17 October 2015

Observations from the Mothership: The Wrap-Up

Final Impressions

Sometimes it's funny how things work out.  I always intended to write up a list of final observations about my trip when all the other posts were finished and I was back home.  Instead I fell behind on posting during the trip because I was either too busy or too tired at the time, then after returning home I was simply too preoccupied by other things.  Thus, while I was actively procrastinating and/or goofing off, someone got the jump on me.  An American tourist named Scott Waters decided to detail the differences he observed between American and English culture while on his 4th visit overseas.  His extremely accurate list has since gone viral; you can (and should) read it here.  I'd like to say Mr. Waters' post will teach me to rest on my laurels and to finish my writing when I should, but you and I both know that's not likely to happen any time soon.  My expertise is in smartassery, not punctuality.

So what are some of my final impressions of the United Kingdom, then?  First of all, I agree with many of Mr. Waters' observations:  shops do close entirely too early, dogs are everywhere (something I loved seeing) and are well-behaved, and the staircases are indeed exceptionally narrow--as in too narrow to navigate with a suitcase beside you; you have to drag it behind or walk sideways to allow adequate room.  Either way it's a hassle.  I also agree with Mr. Waters that facecloths/washcloths seem to be non-existent for some inexplicable reason and that the shower controls are often illogical or confusing (and not standard from hotel to hotel).

I do have some observations of my own, however.  For example, I don't entirely understand the death-defying step-down tubs everywhere.  You climb in and are showering essentially two feet off the ground.  That's a little weird and disconcerting at first, but you get used to it.  The real problem occurs when you then have to climb back out of these raised tubs while still wet and slippery.  I don't understand how there aren't elderly hips breaking all across the country every few minutes as older people attempt to navigate these hygienic death traps and arrive safely on the ground.  Are the British just way the hell more coordinated than I am??  (Those of you who know me well can stop laughing at any time.)

Foreign Tall Bathtub of Death

Continuing with the bathroom theme, I was likewise fascinated by the apparent preponderance of removable sprayers in lieu of fixed shower heads.  This seemed infinitely practical and I wish this were as standard practice here in the states.  The only problem is that when holstered they then tend to spray straight down rather than outwards, so you don't always get very good coverage when standing under them.  Still, this seems a small price to pay for their added flexibility.

Meanwhile, I'm convinced the only reason the British try to keep a "stiff upper lip" is because that's the only way they can cope with the stiff lower ends which must surely result from using loo (toilet) rolls with the overall softness of 36 grit sandpaper.  You'd think this rather indelicate tissue would turn everyone there into (literal) hard asses, though if anything the opposite is true.  But then I suppose even sandpapery loo rolls are preferable to the minuscule squares of paper one gets in a public restroom, which are about as effective as trying to wipe with Post-Its (and only slightly less comfortable).

On the other hand, while British toilet tissue leaves much to be desired, their bath towels are a vast improvement over ours--at least in hotels.  It's not that the towels are appreciably softer, necessarily, but rather that they are simply larger.  I find it ironic that the British people, who are on average notably smaller than the typical American, have bath towels more than ample enough to swathe even the largest person while we usually have to settle for hotel towels the size of Barbie's dish rags.  Go figure.  The abundance of oversized towels was wonderful.  Plus how can you not love a country with a towel-warming rack in nearly every bathroom??  Pure decadence right there.

While we're in the vicinity, another thing I really loved on my trip was the bedding--not to be all lurid, or anything.  Most beds I encountered had nothing but a bottom sheet and a big, fluffy comforter or duvet.  There were no top sheets to mess about with or get tangled up in while you slept.  I actually slept the best I have in months while there.  I'm sure part of that was due to the simple exhaustion of constantly walking everywhere, but just the same there was something truly glorious about sliding in under a thick, cozy coverlet every night and burrowing in for a nice, deep sleep.  Small wonder I found it so difficult to pry myself out of such a warm, pleasant nest every morning.

Another thing I really enjoyed in Britain was using the railway system for all my travels.  The trains rocked.  Even with the assorted stops on each trip, I could get almost anywhere in the country in 2-5 hours by train, with the added bonus of being able to enjoy the scenery instead of stressing out over whether or not I was on the correct road.  Most of the time I was able to snag a table and spread out with my laptop or my puzzle books and whatever snack I'd grabbed along the way.  Even when I couldn't get a table, the regular seats had pull-down trays like on airplanes which served almost as well.  The seats were comfortable and often had nearby outlets I could use for recharging my phone.  Each carriage had a luggage rack for larger bags and an overhead rack for backpacks and such.  Several even had storage for the bicycles people use to travel in town.  Most trains also had random signs exhorting passengers to "always carry water when traveling" as though Britrail thought everyone was going to suddenly disintegrate into a puff of dust if not sufficiently hydrated.  Needless to say, I found those signs pretty humorous.

I thoroughly enjoyed riding the trains during my trip.  Admittedly, I originally thought paying nearly $600 for a 2-week rail pass was a bit steep (never mind my largest expenditure by far), but it was worth every penny.  I'm pretty sure I came out around $100 ahead when all was said and done, but even if I hadn't it would still have been totally worth it just for the convenience and travel flexibility alone, something which came in handy more than once.  I highly recommend rail passes when traveling in Europe.

In addition to the rail pass, I also managed the paper money and £1 coins reasonably well, though I found the other coins to be pretty much pointless unless I needed to use a public bathroom where "spending a penny" now costs more like 30p-50p.  I'm not sure when peeing became such an expensive proposition, but there you go (or not, as the case may be).  I will confess that the newest-minted coins are pretty cool, though, because they can be assembled to show the royal heraldry displayed on the back of the £1 coins.

Thanks for showing me this, Dean!

By the time I headed back to Heathrow, I felt like I could almost pass for a native...in my imaginary world, at any rate.  Aside from the dead giveaway accent, I had my little black rucksack and was able to pack away tea and English breakfasts with the best of them.  Heck, I even mastered the coinage, even if it was just before I had to leave.  The only thing I figured I had left to do to become native would be to invest in a gross of black leggings because I saw those freaking things everywhere.  Skirts, boots, and black leggings:  the British woman's uniform, apparently.

I'm sure I could think of other interesting differences between England and the US, but why bother, really?  Intriguing as many of those differences are, they won't be what sticks with me.  What I'll remember most isn't the differences or even the big touristy sites I saw like Stonehenge or the Globe or the assorted castles I visited--amazing though each was in its own right--but rather getting to know the heartbeat of every town by wandering through the streets and the everyday places one doesn't normally see on tours.

I'll remember how much I loved Aberystwyth; I'll remember the gorgeous flowers everywhere, the sound of the waves lapping the shore of the bay, and the melodious lilt of native Welsh speakers.  I'll remember how even though I enjoyed the bustling streets of London and Edinburgh and all those cities had to offer, it was the peaceful serenity of Wales that made me feel as if I'd finally come home at last, as if I truly belonged there.

Welsh beauty.

I'll remember all the people I met, whether Crrrrrrrrrrraig from the Hard Rock Cafe or Stacey with an E or the lovely couple making their first trip to Edinburgh for an anniversary holiday or Sari the Australian from Perth.  Docents and tour guides can be very informative, but you learn far more about a country by listening to its people and learning from their experiences.

Lastly, I'll remember how the best part of my whole trip was the time I got to spend hanging out with new friends, whether I was being escorted to an event or whether we were simply chatting and laughing together.  No matter how epic or breathtaking a given building is, the human connections we make are far more important and enduring than any structure could ever be.  Besides, memories are always better when you have someone with whom to share them, and so I am especially grateful for every moment I was able to enjoy with friends.

As for final impressions, the only thing really left to say is:  Best. Birthday. Trip. EVER!!!

29 September 2015

Observations from the Mothership: Days 12 & 13

The Days I Lounged in London and Flew Home

"Buzzzzzzzzzt!  Buzzzzzzt!!

I'm pretty sure it's not every day that one gets awakened by a text message buzzing under one's ass, or at least it's not an everyday occurrence for me.  But that's pretty much what seems to happen when one climbs into bed after a very long, very busy day and promptly face plants into one's phone.  Turns out traveling is exhausting--at least the way I do it is.  Clearly I need to write a bestseller that gets optioned for a movie and thus become independently wealthy so I can afford to have drivers escorting me from destination to destination the next time I travel overseas.  On the plus side, I'm now positive that I've lost some weight because none of my pants want to stay up. I'm currently maybe a pound or two away from causing an international incident.

My buzzing phone dealt with, I dragged myself out of my cozy, warm bed just in time to make it downstairs to the complimentary breakfast buffet.  Even though I was awake under extreme protest, I had to appreciate the variety of items on offer at the buffet (look at me, speaking all Britishly!).  There were several fruits on one cart, an omelet station, assorted breads and pastries, yogurts, juices, and of course all the makings of a full English breakfast on the hot bar.  I sampled a modest variety of items and then drug myself back upstairs and attempt to accomplish some writing under the possibly unrealistic assumption that I could keep myself upright and conscious for a change instead of slamming face-first into my electronic devices yet again.  As it happens I did not get much writing done, but I did thoroughly enjoy decadently lolling around in bed all afternoon after a hectic two weeks.  Sometimes the simplest things are the most pleasurable.

My cozy "Exectutive" room.

In the evening I forced myself to go downstairs for dinner at the hotel restaurant rather than copping out by ordering room service and continuing to hide out upstairs.  The restaurant was called Oscar's and looked more like a bar than a restaurant. After my quiet day in I opted for soup and salad instead of something heavier. The French onion soup arrived in a giant bread bowl and was teeming with so many onions that I could hardly get to the broth; it looked rather like an explosion of translucent worms trying to climb out and infest the restaurant.  Mmmmm, tasty! My efforts to consume the soup were not aided by it soaking almost immediately into the dense bread bowl, but I spooned up as much as I could before tearing off bits of bowl to eat. Edible dishware is always a novelty.  Meanwhile, the chicken Caesar salad was absolutely delicious and I scarfed  down every single bite.  I hadn't really planned to order dessert after the meal, but it seemed a shame not to enjoy one last sugary hurrah before leaving the country in the morning so I requested a simple ice cream sundae.  The small, overpriced sundae I anticipated arrived in a 12" tall parfait glass and had two different flavors of ice cream, chocolate sauce, whipped cream (the good kind), assorted sprinkles, and a large cookie/waffle wedge perched on top.  My jaw dropped at the immensity of the creamy vision before me.  Rather than stay there sucking down a mound of ice cream alone like some jilted lover, I paid my check and took my delectable plunder upstairs where I could savor it in private and not while I was surfing the internet like a sad, pathetic woman at all.

I spent the rest of my evening packing, which involved redistributing clothing and gifts/souvenirs between my original carry-on bag and the new cheap one I was able to purchase in the hotel gift shop.  I put most of the gifts in the crappy new suitcase to take on the plane with me, choosing instead to stow all my toiletries and dirty clothes in the sturdier bag with which I'd started and which would likely survive molestation by baggage handlers.  Besides, I figured if some clothes went missing on the way home it would be no great loss, but I wanted to make sure I personally kept track of all the good and/or irreplaceable stuff.  Once everything was stowed to my satisfaction, I selected clothes for the trip home, washed up, and climbed into bed.

The next morning my alarm went off first at 5:30 am, then again at 6 am.  (I always set a back-up alarm to give myself a little extra time to become coherent as I wake up.)  Then I promptly fell back asleep for an additional 20 minutes.  I woke up, saw the time, employed some of the new British swear words I'd learned, and then quickly dressed and shoved the last few things in my suitcase.  I grabbed a light breakfast at the Executive Customers Only buffet, bags in tow, then checked out and plowed down the hotel walkway like a steam roller to Heathrow's Terminal 4 where I checked my bag and collected my boarding pass.

Staying near the terminal proved a canny choice because, in spite of my slight oversleeping, I arrived with plenty of time to stand in line in the bowels of the airport with my VAT receipts and wait to process them for refunds.  The line moved quite quickly and efficiently though I was slightly annoyed to discover that I'd been misled about the refunds when I saw people standing in line with stacks of receipts 2 inches tall.  I'd been told you could only request up to 6 refunds and I didn't find out that each receipt required a specially-printed form from the original vendor in order to be processed.  So my most expensive purchases were not eligible.  Sigh.  When I reached the front of the queue I submitted what I had, was told I'd get the refund in around 3 weeks (which I still haven't gotten), and was sent blithely on my way.

Back upstairs I walked past a currency exchange which did not appear busy and so decided to go ahead and change my money there before heading through security rather than have to make an extra trip to the bank at home even though I knew I'd take a little bit of a hit on the exchange there.  Just as I was walking up to the counter, however, some Middle Eastern dude walked up in front of me with his entire family and a 4" stack of VAT forms.  I assumed he'd get shipped downstairs to the processing center like everyone else, but he didn't.  So I waited patiently in the queue like a good faux Brit while he was processed, fully expecting the other girl at the counter to call me up at any moment.  Which she didn't.  So I waited.  And waited.  And waited some more.  As I stood, I watched the man's children wander about, clearly as bored and impatient as I was.  His daughter, who was maybe 10, was wearing a baseball cap with the brim pulled over to the side in the gangsta hip-hop style, making it look wildly incongruous next to her pink Hello, Kitty! sweatshirt.

Twenty minutes later the queue was some 8 people deep and the second girl still wasn't serving anyone.  I was becoming antsier by the second, wanting to get through security and off to my gate.  I know I probably should have just left and changed the money at home, but eventually I got to the point where I want to WIN rather than having waited so long in vain.  Silly, I know.  Sometimes it's just about the principle of the thing.

Finally another woman came to the desk and changed out places with the one not waiting on anybody.  Just as she did, some woman jumped the line and walked directly up to her to be served.  My first thought while glaring at her was "Dammit, woman, we're British!!  We QUEUE!!!!"  Two weeks here and apparently I've already gone native.  The line-jumper did her exchange, then I jumped the queue and went over as well.  I guess the staff had assumed that everyone in line had VAT slips (which, to be fair, several did) and so neither employee had asked the rest of us forward as a result.  I got my £70 exchanged into $50 or so, taking a far bigger hit than expected.  Or maybe I have the amounts backwards; at this point the morning is a bit of a blur.

My business completed, I headed over to queue up for the scanners, where I sailed through security.  I did not have to take off my shoes, I did not need 15 bins to hold my belongings, I did not have to stand in the cancer chamber, and I did not get over-enthusiastically frisked by overzealous and self-important security staff.  I couldn't believe it--me, simpatico with airport security.  Who knew miracles were performed at Heathrow? As far as I'm concerned, this is yet more proof that I belong in Great Britain; clearly London loves me far more than the US, where TSA mocks and torments me at every possible turn.  I retrieved my things from the bin on the belt and headed off to my gate, which I found surprisingly devoid of passengers.  I just figured I'd gotten there early in spite of the financial queues and that people would continue to arrive in due course.  They didn't.

While I waited, a lovely British woman in a Delta uniform sat next to me and asked if I would be willing to do a survey.  I figured it was as good a way to pass the time as any, so agreed and ended up subjected to a good 15 minutes of fairly personal questions about my travel habits and my opinions on the airport/airline/etc.  I couldn't really be irritated by the lengthy survey questions, though, because everything sounds better in a British accent; even swear words like "Fook!!" or "Slutty bitch!" which I'm supposed to find offensive just make me giggle maniacally instead.  Shortly after the lady finished with me my flight began boarding.  I walked on early and stowed my suitcase, then sat in my aisle seat to await the inevitable line of people smacking their bags into my head as they passed.  They never came.  By the time the door the attendants closed the door there were maybe all of 60 passengers on the plane.  It was absolutely glorious.  Everyone spread out all over the plane.  I had a row all to myself, as did a guy next to me who spent most of the flight stretched out across all three seats and fast asleep.  Easily the most comfortable and most quiet flight I've ever been on, this unexpected boon was made all the more priceless given the several-hour length of the transatlantic journey.  Every flight should be even half so peaceful...I highly recommend traveling like this whenever possible; it's infinitely preferable to being crammed into the cabin like drunken college students into a Volkswagen.

Taxiing down the runway proved unexpectedly emotional for me; when the wheels left the tarmac and London began to shrink in my window I choked up, my eyes welling with tears.  The funny thing is it's not like I've never been to England before--I was there with my family 15 years ago and although I enjoyed my visit back then, this trip was somehow very different. Certainly I reveled in my British adventures this time around, but I was still surprised to be overcome at liftoff...surprised to find just exactly how much I truly love this amazing country and how much it means to me. Perhaps this was merely the result of being in Great Britain on my own or perhaps it had something to do with my newly-discovered genetic ties to the country. All I know is that the history, the architecture, the food, the atmosphere, the people, the language--everything, really--has now become a deeply-imbedded part of my soul and I felt a physical pain at leaving.

I didn't sleep much on the trip back; I wanted to remain awake so I could recalibrate my internal clock more quickly once home (not that it worked, mind you).  Instead, I plugged my earphones into the seat-back console, cranked up some tunes, and spent half the flight writing and the other half surfing the internet.  You've got to love technology--ten years ago it never would have occurred to me that I would one day be able to access the internet from some 30,000 miles above the earth.  Pretty neat trick, really.  Even better was being able to use my would-be neighbor's tray table for food so I didn't have to move my laptop from my own tray table.  Life is all about the little things.

Several hours later, we began our descent towards Philadelphia.  As the city grew larger in my window I turned off and stowed my laptop, thinking how surreal I felt to be back in the States as though I were just starting my holiday rather than finishing it.  It seemed like I should be heading home to Europe at any moment.  Two weeks later I was only just beginning to feel "back to normal," or at least as "normal" as one can feel after leaving a big chunk of one's heart with the cobblestones and grey skies of Edinburgh, with new friends in the Doctor Who podcasting community, with the ancient stones on Salisbury plain, with the calligraphic kiss of Magna Carta and the heraldry of her staunch protectors in Salisbury Cathedral, with the pubs and theaters and bustling streets of London, with the sea lapping at the shores of Aberystwyth while gulls keen overhead, with archives full of books and the heady, musty perfume of age and knowledge leaking out from between their pages, and with the silky slate and ancestral castle walls of Cardiff.

"On final approach to Philadelphia..."

All things considered, I could not have asked for a more meaningful or fulfilling birthday trip. In truth, if governments these days weren't so anal about immigration I'd be on a plane tomorrow, work visa in hand, bursting to become an American expatriate.  Seriously. America may be far more familiar to me, but the United Kingdom feels far more like where I belong.  Must be the genes of all those British ancestors flowing through my veins and calling me home.

13 September 2015

Observations from the Mothership: Day 11

The Day I Explored Cardiff

This morning before wandering the streets of Cardiff, I took the time to consume another delicious "full English" breakfast in the hotel restaurant while sitting at a table overlooking the drizzly, rainy city streets.  I figured going out in the gloom today was only fair considering that Great Britain is supposed to be notorious for rainy weather and yet in the ten days I've been here, I've encountered rain only once when I was in Edinburgh and for only an hour and even that wasn't much more than a misty drizzle.  I've been supremely fortunate with the weather thus far, enjoying temperate and frequently sunny days in the upper 50s and low 60s.  What more could a pale girl ask?

Minus the fried tomatoes and mushrooms.  Yum!

After breakfast I once again checked out and stowed my belongings in the luggage lockup like the travel boss I've become.  The desk clerks were very helpful, both with my bags and with giving me a map and directions for how to access most of Cardiff on foot.  They also didn't laugh at me last night when I accidentally locked myself out of my room while putting my dinner tray in the hallway and had to come down to the lobby in my pajama pants and bare feet for a replacement key card.  Yay for consummate professionals!

I was interested in touring the city on one of the local "hop on, hop off" sightseeing buses because I've found them to be a quick and efficient way to get around as well as a good way to learn a lot about the city I'm visiting,   However, I also wanted to see the Doctor Who Experience (yes, I know, I'm a giant geek...it's been mentioned)  but the tickets already appeared to be sold out online and I hadn't pre-booked because I was trying to leave my time in Wales flexible in case I found some genealogy trail I needed to run to ground.  I knew I ran the risk of screwing myself over by not prebooking, but I figured since there's never enough time to see everything I want anyway I could just pick and choose activities as time and availability allowed.  As a result, I eschewed the bus for the moment and instead walked down to the bay in an attempt to get Doctor Who tickets at the door before they were all gone.

The walk was supposed to take 10 minutes but probably took more like 30 by the time I actually reached the Doctor Who Experience on the other side of Cardiff Bay; no doubt it would have been shorter had I not ended up going the long way around after getting faulty directions from some construction workers on the street.  Still, the rain had stopped before I left the hotel and it was turning into a beautiful day so the walk, while long, was pleasant.  En route I passed the dramatic Millennium Centre for arts and music, sheathed in the slate for which Wales is renowned.  Near the Centre I watched as a parade of festively-dressed people marched down a distant sidewalk for some inexplicable reason. I also walked by a very amusing street sign for the Doctor Who Experience which featured no words but which sported a Dalek and and arrow pointing the way to the site.  I strolled by the Pierhead Building on Cardiff Bay; it boasts its own clock tower affectionately known as "Baby Big Ben" or "Big Ben of Wales."  Standing next to this building were two entertainers (or so I assumed) on stilts who looked a bit like Groot from Guardians of the Galaxy, or possibly like some of Tolkien's Ents.  As they were largely just hanging around doing nothing, I've no idea why they were there but they were certainly unique.  Clearly it's all go in Cardiff on a Saturday.

"This way to the Long John Silver's salt shakers..."

Pierhead Building

Your guess is as good as mine.

Getting tickets to the Doctor Who Experience proved no problem after all; I purchased my ticket and was able to walk pretty much straight into the next viewing.  I smirked at a girl in front of me as the line moved because her shirt was emblazoned with a pseudo-Disney logo reading "Dismal and Bemusement Park."  All throughout the lobby were several props from the television show; we passed additional props and costumes displayed just outside the entrance to the exhibition as we threaded through the line barriers.  In order to avoid spoilers for future visitors we were not allowed to take photos during the "experience" part of the exhibition, which proved to be a terribly cheesy and trumped-up "action-adventure" clearly geared towards children.  Once through our dubious adventure we were funneled into a far more interesting museum of props and costumes and such from the many years Doctor Who has been on television.  My favorites were the oldest items from when the show started over 50 years ago, including a model of the original TARDIS set and the mock-up of the first TARDIS interior which was used in the movie "An Adventure in Time and Space" about how Doctor Who came into existence.  They even had the soundboard of the grand piano used to create the original theme song. Meanwhile, some of the early monster/alien costumes just made me laugh; they looked so ineptly constructed when examined in person.

Mockup of the original sets.

Original TARDIS console replica

Other notable displays included Jon Pertwee's yellow roadster "Bessie," a mockup of Tom Baker's Tardis interior, complete with a coat rack draped in one of his later, more purpley giant scarves, and several TARDISes, including one used in the filming of the 50th anniversary special "The Day of the Doctor."  I also got to see K-9, who is perhaps one of my favorite characters of the entire show and who was significantly larger than I expected.  After examining the mostly older set pieces downstairs, I moved upstairs to explore the remaining displays, most of which consisted of assorted costumes--including the clothing of each and every Doctor incarnation to date.  While I wish there had been less emphasis on items from the current Doctor's and previous Doctor's eras (understandable given the relative accessibility of such items) as opposed to a more equitable representation of all the Doctor's incarnations, I really appreciated the ability to look at all the costumes up close and with a seamstress' eye.  As with most theater costuming for the stage, the assorted clothing I viewed looked much better on film and in motion than it did on stationary stands.  In addition to thinking that the current companion Jenna Coleman must be impossibly tiny based on the size of her costumes ("Impossible Girl" indeed), my overwhelming opinion as I strolled through all the displays (especially the women's clothing) was that I could have easily made any of them myself (and probably done better). Clearly the BBC needs to put me on staff immediately.  Are you there, BBC?  It's me, Ginger...

Man's best electronic friend

Clara Oswald's and Robin Hood's costumes from "Robot of Sherwood"

As is often the case with tourist sites, I could only exit the main exhibition hall after being funneled through a gift shop, presumably in the hope that I would spend a bucket of money on souvenirs.  Much of the stuff on offer was typical touristy schlock, but there were a few good things including some collectibles I either couldn't justify expense-wise or couldn't risk damaging in my overstuffed suitcase on the way home.  So I settled for a couple of less breakable shirts, including a royal blue zip-up hoodie printed with "I.M. Foreman, Scrap Yard" in an homage to the very first episode.  I also sprung for the rather disappointing "Merchandise Pack," which included a certificate identifying me as an "official companion," a fancy souvenir ticket, a booklet about the exhibition (which was decent), and a t-shirt--though they were out of the sizes I wanted and so took my address to mail me one when they were back in stock.  I was most excited about the souvenir Tardis key included in the pack, thinking it would look like the ones used in the show.  It didn't.  Instead it was a perfectly normal and boring key stamped with "Doctor Who Experience."  Sigh...so lame.

Is that really the best you can do, Doctor Who Experience?  Really??

In spite of the kitschiness here and there, I really enjoyed the exhibition.  It's good to let one's inner geek out for fresh air every once in a while...keeps them from getting cranky (or too pasty).  Upon exiting the gift shop I came out in the main lobby next to a life-sized Dalek made of over 157,000 Cobi bricks (a Lego lookalike).  There was also a little cafe in the lobby whose menu, not surprisingly, had appropriately-themed item names (as did the wifi password); they even had small packages of Jelly Babies for sale (4th Doctor not included!).  I purchased a banana for a snack and a couple bottles of water to stash in my backpack. In an unusual stroke of luck for me, one of the sightseeing buses pulled to a stop nearby just as I was leaving the exhibition hall.  I was able to purchase a ticket directly from the driver and hop aboard, climbing to the top of the double-decker bus where I took a seat and plugged in my earphones.  The audio commentary on these buses always makes me smile; I'm convinced the narrators smirk their way through the entire script; they are my people.  The bus drove past the Millenium Centre, but this time the audio track explained the history and gave me a clue what was written on the front.  For those interested, it's two lines of poetry by Welsh poet Gwyneth Lewis: Creu Gwir fel gwydr o ffwrnais awen ("Creating truth like glass from the furnace of inspiration") in Welsh and "In These Stones Horizons Sing" in English.  The words are made up of windows and are apparently lit up at night.  I'd like to have seen that.  I also learned from the audio that Lloyd George, Welshman and former British Prime Minister, was supposedly quite the womanizer.  As we made our way through town I saw several lovely old buildings, including a historic Norwegian (Lutheran) church and the Millennium Stadium, home to the Wales National Rugby Union team.  I gather that Rugby is big in Wales.

Millennium Centre

Millennium Stadium

One of the stops was at Cardiff Castle and rather than finishing the bus tour just then I jumped off to make sure I had adequate time to see the castle and its environs. What's cool about Cardiff Castle is that it has building elements spanning centuries.  A Roman fort was built on the site around the 3rd century; some of the original wall was recently excavated and is now on display.  Then, in the late 11th century at the probable behest of William the Conquerer, the Norman invaders built a bailey castle over the ruins of the Roman fort.  Additional repairs and buildings were added over subsequent centuries, making Cardiff Castle an unusual conglomeration of building styles.  Cooler still (at least to me), the castle was held by the de Clare family for a century or two; in fact, the Black Tower still standing there was commissioned by one Gilbert de Clare, who was one of the 25 Magna Carta barons and, coincidentally, one of my ancestors.  This closed the circle on a weird serendipity for me...first I saw Magna Carta in Salisbury Cathedral during its 800th anniversary year and then I was able to go touch a tower built by one of its protectors who came from my own family line.  Funny how seemingly unrelated events end up tying together like that.  I'm not gonna lie; it left me a little breathless.  Even without that little connection the castle has quite an interesting history, having featured prominently in the War of the Roses and been held at different times by both the Nevilles and the Tudors.

11th Century Keep at Cardiff Castle.

The Black Tower, built by Gilbert de Clare, aka Grandpa

On my way up to the keep I saw a small gate house with a stockade nearby.  Across the grounds stood a medieval trebuchet all silent and poised as though performing active sentry duty.  I walked past the remains of another defensive wall which once connected the Keep to the Black Tower.  I hiked up myriad stairs to reach the top of the medieval keep, where I was treated to some stunning views of Cardiff.  I wish I'd thought to take a selfie of myself up there or asked another visitor to snap a photo for me, but I was so entranced by the landscape that I completely forgot.  The castle keep was built very similarly to the one I saw in Arundel with Alan, the memory of which made me smile.  I didn't run into any scary toddlers jumping out of niches at this keep, though. As I looked down from the 77 foot high parapet and across the moat, I could see a wedding party leaving the Georgian house on the grounds to line up so the newlywed couple could run the traditional rice-throwing gauntlet.

View of Cardiff from the castle keep.

Because why wouldn't you get married at a castle if you could?

Once back down on solid ground I returned my audio guide to the gift shop and purchased a couple small souvenirs, then left the castle grounds and went across the street to do some proper shopping at a place recommended by Phil, one of the guys I'd met at Whooverville.  I almost bought one of the beautifully-carved Welsh love spoons (they're a big deal in Wales), but they were incredibly expensive so I regretfully passed them by.  I did finally get my Welsh dragon necklace, though, and even purchased earrings to match.  Afterwards I headed back across the street to the bus stop where I discovered to my chagrin that I had missed the last pickup of the day--just as I had in Edinburgh.  Darn those fall hours!!  So I only got half my bus tour.  But that's okay; I was more than happy to exchange the reduced off-season running hours for the beautiful weather and fewer tourists in town.  With bus transport no longer an option, I started hoofing it to a nearby mall to see about purchasing a second small suitcase so I could get all my swag home on the plane.  Unfortunately, all the shops were either closed or closing by the time I got there.  Still, I got to do some serious people-watching as I walked along the busy arcade, observing first a small child dribbling melted ice cream while eating a cone, then several buskers playing drums, and finally some Asian girls wearing what looked like some anime cosplay outfits.

I had just stopped near the end of a street off the arcade and to figure out where to go next when a young girl stopped me to ask for directions to the train station.  I found this supremely amusing and ironic since I likewise had no clue where I was going, but apparently I looked safe and/or reliable and she stood looking up at me with wide-eyed innocence and trust. I sighed and pulled out my map from the hotel, pointing out the way for her as best I could.  Then I found a taxi parked on the street and gave the name of my hotel.  Once again the driver grumbled and muttered that I should just walk.  What is the deal with Cardiff taxis anyway?  I realize I'm not providing large fares, but surely making some money is better than sitting there making none?   I climbed into the cab and, because my feet were hurting again, I insisted he drive me anyway.  The driver grimaced but put the car in gear, hurtling down the road at high speed as if in a hurry to get rid of me.  He probably was, wanting to go off in search of more lucrative plunder. After retrieving my luggage from lockup, I sat for a while in the lobby till my feet felt better, then got up and walked the five minutes to the train station.

Originally I'd planned to spend two nights in Cardiff, but ultimately decided I was over schlepping all my crap to a different hotel every night and thought that a nice, quiet afternoon in London before getting up early to fly home sounded delightful.  The train ride back to London proved to be a colorful one; first we were delayed while the train in front of us had mechanical problems.  Then the door to my carriage, which was immediately behind me, decided it didn't want to stay closed when anyone walked through it, so for over an hour I was treated to the loud bangs and rattles of the carriage junction slamming into the tracks while a cool wind kept whooshing in through the door.  I tried fixing it once or twice to no avail.  Eventually the door sorted itself out, but it took over an hour to do so.  Next a guy on his phone walked through the carriage and out into the junction to talk loudly about sports to whomever was on the other end.  He said he'd given up on football (or maybe it was rugby) and was doing handball now...I think that's what he said, anyway.  His conversation then became extremely animated and heavily peppered with the word "fuck."  You would have sworn he had just stepped out of a British sports movie...it was that comical.  He finally disembarked right before we arrived at Paddington station. The couple sitting next to me, who were probably in their late 50s and who were very nattily dressed, muttered to each other that you could still hear the guy even after he'd gotten off the train...which you could.  And for probably another 300 yards before he finally went out of earshot.  The couple looked at each other and I started smirking, so they looked at me and we all exchanged knowing glances.  You've got to love the British...they are so understated and yet so much meaning can be conveyed in just one such eloquent glance.  I couldn't help asking myself "Why do I not live here yet???"  You know, because I'm so understated myself and all.

A couple of stops later the train arrived at Paddington. I purchased a ticket for the Heathrow Express, having cannily reserved a hotel room within walking distance of the airport so I could avoid any rush hour transportation delays before my plane's very early departure Monday morning.  As I was walking to the platform I was accosted by some man looking for money to get home "because his bank card was empty," etc., etc.  It sounded like the same old scam as at home; someone asks for money and if you offer to call someone or offer some other form of tangible aid and it's all "No, no, I just need X amount of money!"  I felt bad about turning him down but he was quite persistent which made it a little easier.  I had to wait a while for the train to show up and then to get moving, presumably because it was quite late at night, but finally the train zipped along towards Heathrow.  A transfer and a 10-minute walk later, I checked into the Heathrow Hilton where I was given a free upgrade to a "King Executive Room" with complimentary breakfast and internet.  Who knew keeping hotel loyalty cards you rarely use could come in so handy?  Plus the room came with "amenities," by which I mean "mini bar with exorbitantly overpriced snacks and sodas."  Personally I was far more excited by the free internet since most hotels over here charge for that unless you are a loyalty member.  I made myself comfortable and then climbed into the bed where I promptly fell asleep halfway through posting on Facebook, phone still in hand.  I found it under me the next morning.  Yup...that's how I roll.

Welsh Kilt Count:  8

11 September 2015

Observations from the Mothership: Day 10

The Day I Fell in Love with Aberystwyth

My love affair with Aberystwyth started pretty much as soon as I got off the train and into a taxi yesterday.  The driver was chatty and friendly and we had a nice little talk as I took in everything outside my window from the rolling hills to the flowers everywhere to the store and house fronts.  I loved my quiet, plush little guest room at the top of the ridiculously narrow stairs in Maes-y-Môr and I loved being minutes from the bayside.  It didn't hurt that the weather was gorgeous while I was there, all sunny and a temperate 58°-60° the whole time.

This morning I got up at a slightly more reasonable time (well, for me anyway), dressed, and scarfed down the cinnamon pastries I purchased yesterday.  Then I packed up, stowed my luggage in the guest house's office, and walked down the road to a nearby post office to mail a scarf I'd knitted for a friend whom I'd missed seeing this trip because he had to work.  So after spending some 10 days locked in my suitcase, the scarf was finally set on its way to Thomas via Wales, because that's just how I roll.

As I walked around the town I was again struck by just how beautiful it is.   I loved the cool breeze tearing through my hair, even though it made my feeble locks stand up like a scarecrow's.  I loved listening to the random guy in a Welsh hat sitting on a door stoop playing a tin whistle that could be heard for a half-mile radius.  Both he and the assorted pipers in Edinburgh really made me miss hearing Celtic music all the time as I did when the Girlie was Irish dancing.  I love that Celtic music can go from being heartbreakingly plaintive and melancholy one minute to a wildly happy tour de force driven by the upbeat, dancing chords.

The Promenade

During my long hike uphill towards the National Library of Wales, I passed several quintessentially European streets and buildings; I particularly enjoyed seeing all the signage rendered bilingually in both English and Welsh.  I also loved listening to the lyrical lilt of Welsh accents all around me, though I was surprised by how many straight English accents were present--I even heard a couple Americans--which I'd have expected more from a bigger and busier port city such as Cardiff.  Still, Aberystwyth is a university town, so I suppose that accounts for much of the diversity and I did pass several students strolling towards town as I walked.

Wales, where vowels need not apply.

About halfway to the Library I stopped on the sidewalk to catch my breath and turned around to see an amazing view of the town from where I stood.  Next to me was a house swathed in flowerbeds and on the other side was a stone retaining wall out of which some little purple buds were straining to grow.  The weather was just cool enough to make the exertion enjoyable and as the wind continued whipping through my hair I thought again how easily I could live here for the rest of my life.

Flowers, flowers, everywhere.

Such a beautiful and vibrant color.

Eventually I crested the hill on which the National Library of Wales, home to the archives, stands.  I wandered down a walk and through some dense foliage to come upon a library-like building, but was confused by the lack of obvious entryway.  I walked around the building till I found a sign that suggested maybe it was some older part of the university, perhaps a former dormitory or something.  Whoops.  So I wound my way back out and continued up the road where I met a young man and stopped him to ask for directions.  Turns out I hadn't walked quite far enough up the street, which became patently obvious when I cleared some trees and saw the majestic library building perched atop a hill overlooking the valley below like some sort of ancient fortress.  And, interestingly enough, it was.  A tunnel under the library was used during WWII to store valuable documents and artwork--including Shakespearian manuscripts, drawings by da Vinci, and Magna Carta--to keep them safe from bombings.  Funny how my links to Magna Carta seem to follow me everywhere over here. Across the street from the library was a little vantage point from which you could look down into the valley and see the bay stretching out just beyond it.   The view was absolutely gorgeous and I never wanted to leave.

The National Library of Wales
Aberystwyth from the National Library.

The sign is made of Welsh slate.

After ogling the countryside for a few minutes I crossed the road and headed into the formidable-looking library where I was registered as a reader and given a card (complete with a red-faced picture of me from hiking up the hill) good for three years.  The best part is this not only gives me access to the archives and allows me to request materials in person, it also allows me to access the online archival records from anywhere, even home in the U.S.  Score!

I never did actually access any paper records, but I spent several happy hours glued to a monitor looking up assorted ancestors.  While once again I didn't find as much as I would have liked about specific ancestors, I was able to unearth much more about the family's history in general and about how some relatives interacted with others, inheritance records, etc., all of which was very interesting.  Plus just having the ability to continue researching from home and/or order films to be sent here is pretty spiffy, so I counted it as a good day--and not the least because I realized again how much I've missed doing this sort of research in a quiet library surrounded by computer records and books and fellow researchers.

When it was getting near closing time for the library, I returned to the lockers to collect my things, stopping in the gift shop on my way out to purchase a couple of books on Welsh history and genealogy.  I'd hoped to visit the castle in town before reclaiming my luggage, but all the cabs I called were booked for the afternoon and my feet were getting too tired to walk the entire way to the castle so instead I trekked over to the nearby university's student union and bought a hoodie with the school logo.  Not quite as good as a permanent home here, but what can you do?

On my way back down towards town I managed to catch a bus going heading out from the library.  I spent most of the ride down to the bay holding onto a rail next to my seat to keep it from banging and rattling loudly and incessantly.  When I got off the bus I went down to the bay one last time and walked out onto the pier, thinking I would sit at the end and dunk my beleaguered feet in the waters of the Irish Sea before leaving town.  Some boys had ditched their school clothes and rucksacks along the upper levels of the pier and were swimming in the bay.  They scurried back up the pier when they saw me as though I were some otherworldly creature from whom they needed to hide; maybe to them I was.  At the end of the pier a couple of men were fishing, though I can't imagine they were having much luck with the boys churning up the water nearby.  I decided not to sit down because the pier was a metal gridwork covered in rust and algae and looked more than a little skanky, so instead I knelt down and reached my hand into the water so I could still get some Irish Sea on me.  I have no idea when or where I acquired this sudden need to touch every body of water I encounter; perhaps it's some ancient ancestor calling down to me through the ages and insisting I touch the waters of my homeland and thus become a part of it again, closing the ancestral circle as it were.  Who knows?   I'm still glad I did it.

Aberystwyth's Promenade and Cardigan Bay from the pier.

After fondling Cardigan Bay I walked from the Promenade to the guest house to acquire my luggage, walked to the train station, and grabbed a snack before traveling to my next stop.  As I walked I found it difficult to believe that I had been in Edinburgh only a week ago; it seems more like a month because time has been flying by so quickly.  My time left in Great Britain is rapidly dwindling and that breaks my heart because I so love it here.  I want to stay forever.

The train to Cardiff via Shrewsbury was delayed, so at the suggestion of a ticketing agent I instead hopped on a train to Birmingham International (the stop I should have taken the other day) because it also stopped at Shrewsbur where I needed to change trains.  I have to say I love this rail pass...I thought it was overly expensive when I purchased it, but it's been the best money I've spent the whole trip because it allows me to jump on any train at any time without getting a ticket or reservation in advance as long as I'm traveling within the dates listed on the pass.  This had made traveling much easier the couple of times trains have been delayed or missed or when I'm running later than anticipated and thus have the luxury of simply catching a later train.  Plus trains are a great way to meet people and to see the countryside and without having to stress over cars or driving on a different side of the road.  As far as I'm concerned, America needs a rail system like this--especially a high speed rail system--because Amtrak doesn't even come close.  It has fewer stops and is poorly maintained in my opinion.  Besides, how cool is it that several of the train carriages have a place specially made to store bicycles for those traveling between cities?

On the train to Shrewsbury the ubiquitous trolley went down the aisles to offer passengers snacks and drinks.  As always, I giggled a little to myself when it passed because I couldn't stop thinking of the trolley on the Hogwarts Express.  Not unlike that trolley lady, this one made me smile when she called me "Lovey" and thanked me as she handed me my change after I purchased some popcorn and water from her.  An hour or so later I arrived in Shrewsbury and changed trains, but not before nodding silently to the spirit of Brother Cadfael as I waited on the platform.

When I arrived in Cardiff I tried to take a taxi to my hotel but was basically kicked out of the vehicle when I gave the driver the hotel address; he pointed and told me it was a five minutes' walk "that way."  Well, all righty, then.  So I grabbed my stuff back out of the taxi and hoofed it in the direction he'd pointed.  I got turned around a bit in the dark, drizzly, and unfamiliar city but made it to the hotel in maybe 10 minutes' time.  The room was nice and comfortable and had a really cool luggage rack built into the wall over which the television was mounted.  I was reminded of my choir tour through Prague and Austria nearly 20 years ago, for which the tour company had booked our lodgings so that we started out in cheap, crappy hotels which got progressively better as we moved through our itinerary till we ended in a relatively swanky room in Munich the night before flying home, presumably so we'd leave on a happy note and review the company accordingly, having long-since forgotten the spartan rooms and brick-like beds of our Prague hotel.  I didn't intentionally book my hotels to follow that pattern, but that's certainly how it's been working out thus far...and I'm okay with that.

Now that's a creative use of space.
Tired after the long day, I ordered room service instead of going out for dinner and then messed about on the internet instead of writing like a good little blogger.  I went to bed in the wee hours of the morning after passing out face-first on my laptop while sitting at the desk.  I probably woke up with a waffle pattern on my face from the little squares of the keyboard, but fortunately I was too tired to notice if I had.  Time here is evaporating far too quickly!!

10 September 2015

Observations from the Mothership: Day 9

The Day I Came Home to Wales

As is becoming par for the course on this trip, I got a later start in the morning than I intended.  Who knew that walking several miles every day could so wipe a person out?  All I can say is I damn well better have lost some weight by the time I get home after all this walking.

Anyway, I slogged back to the rail station in the morning and hopped the next train going to Aberystwyth.  As always, I very much enjoyed watching the countryside passing by outside my window.  I have also really been enjoying listening to the accents change as I travel from place to place; it's almost like listening to one of those YouTube videos in which someone demonstrates all of the possible dialects of a given country, only live and in person.

Wales!  Out my train window!!

I arrived in Aberystwyth around 3 pm and took a taxi to my "self-catered guest house," which basically just means "bed and breakfast" minus the breakfast. There was a communal kitchen (and laundry!) for guests to use, but no meals were provided.  I checked into my room, which was at the top of two flights of stairs, and schlepped my carry-on up the very narrow staircase.  Frankly, it's a wonder I didn't trip and kill myself given my natural Clouseau-like coordination.  And what exactly is the deal with all the tiny British stairways?  Is it a nationwide plot to prevent people from accumulating too much junk since they can't get any of it up the stairs?  Inquiring minds want to know.

When my host had showed me all the amenities, she left me alone to enjoy the peace and comfort of a room which included a big, soft, plush bed and a comfy chair placed under a skylight.  After making myself at home, I took a nice long, steamy, refreshing shower; next I sat down and used a pair of tweezers to drain all the blisters on my feet and toes, thus relieving the pressure so I could approximate walking like a sober person once again.  After dressing and gingerly tying the foot prisons back onto my feet, I went down to the bayside to enjoy the view.  Aberystwyth (which means "mouth of the river Ystwyth") is situated midway down the west coast of Wales on Cardigan Bay, just off the Irish Sea.  The seafront was a mere 5 minutes walk from my guest house.  I wanted to go down to the shore and walk in the water like I had in the English Chanel but was afraid to get sand in my freshly-pierced blisters so instead I opted for a walk along the Promenade as the sun was setting.  The view was absolutely gorgeous; it took my breath away.  Off to the right you could just make out the electric cliff railway atop Constitution Hill, while on the left you could see the piers and several restaurants and guest houses down the Promenade.

Cardigan Bay at sunset.

See what happens when you walk two marathons in 9 days while wearing new shoes?

I stayed for quite some time, enjoying the cool breeze off the bay and watching the gulls sweep down as they called overhead.  There were some kids fishing off one of the piers and a couple surfing in the waves.  I saw an older couple holding hands while sitting on a bench overlooking the beach; they looked so sweet together and I couldn't help thinking what a lovely place this would be to retire.

Surfers on Cardigan Bay

After an hour or so I limped back to my guest house, Maes-Y-Môr, and sat in the kitchen searching on my phone for a good place to have dinner.  While there, some guy wandered in, presumably another guest, looked at me and asked, "All right, then?"  I nodded and replied in kind, but couldn't help thinking the whole time of Ron Weasley asking that of Harry Potter at the end of the first movie and smirking just a little.  We had a brief chat in which he gave me several suggestions for good local places to eat, then he was off.  I found directions for one of the places he'd suggested, an Italian place, and headed off in that direction.  When I got there I was told they wouldn't have a table for an hour, so I left my name and just wandered up and down the streets in the dusky evening light, entranced by the flowers everywhere, the old buildings and the quaint, cozy feel of the place.  My feet were killing me, but I kept walking around enjoying the sights because the town was just so lovely.  I felt like I'd come home.

Planter of flowers near the restaurant.

Eventually I arrived back at the restaurant and though a few minutes early was shown in.  I thought it was weird to be eating Italian food my first night in Wales, but as I was tired and didn't really know what constitutes traditional Welsh food, I figured what the hell.  I ordered chicken fettucine (which wasn't bad, though the chicken was overdone), a salad, and some cheesy garlic bread that turned out to be a pizza and therefore way more than I had planned on eating.  On the plus side, it was extremely thin--almost like a cheesy garlic crȇpe--and I ate over half of it.  Best of all, I was seated at a table facing directly opposite the open door so I got to watch people walking past while enjoying the brisk breeze coming in down the stairs and see the flowers just outside the restaurant.

Mmmmmmm...pizza crȇpe....

After dinner I stopped at a small convenience store and purchased a couple bottles of water and a couple cinnamon-roll-ish pastries for breakfast, then walked back to my room where I proofed and corrected my most recent blog post before falling asleep in the chair while in the middle of proofing the previous post.  I woke around two am, closed the laptop and crawled into the super-cushy, cozy, comfy bed and thoroughly passed out, sleeping the peaceful, all-encompassing sleep of the dead.

09 September 2015

Observations from the Mothership: Day 8

The Day I Went to the National Archives

Today I slept in a bit because I stayed up late yesterday to catch up on some of my blogging after yesterday's busy day with Alan.  Then I became rather irked at myself for a lack of professionalism in once again not proofreading what I'd written before posting it because of my haste to get it out.  Impatience and I are the best of bedfellows, it seems.

After making the necessary corrections, I checked out of my room, stowed my luggage in the hotel office (a move I've gotten ridiculously good at), and grabbed a quick breakfast at the upstairs restaurant before taking the lengthy Tube journey to Kew Gardens, home of the National Archives.  And, in case you were wondering, "Kew" autocorrects to "Jew" on my phone, which has a warped sense of propriety.  It also autocorrects "assholes" to "sad holes," which is perhaps a little more accurate.

The National Archives at Kew in Surrey

National Archives

The trip out to Kew was longer than I'd anticipated, taking nearly an hour if you don't include the time it took me to hobble from the station to the Archives.  Kew Gardens was a lovely little town, though.  Once inside the National Archives I was directed to a room full of lockers and required to stow all my belongings except my research materials, a pencil, and electronic devices like my phone or laptop.  That's all we were allowed to take upstairs.  So off I trotted (if by "trotted" you mean "drug my feet along the floor like a wounded zombie") towards the first point of entry into the archives.  There I was given further instructions as to how to start my searching and shipped off to yet another staff member to help hunt down the origins of one ancestor who was sent to the colonies as a convicted felon.

My attempts to pin down Felonious Gramps proved elusive, although I did make more progress at Kew than I had in Edinburgh.  With the aid of a staff member I was able to find a book listing all the prisoners transported by ship to the colonies, including Felonious Gramps, who took ship from Surrey.  While wandering the stacks I also found a few other relevant books to peruse and took them back to my little desk at the end of the shelving unit; it wasn't until this moment that I'd realized just exactly how much I've missed the smell of stacks full of musty old books reeking of history and academia.  Almost makes me want to go back for my doctorate...or perhaps become a librarian.

Felonious Gramps, I found you!!!

I didn't lust after this set at all...nope.

I also tried to locate a document which had been photographed and posted on Ancestry.com as having come from the Archives at Kew and which detailed Felonious Gramps' actual felony (stealing money); unfortunately the photo failed to list any sort of reference with which one could locate the document.  I ended up talking with a woman from the London Family History Centre which, near as I can gather, is an offshoot of the giant archives maintained by the Mormon church and housed within the Archives.  She gave me some good suggestions for other websites to check and for how to look more when I got back home, pointing out that I could order microfilms from London and have them sent to a local archive for review.  Good to know.  We still couldn't pin down Gramps without a reference, so she sent me off to yet another staff member who was more knowledgeable in such types of documents.

By the time he was done waiting on a previous client, it was nearly closing time for the archives, much to my disappointment.  He looked up the photo and informed me that it wasn't a court document but a tax record of the trial and pointed out where the relevant book should be.  I all but ran to the stack indicated, and was hurriedly scanning the shelves for the reference in question when a security guard came to kick me out.  It was a little like a scene from a movie with me screaming "Nooooooooo!!!!!" just as I was reaching out to grab the book I needed while it fell/faded from view/whatever.  So close!!!

Archives 2, Ginger 0

I went back downstairs to the locker room to consolidate my belongings and head off back towards the train station.  Originally I'd hoped to make a quick run up to Harrow after visiting the Archives to a place called the Bra Stop since they have a reputation for excellent bras.  I figured if I could get properly fitted (something like 80% of women wear the incorrect size, I'm told) then I could always order online later.  But the train to Kew took much longer than I'd anticipated and there was no way to get there before the shop closed.  Alas, I guess I'll just have to make do with my shoddy American undergarments and try again the next time I'm overseas.

Once back in London, I was in the process of crossing the street at Hammersmith to change Tube lines when I was accosted by a small, slender Irish guy with a longish ginger ZZ Top beard who hailed me by saying, "Hellooooo, fellow redhead!!!"  He then got all chatty and asked me where I was from.  I told him New Jersey and he replied that he'd been hoping to hear an Irish accent, but that he'd forgive me.  How very generous of him.  The man then wanted to know all about whether I lived locally or was just visiting; I listened politely with one eyebrow cocked the entire time at his audacity.  I couldn't help wondering if the man was somehow involved in the Ginger Day UK scheduled for Saturday and trying to get me involved. Regardless, he was clearly after something other than my strawberry hair or my sparkling personality.  Eventually he got around to the point; seems he was stumping for some children's charity but informed me that "since you don't live in the UK you can't really help."  Now I don't know about you, but I would think that any given charity would be more than happy to accept money or aid from whomever they could, regardless of nationality.  Can a charity really be choosy about who contributes?  This seems contradictory, but maybe that's just me.  He smiled, shook my hand again, and wished me well on my trip, apparently content with his little moment of ginger solidarity in spite of the fact that I was flagrantly un-Irish of speech, red hair not withstanding.  I have to say, that's the first time I've ever been flagged down just for being a member of the club. Oh, London, you crazy city!

On the way back to the hotel to collect my bags I got to watch a couple making out across from me on the Tube.  I also noticed that men here are much less egregious about manspreading than they are on trains and subways at home.  Way to go, British men!  Thank you for not being selfish prats!!

When my bags were in tow I headed off to the station at Euston where I watched as my train to Aberystwyth closed up all the doors and started pulling out just as I was running down the platform.  Because that's how I roll...slowly and inefficiently, apparently. After muttering several artistic and unladylike swears under my breath I slogged back up to the main part of the station to find an alternate train to Aberystwyth, which is significantly more difficult when you can't get good wifi on your phone to plot routes on Britrail.com.  I did figure out I would have to change trains in Birmingham regardless, so I found the next train heading there and hopped aboard thinking that I could just grab another train to Aberystwyth once there since they left fairly regularly from that station.

It's cute how I thought that.  For the most part, I did really well with the trains, but it soon became clear yet again just what a novice I really was when I got to Birmingham only to discover that I'd gone to the wrong station.  Turns out there are two stations in Birmingham and that they are each some distance apart.  I failed to double-check my original travel notes and so ended up at the incorrect station, thus missing the last train to Aberystwyth for that evening.  Nor could I find any buses headed that way.  I even asked about backtracking to the correct Birmingham station but was informed that by the time I got there, the last train to Aberystwyth would also have already left.  So I was stuck.  Fortunately I am resourceful, so I found a place to stay in town and called the guest house in Wales to tell them I was delayed.  It seems there is an advantage to being an ignorant American; it means I'm not afraid to ask for help when I get stuck and it means locals are more likely to be friendly and obliging when I do, even though you can almost hear them thinking, "Ah, bless...the poor idiotic dear."  Can't say it's entirely unjustified.


08 September 2015

Observations from the Mothership: Day 7

The Day I Went to the Globe and Traipsed Around London

Nothing is more likely to make the average English major squee like a demented fan girl than a chance to go see a Shakespearian play at the reconstructed Globe Theatre in London, and I'm no different.  I mean, c'mon--it's Shakespeare.  Aside from being classic literature, I just like the guy.  He was a witty wise-ass well before his time, and I have mad respect for that.  Besides, his manipulations of the English language help me to justify making up words whenever I want because if it was good enough for Billy Shakes, then it's good enough for me.  Or so I tell myself, at any rate.    

Shakespeare's Globe

After a long, refreshing sleep to make up for the previous day's all-nighter, I threw on some slacks and a blouse, grabbed muffin and a banana on my way out of the hotel, and headed off to the British Library to meet my friend Alan who had graciously taken off work to squire me to the Globe for the matinee so I wouldn't have to go see the show alone.  I suppose it didn't hurt that Alan himself had never yet been to the Globe, and I took a perverse glee in being the American Yank who got to introduce a native Brit to the iconic theatre.

Once at the British Library, I sat in the open courtyard to enjoy the morning, indulging in some people watching while waiting for Alan.  Halfway through my banana he showed up and we set off towards the nearest Tube station.  This turned out to be a bit of a comedy of errors (see what I did there?) considering neither of us really knew entirely where we were going.  We both knew the Globe was on the south bank of the Thames, but I hadn't really bothered looking up the best route for us because I naively assumed that any Englishman would know how to get there, in spite of the fact that the Englishman in question didn't actually live in London and had never been there.  I know, I know...stupid American, right?  Anyway, after a few quality minutes with the magic of GPS, Alan figured it out and we took the Tube to the Blackfriar's stop.  So naturally I had to grill him as to what made one set of friars "black" as opposed to Benedictine or whatever, thinking perhaps they were originally Jesuits.

We unintentionally ended up taking the long way around to the theatre but eventually arrived at the Globe complex and picked up our tickets at the box office, after which we went next door to the very Elizabethan-sounding Black Swan restaurant and pub for lunch.   Once upstairs, an amusing man from with a vaguely Slavic accent came over to take our orders.  I love listening to the varying dialects in this country; they do diversity so much better than we do at home.  But I digress.  Alan and I ordered the same meal on the show menu, except for the starters; he got soup and I tried a terrine, mostly out of sheer curiosity.  I've never had terrine before, and was only vaguely familiar with the term because of a BBC comedy starring Lenny Henry called Chef.  But, I figured, "when in Rome..." so I tried it.

The terrine turned out to be a sort of pulled and then pressed pork with the general consistency and texture of a chicken or tuna salad, except obviously tasting of pork.  It was better than I expected, and I ate the whole thing while joking with Alan that I'd basically just come over to England and ordered Spam.  We them spent the next several minutes giggling over the requisite "spam, spam, spam" jokes, these aided by the micro-greens on my plate which clearly constituted a small shrubbery.  I'm pretty sure Billy Shakes would also have appreciated the silliness of Monty Python had they been around in his time.

We finished the rest of the delicious meal with gusto, enjoying conversation and the lovely view of the Thames and St. Paul's...as well as several giant construction cranes spanning the river.  Alan and I paid our bill and headed next door to the Globe, getting there with just enough time to grab our seats before the play started, much to the understated annoyance of other patrons seated on our row over whom we had to climb.  Americans would have been cussing us out, but the two nice older British ladies we dislodged just grimaced and dealt with it, making me wonder for perhaps the thousandth time this week why I don't live here already.  Alan and I settled in on our hard wooden bench in the middle gallery and listened to the usual admonitions to turn off cell phones and refrain from photography during the show, then the performance of Much Ado About Nothing began.

The Globe's stage.

The production was excellent; well-acted by the cast, particularly the acrobatic Benedick, it was also significantly enhanced by music both sung and performed by the cast members at several appropriately-placed intervals during the show.  The interaction between the cast and the groundlings was also very amusing, not the least when several became doused with water meant for Beatrice.  Because the Globe is essentially an open-air theatre, however, there were occasional distractions such as airplanes flying anachronistically overhead.  For the most part such distractions were quick and largely ignorable by both cast and audience, but at one point a couple of Blackhawk helicopters flew directly (and loudly) overhead; I confess to being very impressed by how smoothly the actors currently on stage were able to incorporate the disruption seamlessly into their performance--no mean feat with iambic pentameter, which tends to defy ad-libbing.

At intermission the stalls emptied as everyone rushed off to use the facilities; upon returning both Alan and I noticed and commented on the uneven distribution of pigeons perched across the roof covering the stage. Clearly British pigeons have no appreciation for symmetry; I can only assume this is why so many of them got eaten during the Elizabethan period.  We continued chatting about the action thus far until the interval was over and the performance begain again.

By the last act of the play the sun had dropped to just above the roof of the upper gallery, glaring viciously into everyone's eyes on our side of the theater and causing some 50 hands to shoot up in the air and shade eyes in sun-drenched and weirdly military-looking salutes.  When it became clear that the sun was not going to disappear behind the clouds for any length of time, the ushers took pity on us and began passing out paper visors to everyone in our section; they were surprisingly effective, but we all looked like we were wearing little white turbine fans on our heads.  Très chic.

"Heyyyyyy, sexy laaaaadyyyyyy..."

Alan really seemed to enjoy the show (as did I), and I had almost as much fun watching him as I did watching the show itself, for he spent most of the play leaning forward, eyes alight with the magic of the performance.  Afterwards we perused the gift shop, where we both purchased facsimile copies of one of Shakespeare's first folios like the good little book nerds we are.  Alan then walked me to St. Paul's so I could ogle the architecture up close; we took a selfie there for our friend Katie since the area by the Globe was far too packed with people to get a good one there.  Alan pointed out the Tower Bridge and the Shard as we walked, as well as several other things; I think he secretly delighted in watching me ooh and ah over everything and answering all my questions about the history of the buildings and other things along the way.  For my part, I very much enjoyed the beautiful day and my witty companion, never mind geeking out over all the art and architecture and history surrounding me and filling my soul.

The Shard in London.

The dome of St. Paul's.

After St. Paul's, Alan walked me down to Parliament and Big Ben, which I believe has now been renamed for Queen Elizabeth II.  Not that it will ever be anything but Big Ben to me, mind you.  Parliament turned out to be much farther down than originally anticipated but was well worth the hike; the walk alongside the Thames alone was lovely, in spite of my nearly being assaulted by an errant skateboard at one point.  Personally, I found the near-miss amusing because it was the most threatened I'd felt the entire trip, in spite of all my friends back home freaking the hell out because I had gone overseas alone (which isn't exactly a flattering endorsement of my abilities), as though that somehow guaranteed I'd be mugged or molested on every street corner.  Perhaps it was foolish of me to go alone; I don't know.  I just think it's more important to take chances and actually go out and live on occasion...at least it is for me.  Better to die doing something you love than live holed up in your house and alone and afraid.

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

After making it to Parliament, we next walked around to the front of Westminster Abbey which was sadly closed.  I didn't feel too badly, though, since I had been able to go inside it on my previous visit to London.  I was fascinated to see a giant statue of Abraham Lincoln in the square opposite the Abbey (at least I think that's where it was); I could have understood it being Benjamin Franklin, European playboy extraordinaire, but Lincoln??  I found the statue very unexpected.  Turns out there's another monument to Lincoln somewhere in Edinburgh; who knew Honest Abe was so popular over here?

Honest Abe, just chillin' in the middle of London.

Alan was very patient with my constant stopping for photos and indulgent of my endless (and frequently non-sequiturish) questions about the city, the buildings, etc.--basically whatever happened to pop into my mind at any given moment--answering each and every one to the best of his ability.  By this point my feet were starting to feel as if they were on fire, so I suggested stopping somewhere for some tea.  We found a nearby Starbucks and ordered, my "medium tea" arriving moments later in a bucket-sized mug.  We stayed in Starbucks chatting till they kicked us out for closing time.

A big teddy bear of a man and very professorial, Alan is both kindly-natured and clever, with a sneaky sly wit that frequently had me bursting out with laughter throughout the day.  I spent several very enjoyable hours with him both before and after the play at the Globe, during which we covered an astonishingly wide variety of topics.  After tea we both walked to Victoria station for our respective trips home.  I saw Alan off on his train before heading over to take the Tube back to my hotel.  Just before he left Alan told me that I was "exactly like he thought I'd be."  I pointed out this could either be really good or really bad depending exactly what he'd previously thought of me, but Alan just giggled in response.  I'm choosing to take that as a compliment regardless.

"I said, 'MIND THE GAP!!!'"

When I arrived back in my hotel room, my feet felt as though I'd been standing in hot coals for hours.  I suppose that's not surprising considering the 8-some miles I'd just walked, never mind the literal marathon I've walked over here thus far.  As a result, the blisters on my toes have now begun forming blisters of their own, forming a colony of subcutaneous contagion spreading across the top of my feet.  Pretty soon they'll start looking like the feet of a prima ballerina who's been dancing en pointe for 20 years.  Not that I would change a thing, though--this trip has easily been worth every searing step and I'd do it again in a heartbeat.