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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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!

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