I’m slowly but surely going to catch up.
I left the blue skies of Monument on the 6th of January. By the time we hit Castle Rock, the fog was thick and the flurries were coming. Cleared up a little by the time we got to Denver, but I did get the surprise of not seeing my flight to Edmonton, Alberta anywhere on the screens. Talked to the people at the desk to discover it’d been delayed by three hours, meaning I’d miss my connection to Heathrow. After a long wait and a really nice man’s help, I had to dash to catch my flight to Houston. Houston was completely non-event. The plane to Heathrow, though, was AMAZING. I ended up getting switched to a Continental flight, and they have got the hook-up. Each seat has a touch screen TV with 300 FREE films to choose from, plus who knows how many TV shows. I watched Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Good Will Hunting, and The Bourne Ultimatum, plus three episodes of Arrested Development. PLUS I had a nice chat with the girl next to me, who’s technically American but goes to a British boarding school. She was cool, and we’re now Facebook friends. Weird to think that I made a friend my sister’s age… I’ll try not to read too much into that. The man on the other side of me was British and friendly. I think he thought we were pretty silly, but whatevs. Needless to say, I only slept for about thirty minutes.
At one point I went to the back to stretch my legs and use the bathroom, and there was a guy nursing a drink and… lurking. He was about 5’6”, potbellied, curly dark hair, stubble, approximate age: 39. He was listening to his iPod and bobbling his head about. When I walked up he gave me the ol’ once-over, and then took his free hand and tipped it to his mouth, miming taking a drink. He accompanied this gesture with a little waggle of the eyebrows and a head-nod in my direction.
“Huh?” I asked.
“Drink?” he said.
“Oh, uh, no. I’m fine, thanks.”
“Why not?” he asked. Eyebrow waggle.
He looked briefly terrified. “Oh really? How old?”
“Well, you know, it’s, uh, law of the sea.”
“This is an American plane. It’s American law. I’m underage.”
“No! No! It’s law of the sea. We’re going to England, and it’s legal there.”
He took a lingering look at my chest region, which was displaying the Regent’s Park crest, and asked, “So, uh, where do you go to school?”
“Oxford.” When, oh WHEN, would the bathroom be open? What was taking the occupant so long? How was I going to escape?
“Oxford, huh? They got a good debate team?”
“I don’t know. Probably.”
“Uh, it’s Oxford.” I tried to let the elitism just drip off my vocal cords.
“Yeah. Well, law of the sea. Look it up.”
“Whatever.” I jiggled the door to the bathroom and it sprang open. Cool. I’d been chatted up for no reason other than blog fodder.
* * *
Once at Heathrow, I found the perfect spot at baggage claim and held my ground. I absolutely hate baggage claim. It’s some of the worst human behavior on display. You have every man on the plane standing three inches from the conveyor belt, crouching in a basketball defensive stance, ready to pounce on his suitcase as soon as it comes in sight. Not only pounce, but block every other person from even seeing what bags are coming around.
The place I picked was about two feet back on the opposite side of the chute. I was on my own for a while, then a man came and stood a couple feet to my right. We watched the bags go ‘round and ‘round, and then out of nowhere a chubby little man pushes his luggage trolley between us and parks it in front of me. Legit, I thought, if he’s just grabbing his suitcase. No. He was just parking. He stood right next to me, and I could tell he had greatly underestimated the space between me and the other guy, but I wasn’t about to budge. I earned this spot. You can move your stupid trolley. Finally, it dawned on him. “Oh!” he exclaimed. “Uh, sorry!” And he and his trolley rolled away. Victory.
After an hour my bag still hadn’t arrived. I was left with about seven people at the conveyor belt, and I suddenly realized that approximately eight thousand bags were piled against the walls. No. Please. I cannot wade through all of those and haul out my 61-pound suitcase. Absolutely not.
I wandered back over to the conveyor belt, and after another thirty minutes or so, the bags FINALLY came. I was so relieved, until I remembered how much it weighed. Then I kind of wished it had gotten misplaced and they’d have to deliver it to me later. Oh well.
* * *
On the bus to Oxford I used the free wireless to check my e-mail and saw that Megan had sent one saying it had snowed even more, and that I should probably call Rowena to see if she could come pick me up. Problem—my phone had no money on it. Also, it was dead. So I sent her a Facebook message and crossed my fingers.
When the bus dropped me off on High Street, she hadn’t responded, so I began the trek. Sixty-one-pound suitcase. Twenty-pound backpack. Ten-pound bag. Snow. No friction for the suitcase wheels. Effectively dragging a dead body behind me.
It’s a mile and a half to my house from High Street.
About three-fifths of the way there I was ready to quit. I had no phone, no cash for a taxi. No friends along the way. And my arms were completely numb. And my feet were wet and cold. I stopped next to a wall and dropped everything, trying to catch my breath. I mumbled some combination of prayers and obscenities, my mind absolutely fried.
Out of nowhere, a young man popped up in front of me. “You need help?” he asked in a thick accent, gesturing towards my suitcase.
“Huh?” I asked. This couldn’t be happening. Desperate, half-crazed prayers don’t actually get answered. Especially not mine.
“I carry your bag?” he said, still motioning.
“Oh, uh, are you going that way?” I said, weakly lifting my arm in the northerly direction.
“Yes, yes!” he said nodding with great vigor. “I go to Summertown for grocery store. I carry your bag!”
“That would be amazing!” I said, laughing in a burst of relief. I picked up my other bags and we set off. We tried carrying on a conversation, but everything was pretty much lost in translation. He asked me the same question several times, and I wasn’t sure if he wasn’t understanding my answers or if I was misunderstanding his questions. From what I could gather, he was from Bangladesh, and was getting his MBA in London. His purpose in Oxford is still unclear.
We finally got to my house and stopped at the gate. Unsure of the next step, I took off my mitten and shook his hand and thanked him as genuinely as I could. He wouldn’t let go of my hand, though, and kept saying it was so nice to meet me and he just loves helping people and that’s just the kind of guy he is. I eventually wrenched my hand away, and he said, “I can have your telephone number?”
“Oh,” I said, taken aback. “Um, okay.” So, long story short, I gave him my number, he took me out to dinner a few times, proposed shortly thereafter, and we’re getting married in the spring.
I gave him a fake number.
Then realized he now knows where I live.
We’ve never encountered each other again.
* * *
That night, I went back to High Street to pick up my darling friend Teresa. We’ve been friends since we were sophomores in high school (it’s a really romantic story- I’ll share it some day), and she’s studying in Italy for the year and decided to pop over to my land. I can’t explain how it felt to have such a beautifully familiar face in front of me in Oxford.
We ate dinner with some Jewell friends at the Red Lion, and then spoiled ourselves at G&D’s. At my house, we stayed up for a while talking, but by 11 I was falling asleep mid-sentence. Teresa graciously allowed me to sleep until noon, and we spent the rest of Friday roaming Oxford—cookies in the Covered Market, Blackwell’s, Eagle & Child, etc. At home we watched Lars and the Real Girl, and stayed up until 2. Whoops.
By 6:45, we were at the Oxford train station, ready to catch our train to York, which would take us on to Edinburgh. On the platform, the screen counted down until the train’s arrival, and then it suddenly said CANCELED. We panicked. It wasn’t anywhere on any screen. We went to the ticket booth, and the man informed us that we had picked the absolute worst day to travel—blizzards in the north were shutting down stations left and right. Through some kind of magic, though, he figured out that we could go to Birmingham and find a train out of there.
So that’s what we did. In Birmingham we had time to kill, so we wandered an amazing mall called the Bull Ring. Back at the station, we were flabbergasted to see that once again, our train to Edinburgh was canceled. The ticket people told us we had to catch a train to Wolverhampton—a train that was leaving in three minutes. We ran and found it, and as we went, the snow started. Flakes the size of quarters. But somehow in Wolverhampton we still got on a train to Edinburgh, and the scenery in between was mind-boggling. The hills looked as though someone had laid a white fleece blanket over them—everything was perfectly smooth, save for the few wrinkles in between the separate hills. But we also experienced stunning sunshine and fog and sheep—which, I understand, are not a form of weather, but they are equally fascinating. We napped and played Phase 10, and we finally reached Edinburgh around 3. We had no map, so we wandered the city for ages until I got the bright idea to call the hostel. We finally walked in there around 4—it was already getting dark. After checking in, we went to the National Museum for a bit because it’s free and really cool, but it closed at 5. So really we just played in the kids’ section and saw Dolly the Sheep. Her stuffed body is a key feature.
Upon leaving the museum we hiked up Calton Hill, which overlooks the entire city. The city lights reflected off the low clouds, making the sky orange, and I’ve never seen anything quite like the snowy mountains that stood up against it. We were the only ones on the hill, and it was perfectly silent, and it started to snow. We wandered around it, and as we started to cross through the middle, a fox ran across our path about 20 yards in front of us. Magical.
We got dinner at a cozy little pub called The Auld Hundred. There was a small area downstairs for drinks, and a bigger eating area upstairs. It was warm, and the waitress was really friendly and had an amazing accent. We ordered haggis fritters for a starter, and they were good. Then I had steak pie, and it was definitely one of those comfort foods you want to crawl inside. I was so full. And so happy. We wandered the city some more before collapsing in our hostel bunk beds and falling fast asleep fast.
* * *
Sunday was amazing. We got a cheap, but filling, breakfast at the hostel, and then we set off to find the Starbucks where we were supposed to meet our tour group. We had decided to do the New Edinburgh tour after someone recommended it. The tours are free—you just tip the guide whatever you can afford.
We found the Starbucks early and decided to explore the vicinity. Since it was a Sunday, most of the shops were closed, so we just peeked in windows. While looking in a stationary shop, a guy walked up behind us and proclaimed, “Happy New Year!” in a thick accent (sensing a theme?). He had his sunglasses sitting on his eyebrows and was peering at us from underneath them. He had really sticky-out cheekbones, and I would estimate his eyelashes to be at least an inch long. Probably early 20s, but all-around creepy. We said “Happy New Year” in return, and then he kept asking us questions, like why we were in Edinburgh and if we were from America and why we were in Edinburgh and also, why are we in Edinburgh? It was 10:30 am and I’m pretty sure he was drunk. He finally wandered away and we went to meet our group.
There were probably about 25 of us, and our guide’s name was Seth. The tour was amazing. It was just over 3 hours long, but Seth was hilarious and we saw cool things and heard cool stories and were astonished at the lack of Edinburgh-based Hollywood blockbusters. The place has some crazy history. Most importantly, we saw George Heriot’s School, which is rumored to be the place that inspired Hogwarts. If you’re not up on your Harry Potter history, Rowling lived in Edinburgh while she wrote the first few books. More on that in a bit.
At the end of the tour we each tipped Seth ten pounds, and it was well worth it. We raved about it for hours afterward. I don’t know if I’ve ever been that cold in my life, though. I couldn’t feel anything any more, so we went into The Elephant House—the café/coffeeshop where Rowling wrote the first two books! I could taste the genius in the air.
We got tea and cakes and just sat until we could wiggle our toes and noses once more. After that, we went back to the National Museum so we could see it properly, and we luckily caught the last day of a photo exhibit that featured famous Scots. Very cool. When we got kicked out of there, we did some shopping. Post cards, Iron Bru, Magnum ice cream bars, etc. Apparently I have family history in the Graham clan of Scotland, so I bought a little book on the clan’s history. We had to eat the Magnums in a Christmas shop because we weren’t brave enough to eat them outdoors. Commitment. We wandered some more until we found a restaurant I’d seen on TripAdvisor… Wannaburger. Judge if you want, but it was incredible. I had a BBQ Bacon Cheeseburger, and I could have cried at its deliciousness. Another trip to The Elephant House followed dinner, and we got fancy hot chocolates and played Phase 10. I won.
We played more cards at the hostel (I won) while we drank our Iron Bru. It’s the national soft drink of Scotland, and it kind of tastes like Dreamsicle soda. I really liked it. Seth the tour guide called it a cross between cream soda and crack.
We were exhausted from walking and shivering all day, and I’m positive I didn’t roll over, or even breathe, from falling asleep to waking up.
In the morning we packed up, ate breakfast, and were practically the first people at the Castle. Since the Castle is on top of a giant hill, the wind hits it from every side and it was SO COLD. Absolutely bitter. The Castle was really cool, though. There are a bunch of little museums inside, and the oldest building dates back to the 12th century. Unbelievable. When we went to see the crown jewels, one of the head docents took a special interest in us and told us all kinds of stories about how amazing the Scots are. He knew a lot. He was also slightly crazy, but it was a great experience. The jewels themselves were so cool and ANCIENT. As is the Stone of Destiny. Old old old.
After three hours, we left and got ourselves to the train station. We got food, and started the long ride to Birmingham. This ride was captivating. We went down the east coast, whereas we’d come up on the west, and for a while the only thing out the window was the sea. Green, rolling hills covered in fat sheep. Right next to the sea. I was in love. Once in Brummieland, we only had twenty minutes to find the bus station to ride back to Oxford. Miracle of miracles, we did not get lost. We did not miss the bus. We actually got to Oxford in one piece.
Next up… our day in London. Pictures here.