Europe Trip Day Two
June 24th, 2014
Where: From New London Heathrow Airport to the beautiful city of London
The next morning, I was startled awake by the flight attendants pushing their meal trolleys through the airplane’s aisles. Groggily, I watched as they passed out microwaveable packets of bread that I can only assume were the cheapest form of breakfast United could get away with. As bland as the bread was, it didn’t settle with my sensitive stomach and I couldn’t finish it. My mild airsickness also made me feel unbelievably irritable and unable to think of anything else. So when we’d at last landed at our destination, my mind didn’t even register that I was stepping onto another continent.
I think the majority of our group felt grumpy and exhausted as we gathered around in a small glass room outside the plane’s exit. Most of us had bags under our eyes from sleep-depravity and some people couldn’t stop nodding off whenever we waited for other group members to catch up. Over the course of our domestic flight and overnight international flight, we had lost a total of eight hours—meaning that while it was 7:30 a.m. in Britain, it really felt like 11:30 p.m. for us. It was definitely a challenge adjusting from California time to England time, and to be honest, I almost dreaded spending a whole day wandering around London feeling as tired as I was.
As we made our way through Heathrow, several airport employees directed our group to the immigration and customs line for North Americans. In my slightly comatose state, I barely heard their beautifully authentic British accents until my friend nudged me with her elbow and pointed it out. “Listen!” she whispered, “In case you had any doubts we aren’t in England right now!” Her excitement was infectious, and the more time I spent talking to her, the less I remembered my airsickness and jet lag.
We stood in the immigration line for nearly half an hour waiting for our passports to be approved. During this time, the crowd of incoming passengers started feeling claustrophobic, so my friend tried to distract me with a game she invented called “Spot the Canadian”. The idea was to figure out a person’s nationality based on American and Canadian stereotypes (although once we noticed the maple leaf flag pins on every Canadians’ backpack, the game was pretty much broken). After waiting for what felt like an eternity, our passports were finally stamped and we were free to find our luggage.
It’s funny, but my first “aha moment” happened in the airport’s restroom, when my brain clicked and I realized I was in a different country. It wasn’t the British accents, or the United Kingdom stamp on my passport, but the height and size of the toilet that reignited my earlier excitement. Believe me; I was not expecting a British restroom to be the source for my energy rebound. But as soon as I got back to the group, I immediately rushed over to my friend with all the details about how low to the ground the toilet was and how much smaller it was compared to American ones. Maybe it’s just me, or maybe this is a universal thing other people can relate with, but I’m always interested in the subtle or obvious differences between cultures. Whether it’s a slight change, or a big one, similar but different cultural aspects never cease to fascinate me. And so yes, I feel no shame in admitting that I celebrated using my first British toilet.
Outside of baggage claim, Frau introduced us to a British man named James, who would be our tour guide for the duration of our trip. Personally, as I’m reflecting back on my European experiences, we could not have found a better guide than James. He was hilarious, and his sarcastic remarks always had us in stitches; but at the same time, he was incredibly informative and obviously knew his way around. If anyone reading this is planning for a school trip overseas with ACIS, I strongly recommend you request James as your tour guide because he will make your adventure all the more memorable.
Anyway, after our brief introduction, we followed James to an enormous charter bus, which would drop us off at our hotel to get changed. Upon leaving the Heathrow, we immediately encountered stop-and-go traffic on the narrow highway into London. James explained that this was because city living was more expensive than most people could afford; the highway was always crammed with workers commuting to their offices. I didn’t necessarily mind though, as the drive gave us a taste of London’s impressive architecture. Nothing looked the same: one minute you’d be looking at Victorian-styled apartments, the next you’d find a contemporary building with long glass panels, or Tudor-inspired houses surrounding a local park, or new offices installed in an abandoned factory from the Industrial Revolution. London’s spectacular appearance was the result of accumulated ideas and economic prosperity, as the city continued expanding and building on top of itself to accommodate for more people. James informed us that one sure-fire way to tell how well England’s economy is doing is to count the number of cranes and construction sites in London. The more new buildings there are, the better the existing economy is (or, you know, the more people are taxed).
Eventually, we made it to our hotel, where we unloaded our luggage into a safe storage room and changed in yet another British restroom. Afterwards, James took us to an ATM machine where we could exchange our American dollars for pounds. We were then given free reign for half an hour to explore the street’s cafés and shops before we needed to meet at the Tube station.
My friend and I decided we were both hungry, so we headed into a cozy-looking café for some drinks and a bite to eat. After we’d made our orders, we found a small table outside where we could enjoy the sunshine and observe the world rush by.
It was interesting to hear the people talk as they walked past us, mostly because there were so many different languages we attempted to identify. Typically in the United States, the most prominent language you’ll hear is English, and while this isn’t the case for all places, it’s somewhat rare to hear another language. In Europe, however, we heard Polish and French, Dutch and Italian, Spanish and Russian, Korean and much, much more in addition to our own language. I suppose because Europe is so small, it’s just practical to know a second or even a third language. Unfortunately, that just isn’t the case in the US, as many Americans feel like English should be a universal language and we shouldn’t teach second languages in our schools until high school (although it really would be more beneficial to begin learning another language in elementary school, like the rest of the world does. Gosh, I wonder how arrogant and ignorant we must appear to other cultures).
The other interesting thing that caught my attention was just how many people were smoking in public. As I’ve mentioned before in a previous post, in America, the tobacco industry isn’t particularly well-liked due to our immediate education on the horrors of nicotine addiction and harmful side effects of smoking. In addition to public awareness, our government increased taxes on cigarette packs, restricted areas available for smoking, and requires smokers to pay higher rates for their healthcare. As a result, lung cancer rates have definitely decreased in the United States; but in Europe, I guess they didn’t get the memo. It must be because people think smoking gives them an air of sophistication, or because they’re used to seeing it around them and don’t care to change. All I can really say about the subject is that the amount of secondhand smoke in some areas was so staggering to our fragile, unaccustomed lungs that we couldn’t help but cough and gag. (Luckily, after some time in Europe, the smoking was less noticeable, although those first few days in London and Paris completely assaulted on our senses.)
Our time at the café was short-lived, however, as we realized we only had a few minutes to find the Tube’s entrance. Despite our initial panic, my friend and I were the first ones at the meeting place, and discovering we had more time than we realized, we quickly browsed through the street shops looking for other group members. Finally, at the appointed time, we were all together following James into the station to buy our first tickets.
My first ride on the Tube was exhilarating! We don’t have a subway system where I live, so I wasn’t expecting the Tube to be as fast as it was. Within ten minutes we’d arrived at St. Paul’s Cathedral, and I could barely catch my breath. Transportation was generally quick and efficient in Europe, and I couldn’t help lamenting their system when I got back home and realized how often we have to drive to get anywhere. In Europe, you can reach one end of a city in less than an hour simply by taking public transportation, whereas in the U.S., you’ll spend over an hour navigating busy roads and intersections.
St. Paul’s was beautiful, but we didn’t spend too much time admiring its architecture, as James said we’d be returning to the cathedral tomorrow for an inside tour. He explained that today’s itinerary was going to be more relaxed and laid back compared to future days, mostly because ACIS had planned in advance how tired we would be from traveling. So, our first day in London would consist of walking through the city streets and later returning to our hotel to freshen up for dinner. Although he claimed the day would be fairly easy, the combined jet lag and miles of walking proved to be terribly tiring. Still, I tried to enjoy the sights of London as much as I could as we began our sunny promenade through the city.
After stopping for a quick bite to eat, James then led us across the Tower Bridge, where they’d hung the Olympic rings during the 2012 Summer Olympics. James could hardly keep the pride out of his voice as he gave us some additional details about the summer London hosted the Olympic Games, as well as his personal experience seeing the festivities. I felt a twinge of jealously as he described the way the fireworks had reflected in the Thames, and I wished I could have seen it I person instead of just on television. I imagine it must have been spectacular!
The Tower Bridge looked absolutely stunning up close. It felt almost like a dream as we crossed such an iconic landmark, and seeing Thames choppy waves below us left me in absolute awe. James told us it had taken eight years to construct, and in 1977, during Queen Elizabeth II’s silver jubilee, it was repainted in her honor. He also explained what a royal jubilee is, since we don’t have a monarchy in the United States. Apparently, when a ruler reaches a particular milestone in their reign, such as ruling for 25 or 50 years, a huge celebration is held called a jubilee. If it’s your 25th anniversary, a silver jubilee is held; if it’s your 50th ruling year, you celebrate with a golden jubilee; a 60 year reign earns the queen or king a diamond jubilee; and 70 years on the throne (which is yet to happen) means a platinum jubilee. Queen Elizabeth II recently celebrated her diamond jubilee in 2012, and soon she’s expected to pass Queen Victoria as the longest reigning monarch in British history.
We were then given the opportunity to explore the Tower of London, which is this huge stone castle that housed multiple rulers in medieval times, including King Henry VIII and his six queens. I remembered having studying the bloody line of Henry VIII in AP European History during my sophomore year, and at the time, the history wasn’t really alive to me. I felt as though we were simply memorizing facts for our AP Exam in May. However, seeing where Anne Boleyn had been executed, where Mary Tudor had kept her apartments and gardens, where the knights had practiced for tournaments, where the nobility lived in splendor away from the peasant life was completely surreal.
My friends and I managed to find one of the Tower’s Beefeaters, who are ceremonial guardians for the Crown Jewels and prisoners in the towers. The Beefeater we met was leading a tour of around thirty people through main points of interest, and curious as to what he would tell us, we became absorbed with the other tourists. He showed us Traitor’s Gate, where Sir Thomas and Anne Boleyn had entered on their way to execution. He showed us the ravens living inside the castle grounds. He then brought us to a church where we weren’t permitted to take photographs and gave us a little history lesson on the Reformation. Unfortunately, I sitting down on a bench after having walked for so long made me a little sleepy, and I struggled to keep my eyes open as we listened to the Beefeater. I didn’t want to appear rude, but we had been going nonstop since the plane’s landing, so I barely heard anything he related to us beyond points I already knew.
After our tour with the Beefeater, my friends and I headed over to see England’s crown jewels. Again, we weren’t allowed to take pictures inside for security purposes, but to be honest, taking pictures of the jewels doesn’t do justice to their magnificence. The crown jewels were bigger than any gems I’d ever seen in my life! In fact, a few of them were larger than my fist! The crowns themselves were covered in diamonds, emeralds, sapphires, rubies and amethyst, but they looked extremely heavy and uncomfortable, so I wasn’t exactly envious of the rulers who had to wear them during their coronations and jubilees. In addition to crowns, there were also vases and goblets, animal fur robes and golden scepters. I wonder how many people in the past have been tempted to steal from the Tower’s treasure trove.
We then ventured inside the infamous Bloody Tower, where several nobles were assassinated, including Sir Thomas Overbury’s poisoning and the young princes’ murders. The tower steps were impossibly narrow and I definitely felt a creepy vibe when we saw the rooms where the murders had taken place. Personally, I don’t believe in ghosts, so it wasn’t like that feeling people say you get when you enter a haunted place. The shiver down my spine was more the result of knowing two boys had been murdered in cold blood in the very rooms we visited than anything else.
We tried to find the dungeon gift shop, but we ended up not having enough time, so we left to meet up with the big group again. My friends did manage to make a quick purchase at a shop from across the Tower, and we ended up joining the other twenty-five members just in the nick of time. James then helped us find our way back to the hotel, where we would have an hour to shower and get ready before meeting again in the hotel lobby.
My roommate and I made a quick inspection of our room and beds, which were incredibly comfortable. In fact, they were so comfortable that I opted out of taking a shower and instead took a short power nap so that I could enjoy the rest of our evening in London. I promised myself I would take one later that night or the next morning. We then quickly got into nicer clothes since we were going to a celebrity chef’s restaurant and needed to look right for the occasion.
Dinner at Jamie Oliver’s new place in London was a little underwhelming, actually. The food tasted okay, although it was always a little too salty or too bland, with the exception of the dessert of course. Still, I wanted to be polite, so I ate as much of it as I could (while gulping as many glasses of water as I could in between bites).
Luckily, around eight thirty we were herded back to our hotel where James gave us a few instructions about the next day. We’d get a morning wake-up call at seven o’clock, and were expected to have eaten breakfast, dressed and ready to go by eight o’clock. My roommate and I, however, set our alarm a little earlier, since we preferred taking our time with our morning routines. By nine we had already collapsed into our beds and were sound asleep, snug under the sheets.