Saturday, August 5, 2017

London, England

I studied in Stirling, Scotland in the spring of 2002, and my time abroad allowed me to travel around Europe. During the University of Stirling's spring break, I embarked on a journey that took me to London, Paris and Spain. My friend Jeremy picked me up at the train station in London. He was studying there at the time, and we caught up on our respective study abroad experiences as we made our way to Clink 78, the hostel I'd be staying at for the next two nights. After check-in, we hit the town.

That's where things get fuzzy. While I remember my arrival quite clearly, the details of where we went and what we did while wandering London are lost to time. I do remember noting to myself that London looked like an older version of any American city. This of course makes sense given the shared history of our great nations. I also remember seeing  (and drinking) a lot of Hoegaarden. This distinctive white beer was available everywhere, and could be found pouring out of custom Hoegaarden-branded taps into huge Hoegaarden glasses.

Jeremy and I met up at the London Eye the next day to kick of my only full day in London. This famous ferris wheel was brand new at the time, having opened shortly after the start of the new millennium. We intended to ride the Eye, but the wait was over two hours. That was too long for our tastes, so we decided to stroll down the Queen’s Walk, a walking path that flanked the river Thames. From the river's edge, we took in a great view of Big Ben and did some great people watching. We also encountered a few installations promoting a Salvator Dali exhibit along the way, which further enhanced the experience.

From there, we weren’t too far from Piccadilly Circus, so we wandered over for a peek and a pint. If you combine the blinking screens and advertisements in Times Square with the shopping at Faneuil Hall in Boston, you’ve got Piccadilly Circus. We perused some of the souvenir stands and stopped for a while to watch a street performer juggle swords blindfolded before finding a watering hole.

Once we settled into a pub, Jeremy produced two Cuban cigars. Cubans are illegal in the US, but were readily available in the UK, and with smoking allowed in London pubs, we eagerly lit them up. The smoking session didn’t last long, as it annoyed some patrons, prompting the bartender to ask us to snuff out our stogies. We took that as our cue to move on.

Our last stop of the day took us to an out of the way, but very famous destination - Abbey Road Studios. After riding from one decrepit tube station to another and wandering through a rather dodgy neighborhood, we arrived at the studio that recorded the Beatles and countless others.

The building itself was a lot smaller than I anticipated. One might walk right by it without noticing it if it wasn’t for the swarth of tourists taking photos. Between the tourists and the studio sat a long, low wall covered in Beatles lyrics, provocative statements and a sea of names. It was a fascinating piece of living art.

We didn’t have access to the studio itself, so after marveling at it from the street, there was only one thing left to do - try to replicate the Abbey Road album cover. The famous photo on the cover of the Beatles album that bears the studio's name was taken at the crosswalk closest to the studio. All of us tourists had the same idea, so we all waited patiently for the opportunity to cross without being smacked by a tiny but vengeful British car. It seemed the touristy hubbub the studio brought to the neighborhood annoyed the locals. They zoomed through the intersection with little regard for the lives of the tourists crossing the street.

I was so excited to cross when it was my turn, and I couldn’t wait to develop the photo Jeremy took so I could see myself in the most famous crosswalk in history. Of course it’s just my luck that the photo came out blurry - and I’m walking the wrong way!

Jeremy and I went out for dinner and a couple of drinks after that, and when I returned to my hostel, I realized I wasn't quite ready to call it a night. I opted to visit the nearest night club, which, conveniently, was located in the hostel's basement. Not long after I bellied up to the bar at the club, I struck up a conversation with a good looking young lady who was also visiting from America. I was single then, as I hadn't yet met the love of my life, the awe-inspiring and breathtakingly beautiful Mrs. Tires. The American gal and I flirted and joked over drinks for more than an hour. Eventually we parted ways, and I was sure I'd never see her again. As it turned out, I saw her when she descended the ladder attached to the bunk above me the next morning. Without knowing it, we had slept on different levels of the same bunk bed. Awkward!

After a delightful breakfast at the hostel, I met up with Jeremy for one last day in London. We were joined by his cousin, an ex-pat who played for a semi-pro rugby team. Jeremy and I gladly accepted the invitation to join him and his mates for a pick-up rugby game in the park. To a man, every single one of his friends was huge, stocky, and strong. By comparison, I was a twig. As such, they made me out to be a speedster. That couldn't have been further from the truth, but I didn't let on. Neither of us had played rugby before, so they explained the rules and promised to go easy on us. We played a non-contact game, which was convenient because these men could have flattened me with ease.

Despite the casual setting, the action was fast and intense. The game took some getting used to, especially because forward passes weren't allowed. At some point during the game I managed to score a try, the rugby equivalent of a touchdown. Everyone was cracking wise while we played, and I matched them quip for quip, so we were all friends by the end of the game. This friendliness came in handy, because after the game, Jeremy's cousin offered me, Jeremy and two of his mates a ride, and the five of us crammed into one of those tiny British cars. Despite the sardine can ending, the rugby game was the highlight of my stay in London.

Jeremy and I said goodbye shortly after that, and off I went to the nearest station that would get me on the Chunnel to Paris.