Thursday, September 15, 2011

Edinburgh & The End

This is the last blog in my Spring Break 2010 series, so I hope you’re ready for the adventure to be over (errr, over a year since it happened, my bad!). Since I’m about to leave for my next adventure in France (I’m leaving tomorrow for 10 months in Paris, if you somehow weren’t already aware), writing this last blog is making me especially sentimental, because my Scottish adventures were things I was only able to deal with after living in Europe for the previous four months. I was really proud of myself when they were said and done, and I think that’s a good note to end this portion of my blog on, because it reminds me of how much value living in Paris for the next ten months will offer.

Anyway, EDINBURGH. It wouldn’t be right if my travels to Edinburgh didn’t have their own share of anxiety (to fit in with a very stressful 4AM taxi ride whilst leaving Paris for Rome and a very harrowing journey to the airport while leaving Rome for London). This one wasn’t so bad, but the wrench in our plans this time was that we were planning to take the underground to the airport bus, realizing only when we got to King’s Cross that this was Sunday, and the Tube wasn’t open for another half an hour. We also had a surprisingly hard time finding a cab at 6:30 in the morning, but eventually we found one, and we were off.

All of the airports in London are far away from the city and very expensive to reach. There are trains and buses that are convenient, but they cost me between fourteen and eighteen pounds each way when I needed to take one (which was annoying when you do the conversion math in your head). Anyways, eventually we reached the airport, went through security (they don’t make you take off your shoes unless you’re wearing boots in Great Britain!) and were ready for Edinburgh.

Considering that I was only there for four days, I feel a special connection to Edinburgh because of how perfect it is to me. First of all, it’s magical -- literally, because it’s wear JK Rowling wrote Harry Potter, but also because there’s magic in the way the old part of the city is able to capitalize on its dark past while seeming charming and not touristy at the same time. Also, every stereotype about Scotland is true. We were only walking for five minutes after getting off the airport bus when we heard bagpipe music playing on the street. You know how here people play guitars or accordions on the street for money? Well, in Scotland, they obviously bagpipes, and they play them alllll the time. And even when you’re far away enough from those bagpipes so that you can’t hear them anymore, you start walking into the area of town with the tourist shops, and THOSE are blasting bagpipe music, which means that the city literally has its own soundtrack that you can hear wherever you go. Also, men in Edinburgh really do wear kilts (including Andy, the driver of our Scottish Highlands tour bus, and an entire team of rugby players we met in a bar our first night). And, while I guess this is more of an Irish stereotype, they do eat a lot of potatoes (I ate two meals at the Bakes Potato Shoppe on the main road).

(The "Gothic Rocket" memorial to Sir Walter Scott).

(Bagpipes on Princes Street)

The other great thing about Scotland is that you get a lot for what you pay for. Kayla and I booked one of the cheapest hostels we could find…and ended up in a great place located in a four-hundred year old house, RIGHT on the Royal Mile (the main street in town). Plus the really good art museum is free.

And, everything in the main part of town is so close, that you don’t EVEN NEED public transportation to get to it. It was very strange that everything I wanted to do was so conveniently close together.

Anyway, back to the events of our trip: We arrived in the morning and spent the first day at the Old Calton Burial Ground, where we unexpectedly ran into David Hume’s grave, no big deal, and then we hiked up a hill to look at other stuff. We also made it to the Edinburgh castle, which means that I have now seen, among other things, the Stone of Scone (which gets sent back to London to be put under the English coronation chair at a coronation. This was particularly special because I’ve always loved the coronation chair, and it was fun getting to see its missing piece in an entirely different country), as well as the room where Mary Stuart gave birth to James I. Check! There’s also a cool air force chapel at the castle.

(Kayla and Jenny using napkins for paper a la JK Rowling at the Elephant House Cafe, where she wrote the first novel).

The only downer of the day was that for the first time in four months, my camera had run out of batteries so I don’t have any pictures of the castle to this day. Plus, Jenny’s camera had been stolen (!!!!) at the restaurant we ate at when we arrived, so we were happy to be there but bummed about her camera.

Jenny’s flight was early in the morning, and our hostel was booked anyway, so we decided to pub hop that night until Jenny left for the airport, which was fun, but exhausting. Our second bar had live music provided by a guy on a keyboard playing covers of popular music, which the crowd liked well enough. What really got the place jumping, however, was when we began to play an upbeat version of “Loch Lomond”, to which much of the bar responded to by climbing up on the bar and dancing. No joke. Scottish people have their stereotypes for a reason.

The next morning, Kayla and I woke up bright and early for the tour of the Scottish Highlands we had booked. Waking up wasn’t so fun because after the pubs the night before, we had been forced to sit on the steps outside of our hostel until 3 am because Jenny wasn’t even allowed in the common room, plus Kayla had been sick all week.

The tour (led by a company appropriately named Haggis Adventures, offering tours of “Wild & Sexy” Scotland) was probably the best 30-something pounds I’ve ever spent (even if I had trouble staying awake through a lot of it). The company office was conveniently located directly across the street from our hostel, where we met up with about 30 other people from all over the world, as well as our driver/tour guide Andy, who was wearing a kilt and a shirt with the Scottish flag on it. I don’t know how he did it, but Andy managed to drive us more than 100 miles each way to Loch Ness and elsewhere while narrating the entire 12-hour trip AND while keeping the whole bus laughing the entire time. It was a great away to sample Scotland while only spending one day doing so. He kept stopping the bus in (what seemed like) arbitrary places, making us get off and look around so we could appreciate his country. And I really appreciated that at least once every hour of the 12-hour trip, he’d make sure we stopped at a rest stop for bathroom and coffee breaks (my kind of tour!). Some the highlights of the tour were stopping at the location of the Glencoe Massacre which I remembered from AP Euro – it’s a long story, but basically it’s a dark spot of William III’s record, in which he had one Scottish clan massacre an entire other clan, who were forced to run into the rocky mountains we were stopped in front of, in the middle of the night during wintertime. . This was one of the prime examples of Scottish people showing their distaste for the English that I encountered. On a lighter note, Andy also took us to see Hamish, a famed Scottish cow whom you can buy vegetables to feed to him!! He’s definitely a tourist attraction – even back in Edinburgh you can buy stuffed animal versions of him and hats that mimic his, erm, interesting look:

Then he drove us up to…LOCH NESS, which I had daydreamed about seeing ever since I was really little, so needless to say I was thrilled to be there. The tour also came with a packed lunch, which we ate on the hour-long cruise around the Loch while we listened to the captain recount the times he had seen the monster. I highly recommend Haggis Tours the next time you are in Great Britain.

(Kayla and I on Loch Ness!)
(Bagpipes everywhere we went!)

Kayla and I were exhausted upon returning to Edinburgh. We ate at the first restaurant we found, a faux Italian place where the waiter probably wasn’t a Scot OR a native English speaker because when I ordered a hamburger, he told me they didn’t have such a thing, when I realized that he took the “beef burger” of the menu extremely literally.

We spent the next day lounging around the Elephant House (where JKR wrote her novels) drinking coffee and using their internet until Kayla eventually had to leave for the airport. Discount airlines like RyanAir and Easy Jet don’t offer flights every day, so I had to plan on being there one night longer than Kayla.

After she left, I killed time by taking a free tour of the old city which contained entertaining stories about some interesting people I had never heard of before. I really don’t like being a tourist alone, but at least the tour was interesting. As I alluded to before, Edinburgh is good at capitalizing on its less-than-saintly characters, including Burke and Hare, who made a business of killing people so that they could sell the bodies to medical schools for a profit, and Deacon Brodie, who led a double life and who is the supposed inspiration for Jekyll and Hyde (Robert Louis Stephenson is also a famous Edinburghian). There’s also Maggie Dickson, who was apparently hanged but who came back to life, and all of these characters have multiple pubs named for them within a small radius, it seemed (I took a different walking tour later that day which, surprise surprise, involved stories about the exact same people listed above).

When the time came to go to the airport, I was ready. I had been traveling for two weeks, and I was leaving France for Los Angeles in less than a week, AND I missed my friends who are all back in Bordeaux already. SO, IMAGINE MY SURPRISE WHEN I GET TO THE EDINBURGH AIRPORT ONLY TO DISCOVER THAT ALL FLIGHTS HAD BEEN CANCLED UNTIL AT LEAST MIDNIGHT BECAUSE OF ASH FROM THE VOLCANO IN ICELAND. Uggggggggh. This was bad news. If you’ll recall, the last time the Volcano shut down airspace, people were stranded for five days!!!! Because my ticket was booked on RyanAir, which is a discount airline, there was nothing they could do for us in terms of rebooking our tickets. I joined the line of frantic people so that I could pay to use one of the expensive airport computers, and ended up rebooking my ticket for a flight that left the next morning at 6am for Paris. At least the flight change was free due to this being a natural disaster, but this was a small consolation because I knew it was risk expecting the airport to be up and running at 6am, only six hours after it was supposed to be closed. But I didn’t have a choice, and the next fight into Bordeaux wasn’t until three days later, so I consoled myself with an expensive meatball sandwich at the Café Nero in the lobby, and dejectedly got back onto a bus into the city.

Now I had the better part of a day to kill, which I spent being lonely, worrying that I was never going to get back home again, talking to the train agent about the cost of a train at short notice from Edinburgh to London, drinking overpriced hot chocolate at Starbucks, eating a baked potato, wandering around trying to hit all the spots of interest strategically so that I wouldn’t run out of things to do before they closed, moping, checking the internet for the results of Great Britain’s election which was going on that day, updating my Facebook with emotional statuses, reading any English language paper I could get my hands on, obsessively refreshing RyanAir’s website to check the status of the airport, and buying myself a cute ring at Top Shop as reward for being miserable.

Luckily, my hostel was supposed to be full that night, but because travelers couldn’t get there because of the volcano, spots opened up and I had a place to sleep that night. After checking the airline website one last time at 3AM (the Edinburgh Airport was miraculously open!!), I grabbed a taxi and arrived. I have never been so happy to be on an airplane.

If my original travel plans had gone off without a hitch, I would have flown directly into Bordeaux, nice and easy, but my new ticket took me into Paris Beauvais. Upon landing, I waited for at least 20 minutes with about 100 other people for the 14-euro bus that would take me into real Paris, which luckily I had already taken on the way to Rome with my friends, or else I would have had another thing to figure out and stress out about on an already stressful day. I made it to Paris, got on the Metro, and made it to Gare du Nord, where I was determined to buy any ticket available for Bordeaux (which was still three hours away). After wandering around Gare du Nord for at least half an hour, someone was finally able to tell me that the train station I actually wanted was Montparnasse, errrrrrrrrrr. I got back on the Metro, made it to Montparnasse, located the last minute ticket booth, bought an expensive ticket to Bordeaux, and I was off!!

I have never been happier to be home. It was so wonderful being back with Joana and Ynel, and sitting down to dinner with them after spending two nights alone in Scotland, never actually knowing when I would be seeing them next.

But, in looking back, it was a good experience. Edinburgh was probably the best place for me to be stranded, due to its English language, close/easy/cheap proximity to the airport, and existence of something comforting to me (i.e. Starbucks). And I had the opportunity to figure out how to get my self back to Bordeaux by myself, which is probably a valuable skill to have in the scheme of things. Plus, I wouldn’t have been able to try Haggis (not sooo bad) had I left when I planned on leaving. So, I guess, this little adventure of mine was worth having.

So, that’s it! That’ concludes my Spring Break Adventures of 2010! I know these are a little out of order, but I’m glad I finally got these down own paper before I start my next adventure…au pairing in Paris, starting this very Friday, for the next ten months of my life J

One thing’s for certain…all of my Bordeaux/Paris/Rome/London/Edinburgh adventures contained in this blog made 2010 the best year ever, and I only hope that my year in Paris can top it. Thank you for reading, and stay tuned for information on my Parisian adventures!



Monday, September 5, 2011

A Very Belated Spring Break Post Part 4: I Love London!

(This is exactly what it sounds like...Part 4 of my VERY LATE blog posts about the best two weeks in my life, Spring Break 2010. It's a little hard to express the same excitement when writing about events that happened more than a year ago, but I tried. Enjoy!)

Last Time: Unfortunate timing/a less-than-helpful receptionist at the Tiber Hostel And Camping made me think I was going to miss my flight to London, but I eventually ended up making it to the airport in time.

For all my crying on the Roman metro because I was leaving, I was honestly REALLY excited about London. In 2005, my parents took my brother and I during Spring Break and it was the best trip ever. I could have gone back and done exactly what we had done then in the same order and I would have been happy. Plus, I was fortunate to be able to stay with my cousin Kayla (who goes to NYU), who was spending this same semester at the London NYU campus. How many other people are lucky enough to say that ALL the young women in their family are currently in Europe?

My Ryan Air trip was fine, and I found the Standstead Express, which Kayla had already given me careful directions about. In about 40 minutes she met me at King’s Cross Station, presented me with my very own oyster card for the subway, and our joint adventure began! This was going to be my first day in an English-speaking country in four months, which was a very strange feeling. The other strange thing about the day was that it was ridiculously humid – even on the one hot day in Rome was nothing as humid as this.

In addition to it being humid outside, it was also disgusting on the Underground, which we were on for a while because the construction causing lines to be closed caused us to end up at the same station multiple times. Soon enough, though, we were near her place near King’s Cross. This was also my first extended trip in a while to a city with a real underground....Bordeaux has above ground trams, and Rome's Metro isn't as extensive because there's too much old stuff buried in the ground for them to create more Metro stops!).

We went to Nido, the student housing building where Kayla was living with about 300 other NYU students. That was what was going to make this part of my vacation different than everywhere I had been so far – I had always either been at my homestay, with my French family, or in a hostel or hotel with my friends. Here, we were with 40 of Kayla’s best friends 24/7. Kayla definitely liked this set up (my best friend/roommate at UCI lived in the same circumstances during her semester in Israel and loved it too), but I was definitely happy to be living with a family in France. I didn’t have a problem with it during my 5 days in London, but it would have been too much like my Freshman dorm for my tastes if I had lived in that situation any longer.

Nido was very nice, however. Because I am me, the one thing that I noticed as soon as I touched down was that London is a VERY coffee-friendly town. On the lobby level of Nido, there was a mini Starbucks (!!!!!!!), and two flights of stairs up, where Kayla lived, there was ANOTHER. I was already feeling at home. As soon as Kayla and I left Nido to walk around near King’s Cross, my thoughts were confirmed. There were so many American-esque cafes advertising sweeet, precious filtered coffee, that I wouldn’t have been able to try all of them even if I was having three cups of coffee a day. London is my kind of place. You have to remember that I was having SERIOUS filtered coffee withdrawals because France is too cool for anything but espresso, so this little fact about London was terribly exciting.

Also, I should add, while at the risk of blaspheming, that the pains aux chocolates were...gasp!...better in London than in Paris. They weighed three times as much as Parisian ones, if that's any hint as to the amount of butter they contained.

Just in to clarify, in case it doesn’t shine through in my writing, London is the greatest city in the whole world. No matter how much I love where I am living, I will ALWAYS be jealous of people who are living in London. One of the things that characterized this trip was that my brain was constantly almost exploding from all of the Super Important Things that I kept running into. Even though I had just returned from Rome (which, obviously, had its own share of Super Important Things that I got to see, i.e., The Pope, the waiter who was a close personal friend of Ray Stevenson, etc), I feel more of a connection with London, so these occurrences felt even more amazing.

Kayla gave me a tour of the area, and I met all of her friends. We planned out what our schedule was for the next four days, and eventually met up with Kayla’s best friends Ed and Jenny (who’s birthday it was) for Italian food at a nearby restaurant.

Kayla insisted on going to class when I was visiting her, but I used that time to explore the things she had already seen.

First Stop: The British Museum.

This place was relatively amazing. Even things like mummies, which I didn’t think I would be find interesting, were interesting. And boy does the British Museum have a LOT of them. My favorite part of the museum was the jewelry, however, which inspired me to build up my own collection.

I also really liked seeing this “East India Sugar: Not Made By SLAVES” jar, which is definitely the type of abolitionist product we had been discussing in my British Unification class only a few months before.

That night after dinner, Kayla told me she had somewhere to take me, but wouldn’t tell me where. We ended up at King’s Cross, near her dorm, and I was still very confused about why we were in a train station, until I realized she was looking for the area between two specific platforms….

The next day was my big Westminster Abbey day. I’ve definitely been before, but Westminster Abbey is my favorite place in the whole wide world, so I figured it was worth the price of admission to go back, five years after my first visit. After a muggy walk to the Abbey from the metro (and after my visit to the closest Starbucks!) I was in!

It’s basically definitely the greatest place ever. 90% of the World’s Coolest People, all buried in one place – what more could you want? Not surprisingly, it hadn’t changed much since my last visit.

After spending more than two hours there, and sampling their coffee, I said goodbye and headed out. I heard some Americans who were my age on their way in, and as I asked them to take my photo in front of the building, our convo went exactly like this:

Me: Hi! Would you mind taking my picture?

Other girl: No problem! ::click:

Me: Where are you from?

Other girl: Southern California.

Me: OMGMetoo. I’m from Burbank.

Other girl: OMG what high school did you go to?

Me: Jon Burroughs!

Other girl: OMG that’s where my mom went!

Both of us: OMG!

After Wesminster Abbey, I decided to skip Saint Paul’s (where I wanted to go but where I had been last time) in favor of places I had yet to visit.

First up: The National Gallery, which was obviously amazing. And who’s café was also amazing. I had a pink cupcake.

Then: The National Portrait Gallery! EXCELLENT, and filled with about a million portraits I had seen pictures of in every European History class ever, but I didn’t have time to finish because I Kayla and I had agreed to meet up at a certain time, and I didn’t have a cell phone in order to tell her I would be late. I’ll simply have to save the rest of the gallery for next time I visit J

That night continued our streak of amazingness with…..our tickets to see a production of Macbeth at the Globe (was this seriously the best trip ever or what?). It was a good show, even though we were sitting off to the side. At the intermission, we drank cider and walked on the banks of the Thames (because we could). Also, fun fact: In Burbank, a few months after I returned home, and was watching the miniseries Lost in Austen, and I realized that Mr. Darcy was the actor who played Macbeth, a fact which I found to be suuuuper awwwesome.

The next day was our British Library day, which ended up being even more interesting than the British Museum (Jane Austen’s writing desk, anyone??). Plus, we ate churros and drank cappucinos for breakfast that morning, which makes for a good start to any day.

The next day was good too, because we went to Portabello Road, ate gelato, and I bought two scarves.

Other highlights of the trip included Camden Market (where I consumed a piece of pizza, a vegetarian samosa, a small bottle of orange juice, and the best donut and I have ever tasted, all within an hour), and St. Pancras’ Churchyard.

This cemetery in particular was memorable because it was one of places that we realized upon arriving was more special than your average, plopped-down-in-the-middle-of-a-huge-city cemetery. FIRST OF ALL, it has this tree that’s strategically surrounded by flat headstones that had been dug up (to make room for the future railroad) and placed there in a cool way, which is cool looking as it is, but which also becomes even cooler when you find out that the person in charge of this little bit of decoration was a young Thomas Hardy!

ALSO, Kayla and freaked out when we discovered by accident the tomb of Mary Wollstonecraft, which is kind of just chilling there with no big indication (I found out later her body isn’t actualllly there anymore, but I still think it’s cool).

AND, following the same literary theme we’ve been on, St. Pancras’ Churchyard is even mentioned in A Tale of Two Cities! It was beautiful, quiet and green, and Kayla and I spent a long time exploring. It’s only a short walk from St. Pancras Station, and I highly recommend it!

Something else interesting about London during this trip, in addition to all of these literary adventures and coffee, was the election for Prime Minister which was only days away when I arrived. I spent much of my downtime reading newspapers that talked about governmental policies that I didn’t understand, but which were interesting anyway (and, most important, in English). It's a weird feeling to be a visitor in a a country during a very tense a few days like these were, because everything everywhere was centered about the election.

Sigh. It’s hard to express in words how much of a connection I feel with London, especially since I’m writing this more than a year after this adventure took place. One thing’s for sure though: after being deprived of real coffee for so long in France, all of my memories of London come complete with the taste of coffee in my mouth. I seriously couldn’t have asked for a better trip.

Next time: Even bigger adventures in Scotland (involving active volcanoes and the birthplace of Harry Potter!)