Europe Trip ~ London Promenade

 

Good morning London!

Good morning London!

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.

The wait was worthwhile once I got my first official stamp on my passport!

The wait was worthwhile once I got my first official stamp on my passport!

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.

There’s nothing better than cappuccinos, green tea and yogurt with your friend outside a café in London!

There’s nothing better than cappuccinos, green tea and yogurt with your friend outside a café in London!

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.

St. Paul’s beautiful exterior; I couldn’t wait until tomorrow to explore the church!

St. Paul’s beautiful exterior; I couldn’t wait until tomorrow to explore the church!

Here we crossed the Millennium Bridge, which was built in the year 2000 to welcome the new millennium. However, most people call it the Harry Potter Bridge because in the seventh Harry Potter movie, the death eaters destroy the bridge in one of the opening scenes.

Here we crossed the Millennium Bridge, which was built in the year 2000 to welcome the new millennium. However, most people call it the Harry Potter Bridge because in the seventh Harry Potter movie, the death eaters destroy the bridge in one of the opening scenes.

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Here we passed Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, or rather, a replica of it. The original burned down centuries ago. Fun fact: This is the only building in London to still have a thatched rooftop to preserve the history of Shakespeare’s theater company. Other buildings are not permitted to have thatched roofs because it’s a fire hazard (obviously).

Here we passed Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, or rather, a replica of it. The original burned down centuries ago. Fun fact: This is the only building in London to still have a thatched rooftop to preserve the history of Shakespeare’s theater company. Other buildings are not permitted to have thatched roofs because it’s a fire hazard (obviously).

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.

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According to James, the river Thames actually has the cleanest water in all of Europe. It only appears muddy because the water itself is so clear that you can see the bottom, but I’m not entirely sure if I believe him or not.

According to James, the river Thames actually has the cleanest water in all of Europe. It only appears muddy because the water itself is so clear that you can see the bottom, but I’m not entirely sure if I believe him or not.

 

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.

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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.

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Europe Trip ~ The Adventure Begins at 30,000 Feet

Cloudwatching 1

Europe Trip Day One:

June 23rd, 2014

Where: From Sacramento International Airport to Dulles Airport to New London Heathrow Airport

 

My adventure began as all great adventures do—at 4:30 in the morning, long before the sky sheds its coat of stardust and cosmos or the sun leads the charge into day. The world’s slumber immediately shattered with the angry buzz of my alarm clock, and as much as I wished I could ignore it, I didn’t want to deal with the consequences if I didn’t wake up on time. After struggling out of bed and switching off that pesky alarm, I tottered sleepily into the bathroom, hoping to make myself at least somewhat decent before I met my friends at the airport.

Despite waking up before sunrise, I felt surprisingly well-rested. I had made sure to go to bed around 9:00 p.m. (which is considerably early for me) because I wanted to get one last good night’s sleep in before a torturously long traveling day. A week before, at our last instructional meeting for the trip, our head teacher (I’ll refer to her as Frau, since at school she’s the German teacher) advised us to stay up as late as possible the night before so we would have an easier time sleeping on the plane. However, I didn’t feel this was completely necessary, as I don’t have much trouble myself napping in public places. I’ve developed quite impressive dozing skills from experiencing too many late bus rides after marching band competitions.

After my bathroom routine and getting changed into the clothes I’d picked out the night before, I double –checked my luggage and carry-on for any necessities I might be missing. Luckily, I had everything as far as I could tell, from my passport, digital camera, and outlet adapters to my wallet, VISA card, and extra socks. The day before my mom had helped me pack, and we’d spent hours hunting down essentials and meticulously organizing my suitcase. To give you an idea of how incredibly obsessive compulsive Mom and I can be: we’d arranged the clothes in the order I’d most likely wear them in accordance to various weather predictions we’d researched, we’d folded and refolded everything until we were satisfied there would be enough space for souvenirs, and we’d determined which items were the most important to have on me if my luggage happened to get lost. I suppose you could say perfectionism runs in the family.

By 5:25 a.m. I’d kissed Mom and my younger brother goodbye, grabbed two homemade chocolate chip muffins on the way out, and settled back in my seat as Dad drove me to the airport. The freeway was nearly deserted—except for a few speedy commuters—and the sun barely touched the horizon as we listened to the low hum of our car’s radio. While we were driving, Dad took the opportunity to remind me to be responsible while I was in Europe, and I promised I would.

We arrived at the airport and found my group standing tiredly around the luggage check-in (I guess the majority of them had taken Frau’s advice). Since Frau was the one distributing our tickets, I greeted her first before getting in line for my suitcase to be weighed. Once I was completely checked in, Dad and I exchanged a few I love you’s and goodbyes. Because I knew I wouldn’t have contact with him for over ten days (we hadn’t had time to set up a call plan with Verizon), I made sure to give him an extra-long hug.

In total, our group was comprised of twenty-eight people. Twenty of us were students, and the other eight were our chaperones. Fortunately for me, I had some good friends who were also going on the trip, as well as others I vaguely knew, so I didn’t feel nearly as shy as I’d expected. In fact, I felt like a natural extrovert! My excitement was bubbling inside me as I practically skipped through airport security and into our terminal.

With an hour to kill before our domestic flight to Washington D.C., I walked over to the airport’s Starbucks with a few of my closer friends. Although I was really tempted to purchase a Grande Double Chocolate Chip Frappuccino, I forced myself to buy two large water bottles instead. I wasn’t in any hurry to get dehydrated on my first day in Europe! My friends ordered their coffee, hoping that the caffeine would help them stay awake.

Our group boarded the first plane around 8:15, but we weren’t scheduled to take off until 8:50. As I walked through the jet bridge, I whispered a quiet prayer for safety and no complications during our flight. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with flying, but ever since tragedies like 9/11 or the recent Malaysian airline crash, I don’t feel completely safe unless I talk to God first. I also made sure to thank Him for the amazing opportunity I had to travel abroad and the fact that I was alive and well. It was important to me to get a few prayers in before I returned to my hyperactive hijinks with my friends or died from anticipation.

Once we’d boarded, I managed to trade seats with a very kind boy from our group so that I could sit closer to my friends. I was worried he wouldn’t be willing to switch with me, seeing as how I was asking him to sit further back and away from some people he knew, but he was super sweet about the entire thing and took me up on my offer almost immediately. I felt a little bad at first, but fortunately for both of us, one of his friends happened to sit in the same row, so it wasn’t a complete loss.

While we were waiting, my friends and I amused ourselves with taking ridiculous photos of each other on our cellphones and cameras, as well as giggling about the strange-looking human beings on the airplane’s safety manuals and teasing each other about the no-smoking rule (None of us smoke of course! In the United States [for my readers outside the U.S.], the school system quickly educates us on the health issues associated with cigarettes, alcohol and drugs, starting from elementary school and well into high school. So, the average American teenager [or at least, the ones I hang out with] has had this information pounded into their heads to the point where we wouldn’t even consider smoking or chewing tobacco anymore. [I believe, “Hugs, not drugs” is a popular slogan awareness groups like to use nowadays] It just isn’t classified as cool in the U.S., contrary to the European way [although I will approach that topic in a later blog]. No, we Americans really value marijuana plants over tobacco plants! [Okay, I’ll stop being sarcastic and poking fun at current political agendas because this isn’t a blog about governmental affairs. Also, I’m going to end this tangent.])

Bunny ears, of course, are always appropriate for these situations.

Bunny ears, of course, are always appropriate for these situations.

Possession

Friendship Selfie

Our flight finally took off and we were on our way to Washington D.C.! Whenever planes start ascending, I always like to watch how small the towns and cities become as we fly over them. People start resembling ants, and the houses and streets look like miniature models. It always reminds me of a toy box, and from that height, when things are still recognizable, it just puts the world in a new perspective. I look down at the passing lakes and hills before we enter the clouds and just think about how insignificant yesterday’s problems become when you feel bigger than the ground you left behind. It honestly takes my breath away every time.

After initial takeoff, flights become very long and very boring for me. I tried to pass some of the time by reading William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, but I was too tired to catch all the clever jokes in the text and I grew immensely sick of deciphering Shakespearean verse through half-open eyelids. I did catch an hour of sleep in before promptly waking up and realizing there was still a long way to go before we reached Dulles airport. So, I instead resorted to cloud watching.

I can see a dragon and rice pickers and goslings following their mother, among other things

I can see a dragon and rice pickers and goslings following their mother, among other things.

By the time we arrived in Dulles, I was positively starving, and rushed to the airport’s Subway once Frau gave us permission to wander. I happily munched on my impromptu dinner while we waited for our conjoining flight to London.

We were expecting only an hour layover, but due to a few engine complications, our flight was pushed back two more hours. We weren’t really bothered by this though; after such a terrible, 5 hour domestic flight, we weren’t nearly as anxious to board a plane as we’d previously been. Instead, we sat around in clusters playing with card packs. My friend taught me how to play this one game called Rummy, although I’m not very good at it.

The international flight wasn’t nearly as awful as the domestic flight. For one thing, the seats were much more comfortable. We also had our own individual television screens to watch movies on, so I finally had something to engage with besides sixteenth century comedies or fluffy sky apparitions. Although I was exhausted by then, I still treated myself to Mean Girls before trying to fall asleep. The turbulence, however, kept me from sleeping as soundly as I would have liked to…

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Cross it off the Bucket List: 2014 Europe Trip

 

This is my...ahem...childish thoughts journal.

This is my…ahem…childish thoughts journal.

Around a year and a half ago, during the second semester of my sophomore year, a rather unexpected announcement sounded from the school’s intercom. Usually, I don’t pay attention to our principal’s daily briefing because she always discusses the same things: “Good morning [insert high school name here]! Congratulations to our fantastic football team for beating [insert high school name here]’s team last night; you were terrific and we’re so proud of you! Just a quick reminder for our staff: there’s a meeting after school and we expect all teachers and staff members to attend. Today’s weather is expected to be a little rainy, but even so, it’s still a great day to be a [insert high school mascot here]!”

Notwithstanding, something about this particular announcement caught my attention. Maybe it was because our impossibly perky principal wasn’t the one speaking or the fact that the broadcast occurred during an odd hour in the day, but for some reason, I was intrigued. While my fellow students continued writing notes from our teacher’s power point on important figures during the French Revolution, I strained to hear this special announcement:

“Attention students! Are you interested in traveling abroad? Have you ever wanted to see London or Paris? Explore the Black Forest in Germany or hike the Swiss Alps? Next summer, experience Europe with your friends and [insert high school name here] teachers! If you’re interested in this trip, go to Room WL-109 to pick up additional information. Available spots are limited so be sure to sign up as soon as possible! Thank you!”

Naturally, I had trouble focusing on the rest of the lesson after this revelation. My imagination danced with Buckingham Palace, the Eiffel Tower, Notre Dame and alpine horn players. My thoughts entertained the possibility of seizing this once-in-a-lifetime chance to travel to places I’d only ever observed in photographs and textbooks. Visiting Europe had been an item on my bucket list for a long time, and now, I finally had the opportunity to make that dream a reality. So, after school, I immediately rushed into Room WL-109 and picked up as many flyers and advertisements about the trip.

My parents were surprisingly supportive when I approached them with the idea of traveling to Europe by myself. I expected they would draw the line when I showed them how expensive the trip was, or when they realized my first experience outside of the United States would be without them, but they agreed that I couldn’t pass this tour up. Mom jokingly told me that her only condition was I bring home as much Swiss chocolate as I could carry.

After I signed up, my excitement was uncontainable. Nearly every dream I had for the following two months centered on Europe and the adventures I would have overseas. But when junior year started—one of the most stressful years of high school—the Europe Trip faded further and further from my mind. Periodically, I’d attend meetings explaining how to handle pounds and euros or which tourist attractions I might want to visit, and then the reality that each day brought me closer to Europe revived my enthusiasm. The majority of the time, however, I spent worrying about SATs and AP Exams and keeping up my high GPA.

Well, junior year finally ended and the Europe Trip finally arrived. And as you can imagine, it was one of the best experiences of my life. It was the first time I’ve left the United States (accidental steps into Mexico don’t count!); the first time I used foreign money; the first time I was in close proximity to multiple cultures; the first time I regularly relied on a second language to get around; the first time I needed a map to explore the different streets; the first time I saw anything built thousands of years ago. It was my first real, amazing adventure, and the journey is still fresh in my mind!

Anyway, because the trip left such an impact on me and because my different friends and family members consistently ask for my personal stories about Europe, I figured posting a day-by-day blog concerning my adventures would be the most efficient way to satisfy all their questions. That way, I’ll only need to direct them to this site without having to repeat myself too often.

So, for the next few posts, experience the journey with me as I recount my adventures in London, Paris, Black Forest and Lucerne!

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The Books I Keep as Appetizers

"Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested..." ~ Sir Francis Bacon

“Some books are to be tasted, others to be swallowed, and some few to be chewed and digested…”
~ Sir Francis Bacon

I’ve never managed to quench my thirst for books, my ravenous hunger for knowledge or my large appetite for storytelling. True, I’ve slowly chewed my way through the classics, and I might’ve nibbled here and there in a few different genres. I’ve devoured some books the moment they’re served before me—even if the ingredients weren’t as well incorporated as they were inside the author’s head. Sometimes I’ve promptly spit out the words from the most unpalatable, insipid of novels, and other times, I’ve been lucky enough to taste the most mouthwatering combinations in literature. My eyes feast upon the most delectable words, the most flavorful characters, the most poignant beginnings, middles and ends, and yet I’ve never been satisfied. I am always starving for the next great adventure.

My yearning for the printed word began long before I could even read it, let alone taste it. I started sampling the childish rhymes and illustrations during my toddler years, when books meant delayed bedtimes and the safety of a parent’s lap, and words made more sense if they were held upside-down.  Those were the morsels of Dr. Seuss’s Cat in the Hat, Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are, and Brown’s Goodnight Moon. They were the spoonful of McBratney’s Guess How Much I Love You and the bite of the Rey’s Curious George.                

Even though my younger self lacked the cognition to understand the meaning behind all the words I was spoon-fed, I was captivated by how seamlessly the books cooked up stories for my consumption. Soon, I wasn’t just piling up children’s books to prolong my bedtime routine; I was pulling more books from the shelves because I wanted to munch on their stories. Books became the go-to present for birthdays and Christmases, and the most effective remedy for infantile tantrums. Trips to the dentist’s and pediatrician’s office were more bearable when the waiting room offered numerous picture books, and visits to the library (an entire restaurant of books at your fingertips!) never failed to brighten a little girl’s day.

But there were limitations to my early literary excursions. Because I couldn’t read, I relied heavily on my parents and guardians to sate my developing palate. This meant that books squeaked into the spaces between busy workdays, not on whim or impulse. They revolved around a carefully calculated schedule, and only occasionally were there times when a story slipped through the cracks.

Although this frequently frustrated me, my family formulated creative strategies to combat my growing appetite. Sometimes, before my mom confined herself to her office—where she would endure long conference calls with various clients and executives—she’d hand me a box of crayons and white printer paper and tell me to draw the stories I wanted to hear. I remember recreating many fairytales and holiday stories, trying to follow their recipes exactly but often missing or adding a stray ingredient. When I’d finished scribbling, I’d staple the pages together and “read” my new “book” to mom as soon as she was available to listen. Every once in a while, if I was lucky, my mom would write down everything I said into these “books” so that my childish descriptions would forever be pressed into those drawings. Another strategy was to play audiobooks during long car rides; but when these tapes were lost or too often repeated, my dad used to push in a Mike Oldfield CD and narrate what he imagined was happening in accompaniment to music. And, if all else failed, I could always retreat into my parents’ closet with the Oxford Dictionary or even the Holy Bible and say aloud what I thought the words must mean. My interpretations of the text were always inaccurate, but I treasured these moments when I tried my own hand at story cooking.

And then, the time finally arrived when I could pick up a book and taste the fantasy with more than my ears. I gained a new independence when I learned how to read, one that brought so many new opportunities in its wake. For the first time, I didn’t rely on my family members to conjure the magic between the book covers. I was free to savor the fiction anytime I so wished.

(Often, I hear people complaining about how they haven’t accomplished much in their lives. They lament missed opportunities or previous mistakes or the direction their life took. I think too many of us forget the massive achievement literacy is. We forget the moment when the words in paperback, in street signs and advertisements fell into place for the first time, and we knew what they told us. We forget how limited our world was when the biggest challenge was writing our names. We forget how very large that same world became when we read things that took us to different historical periods or places we had never heard of before. Even if I myself never make it as an author or a screenwriter or poet, it would be enough for me to say my greatest success was in reading.)

With my newfound abilities, each book I snatched into my greedy tiny hands vanished within minutes, hours, days. I gravitated toward the sweeter books, the ones that always had happy endings because I hadn’t yet acquired the taste buds for bitter resolutions. My imagination ascended into the clouds as I followed Lucy into the wardrobe, or fought pirates alongside Peter Pan, or searched vigorously for the last of the really great Whangdoodles.  I swam with mermaids through the ocean’s depths; I solved the mystery of the vampire rabbit, Bunnicula; I explored the chocolate factory with Charlie Bucket; I flew with Harry on a magic broomstick; I cowered with Ani as Ungolad approached with dagger in hand.  These were stories I read and reread so many times that their essence became a part of who I was. I familiarized myself with their zest and seasonings. I relished in their simplicity and heart, these books that never complicated things with philosophical insight or subtle symbolism or allegory.

But sadly, the time of elementary tales fades with age. As I climbed newer heights in education and speculation, my eyes were opened to the intricacies of literature. Suddenly, I could recognize the socialist undertones (or as in the case of a few chapters, overtones) of John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath, the satire of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn. I understood why Sylvia Plath opened The Bell Jar with the Rosenberg electrocution. Shakespeare’s verse was no longer a foreign language. I have, in a sense, entered the main course for books.

Yet, even as I spend more time digesting the written works I read, I can’t bear to part with the original appetizers. Though there is little more these books can offer me—other than nostalgia or childhood amusement—they are too special for me to offer in a yard sale or donate to the local library. It may be selfish, but I like the way they look on my bookshelf, even if they are gathering dust. Every once in a while, I’ll pull out one of these books and admire the wrinkles on its spine and the pages that are still dog-eared. I’ll leaf through it until I find another honeyed description to ease the spice of harsh words I encountered in a more “grown-up” novel. I’ll relieve my experiences as an eight-year old or tween and unleash the sleeping hero within myself.                

One day, I hope to pass on these books to my future children, so that they will have a chance to taste glorious adventures before they graduate from the kids’ menu. Or maybe I’ll have a chance of heart and allow these books to fall into a stranger’s hands. For now, they’ll dream from my bookshelf, preserving the girl I once was, these books I keep as appetizers.

Reading

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