures. also, the clock face is made up of roman numerals like normal, but the numeral 4 is actually IIII rather than IV. fun fact for you. here’s another one. big ben is actually the name of the huge bell inside the clock tower, rather than the name of the tower itself, as most people call it, including myself until the girls told me otherwise. it was a cool thing to see.

just across the street sits westminster abbey. it’s a really impressive building, just massive. it’s nearly 1000 years old, which is pretty cool that it’s sat there for so long. we didn’t go inside cause it cost and there was a crazy long line, but we did go into the little church right next to it, st. margaret’s. it’s totally dwarfed by westminster, but it’s still a fairly big building. those were both really cool architectural sites to visit.

we headed off towards buckingham palace next. it was not as huge as i had expected, but still really cool. it’s weird, with most of the big sites we saw, most of them looked different in my head, i think cause a lot of pictures i’ve seen are aerial views or from some different angle. the palace was still really gorgeous. the flag was up which i guess means the queen was home. awesome. and the courtyard area outside of the palace gate was great. there is a big park in front of the palace, past the big open courtyard. it’s really picturesque so we walked through there a bit and then found a place on the grass and sat and ate what snacks we had left. it was really relaxing, sitting on the grass in this english park outside of the royal palace, drinking milk, watching people walk, seeing parents play with toddlers. what a great time. plus i saw a family of hasidic jews, cool.

we walked on through the park but it started to rain so we rocked the umbrellas (good thinking sean and me) when we heard a band playing. we followed the music and ended up seeing the royal band practicing for the queen’s birthday. and it really started to rain too, these guys were hardcore. they marched in form, dressed in royal clothes, playing huge instruments, all in the rain. very cool.

after the rain stopped, we decided to walk on and took the huge street alongside the palace. it was really cool, there is a gorgeous park on the right and the huge palace wall on the right. look at how hardcore this wall looks.

they are not messing around. at the end of the street we walked into this nicely sized park area that had a big arch like the arc de triomph in paris but smaller, and there was this really sweet war memorial dedicated to the english and australian soldiers who have died in the line of duty together. a very cool memorial.

we took the tube to the tower of london and as soon as walked out it was right in front of us. check this out. so weird, walking up into daylight and seeing an ancient looking castle in the middle of a modern city. but it was very cool. we walked past the tower and directly in front of us was the tower bridge. it’s a really impressive looking bridge, and it’s got a great view overlooking the river thames. after we crossed the bridge, we walked along the riverbank for awhile, stopping to shop at a little market for a bit, and then we saw the infamous london bridge, which was super lame compared to tower bridge, and grabbed the tube again.

our next destination was camden market. this is a sweet huge street market. where we started, there was one long street lined with shops, and then we got into this back area which was just like a maze of alleys all lined with huts that sold all sorts of stuff. seriously, everything under the sun is sold at camden. clothes, hats, shoes, dvds, cds, records, jewelry, bric-a-brac, knick-knacks, and all other sorts of goods. it is a very eccentric place, with loads of freaks. normal people too, but man we saw tons of weirdos. all manner of dress, huge heeled boots, every shade of colored hair you could think of. it was crazy. for example, in one little hut/shop we stopped in (they had fedoras that we wanted to try on), look what we found in the back.

yup. that’s weed. not even hidden or anything. it was a weird and awesome place. at one point we passed by this sweet record shop and sean/hannah/caitlin did me a huge favor and let me look around for like fifteen minutes. i ended up finding this sweet bootleg live stevie ray vaughan dvd, which i was pretty excited about.

around now we were getting really hungry, so we decided on some chinese food from one of the street vendors. it ended up being one of the best decisions we made on the whole trip. it was only 2 pounds, or 4 dollars, and it was the most filling meal i had the whole weekend. awesome. we ate in this little outdoor eating area right in the middle of the alley maze, and there were only a few seats that weren’t wet from the rain the city had gotten earlier, so we ended up sharing with this awesome older english couple. they were probably in their 50s, and they were super cool. the guy’s hair looked like a cross between the quaker oats man and benjamin franklin. but they were both really nice, and the woman said things like “oh you’ll love the lion king, it’s brilliant.” i was so happy to hear a legitimate english lady use brilliant as an adjective.

our next stop was abbey road. the time was running low before we needed to be back at the lyceum theater for the lion king, but we decided to try and find abbey road since someone had told us it was pretty close to camden. we hopped a bus and rode it for awhile. i found it odd, all together we must’ve asked like 10 english people how to get to abbey road. i think one person knew where we wanted to get to, and how exactly to get there. i understand it’s a huge tourist attraction so lots of londoners don’t care about it, but come on, it’s like the most famous album cover in history, have a bit of pride people. whatever, we rode the bus and caitlin asked the bus driver which stop would take us to abbey road. apparently he took this as “shout at the americans when we came to the stop.” the bus was packed too, full of londoners, and when we finally came to the stop, the driver shouted out “stop for abbey road! abbey road right here!” yeah, we’re foreign, thanks for telling everyone. we got off the bus and we were on abbey road. but nowhere near the famous crosswalk. not knowing exactly where to go, we headed off down the road, but in the wrong direction. sweet. after about ten minutes of walking, sean and hannah, God bless them, stopped another pedestrian and asked us how to get to the famous crosswalk cause our time was really starting to run out. we took off in the other direction at a very brisk walking pace, ended up grabbing a bus going down the road, ended up going too far, getting out, and walking BACK in the other direction. at one point we stopped a guy and before we even had any words out of our mouth, he told us two more blocks, if we were getting a picture of us walking across, the beatles started on the left hand side and walked across to the right. awesome. this guy knew exactly what we were after. so we finally found the crosswalk and the famous music studios where the beatles recorded abbey road and where loads of awesome musicians have recorded since, including pink floyd, radiohead, u2, kanye west, gnarls barkley, and john mayer. if we had a lot more time i would’ve tried to get into the studios somehow. but as it was, we had like thirty seconds to take our picture and find a tube station. so we signed the wall outside the studios (i signed mine with a little message to george harrison) and had a pedestrian take our picture walking across like the beatles. here is the result of our hour of searching.

it’s not perfect, the angle is a bit off, but it’s as good as anyone can get nowadays. notice i’m in george’s spot. awesome.

so at this point, we’re worn out from walking around, and we have like thirty minutes before the lion king starts. we were in serious trouble. we ended up running through the abbey road neighborhood to the nearest tube station, hopped on and got to the theater like five minutes before the show started. lucky us.

so we saw the lion king. i’m not even sure what to say about this. the lion king in london. an incredible experience. a highlight of the trip for me, and probably of my life too. i’d never been to a legit musical production put on by a real acting company in a real city, and it was such a cool thing. we had seats up in the balcony, but we could still see really well. it was so awesome to hear that first african cry that kicks off circle of life. the imagination that has been put into this show is absolutely amazing. it’s based on the disney movie, and translating animals into actors has been done in such an inventive way. the actors on the stage not only play the main roles, but they play all the background animals and even the scenery. the way in which everything was done gave off such a feeling of life and energy. it felt like everything was in motion, every part of the theater and stage was a part of the natural world which was being portrayed. it was breath-taking. this video does a far better job of describing things visually and sonically than i can with words. make sure to pay attention to all the costumes. some of the coolest things i’ve ever seen in my life. right at 2:00 you can see how they did timon. awesome. but other than just him, the costume design in this show is just outstanding. the first pride rock scene where mufasa and sarabi have rafiki introduce baby simba to the pridelands was unforgettable. there are so many different animal costumes on stage; the whole place seems alive. so cool. ok now the video.

here is another killer video that showcases the originality of the whole show even better.

amazing. the music is so powerful too. i’ve seen the lion king movie loads of times, and i’ve never been moved like i was when i heard these characters sing. one of my first purchases back in the states will be the soundtrack. there was this song called he lives in you that was not in the original movie that was just staggering. mufasa sings it to simba in the first act and then later simba and rafiki sing it before simba goes back to the pridelands to reclaim them from scar. there was such an intense energy in the theater during the reprise of the song. so so good.

so the lion king was amazing. we didn’t even know exactly what to do after such an superb experience so we decided to hit picadilly circus quick before heading back to p.s.’s place. picadilly circus was alright. it’s one of the most famous tourist spots in london but i didn’t really understand why. it’s kind of like london’s version of time square; there are some huge neon signs and lots of touristy shops. actually to be honest i don’t even remember seeing a lot of shops. there were two souvenir shops that i remember and also a mcdonalds. nothing special. we decided to head back to make it an early night; the girls had to be up way early the next morning to catch a train to another english town. we grabbed the tube back to p.s.’s and got ready for bed. we put the movie independence day in as we were falling asleep slash talking. what a great movie. mainly because jeff goldblum was in it.

the next morning the girls woke up really early and got their stuff all packed up. it was so weird. i had met these girls less than two days before and i was really sad to see them go. maybe it was cause they were different americans than the same ones i’ve been interacting with for the last five months. or cause they made our london experience so great. probably just cause they were really fun girls. spending time with them and sean felt like being back home. it was so refreshing to be around kids my age who weren’t preoccupied with where they were gonna get their alcohol or where the best bar would be to go. they were very mellow, go with the flow type girls who made the trip really fun, easy, and relaxing. so thank you to hannah and caitlin. you guys were great.

sean and i slept a bit longer after the girls left, then we got up and showered and talked to paul for awhile. whew that guy was a talker. sean finally interrupted him with the “we’d better get going” almost midsentence, but it was necessary or we might never have left. so sean and i started off into old london town with nothing but ourselves and our backpacks. no guides or anything. we took the tube to the train station that would take us to the luton airport and then we walked around the neighborhood since we had an hour or two to kill. we found tesco’s and decided to grab some lunch there. i got a box of cereal (crunchy nut feast, excellent choice) and sean got carrots and a little sub and doritos. we ate our food in this nice little courtyard outside a real restaurant until it was time to grab our train.

our train to luton was a bit late and so we got to the airport with still a bit of time to spare. we got extremely lucky though. the closing time for our check-in desk for ryanair was 3:45; neither of us realized this until like 3:47 and sean went and asked the lady behind the desk what was up. she actually had to make a call to ask if she could check us in. ridiculous ryanair. so we got checked in and then went through security. unfortunately our gate was like an hour’s walk away so we headed off in it’s direction. again, we got way lucky because as we walked up to the gate we heard the last call go out for it; the second time we just barely missed our flight. yikes. and then we got on the plane and flew to ireland. more on that later.

-jon

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