Monday, June 28, 2010

Greetings, Bloglings!

Will resume the travelogue at the end of the week. Happy almost-July, everyone!

Don't forget to be a blessing. :)

Sunday, June 27, 2010

UK Travelogue Day 10: Let Glasgow Flourish

Monday, June 7, 2010

When Bethany woke me up, I’d been dreaming that someone had been throwing balled-up napkins at me, and that these napkins had important quotes written artistically on them. I was in the midst of the seemingly important task of opening these balled-up napkins up and reading the quotes (difficult, since I generally cannot read while in dreams, not that it ever stops me from trying) when Bethany tapped me on the shoulder to wake me up. Actually, she claims that she was flicking my foot, but I know that can’t be the case: after all, I felt it on my shoulder!

Thereafter ensued a bit of confusion between us as to the time we were actually leaving the hostel. Actually, I was the only one who was confused. As a result of my mental lapse, we arrived at the bus station just in time to miss the 7:45 to Glasgow. I mean, we just missed it. But fortunately, we were in just enough time to watch it pull away up Queen Street, thereby highlighting not only our bitterness, but also giving us a chance to savor the futility of having hurried in the first place. All that brisk walking for nothing! In the interim of fifteen minutes before the next bus left, I had just enough time to get a water and catch my breath, having actually broken into something just shy of a mild trot in order to avoid missing the bus.

Not that it actually worked.

Then since we were already running late, we of course hit road works, landing us in Glasgow more than half an hour after we had told Colin to meet us at the bus station. As we stumbled off of the bus, my eyes immediately began scanning the vicinity for the (never once spotted and possibly nonexistent) “bronze statue” where we were supposed to meet up. Suddenly there came Colin skipping out from behind a set of pay phones, arms flung wide for a welcoming hug.

I, as you know, am well-trained in not offending my hosts in foreign cultures, so this is where Colin will claim that I gave what would pass in some cultures as a hug, with Bethany following suit. You know. If you believe wild, improbable rumors of that sort.

We then trotted the bags down to Colin’s car, which he had conveniently parked on the other side of the city. This slight detour necessitated a walk past the flat where Colin had lived briefly at one time, although as the town has yet to erect a brass plate and/or other historical marker commemorating this, we have only his word to go on.

A tour of the Glasgow city chambers (very grand indeed) seemed to be the first order of business, only when we arrived, a pretty but stern-face blonde receptionist told us to come back in the afternoon for a better tour. We had no choice but to obey her. (The bossy thing.)

Colin had a bit of a panic at his best-laid plans going awry (gang aft agley) so soon; however we soothed him with a handy paper bag and a lie-down in a quiet room. In no time at all, we were back tripping along down Buchanan Street, stopping in notable shops and galleries.

Further mental deliberations upon Colin's part (we could practically hear the mental clogs clicking and whirring) led to our trotting back down to the car and taking it across town to the Glasgow Cathedral, fortunately losing no spare car parts along the way.

Glasgow Cathedral

We spent our time inside the cathedral running around in circles while trying to read an epic inscription on what appeared to be an uncracked Liberty Bell; our time outside - a wander through the scenic and plesantly creepy Glasgow Necropolis cemetery - found us fully absorbed in discussing my various past bone-breaking injuries, Bethany's falls from horses, and (to some extent) her decision to purchase a health care policy for herself, lest she at some point need to get her "brain reattached." Or something.

Glasgow Cathedral

Colin then announced that we were to enjoy lunch in the Willow Tea Rooms. What a fancy idea! We were thrilled with the plan. As we walked down Buchanan Street toward this treat, Colin took an emergency iMovie call from one of his sisters, eventually gesturing us vaguely into a finely-appointed tea room where we got in line to be seated.

Suddenly, he looked up, oriented himself along the space-time continuum, hissed, “ NOT THIS ONE,” and bolted for the door.

While he continued his conversation with his sister, Bethany was able to receive confirmation from a complete (but helpful) stranger that the tea rooms we were in fact searching for were just ahead and to the right.

Inside we found some of the delightful design of one of Colin’s favorite Glasgow artists, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Actually, Colin claimed, in rather bitter tones, that the work of CRM can be seen quite everywhere in Glasgow, and that he’s rather over-valued. (This is what he claimed, mind you. More on this point to come.) It would seem, at any rate, that Charles Rennie Mackintosh was known for his for his use of elongated lines, which may be some explanation for the Alice-in-Wonderland chairs.

In the moment

I half expected someone to bellow “Clean cup! Move down!”

Lunch was delightful: the food, the tea, the company, the view of road works just outside the window. And if some people could not be bothered to pay attention to the delights of the meal, that's not my fault:

Inverted Matching

From lunch, we wandered back up Buchanan Road, stopping for our first official Jump Shot together, having for once someone else along to do the photographing. And I must say it was helpful having Colin along, because he got us both in the air perfectly the first time. Whether or not this can be attributed to our mad jumping skills or his supposed genius behind the lens is a doubtful argument, and a silly one to make in any case. (But just for the record, it was us.)

Buchanan Street Jump!

Back to the square next, for the scintillating afternoon activity of sitting on a bench chatting and waiting for our tour. Topics of conversation included geocaching, the continued popularity of Mr. T within the UK, Glasgow’s motto, and the probable personal histories of other people sitting in the square.

We also saw the sun at that point, which proved to be a rare enough occurrence that I find it worth mentioning.

Travel Bug

The tour of the city chambers proved entertaining enough, but not exactly for the reasons one might suppose.

Glasgow City Chambers

First, our tour guide spoke some rare, hitherto unknown dialect of English of which we could only catch snippets. “Okeeeey, so…” being the most obvious words to catch, since they prefaced nearly every single sentence. Although she was quite pretty, in a blonde and shiny sort of way, she seemed incapable of smiling. Her hair also seemed to have been blown all to one side of her head by a stiff breeze before being pinned in place. I found her entertaining enough that I barely glanced at the imported Italian marble, the intricate mosaics, or the portraits of former Lord Provosts.

Next on the itinerary was the Kelvingrove Gallery, an odd mixture of art, history, naturalism, and random leftover objects donated from estate sales. Especially notable was the dog sculpted entirely of discarded rubber boots ("Wellies"). Here I learned of the existence of The Glasgow Boys, of the Glasgowians' collective obsession with the American Wild West, and that this is one place I could never, EVER bring my small nieces and nephews if I ever wanted them to sleep again:

Horrifying

Just before moral support arrived in the form of Seoras, Colin began claiming he felt “done in,” and having been denied a restorative Coke by the café, (which was shutting just as we arrived) he actually began weaving and staggering about in a most alarming manner. With Seoras having arrived to back him up, he led us out behind the museum to a little outdoor refreshment stand, where he was able to revive himself with a juice pouch. Literally, that’s all it took.

Attributing his weakness to his “early start” of 6:30am, - which by the way was earlier than Bethany and I got up to travel all the way over from Edinburgh - Colin soon seemed himself again. Just as Nma was about to join us, having just gotten off work, the skies unloaded some rain, which we trotted through back to the car, again conveniently parked as far away from us as possible. While stuck waiting to cross the street, I did attempt to take shelter under a vertical metal pole, which worked about as well as you may imagine.

Then, just as the rain let up… (pause for fanfare) Nma arrived! She and Colin immediately launched into a dizzying ten-minute debate about what to do next, every other sentence ending with “…and then we’ll all go back to mine,” or else “…and then we’ll go to yours.” Eventually things seemed sorted out, possibly because Seoras finally announced a random decision and we all shut the car doors and drove Colin and Nma away from one another before either one could fully process their rebuttals.

Having transferred our goods over to Nma’s car, we took off for her end. The drive went quickly despite a bit of traffic, mostly because there seemed to be so much to say. Before settling us in her flat, she took us up to see the view from the top of the hill near her place, where we became so engrossed talking that we forgot the guys (now plus Mark) were waiting to meet us down at her place.

Dramatic skyline

Waiting to get a word in edgewise

A lovely dinner of Chinese take-out by the waterside rounded out the day nicely. Mark regaled us with tales from his recent adventures along the Highland way, I dropped dinner onto my jeans, Seoras sat communing with his own deep thoughts, Nma practiced her Stink Eye, and we all comfortably passed the time in eating and mocking one another. The food was good, the scenery beautiful, the company entertaining, and it was as enjoyable a meal as I’ve spent on a vacation.

Eventually the others drove the dinner remains (and themselves, I presume) back while Colin took us on a walking route back to his place. This did include some waterside jumping, which I’m sad to say took Colin more than one shot to capture. This may have had less to do with any deficiency on his part and more to do with the fact that I kept running across the beach and forgetting to jump.

In any case, we seemed incapable of escaping a game of Articulate. Choosing teams became much more complicated than necessary - involving broken toothpicks and such to sort itself out.

Round One passed smoothly enough, but during round two, when we split up into teams of two, the entertainment factor suddenly skyrocketed. Most amusing of all would be Bethany and Colin, who seemed incapable of keeping track of whose turn it was to give off clues. They eventually resorted to passing an object back and forth between themselves in an effort to keep it fair. (This being after Colin skipped Bethany’s turn and got her so fussed that she couldn’t even find herself capable of guessing. I believe this was around the same time he fell into his Disraili Diatribe, but I may be mistaken.)

Nma and I made the most of our partnership, bossing and condescending to one another as we took turns guessing. At times, she seemed to forget what the point of the game was, responding to my clues with, “Oh did he really?” and “Oh yes, I see.” Mark and Seoras communicated in a near-impenetrable jumble or rolling R’s, round vowels, and footballing terms. Toward the end, everyone was either half falling asleep or too loopy to make any sort of sense. It was wonderful.

Back at Nma’s, all my rosy daydreams of girl talk foiled by exhaustion, we fell into bed immediately and were nearly instantly asleep.

* * * * *

Side note: Found out the next day from Nma that June 7th, the day of our arrival in Glasgow, coincided with an iAnnouncement from iApple regarding their newest iProducts and iPrototypes.

As rumor has it, announcements such as these constitute High Holy Days for iFans, generally celebrated by iFans staying at home all day in their pajamas while participating in obsessive blogging, overdosing on Earl Gray Tea, and hitting the refresh button 80,000 times. Not only did Colin never even MENTION Apple - other than to point out casually the Apple store along Buchanan Street - he made light of the event the next day, claiming that due to some internet leak involving a phone left out some place (?), the bloom was off the rose regarding this particular iAnnouncement.

But I think we all know the truth.

In the moment

Chalk it up to iFriendship.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

UK Travelogue, Day 9: Climb Every Mountain

Sunday, June 6

We’d come to the conclusion that Edinburgh was to be treated as a vacation from our London vacation. We would not push ourselves. We would sleep late. We would take our time at meals. In short, we would see some of the sights, but mostly we would loaf.

We’d been blessed with quiet bunk-mates that night at our hostel, and not only did we not hear the majority of them come in late (who knows how late, since I for one was asleep by 9:30 - go me!) but we barely heard them pack up their crinkle-bagged rucksacks and leave in the morning.

We did, however, hear a drunk American cursing and shouting loudly out in the street in the middle of the night, which just goes to show that no matter where we go, we can’t seem to get away from that sort of nonsense.

When we finally did answer the bell on Sunday, it was after 10:00am. Bethany spent the better part of an hour figuring out what route we would take to the geocache that she’d promised someone that she’d find, while I meanwhile lounged on my bunk considering the improbability of seeing the sun that day.

She predicted that it would take us under an hour to walk the approximate three miles out to the site, and she was about right. Now normally I walk about five miles per hour - a personal habit that annoys Bethany to no end - but by this point in the trip I had slowed down a quite bit. We’d taken our rain coats because all was overcast and misty, and right around lunchtime, after we’d done the geocache and were thinking about getting something to eat, a gentle rain began to fall.

No problem.

No matter. We nipped into a Subway (of which there seem to be an unexpected number in Edinburgh), split a 12-inch, and decided on our next destination: Holyrood Park. Of course we would choose the rainiest day of our trip thus far to explore the great outdoors, but as this was the ONE THING that Bethany insisted on doing, I couldn't very well demur.

Well, I could have. But she might have punched me in the face. Or something.

As we cut back through Old Town, the rain came down more quickly, almost like a Florida shower at one point. By the time we were nearly at the park, we were so cold and soaked that we almost couldn’t stand it, so we nipped into a pub and ordered two hot teas. Served in huge steaming mugs with sugar and milk, these went a long way toward reviving our spirits. Well, the tea and the fact that we both went and stood under the hot hand dryer in the Ladies’ for a while.

Either way, in under an hour the rain had let up. We paid our bill and stalked stiff-legged back out into the be-puddled streets, reaching the park within the next five minutes.

Yes!

Our plan was to walk all the way round the outer rim of the park, eventually taking one of the paths up to Arthur’s Seat, an extinct volcano.

Holyrood Park

I don’t know what I thought it would be like. For one, I didn’t picture the park as being so huge. For another, I never expected the trails to become as steep as they did. Bethany, always quick to spot lapses in my mental acuity, said, "We're climbing to the top of an extinct volcano, Ruth, what did you expect?" Who knows. But I know what I'd secretly hoped for, but if I mentioned anything about a beach chair and a book, I would have had my face rearranged free of charge.)

For the rest of the afternoon, Bethany went before me with the sort of unflagging zeal that becomes annoying after about five minutes. She marched upward at a good clip, a bounce in her step, for all the world as if she’d been promised a glimpse of the TARDIS at the top.

Only later did I discover that we’d taken the “wrong” way around, at least “wrong” according to how I’d studied the park map at the entrance. So instead of quickly passing the ruins of an old chapel, we found ourselves almost immediately scaling a rather steeply-graded rocky, muddy path. I stopped occasionally, ostensibly to take pictures, but in actuality to wheeze myself back into some semblance of breathing normalcy and to give me a chance to knead my knotted muscles.

Whenever Bethany looked back from on high to check on my progress, I would lean down quickly and look busy with the camera.

Holyrood Park

Eventually we came to what I thought was the “second path” that I’d seen on the map (not realizing I was still viewing the map upside-down in my head), and to my surprise instead of a regular path, we had stumbled upon a set of roughly-hewn zig-zag steps which cut sharply up the side of the cliff face, ascending up into a bank of fog.

Steeper than they look.

“Er,” I said.

“This looks great! Let’s see where it goes!” or some such enthusiastic nonsense was coming out of my sister’s face, when all I could think was: if I fall, I will break more than a toe this time. But not wanting to be mocked as a wimp and a coward (which, frankly, shouldn’t bother me any more) I gamely picked my way up after her.

In retrospect, perhaps the fog was a good thing. Eventually it saved me from being able to look down and realize how high we were. And without a hand rail to clutch, I was beginning to become concerned with the way my shoes would occasionally slip against the wet stones.

Eventually, Bethany decided to turn back, which was all very well and good, but this began what I now affectionately refer to as SlipFest 2010. But we made it back down safely in the end, and that’s all that matters.

By then it had started to rain again (naturally), so we continued on the broad outer road, eventually making a complete circuit of the park. The only other time we left the path was to work our way up a thin, muddy trail to the ruins of some old…. Thing. (I promise you that I did read the posted sign - actually, Bethany read it to me, as I'd come to rest five feet away from the Historical Marker, and could on no account convince my legs to move me one foot further, unless they happened to lurch in the general direction of the park exit - however, I'm sorry to say that I honestly don’t remember now what it was called.) At any rate, it was very high up. I know this because although the fog and rain were much thicker up there, occasionally the wind would helpfully whip a bit of it away, and we would get glimpses of what lay far, far below us.

Deep Thoughts

Now I will level with you: it really was beautiful. If I hadn’t been so cold (the rain having soaked through my canvas shoes and my not-quite-rain-proof jacket long before), and were I not just a bit afraid of heights as well as prone to more slipping and falling than your average person, I might happily stayed up there for hours.

Holyrood Park

Oh, wait. We did.

Photo by Bethany

Photo by Bethany

Holyrood Jump!

The steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord.

Holyrood Ruins Jump

The good news is that since the park is a giant circle, we did eventually come out the other side. We walked out past Holyrood Palace and the Abbey, neither of which we stopped to see, and continued on through the grey drizzle back in the general direction of our hostel. Bethany had put for the edict of NO ITALIAN for dinner (hater!), and fortunately as a direct result of this edict, we stumbled upon a quaint little place called the Word of Mouth Café, which coupled excellent food with a truly unusual but enjoyable ambiance.

We liked it so much that we determined to come back later in the week. We refuse to confirm or deny whether or not the adorable waiter (who tripped over something, nearly fell on top of Beef and crushed her, the apologized - I kid you not - about 80,000 times) had anything to do with our decision to come back.

Upon returning to the hostel, we found that hot showers did much to revive us, and while Bethany caught up on her reading, I spent over an hour stuck in accidental conversation with one of our new bunk-mates: a dear little older lady who, having “done her knee” about a week ago, had decided to make an early night of it as well.

She’d been a classically-trained stage actress in Edinburgh in the 1950-60s. At first she regaled us with stories of the great Scottish and English stage actors with whom she rubbed shoulders in those days. Of course, being young as we are, and American, we had never heard of any of them. And for all I know, she was making the whole thing up. But I knew she was not. Her voice, her movements, her mannerisms, her diction: all of it bespoke the stage. Indeed, upon further leading questions on my part, she admitted that she’d returned to the stage about ten or eleven years ago, and had a few runs with touring companies and the National Theatre in London.

H O W E V E R, she then launched into a diatribe about her current hometown - Newcastle - and how wonderful everything is in Northumbira, waxing especially informative on the Northumbrian Pipes and one concert in particular which she’d once attended: who sang, what was sung, who played the pipes, what the Northumbrian tartan looks like... At that point, I began to envy Bethany, who had managed to break eye contact and curl up comfortably in her bed with her book, the covers practically over her head. Somehow, she knows how to abandon people completely and do things like this in the middle of conversations without seeming rude. I envied her over there, not needed to smile and nod, or politely maintain eye contact so as not to hurt the dear old girl’s feelings, and careful, your eyes are starting to glaze over.

She did eventually potter off to bed, at which point I snapped open my computer and began catching up with my travelogue, which I am determined to keep up with, so that it doesn’t take me two entire weeks after I get home to get it all written.

I also shot off a quick e-mail to a friend in Glasgow who had promised to meet up with us, introduce us to other local lunatics, and show us the sights. Armed with an Edinburgh-Glasgow bus timetable, we arranged to meet at the "bronze statue" in (I kid you not) Buchanan Bus Station the next morning.

Friday, June 25, 2010

UK Travelogue, Day 8: Scotland the Brave

Saturday, June 5

Immediately upon our coach wheels departing Victoria, I’d taken a sleep aid, consequently zonking out before we’d even left London proper. Now you must understand that while I'm not a fan of sleep aids as a general rule, I've found their help to be invaluable on trips, especially trips involving vast time differences. Jet Lag (The Evil One) must be conquered by any means necessary, even by unnatural sleep products which often produce the effect of rendering one completely senseless.

- - - - -
Sidebar: on my most recent trip to Haiti (last week), lest the oppressive night heat keep me awake (I find it difficult to sweat and sleep at the same time) I took two of these little blue pills and dropped right off. The problem came around two hours later, when some massively frightening sound jolted me halfway out of sleep. Who can say what I actually heard? A meteor falling on the tin roof? The two roosters in the yard starting their auditory olympics a few hours early? I struggled feebly toward consciousness, attempting to identify the sound, but found that I could no more have opened my eyes than I could have performed a tap dance. It really was a horrifying feeling.

Now, there I was in a country in which the UN currently finds it necessary to patrol certain parts of the city relentlessly to maintain order. (I found out upon arriving home that the same week I was there, a missionary friend of ours was shot in the leg during a robbery attempt on the other side of town.) In fact, the next morning I recalled a TV program my sister had watched in which people who take sleep aids were subjected to nighttime "emergencies" and then recorded via hidden cameras. You know, the house filled with smoke and fire alarms, dogs barking while security systems wailed, etc. The results really were telling: most of them would have died in their sleep. I studiously set the sleep aids aside for the rest of the trip.
- - - - -

But back to the subject at hand: I woke up at our first "comfort stop" along the route to Scotland, and after that had considerable trouble falling back to sleep. I couldn’t get comfortable. Take the limited amount of space one has while riding on a plane, then take away the foot room underneath the seat in front of you and you will about have the idea.

At one point, I woke up in the middle of the night in the most ridiculous position imaginable. My left foot was on my own seat, my left knee up by my face. The outside of my right thigh was lying along the outside armrest, and my neck pillow-cushioned head rested on my right knee. (Got that?) My right arm was tucked into my chest like a chicken wing, and my left arm was curled up over my head. I could not have compacted myself into a smaller or more unusual contortion if I tried, and what I found truly remarkable was that it wasn’t even comfortable! But somehow I had gotten into this position and had been in it for quite some time, if the pain in my joints could be taken as any indication.

I had the better end of things. Bethany, although she had the coveted window seat, barely slept at all. Apparently, resting her head against the vibrating glass caused her nose to itch incessantly for eight hours straight.

About sunrise, I came just to the edge of wakefulness. I thought to myself, “We must be in Scotland,” and tried to lift my head and have a look. With my near-sighted eyes (minus glasses, which in my sleepy haze I'd lacked the presence of mind to prize from the seatback pocket in front of me to put on) I spied a muzzy green mountain rising proudly in the East, the sun shining just above it like glory.

“Why... it’s beautiful,” I thought. Then I fell back to sleep.

I remember nothing else until about 6:30, at which point I sat up, popped on my glasses (and my head wrap, no doubt to the vast relief of the other passengers) and watched the Scottish countryside undulating before us like a green-blue heaven. Fields dotted with sheep were cut through by cold-looking streams, dry-stone walls, and occasionally offset by stone cottages or a far-flung village.

Long before we even reached Edinburgh, I knew that I had begun to develop a serious crush on Scotland.

Upon entering Edinburgh, this tender feeling quickly blossomed into full-blown love. Bright morning sunshine splashed the buildings with color. The empty streets felt fresh and new despite their obvious age, some still slick with early-morning dew, just ready for exploring.

I woke Bethany, who had just then dropped off to sleep, and together we rumbled with our rolly suitcases down to our hostel without making a single wrong turn. Even in retrospect I find this unbelievable, considering the meagerness of our directions and the wide array of wrong turns that we could have taken. Even the direction we took upon leaving the bus station was a mere guess, the streets being bare of helpful pedestrians whom we may otherwise have asked.

Of course, we couldn’t officially check in to our room until 3:00pm, but we checked our bags into a locker, ascertained our space-time location, and turned our faces toward Old Town.

I hate to call anyone a poopy head, but...

Breakfast and coffee at an Italian café gave us just the charge we needed to negotiate Princes Street and The Mound as we made our approach toward Edinburgh Castle, which looms in its stately grandeur above the city.

Tourist Ruth has difficulty climbing.

Even in my sleep-deprived state, I was nearly tap dancing with excitement.

O hai there! (Outside Edinburgh Castle.)

“Why did we stay in London so long?” I harped at Bethany. “We should have come here days ago!”

I’d like to say we timed our arrival perfectly to the opening of the gates, but we did no such thing. It was a coincidence, but a happy one. A very short wait in a very short line passed quickly, and the next thing we knew, we were welcomed through the gates, barely resisting the urge to twirl around to the skirl of the bagpipes. In we went, glorying in the history, the exhibits, the kilts, the bagpipes, the Stone of Destiny, and the spectacular view that a peep over the parapets affords.

We found these junior cadets quite amusing.

In one of the exhibits, I got a bit ahead of Bethany, so sat down on a padded window seat to allow her time to catch up. Almost immediately, I was joined by a dear old French man (named, wait for it -- Pierre) and his wife (Anne).

“Hello,” I smiled.

“Where are you from?” he asked, eyeing my head wrap.

“From Florida, in the United States,” I replied.

He looked visibly startled. “Really? Hmmm.”

“You look surprised.”

“Well, it’s just that…. Americans are very different, I think.”

“Different from…?” I prompted.

“From the British,” he said eventually.

We had a nice little chat about the weather in England and Scotland (he didn’t seem to approve of all this sunshine, blaming it on Climate Change, and saying he had trouble feeling at home in Great Britain without a bit of cloud cover), the oil spill in the Gulf, etc. Eventually Bethany joined us, and the chat became even more lively. Anne predicted that BP would go out of business, and Pierre said no, it would get bought out by another company.

“Maybe I will buy it,” he said in mock seriousness.

“Ah! Then it’s good that we’re friends now!” I rubbed my hands together greedily. “We are friends, aren’t we, Mr….?”

“Vanderbilt,” he supplied.

We all laughed.

Eventually they moved on (they were part of an organized tour group, poor things) but we did see them later as we were exiting. Actually, they spied us first and called out a hearty goodbye.

I can't say enough about how much we enjoyed Edinburgh Castle: the fresh morning air, the relative lack of crowds, the history, the sunshine, the spectacular views, the bagpipers...

We Heart Bagpipers Jump!

Tourist Ruth scales the battlements!

Edinburgh Jump!

Reveling in the awesomeness of Edinburgh.

Edinburgh Castle Jump!

When the castle finally became swamped with tourists (woe!), we nipped down to Greyfriars Kirk, where Bethany parked herself alongside a monument to finish her book, and I napped in the sun. This was, after all, supposed to be a vacation.

Cemetery of Geryfriars Kirk.

Cemetery of Geryfriars Kirk.

At 3:00 precisely, we presented ourselves at the hostel's front desk, checked in, and after a little series of misunderstandings with reception, we showered, organized ourselves, and took a little rest before heading out to seek an early dinner around 4:00. (We wanted to be sure to be back in time to catch our friend JW’s wedding, which was being streamed live over the internet.)

Just down the road, we found a charming little Italian bistro (sensing a pattern here?) where I had a sizzling cannelloni and Bethany had something with meatballs in tomato sauce. Both dishes were absolutely outstanding. We discussed the relative distance between the UK and Italy and hypothesized that could be why Italian food tastes so much better in the UK than it does in the US. (The only place I’ve had better, of course, would be Rome.)

A light rain began to fall outside just as we logged onto the computer to watch the wedding, so we felt doubly justified in spending a quiet night in. After going strong for a week now, we found ourselves well in need of some down time!

We also looked forward to having our Monday and Tuesday schedules all planned out for us by other people. After days of maps, timetables, maps and more maps, we began looking forward to being led around by the hands, especially with such a fabulous backdrop as Scotland!

Edinburgh

Thursday, June 24, 2010

UK Travelogue Day 7: I Can't Fight this Feeling Any More

Friday, June 4

We woke early to start our laundry. We’d be checking out at 10:00am, and neither of us relished the thought of folding up dirty clothes and then leaving our suitcases zipped for the next twenty-four hours. Bethany fetched us a pot of hot tea to share, and as our laundry cycle synchronized perfectly with our check-out time, we were able to have our luggage in storage and be on the Underground by 10:15. First stop: Kensington Palace and Gardens.

Kensington Palace Jump!

Neither of us really had a strong desire to see this, but as it included in our London Pass, so we thought we might as well see it as not. (This same logic did not work, however, on the Transport Museum or the Tennis Museum. Just FYI.) Only a portion of the palace was open to visitors, of course. The fanciful Quest for the Seven Princesses exhibit was obviously well thought-out and artistically rendered, although a bit more modern-art-esque than either of us could really get excited about.

Still, the rooms and the grounds were lovely, and this visit also afforded me an opportunity to attempt my first combination Jump/bow to the queen. It went about as awkwardly as you may imagine.

Bow to the Queen Jump!

From Kensington, we booked all the way across town to the small but excellent Foundling Museum just off Russell Square. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed our time there.

For one, the young man working at the reception seemed to have just stepped out of Dickens: longish blonde hair, sweet little voice, overly-obsequious manners, and a set of long-fingered hands that seemed to do nothing better than clutch and pull at one another (while held about chest-high) whenever he spoke to us. He was so dear. Somehow, tapping into some superhuman reserve of self-control formerly unknown to me, I refrained from addressing him as Smike. (I also wanted to put him into my suitcase and smuggle him home. I could keep him in the closet under my stairs and bring him out when I needed a bit of cheering up. But I have learned that Customs and Immigration discourages such behavior. Phooey.)

No doubt further adding to our enjoyment of the place, the museum was practically deserted upon our arrival, and we saw fewer than a dozen other visitors our entire time there. I have no idea if this is the norm - in fact it would be a shame if it were - but after a week of battling crowds, it felt sheer bliss to take our time.

At the Foundling Hospital Museum

But most likely the reason that I personally enjoyed the Foundling Museum so much was that it combined three interests I enjoy: history, art, and music. The first floor’s audio-visual and tactile exhibits highlighted not only the formation of the hospital but also the personal histories of children and mothers affected by the Foundling Hospital. (One story in particular actually brought tears to my eyes. Real human tears! I was experiencing Real Human Emotions! Quick, I told myself, cherish this feeling. And that was it: In my haste to capture the elusive quality of the moment, I'd immediately worked myself out of it. But whatever.)

The second floor featured art (mainly from the Italian school and a few by Hogarth) that had been donated over decades in order to form a private collection, the viewing of which would help to raise funds for the Hospital.

The third floor featured the life and music of Handel, who during his life was a long-time supporter of the work the Hospital was doing to alleviate the plight of the poorest of London’s poor.

Upstairs of the Foundling Hospital Museum

In this small but attractive room were half a dozen deep leather chairs with speakers implanted in the sides and controls along the armrests. We could have sat there all afternoon listening to the recordings, but daylight was burning away and we still had one more stop near Russell Square.

From the Foundling Hospital Museum, it was just a short walk several blocks to the Dickens House, where eminent author (and, in his own way, social activist) Charles Dickens had lived for a time. Of course, it wasn’t quite as long a walk as we made it, since we missed the understated entrance the first time and had to double back, but we figured it was only right to consider the plight of London’s poor children and the life of Dickens (who wrote much on the subject) in the same afternoon.

Charles Dickens Jump!

The house museum was small, naturally, and most everything inside “re-created,” but we still managed to pass the better part of an hour there before sallying forth toward our next adventure.

Trying to channel some of his genius

We’d had our heart set for some time on getting half-price back massages, a treat afforded us by our London Passes. After a bit of difficulty locating the exact location, a confusion which necessitated much walking up and down the crowded Oxford Street, we at last were able to ascertain our space-time location, find the back massage place in Selfridges, and collapse beneath the capable hands of two well-trained masseurs. It was wonderful.

For dinner, we ate at a small Italian kitchen (the name of which escapes me now), witnessed a bit of drama out front that involved glasses being smashed and a husband (boyfriend? Inordinately indignant cousin?) stomping away just before the police showed up, and lingered long over our excellent food and hot drinks. That is, after all, the Italian way. (Also, we had checked out of our hostel, and our overnight bus to Edinburgh wasn’t leaving until 11:00pm. So.... no rush.)

We did think it might be nice to sit in one of the quiet corners of Brompton Cemetery, but it was closing just as we arrived, so we padded back up Old Brompton Road in order to pick up our luggage and pass the rest of the night in the bus station.

It was also around this time that we noticed I was getting the stink eye occasionally, and we chalked it up to my wearing a head wrap. (One man of obviously Middle Eastern descent even walked up to me and tried speaking to me in what sounded like Arabic, which I think was a bit over-doing it, but there you go.)

After that it was much toting of luggage and sitting in the bus station. Two things of note did happen while we waited at the Victoria Coach Station, though:
1) Two (Welsh?) teenage girls tore into the station, creating an instant ruckus while seemingly trying to talk to everyone in the station simultaneously. (Although talking would be a lavishly generous term for the manner of communication these two seemed to favor.) Their luggage was dropped helter skelter as they hollered out questions, and since I had inadvertently made eye contact (these two not being the type to be subdued by The Look, obviously) barraged us with questions as to where we were going? were we going to Oxford? were we going to X? where was the bus to X? etc etc. I attempted to explain to them where to find the boards announcing gate departure locations, but they literally would not listen to what I was saying, so I said, “Okay, then I can’t help you.” Well, THAT certainly earned me a real stink eye! But whatever. A few minutes later, Bethany spied security escorting them from the building.

2) A man attempted to buy whatever unused London transport cards I might have on my person, except he was asking me (with some odd accent) if I had finished my card, but I thought he was asking me if I was FINNINSH! Thus followed a rather convoluted dialogue that may have been confusing at the time, but so hilarious in retrospect. (Unfortunately, I did not have the presence of mind to jot our conversation down immediately, and the details thereof have been lost to the ravages of my mind, probably forever.)

Waiting for our overnight bus to Edinburgh.

At 11:00, we found ourselves snugly packed into some very small seats and winding our way up toward Scotland.

* * * *

Note: While preparing to blog today's edition of the Travelogue, I realized that I'd never uploaded that day's pictures to Flickr! Only ten of them in all (I know, *FAIL*) but they've been dutifully added here.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

UK Travelogue, Part 6: Can't Touch This

Thursday, June 3

Big Ben Jump!

We slept in, more or less, and after sharing a pot of tea (Bethany drank her share of the milk straight from the cream pitcher), we strolled into London around 9:00am.

Actually, we did not stroll: we took the Underground, which has proven to be one of Bethany’s new favorite things to do. If I had known she would be so easy to amuse, I would have simply bought her an Oyster card and turned her loose for the week while I went to the museums, castles, and churches. But it’s been nice to have her along in any case.

(“Thanks,” she said upon reading the above. “You make me sound like a dog.”)

Actually, she became the main guide and map holder for most of the trip, keeping us pointed the right direction when possible, and getting us back on track when not. We both became responsible for some wrong turns (and wrong-direction trips on the subway) but overall, she was chief Direction Giver and Map Keeper. (It made a nice break from my bossing her around all the time, I’m sure.)

Guiding us

First order of business of the day was to pay a visit to Westminster Abbey, and I am pleased to report that we arrived just minutes before opening, and although there was a small line of people waiting outside, we totally got ahead of the crowds (which were beginning to mob through in hordes as we were leaving) and thus were able to enjoy the visit in relative peace and quiet.

Westminster

I especially enjoyed the hourly pause for prayer, verbalized over the sound system by a parish priest and echoed quietly in the hearts of those who chose. I must say that I’ve already seen more evidence of spiritual life in Westminster and Bath Abbey combined than I saw in the whole of Rome while visiting, and that includes the Vatican. Now granted, it’s a different sort of spirituality that I experience at my home church, but at least there’s some life there, unlike the Roman churches, which are basically open-door museums now, with just a handful of tourists and one or two locals at daily and weekly mass.

But back to Westminster: Obviously, the history and literary lover within me geeked out the entire time, but on the surface I played it cool. Tombs of dead lords and ladies: check. Tombs of dead royals: check. Coronation seat: taken out for restoration. (Phooey.) Tombs and monuments to dead poets & writers: checkity check check! Time of quiet prayer: check. View of the “Oldest Wooden Door in Britain”: check, but honestly, we’re just taking their word on this one. (Just waiting for someone to label and start charging admission for the “Oldest Meat Pie in England” or some such nonsense. And I would pay to see it, too.)

From Westminster, we made our way down to Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery, where we spent a happy hour or two viewing Titians, Carvaggios, Monets, Manets, Picassos, Turners, and the like.

Artistic Jump!

When we’d overloaded on oils and watercolors, we walked back toward Parliament via Whitehall, making a quick tour through the Horse Guards Parade Ground, then followed the Horse Guards road back to the Churchill Museum and Cabinet War Rooms.

Now here’s where things got tricky for us. We were both very interested in the subject at hand, being minor history buffs who had just read Connie Willis’s Blackout; however, this being our third museum-type experience of the day, we went into Information Overload very early into the visit and were therefore unable to absorb all that we would like to have done. We took our time in the beginning at least, clutching our audio-guide wands to our heads and listening to reenactments of Churchill arguing with his staff as we gazed through the glass at the war rooms, but shortly after that we came to the very informative and interactive Churchill Museum bit, at which point our brains gave out.

Yes, please

Upon exiting the museum, we had a short rest in the sun along the top of a low stone wall as we scanned the map and talked lunch options. It was already 2:00pm, and we were both feeling famished. (I for one was ready to eat my chap stick.) Catching the underground, we nipped up into Chinatown for lunch.

We chose a restaurant offering a buffet lunch, and although the food was not the best quality, the service was excellent and the quantity we ate more than made up for any lack in freshness that the food may have presented. After two heaping plates and a pair of drinks each, we found ourselves well refreshed and ready for an afternoon of sightseeing.

Sitting at the table, finishing our drinks and burping quietly, we pulled out maps and guidebooks in an attempt to decide what we would see next. Royal Mews? Closed Thursdays. Some-such person’s house? Closed Thursdays. All museums were out due Information Overload.

We finally hit upon the London Bridge Experience with the London Tombs. I’ll save you an account of the directional mayhem and extra walking that ensued when we both got mentally turned around. Sufficed to say we finally did arrive at the Bridge Experience. We enjoyed that bit of it, too, especially the bits where we walked through different rooms that depicted various historical periods and stages of the bridge’s life, starting with the Romans and taking us onward to the original bridge’s sale to the American.

At any rate, each room had an actor/guide who related his bit of history more or less in character, but of course each one threw in modern-day jokes and slang, so that the general masses uninterested in the history of the place would have something to pay attention to. At one point, we were with what may have been a 17-th century pig slaughterer who supposedly plied his trade on (or under?) the bridge.

Since one of the first things he did was make an MC Hammer joke (but asking one of the young kids to hold on to a prop mallet for him because it was “hammer time,”) Bethany and I immediately began singing “Oh! Oh! Ohhhhh! Oh! Oh! Ohhhhh!” which of course is a bit from one of his best-known songs.

“All right, don’t get crazy,” the guide admonished us.

“Hey, you brought up Hammer,” I think I said. And then upon getting no response, I asked him if he had his Hammer Pants on (forgetting, of course, that over here, pants means underwear, but I wouldn’t have said Hammer Trousers in any case because that just sounds so… wrong.)

At the mention of Hammer Pants, the guide stared at me, turned around, and promptly looked down his pants. Not the joke I had been intending to make at all! Embarrassing!

“I don’t think they know about Hammer Pants over here,” I said loudly to Bethany, feeling a bit flustered and for once not really knowing how to get a handle on the situation.

Slight, awkward pause.

“All right,” the guide said frowningly, “this has escalated into silliness.”

“Our work here is done!” Bethany cried out delightedly.

The guide then turned back to the young boy whom he’d been addressing in the first place and once more extended the hammer. When the boy reached out to grasp it, it was pulled back by the guide at the last second, saying,“Can’t touch this.”

At the end of the Bridge Experience, we opted not to enter the London Tombs, as it seemed to be a bit much. We can deal with pop-out-and-startle-you fright, but this seemed to be more along the lines of horror, and that just wouldn’t do at all. Or, as Bethany told the worker who escorted us out the other way, “It’s not our cup of tea.”

We then made our way back toward London Bridge, where we sat in the sun on the grass facing the bridge, trying to enjoy the fresh air (and wait out rush hour) before we headed back to Earl’s court.

Yes, I am, in fact, amazing

Nearby on the lawn, some young men attempted to throw around a small Nerf football (excuse me, American football). As Bethany put it, they were basically playing catch with it. I had never seen males of their size and age so non-adept at such a simple task as tossing around a football. At first I thought perhaps it was because they were English, and not as into football as American males, but then Bethany pointed out that they had been drinking steadily as we’d been sitting there, so that would explain some of it. That might also explain why one of them, so keen on catching the ball in his hat, seemed to have no depth perception whatsoever, and why the ball was so often thrown wide off its mark.

The trip back to the hostel was uneventful, the showers hot, and the beds comfortable. I’d been planning to do some laundry in anticipation of checking out and heading up to Scotland the next day, but I just missed the time deadline for starting laundry. That chore pushed back to morning, there was nothing for it but to begin my evening routine of loading pictures and writing in my travelogue.

I had nothing to read, now that I had scattered my books all over the place on busses and airplanes. I may or may not have considered buying a book just to leave on the Underground. Just because.

* * * *

STOP! Hammer Time.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

UK Travelogue, Day 5: England in a Day

Wednesday, June 2

I woke in a blind panic, sure that we had overslept our planned wake-up time of 6:00am. It was a reasonable assumption: after all, it was nearly fully light outside already, and birds could be heard twittering in the branches of the garden of Earl's Court. I popped up, nearly hitting my head on the bunk above, and checked my watch, which for some odd reason only read 4:30, despite the aforementioned facts.

Sure that there must be some mistake, I clattered out of bed and checked Bethany's digital watch, which she'd left on the window sill: 4:31. Worried that somehow both watches still might both be wrong (and I am not kidding here), I rustled into some shoes and up to the lounge where I logged on to one of the computers and checked the computer time plus, for good measure, the World Clock website.

Call me paranoid, but I'm not accustomed to so much light at such an ungodly hour. Also, this vacation had already earned somewhat of a reputation for Fails, and I was not about to let Day Five become one of them.

Now well and truly awake, I clicked around on the computer for a few minutes before tippy-toeing back to the room and letting myself in. (Not that I needed have bothered with the quiet: my sister could blissfully sleep through an air raid.) I rolled around trying to get back to sleep, but no dice. At about ten minutes until six, Bethany came awake in a flutter of the same what-time-is-it panic which I'd just experienced, only of course on a more muted and less paranoid scale.

By 7:00am, we were in the Underground, not being sure of distances quite yet and worried about how long it might take us to reach the Victoria Coach Station. Turned out to be only a 30-minute trip, but better early than let when it comes to busses, trains, and planes: this I have learned from hard-won experience.

Tour Coach

Now let me level with you and say I rather loathe organized tours. I hate the fake chummy feel that most tour guides try to infuse. I don't like being hurried through things; I don't like moving in large groups; associating with annoying tourists galls me; and above all, I don't like to be kept waiting by others, specifically the sort of tourists of a rather bovine mentality who seem to delight in organized tours. But if you can think of a more cost-and-time-efficient way to see Stonehenge, Bath, and Stratford-upon-Avon (via a drive through the Cotswolds) in one day, please let me know.

Quick thoughts and impressions:

1. I found Stonehenge remarkable, though less imposing on first approach than one would expect.

Tourist Ruth spots the sights

2. Jane Austen supposedly disliked Bath (certainly several of her central characters did) and if it were as crowded with tourists then as it were now, I completely understand.

River Avon

3. We love street performers! The only people more assured of my loose change are subway musicians.

4. Our tour guide was a dear little man who had me charmed from our first exchange. Upon loading the bus, I fixed him with my most serious look, and said, "Now, I expect to have a good time," to which he blinked twice and replied, "Boy, it's been a few years since a woman said that to me!"

Our guide

5. Meat Pasty = Love

6. The champagne and scone snack while watching privately-acted scenes from As You Like It was just the delightful touch that the visit to Shakespeare's birthplace needed to send it over the edge as Worth Seeing. After all, the rest of it was just a well-preserved half-timbered house with hand-made replica furnishings and a lot of dressed up guides.

Shakespeare's Birthplace Jump!

Of course, there were several Fails of the Day as well:
1. Five minutes into the tour, the bus mic stopped working. This necessitated a fifteen-to-twenty minute stop for someone from "the office" back at Victoria Station to come down to where we were on Oxford Street and sort it all out.
2. After that delay, we lost more time waiting for one hapless tourist (from Winnipeg) whom we nearly had to leave in Bath.
3. I left the book I was near to finishing (Sleep My Little Dead: The True Story of the Zodiac Killer) on the tour bus despite numerous admonitions from our guide that we pay attention and not leave behind any of our personal belongings. I felt like such a child, but was saved from shame only by knowing that I would never have to face him again. (This also marked the SECOND BOOK THIS SUMMER that I have abandoned on a public mode of conveyance, the first being that Bill Bryson book that I left on the plane from San Diego.)

At any rate, we rounded our our night with a hot pasty or two bought in the subway and a shared sandwich and drink from Marks & Spencer.

* * * * *

The pictures from this day trip somehow hid from the internet until just TODAY, so if you haven't yet done so, stop by Flickr to see the full set here!