Wednesday, January 3, 2018


London, England:

"Hi there, can I get the strongest anti-itch cream that you have, please?"

Thank goodness I was back in an English-speaking country with good pharmacies. Thank goodness I was in a hostel with self-service laundry machines (this is a true rarity, at least in my price range). For I had been viciously attacked by bedbugs in one of my hostels in Northern Italy, most likely the one in Venice. I am allergic to bug bites, and my skin reacts strongly, as you can see in this photo:

My whole arms, along with good portions of my chest, core, and legs, and even my face, was covered with itchy welts. I stayed up to the wee hours of the morning washing and drying everything, including my shoes and my backpack itself, in hopes of killing any bugs that may have traveled with me. I even reported the incident to hostel staff and swore to them that I had taken every measure to be sure the bugs were gone.

The downside of dealing with a bed bug attack in London is that it cost over $10 to do my laundry. You see, everything in the United Kingdom is expensive, and even more given that the exchange rate at that time was roughly $1.25 US for 1 British pound. The one deal I had found was a relatively affordable hostel in a mansion in the ultra-wealthy Kensington neighborhood, which is home to the national museums, the Royal Albert concert hall, high-end boutiques, and best of all, Kensington Park, which is London's equivalent of New York City's Central Park, except that it has a palace in it. The hostel was super cool - picture an old British mansion in your head, and your idea probably won't be too far off from the common room:

Posh common room

Posh neighborhood
I woke up here the morning of Thanksgiving 2016, itchy and more than a little homesick. So I did what I always do when I need to be in touch with my roots: I went for a run. I've run all over the world, and every time I run in a new place, I am thankful that this routine can ground me anywhere, and that I get to explore new places in such a wonderful way. Kensington Park is enormous, and beautiful, and I got to take a sweaty selfie in front of the home of the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, more commonly known as Prince William and Kate Middleton.

Kensington Palace

Keeping it classy, as always
I then cozied up on the massive leather couch in the common room and watched a movie, and attempted to Skype my family to say hello for the holiday. The WiFi signal was poor, so we only chatted for a brief moment before giving up. In a gesture I deeply appreciated, our hostel's planned activity for the evening was a American-style Thanksgiving Dinner prepared by the staff. So I still got to eat the traditional turkey, mashed potatoes, and even cranberry sauce. Travelers from around the world broke bread, and I was so thankful not to spend the evening alone.

Also in true American style, I did a bit of Black Friday shopping, because when packing up for a red-eye flight in Venice, I had forgotten to pack a pair of jeans which I had left out to dry. When you only own two pairs of pants (cheers to backpacker life), you desperately need to replace the other pair. So I found a TJ Maxx and located a suitable replacement. I then dashed to a coffee shop so I could Skype my best friends. Apparently, I am not meant to Skype anyone in London, because the power went out on the entire city block mid-video call and the shop lost WiFi, so I wandered the streets and eventually ended up in McDonalds so I could finish the Skype call. I truly felt like a ragamuffin.

Speaking of ragamuffin - one night I was out and about in London and really needed to use the bathroom. I saw a bookstore and decided that would be a good candidate, and the woman working kindly showed me to the employee bathroom in the basement. When I wandered out after completing my business, I decided to at least pretend like I intended to buy something. So I perused the shelves and picked up a book, then double-took when I saw the price tag. No way in hell a book could be that expensive... until I noticed that it was a first-edition, signed by the author. And they were letting me touch it! Then a ripple of fear tore through my chest - what if I tore a page? There's no way I could afford to buy any of these books! So I frequently wiped the sweat off my fingers, and opened the spines carefully - it was as if my fingers were whispering, when they normally shout and stumble their way through life. I held an original edition Don Quixote, Dr. Seuss, Harry Potter, Dickens, and many others. The cheapest books cost a few hundred pounds, and the most expensive were £35,000 (that's almost $45,000!!!), but average was £8,000 to £10,000. Apparently some people will pay as much for one book as others will spend on an entire college education. Peter Harrington's Rare Books was quite clearly the most fortuitous bathroom break of all time.

Original edition Don Quixote
Original edition and/or signed JK Rowling, Roald Dahl, AA Milne, and others

My first afternoon in the city, I had taken a free walking tour of London and got to see some of the traditional touristy sites, such as Buckingham Palace and Trafalgar Square. The best piece of information I'd found out was that if you pretend to be religious, you can go to the nightly service at Westminster Abbey for free. Normally, it costs £22 for a tour, which is hard for a backpacker to justify paying. The downside is that the truly religious don't take photos inside the church, and they probably don't show up late for the service like I did. The church staff know that miserly travelers like me crash the service for other-than-pious reasons, so they walk behind any stragglers who walk out slowly once the service has ended, and escort you toward the door as you stare upward at the ceiling and around at the beauty of the chapel. I do have to say, attending a service there was a unique experience, and listening to the choir fill the cavernous space with hymns gave me chills.

Buckingham Palace

The most solemn horse guard

Lion in Trafalgar Square
Palace of Westminster - UK Parliament

Westminster Abbey
What else did I do in London? The Beefeater's Tour of the Tower of London. What is a Beefeater, you ask? It's the nickname for the Yeomen Warders, or the guardians of the site. We got to see the royal jewels, as well as the tower where famous folks such as Anne Boleyn, second wife of Henry the XIII, who was later beheaded on site.

Tower of London

Tower holding the Crown Jewels

Tower Bridge (NOT London Bridge, London Bridge is actually quite plain)
I visited the reconstructed Globe Theater, which is a faithful version of the theater where Shakespeare's works were performed centuries ago. There are still theater performances in the Globe today.

I met up with my friend Molly, who was studying abroad in London. I met her in Prague, when she was visiting her brother Ian, my friend whom I met in Romania. We met each other at a Girls LOVE Travel outing. Girls LOVE Travel is a Facebook community for women who, well, love to travel. It was so wonderful to see Molly again, and also to meet a group of women who were as passionate about new places and experiences as I am. We went to the Hyde Park Winter Wonderland, a massive outdoor Christmas festival with rides, food and drink tents, and so many shining lights. It was a magical evening.

London does Christmas well

Ice skating rink by the national museums
And, perhaps most importantly, I made the Two Great Pilgrimages. What are these, you ask? Well, you aren't a Millennial who visited London unless you see Platform 9 and 3/4 in King's Cross Station.

You also aren't a true Coloradan unless you go out of your way to eat Chipotle. My fellow diners were staring a bit, because I was so excited to finally be eating something spicy and vaguely resembling authentic Mexican food. It was the first taste of home in months, although it did taste a bit different than the original US version, probably because of ingredient access.

Overall, I was surprised by how much I enjoyed London. I've never thought of myself as a fan of British culture, and I tend to like grittier or more "off-the-beaten-track" kinds of cities. There's a reason London is so popular, though - it's beautiful, so well-organized, and has its own quirky sense of humor.

No comments :

Post a Comment