Week One in London

So. After a very long summer of wishing, waiting, and working, the day of our flight arrived. London called and I was answering. My mother and I were driven to the Charlotte airport by her always sarcastic husband where we boarded our flight for Toronto. The plane was so small that I couldn’t stand upright, but a short flight later and the first leg of our trip was over!

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Sky high

Upon our arrival in Toronto, we made a quick detour through customs, past the surly but incredibly attractive border agent (seriously – he was hot). The gate for our flight to London was just around the corner. Toronto’s airport didn’t seem very large… At this point, my mother was anxious for a cigarette, but no dice. There simply wasn’t enough time for her to leave the airport and make it back through security before boarding began. Boarding for international flights always seems to take longer than it should, but we finally taxied down the runway and took off.

To put it mildly, my mother is not a pleasant person when she is denied  her “civil liberty” of smoking. In her eyes, nothing was satisfactory about the flight. The less than polite flight attendant did nothing to alleviate the matter. But, two films, a spilled Coke, and an in-flight meal later, we arrived in London where made the long trek through the Heathrow airport to customs. Of course, as scatter brained as I have become, I forgot to bring a copy of my acceptance letter. I had my passport with my visa inside, but what good is that if I don’t have the letter of sponsorship from King’s? One would think that, considering the amount of paperwork required in order to obtain a visa, one could simply walk through customs visa in hand… Nope. Not the case. So I quickly whipped out my handy dandy iPhone, pulled up the letter online, and voila! *stamp stamp* “Go on through. Enjoy your stay.” And with that, I was approved to enter the UK. We grabbed our bags off the conveyor belt and carted our way out of the airport.

A friend of mine met us at the airport and, after waiting for my mother to smoke a much needed cigarette, the three of us hopped in a cab and headed for the hotel. En route, my mother thought to embarrass me by regaling my friend with anecdotes from my childhood, complete with pictures. Luckily, the hotel wasn’t terribly far away and the cab ride was mercifully short. We dropped off our bags at the Hilton Olympia and walked down the street to have brunch and allow mommy dearest to smoke. We stopped at two shops along the way – one to buy cigarettes, the other to buy a lighter (which she had forgotten). Being new to the UK, my mother immediately (but unintentionally) tried to skip the queue. Tsk tsk. Queues are the lifeblood of order in the UK.

After brunch, we made our way back to the hotel to check in. The Hilton Olympia has to be one of only a handful of London hotels in which it is legal to smoke (she was quite happy about that). Smoking rooms were in their own wing, sealed off. You knew as soon as you stepped through the door to the wing that smokers had been there. The hallway smelled of stale cigarettes and dirty ash trays, but the room itself was decent. We dropped off our bags, refreshed ourselves, and began the Herculean task of finding a decent flat in London. Dun dun dun…

I had been looking at flats online all summer and contacting agents only to be told time and again, “Give us a call when you get to London.” So I called. One thing I had not discovered in my search was that, because I am a student without a full time job, if I wanted to live on my own, I would need a UK guarantor or pay the first six months’ rent outright. Well, both of those were out of the question… So I was forced to look elsewhere. There are several websites that list rooms to let in flatshares and houseshares. So, I browsed. Endlessly.

The first viewing. The flat was great and, as I would later find out, great places do not often fall within my price range. In my naïveté, we pressed on, not realizing what a true gem we had discovered. We saw three more flats that day and none of them could hold a candle to the first. I contacted the first to let her know I was still interested, but she would not make her decision until Saturday, as she was still showing the place. So we kept looking, my mother becoming increasingly frustrated.

Mummy sat the next round out while my friend and I made a whirlwind tour of London, looking at flats in an attempt to find something suitable. Even he was exhausted by the time we were through (apparently, I am exhausting person to travel with). Two days in and we had seen some places that I could accept, but nothing fantastic. Saturday also proved fruitless.

Come Sunday, we had changed hotels, suffered through numerous arguments, I had lost my dumphone, and I had been denied the first flat we had seen. A break was definitely in order. I took momma to Portobello Market and we ventured down the street, occasionally diving into one of the shops that caught her eye. But antiques and knick knacks can never truly satisfy one’s need for retail therapy, so we headed to Oxford Street, home of shops galore.

Several shops later, hunger began to get the better of us, but my mother’s palate limited us to McDonald’s or fish and chips. Not exactly a fan of Ronald’s House, I preferred fish and chips. So, we popped into a nearby pub, patched into the free Wi-Fi, and I continued the flat search online. Our luck seemed to finally be changing. Having lost my phone, I had also lost my contacts for the appointments I had made. With my new phone, I rescheduled an appointment and we headed out, wending our way toward Stratford on the Underground.

The neighbourhood: pleasant, the street: quiet, and the largest urban shopping centre in Europe: just down the road. We were greeted by Justas at the door and shown around. He and his girlfriend share the flat and were looking to rent the spare room. The place is simply furnished, but nice. The bedroom has a double bed and plenty of space. It seemed perfect. Tired of looking at subpar flats, my mother was adamant that this be the place I stay. So we talked to Justas, he to his girlfriend, and presto! My own room in a flat in London!

Relieved of such an onerous task, I would now be able to show my mother the sites and sights of London. From the changing of the guard to the Tower Bridge (with stops for coffee and a place to sit) we covered London over the next two days. She was exhausted from the constant walking we had been doing. I realized she’s not exactly a spring chicken anymore… But she survived. A few more arguments later, we ate dinner and went back to the hotel for the last time. Wednesday morning at 5am, we took a cab to the airport and parted ways. I was truly on my own for the first time. Kind of surreal… But I’ve survived thus far! Stay tuned for the next episode of my adventures in London.

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The Shard

Cue the Walking

So begins my second day in Paris. Having awoken not quite as early as I had intended, I still managed to breakfast and leave by 9:00.  My first stop was the Cimetière de Montmartre.  I have what some would term a morbid fascination with cemeteries.  I happen to think that they are some of the most beautiful places that man has created.  I also find it fascinating to see the different manners in which men choose to preserve a piece of themselves in this world.  This being the case, I wandered around the cemetery for a while.  I eventually came across the tomb which I had been searching for.

This is why I love cemeteries.

Alexandre Dumas, fils, is buried here. He was the illegitimate son of Alexandre Dumas, père, the author of The Count of Monte Cristo and The Three Musketeers.  The son was a playwright himself and I was excited to see his resting place.  I made my way back to the entrance of the cemetery, continuing to take in the many and varied tombs, some of which were quite striking. After leaving the cemetery, I made my way down to the Moulin Rouge. It was immediately obvious that I was getting close by the abundance of sex shops I was passing.  The most interesting of these was named the “Sexodrome” and consisted of three floors.  I kept walking, finally stumbling upon the small, yet famous establishment, the Moulin Rouge. It was not quite what I had expected, but this impression would be remedied when I returned in the evening to see it brightly illuminated in neon red.

After snapping my tourist photos, I began the rather arduous ascent back up the Montmartre. I was on my way to see the Basilique du Sacré-Cœur, Paris, known in English as the Basilica of the Sacred Heart of Paris.  This basilica is built of travertine which constantly exudes calcite.  This means that it will always be white.  I arrived just in time for the service to begin, it being Sunday, and I took my seat towards the rear of the sanctuary.  I did not understand a word of what was being said, but the music was incredibly beautiful.  There was one singer in particular whose voice was as divine as the cathedral in which she sang. Unfortunately, I could not stay for the entire service as there was much else to do.

Sacre-Coeur

I made my way discreetly out of the cathedral and around to the side from which I could climb to the top of the dome.  Sacre-Cœur is built upon the Montmartre butte, the highest point in Paris. The dome offers spectacular views of the city and, rather than taking photos from the top of the Eiffel Tower, one can actually get excellent photos with the tower in them.  So I climbed.  At this point in my trip, I was fairly tired of climbing big churches.  I honestly do not understand the obsession the Catholic Church has with building these enormous structures. But, I was raised protestant, so…

From the dome of Sacre-Coeur.

Climbing down from the dome, I made my way to the metro in order to meet Noel.  En route, however, I passed a bakery.  This was not good.  Being who I am, I stopped in.  I managed to make it out alive, wallet intact, clutching a small bag in my hand.  The macaron.  Incredibly popular, compact, and most of all: delicious.  I only had one but it would have been quite easy to knock back four more.  I justified my indulgence with the fact that I had just climbed the highest hill in Paris as well as the more than 300 stairs to the top of the dome.  Hooray for indulgence.

Having met up with Noel, we walked around the city chatting away and taking pictures.  We made it down to the Sorbonne, the historic location of the University of Paris. There has been a university on this sight since 1257, basically the French equivalent of Oxford.  The architecture was amazing. We also passed the Panthéon, burial place for the likes of Victor Hugo, Émile Zola, and Alexandre Dumas, père.  However, I have seen my fill of impressive churches, so we walked past.

We stopped to get dinner in the Latin Quarter, and despite being in France, we had pizza.  It was decent pizza, too.  Neither of us had eaten pizza since our individual trips to Italy and we were pleasantly surprised.  We then wanted dessert and, being in Paris, I wanted a crêpe.  Banana and Nutella. Absolutely, fantastically, mind-blowingly delicious!  The attendant was friendly and allowed me to snap a few photos while he was making it.  Noel, on the other hand, wanted ice cream and a waffle.  He got a waffle from the crêpe stand and we walked up and down the street trying to decide who had the best ice cream. Both of us having our dessert, we dug in.

Nom.

From here we wandered off to the Tuileries, where apparently there is a permanent fun park that sells churros.  Churros in Paris?  I know, right?  It was beginning to get dusky and the lights were coming on.  We continued meandering toward the Louvre and we waited for the opportune moment to be tourists.  Until that point we proceeded to speak in Spanish to one another about how annoying Asian tourists are.  After we performed our tourist duties, Noel went back to the hostel and I on a night tour of the city.

The Louvre

Paris truly is a beautiful city and the City of Lights. Despite having already taken photos of the Eiffel Tower, I took a few more and headed down the Champs-Élysées. The Arc de Triomphe is huge. And deceptive. I was walking down the street, thinking all the while that I was getting close to the Arc.  Wrong. It took me thirty minutes to walk the length and then I had to walk all the way back down, as I wanted to see the Pont Alexandre III.  After visiting the extremely elaborate bridge, I headed back to the hostel in order to make the curfew.  I did stop by the Moulin Rouge once more to see it all lit up.  I was going to use illuminated, but it just sounds too pretentious and prat-like. So lit up it is.

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July in Paris

With the arrival of my first morning in Paris, I woke up raring to go and headed down to the kitchen to get the free breakfast that the hostel provided.  It was only continental, but there were hot, fresh croissants every morning. With a bit of butter melting on top and a cup of tea, the croissants made the perfect companion to a French sunrise. After breakfast, I grabbed my bag and headed out the door.  I made my way to the metro station and hopped the first train to the city center.  My first stop was the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.  After taking numerous photos of the entrance, I made my way inside with the other crazy tourists who had decided to get up as early as I had.  I grabbed an audio guide and proceeded to meander through the cathedral.  As I had earlier discovered in Rome, Catholics are excellent at pomp and circumstance, also known as opulence.

Notre Dame. I didn’t get to see Quasimodo, though…

I performed my duty as a tourist, taking photos galore, particularly those of Latin inscriptions.  Call me a nerd, but the Latin writing on the stained glass windows excited me.  I could translate a few of them on the spot, but I took photos of all of them for future reference.  Having satisfied my curiosity for yet another big European church, I pressed on.  It was a good decision, too, as the line outside was tremendously long.  Aside from the long line, I was also met with a man feeding the pigeons and starlings to the delight of the waiting crowd. From there, I crossed the southern bridge, leaving the Île de la Cité for the southern bank of the Seine. I walked to the Conciergerie, a former royal palace and prison.  It was here that Marie Antoinette was held for 72 days before and during her trial, the result of which is well known. It was quite an interesting visit. Much of the building is currently used as Palais du Justice, housing various Parisian law courts.  Because of this, I was only able to see the front entrance of the Palais.

The Seine

Much of the cultural and historical importance of Paris is centered on the Seine, winding its green way lazily through the city.  On the Rive Gauche, or left bank, where I was currently standing, the Sainte-Chapelle was constructed by King Louis IX to house the Crown of Thorns. If the Crown ever actually resided in this chapel is unknown, but it certainly is not there now. However, the stained glass windows were quite beautiful and incredibly detailed.  The Museum Pass I had purchased allowed me to bypass the line in which many people were waiting.  It saved me a lot of time and standing, which is always a good thing on such a short trip.

Jesus and the Crown of Thorns

I exited the chapel after some time and wandered around the Île for a bit, eventually making my way down the Seine toward I knew not what.  Before long, I had stumbled upon the Louvre. It seemed just in time, too, for the clouds were gathering above the city, growing darker with every passing minute.  It suddenly began to rain quite heavily, and I used my wonderful pass to again bypass the line and get out of the rain. At this point, it was about 13:30 and I would spend the next four and a half hours wandering through the vaulted corridors of a palace turned museum. The size of the place is incredible and it is difficult to imagine that royals actually lived here. Why would anyone need such a giant palace? I saw all of the paintings I wanted to see and a lot of tourists I had hoped would not be there. C’est la vie.

The Louvre

Following my extensive and tiring tour of one of the largest museums in the world, I met up with my friend Noel.  We picked up some sandwich supplies, bought some wine, and headed for the lawn in front of the Eiffel Tower.  Chatting happily away, we worked our way through our sandwiches and wine, waiting for the Tower to light up and take our photos. Never did I expect wine or bread to taste so good, but France is renowned for such things.  Absolutely delicious. The Tower began to light up around 21:30 but the sun had yet to set far enough to allow for decent photos. It did begin to get chilly, though, so we were waiting impatiently to retreat to a warmer location. We finally managed to get our photos and go, at which time we headed towards Noel’s hostel to grab a drink before we parted ways for the evening.

Sparkly!

At around 01:00, it was time for me to head back in order to make the curfew of 02:00 which my hostel was enforcing. Being what I thought was only a short distance away, I decided to walk back. Oh how wrong I was.  I was walking rather briskly, fearing that I would be locked out, and just made it back before the doors were shut. I was safe but unable to charge my electronics due to the lobby shutting down with the curfew. So I went to bed having made the decision to wake up early to feed my camera and phone before I left.

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Friends and Public Transport

So I planned a rather last minute trip to Paris.  I booked my ticket a week in advance and found a decent hostel, which surprised me given the short notice.  Friday rolled around and I jumped out of bed wide awake. I still had to make it through class, but I packed my bag and headed out, not intending to return to the flat until Monday.  Today was also the day of the final exam for the first Latin session, so I had to go to class, even if I wanted to skip…

After we were dismissed, I ran up to the computer lab to print out my boarding passes. It was at this point that I realized I had accidentally booked my return ticket for Tuesday morning instead of Monday morning.  I was fretting about it for a bit, but my friend Christine and I went on to Borough Market where she and the good food calmed me down.  An extra day in Paris? Score!  So I went along with it.

TOMATOES!!

We perused the stalls of the market, feasting our eyes on the deliciousness that assaulted us from all sides.  It was difficult to decide what to eat.  In the end we settled on meat pies with a side of chips and we split a meringue for dessert.  Completely satiated, we wandered around for a bit more, until we decided to get a pint, at which point we made a bee-line for the nearest pub. Christine had yet to taste cider, so I ordered a cider for her and a scrumpy for myself.  Ciders can range from sweet to dry and Strongbow, the one I ordered for her, strikes a fair balance between the two.  It’s also rather inexpensive and quite good, in my humble opinion. A scrumpy, on the other hand, is easiest to describe as a cross between a cider and a beer. We enjoyed sipping our pints until it was time for me to head on up to St. Pancras to catch my train to the airport.

I caught the Tube to the train station, a train to the airport car park, and a shuttle to get from the car park to the actual airport. So much public transport… But I made it with plenty of time to spare.  As I had no bag to check and I already had my boarding pass, I headed straight for security, which I passed through rather quickly as well. As it would be quite some time until I would be able to eat again, I grabbed a sandwich and waited for my flight to be called. Unlike in US airports, the three airports I’ve been to in the UK require passengers to stay in large, central waiting areas until their flight is called. So I plopped down into one of the few empty seats, ate my sandwich and continued to reread Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows on my iPhone. I was about halfway through. Little did I know that I would finish it during the massive amounts of time I would be spending in transit.

My flight was called and I headed to the gate to continue waiting in line. The flight was slightly late in departing, but fairly decent overall. I arrived at Charles de Gaulle airport, made my way through customs, and headed for the train that would take me into the city. I’m going to go off on a tangent here and comment on the security levels of various countries. When I arrived in Rome, the officers scanned my passport, stamped it, and sent me on my way. France was similar, but the US is ridiculous. When I came back from England last year, they questioned me for fifteen minutes before letting me, a citizen, back into the country. I was offended. The UK manages to toe the line between severe and lax and I’ve never been asked more than, “How long will you be staying?” But I digress.

Boarding all passengers on the 20:50 flight to Paris.

So I walked through the airport and made it to the train station. Taking the train through the rather seedy outskirts of Paris, I made it to Gare du Nord. From there I took the metro north, transferred to another line, went south for a bit, got off and walked to the hostel. By the time I arrived, it was 23:30 and I was done with public transportation. I crashed early so I could get up in the morning and make my way through the City of Lights.

The End of an Era

All was well.

Much has happened in the interval since my last post.  The final Harry Potter installment was released and I was at the midnight premiere in Leicester Square.  The theatre there is where many of the London movie premieres are held and the stars of the films strut their stuff.  I wore a t-shirt with the “Undesirable No 1” poster printed on it and joined the massive amount of Harry Potter fans flocking toward the center of the city.  After almost three hours, the only thing I can say is wow. Absolutely incredible!  I want to see it again, but paying pounds to do so is a bit expensive.  I shall just have to wait until the fall when CUAB and I bring it to the Union (*wink wink* to anyone who is going to be near UNC in the fall).  As some of you may have seen, I also gave an interview for a CNN article about being a Harry Potter fan and my experience in London. I know: la-di-da. Anyways… I still had to go to class the next day.  So, I crashed when I got back to my flat, woke up, and put on a Hogwarts t-shirt to continue the Harry Potter celebration.  To round out the entire experience, I went to King’s Cross Station to take a photo of myself at Platform 9 ¾.  It was a bittersweet experience to recognize an end to something that had been such a massive part of my childhood.  From there, I headed just down the road to renew my British Library Reader’s Pass so I could do a bit of research while I’m here.  Have I yet to do so? Well… I’m sure you know the answer to that by now. Saturday arrived and it was quite a dreary day indeed.  The clouds were relentless as they scudded across the sky, growing ever darker.  I have by now come to accept this fact and pressed on with my plans for the day.  I grabbed my raincoat and let the wind take me where it would.  I went to Leadenhall Market first, which was the inspiration for Diagon Alley. Upon arrival, however, I realized that students don’t really venture to such a place as the shops were quite expensive and the restaurants filled with suits. Quite annoying, really. Undeterred, I wandered around East London, taking a rather indirect path toward the Tower Bridge. I reached the bridge at length, paid a reduced entrance fee thanks to my status as a poor student, and ascended to the top to drink in the incredible view of the Thames and the surrounding neighborhood.  The view was truly worth the fairly minimal fee, considering the exorbitant prices that many of the monuments charge.   I walked through the displays detailing the history and construction of the bridge, snapped my photos, avoided the tour groups, and went on my way.  I intended to walk back to the flat, but the ominous clouds, having grown increasingly menacing as the day progressed, finally released their burden in a fairly heavy manner.  So I took the Tube.  I chilled for the remainder of the day and, Sunday being rather dreary as well, I stayed in to do my homework, venturing forth only to secure provisions for the coming week, namely yogurt and tomatoes. More to come!

The Adventures Continue

Before I partook of the magic that is Shakespeare, I met up with my friends Temi and Adele to go shopping.  Temi asked me to meet them at the Camden Town Station, but me being me, I confused it with Convent Garden Station.  Still not quite sure how… Anyway, once the mixup was sorted out, I hopped the next train and met up with them. We began at Camden Markets just north of the city center, perusing the aisles of items that had “fallen off the back of a truck.”  Reaching a mutual decision, we pressed on to the Westfield Shopping Centre a.k.a. the biggest mall I have ever been in.

I had been here during the week, sorely damaging my bank account in my fervor. I had bought so many clothes and new pairs of shoes that my arms ached the next day from carrying them all.  So I trotted along behind Temi and Adele, content to be graced by their company.  It being Saturday the mall was packed with people.  Because of this, I only had enough time to purchase a couple pairs of chinos from UNI QLO before I had to leave in order to make the show in time. It was probably for the best…  As previously posted, Much Ado About Nothing was fantastic. I went to bed a happy, if tired, camper.

I spent a lazy Sunday morning watching Harry Potter in preparation for the big day and doing the Latin homework that I had been neglecting for the past two days.  However, I rewarded myself on Monday for being so studious by paying a visit to St. Paul’s Cathedral.  I had been last year, but there always seems to be something you miss, particularly in such a big place.  I climbed to the top of the dome and took some incredible photos of London and used an app on my iBrick to take a 360° panoramic photo.  I was quite impressed with the quality of the photo.

London 360

After climbing down, I stopped in front of the memorial to John Donne, one of the greatest English poets of the Early Modern period.  He was also Dean of St. Paul’s from 1621 until his death in 1631. While standing before the memorial, reverently paying my respects, a small group of people approached. They stopped to read the plaque above the statue and one of them proceeded to ask, “Who the hell is John Donne?”  I was torn between being heartbroken and angry at the ignorance of such a fool.  He could have easily listened to the free audio guide hanging about his neck, but no. He was content to walk through the cathedral oblivious of the wealth of history it contained.  I very waspishly informed him of John Donne’s greatest deeds and a brief history of his life, probably answering his question with more detail than he desired.  I then moved on.

John Donne

After a short walk northward, during which I came upon the remains of the London Wall, I headed for Bunhill Fields, a cemetery for Nonconformists from the 17th to 19th century.  Daniel Defoe, John Bunyan, and William Blake are buried here.  It is a beautiful cemetery in which the noise of the surrounding area immediately seems dampened once you have passed the gates.  I lingered here for a while, but the hours of the day were speeding quickly away.

I returned to the flat to cook dinner and do my homework.  The next day, after cruising at light speed through even more Latin grammar, I spent the early afternoon working on my homework as I intended to see Les Misérables with Temi and Adele.  Adele wanted to see a show in London and neither of them had seen Les Mis, so off we went.  I met them in Leicester Square and we walked toward Chinatown.  After checking the menu of several restaurants, concluding that they would generally all be equal, we walked into one and sat down.  The food was alright but a bit overpriced.  We chatted away during our dinner, waiting for the show to begin. We ambled off to the theatre just before seven and took our seats.

Adele, Temi, and the "Pancake Hand"

The show was quite good but not as excellent as that which I had seen but a year before.  I explained the plot to Adele during intermission who was having a bit of trouble following the lyrics of the song laden performance.  Following the standing ovation, we exited to find ourselves on a side street confronted with several large signs for a gay bar.  Being that we were in Soho, this was not a surprising sight, but we pressed on as the oily men on the poster were distracting Adele. We parted ways at Leicester Square Station, I to walk back south across the bridge to Waterloo and they to catch a train north. Quite an entertaining evening.

Londinium

I last left off having settled into my flat.  The next morning, I walked across the Waterloo Bridge and made my way to King’s College London for registration.  My hard-earned photocopies ready and waiting, I handed them over in return for my ID badge.  A King’s College ID.  I was quite excited when it was placed into my hand, the official proof that I am enrolled at King’s, if only for the summer.  The university also provided these fantastic orange and grey backpacks (insert sarcasm here).  Orange is one of the ugliest colors on the planet, in my opinion.  After taking a tour of the building and breaking for lunch, one of the Student Ambassadors led us to our classroom.

Maggie, our tutor, distributed the books and we jumped right in and have since been cantering our way through Latin grammar.  Luckily, I entered the beginning Latin course.  It has been mainly review, which has been a great help as the focus is grammar-based in class and heavy translation at home.  I try to get in some sightseeing between class and dinner, but from around 20:00 to 00:00, I am usually working on homework.  We’re now into the second week and have covered more than I did in two months at UNC.

In my spare time, I was able to see Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing.  I have a policy of not reading Shakespeare’s plays prior to seeing them performed, as Shakespeare only meant his work to be for the stage.  So I went in blind.  All I knew was that David Tennant and Catherine Tate, two amazing actors and Doctor Who alumni, would be performing the lead roles.  The show is completely sold out for the entire run, but they hold a lottery for twenty tickets to each show.  I stood in line from 9:20 until 11:00 on Saturday morning, waiting to see if my lottery number was called.  It was not, but as I had arrived so early, I was first in line to buy a standing ticket.

The ticket cost me £16 and I had to stand for the entire performance, but it was well worth it.  I was in stitches for the first half of the play, only to be sobered up with the seriousness of the remainder.  After the standing ovation, I literally ran out of the theatre and around to the stage door.  I waited with close to a hundred other people for David and Catherine to exit and sign autographs.  We were not disappointed.  I was not able to get Catherine’s autograph, but I David signed my program in his untidy scrawl.  He is truly great and quite funny in person.  I was ecstatic.

DAVID TENNANT AND CATHERINE TATE!

Well, Latina me vocat (Latin calls me) and I must return to my translations.

Any given Sunday

I arrived in London at Stansted airport around 23:45.  After making it through customs, which are much more stringent in the UK, it was getting quite late.  I grabbed my bag and headed to the train station only to be informed that the train was leaving at 00:30.  It was now 00:27… I ran with the attendant yelling after me, “Hurry!  It’s just downstairs!  Run quickly!”  So run I did.  I seem to be doing quite a bit of that on this trip.  I made it onto the train just as the doors were closing, stowed my bag on the luggage rack, and took my seat for the long trip into the city.

I tried to sleep but adrenaline was rushing through my veins and there were several American girls sitting a few seats forward.  They were chatting quite animatedly, the loudest of whom was in possession of one of the most annoying Jersey accents I’ve heard.  She was regaling her comrades with her drunken escapades, not exactly ingratiating herself with the British people around her.  I believe there was a reference to a blackout she had experienced in which she had written “Return to sender” upon her forehead.

The ever present clouds.

The train pulled into Liverpool Street Station just before 01:30.  With relief, I disembarked and made my way through the station to the entrance.  Pulling out my handy iPhone, now iBrick, I consulted the London map app I had downloaded and proceeded to make my way towards the hostel for the night.  Being the cheapskate I am, I forewent taxis and buses and walked the streets of London for half an hour before arriving.  I checked into the hostel and crashed quite readily onto the bed I had been assigned.

When I awoke in the morning, I headed for the café in the hostel.  There I was able to get the full English breakfast of toast, baked beans, fried eggs, bacon, and tea.  It was quite welcome on my rather empty and travel-weary stomach.  Continuing to rest up for a bit, I made ample use of the hostel’s Wi-Fi services, waiting for the check in time at the flats.  As two o’clock approached, I made my way to Stamford Street Apartments and settled into my flat.  I unpacked my bag, which by this point included a carrier bag containing some very foul smelling socks.  You don’t walk around for more twelve hours a day without receiving such a gift.

My room once I "settled in."

I went down to the grocery store around the corner to stock my mini-fridge with the essentials: milk, yoghurt, bread, jam, and the ever important Twining’s English Breakfast tea.  After dropping off my supplies, I realized that, in my pre-departure travels, I had quite forgotten to make a photocopy of my passport and visa letter.  This was a rather large oversight on my part as both were necessary for my enrolment at King’s College London the next morning.  I immediately set out on a quest to find a copy center. It being Sunday evening, it was extremely difficult.  I wandered around Waterloo and the South Bank for more than an hour before finally stumbling upon a rather dodgy internet café.  Having made my photocopies, a wave of relief spread over me and I decided to treat myself.

So I went to the pub.  It had been almost a year since I last had a pint of cider, so I sat down at the bar and ordered a Strongbow.  This is one of the drier ciders available and, in my opinion, quite good.  After my pint, I realized I had not eaten since breakfast.  On my trek back to the flat, I came across a restaurant that I had seen the previous year but at which I had never eaten. Tas Restaurant is a Greek food chain in the UK serving a varied and a bit pricier menu.  However, the quality of the food is well worth the price.  To start, I was provided with bread and olive oil, to which I added an order of hummus.  This was followed by a pan-fried halibut filet. It was served on a bed of sautéed red and green peppers, onions, and potatoes with a side of steamed broccoli.  The entire meal was fantastic and I walked away quite satiated.

Wending my way through the security systems at the flat’s entrance, I finally managed to make it back to my room.  I  went to bed, ready for the morning and the beginning of my time at King’s.

Last day in Roma.

On my last day in Rome, I decided that I wanted to sleep in.  I had seen most of the important (and touristy) sights the city had to offer, and my toes were not the ten friends on a camping trip they used to be.  I had packed my bag the night before so all I had to do was throw on some clothes and go downstairs to check out.  After losing my keycard in the 5 minutes between the bed and the front desk, I did not get my €5 deposit back. C’est la vie.  I stored my bag at the hostel and set off for the Pasticceria around the corner for breakfast.  I had a fresh croissant, still warm from the oven and drizzled with honey, and a pot of tea.  Nom!

From there I decided to visit the Etruscan Museum in the Villa Borghese.  I had heard the Villa itself was quite beautiful so I walked there rather than embark upon another smelly metro adventure.  The museum was OK, but not fantastic.  Most of the information was written in Italian, which I had difficulty reading.  Almost all of the museums and sites I had been to up to this point had English and Italian descriptions, and I was a bit put out by this museum’s lack thereof.  When I got bored in the museum, I left and stopped at the cafe on the way out to have an Orange Fanta and find out where the hell I was/where to go next.  The Fanta was delicious, much better than the US version.  It tasted more like sparkling orange juice than soda.  By the time I had finished, I had mapped out a scenic route through the Villa that would eventually take me to a metro station.

The Villa certainly lived up to the descriptions I had been given.  It’s like Central Park but more green.  There is minimal concrete and a very friendly atmosphere.  There were many families out enjoying their Saturday mornings off.  I walked around enjoying the landscape and the ducks that meander aimlessly between the two ponds of the Villa.  It was a nice getaway from the city within city limits. Quite nice, really.

More pond.

When I arrived at the metro stop, I hopped the next train to the Trevi district.  I got off and immediately got a sandwich on my way to the fountain. This was quite a large sandwich, too.  I ate my fare under the piercing gaze of the fountains sculptures and watched the many people come and go.  People watching is so fascinating.  I spent quite a bit of time there, just relaxing for a bit.  However, it being a sunny day, I began to burn.  I didn’t notice this until much later…

I was just doing a bit of reading by the fountain when I had a sudden craving for gelato.  Being my last day in the city, I decided to indulge this craving and headed over to the gelateria I first visited only a few days earlier.  I had noticed a significant price difference in the gelato here as opposed to other places in the city.  The quality, however, was worth the price.  I asked the attendant what makes good gelato and the reply was of course, “The ingredients.” He also said that they would NEVER serve it in a cone because it detracts from the flavor of the frozen treat itself.  That would truly be a shame.

Having indulged myself, I was headed back to the hostel when I realized I had not been to one of the sites on my list.  The Terme di Caracalla, or the Baths of Caracalla.  Back on the metro I got.  After getting a bit lost, I made it to the baths.  They are truly impressive.  The mere size of them rivals the Colosseum.  I wandered around for a bit, reading the information placards kindly translated into English.  Apparently, apart from cleaning oneself, the baths were the second public library opened in Rome.  There were two rooms: one for Latin texts and one for Greek.  Greek was considered the second language of the Roman Empire and many educated citizens were fluent in both.  I got lost in history, only to return with a quick glance at my watch.

I walked quickly back to the metro station and made my way back to the hostel to collect my bag.  Luckily, the bus/train station was only a five minute walk from the hostel, so I didn’t have far to go.  The coach took me directly to the airport where, this time, I arrived two hours before departure.  I checked my bag with plenty of time to spare, made it through security (which was surprisingly lax), and settled in to wait for my flight.  We boarded and left at 22:15 with an arrival time in England of 23:45.  I slept, very weary of the many miles I had traversed throughout the city of Rome.  I have thrown my coins into the fountain, so I will be back one day…

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Day of the Dead

Last night was not as restful as I had hoped it would be.  A father and daughter had checked into the room and let’s just say I feel sorry for the poor bloke who lands her.  She seemed charming enough… then she fell asleep.  I thought there was a weed whacker in the room! On and on she went, preventing me from falling asleep.  Judging by the rustling around the room, I was not the only one lying awake.  Even earplugs couldn’t block the racket she was making.  I don’t recall what time I finally fell asleep, but it was well after two in the morning, as that was when I last checked the time.

I woke up and dressed quickly, as always, preparing my feet for another long day.  I’ve become quite the nurse in my travels.  I’d receive top marks in bandaging and Neosporin application.  I hopped on the metro and made my way south to the Basilica of St. John Lateran.  This is the official seat of the Bishop of Rome a.k.a. The Pope.  It was quite an impressive building and is considered the mother church of the entire world.  There is one thing that makes impressive enough to be considered so important: the Scala Sancta or Holy Steps. According to Roman Catholic tradition, these stairs once led to the praetorium of Pontius Pilate.  This means that Jesus Christ would have climbed them during his Passion.  The stairs were moved from Jerusalem to Rome by Pope Sixtus V in the 16th Century. You can only climb the stairs on your knees and, not being that dedicated, I decided to pass.

From there I headed to the Appia Antica and the ruins surrounding it.   The skies were overcast, bringing a breeze and the threat of rain, but also a cool relief to the hot days of Rome.   I stepped onto my first roman bus and was soon followed by a rather large group of Dutch students and their chaperones.   Dutch is not a pretty language (this coming from a person learning Russian…).   They chatted excitedly and I gave my seat to one of the chaperones.   My feet were not happy, but she was grateful. Three cheers for chivalry.

So off we went. We got off at the Catacombs of San Callisto. Christians were allowed to be buried here because it was outside city limits. There are over 500,000 tombs within the complex and over 40 km of corridors. Anyone from Pope to plebe was buried here until the 4th Century, when they came into disuse. Apparently people now bring their own priests and have service in some of the larger rooms of the catacombs.  A bit odd, if you ask me…

I caught the bus back to Rome with some difficulty…  Many of the roads have crosswalks, but it’s a “cross at you own risk” kind of crosswalk.  Romans aren’t exactly the most patient drivers either.  The dividing lines on the road are more guidelines than requirements. They freely swerve through traffic and use their horns abundantly. I finally crossed the street, got on the bus, and made it back to the city with all my limbs intact.

From there, I decided to pay a visit to the graves of two of the greatest minds and writers of Romanticism.  Both John Keats and Percy Shelley are buried in the Non-Catholic Cemetery in the southern part of the city.  The cemetery itself is made quite noticeable by the rather domineering pyramid that is built into the walls of the cemetery.  I entered, freely gave the “suggested donation” and proceeded to meander amiably through the rows of gravestones, some of which were remarkably unusual.  I made it around to Keats’ plot and found a woman sitting there with her three children.  She was reading “Ode to a Nightingale” aloud while her children, no more than seven at the oldest, took crayon rubbings of the gravestone.  My immediate thought was “This woman is amazing!” and, upon chatting with her about Keats, I found her to be extremely knowledgeable and friendly.  Parting ways, I continued to the site where Percy Shelley’s ashes are interred.  Both graves were surprisingly unremarkable. I then realized that their true shrine is in the minds of the people affected by their work.

Pressing ever onward, I took the metro back to the center of the city, realizing en route that I had not yet been inside the Pantheon. I had passed it on my night tour, but I had not been inside.  There are no metro stops close to it, so I got off and walked the rest of the way.  As I’ve mentioned before, Rome has water fountains all over the city and they are quite the life saver to the thirsty tourist.  I filled my bottle on my way to the Pantheon and kept on truckin’.  When I got there, I sat by the obelisk outside for a bit, taking in the sight and people-watching.  People are truly strange sometimes…

I went inside, did my tourist duty of ooh-ing and aah-ing, and went back outside to sit in the shade.  It was barely two o’clock and I needed a break.  There was an architecture class sketching the design of the building and one of the students caught my attention.  He had his headphones on and was head-banging without a care.  He soon attracted the notice of his teacher as well.  She began to rouse the students, telling them it was time to leave. She then rounded on him and thoroughly berated him for not finishing his work preferring to “jam out” instead.  The whole scene was quite comical.

After resting for a bit longer, I headed to the Bocca della Verità in the church of Santa Maria in Cosmedin.  The Bocca is said that if you tell a lie with your hand in the mouth of the sculpture, your hand would be bitten off. I don’t think it’s quite as accurate as a polygraph… After taking my photo, I headed into the church where the skull of St. Valentine still rests.  Creepy.  But my day was not yet complete. I had one more stop to make.

I waited for a bus to go back up the very steep hill I had climbed down. Riding for about half a mile, I hopped off and headed into the Capitoline Museums.  There are some truly impressive sculptures housed within. I walked around for a bit, resting my weary feet when I needed to.  By this point, I had been pretty much reduced to the granny hobble… well, maybe not quite that bad.  After taking even more photos, I decided it was time to head back to the hostel.

By the time I got there it was almost eight o’clock and my tummy was rumblin’.  I found a packed restaurant nearby, which is always a sign of good food, and was seated in the garden of the inner courtyard.  I immediately asked for bread and the house red wine (in Italian, by the way) and perused the menu.  I wasn’t up for as heavy a meal as I had last night, so I ordered insalata tricolore, which was a salad of arugula a.k.a. rocket, tomatoes, and mozzarella. When that was polished off, I had penne alla arrabiata – penne pasta in a spicy tomato and garlic sauce. Una cena ottima! Following dinner, I headed to the hostel bar to spend the rest of my tokens (you pay in tokens at their bar) and met even more Australians.  If I heard English while I was in Rome, it was with an Australian accent. A beer or two later, I headed to bed.