Tourist Info Desk

Welcome to Fernweh, a blog concerning the (mis)adventures of one Fulbrighter during a year spent in Europe teaching English.
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Thursday, July 29, 2010

Adventuring in the Alps, Part I

Sorry, I'm a bit behind. This is primarily because of this. And this. Is anyone surprised? No? Moving on, then.

So, where was I at the conclusion of my last missive? Right, the first night in Innsbruck. I'll do my best to remember and report faithfully, but given the extended interval of time (to wit, about three days), some very minor details may be changed or misrepresented. I take no responsibility for this whatsoever.

 On our hostel host's recommendation, we set out after breakfast and caught the bus up the side of the valley to the gondola station leading up to the very top of the mountain. Now, you would imagine at this point that we paid the 27 euro (EACH!) and wafted up the mountainside suspended from a clothesline in a chairlift on steroids in a gondola, but then you would be silly and wrong and I would have to laugh at you. We are hikers. Technology is for wimps. So we walked up.

Although by "up", I mean "up the mountain", and by that, I mean "halfway up the mountain." Specifically, to a very cute little lodge/restaurant perched on the side of the slope; above, a hideously steep and spleenbreakingly vertical ascent to the top of the ridge (we did not do this), and below, a glorious view of the red-and-white city of Innsbruck nestled in the valley below. The lodge was only accessible, so far as I could see, from three ways: down from the ridge above (best if you had wings), from a windy, steep path from below (best if you're Rambo), and from a nearly level road from the side (best for cows and normal hikers). Since the sun was shining warmly and the view was fantastic, we stayed a while and had a leisurely meal before heading back down the hill.

I don't honestly remember what--oh, wait, yes I do. We changed out our packs in our room, did some laundry, and then went for pizza. There was some laughing at a kid who looked like Justin Bieber and a lot of moaning about sore calves, and then we went to bed. Eventually. I think.

Anyway, next day! (This would be the 27th). Again on Thomas' (the reception's!) recommendation, we'd booked a one-night stay in a hut on the mountain opposite the one we'd been on the day before. The hike began somewhat inauspiciously: despite the fitful but warm sunshine, we could not find any signs pointing us towards our destination, and the people we asked for directions tended to look at us incredulously and say, "You're going to hike? Well, okay..." (Or, y'know, the equivalent German.) By the time we'd slogged our way up ridiculously steep paved roads to the little chapel/restaurant combo known as Heiligwasser, we figured out that this hut that Thomas had booked for us was not, as he had said, three hours up moderately challenging hiking trails, but at the end of these 60-degree-angle roads on top of the frickin' mountain. We pondered, looked up the imposing slope before us, considered that it was already 4pm, said "Sod it" (or thereabouts), and headed for the gondola.

Turns out that Heiligwasser is positioned right near the Mittelstation (halfway station) of the gondola lift going up to Schutzhaus, where we were staying. We caught the last cable car up of the day with 12 minutes to spare to talk to Ahmed, the wonderfully friendly operator from Egypt, and so finally made it up to the top much more quickly than we'd anticipated.

The "hut" turned out to be a very-nice full-blown lodge, where we dumped our stuff before (since we hadn't had enough yet) hiking on up to the very top of the mountain, another hour or so up. At the top, it was bitingly cold and windy, but the view, even despite the low-hanging clouds, was astounding. The mountain stood right over Innsbruck, which sits just at the intersection of three valleys into one; from the top, you can see down all of them until the green valley floor and the dark blue-green peaks meld into a dark haze in the distance. The bellies of the low-hanging clouds were just brushing the peaks of the mountains, and every so often a shaft of light would pierce through the grey and illuminate a patch of the valley in brilliant gold.

We didn't stay up there long because it was too cold, so we headed back down to have a delicious dinner instead. After coffee and admiring the view of the valleys lit up in the darkness, we retreated to our room to sleep.

The next day dawned bright and clear, so we packed up and set off on the longest, most roundabout way possible back to Innsbruck. No, really, but we did this on purpose: hiking down from the top, we descended through the forests from one little Alpine hut to the next: having drinks at one, then lunch at the next, and so on. We had great opportunities to see the smaller towns in the valley as we went down, finally ending up in the town of Rinn, where we caught the bus back to Innsbruck. This expedition took us all day, at which point we returned to our previous hotel for the night.

Which brings us to today, which is mostly boring, since it involved a lot of sitting in trains, staring out the windows at the waterlogged green countryside. The journey from Innsbruck to our next destination, Gimmelwald, only got interesting once we arrived in Interlaken, our first destination in Switzerland. For a brief spell, the sun broke through the clouds, so we took a train break to walk through the town and get groceries before the sky opened up again. Once the rain'd kicked up again, we got back on another train and headed deeper up into the valley.

Since it's getting late and I'm tired, I cannot do Switzerland justice. Words can't and pictures can't; you have to go there and see it, but even then you won't believe it, because it's simply too magnificent to be real. The Interlaken/Lauterbrunnen valley is carpeted in green and dotted with elegantly decorated little huts, with the pale grey-brown river tumbling and foaming its way down towards the lakes. But above and on either side, the mountains rise almost straight out of the ground; you have to crane your neck to see the top of the sheer sides, where the dark green fuzz of pine trees mark the edge of the level ground. Streams hurl themselves off the mountaintops with wild abandon, plunging in a fine mist down the rocks to join the river below. It is altogether magical.

We took a bus through this wonderland of misty grey and impossible green until the valley simply came to a very steep dead end, at which point we caught the cable car up the cliff face--looking down at the suicidal waterfalls from above--to a group of houses just close enough to be called a town and bear a name. Gimmelwald is a haven for backpackers, free spirits, and lone wolves to hike and breathe in the wild air of the mountains, which is what we're hoping to do. If we can get some good weather.

It's nearing midnight and I'm short on sleep as it is, so here in the common room of the Mountain Hostel, listening to the obnoxious American in overalls play the guitar and the Irish guys talking about the lack of interdental fricatives in their dialect (though not, of course, in those words), I will leave you. Welcome to the mountains. Enjoy.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Sayonara to Salzburg and Investigating Innsbruck

Another train, another date on my Eurail pass. We've said farewell to the lovely city of Salzburg on our way further south and west through Austria to Innsbruck where hopefully, if the vast improvement of the weather today is any indication, the sun will come out and we'll be able to do some hiking.

Innsbruck is a perfectly adorable little city somewhere in the Alps. It's got everything an alpine European should have: interesting, brightly colored buildings, twisty alleyways, pedestrian areas lined with shops and inviting cafes, and everywhere you look, mountains peeking through the cracks between buildings. The only problem is that it's Sunday, so half the town is shut. Ah well.

We arrived midafternoon and quickly discovered that the sensory (read: Internet) deprivation we suffered in Salzburg could be cured by the free WiFi at the McDonalds, so here from a Europeanized version of an American classic do I write to you. Despite dire warnings of rain in the next few days, today was sunny, if cool and breezy, so we explored the Old Town, had a delicious dinner, caught part of a free concert, and had far too much caffeine and laughed far too loud at a cute little cafe in an alley. The two waiters there both have wonderful senses of humor, and they needed them to deal with...well, Janna, mostly.

I don't have much to say about Innsbruck so far since that's really as far as we've gotten. Now, I don't want to sound ungrateful, but I'd like to note here that there is a glaring hole in the English language that I need a suitable plug for. It is a feeling closely akin to homesickness: that strange yearning for another place, somewhere you can't get to but long to be, the name of which makes your heart flutter and ache at the same time. The closest English can really get is "homesick", but this sounds odd if you want to use it to describe anywhere but where you've come from; all other "travel bug" type phrases don't capture the notions of reminiscence and longing for a beloved place. I think the German word "fernweh" (literally, faraway-pain) gets a lot closer, which is why it's the name of this blog. Anyway, I mention this because this is what I feel about Britain.

If you were expecting me to say "America" (which, if you know me, you weren't), the only things I miss about America are proximity to the people I love and free bread and glasses of water at restaurants. Oh, and Hulu. That's about it.

I like Austria. I'm sure I'll like Switzerland and Italy as well while I'm there, and Germany will be my home, so I'm determined to like it no matter what--and I already do, don't get me wrong. But there are two countries in the world where I've felt instinctively comfortable. One is, for no comprehensible reason, Japan. And the other is Britain. Go figure.

Anyway, the McDonald's is about to close, so on that odd note I must end. I hope that whoever and wherever you are, you read this in a place where you are safe, dry, happy, and comfortable. All the best from Innsbruck, Austria, Europe, The World.

Singing Through Salzburg

Originally written July 24th

Our first day in Salzburg was...eventful, I guess you could say. After breakfast, we set out into the cloudy grey morning to do RFS' self-guided tour through the Old Town. We poked our heads into churches (the cathedral, although plain on the outside, is really spectacular within), wandered down alleyways, ate bread at a monastery bakery and marveled at the beauty of the St. Peter's cemetery. This cemetery, tucked up against the foot of the cliff, is a quiet and peaceful place, and each grave is a lovingly tended flowerbed crowned by an ornate iron cross.

As we were making our way down Getreidegasse, where Mozart's birthplace is (wowee!), it really began to pour. Luckily, we'd thought ahead to bring our rain jackets along. Seeing as how it didn't show any sign of stopping, we left the masses huddling in doorways and squelched our way across the river to the New Town side. There we found the beautiful Mirabell Palace and the adorable gardens used in The Sound of Music. Of course we had to take many pictures, but by then, despite having raincoats, we were still getting cold and rather wet, so we headed to Mozart's Residenz. I tell you, everything in this city revolves around either The Sound of Music or Mozart; there's no escaping either one. We toured through Mozart's house and learned a bit more about him than I'd actually wanted to know...then we had to face the rain again. Tired and wet, we decided to head back up to our hostel for dinner, but unbeknownst to us (because RFS hadn't mentioned it) the entire restaurant seems to regularly rent itself out for parties or whatnot, so they refused to sell us any food, no matter how pathetically we asked. This meant that we ended up in our tiny room, eating stale bread and warm yoghurt left over from Prague, and having a good laugh about the whole thing before finally going to bed.

Now, something to consider: you'd think, if the hills in Austria really were alive with the sound of music, that they'd be singing in, er, German. Not Britainglish. Just sayin'.

I'm squished into a seat on a huge and gaudily painted tour bus--a space altogether too small for a person to whom God has graciously given both elbows and knees. Outside the countryside of Austria rolls by, soaking in grey rain, the mountaintops wreathed in clouds, vanishing into the misty distance. Even through the drizzle, the hills are a lovely, verdant green, moving aside like emerald curtains to reveal dramatic, pale blue lakes guarded by tall dark pines.

All this lyrically beautiful scenery, punctuated by the occasional cow nonplussed by the rain or a cluster of brightly painted houses with red-tiled rooves, is somewhat ruined by the music pouring out of the speakers directly above my head. Yes, this lovely drive through the countryside is in a bus emblazoned with the likeness of Maria and the von Trapp children and the cheerful words, "The Original Sound of Music Tour!" Our guide, who reminds me of a taller, American version of the guy who played Wormtail in Harry Potter, somehow manages to sound enthusiastic and bored at the same time, announcing each detail in an oddly breathy voice: "Now, remember that scene where Maria and the children sing? Again? That was filmed on the mountain that you would be able to see on the right side if it wasn't hidden behind a skyful of rainclouds!" This tour is definitely for the fanatics and obsessives, e.g. my mother.

Our guide also has been building up a mythology around our bus driver not unlike the mysteries surrounding the Stig. Maybe it has something to do with being a professional driver of something? I have no doubt that during the course of the tour, Roland the Bus Driver will gain more and more superpowers and random objects. So far he's lived under a bridge in the middle of Salzburg, painted his house gold like the palaces of Austria (he says it keeps away mosquitoes), regularly run into trees (but it's okay--he doesn't own the bus or the trees. Toyota Hilux, anyone?) and gone freeclimbing up a cliff with one hand, because in the other hand, he has a beer. Our guide even told us that "there was almost a fistfight on the bus a couple weeks ago. Roland had to break it yodeling."

By the far the most distracting and headache-inducing thing, though, is the music. Of course on the Sound of Music tour you have to listen to the music, but my heavens, is it annoying! I'm trying to write and admire the countryside, and Maria is howling at the top of her lungs about confidence and that jerk Rolf is trying to seduce poor Liesl. I vaguely remember this movie but certainly not enough to really appreciate all of the minuscule details.

But I'm just being pessimistic, possibly brought on by the fact that my feet are pickling in rainwater and Julie Andrews is doing her level best to liquefy my brains. Sigh. But Austria is really gorgeous; I've only been to Vienna before, and that was in the winter. There's something about this area that, though a bit touristy, is for the most part laid-back, quiet, and inviting.

This tour is most of what we've done today. Because of the cold and the rain, we were reluctant to leave our hostel this morning, so it was near noon when we finally made it down to the New City. We wandered along the river to look at a long line of pavilions selling food, decorations and jewelery before we got on our four-hour bus tour through the countryside. The rain is kind of a shame, because although I'd rather be cold than hot, the mist and clouds mean that we can't get the full effect of the towering peaks hiding their faces in the whiteness.


Somehow, I managed to make it through the entire tour without my head exploding. We saw the lane where the children hung out of the trees in their playclothes, the lake where they fell out of the boat, the gazebo, and the church where Maria and the Captain/Baron dude were married (Holy tourist trap, Batman!) among other places. I know I sound very negative; I just find it a little sad that this beautiful city, with loads of gorgeous churches and cute alleys and wonderful personality, depends for its touristic income almost entirely on two things: (1) Mozart (who apparently didn't like it anyway) and (2) the Sound of Music film, which was, according to our tour guide, something of a ripoff of a smaller, more accurate German film, so the Salzburgers, who have seen the original, have no great love for the Hollywood version, being very aware of all the artistic, factual, and geographical inaccuracies/shortcuts/handwaving.

But enough of that. Since it was still raining with a somewhat spiteful vehemence, we headed to a lovely cafe (a little posh for us, in capris, sandals, and t-shirts) for some wonderful cappuccino, then, following the recommendation of our guiding light, RFS, headed to a Gasthaus for dinner. For the first time on perhaps the entire trip, we were greeted at the door by someone who actually seemed to pleased to welcome us inside. Towering over us and guiding us to a table, the delightfully friendly man was stunned that we said no to beers, but managed to talk Mom into some wine anyway. We were sitting alone at our table in a brightly lit, antler-adorned hall for only a few minutes before we were joined by three more Americans (all brought there by RFS, of course): a RN who had been working on a new German Bible in London, and two professional musicians playing for three weeks with a symphony in Graz. We passed an entertaining evening eating hearty Austrian food and swapping stories; it was getting late when we finally trudged back to our perch on the cliff.

I was distracted for a while from bed, though, by the spectacular view of the city at night from the top of an old wall beside our hostel. From the cliff looking down, the alleyways and roads looked like streams of light, flowing with cars and umbrella'd pedestrians, between the dark banks of the black rooftops, to the Salzach river, which caught and reflected the light from the lamps. Above the estuary of interconnected rivulets sat the Hohensalzburg fortress, cloaked in clouds on the hilltop. I couldn't help but think that it looked like Hamlet's Elsinore would in my imagination: distant and regal, presiding with detachment over the light and life below, wreathed in mist and illuminated with an eerie, deathly green glow.

There were many things I liked about Salzburg. I'd love to come back here when the weather's better to explore the little towns by the lakes and hike some of those spectacular mountains. I like the more refined dignity of the city; Salzburg, with its pale, dark-capped buildings, many church spires, and dignified fortress, all framed by distant blue mountains, feels like a table in a garden on a beautiful summer day set for tea with the Queen, with shapely cups and posh little sandwiches and cakes and a teapot in a lace cozy. By contrast, Prague feels like a birthday party: a riot of colors and lights, a willful and joyous refusal to submit to order and straight lines, with the triumphant beauty of St. Vitus' Cathedral and the Palace as the showy and flowery cake.

Now I'm hungry.

Storms Over Salzburg

Originally written July 22nd

Whew. That was scary. For a few minutes, my poor computer refused to boot up and kept shutting itself off. I hope we're past that now.

As I write to you from my bunk in a hostel in the side of a cliff in Salzburg, I can see through the window that the sky is lighting up with flashes of purple--and there's the thunder, too. It appears the storm is back.

It's been hot and muggy in Salzburg all day. That's quite a change from when I was here last with Jewell, and just caught a glimpse of the city on our way to Vienna. My only impressions were clear skies and a stunning blue mountain crowned in white. The mountains are still stunning and blue, but now it's difficult to discern their shapes against the summer haze in the distance.

Our hostel is perched on the top of a cliff overlooking the Old Town and the Hohensalzburg Fortress. Oh, lovely, the rain's begun; maybe it'll cool down. Right, cliff--this means we have to take an elevator to get to our hostel (like the Aufzug in Marburg, except you have to pay for it), but it also means that instead of traffic noise, city racket and drunken tourists outside our window, we have rain, the wind in the trees, and...drunken tourists (they're everywhere).

This afternoon, we hiked up to and toured the fortress, which is a huge hulk of white-plastered majesty presiding over the city like the figurines on a wedding cake. Which is actually not that obscure of a mental image, because Salzburg is surprisingly white with dark rooftops, quite a change from Prague's red tile roofs and application with wild abandon of riotous pastel colors to every flat surface. In contrast, Salzburg looks monochromatically dignified, like the house of an elderly woman who has chosen to decorate her house entirely in white. Maybe this was a tribute to the importance of salt in Salzburg's history. Maybe it's the natural color of the local building stone. Maybe there were a lot of ambitious and controlling little old ladies on Salzburg's decorations council. The world may never know.

Anyway, the fortress looks just like an imposing medieval fortress should: big, with lots of walls and turrets and parapets and cannons pointed toward the town. The best moment was climbing out on the highest bit with a 360-degree view of Salzburg in the hazy light of early evening. There were some museums and such that we dashed through as well, but really, the impressive exterior view and wandering around the courtyards and towers were the best parts.

Sheesh, it's really coming down hard now. I hope it keeps going to cool off the air and get rid of all the rain so we can have nice, if cooler, weather for our stay here.

We took the funicular down from the castle and rambled a bit through the streets and alleyways of the old town, waving at the statue of Mozart on the way. We stopped for a late dinner at a cute outdoor Italian place, but just as we got our food, there were amethyst flashes in the distance, ominous growlings, and then the first drops of rain. We scootched under an umbrella to finish our food and then went straight back to our hostel, where there's a lovely old ruined wall with a second that juts out from the cliff, affording a sweeping view of the city and of the lightning-lit clouds in the distance.

The storm stayed fairly far from us, but the purple light was dancing everywhere, pulsing like a strobe light. Still, there is nothing like being outside, exposed, and high up in the midst of a summer thunderstorm. Every swish of the leaves on the trees and ominous silences of the cicadas seem to be harbingers of doom, but then the horizon ignites and a glowing thread leaps from heaven to earth, and you forget that at any second your brain could be fried and your heart exploded by a strike from the heavens because it is so awesomely, wondrously, fantastically beautiful.

Mom and Janna have both fallen asleep, and I'm about to do the same. Assuming it's not still raining in the morning (and even if it is--oh well) we have a lot to do. Mozart and the Sound of Music await.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Prächtige Prag

You never forget your first cathedral.

I saw my first cathedral on my first trip to the Continent at the tender age of 16. My mother and I had just begun a month-long tour around France, Switzerland, Germany, and Sweden, and were spending our first few days in Paris. Although perhaps not the best place to get a good first impression of Europe as a continent, Paris is lovely in many ways and has enough gasp-inducing landmarks to impress anyone, much less your average 16-year-old.

Along with the Eiffel Tower, Champs-Élysées and the Arc de Triomphe, of course we had to visit Notre Dame. I was immediately impressed by the creamy stone towers and beautiful carving, and inside, the vast arched spaces and, especially, the gorgeous stained glass windows. I remember being particularly enthralled by the rose windows--like frozen fireworks in lavender, magenta, azure, and gold--and standing motionless as other tourists swirled and eddied around me, trying to hold my breath so I could get a clear picture of every detail. We climbed the towers and I leaned beside a gargoyle, delighted with the height, astounded by the view of the city spread out before me.

Since then, visiting churches has become a priority in my travels. After the rush and stress of finding a hostel, looking for reasonably priced food, trying to spend money frugally and sensibly, worrying about pickpockets and watching the clock, these still and ancient churches are refuges for me just as they´ve been for pilgrims and wanderers for centuries. No matter what country you´re in, the cool dimness is welcoming, comfortingly familiar, intriguingly unique. Each one has a different character--different saints and patrons frozen in stone in the act of benediction or caught in the dramatic moment of miracle or martyrdom.

Some churches I experience and enjoy, then promptly forget, but others stick in my head forever for some impression on me. As I said, Notre Dame was the first, and has a special place in my heart. For fond memories, there´s Christ Church Cathedral in Dublin, where a rector took my friend and I and a couple other people on a wonderful private tour for sheer enthusiasm. For romantic beauty, I always think of wandering past the warm golden light spilling out of cafes on dark, twisty streets, only to round a corner and find the white domes of the church of Montmartre looming like the spires of an Arabian palace in the gathering Parisian twilight. For pure shock-and-awe grandeur, the Dom in Köln is unbelievable; as you leave the Hauptbahnhof, it towers over you, filling your field of vision, forcing you to crane your neck just to see where its black spires meet the heavens. And for spectacular ambiance and stained glass, I always think of St. Vitus´ Cathedral here in Prague, which brings me in a roundabout way to today´s adventure.

We slept in somewhat and left our hostel late, wandering through the city and up the hill to find spectacular views over the city from a monastery perched high above the red tile rooftops. From there, we drifted back down to Castle Square and entered the castle complex. The entire top of this ridge is crowned by Prague Castle with the cathedral as the spiky, green-domed jewel in the center. The castle looks less like a castle than it does a row of fancy pastel houses, but the cathedral that sits in the middle is unmistakably grand, so we headed there first.

Through the doors and into the relative coolness and silence we obediently filed, navigating around tour groups with matching lanyards and oblivious sightseers with audioguides mashed to their ears. The wonderful thing about St. Vitus´ is that each window, down both sides of the cathedral and around the apse, is a different style and color scheme, so each chapel is a surprise. My favorite is the Mucha window, an absolutely stunning work of art in glorious colors depicting, in the center, an old woman representing the past and memory and a bright-eyed young boy in red looking to the future of the Czech people. There is so much detail and care in these windows that you could spend hours just studying them and staring.

We walked around the outside of the church, very impressed by the intricate golden mosaic over the doors, and then headed off to find dinner. We followed RFS´ recommendation to a hidden-away little place with views over the city and a very friendly, Anthony-Hopkins-look-alike waiter who impressed on us the importance of ordering things that were ´´traditional Czech.´´ By the time we left, evening was approaching, so we started to make our way back down toward the city, although we kept getting distracted by panoramic views over the city. On our way back to the river, we stopped by the Lennon (not Lenin!) wall, where Czechs expressed their hopes for peace and freedom during communism, and the tradition now continues with colorful graffiti messages. We finally made it back to Charles´ Bridge (with a short detour to see some of the sets from MI:I) as the sun was going down and wandered in a roundabout way back to our hostel.

Tomorrow is our last day in Prague. We will then be moving on to Salzburg, which is new to all of us. I´m looking forward to and apprehensive about this for the same reason: I will once again be expected to act as translator. Here in Prague, all three of us are on equal ground, being equally unable to make any sense of the (utterly fascinating) Czech language. In Austria, we´ll be back on familiar ground with German...but I´ll be expected to talk again. To everyone. About everything.

Ah well, it´s good for me. Good language practice as well as good practice being bold. I´m going to need both once I finally get to Stadtroda.

P.S. I know I keep saying this, but pictures coming later. Promise!

Monday, July 19, 2010

Appreciating Prague

Although we did much today, there isn't a whole lot to report. I've already told you about the wonderful buildings and winding streets, except that now in full daylight, we could really experience the pastel colors and scrolling details on so many buildings.

We took a free walking tour for most of the morning; many of the places were, again, familiar to me, though I couldn't tell you what they meant. Our guide was a fun and energetic young man from North Carolina (not very local!) who took the group through the Old Town, the Jewish Quarter, and along the riverfront. After the tour, we spent a lot of time wandering, having lunch, and shopping aimlessly, just enjoying the ambiance of the city. We finished off the day with a dinner of bread, cheese, salami, and wine in the Market Square, watching people and cars go by in the gathering twilight.

I wish I had more variety and things of interest to regale you with. But it's getting late here, and sleep sits heavy on my eyelids. So more later.

Departing Dresden and Puttering through Prague

I promised I'd tell you about Dresden, so I will. Dresden was surprisingly nice, even in the very brief time we were there. Since it's not very far from Jena, I'd very much like to spend more time there.

We left our bags at the train station and walked through the Altstadt, choosing our path by the main flow of traffic and what looked interesting the distance. Because of this, I can't really tell you what we saw because I'm not sure myself what it was. We did see two very beautiful and very different churches: one a cathedral, cleanly white and quietly dignified on the inside, and other, the Frauenkirche, was circular, packed with tourists, and a riot of colors, balconies, and golden trim. We started back to the train station, stopping for lunch on the way, and ended up having to run to our train.

As we pulled into Prague, the grey canopy that had covered Dresden dissolved into clear skies and cool sunshine. Although I feel a little on edge in Prague, like I'm never totally secure--maybe it's the strangeness of being utterly unable to understand the local language--I've never encountered scenery like it in Europe. Every building is beautifully painted and decorated, and whatever medieval logic resulted in the modern layout of Prague, clearly none of them had ever heard of a straight line; the cobbled streets twist, curve, merge, and diverge for no discernible reason. The effect is delightful; new vistas unfold every few feet and the streets just ooze serendipity. Setting off towards a particular edifice is a risky business if you can't clearly see it, since the road inevitably curves and sends you off in a different direction. This is irritating if you're trying to get to a particular place at a particular time, because you won't, but if you're wandering with your head thrown back, tripping over cobblestones and keeping one eye on your backpack, letting the crowds and roads carry you along, you can end up in some very beautiful places.

We found our way, in a roundabout sort of way, to our hostel, and in the evening, we set off to see some of the sights and find some food. We walked through the marketplace square and followed the tide of humanity to Charles' Bridge, one of the most famous landmarks in Prague which, besides being stately and statue-adorned in its own right, affords breathtaking views of the cathedral and palace on the hillside above the river. We were there just as the sun was going down behind the hill and setting the clouds aflame in magenta and gold. Slowly, the sky dimmed into twilight and the cathedral and palace were lit from beneath by spotlights.

We finally tore ourselves and wended our way back through the brightly lit streets to the main square, picking up a couple of döner kebap on our way. I've heard that memories are most strongly connected with smell and taste, and tasting those döner, I was instantly back in Marburg. We took a good while looking at the very beautiful but mostly incomprehensible astronomical clock, then finally staggered home.

It is certainly strange to feel that a place as exotic and convoluted as this lovely city is familiar to me, but I was here just a year and a half ago for New Year's with my friend Jewell on our way around the Continent for Christmas break. It looked very different then, of course; the market square and Wenceslas Square were packed with people and fireworks whizzing overhead, and the scents of baked goods, Glühwein, and explosives were heavy in the sharp winter air. Now the air is only cool, not bitingly cold, and the square mostly empty. Otherwise, everything looks, as far as I can remember, the same.

I guess the world really does continue to exist when I'm not there...

Written 7/19/2010

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Oxford, Part II (finally!)

I apologize for the lack of regular updates. My internet connection is spotty, so I'm writing down my thoughts in posts and then posting several at a time when I get the chance. If I need to post something written a few days earlier, I'll try to remember to note the original date for continuity's sake.

Alright, finally I have a couple hours to just sit down and write. We've just left Dresden, a lovely city which I shall tell you about later, because right now, I want to get some of my thoughts about Oxford in order before it's too far in the distance and my memory fades too much.

Therefore I invite you back, dear reader, to the ninth of July, oh so long ago, to the living room of Stephen's home in Oxford. I'd met his two housemates, Julie and Polly, the day before, and Stephen was planning to show me around the city that day.

Stephen and I took the bus into the city, which was just as beautiful and awe-inspiring as it had been the day before. Our first stop was the Pitt Rivers museum inside the Natural History Museum. The latter was housed in a huge open hall, displaying the skeletons of elephants and giraffes and all manner of stuffed creatures the world over. We wandered about for a bit, then continued on through a door in the back to an enormous room shrouded in a mysterious twilight. In the dusk stood a maze of old glass cabinets, packed full to bursting with strange objects. This was the Pitt Rivers museum, an anthropological collection of curiosities and artefacts from around the world, to which we had come with the primary goal of seeing the shrunken heads.

It took us a while to find them; on the way we saw spears, cloth, pipes, weapons, masks, boats, good luck and death charms, musical instruments, and every sort of tool imaginable. There were lanterns made of pufferfish and rainjackets made of seal intestine and a magnificent cloak from Hawai'i made of millions of brilliant orange, yellow, and black feathers, which had been gathered over years to make it. We finally did find the shrunken heads, along with a typewritten card informing us of the cultural motivations for taking and shrinking heads (the tribes believed that there were only a certain number of bodies in the world, and taking and "adopting" an enemy's head would mean that your progeny would have a body to inhabit) and the methods whereby they were preserved (heated with warm stones, not boiled).

The museum went on and on, and it was past one in the afternoon before we finally emerged, blinking, back into the sunlight. We dropped by a cute cafe with delicious sandwiches for lunch, then set about touring the colleges.

Now, if you've read my entry on Cambridge, you know that both universities have a similar collegiate system. The university itself is composed of these colleges, like a body is composed of cells. Unlike in Cambridge, though, in Oxford you apply to the university as a whole, and upon acceptance, you are guaranteed a spot in a college. Stephen took me to a few of his favorites, beginning with New College, which is tucked away on a back road in an unassuming fashion. Once through the gate, though, the college is gorgeous, with the now-familiar archways and spires, but also with a wonderful walled garden.

The next stop was All Soul's College, which had a beautiful open quad, a colorful sundial, a wonderfully cool and peaceful chapel, and a great view of the imposing Radcliffe Camera out the gate. We also took a brief tour through the majestic and imposing Christ Church College, featuring a long, lamp-lit dining hall laid out for a meal, a huge open quad, and a chapel--the latter we were unfortunately not allowed into because of an awards ceremony. I caught the door as someone left, however, and ventured in anyway, getting a glimpse of the vaulted ceiling and the carved choir, and got glared at for my trouble. These colleges are imposing and ridiculously gorgeous, but I have a hard time imagining living, much less feeling at home, in one. I'll have to try it and find out.

It was definitely getting hot outside, so we headed to the best ice-cream place in town--the name of which I have unfortunately forgotten--and took our rapidly melting dessert to the bank of the river for some entertainment. In both Oxford and Cambridge, punting is a popular pastime--pushing a small, flat-bottomed boat along the shallow river with a long pole. We relaxed in the shade by a bend in the river and watched the experts glide serenely by as the tourists swerved, wobbled, and crashed into each other. Generally, they waved and smiled good-naturedly as we laughed and shouted encouragement.

As it was getting on in the afternoon, we took the long way round to get out of the park and met Julie at a little but apparently famous pub hidden in the intersection of some alleyways for some drinks, then the three of us headed out to meet up with some more people.

We finally found Yen, a friend of Julie and Stephen's, Yen's friend Devi from Australia, and Devi's friend Poonam from Leicester. All six of us trotted off through town, ending up at a wonderful Thai restaurant, having altogether too much fun for the small room and close proximity to other diners. I had some delicious fried rice served in a hollowed-out pineapple. It was brilliant. We finished off with more ice cream from the same parlor as before, watching darkness descend over Oxford.

We agreed to all meet up the next day, except for Julie, who unfortunately had to work, and so we reunited at the train station the next morning to head for Stratford-upon-Avon, birthplace of the greatest master of the English language that the world has ever seen--that is, William Shakespeare. We made our way through the town, embarrassing poor Poonam by singing the whole way, got a quick lunch, and joined a walking tour around the city. Of course, this mostly anonymous town's single claim to fame is being Shakespeare's birthplace and hometown, so there are huge theaters where his works are performed on the Avon waterfront, statues inscribed with his words all over the city, and kitschy souvenir stores selling his works and his picture in little on every corner. As a town, I found it a little less that completely charming, but the commentary by our helpful guide and the sheer joyful silliness of our group made it so much better. We went by "The Birthplace" (i.e. the house where Shakespeare was born) and the church where he is buried, along with various other houses belonging to his relatives, all of which cost far too much to see the inside of, so we didn't bother. When the tour finished, we decided that it was high time for tea (anyone surprised?) and accordingly headed off to find a tea room.

I should comment, at this point, that afternoon tea with friends is one of the best things in the world. I shared a pot of tea with Yen, made delicious by adding cream and sugar, and had a wonderful scone slathered with clotted cream and jam. We sat there drinking tea and laughing until the shop closed and we had to leave.

We dropped by a couple of souvenir shops, but since it was past five, the entire town was starting to shut down. We made a few halfhearted attempts to find some dinner, but none of us were too hungry, so with a last meandering walk through the town, we caught the train back to Oxford. It was getting late by the time we pulled in, so we went out to dinner in a restaurant by the station, still embarrassing Poonam (and Stephen as well, occasionally) with our singing and laughter. We split up to head home after dinner with face muscles aching from laughing too much.

As the next day was Sunday, Yen, Stephen, Julie and I went out to breakfast at a sweet little cafe and then headed off to church. Afterward, as it was a fine summer day and very warm, we rented a rowboat and took turns rowing, with varying degrees of success and skill, up and down the river for a couple of hours. The sky was brilliantly azure and the sunshine hot, but on the water in the shade of the trees that overhang the canals, it was perfect. I could stay out there all day, but eventually we had to head in.

After a stop for groceries, we headed back to Stephen and Julie's for two important events: dinner and the World Cup final. Dinner was great; if you watched the final, you know it was pretty boring. The two teams went the entire game without scoring, and only one goal for Spain in overtime finally proved Paul the octopus right. I had missed Top Gear while watching nothing in particular happen in football, so I had to catch up as soon as possible with that and went to bed rather later than I'd expected.

The next day, everyone had to work, so I was on my own. I started out by visiting the secretary at the university's Linguistics and Philology department to ask about admission and university expectations (just, y'know, in case). My plan was to visit the Cotswolds, which is an area between Oxford, Stratford-upon-Avon and Bath which is known for its beautiful countryside and adorable little towns. I took the bus to Chipping Norton, a Cotwolds town from which I was hoping to take another local bus to a different, cuter, RFS-recommended town. Also, Jeremy Clarkson lives in/near Chipping Norton. (Go ahead, facepalm now and get it out of your system.)

Unfortunately, it turns out that the Cotswolds are so small, so cute, and so unspoiled that they don't actually have regular bus service--at least, not to Chipping Norton. It was Monday, but the buses only ran on Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday, so there was no way out of Chipping Norton save for, say, walking. Which didn't sound good when I had a limited amount of available time and no map. A little irritated, I bought another Clarkson book (like salve to the soul, this) and got on the return bus to Oxford.

Now fortunately, my bus route went right by the adorable town of Woodstock and more importantly, the grand Blenheim Palace. RFS had recommended this place, but because of the high entrance fee and difficulty in getting there, Stephen and I had vetoed it earlier. Now, though, I was on my own, with plenty of time, and the bus dropped me off right outside.

Blenheim Palace was, really, spectacular, even just to see it from the outside. The grounds were perfectly manicured, with an elegant bridge over a slender lake looking very much like paradise in the afternoon sunlight. The Palace itself, a reward to John Churchill, the first Duke of Marlborough, for his victories against the French, is a marvelous beige affair with golden accents, wide gravel courtyards, and imposing columns. If, in the last sentence, you said, "Churchill?" then yes, it's the same family; Winston Churchill was the nephew of one of the Dukes and spent much time in his youth at Blenheim, so of course, there was an exhibit about him. I also took a tour of the rooms, which were fittingly grand and glorious, although my favorite was the Long Library, a cream-and-gold room with shelves of beautiful books on one end and an organ on the other.

I took a leisurely walk through the gardens and down by the lake before I had to leave, as the palace was closing. I got a picnic dinner from a supermarket in Woodstock and hopped back on the bus to Oxford. I'd planned on leaving Oxford that night to go back to London, but by the time I got back to Stephen's house, I just couldn't be bothered, and they very kindly let me stay another night.

In the morning, I packed up, bought myself an Oxford T-shirt, and headed back to London, and that brings us back to where I started up again (here). I found Oxford to be wonderful, lovely, and a lot of fun, and I wouldn't mind living there at all; there are a lot of interesting places (like the Cotswolds, Bath, Bristol, and London) that are within easy reach of Oxford, and during the school year, the tourist crowds would be much less. I don't, however, have my heart set on it, nor on Cambridge. I first have to figure out what exactly I want to study, though for what I'm interested in, Cambridge seems to be more my flavor--although Cambridge is farther from London and, really, anything else. Besides academics, though, I'm really looking forward to seeing Edinburgh. Everything I've heard is that the city is wonderful, and the university has a strong linguistics program as well. So I'll have a better idea after I've been there as well. We'll see.

What really made Oxford wonderful for me were the people I met there. It was really fun to see Stephen again--something I wasn't sure would ever happen because of schedules and money and distance--and his friends were all so welcoming and so much fun. I didn't want to leave Oxford, less because of the enchantment of the city and more because I wanted to spend more time with them. Which is, I think, the best possible feeling I could've had when I left.

Farewell to Frankfurt and Drifting through Dresden

I never thought I'd be here again. At least, not this soon. And to my amazement, it looks and feels exactly the same as last day I was here: laden down with everything I owned, not wanting to leave, wondering if I'd ever seen the tall metal arches of the Frankfurt train station again, or even in the next few years. As far as I could tell, I was heading towards an indefinite time back in the States to finish my degree and then...what? I didn't know. I didn't even have an idea. And that probably contributed to the melancholy that I had been feeling.

I can hardly believe, then, that I'm here again so soon. The platform announcement echoes in the vaulted space, reducing the already foreign words into meaningless reverberations. Outside, the rain is coming down in sheets out of a dull grey sky, but that's fine, because soon we'll be flying across the countryside in a train, and the cool air is a pleasant change from yesterday's suffocating heat.

Okay, forget what I said about the rain being "a pleasant change" this morning (which was just the previous paragraph for you). Through some frustration, lots of bag-hauling, and a hefty dose of patience, we made it to Jena and met up with a kind lady named Bianca, who I had been put in contact with through my mentoring teacher and would be storing my extra baggage for the rest of the summer. While we waited for our train to go on towards Dresden, we took a look around Jena, which seems to be a fairly pleasant sort of town. Then, most of the way through our late lunch, it started to rain, and kept raining, a miserable kind of persistent drizzle. Eventually, we could no longer shelter in the restaurant and we made our way back through the rain to the train station, whereupon the rain promptly stopped. Of course.

Dresden, in contrast, is lovely. There are all kinds of beautiful buildings--churches, a cathedral, museums--that, while I'm sure they're useful as well, seem to have the primary function of being wonderfully beautiful. After we'd arrived and checked in at our hostel, we set off on a walk to see the city at night. We ended up at an outdoor wine festival, where the tree-lined pedestrian Hauptstraße had been partially taken over by little huts offering every sort of wine imaginable. Cloth-draped picnic tables were stuffed in between them, lit by tea lights and packed full of happily chatting people cradling glasses of wine. Enchanted, we bought a glass and wandered around, sharing it between the three of us. We then bought some bratwurst to satisfy our hunger and cleanse our palates, then we got a second glass of wine and sat down to admire the view.

Wine huts and having a good time.
The wine festival really was a wonderful experience. We just chose a hut and wandered up, and upon asking to try a certain wine, were poured a sample--no fuss, no ID-checking. The atmosphere was free and open, just people sitting together talking and having a good time. The tragedy is that this kind of cameraderie and fun would be impossible in the U.S. First of all, you can't drink in public, but even if you could, the tough--some could make a good case for neurotic--drinking laws mean that the whole thing would have to be fenced off so stern-looking enforcers could check each customer's ID. Which would kind of ruin the whole come-and-go-as-you-please, drop-in-if-you-like kind of festival atmosphere. It's really too bad, because the festival was very enjoyable.

Even better, despite the openness of the alcohol and the number of people drinking, the whole thing was dignified, refined, and civilized. There were no beer-guzzling idiots or wine-besoffen morons. The crowds huddling around the candles were there to enjoy themselves and taste the wine, not get drunk and cause trouble. That I find lovely and very comforting.

We only walked far enough to get a look at the gorgeous structures in the Altstadt on the other side of the river and then turned around, all three of us getting sleepy after just two glasses of wine split three ways. We plan on getting up, looking around Dresden in the daylight for a while, then heading off toward Prague in the afternoon. Finally, everything is on track.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Willkommen in Deutschland, bitte geben Sie uns Ihre Geld

"We are never using RyanAir again!" the woman behind me in the security queue fumed. She vaguely reminded me of my aunt Terri, so I guessed she was from Minnesota, but given my skill with accent identification, she could've been from Idaho, New Mexico, Vermont or Wisconsin. Or, for that matter, Canada.

I couldn't help myself. "Why, what happened?" I asked sweetly. I, of course, had breezed through the check-in and bag-drop lines with no problem; my checked bag, which was small enough to be a carry-on, had been just over half the maximum weight allowance.

"Well, if your bags are just a kilo over the weight limit, then you have to pay extra, but the kiosk wouldn't take our cards, so we had to join the line," the poor woman explained indignantly. I'm terrible, yes, but I was trying really hard to nod understandingly and not just smile. She was traveling with her husband and two middle-school-age children, so I imagine that complicated things. "It's just been a nightmare. We're never doing this again."

"I'm sorry to hear that," I sympathized in what I hope was a soothing coo. "Where are you flying?"

"Biarrhitz," she said, gurgling the "rrh". (I made that spelling up, FYI.) I blinked. Germany? Poland? Uzbekistan? I had no idea, so I asked. "It's in France," she informed me, like I should know.

I think I've read Jeremy Clarkson's opinion on...that place. He quite liked it. What I said was, "Ah. I've heard of it."

"And where are you going?"

"Frankfurt," I said as American-ly as possibly, deciding not to counter her French gargling with some German bronchitis.

"Oh," her son exclaimed to her as I turned away, "That's even worse!"

The thing about cheap travel is that you really do get what you pay for. When you stay at a nice hotel, you get huge comfy beds, a luxurious bathtub with gels and shampoos provided, cable TV, and chocolates on your pillow. (At least, so I hear.) If you pay £20 for a hostel, you get a squeaky bunk bed, two or three tiny showers that you share with the whole floor, and a locker to keep people from stealing your stuff. That last one only if you're lucky, though.

The thing about hostels, however, is that they're generally full of like-minded people who, having no satellite TV to watch on their nonexistent queen beds, congregate in common rooms to play pool or watch telly or drink together. Which means you get to meet fun, interesting people who share their adventures of the day, swap tips about where to go and what to see, and share a bit of their lives together for a day or two before they go their separate ways.

Now, minus the whole human interaction and sharing of cultures thing, airlines are the same. If you pay $4,000 dollars for first-class, you get a bed and a dedicated staff determined to make it seem like you are not in a tin can hurling through the atmosphere at a billion miles an hour, but rather in a comfy lounge somewhere, sipping champagne. If you can't be bothered with things like comfort and parting with your life savings, you fly economy, where the seats are too small and just on the knife's edge between slightly wrong and really uncomfortable, and if you have kind-hearted flight attendants, occasionally you get a glass of cranberry juice and some microwaved pasta. If, however, you are like me: a budget traveler wanting to pay as little as possible to get from point A (England) to point B (Frankfurt) as quickly as possible, you fly an airline like RyanAir.

Now, RyanAir's main selling point (besides being "On Time!", which is just silly) is that their fares are very, very cheap. As in, £7 kind of cheap. Now, how does a by-now-rather-large airline keep afloat when they're handing out boarding passes for pocket change? How else than hidden fees? Book by credit card (which you have to, online)? That's £5. Check a bag? £20. At least. You have to print your own boarding pass, although if you forget or lose it, they'll be happy to print you another...for £40. And the weight limits on baggage are very, very strict.

But if you know how to play the game, low-cost, high-stress airlines like RyanAir can be a huge blessing. You check the restrictions beforehand and make sure you understand all your options. You pack very light and don't try to push the limits. And above all, you assume that at every stage, you will be scrutinized (this is air travel, after all) so you make sure that all of your documents are in order, all your liquids in plastic baggies, all your times right and your tickets booked. And then, when you get there, you just sail placidly on through, knowing everything is in order.

Once I got to the waiting area (which, with all the stores and such, looked more like a typical shopping mall), my gate still wasn't posted, so I wandered around a bit, turned a few corners, and there before me crouched glory itself on a steel pedestal, spotlights gleaming off the sleek black sides. The two friendly gentlemen attending the ebony R8 and its neighbor, a somewhat rowdier and more crass-looking scarlet Ferrari 430, were selling raffle tickets for £20 to win a supercar. You may wonder that I am so taken with cars right now, but if you knew me about 4 years ago, you'd know this isn't the first time they've piqued my interest, and as then, I'm sure my fascination will eventually wane. For now, the R8 is my favorite, and I walked around it gazing in weak-kneed admiration and taking pictures like a enamored tourist.

When the gate was finally announced, I took off in that direction, but I found myself to be surprisingly reticent. I found that I didn't want to leave England, and I felt a slight panic at the thought of arriving in Germany. Traveling in England is pleasant and easy, if expensive; there's little language barrier, and the cultural differences are more interesting than embarrassing or confusing. But Germany is where my destiny lies; where I am committed to spend the next year of my life; where I will be expected to speak the language well, and try my skills as a teacher. This, my friends, is more than a little intimidating. And I found myself wanting to bolt back the other direction, take the bus back to Cambridge, and relax with some cream tea and scones instead of having to face up to what has brought me here in the first place.

I managed to get myself on the plane nevertheless. The flight itself was smooth and uneventful (picture: over England, looking across the Channel to France); the obnoxious trumpeting music upon landing told us that yet another RyanAir flight had arrived "On Time!" Hooray. I stepped out of the baggage collection area and into a sea of nostalgia. Frankfurt Hahn, a dumpy, slightly skeezy little airport just east of nowhere in particular, holds many fond memories for me, from waiting to meet friends in its tight-fisted, overpriced cafes to spending a mostly sleepless night attempting to drift off under the harsh glare of flourescent lights with a coat for a pillow and a towel for a blanket. This time, it was warm and bright, and I dropped back into speaking German with surprising ease. Some of last vestiges of my earlier panic started to ebb.

While waiting for the bus, I began talking to a man, most likely in his forties, going the same way, who invited me to sit with him on the bus. He was very intelligent and polite, and we discussed the social and educational effects of the Internet, the variant dialects of English, and the behavior of different cultures towards the issue of race (he's from Ghana and has traveled quite a bit). All told, it was a very pleasant way to spend an otherwise quite boring two-hour bus ride. At the end, hearing that I was setting off to meet my mother in a place that I could hopefully remember in the hopes that she'd be there, he gave me his e-mail, mobile number, and Skype handle to stay in touch, especially if I was ever in the London area again.

Now, I could use some help here. This is the second time this has happened in two days, the first being the two nice gentlemen in Cambridge (post here), "this" meaning "being given business cards and an open invitation to ring/have drinks at some point in the future." I wasn't sure what to make of it the first time, since those two had been considerably older than me (late forties to early fifties, I'd say), but I'd laughed it off because we'd been in a pub or whatnot. Now the gentleman from the bus has done the same thing. How should I take this? Is it just a friendly gesture? Fairly common? Not so much? Do I laugh it off or take it in earnest? If anyone has any idea, I'd love to know.

Anyway, I was mostly unconcerned about the whole finding-my-mother thing, and set off for where I remembered the hostel to be. There it was, sure enough, and all seemed to be in order until the receptionist told me that my mother and her friend, Janna, were not checked in there, and there were no reservations under their names. This considerably baffled me. I took a walk round the block and got my first Starbuck's of the trip to ease the stress and then returned to the hostel to try one last time, wondering how this had gone so wrong and how, with no mobile for either of us and no Internet access for my mother, we would possibly be able to meet up. Just as I was getting ready to book my own room for the night, Mom and Janna came up the stairs. Disaster averted! (That truncated version merrily skips over the hour or so of frantic problem-solving and stumped desperation.)

Mom presented me with a lovely new shirt and, to my delight, a brand new pair of maroon Converse (<3!), then we headed out to dinner at an outdoor Italian place. Now I'm curled up on my bunk in the dark, listening to Janna snore with shocking volume and hoping it'll cool down enough for me to sleep eventually.

Having been almost entirely on my own for more than two weeks, readjusting to sharing life with other people will be a challenge. One of the best things about traveling alone is that I only have to take my own desires into account; I can come and go, eat or fast, rest or press on, as I think is best, without regard to anyone else. Now, I have two other people to consider, and we will have to compromise.

However, I'm also looking forward to sharing this trip with these two. Not only is it less stress and responsibility for me, but it also means I get to share the delight and adventure of travel with them. The next three weeks will tell.

Discovering Cambridge

I have to admit, I was determined to not like least, not as much as I liked Oxford. Partially because I wanted to prove RFS wrong, and partially because--well, come on, it's Oxford.

Anyway, I failed. I really, really like the town, and I wish I'd had more time there. I don't think that I could say that I like it more--it's not easy to say based on half a day wandering around.

Anyway, I started my whirlwind tour of Cambridge at the Marketplace for lunch before a walking tour. We poked our heads into a college or two and saw some interesting side streets, but by far the best part was the chapel at King's College. It's enormous and absolutely glorious with stained glass windows and an organ with golden pipes. The tour ended there, so after gaping a bit more, I continued up the street and looked into Trinity and St. John's colleges as well.

Now, for those who are unfamiliar, I shall do my best to explain the college system, which may be a waste of time, because my grip on it is somewhat tenuous. As I understand it, the university is composed of different colleges--31 of them, in Cambridge's case--to which the students (and professors?) belong. The students live, eat, and study in their college; the colleges are interdisciplinary, although in Oxford, which has a similar system, some colleges may prefer a certain academic area or level of study over another. In Cambridge, you apply to a college, and if you're accepted, you join the college and therefore the university. In Oxford, you apply to the university itself, and if you're accepted, you're guaranteed a place in a college.

Anyway. Many of these colleges are old and gorgeous; they look more like palaces than dorms to me. I can't imagine living in a place like that: carved archways, manicured courtyards, Gothic's fantastic but, it seems to me, just a bit intimidating.

At the northern end of the town, I stopped to have cream tea and then meandered back down. I got sidetracked for a bit in the public library, which is in a shopping mall, by Richard Hammond's autobiography, which I have been looking for everywhere. Unfortunately, I couldn't take it with me, but I did take a break to read the first few chapters. (Sorry about more Top Gear stuff, but Hammond's also a presenter; during a test run of a rocket-powered car, his tire blew and the car rolled, giving him brain damage. The book's about his experience and recovery. Sounds interesting, eh?) Through some partly aimless and partly intentional wandering, I ended up in a sun-drenched little park in a bend in the river, watching the amateur punters run into each other as a dignified swan and a fluffy grey cygnet glided rather more gracefully by.

Now, at the top of the town, I stopped to have a chat with a young man who was trying to sell punting tours. Although I'd not been very interested at the time, he'd given me a voucher for a few pounds off and planted the idea in my head, and now, at the other end of town, I decided to give it a shot. I presented my voucher for the tour but asked if I could please not go on my own, feeling that would be awkward both for me and for the poor punter. The cashier assured me that there was a group of four also waiting to go, but apparently, after about two minutes, they'd had enough of that, and they paid extra to go right away. Leaving me on my own. Oh boy.

The poor guy who got stuck with me was a good sport about it, though, despite almost being pushed in the river by his sister, who was sitting at a nearby pub, and having to punt me up and down the river. I guess it's his job, but still. It was very nice, gliding across the smooth water under willow trees, with sloped grassy banks and impressive College buildings on the shores. My guide told me all about the kings and queens who'd supported these colleges and the history behind the various bridges, as well as telling me about about himself and letting me babble in return. All told, a lovely way to spend 45 minutes of your life.

We eventually drifted back to our starting point, having gone up the river, turned round, and come back, and my guide suggested that I eat dinner at the aforementioned pub on the riverside. I poked my head in, but I was hesitant to simply sit down at a table, being unfamiliar with local custom. Plucking up my courage, I made my way to my guide's sister, who was still sitting by the river with a friend, and asked if she could enlighten me as to the proper mode of conduct in a pub. In response, Simbie (as her name turned out to be) and her friend Megan kindly invited me to sit with them, coached me on what and how to order, and engaged me in a wonderful chat. I can't imagine a better way to have spent that evening than sitting by the river in the gathering twilight, eating a beef pie and drinking Pimm's, discussing the Britishness of it all with three (another friend, Tristan, had joined us by this time as well) wonderful Brits.

Eventually, though, it got late, and my new friends had to leave to get the train. I stayed to finish my pie, and very shortly, two men who had been standing nearby asked to join me. They chatted to each other for a bit, then politely turned to ask about me. I was a bit taken aback at first, but they were quite friendly; we shared stories about Bath, where they used to work. I hadn't even checked into my hostel yet, so I finally took my leave, but not before they gave me a business card with their names, e-mails, and numbers, imploring me to ring them up sometime if I was in the area again. Laughing, I made my way back to the hostel and finally crashed, somewhat heavy-hearted.

For the the next day, I'd have to be leaving England. And since I've found so much here that I love and enjoy, it's very sad to go.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Leaving London (aka Part V)

My bus journey to Cambridge today is taking me through a greatest-hits tour of London on my way out, which seems appropriate, since I'm leaving now for good; I won't be back for a while, at least not for the rest of the summer. I think we're currently in the City (hypothesis based on the fact that all of the shops are selling suits, ties, and button-up shirts of that curiously ubiquitous shade of periwinkle), having started in Victoria and gone through basically all the interesting landmark parts of London. Hey, there's the Avocado! I don't know what it's actually called, but it's a big dark-greenish building that looks remarkably like...well, you should be able to guess. It also has a distinct resemblance to a 20-storey hand grenade. (UPDATE: this one. I typed into Google: "What is the building in London that looks like an avocado?") Go figure.

Being my usual brilliant and forward-thinking self, I left myself about 35 minutes to make a 20-ish minute Tube journey, which probably would've been fine except for totally unforeseeable delays on not one but TWO different lines that I needed. This culminated in me arriving, sweaty, tired, hungry, and ready to kill with my bare hands the screaming child the next gate over, at 9:37 for a bus that left at 9:30. Grrr.

I got some breakfast (Cornish pasties are God's gift to budget travelers) and tried to focus on puppies and rainbows and Jeremy Clarkson's book and not the ear-shattering, soul-murdering screams of the drooling child who refused to shut up. (I'm a little cross about this.) I'd pre-bought my ticket, which meant I had lost my £7 into the ether and had to buy another ticket, which luckily was not too expensive or I might've cried. I got on the next bus with no problem and settled down to read car reviews on the cloudy two-hour journey.

The excited movements of the Spanish-speaking family behind me made me look up a bit later to find that we were passing by the Houses of Parliament. I said a fond farewell to Big Ben and the Eye and smiled down the gated, policeman-guarded lane down to Number 10, then we were trundling down the north bank of the Thames, past my favorite Sphinx crouched with eternal patience on the bankside and down towards...well, St. Paul's. We passed, literally, within a block of where I had left, hauling my heavy bags in a rush, two hours earlier. Again: Grrr.

St. Paul's is basically in the City (I think), so that brought me to where I started--at the Avocado. We're now heaven-knows-where--still trying to leave London, which, like Tokyo, covers the surface area of basically the whole island--on the way, as I said, to Cambridge.

Now, our dear friend RFS has said that Oxford and Cambridge are both beautiful, historic university towns, but if you have to pick one, go for Cambridge. Consequently, he provides no information whatsoever about Oxford, assuming that you wouldn't dare contradict his advice and go somewhere he hasn't recommended. This continues to pose a problem for me; in August, I may be spending some time in Manchester, Liverpool, and Newcastle, none of which are RFS-approved and so consequently, he hasn't bothered to describe, so I'm going in blind. Unless I want to buy another guidebook. Which I don't.

Anyway, this wasn't a problem in Oxford, because I had lovely, friendly people to give me advice and go around with me, and in Cambridge, I'll have a guidebook. Yay. On a completely unrelated note, it's blowing like mad out there and doing that obnoxious drizzling thing that isn't quite rain and just gets in your eyes. Good thing that the week I spent in London was sunny and beautiful.

Since this is my blog and I can do what I like, I'm going to again put off Oxford and talk about yesterday instead. This is partly because Oxford was wonderful and I want to do it justice, and partly because I know that some of my new friends from Oxford have been reading this blog and I want to make sure I think very carefully about what I say. ;)

I was awakened at 7:30 yesterday morning when every last girl in my dorm room decided that she had to get up right then. For my part, I just lay there and let them bustle about, then hauled myself from my bunk when I had the room to myself. I left the hostel and trundled across the Millennium Bridge to the Globe on the other side and purchased a ticket for the exhibition and tour. As I mentioned, I'd already been the Globe for Henry VIII, which was mostly incomprehensible, but I wanted to hear more about it anyway. For those who don't know (and this is interesting, I least to me), the Globe that stands now is not the original, which burnt down in the early 1600's. A second was built, but was torn down again. Anyway, an American Shakespeare enthusiast, hoping to bring Shakespeare to life for the uninitiated, started a movement to rebuild the Globe, which, after several decades of fund-raising and construction, they did. The new Globe was built using materials and techniques as faithful as possible to those in the 17th century, so the entire thing is made of oak beams and cow hair plaster held together with wooden pegs and topped by a thatched roof.

Anyhow, the tour was great, and as we were sitting in the Globe watching them change the sets, I thought: I don't have anything planned for this afternoon. There's a matinee showing today. Hmmm...

So naturally, on impulse, I went as soon as the tour was over and bought a ticket for the afternoon performance of Henry IV.

This meant, though, that instead of the unlimited amount of time that I'd thought I would have to wander through the Globe exhibition and St. Paul's Cathedral, I actually had about two hours. So I took the exhibition at high speed (pretty books, gorgeous costumes, yay Shakespeare) and booked it back across the bridge to the Cathedral on the other side.

Now, St. Paul's is lovely on the outside: the grand front steps, the towering white stone, the majestic dome topped in gold. Inside, it's just as beautiful. To me, it feels brighter, more open, and more welcoming than Westminster Abbey, and as in many churches, it's cool and quiet with just a murmuring hum of the awed gasps and subdued exclamations of tourists. I joined a 40-minute intro tour and then bolted up the stairs to first the Whispering Gallery and then the Golden Gallery at the top of that impressive dome. Although when I say "bolted", I mean, went as fast as I could, and when I say "as fast as I could", I mean, I was being overtaken quite a bit. Whatever, I made it to the top, where we were herded by impatient attendants around the small gallery and then back down the 520-some-odd stairs to the Cathedral floor. Unfortunately, I had to dash to get in line for Henry IV, so I only had time to walk quickly around the high altar before I had to head off again, although I could happily sit in that awesome place for quite a while.

After the subdued and reverent murmurs of St. Paul's, the din on the streets was positively alarming. I crossed back over the Thames in record time and got a good spot in line for the play, striking up a conversation, meanwhile, with a Shakespeare fan from Edinburgh. (I can't hardly remember how to spell "Edinburgh" now that I've started to pronounce it "Edinbruh" instead of "Edinburg". Please don't ever say "Edinburg".) It was just starting to drizzle when they let us inside, and my new acquaintance and I got a fairly good spot, leaning our elbows on the stage.

After the verbose and largely actionless Henry VIII, Henry IV (Part 1!) was brilliant. It tells the story of Henry IV (don't you love all the obvious names in this post?), but it focuses mostly on his son, the dashing and dissolute Prince Hal, who spends his times in pubs with his ne'er-do-well buddy Falstaff, who is simply hilarious. Henry IV has some really brilliant comedy as well as drama and some kick-ass sword-fighting. I'm very sad that I won't be able to see Part 2.

Of course, partway through the second half, the heavens opened. Now, you know how in every Hollywood romance ever, when it looks like the two leads are destined to be separated forever, one or both of them must trudge dejectedly through the rain? You know how, when it starts raining, it looks less like atmospheric precipitation and more like someone's spraying them with a fire hose, so they're drenched to the bone in about three seconds? I have never believed that this is true to life, and I still don't; it just doesn't rain like that everywhere in the world (although it certainly does in some places), all the time, as Hollywood would have you believe. For heaven's sakes, if they can make giant transforming robots and exploding planets and stuff, how hard can it be to make rain in moderation? Then again, every Hollywood romance ever is set in New York, and having not been there, I can't testify to the relative heaviness of the rainfall.

I can, however, testify to that in London, it's like being in Hollywood. I was partially under cover, and I was still drenched. I barely remembered to pick up my backpack in time before the entire groundling area became a lake. I retreated under an overhang and wondered if I shouldn't just leave, but then suddenly, the rain stopped as quickly as it had come, the sun even came out, and I was back with my elbows on the stage just in time for the epic swordfight.

As soon as the play finished, I was off to Leicester Square. I'd been recommend to see Les Mis while in London, so I headed in that direction to see how the ticket prices looked. However, given that I had already seen three shows in two days, even the cheapest tickets were a little too much for me to be able to justify, so I headed back towards St. Paul's. However, it was still too early to call it a day, so I got some food and walked back out to my perch between the paws of the Sphinx to eat. When the wind got too chilly, I meandered back across the nearest bridge and along the South Bank before returning to the hostel for the day. I had a nice chat with a girl from Japan and gave her my Rick Steves chapter on London, which she probably can't read but may still find somewhat useful. I hope so.

I'm still on the way to Cambridge, but now you're up to speed. After so much typing (I really do make these posts agonizingly long...sorry) I'm just going to stare out the window for a bit. I'll be leaving England tomorrow, so I have to enjoy it while I can.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

London Part IV and Oxford Part I

First, a blessing: May angels smile upon the person who decided that the Sainsbury's by St. Paul's should stay open until 11pm! Being able to buy cold water and chocolate at 10:30 is both a rarity and a godsend for a 24-hour-Top-Foods girl in a country where everyone seems to be happy to call it a day at 7pm. Of course, it seems then that they all go home, change into clothing with fully half the surface area of what they had on before, and then parade around shouting and swearing loudly directly outside my hostel window. But I'm digressing into the realm of Clarksonian griping.

This is actually kind of an interesting cultural difference. (Bear with me here...) In good ol' America, if you have access to any kind of public or private transport, you can generally buy a pizza, a new pair of headphones, a power drill or a chocolate bar at almost any hour from the various 24-hour mega-stores that sit like blisters on the face of our fair land. Okay, yes, sorry, I'm being facetious. But really, the essentials of everyday life are condensed down into single city-stores, which are open for your convenience whenever the overwhelming urge for frozen fishsticks takes you.

So far as I can tell, it doesn't work that way here. Even in multi-cultural, cutting-edge London, the insidious talons of American consumerism haven't sunken in too deep; grocery stores actually sell groceries, and close basically mid-afternoon. If you want headphones, you have to go to a shop for that, and for clothing, you go to a clothing shop; no Wal-Mart or Fred Meyer. If you want to have those fishsticks or a new pair of socks at 3 in the morning, you'll have to plan ahead.

Speaking, incidentally, of planning ahead, that has definitely been a theme of the past few days. And not always in a good way. Today especially; I'm going to write about it while I'm thinking of it, if you'll pardon the anachronistic disruption.

This morning I bade farewell, sadly, to Stephen and Julie, and got on the bus back to London. Continuing this week's theme, which has generally been "I'll just go and figure it out when I get there," I had left myself just enough time--maybe--to get to London, go to my hostel, and head to the Globe to catch my play. This tentative plan was confounded by the fact that I (1) didn't check my map, so I got off the bus much later than I should've and (2) couldn't *&%*&#ing find the @*&$%ing hostel. No one I asked knew anything, and when I tried to call, the phone took £2 just so I could find out that the reception was closed. More than a little ready to start shouting at passersby for no reason and running short on time, I got back on the Tube and headed straight to Southwark.

Despite my near-panic (bad, bad planning), I made it to the Globe with plenty of room to spare. Luckily, it was cloudy and cool today, and I got a spot by a wall, so standing for a three-hour Shakespearean history play wasn't nearly as agonizing as it could have been. I saw Henry VIII, which is about...Henry VIII. Specifically, his divorce from Catherine of Aragon and marriage to Ann Boleyn--drama drama drama. Granted, much of the drama was lost on me, being unfamiliar with the storyline, unable to clearly understand the actors' quickly-spoken lines, and the total lack of Yoricks and Horatios (sorry...), but still, the costumes were gorgeous, the actors were very good, and for heaven's sakes: it's the Globe Theatre! Beautiful, but it feels very personal and rather small. I loved it.

Oh, for the Whovians, I should note that Ian McNiece, who was Churchill in Victory of the Daleks, played Cardinal Wolsey. One of the comedic high points of the entire play was another actor quoting the Cardinal and imitating McNiece's speech style. 

Once the play was over, I again shouldered my bags and headed off, this time across the river toward St. Paul's. I had stayed in the hostel there for the last week in London, so I knew where it was (grumble mutter curse), and since the one I was supposed to be staying at was the same company, I thought I'd just ask them where to find the damn thing. But when I staggered in and posed my convoluted question, the receptionist offered to simply transfer my booking to St. Paul's, which was brilliant. So I still don't know where YHA Central London is, and I probably never will.

I ate dinner at the hostel and, while internetting, recalled (with a helpful note from Stephen's friend Yen) that I had been advised to see some shows while in London. Since I had neglected this entirely for the first week, I checked to see if I could still catch any tonight. As it was 7:30, Le Mis had already started, but lo and behold, I still had half an hour to get to a showing of Avenue Q. I bolted and made it, again, with time to spare.

Turns out that I remember walking by the theatre where Avenue Q was showing, looking at the posters and thinking, "Well, I'm sure I'll never see that." In short, it's a musical about life in New York...with puppets. But Yen and Stephen were mad about it, so why not?

To be honest, my reaction was not quite as enthusiastic as theirs; there were parts that were very funny, and parts where I just had to hide my eyes and wait for it to be over. But all told, it was much better than sitting in the hostel, which is what I'm doing now, putting off bed.

So, I guess you'd like to hear about Oxford. I'd love to tell you about Oxford, but it's hard to really communicate to you what it was like for me to be there. This is me, though, so of course I'm going to try. So here goes...

I'd agreed on a plan with Stephen the previous evening, so I just hopped on the Oxford Espress (no, really, with an "s", like with coffee) and headed off across the countryside. I read most of way there, but the book was stuffed away when we started getting into the city. I got off the bus and, while waiting for my next connection, staggered about with my head flung back to gaze up at the spires, alternating between a doofy grin or slack-jawed astonishment. Oxford University's famous colleges sit right up against High Street with medieval wooden portals and peaceful hidden gardens only feet away from busy shopping streets clogged with buses. Yet you walk one block away from the street and you could easily believe that time had simply forgotten you there: domes and spires and arches, all in a creamy warm tan stone. It is just wonderful.

Ah, but I had a bus to catch, which I duly did, to meet Stephen's housemate Julie at her work and drop off my bags. Julie still had some hours of work to do, so I headed back into the city to explore. I won't bore you with the play-by-play, but I did drop by the Ashmolean museum and saw the lantern Guy Fawkes was holding when they caught him and a whole bunch of ancient writing. All too soon, I wended my way back through the cobbled streets out to the modern-day clamor to head home.

Julie drove me back to their house and very kindly made me tea (real English tea!) while we waited for Stephen to come home. Stephen, when he got there, made dinner, and we spent the evening planning the next day and watching incomprehensible British comedy shows. Seriously, can anyone explain to me, concisely and comprehensibly, what the scoring systems for Qi and Mock the Week are?

Anyway, I'll certainly continue this story later, but for now, I'm sleepy and I have a big day planned tomorrow--"planned", of course, in a that-sounds-good-hopefully-it'll-work-out sort of way. Just wanted y'all to know that I haven't forgotten you. Miss you and love you!

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Larking About London, Part III

Eep. I never leave myself enough time at night to write these things. Where do the hours fly to so swiftly?

I started out Monday morning with a quick breakfast from Sainsbury's (grocery store) and booked it to Buckingham Palace, where I managed to find a close-enough spot to view the famous Changing of the Guard ceremony. If you ever go, get a spot on the road to watch the parading guardsmen go by in their blood-red jackets with shiny brass instruments in their hands and bears on their heads. Once behind the fences and in the yard of the palace, nothing much seemed to happen for a good long while. Then the two bands started alternating playing music, which was nice but unremarkable until one of them broke out the overture from Star Wars.

All I could think was, I wonder how the Queen feels about them playing Star Wars under her window? Well, that and Squeeee! :DDD

After the Battle of the Brass Bands, the guardsmen departed with much pomp and ceremony, leaving the assembled hordes of London's tourist population to disperse haphazardly. I headed toward the river, waving to Big Ben as I turned down to 10 Downing Street. Although I don't think he's in at the moment (I'm not even sure who he is now...David Cameron?), this is the residence and offices of the Prime Minister. It looked an awful lot like a house, except with more policemen and steel bars, so I moved on.

Very nearby, and for good reason, is the Cabinet War Rooms museum. You descend down some stairs, pay for your ticket and audioguide, and then step right into the warren of tunnels and rooms where the wartime government of Britain, headed by Winston Churchill, directed the war effort until 1945. If you saw the recent Victory of the Daleks, yeah, it looks exactly like that. The walls are that mind-numbing shade of tan that all government edifices seem to be painted, but it's the rooms and lives that are interesting: the bedrooms and offices furnished as they would've been with typewriters and phones and beds.

The most fascinating thing about this place, though, has really nothing to do with the typewriters. As you wend your way down the corridors, shouldering past more glaze-eyed, audioguided tourists not talking to each other, you can feel something of the ghost of history still haunting the tunnels. In a place like the Tower of London, its history is long and varied and interesting, but most of those executions and royal visits and things that made it famous were long ago. Nothing's left of that bloody and royal past but the grand buildings themselves, looking like a fairy-tale fortress brought to life, and the ominous graffiti that the prisoners left etched in the stones. On a sunny day, it's hard to imagine the Tower as a place of terror and death.

The War Rooms have no such disguise; the fear and tension is too recent to have faded from the stones. There's no sun and no open space here, just narrow tan corridors and low-ceilinged rooms filled with maps and telephones. You can almost hear the distant thunder of the bombs falling and the wail of the air raid sirens. Near the end of the tour, the audioguide reads an excerpt from the journal of the man in charge of the Home Guard, which was responsible for defending Britain against invasion. Every day he lived in suspense, agonizingly aware of all of Britain's weak points, just waiting for an attack that, thankfully, never came.

The exhibit also contained the Churchill Museum, dedicated to everyone's favorite cigar-chomping British statesman. The museum was so big, with so much information, that I started zoning out and had to move on without reading everything. What I gleaned was that Churchill was a very clever but volatile man who loved his wife, was very ambitious, and a little bit mad, but that was what made him great. He was also not nearly as fat as DW made him out to be. The best part of the museum was a touch-screen showing different Churchill quotes, especially about people he didn't like. The man definitely had a flair with words.

I emerged blinking into the light of the free world from the War Rooms and returned to the nearby park with my Clarkson book to have some lunch/dinner and wait until 5pm. When the hour drew nigh, I headed off to church.

And by "church", I mean "one of the most famous and gorgeous churches ever," namely Westminster Abbey. Now, as wonderful and beautiful as Westminster is, I just can't wrap my mind around paying about £12 to go into a church where you can't take pictures anyway. So both times I've been, I just cheat a bit and show up for the totally free evensong service. You still can't take pictures (but you can't anyway) and you don't get to wander around too much, but as I've said before, a church is meant to be experienced during a service. And there's nothing like sitting in Westminster Abbey, hearing the echoing notes of the boys' choir and wondering if the Queen's ever stood where you are at that moment.

The Abbey is brilliant and beautiful, besides being hugely significant historically. I mean, I had to walk past the tomb of Sir Isaac Newton and over the tomb of Charles Darwin to get to my seat for the service. But the roseate windows are gorgeous, and the whole place is fit for a king. Or queen, depending.

Now, if you'll allow me to digress for a moment: American and other modern churches do buddy-buddy stuff with God really well. We meet in basements and living rooms and industrial parks because God doesn't care--wherever two or more are gathered in his name, etc. The church in America, at least, tends to depict God as being your best friend--who loves you no matter what, who is always ready to forgive, who is full of mercy and compassion and all manner of warm fuzzies. Well and good; we love the New Testament here. But we're also missing something very important with this cuddly-teddy-bear image of God.

And a part of that something, I think, is awe. Think of the song: "Our God is an awesome God/He reigns from heaven above/With wisdom, power, and love..." And although you can get wisdom and love and community in the Spirit and so forth in an American church, we're a bit short on power and awe. But the old churches have got awe in spades.

When you walk into a place like Westminster, or Notre Dame--or, for the big guns, St. Peter's Basilica--you simply cannot get around how much bigger, grander, more amazing and staggeringly glorious and eternal God is than you. The high, vaulted stone ceilings reaching toward the heavens, the gilt statues and meticulous ceremony don't have much of anything in the way of sympathy or warm fuzzies. There's forgiveness and mercy, but at a high price, taken very seriously, and with a very, very healthy dose of awe. It makes you feel small and dirty and plain. And it should. It's supposed to. Caught up in the supposed importance of our own small stories, we begin to loom large in relationship to the tiny spheres of time and space in which we move. It's refreshing, if quite startling and uncomfortable, to get a distant sense of our actual proportionate importance in the grand scheme of who and what God is, which is to say, next to none at all.

Anyway, after the service, I'd been planning on visiting the Houses of Parliament, but was told first by a woman in very quick Spanish (when she finished, I just nodded, smiled, and said, "Entiendo, gracias") and then by a guard that the line was about an hour and a half. I retreated to a park to read more Clarkson and went back after a bit, only to be told that Parliament would probably be out early and it wasn't worth the wait. So I went back to the hostel, chatted with a new roommate for a bit, and Skyped my mother before bed.

I started today (technically yesterday; it's past midnight again. Oops...) at the British Library. Something like Britain's Library of Congress, there's a wonderful room there with treasures of the written word, like early copies of Shakespeare's works, a page believed to be in Shakespeare's handwriting (?!), the Magna Carta, a Gutenburg Bible, pages from Leonardo da Vinci's notebooks...all under low lights and lovingly displayed. There was also an exhibit on maps that I skimmed through, and a display about book repair and conservation that I studied intensively. Apparently, they give occasionally tours of the conservatory, but all the tickets for the only day I could attend were already gone. I may still try to get in but unfortunately, I may just have to come back another time. Darn.

Poor Greenwich keeps getting put off; since I got a late start at the Library, I opted for the Victory and Albert Museum instead. It's a very lovely place, but I think I'm starting to max out on marble busts and 500-year-old silverware.

Oddly enough, the V&A was where my arm decided to have a breakdown on me. I had joined a guided tour through the highlights of the museum, and for some reason, my arm was beginning to ache. I tried to ignore it, but it turned into shooting pains from my left shoulderblade through my triceps to my elbow, and I had to break off from the tour and sit down. A kind staff lady noticed my distress and called for the first aid guy, who ascertained that I was not, in fact, having a heart attack or stroke, and applied an ice pack. The nice lady, the first aid guy, and the floor manager, who had come over to see what was the matter, all hovered protectively around me until the pain went away a bit. I decided to abandon my clearly overambitious plans to get through the rest of the museum, and I went out in the courtyard garden and fell asleep on the grass for about half an hour instead. When I woke up, the pain was completely gone, and it hasn't been back since.

This is weird because I have no idea what caused it. The museum people thought it was my "heavy" pack, but I've been carrying a backpack twice that heavy to school every day for four years with no problem. In any case, I just hope it doesn't happen again.

After getting some dinner, I headed down to the Thames and hung out on one of the pedestrian bridges as dusk fell over the city. The wind was still comfortably cool, and as the sky dimmed, the periwinkle lights flicked on on the towering London Eye and the Houses of Parliament were lit with an orange glow, presided over by the staring white orb of Big Ben crowned in green. I'm not sure how anyone could ever get tired of a sight like that.

Next to me on the bridge, a man in his mid to late fifties was leaning on the railing, admiring the same view, and struck up a conversation. I'd say that I talked with him for more than an hour, but that would imply that I got more than six words in edgewise. He very kindly walked me to my bus stop to go home (along about a quarter mile of densely populated and well-lit streets) and offered to say hi if he saw me again in the same place tonight.

Sheesh, this is getting long. I could make an effort to be less verbose, but where's the fun in that?

I rose late today and got a bus ticket for my departure to Oxford. I can't even describe, and perhaps don't even know myself, how I feel about going to Oxford. I'm very excited to see it, terrified that I won't like it, wishful about living there someday myself, nervous about seeing Stephen and meeting all his friends...there's a lot going into this.

Anyway, there are still some major sights that I haven't visited: Tate Britain, for instance, or St. Paul's right around the corner. Nevertheless, I took off for Baker Street and spent a good two hours at 221b--the (fictional) residence of the (fictional) Sherlock Holmes. There's a museum there and everything. Now, how do you have a museum at an address that didn't exist, displaying a collection of artifacts that never were that belonged to a man who never lived? You make it up, of course. And charge suckers and tourists £6 to see it. It was still grand fun, although you'd have to be a much bigger fanatic than I am to really appreciate all of the details.

I then headed to the Imperial War Museum, which had been recommended by Joseph, the guy from the bridge last night. There were fighter planes and guns and shells galore, although I spent my time in the exhibits on WWI and II and a really sobering display about the Holocaust. Fun way to spend an afternoon, eh? War and death and cruelty and terror.

Which brings me to where I am now: trying to get everything in order for my departure to Oxford tomorrow. Oxford, though. Oxford Oxford Oxford.

More when I get there...