London Rewind

As the reverend concluded his echoing prayer of blessing for the Duke and Duchess on their one year wedding anniversary, I was looking at a stone with Charles Dickens’ name on it, and reminiscing about my time there two years earlier. It has been over two years since I visited London, the first time being an unplanned week-long stay, thanks to an Icelandic volcanic eruption ( I blogged about it). I had been on my way home from a solo vacation only to find myself stranded alone without a clue. I spent much of the week with a CouchSurfer, borrowing his bike and seeing all the free museums and parks I could manage to get to. I remember sitting outside Westminster Abbey on a quiet evening, but this time I was enjoying the evensong service inside!

I had no idea two years ago that I would be living and studying in Leicester, UK this year. But a year later I remember waking in the early hours to watch the Royal Wedding, since by that time I had made the decision to get my Masters degree abroad. I made the first journey to Leicester in late September last year, but never went to London, as I was saving the visit for my parent’s arrival. This April we spent five lovely days in London, and I got to visit old and new places, playing the role of tour guide for my parents. And each time we stumbled upon someplace familiar, my memories came wandering in. It was a surreal experience.

The first moment happened the day we arrived. My mother had been dying to see the British Museum so we went there first. It was a busy Friday afternoon, and we could barely elbow our way in to see the famous Rosetta Stone, but my memory was of standing squarely in front of the piece with only a few people milling about around me. Many of my memories are rather serene like this, as if I were wandering around London in a daze, and no one intruded on my little bubble. In fact, I had been wandering around in a daze, anxiously wondering how long I might be stranded, and only half of my brain seeming to be functioning. This time I came fully prepared, highlighting passages in my guidebook, and setting an energetic pace!

Another surreal moment came when I suggested we visit the Museum of London (of course another museum). I had heard they were having a special exhibition on Charles Dickens and his muse that was London, in celebration of 200 years since his birth. When we arrived, I realized I had been here before! In my stranded-traveller daze, I had come here having heard that it was free, but only seeing a third of the place, and leaving slightly disappointed. I am happy to say that my estimation has much improved, and by the way I loved the Dickens exhibit! Near to the museum was another landmark that brought back memories: St Paul’s Cathedral. As we walked around the outside of the cathedral, I remembered having rode that fold-up bike here all the way from Notting Hill. The madness of biking around downtown London traffic does not now escape me.

As my parents and I explored more and more of London by tube, I realized just how far I had travelled on my little bike two years ago. I had gone around Hyde Park, up to Regent’s Park, all over the City, and down into Southwark. I even recall biking past Harrod’s and wondering what was so special about it; I didn’t bother going inside. This time I am glad we decided to check it out, as it rivals even my beloved Marshall Field’s (Macy’s) in Chicago. Unfortunately, the reason I have memories of biking all over London is because I do not recall it raining once while I was there. I am told that was massively unusual and will never happen again! Our recent weather was much more typically British – lots of rain, and broken umbrellas strewn everywhere.

Of course, despite the rain it was a wonderful visit for us, and a very reminiscent one for me. My largely aimless wanderings by bike had given me a far better grasp of London than I had imagined, and evenings spent in a small Notting Hill flat were calm. Now I have been able to put names to all the places I had unknowingly visited (Museum of London, Trafalgar Square, Speaker’s Corner), as well as add a few wonderful places to my list (Greenwich, Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms, Theatre district). Without romanticizing too much, I felt as though my unexpected time in London two years ago had set in motion the chain of events that has brought me to the UK this year, and eventually back to London again. I hope to have more such travels in the future.

April 2010 – myself at Tower Bridge in sunny London

April 2012 – my parents at Tower Bridge in rainy London

London for a week on $200

You would have thought it was impossible, but I made it work! I will admit this week spent in London wasn’t even planned, but that may make it even more amazing. The reason it wasn’t planned was that I never intended to spend more than two hours in the city, but that two hours turned into eight days.

I was on my way home after a two week vacation. My short flight from Amsterdam to London went off without problems, and my easy two hour layover in London before the final leg to Chicago should have been the same. Unfortunately, Mother Nature had other plans. As we landed at London Heathrow airport, the pilot informed us that all flights for the rest of the day were to be cancelled, due to a volcanic eruption on Iceland. I couldn’t even process this information, but as we exited into the terminal the situation began to sink in.

All passengers were being asked to exit out through customs; I got a nice “Leave to Enter” stamp in my passport and proceeded down to the baggage hall with the rest of the herd to retrieve my luggage. After having my luggage lost for 5 days at the beginning of my vacation, I was anxious to have back as soon as possible! The rest of my day was spent waiting; waiting for my luggage, waiting for a hotel voucher, waiting for a bus, waiting for good news.

The airline was kind enough to put us up in a hotel, although the hotel was 40km outside of London, and I had no clue where I was anyway. A luxurious room at the Hilton to myself improved my mood, and those first two days passed fairly quickly. Travelers wandered in and out of the lobby, chatting and congregating in front of the TV which played the news all day long. On Saturday morning we were suddenly told we had to check out immediately and head back to the airport. What were they going to tell us there?

As it turned out they told me they could do nothing else for me, so a woman I had met at the hotel offered to let me come along with her. We bought cheap cell phones from the Vodafone store in the airport and I was able to call home for the first time. The cell phone continued to help when I got in contact with a young man in west London who was willing to put me up for a few days. I will be eternally grateful for the kind people across the world on and for William who hosted me for 6 nights at his small apartment in Notting Hill.

So I took a leap of faith and agreed to meet William at the tube station closest to his house. His apartment was a charming little place near the famous Portobello Road, and the kitchen window looked out onto an overgrown courtyard garden. I started to like the idea of being stranded in London and gave barely a thought to my job back home. William and I played UNO on the floor and talked until we went to sleep.

William had an extra bike and so Sunday was spent riding bikes through the parks and neighborhoods in the area, and even through downtown London. We grabbed a late lunch at an outdoor café on a quiet little street and rode along the Thames. Seeing the city on a bike was the best way to see it, and I used the bike the rest of that week. I spent my days visiting all the city museums and public parks, and wandering around Notting Hill. I even happened to unknowingly walk into the bookshop that was in the Julia Roberts and Hugh Grant film ‘Notting Hill’.

So while the British Museum, the Tower Bridge and Shakespeare’s Globe Theater were all highlights of my visit, but my evenings were all spent quietly back at the apartment. William and I might eat dinner together and have some tea, talk, read aloud from a novel in our best acting voices, or simply watch the TV if anything good was on. And so I passed my 8 nights in London for less than $200. It’s a memory I won’t soon forget.