We’re officially a month into our trip, and although that isn’t very long in the grand scheme of things (12 months to go!), we’ve been moving around enough that spending ten days in London without having to worry about packing up and venturing on every few days has been a welcome relief - especially after a grueling week at Glastonbury. Ten days has been enough time to establish a bit of a routine and almost start to feel at home. However, we started this trip escape the daily grind, so we are definitely itching to embark on the next phase of our adventure and get back into a more aggressive travel schedule.
Still, these past several days in London have been exceptional. As our bus pulled into Victoria Station on our first day, I jokingly told Alex that I never should have come here, because now I’m never going to want to leave. And it’s true: I’ve dreamed of visiting ever since I was a small child. I’m obsessed with English culture. Perhaps there are more exotic cultures to be fascinated by, but for me it was always England that resonated. Sometimes I feel like I was born in the wrong country. The humor, the self-deprecation, the tea, the stiff upper lip and passive-aggressive tutting: it all just feels right to me. So when we got here I had stars in my eyes and impossibly high expectations, like an aspiring actress who just moved to LA. Somehow, London managed to be even better than I could have hoped for.
One thing that really struck me was just how diverse London is. I mean, it’s one of the biggest, oldest and most cosmopolitan cities in the world, so of course it would be, but it’s one of those things I didn’t really think about until I saw it with my own eyes (which probably just shows how small my worldview is despite my best efforts). There are posh hotels next to Chinese medicine shops, mosques across the street from French bistros, and people from all walks of life and every color and creed peacefully coexisting with one another. I saw it in Manchester and it’s true in London too: the people here are not letting the terrible events that have happened affect their way of life. This city prides itself on its diversity, on how a million different cultures coexist and influence one another in every possible way. Leaders might try to play the blame game and terrorists might try to sow hate and rage, but the people of London refuse to accept it. Tolerance and compassion are the name of the game here, and I felt it every day.
Another thing I rapidly learned about London (that I probably should have realized before I got here) is that it is absolutely massive. The city seems to go on and on in every direction for miles, and unfortunately this means that getting anywhere is a serious chore. Whether you travel by bus, train, or taxi, a journey across the city is going to take much longer than you could ever expect. On our first day we met our friends Bruna and Mitch (who came to town for Glastonbury) at the Victoria & Albert museum, and getting home to Alex’s cousin’s house in South London required us to take the Tube, the national rail, and a bus - a 90-minute commute during rush hour. Needless to say, after that day we felt like pros at navigating London’s public transport. Riding at the front of the top deck of one of London’s iconic buses will never, ever get old - I felt like a little kid on a road trip, constantly craning my neck to take in everything around me as we chugged on through the city’s ancient streets.
Having dreamed of the city for so long, I was giddy to finally get to see all of the sights in person: the British Museum, the Tower of London, Hyde Park, Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace, the Tate Modern…the list goes on and on, and we saw them all. Someone once said if you are bored of London you are bored of life, and having been here for ten days I can definitely verify that statement. It felt like there was always more to see, always something just around the corner out of reach. I was surprised by how thoroughly modern London felt, considering its lengthy history and the vast number of historic sites dotting the landscape. When I was in Rome, for example, as I walked down the streets I could feel the weight of thousands of years of human history. London really isn’t like that. Here, the old and new coexist in a magical sort of way, with modern feats of architecture and ancient castles peacefully occupying the same city blocks.
That being said, London’s modern feel doesn’t take anything away from the incredible history of the city - especially related to the royals. Years before I ever got into Game of Thrones I became fascinated with the real-life history of the English monarchy, in particular the Tudors. I had a voracious appetite for knowledge and I read book after book about Henry VIII, his many wives, and his children - especially Elizabeth I. In particular I became enthralled with the tragic tale of Anne Boleyn and found myself curious to learn more about this powerful woman who fell from grace so rapidly and so intensely. So when Alex and I visited the Tower of London and I stood on the scaffold site where she was beheaded, I shut my eyes for a moment and took it all in, trying to imagine what she might have felt as she stood there on the scaffold surrounded by her accusers, trying to remain strong as she looked fate in the eyes, knowing it was all over. I felt chills. Maybe that sounds a little dramatic, but it was a powerful moment for an overemotional nerd like me.
For similar reasons, it was incredibly exciting to visit Westminster Abbey, where countless people of historical significance have been laid to rest. I was able to pay my respects to Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots, Sir Isaac Newton, and a vast number of other poets, authors, kings, queens, and notable people from all across history. It was the same at the British Museum. When I was a child I wanted to be an Egyptologist and I always dreamed that I would someday walk the halls of the British Museum as an expert in my field, able to decipher the hieroglyphics and piece together the day-to-day lives of ancient Egyptians as casually as reading a gossip magazine. Sadly, plans change as we grow older and I am not a professional Egyptologist, but as I strode through the mummies and massive stone sculptures, I could still pretend for a little while - I felt like a kid again.
Speaking of kids, one of our favorite experiences during our time in London was actually getting out of the city for a day to attend a birthday party in the country. We’ve been staying with Alex’s cousin and her family, and on Sunday the five of us piled into the family car and took a day trip to Hertfordshire. We also visited Cambridge, which was a charming (if touristy) little town full of incredible architecture and more bicycles than I think I’ve ever seen before, but the highlight was spending the afternoon in Hertfordshire having a very authentic English family experience. That sounds cheesy, but it was incredibly fun and for an Anglophile like myself it was a fascinating glimpse into life outside of the hustle and bustle of cosmopolitan London.
So upon arriving to the birthday party, we discovered that it was being held in the common room of a very old, and very cool-looking countryside church that had gravestones dating as far back as 1733. All the kids were running around in fancy dress (that’s British for costumes) and all the adults were standing around sipping Prosecco. We felt like extras in an episode of Catastrophe, and I’m pretty sure that’s the vibe I’m going for in life generally so even though nothing eventful happened we had a grand old time just pretending to belong there. Even better, after leaving the church all the guests headed to a local pub, where all the children ran around the beer garden shrieking while the adults drank shandy and consumed inordinate amounts of chips. Other than the party guests, the pub was mainly populated by older locals who all seemed to own tiny terrier dogs that are apparently allowed inside the establishment. Will, Alex’s two-year-old nephew, was appropriately fascinated by all of this and spent so much time petting one of the pub dogs that it became difficult to get him to leave.
Our day in the country was the perfect way to start wrapping up our time in the UK. Alex and I are both going to miss this massive, lively, chaotic and beautiful city more than words can say. At the end of the day, though, we came on this trip to experience as many different cultures and countries as we can, and while we both love it here we are both definitely ready to move on. Still, it’s hard to say goodbye to London when it feels like we were just starting to scratch the tip of the iceberg here. I’m sure I’ll be back someday, but for now, it’s time to say cheerio to Britain and hello to Bruges and three months of backpacking across Europe!