“Are you excited?”
I heard that question from almost everyone I know in the weeks and days leading up to my departure for England.
“Yes of course!” I’d said, doing everything in my power to conceal the fact that I was also terrified.
It wasn’t like I was hopping on a plane with a bunch of people I knew. Or even hopping on a plane and getting picked up at the airport by someone. Beyond the detailed itinerary I’d made and the hotel room, I had little certainty of what I was going to experience when I got to London. I didn’t even have a means of communication. Once I boarded the plane I had no useable phone. I’d have to pray I’d find a pay-as-you-go phone when I reached London in order to have contact with the people I knew in the country and to inform my family in the United States that yes I did land, I’m here, no the plane you were tracking on the computer that says it landed did land and so yes I’m alive and well, no need to worry.
It wasn’t like I was going to a third-world country ridden with crime. Or even a country where there was a language barrier. I was going to the United Kingdom. England. A country where not only was it unlikely that I’d stand out as an obvious tourist, but I could easily communicate with the people around me. It wasn’t even like I was going to be in a country where I didn’t know anyone at all. My uncle has lived there for years now. My cousin moved back to England only a few months ago for an internship. My godfather lives in a small town called Overton (where in fact I would be heading in 4 days time) and his daughter and her family live in the town next to his, in Whitchurch. So I wasn’t completely on my own. In a pinch I could call one of them. Nevertheless, there’s something absolutely horrifying, as well as, exciting about being in a foreign country, no matter how safe, by yourself.
But, I couldn’t turn back. I was committed. I’d bought the ticket. I’d bought the 4-night stay in the hotel. I was going to England, no matter how scared I was.
So on May 16th, my dad drove me to Dulles airport. I checked into my flight. I exchanged my currency into Pounds. And I went through security and boarded my plane. I was going to England. I think in the moments before getting onto the flight it actually hit me that I was going. That sudden realization as you’re sitting there that you’re actually doing something. That it’s actually happening. The moment where the fear subsides a bit and the excitement magnifies (or maybe the excitement subsides and the fear magnifies). Up until that moment, I had simply been going through the motions. Packing. Good-byes. Planning. It’s so systematic that you do not always realize you’re actually doing something. And then, in that one moment, it hits you, you’re doing something. You’re going somewhere. So I climbed on the plane excited (and a bit scared) that I was going to England. It was actually happening!
I took an evening flight that night figuring if I slept on the plane than the jet lag wouldn’t be as bad. I failed of coarse to take into account that sleeping on a plane is not necessarily the easiest thing or the most comfortable. So in total I think I only managed about 3 hours of good sleep. Not to mention terrible food. The good thing about long international flights is that they still serve you food. The bad thing about long international flights is that they still serve you food. Being a vegetarian I chose the pasta dish over the chicken dish. A mistake on my part. I never thought that pasta could taste so unlike pasta, but I guess that is to be expected of airplane food.
After a 7 hour flight I landed in London Heathrow Airport. I was actually in England. At this moment it really started to hit me, that I was not just going to England, I was in England.
The customs line was long, but fast moving. I got through with a few basic questions of “why are you visiting?” “how long are you staying?” Considerably short in comparison to some others I saw. This was especially true for the men. One poor guy, about my age, seemed to be stuck at the customs gate forever, answering question after question about his visit. He was still answering questions about 10 people later when I made it through.
Before heading out, I had to find a phone. I had done significant research prior leaving the US on where I could find a phone. Everything I read said I should have easy access to stores at Heathrow where I could buy one. So I was set on finding it. I failed to realize just how big and spread out the airport is. 5 terminals. With the international arrival terminals being small and seemingly without shops outside security zone. It took about half an hour of walking around and hopping on shuttles before I made it to Terminal 5 where I was finally able to find a Vodaphone store to buy a £25 phone with 100 minutes of international calling and £16 worth of national calling. I quickly made all the stationary calls. First to my dad telling him that yes I did land and I am alive. And second to my godfather’s daughter Lizzie, providing her with the phone number that I could be reached at while in England to coordinate further for the second half of my trip.
Then I headed to London.
I was fortunate enough to discover before leaving something called a “LondonPass.” Essentially the pass comes in either 1-day, 2-day, 3-day or 7-day versions. By getting the pass you have access to almost all of the main attractions in and around London. If you opt for travel you also get travel cards that pay for your public transportation while you are there. The total cost of the pass seems initially steep. For a 3-day pass with travel I paid about $140. But, when you think about the excruciatingly high cost of the underground system in England (a one way pass costs about £4), the high costs of most of the sights, and the terrible exchange rate, it’s actually a remarkable deal. I also saved money by deciding to pick the pass up in person (figuring spending the few dollars to get to the Travel Information center in Piccadilly would be cheaper than paying the shipping fee). So my first stop was to pick up my pass. I hopped on the Tube and rode to the Piccadilly Circus stop. Strolled quickly to the TI and picked up my pass, bought a map, and began my first adventure.
Being in DC for four years I’ve learned to walk. I walk everywhere as often as I can. So, I planned to do considerable walking in England. Of course not actually being from London, I continually misjudged how far I was walking and so often what I thought was a 1-mile walk turned into a 2-mile trek. Which of course is exactly what happened my first day. I decided to walk from the TI to the British Museum. And, of course it ended up to be a longer journey than I expected. But, it was a worthwhile walk. It gave me a chance to see all of the architecture of the city and the get a feel for London city life. It also taught me that my sense of direction and ability to read maps (aside from judging distances) is pretty good. One quick glance and I knew exactly how to get there.
Living in DC I continually forget that in other cities you actually have to pay to see most museums and attractions. Luckily, I chose a city, that while there are plenty of sites that require admissions fees, there are also plenty of sites where you can simply walk in for free. If there is free museum/site to see in the entire world, it would have to be the British Museum. Hands down.
I’m not a museum person but, even I think that the British Museum is, how do I put this, AWESOME! Unlike most museums where you just stare at things through big plates of glass, in the British Museum (most of the time) the artifacts are right out in the open. Instead of feeling like I was trapped in a museum, I felt like I was actually in ancient Egypt and Greece, or at least in some vault full of ancient artifacts. They’ve managed to reconstruct whole portions of buildings and sculptures dating back as far as Assyria into the modern walls. There’s the Rosetta Stone. There are pagan ruins and mosaics. For any history dork, like myself, it makes you drool at the mouth (I’m not joking I think I may have actually started to drool). This is not to mention the architectural phenomena that is the British Museum itself. The very center of the museum is a type of courtyard, that is actually enclosed by a glass ceiling. So in many ways you’re standing indoors but next to the outside of a building. The only comparison I can think of is the modern sections of the Louvre but I’m not sure that really does it justice. It’s a completely unique and quite frankly impressive way to add a modern flare while still managing to maintain the old structures. I spent nearly 2 hours wandering around, and if it weren’t for the fact that I needed to get to the airport and pick up my bags and then check into my hotel I probably would have stayed another 4 hours if I could have. But, I did need to do all those things, not to mention the fact that I was tired and hungry.
After picking up my bags and checking into my hotel and grabbing a bite to eat I called it a night. I made it through my first day in London.