Monday, August 27, 2012

London, the Beginning - Wednesday & Thursday

This will probably take me a long time to write out (it was the longest trip I've been on so far on this adventure and we all know how long writing about Paris took me...) and I don't really have pictures from the beginning of the trip but, rest assured, I will get there. And you will all hear about my "ab fab" vacation in London.


Spring Break in California, what a trip.
After leaving work on Wednesday, I went home and finalized packing my things, brushed my teeth and left. The train station isn't that far from my place (maybe a half hour by foot) so I left early and decided to walk. When I arrived, Katharina was worried that I would miss the train and stated as much. I find that when you fret issues in travel, it tends to lead to more issues. [insert California for Spring Break vacation here.] It seemed that there was a suicide dealing with the train Katharina and I were supposed to be on so it wasn't coming at all. We caught the next train, and since I have learned to give myself an extra hour (above the recommended time) we had no issues taking a later train. We made a switch in Hamm and finally arrived in Holzwickede (a train station near the airport.)

Our next issue came with the bus to the airport. According to the ticket, it should have been included in the price, or so Katharina thought (on the trip home she realized the ticket only covered buses if the train wasn't working.) In the end, after quite the argument with the bus driver, we paid three euros to get us to the airport and then to return back to the train station on the trip back. Altogether, not too bad.

When we arrived at the airport, it wasn't too bad dropping off our luggage and heading to the "gate" (it was a very small airport so the gate was like one large room with three doors to exit to the runway.) I'm getting ahead of myself though, we had customs to go through to leave Germany and it took me a while to get out since they wanted to know why I had been there so long, apparently the stamp visa I arrived when entering  the country had expired. This was easily cleared up by showing my working visa though. We went to the gate and loaded on the plane.

We few with EasyJet, an extremely cheap airplane company that has flights through Europe. The flight didn't have assigned seats so, first come, first serve. Katharina and I got decent seats but the plane had three seats on each side of the aisle and of course, I was the middle seat where a creepy, horrible smelling, lip and eyebrow pierced man sat next to me. He spent the entire flight looking at Katharina and I while biting his lip. Uhg, creep! Did I mention that he smelled too? Really bad B.O. from this guy, or something, not a comfortably ride. Luckily, it was only an hour long flight so we touched down in London at London Luton airport and de-boarded the plane. The guy kept following us and was singing "you are so beautiful" so Katharina started talking to me about our plans with our made up boyfriends "Christian and Alec." That stopped him and he didn't say another word.

We got into the airport and had to go through customs. I had to go in the shorter non-EU line while Katharina had to go into the longer EU resident line. Wouldn't you guess it, Katharina was out first. I had to fill out paper work for entering the country and then wait for the multiple Asian, Russian, and Australian families to go through before me. Finally I got to the window and got through, even got a new stamp for my passport. We collected our bags and went to find Uncle Chris who would be picking us up from the airport.

He's not hard to miss, Uncle Chris, he looks the part of his profession perfectly. He's a sports journalist (editor for at least part of the sports section, check out the last line of this article for proof) at Bloomberg News and he looks exactly like he is. He was a bit disheveled and I got the customary double cheek kiss welcome as we headed out to the parking lot to find the car, an old, beat up, green station wagon. After about 30 or 40 minutes, we arrived at the house. We made a quick stop at a bank so Katharina and I could get money for the trip and then we went to the Tube station, Bounds Green, to buy passes for the morning, but they weren't open. We headed back to the house to see the boys and Anne.

The boys were quite shy at first, Ned and Hugh, so Katharina and I hung out in the kitchen with Chris and Anne (probably the most time I got to spend with them for nearly the whole trip and they made us quesadillas for dinner. Roasted red pepper, kidney beans, sliced cherry tomatoes, and freshly grated cheese. Yummy! After dinner and a short chat, Katharina headed up to the loft that was our room for the week and went to sleep. It was an early morning (for Katharina that is :P) and we needed sleep.


Thursday was Katharina and my first day in London and we had scheduled a tour of the city with a stop at the Tower of London and a boat ride on the Thames. Because we were going on this tour, we needed to be awake quite early and head to the tube station near Uncle Chris and Aunt Anne's house to buy our passes for the week and head to Victoria Coach Station to begin the tour.

We left the house at about 6:15 or 6:30 and caught a bus to the Bounds Green tube stop. Instead of paying for the bus, Uncle Chris gave us a few Oyster Cards (pre-paid London transport cards that allow reduced rates on public transportation) to use and sent us on our way with directions to get to the station. Once at the tube station, Katharina and I bought our 7-day London transport passes for zones 1-3. The cards allowed us to use the tube (underground railway), buses, and regional rail within the zones 1-3 and it worked perfectly!

Our tour guide
When we arrived at Victoria Coach Station, I asked where we needed to go since a bus station is a bit like an airport with all the "gates" you need to line up at. I was told to go to gates 5-7 which is where the tour company operated from.  I again asked which gate and was told to wait at gate 6. After some waiting (why do they say to be there at 7:55 when the tours don't leave until 8:30 or later?) we were told to go to the bus. At the entrance of the bus, they checked to make sure that we were on the correct bus but Katharina and I didn't have our names on the list. We were ushered on none the less and the tour began.

Westminster Abbey
Katharina and I got seats on the top of the bus and had a decent view on our travels. Quite honestly I was disappointed in the trip though. I feel like I paid much more than necessary for a less than exciting trip. We stopped at the Abbey and then back on the bus for more driving. We then stopped near the Tower of London and had some time for photos of food and were rushed off to a boat for a Thames cruise. The "cruise" lasted all of 15 minutes and we didn't see much that was exciting, it was just like we were on the boat, not sightseeing. Our bus met us down the river and we got back on. Towards the end of the trip, the tour guide talked all about the changing of the guards and what it meant and what would happen during it. We arrived at Buckingham Palace and were informed that the changing of the guards wasn't going to happen that day. Seriously? This is about when I realized that we were on the wrong tour and we should have also gone on a tour of the Tower of London (Crown Jewels are there) but we didn't get to. I asked about it and we received an apology and were given a voucher for us and another family in the group to go on our own.

Tower Bridge
We were placed in a van and I swear spent an hour driving around the city dropping us off before we finally got to the Tower of London. None of us wanted to go in immediately but we didn't want to have to stick together. They wouldn't give us tickets though so we had to go in and then leave to get return passes. What a cluster........

Katharina and I went to find food and we needed it. We settled on a burger place where we both bought salads but for the 9 GBP that I paid for the drink and salad, I expected a bit more. It was maybe the size of one of my hands, maybe. Everything in London is quite expensive. After eating our tiny salads, we went off to the Tower of London to explore. I honestly think that this worked better, seeing the London Tower alone that is, because it gave us a longer time to just wander and explore at our own pace while if we visited with the group, it would have been rushed and we wouldn't have seen quite as much I think.

No photos allowed? Says who?
We had all afternoon to explore the city so we went to Oxford Street to look into some of the shops (dear lord is clothing expensive in London!) Somewhere between the Tower of London and Oxford Street, I lost track of Riva. I nearly cried thinking of her on her own, fending for herself on the streets of London. I had to push on through and Katharina and I went up to street level to see the most well-known shopping street in London.

I needed new shoes... Quite badly in fact. The ones I had that I bought in the US and wore nearly daily had some large holes in the bottom and I feared rain. We looked and looked and I finally found a pair of cloth boating shoes, not quite Dockers but they're quite comfortable. I was surprised that they were only 15 GBP too. (Men's shoes too, which had me a bit scared since they don't have my size but the next size up actually fit me really well!) As we wandered down the street more, I looked down and there was Riva. It appears she had gone shopping and bought some new clothing and what was this? Facial tattoos? Well, I'm not one to judge..

Riva in front of Buckingham Palace
It was time to relax a bit so Katharina and I decided to find a park to lay out in and Green Park was the closest so we went there and found a spot in the grass to lay. They also had green and white deck chairs all over that you could rent by the hour or day. They were mostly empty and you could sit in them until the enforcer came around to ask for your money. I saw a lot of people who didn't know that they had to pay and tried to run when asked for their 1 GBP each of something silly. After relaxing in the sun, we headed back to Uncle Chris and Aunt Anne's house to have dinner.

The boys, Ned and Hugh were being quite shy and didn't want to meet us even though Uncle Chris told us that all day at the beach, the boys were asking about us and if they could see us ever. Chris and Anne made dinner and it was fabulous! We had pasta with calamari, roasted red peppers, and tomatoes; vegan lettuce wraps with tofu and vegetables; bread and  of course, beer. The boys even opened up a bit and talked some at the dinner table. We spent the evening just chatting with Chris and Anne until it was bed time. I had another early morning on Friday.

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