So, go figure, it turns out that 2 days is not nearly enough time to see all of London!
AIFS, the program through which I’m studying abroad, arranged for all of us to fly into London and stay for a couple of days before leaving for France as a group. I’ve been excited to get to Cannes and all – but come on. 2 days in London is sort of like a tease!
I flew out of San Francisco around 4:30ish Wednesday afternoon and, after a 9 or 10 hour journey (the time difference has me really confused!), landed in London around 10:30ish the next morning. So basically, unless you’re a napper (which I am not), the sleep you got on the plane was the sleep you got til the next night.
That was rough.
I’ve never really been able to sleep in public places, and while that’s usually a good thing, it’s not always that helpful when it comes to long plane/train/bus trips. So between that and the time shift making it feel really early, I only got maybe a couple hours of sleep on and off.
So going through customs with the other two AIFS girls on the plane and finding our baggage and all of that is kind of fuzzy. A lot of that day is, really. One thing that impressed me was that there was a little train that took you to the baggage area after you got off of the plane. I have no idea if that’s common or not, but I’m a fan.
We met up with a driver and another girl who had also just flown in through AIFS, and we headed off to the Copthorne Tara Hotel in Kensington. Driving/riding on the wrong – er, left – side of the road is very very strange at first, especially when you’ve barely slept. There were a few turns around corners where I thought we were going to die for a second before I remembered where we were.
The other girl we met up with at the airport is actually going off to St. Petersburg, Russia – of the 50 or so of us in London, probably 2/5 of the group was headed there. Cannes and St. Petersburg seem like kind of unusual places to mix, but why not, I suppose!
Anyway, so after a brief welcome speech from our London tour manager, the 4 of us went to check into our rooms. Naturally, mine wasn’t ready, but one of the girls I flew with was in the room next to mine, so I went and waited there for a while, where coincidentally my roommate happened to be waiting as well.
After finally getting into my room and being able to drop my bags off, the girls from the plane and I set off towards Harrods, the largest department store in London (one of them had been before and really wanted to see it again). We managed to get a bit lost on the way despite knowing we were heading in the right direction, but to make up for it we stumbled upon the Natural History Museum. It started raining while we were in line to get in, and though I love rain, it was cold enough to make it sound a little less pleasant than normal.
The museum was incredible – their dinosaur section was particularly impressive. There was even a room with a huge animatronic T-Rex, which I was definitely not expecting and which maybe made sleep-deprived me jump a bit (or, you know, a lot).
We only got to see a tiny fraction of what was there, but most of what we saw after the dinosaurs pretty much consisted of a wide variety of taxidermy animals, which always fascinates and saddens me at the same time. We did, however, also see a group of uniformed schoolboys (early-ish elementary school?) on a field trip there, and while they were all lined up against a wall, a tourist family made their children pose in front of them for pictures.
It turns out that that museum is right by the Victoria and Albert Museum, which is basically an arts museum, so we stopped in there for a spell, too. Again, we only saw a tiny portion of what was there, but there were such beautiful paintings and sculptures, many of which had people sitting around them and sketching.
Since we had to be back at the hotel by 6 for a meeting and still wanted to fit in Harrods, we left shortly and managed to find our way to the store. To put it simply, it’s gigantic. We mostly wandered around the food area, where they were giving away a ton of free samples. My favorite was chocolate covered coffee beans, but I was a bit less impressed by some goat cheese that would have been great if it didn’t have old spots on it.
Sidenote, but speaking of coffee, I’ve had to drink so much of it while I’ve been here just to feel vaguely awake. I’m kind of amazed that I haven’t just started bouncing down the street from the amount of it. Jet lag is a vicious, vicious thing.
Back to Harrods – this one salesman who kept talking up his admittedly delicious looking chocolate covered strawberries was so excited when he heard our American accents. He started talking about how much he loves the States and how he’s been to a bunch of them, including California, Texas, and North Carolina. He even gave us free cherries as a parting gift.
We then embarked on the long, cold walk back to the meeting, where we learned that the flight to Nice for us Cannes people would involve leaving the hotel at 3:45 AM. Which honestly is just cruel.
My hotel roommate and her two friends (also Chapman/Dodge students!) and I then headed out for dinner and dessert, and we all crashed shortly after the last bite of crème brulee. I did my best to stay awake once we were back at the hotel in an effort to find some semblance of a normal sleep schedule, but I was fast asleep by 9:30 and stayed that way til my alarm went off at 7:30 the next morning.
After breakfast everyone went on an elevated bus tour led by the chipper and very endearing Sally Strange (which just might be my new favorite name). We covered so much that it’ll be difficult to list everything, but some highlights included passing a bunch of the theatres in West End, realizing that the exterior of the Australian Embassy is also the exterior of Gringotts in the Harry Potter movies, and walking by a pond with a bunch of geese and ducks and swans and squirrels. I also learned that the people I am travelling with are not exactly used to wildlife. Half of the group had to stop to take a picture of a squirrel (who, to their credit, did seem to pose for them), and at one point a duck crossed the path in front of us and people started freaking out. As in literally gasping and jumping back and nervously wondering aloud what the duck was doing. City folk.
We also got to walk around Buckingham Palace – some sort of event was going on that involved all of the female guests wearing very British-looking hats, and Sally Strange guessed it had to do with the 50 year anniversary of Churchill’s funeral – as well as by Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and into St. Paul’s Cathedral for a coffee break.
Sally Strange finished the tour at a little outside marketplace, and another girl and I wandered around it for a while and listened to some great street performers (a violinist and an opera singer!) before catching the tube back to the hotel. Neither of us had taken the tube before, but we managed to figure out how to get back to the High Street Kensington station without a hitch – it required transferring trains (tubes?) and everything! I’m especially impressed because I have been known to get lost in large stores, so the fact that I navigated an unfamiliar underground railway system is quite a feat.
We went our separate ways back at the hotel, as I wanted to grab a scarf and walk through Kensington Gardens, which was just a short distance from our hotel. I ended up spending the afternoon there and (I think) covered a good bit of ground. I am thoroughly achy because of all of the walking, but it was worth it. Absolutely gorgeous.
I started off seeing Kensington Palace (but no royals – alas!) and just kind of meandered from there. It’s fairly flat, so you can kind of see what’s out there in the distance and decide that you’ll start heading towards that statue or that building or that fountain.
I came across another pond with even more birds. A goose walked with me for a few steps, and while I can’t say that I’ve been particularly fond of them after one bit me at a petting zoo when I was a kid, this one seemed well behaved and rather friendly and happy-go-lucky.
There were dogs everywhere, and they all seemed so excited and proud, whether it was about the sweater they were wearing or the stick they were fetching or the other dog they were meeting.
I think I wandered into Hyde Park, as well, where I found Princess Diana’s memorial fountain. She had a memorial playground somewhere, as well, but I didn’t end up finding it.
On my way back to where I had entered the Gardens, I stumbled upon a little art museum called the Serpentine Gallery. They were displaying a limited time exhibit by an artist from the 60s, I believe. Some of his pieces included piles of ashes divided by bars, a suitcase that growled periodically and that gave me a good start, much to the amusement of the docent nearby, a dim light bulb in a hallway that symbolized dusk (or so said the placard accompanying it), and some chairs tipped over sideways. I guess it was very thought provoking and profound? There were a bunch of art students sketching a giant pile of crumpled up paper, and some of them seemed really into it while the others just looked confused by the whole thing. Guess which group I would be in?
It was after this that I noticed that it wasn’t as light as it had been and that it was actually pretty darn cold – walking everywhere makes you think it’s a touch warmer than it actually is. So I grabbed a quick dinner and a cookie and headed back to the hotel to rest for the evening.
Then, after a lovely wake-up call at 3 AM, it was off to the airport, where it started to snow while we were unloading our luggage from the trailer! It hasn’t snowed when I’ve been home for years now, which I’ve missed, so it was a perfect send-off before flying to the French Riviera.