The Natatorium

An emporium of oddities from around the world, complete with somewhat informative plaques that almost never match the item they are meant to be describing.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Bringing You Up-to-Speed... Protestors, Punks, and Parliament

Right then, where was I? Well, as you probably guessed I made it safely to the college, with bags, out of breath and with nothing in my stomach, at around 9:30am. Before that, though, exhausted and shaken as we were, we had to figure out where the Gatwick express train was, take a train to the correct area of the airport, buy Gatwick express tickets, find the correct platform, get on the train, get off the train, find the street, and hail a cab, all hauling 100 pounds or more of cumbersome bags each and having no idea what we were doing in the first place.

There were, however, bright spots. One was a luggage trolley. The other was a very nice British boy.

As my first impression of the country had been a very rough landing and a very tiny bathroom, it was nice that it was quickly counteracted by a very helpful and quite charming young Londoner. He saw us struggling to get on the express with our bags and offered to help. Luckily the train wasn’t too full and we were able to stow our bags in empty seats, because the luggage rack was full, at least too full for all our bags, and we wouldn’t have been able to haul them up there anyway. Helpful Young Londoner, or HYL as he will be referred to henceforth, brought a few of our bags aboard and then assisted us in throwing them up into empty seats. He accepted our thanks and then sat back down, keeping to himself, until I said something or other to him and the four of us (me, Marie, Tammy and Hyl) struck up conversation. We talked about America, and the ice storm, and he talked about London and gave us some sound advice. He was very nice indeed, and we (mostly Marie and I, Tammy looked peacefully out the window recomposing herself) talked for the entire journey, about half an hour.

When we got into town he told us how to get up to the street, what kind of cab to take, etc, but couldn’t stay long to help us because he was late for work, and, as the airline had “lost my case, the wankers, so I’ve got to wear this” (a nice blue sweater over a blue collared shirt with navy pants and nice shoes. Looked semi-formal to business casual to me, but apparently wasn’t formal enough) he was a bit worried to begin with.

I could go into more detail about our first ride through London (looked just as I had imagined—lovely) our nice cabbie who had to help us with our ghastly bags (got a good tip) our arrival at the hall (same bags, three flights of stairs) and the long, long day that followed (was quite sick, hadn’t had any sleep, longest day of life), I’m just too far behind to go into all that now.

I was sick a bit for the first few days, I think just from the shock, the terror of the landing, the physical exhaustion and hunger, and all the rest of it, but by Friday I was mostly normal, and now I feel fine.

Friday Marie, Tammy and I went out of the college for the first time and into the city, which I was nervous about, but once I got out I felt much better. Part of my nerves was probably from not knowing what to expect about actually being on the street in the city, and once I confronted it and found myself capable I was on the road to recovery.

Friday, first day out, we just walked out the park and around the corner, hanging close to Baker Street station, which is our ‘hood now. We bought some things at Boots, a drugstore, that we needed, and got our Oyster cards, which are pre-paid transport cards for the Tube (subway) and buses. Tammy and I got Quizno’s, and it was the first time I really ate since Wednesday morning’s IHOP. We then went back to the college to meet up in the Lobby for a (poorly) organized field trip to go to a Jack the Ripper Walk. I rode the tube for the first time in the busiest and craziest of circumstances. As soon as we entered the gates, our group of 100 dispersed because the planned line was down, and, having no idea what we were doing, the girls and I simply followed some other students who seemed more sure of themselves. We knew which stop we were going for and there were maps posted everywhere, so we found our way alright, but it was at peak time so the place was packed with quickly-moving crowds and the trains were like sardine cans. After riding, changing lines, fighting our way through another tube station, and finally arriving at the pre-planned stop, the small group we were with (about 12 students out of the initial 100) found itself square in front of the tower of London, which was awesome, but without any clue as to where the rest of the group was or what we were looking for. We sat on the Tower Hill a good 20 minutes or so before our walking guides arrived and another 5 or 10 before the rest of the college group came as well.

After that, all was awesome. The walking tour was great. Basically, the tour guide was an animated and knowledgeable man who took a small group of us (15 or so) around the area, stopping periodically and telling us the story of Jack the Ripper and the “autumn of terror” in 1888. He described 1888 London to us, told us all the details of everything that happened, who found the bodies, what was done to them, what clues the police had, and all the rest. It was absolutely excellent and made me want to learn more about Jack the Ripper, and more importantly, the time and context that produced him.

We did other things that night, including going to a pub, and I had my first cider (not like American cider; alcoholic and fizzy. Like beer only tasting of apple). I’m going to skip ahead though.

Yesterday we went out three times. The first time was to go to Woolworth’s general store about 20min walk away. While we were there we saw an anti-Iraq war/anti-American protest in the streets that stopped traffic for about ten minutes. It was a demonstration by a local Arab community, and they were peaceful, but policeman walked alongside the group on either side, to ensure that it stayed that way. I got the sense that the police were there to protect the protestors from backlash rather than defend the general public against them. The protestors held specific and articulate signs, shouted in megaphones, and chanted. At first I was a little frightened and tried to disguise my accent for a while. I didn’t want to go outside while they were passing, but I took pictures from inside the store, which I will post later. I was actually really thrilled to see it, even though it was just a little scary at first. I was glad that people were actually exercising their right of free speech and were making themselves heard in a peaceful way, and it made me wish that such things happened more often in America.

The second time we went out, we went down to the British Museum in the Bloomsbury neighbourhood. The place was enormous. We were there for 2 hours and basically only saw 2 rooms (and not all the stuff in them) and the gift shop (and not all the stuff in that). I’ll post more about the British Museum another time when I’m able to see more of it.

We went back to college, and then (though we were exhausted and sore) out to a little Italian restaurant nearby. The food was good, but we had the hardest time getting them to bring us our check, and after that we ended up just leaving cash on the table because they wouldn’t come pick up a credit card. We were there for 3 hours. After that we went to a pub again, the same pub right next to the station, but Tammy and I were so tired that we left soon after arriving, without ordering anything.

Today I went to Camden Town with a college group, and it was really fun even though it was freezing cold and windy on a really long walk. The area around Marleybone Road and Baker street, which we walk through all the time on our way from campus to the tube, is busy but not cramped at all; the streets are really wide and straight, the sidewalks are wide, and there generally isn’t much congestion on the sidewalks. Camden Town was the opposite. The streets were narrow and winding but cars and motorcycles still sped through them, and the sidewalks were quite crowded with an incredibly diverse mix of people. I saw lots of “true” punk rockers (1 foot tall yellow and red Mohawks, tight black ripped pants, lots of metal jewellery, leather jackets). We were there for two hours and only covered about half a block. Not kidding. Camden Town was full of tiny shops either in holes in the wall or just in tents on the sidewalk, selling cheap punk clothes, hippie clothes, boho clothes, Indian clothes, cheap hats, gloves, lighters, ashtrays, wallets, purses, bags, shoes, etc etc etc. I bought a gorgeous patchwork silk skirt (picture to come) and saw lots of things I could get for souvenirs.

Tonight, we were going go to a Boots in Notting Hill, but since the store closed at 5, we decided to just pop down to Westminster. We saw Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, the London Eye, and walked across the River Thames. We didn’t go up in the Eye yet because we got there just as it was closing, but it’s going to be amazing when we do. It was cool enough to see Big Ben and Parliament lit up at night, and the lights of the Eye gleaming on the Thames.

I think that’s enough for now; brings you up to speed at least, if you actually read all this. Classes start tomorrow morning, and I’m quite excited. Early this week I should finally have internet in my room, so I’ll be able to post pictures and communicate online more often. Cheers.

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