Is there any sensation stranger than being addressed in English in a foreign country after having spent two months in two countries where English-speakers are a rare commodity?
I may have spent my entire spring break in Paris were it not for the three friends I wanted to visit in London and the friend back home who was anxiously awaiting for me to discover for myself the alleged greatest city on earth. Would London live up to the hype? Only one way to find out...
After a gruelingly expensive ride on the Tube from Heathrow, Airport of Kings™, to my hotel, the lovely Ridgemount Hotel in London's busy university neighborhood, Kat and her friend Lucy (also visiting from afar) picked me up to go for some good-ol-fashioned fish and chips. Well, sort of. A native had recommended to Kat that we go to a place called Belgo, so go we did...to what ended up being a strange, subterranean Belgian restaurant where the waiters dressed as Trappist monks (because why wouldn't they?) and the fish and chips were less than London-certified authentic (oh as if I actually cared, they came with snap peas so I wasn't complaining about anything). Following dinner, we walked directly into the London nightlife, which caught me by surprise because (a) I've never been to New York so I have no adequate point of comparison, and (b) Rome is not exactly known for its happening youth scene. There were blocks on blocks on blocks of flashy cafés, pubs, clothing stores, CINEMAS, a Prêt à Manger on every street corner with several in between, and the sweet sound of English filling the air (with a host of other tongues providing the harmony).
I clocked in after a tour around the whole neighborhood to get ready for a busy Friday. Prior to booking my fight to London, I had no idea what would await me beyond the Georgetown friends I was planning on meeting up with. I asked my friend Catherine, who spent a year there and knows the place better than I know my own hometown neighborhood, for her recommendations; in return, I received the 2000+ word Catherine Addington Epic Walking Tour of London.
The Tour starts in Russell Square (see top photo) and proceeds through all of the most important sites of London with plenty of time to spare for exploration and improvisation. My first act of spontaneity came not even 30 minutes in, when I decided to check out the bookstore close to where I was staying. Waterstone's, a glorious 5-story building with a marvelous classics section and an equally-enviable Classics section treated me well: among their used books I found a pocket Oxford hardcover edition of George Eliot's Middlemarch (my planned summer reading project) (it's almost 900 pages long so finding a nice, portable version at a bargain price made it a steal).
Carrying on then...the British Museum was up next, so I stopped in to see the Rosetta Stone and the Parthenon marbles ("Oh hey, what brings you here?") before taking off again to hit up some independent booksellers along the way to the National Gallery, which I returned to in the evening to visit. By this point I was late to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, so instead I had a leisurely stroll through St. James' Park before ending up there for a few obligatory photos. No sightings of the Queen, sorry! Feeling obliged to try a Prêt, since I wasn't joking before when I made it sound as though you run into one every 10 steps because you do, I grabbed a to-go lunch of blood orange juice and a tomato/mozzarella toasted sandwich, which I enjoyed in the company of some dapper London officeworkers on their lunch break in a grassy lot.
I stopped by Westminster Abbey (also extraordinarily expensive and a photo-free zone, so I opted not to pop in), Big Ben, and Parliament before crossing the river to go check out the British Film Institute (BFI) and the various art-related things to see around here.
After walking back to the National Gallery and then to my hotel, I rested my ready-to-revolt legs for all of 30 minutes before running out to grab a quick Thai dinner and see a movie. (This was the most Tim week ever, so I had to go...even if the ticket cost $24!) Regrettably, the director Q&A screening of Jonathan Glazer's "Under the Skin" had sold out by the time I got to London, so I had to opt for the regular screening instead. The cinema in question was Soho Curzon, which I immediately realized was way too cool for me: the theaters were in the basement, two floors beneath a trendy pub-and-club combo, and my fellow moviegoers all had an air of sophistication that's oh-so-difficult for a tourist on a speed date with Europe to pull off. As it was the premiere night of the film, the audience was packed; impressively, we only had 5 walkouts—not bad for an abstract, dialogue-free horror/sci-fi film about an alien seductress preying upon unsuspecting Scottish blokes, as filmed with real people caught on hidden cameras.
Saturday I spent the morning and afternoon in Oxford, where my only real goals were to check out the Ashmolean Museum, grab a t-shirt, and spend some time to myself. Add to that list a surprise visit to the Classics Department, which was conveniently open for an archaeology symposium, and that all adds up to a pretty nice day on the town. When I returned to London, I swung up to All Saints, the Greek Orthodox church, for Paraklesis before meeting my friend TC for dinner—ramen and dim sum, of course, because the theme of this break has been "eat as many foods that you won't be able to get in Rome as possible". TC generously picked up the tab (we had a brief quarrel over this, but when you pit a stubborn Greek man against a stubborn Chinese man over the dinner bill, nobody's ever going to win), so I paid the favor forward by paying for brunch the next morning when I met Mary at Patisserie Valerie.
I had to head off to the airport shortly thereafter, and barring a moment of panic at the train station where the ticket machine wasn't accepting either of my cards and my traveling companion Wooj was nowhere in sight, the return trip to Rome went entirely smoothly.
Sitting here in the Centro and trying to recall my memories of London is making me nostalgic (so soon? don't I have to be back in America first?)...while I felt refreshed upon returning to Rome and ready to tackle the second half of the semester, one week later and the reality of being in a rigidly-scheduled program with plenty of homework and very little time left free for seeing the city on our own (and, uh, breathing) hit hard. While all of my friends in Paris and London have long spring breaks (2 weeks at the shortest) and lots of time for adventures in between, I'm stuck with a very regimented schedule; Mondays, Tuesdays, and Thursdays I'm essentially in class all day, and life here is just generally so intense that what little time I do have to myself is spent sleeping or staying close to the Centro to read or get work done. Though I've been longing of late for a school schedule that's more agreeable to spontaneity, with only three weeks left in Rome (!!!) my priority now is to make the most of the time I have left here and the people I'll be spending it with.