Adew Dundee

Posted by Matt Thorenz at 1:25 pm on Tuesday, January 12, 2010
Filed under Uncategorized

I find myself at home among my family and friends; sitting in a room that had been left relatively unchanged since I closed the door back in September. My wall space is covered with high school plaques for outstanding achievement in foreign languages and math (which still baffles me) as well as an acceptance award for Phi Alpha Theta that takes pride and center among all others. But I lack a plaque (or a piece of parchment) for the greatest award of all. This trip changed me in more ways than one and have returned a changed person. Whereas traveling internationally was a (excuse my pun) foreign concept before; it has now become commonplace and not only do I now have the confidence required to get to the next level in life, but also new issues and problems to test me. If this trip was a course;  the true final exam was my flight home. Physically, mentally and emotionally, it tested the skills I acquired throughout the semester and from start to finish was a memorable experience on its own.

The morning of the 20th proved to be a typical gray December day. I awoke from a long night of packing on the Dundee Law for what would be the final time. My room was as barren as when I had first walked in during Fresher’s Week which seemed almost like an eternity. Like traveling through space; time becomes relative when you’re living abroad. What occured between our moving in to our final days all blended in together in a giant mesh of a great “happening”. We not only went to class, we went to other countries; we made friends from towns and  countries we had heard of and many more from places less familiar. We went to The Union Monday through Sunday and made sure to have the best times of our lives every time and to centuries old castles and museums that stored the cultural identity of a people we had lived with and among. But all of that was at an end and; slowly but surely, we filed off like rugby players who had just played the last game of the season. Our Scottish flatmate Lauren was the first to leave. It was hard saying goodbye to the person who had turned from a name on an envelope to our closest friend and the one we went to to explain all the peculiarities of another culture we barely understood. It was hard to see her leave, to all of us (especially Julie and I), we knew we would’nt see her next semester and she us. “Keep me updated on EVERYTHING!” she said giving both of us a good-bye hug. You couldn’t tell at that time but we were all fighting back tears; “You better visit us” we yelled before she walked out the front door to which she replied “Don’t worry I will”; I’m still holding her to that promise.  Two days before I had dropped Julie off at the train station in Edinburgh where she would take the bus to the airport and her flight home. I refused to watch the bus pull away and pretended to trick myself into thinking it was just like any other day; but it wasn’t the same; I knew she wasn’t coming back to the flat. “This isn’t a ‘good-bye’, it’s an ‘until we meet again.’ ” she said to me before getting on the bus; I’d like to keep that as my final memory of our time together over there. When I got back later that day, Andy and Ashley wanted to go into town one last time to do some Christmas shopping; which was when it started to snow. “Unbelievable!” Ashley exclaimed as the three of us walked through the blanket of white slushy snow that covered every inch of ground. It was a strange feeling seeing snow in “The Sunniest City in Scotland”, especially after hearing of it snowing at home as early as October. It was on our walk back that Andy parted ways with us as he had a 930 pm flight out of Glasgow that evening. Out of the entire group of study abroad misfits I had befriended, Andy was the one whom I had known the longest. We first met him in the terminal at JFK back in September and his upbeat attitude and offbeat sense of humor helped me overcome my pre-flight jitters he was always a welcome part of all of our trips and parties. Now he was saying good-bye to us on a cold snowy day. It was a brief farewell but I think when you already have accepted the inevitable and know you will come across each other in the same country once more; a handshake and well wishes for a safe return is as good of a farewell as any. Ashley and Jon left the next morning; hoping to catch their early morning flights before the snow got worse. The night before, we bid them and emotional farewell. We were all upset but Sydney was more so. By spring she would be the loan Study Abroad student out of the group left and my heart broke when she and Katie parted ways. For the entire trip the two of them had been as close as Irn-Bru and HP sauce even though they had never met before. Their friendship best exemplified the study abroad experience to me; here were two people (one from Canada the other from North Carolina) who became fast friends and by the end of our 4 month sojourn would have appeared to have known each other for a lifetime to the casual observer. That was how we were and for our flaws and faults we will always remain close for the rest of our lives; even though geography keeps us apart.

It was almost 10 in the morning when Sydney walked into the kitchen to say farewell. I knew this was it but it was dreamlike, surreal. After this I would be the last person in the flat, the last one to close the door, the custodian of the final key to our adventure. We hugged one last time and all I could think of was when we first met at the Welcome booth at Edinburgh airport our first day. She was shy and somewhat tired from a summer of travelling around the UK with her family. We were both excited when it was discovered we’d be flatmates. By now the shy girl I had met at the airport had become the person that would always look out for everyone’s interests and I had become the complete opposite of the person that pensively waited for our bus to Dundee that chilly September day. After giving her boyfriend a hearty handshake and a fatherly “Take good care of her”, they walked out the door and I was left alone. Five minutes after they left; I became acquainted with a new sound, silence. At first it was not so bad; after all I was used to having an early morning breakfast before my classes and would spend nights of seclusion in my room working feverishly on an essay or studying for an exam; but this was different. Then I had the security to know that there was always someone in the room next door, now there was no one else but me and my inner thoughts. After finishing my lukewarm omelet and getting dressed, I did some last minute house cleaning. It was then I looked out to the southern view of the Law and Dundee and I did something that I held back the entire week; I cried. This had become more than a trip, it had become a second home. I loved the people here, they were friendly and helpful. The friends I made understood me and my odd music tastes; and today I was leaving that all behind, it was official; the adventure was over.

Two large rolling suitcases, one backpack and one laptop bag equated to almost four months of my life. Feverishly I checked and re-checked every corner of my room for things I might have left behind, subconsciously prolonging my stay for a few more minutes. By the 15th time I was ready to be on my way. Unlike everyone else, I had to carry all my bags without assistance, and it turned a 15 minute walk to the train-station into a super-human effort. The elevator was my final farwell “Ground Floor, Doors Opening” said the pre-recorded voice as I made an awkward exit into the courtyard of Belmont Flats. The snow didn’t make things easier, the cold was biting and went straight through 3 layers of clothing like a knife through butter. There wasnt much ceremony when I dropped off my keys; although I remembered to keep the Tesco member’s fob as a cheap momento. Twenty-five long minutes later I was at the train-station waiting for the 4:30 to Edinburgh after walking through the slippery and gray streets of Dundee. The train ride proved uneventful and it was unfortunate that it was too dark to see; I would have loved to see the countryside one last time.  An hour later I was back in Edinburgh and saw that the winter festival was in full swing. Lights flickered in the dark as silohuettes of couples kissed in the dark and the cheerful screams of children echoed as they rode the whirligig and the two story slide; it was beautiful but my mind was on getting to the airbus on time. Next thing I knew I was at the airport getting on the shuttle bus that took me to the hotel.

“Are ya moovin house then?” the driver asked to which I retorted “No, I’m escaping”.  It certainly felt like it. The weather had taken a turn for the worse and my luggage wasn’t making things any easier. Thankfully the hotel (The Quality Inn at Edinburgh Airport) was a short 10 minute drive from the main entrance. My flight was leaving at 9am the next day which prompted me to book a hotel for the previous night. for $100.00 I had a king size bed, a hot shower and a complimentary shuttle to and from the airport; I highly recommend booking this place if anyone plans to study overseas; its worth the money. When I shuffled into my room I had enough time to collect myself and give the ‘rents a call home “Hi it’s me, I’m at the hotel, yeah, yeah, no I should be good for tomorrow, the snow is coming down hard now but will be passing soon, see you in a few hours.” That was surreal; “I’ll see you in a few hours”, last time I saw my parents was walking through the checkpoint at JFK and we had been seperated by an ocean and several timezones; yet in 24 hours we would be re-united. Maybe adjusting to home life will be harder than I first thought. I took in my last episode of Never Mind the Buzzcocks; fixed myself a cup of tea and tried to rest myself for a full day of traveling.

“Airports are finding it hard to keep with the weather as more and more flights are delayed and canceled.” was my morning alarm as the TV blared at 5:30 am. To my horror news was spreading of delays at airports around the UK, Europe and the US. The snow that had been blanketing Europe for the past week left many stranded in airports at Charles de Gaulle and Heathrow. The other day news of  the Eurostar disaster was making headlines around the world. In order to get home I would require a flight from Edinburgh to Paris where I would switch flights for JFK. I prayed for the weather to hold off and made my way to the airport. It being four days to Christmas, holiday music was piping in through the PA system in the main airport lounge. everywhere were students and travelers awaiting their flight numbers to be called with an anticipation similar to that of people watching the “Mega-Millions” drawing. “What if it’s cancelled?”, “Where do I go?”, “Will I get home in time?” were all things running through my head as I hoped my flight would arrive on time. While waiting I struck up a conversation with an archaeology student at Edinburgh waiting for the same flight as me, but her accent was strange, “You shouldn’t worry too much, sounds like you don’t live far” I said; “Well I’m from Southampton (England) but live in Rhode Island” she responded. Not that I’m close minded or anything but I had always clearly defined an “American” based on accents and language, but by now that barrier had been smashed and I by this time had slowly seen myself as a British citizen despite my background and language. The magic sign then gave up its secrets “Gate 9″ and I was off to the next stage.

After checking in my bags I wandered over to customer service to pay the excess baggage fee. There I met more students from the US and Canada flying with KLM. Unlike me they were going through Amsterdam to the US but they had the unfortunate luck of having all of their flights canceled on account of the weather. “What are we supposed to do?”, “Keep calling” was customer service’s only response. I felt sorry for them and at the same time fortunate that I was good to go with my flight. I had gotten texts the day before from Ashley saying her flight was delayed 8 hours and Jon’s was canceled; both flying out of Edinburgh, so you could consider the 20 min delay of my flight a blessing.

While I was waiting for my flight; I talked to a scottish woman who was sitting next to me in the gate. She had just gotten engaged to her boyfriend who was living in New Jersey and was on her way to see him. I asked if she planned on moving to the U.S. eventually and she responded with a similar enthusiasm I had when I thought about similar prospects in the UK. She loved New York City, and found America exciting and new. It was as if I was looking at myself from 4 months ago; excited about living in a new country and ready to be emersed in another culture.

As the plane taxied off the runway I tried to get a parting shot of Scotland; much to the discomfort of the old people who had the middle and window seats. They had no clue at all what I’ve been through, where I’ve been, what I’ve seen. Several seconds later we were taking off and I saw faces, cars and buildings become smaller until they were unrecognizable forms. 

We arrived in Paris a half hour off schedule; but I made the most of it by sneaking a peak at the Eiffel Tower from my window. Charles De Gaulle is one of the most confusing airports I had ever been in and is on par with JFK for being the most difficult to get around. Because we were late; our plane landed just outside the main terminal and a bus needed to come to pick us up. After that I had to find out where my gate was. the ticket said 72; but I was left walking around in circles; do the French enjoy confusing other people? Eventually I figured out that you have to take a monorail (yes a monorail) to the gate! Security didnt help make things easier either “parle’ vous Anglais?” was met with a stern “Non!” and the woman was asking me for something in French I had no clue what the word was. I pulled out my boarding pass in a fit of frustration and apparently that was what she needed. So much for 4 years of high school French!

The last leg of my journey went off without a hitch, although I have to say it was filled with its own peculiarities. Behind me sat a Brit with his two children on their way to visit family in New York and the habit of the Air France attendant giving the same speach in French, English and Spanish really hit home how big the world really is and how diverse the human race is.

My journey culminated with viewing the shining lights of New York City; the same ones I saw as we took off for Europe all those months ago. When we landed I was eager to jump off the plane and finally see my parents. Although I considered my time in the UK the best of my life; it felt good to walk through the US Citizen passport check at security and look at all the international arrivals across the hall “Where are you from?” said the security guard “Here, I mean New York” I said awkwardly; coming out of jetlag and travelling for a full 24 hours hadn’t helped my logic none “Where’ve you come from?”, “Dundee, Scotland”, “Study Abroad?”, “You bet”, “Welcome Back”. I waited expectantly for my bags and slowly got used to hearing american accents again. 15 minutes later I was good to go and walked through the meet and greet gate. At first I noticed the sea of people waiting to be reunited with their friends and family and then saw my mom race across the aisle and give me one of the tightest hugs I had ever recieved with my dad in hot pursuit. “Welcome home son” he said to me, “It’s good to be home pa, but you don’t know where I’ve been”.

Epilogue:

Our other friend Katie finally left for the US the day after me; and as far as I’m aware is safe with her family in North Carolina. Jen’s family came to visit her around the time I left and they celebrated a memorable Christmas in Scotland and Ireland. Laura was the last of us to leave; her Ukranian flatmate invited her to spend Christmas with her family and she finally came home around January 9 or 10. Julie, Andy, Ashley and Jon all arrived home in one piece; delayed or not. Sydney was still in London’s Heathrow for several days before she finally made it back to Vancouver. We all plan to reunite either over the summer or within the year.

» Comment on this post!

Souvenirs and Memories

Posted by Matt Thorenz at 1:21 pm on Friday, December 18, 2009
Filed under Uncategorized

As my departure date increasingly looms over me, I finally realized the weight of what’s happened in my life since September. Coming to a foreign country for three months isn’t exactly something that many people do at one stage of their life, and my own reasons for coming here were more than to learn the customs of another culture. My friends have noticed a change in me lately, that I’m not as talkative or energetic in going out than I used to, when you’re trying to wrestle the joys of coming home to your friends and family but at the same time leaving behind those who supported you in a new environment for a semester; you can’t help but be a little introverted.

Each passing day we share our experiences of our first night in Dundee and those few harsh days in September slowly come back to life. As we do this we take stock of what we’ve learned, who we met and all the good times we shared. We were set to re-enact our first days of kindergarten when we arrived in Scotland; the excitement of going someplace new, not knowing where your class is, taking those first few awkward steps onto a strange bus. As time progressed we grew into our lives here more; going grocery shopping at Tesco, visiting the Union for drinks with friends, and planning trips to discover what the UK is all about. By this point I’ve become too engrained in Scottish culture and society. I shop for music at HMV with my membership card, know where some of the best pub food is, can estimate our time of arrival in Edinburgh by bus or train and use slang several times a day (chips and all). Although my heritage is not Scottish, I’ve learned enough to make my way here without anything getting to me. When life gets to you, you accept that there are flaws, but instead of wallowing in them, you persevere. I think that’s the Scottish attitude to life because if you can imagine the weather right now; it isn’t what you would consider “tropic”, yet I see people walking around in t-shirts when it’s 0 Celsius and are perfectly content. But understanding the mindset isn’t the only thing I’ve learned here.

The other day I was cleaning out my room in preparation for my departure home. On the desk buried underneath my graded assignments and matriculation information were several American dollar bills that I had brought over as emergency cash when I first arrived. It had been a while since I saw George Washington’s face on a crisp bill; as I was more used to Adam Smith and Robert the Bruce when handling money. I picked it up and held it for a while. It felt strange, coarse and stiff; not like the paper thin Pound Sterling I had been using all this time. I was feeling things I had never felt before; a strange disconnect from the United States and for some reason sensing that when I return, I will be a stranger in my own home.

My friends from back home talk to me with an increasing urgency, wishing me a safe flight back to the United States and inviting me to a night out in New Paltz or Albany. In my communication with them I sometimes slip into British colloquialisms like “flat”, “Chips”, “Taking the Piss”, etc. I don’t do this to flaunt my worldliness; it’s just something that’s happened as a result of interacting with people from the UK every single day. Just as easily as I’ve forgotten what my national currency looks like, so too have I adopted the words of another culture.

When I said I was bringing home “Souvenirs” I did not expect to bring home the Scottish mentality to life, but here I am with a few days to go feeling more attached to Scotland and its people more and more. I don’t really know what the future has in store for me when I return, but what I do know is that my experience here has shaped me into a new person. I’ve become someone who has seen the world from a different perspective and force to look at his own culture through another and as a result has become slightly distant from his nationality; save the New York accent. I’m going to miss my friends here and the nights we’ve spent going to pubs and visiting castles. I’m especially going to miss my UK and European friends who’ve welcomed me into their lives with open arms and were willing to show me how to live life day by day. As for now I’m off to do some house cleaning and throw out the clutter of a semester abroad, but I am making sure that my final days here are lived to their fullest.

» Comment on this post!

Entry 13: Take Me Back Home

Posted by Matt Thorenz at 7:26 pm on Thursday, December 3, 2009
Filed under Uncategorized

The past two weeks have been introverted and pensive at most. As strange as it sounds, the more acclimated I’ve become, the more ready I am of returning home. Not to say travelling abroad and living in the UK is boring (far from it), but eventually when the once “new and exciting” has turned into the routine and everyday, it’s time to move on to pastures new (or in this case old). I was reading theentryof another New Paltz abroad blogger in China last week who said he was missing home, and am finding myself in a similar situation. This was the first time my family celebrated Thanksgiving without me; and come the 16th of December I wont be around for my own birthday. I miss my friends as well and any opportunity I get of chatting with them on Skype or Facebook has become the highlight of my day.

On the topic of friends, it’s funny to see how the flat dynamic has changed since all of us have first met. In the beginning, we left most of our personality flaws at the door in lieu of trying to be as pleasant and un-offending to one another as possible. However, after living here for almost 3 months; the “new car smell” of new friends wears off after a while and you slowly revert into the comfort zone you’ve enjoyed back home. Although this shows  you’re secure in your surroundings, it comes at the price of shocking your flatmates and Scottish friends. Case in point, although I’m normally quiet and have been labeled “nice”, I do have a crude and cynical sense of humor which made everyone take a second look at me. Another habit of mine is eating peanut butter straight out of the jar (I know its disgusting but it can’t be helped, I dare you to try), which I’ve been accused of doing in front of people who are visiting, but I could care less. The most notable “change” in my personality has been my introversion. Since scoring badly on my last paper, solitary confinement with my work and books has become my new life; where before I would never pass up on an opportunity to go out or travel. My door that was once open for people to converse with me is now closed to distraction and like a virus it spread to the other people I’m rooming with. Then again with finals just around the corner, it’s a fairly common practice.

What tires me most is the work; or lack of it. The hurry up and wait attitude of deadlines and anticipating grades. Our classes are finished for the semester and we only have our finals left. I have two timed exams next week consisting of two essay questions for each that will count towards 50% of my total grade; needless to say I wont be leaving my room anytime soon. Just as my friends have found reason to question my eating habits and social skills, I’ve eventually started to question the education system in the UK.  On the one hand, Dundee is a great school with an excellent History curriculum whose instructors are very dedicated and show a true passion for the subject. However on the other, I’ve had a pretty rotten experience with one professor and the system of lectures and tutorials to me is redundant. At least in New Paltz, we have lectures that include time for taking questions and going over assignments; whereas in Dundee, it is clear you sit in silence throughout lectures and then wait for tutorial for questions to be raised and answered. Since many of the classes are taught by more than 1 professor, it is frustrating to get a straight answer (many of them argue amongst themselves in class) so I’m often left wondering what I should write and did they answer my question. There is certainly a distance here between instructor and student and if you need help but this is more of a personal flaw on the part of the instructor as opposed to the whole system. Depending on your instructor, they will either be very open to talk with you after class, and others will just bolt out the door after lecture or tutorial and ignore you completely. Recently a friend of mine from Scotland asked me about how the university system in the UK compared to the United States and if I preferred one over the other. My response was that in the U.S. you get alot of papers, homework assignments and pop quizzes, but the teachers are willing to give feedback and work with you to personally to improve your skills, and the constant work keeps you busy and motivated whereas in the UK, you’re left on your own to do most of the work yourself which does help in you developing thoughts and ideals independent of the professor. Personally I prefer the US method because of the above reasons; which is not to say I’m not opposed to the UK design, its just not the right one for me.

Hiking Lake Minnewaska near New Paltz

Hiking Lake Minnewaska near New Paltz

Living the glamorous life; doing laundry and not caring how bad I look!

Living the glamorous life; doing laundry and not caring how bad I look!

» Comment on this post!

Entry 12: Loch Ness and The Isle of Skye

Posted by Matt Thorenz at 6:19 pm on Thursday, December 3, 2009
Filed under Uncategorized

A trip into the heart of the highlands with the International Cafe’. A weekend of visiting historic castles, long hikes and whiskey in one of the most picturesque areas in Scotland

The Five Sisters mountain range as seen from Loch Duich

The Five Sisters mountain range as seen from Loch Duich

Cori and Fergus, the youth hostel dogs

Cori and Fergus, the youth hostel dogs

Eilean Donan Castle near the Isle of Skye. Known as "The most photographed castle in Scotland" it was made famouse in the "Highlander" television series where the opening sequences were shot

Eilean Donan Castle near the Isle of Skye. Known as "The most photographed castle in Scotland" it was made famouse in the "Highlander" television series where the opening sequences were shot

The Isle of Skye is known for its unique geographic features. It was almost like being on another planet

The Isle of Skye is known for its unique geographic features. It was almost like being on another planet

Colorful buildings near the water's edge; Portree, The Isle of Skye

Colorful buildings near the water's edge; Portree, The Isle of Skye

View of the harbor; Portree, Isle of Skye

View of the harbor; Portree, Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye is well known for its whisky; due to the clean natural spring waters. Talisker Whisky is probably the best known and is locally brewed; albeit expensive.

The Isle of Skye is well known for its whisky; due to the clean natural spring waters. Talisker Whisky is probably the best known and is locally brewed; albeit expensive.

Urqhart Castle on Loch Ness

Urqhart Castle on Loch Ness

Inverness, on the northernmost fringe of Loch Ness

Inverness, on the northernmost fringe of Loch Ness

A parade marches across the bridge at Inverness to commemorate fallen soldiers

A parade marches across the bridge at Inverness to commemorate fallen soldiers

Inverness Town Hall

Inverness Town Hall

Because of its isolated location, the Isle of Skye is one of the few places where the traditional Gaelic language is still spoken

Because of its isolated location, the Isle of Skye is one of the few places where the traditional Gaelic language is still spoken

» Comment on this post!

Entry 11: Another Lesson Learned

Posted by Matt Thorenz at 10:27 pm on Saturday, November 21, 2009
Filed under Uncategorized

As you probably know, I havent been updating my blog with the rapidity and thoroughness that typified my earlier posts, however there is a good reason for this that requires some explanation. Traveling around a foreign country on almost a weekly basis makes you forget about why you’ve come here in the first place. At the outset of the trip I made it clear I was here for school and anything that happened afterwords was an extra bonus. But when you’re in the moment and living the dorm experience; when people will invite you to events on a random basis and you’re faced with the daily business of food shopping, house chores and cooking, its easy to lose the original goal you came here for. This past week was a rude wake up call.

Dundee has an interesting way of assigning and handing in assignments. For the first month and a half, I had absolutely no papers, no tests, nothing but reading assignments and note taking, and with only 5 hours a class a week! My flatmates on the other hand were handing in assignments on almost a weekly basis and fuller schedules; making me the laziest person on earth. By mid October this had changed: suddenly I was faced with a 1,000 word assignment and a 3500 word essay. For anyone reading this who thinks “why is he complaining”, you have to realize that since I was only doing readings for the past month, the last essay I did for a class was back in May for finals. Being in another country, with different professors who have different standards makes “getting in the groove” of writing a full blown report overwhelming. Add to that the traveling (in fact as we were in London, I was in the process of writing a paper).

Despite my initial difficulties in starting my essays, both were completed on time and handed in a week from each other; and for another two weeks I eagerly awaited my grades. The first paper I got back recieved an A3 (A-) and how happy was I that I was sure the next paper would do just as well! This sadly was not to be. We filed into class that day with high hopes of getting a decent grade on this assignment. However, as our professor handed back our papers it was like a bomb of melancholy had dropped. We all did poorly and I especially was shocked with my grade; I had never been so confused, angry and frustrated in the history of my academic career. Why had my one paper done so well while this one so poorly? After looking inwardly for a day or so I realized that the type of paper that was asked was something I had never really done before. It was supposed to be a critique of what I had learned in class for the past five weeks written in my own words with supporting evidence from the text. I have always hated writing about myself and as a result had a hard time contextualizing my thoughts. Compounding this was the traveling and going out with my friends. The dorm life experience was new to me as for the past 3 years, I lived at home and would commute to campus. Now in my senior year I had to catch up and as a result, my grades suffered.

As of now, I’m working on my final two essays of the semester before finals and just booked a flight to Dublin. Although my previous paper was a disaster, I’ve recognized what went wrong and am determined not to make the same mistake again. I’ve set daily page quota goals for myself in order to stay on task without overwhelming myself and have kept in contact with both of my professors. I remember in my introduction letter to the program I said I wanted to come to the UK so as to prove to myself that I can accomodate a social life into my academic life successfully and thus I feel that even though last week was a rude awawkening, it was another lesson learned.

» Comment on this post!

Entry 10: London Part III

Posted by Matt Thorenz at 9:50 pm on Saturday, November 21, 2009
Filed under Uncategorized

This is the final entry of our trip to London. Seeing as so much has happened in the interim, I can only afford to do a brief synopsis and let the pictures do the rest. We spent our day walking Carnaby and Oxford Streets; the main fashion districts of the city. Carnaby Street is known as the “Birthplace of MOD fashion”, a style popularized by The Beatles and especially The Who in the early to mid 1960′s. The street is charming and has plenty of places to shop but be prepared to pay a steep price! Oxford Street offers a wider variety of stores and styles but the prices are no different, and being there on a Saturday was a harrowing experience in and of itself! If you are a music geek like me, I recommend going to HMV on Oxford Street. Nothing I write can describe the amount and variety of music they carry. I even did a little experiment and went in search of several relatively obscure bands; the Field Mice, The Pastels and The Wedding Present and found all three with a variety of albums! What was strange was they carried music by “The Feelies”; an indie band from Hoboken, New Jersey who arent even carried in the United States!

We then ate lunch at Chinatown in London and it had to be some of the freshest Chinese food i’ve ever eaten; and this is speaking from someone whose been raised on it! After Lunch, we proceeded down Covent Garden where there were plenty of small shops and street performers to see. It reminded me very much like Greenwich Village in New York.

Our night in London concluded with a pint of Lager at a local pub with a couple of our English friends. A perfect way to end a perfect trip!

Carnaby Street Entrance

Carnaby Street Entrance

another view

MOD store

MOD store

Chinatown

Chinatown

IMG_2024IMG_2025

» Comment on this post!

Entry 9: Guiding Star-London Part II

Posted by Matt Thorenz at 12:20 pm on Tuesday, November 10, 2009
Filed under Uncategorized

Our first full day in London ended on a very successful note. We enjoyed some of London’s top attractions without incident and were able to navigate the streets of London without getting lost; and when we did miss a street or lose sense of direction, we the map we were given at the tourist office pointed us in the right direction. But we still had a lot to learn, about our environment as well as each other.

We were dead tired by the time we returned to our tiny room on Guilford Street. Our feet sore and aching and exhausted from a day of exploration and discovery, we took time out to refresh ourselves and settle in for a long night of playing cards before it came time for one of us to fall asleep; signaling the end of the evening. Suddenly we heard a knock at the door; not knowing who the person was (all of us being in the room), we curiously opened the door thinking it was housekeeping. However much to our surprise it was UK student who was roaming the halls looking for people to go on a pub crawl. For his sincerity and eagerness, the majority of the group (myself included) decided to hang back and call it an early night (hoping to get up around 8:30 the next day) while Andy went ahead and joined in the pub crawl. Over a half hour later Andy returned, with a dejected look on his face. We were perplexed because he was back so soon; but when he explained to us why it all made sense. Apparently they spent some time unsuccessfully trying to get others to join in this impromptu pub crawl; after which they took the tube to Leicester Square; at which time the organizer asked for five pounds for wrist bands before Andy decided to head back to the hostel. Note to all travelers, you’re not the only person who likes your money; people will take any advantage to scam you out of some cash, no matter how small. If the person organizing the event was able to get at least 4 people to go; he would have made almost the equivalent of $50.00 just by giving away cheap wristbands.

You should be wary of people who offer you deals that are too good to be true, they could be after your money. However there are some deals that are worth taking advantage of. The way we found out about the all day rail passes was from Andy who was given one for free shortly after he arrived in London. Since the rail passes are good until 1 am, when tube travel is at a minimum, people who no longer need them willingly give them out to others who do. Not only are the rail passes good to take, extending the offer is also a common courtesy. Other good deals revolve around attractions. Lucky for us, we had our London Passes which let us into everything we wanted to see, but if you don’t have one or go to a sight that doesn’t accept a London Pass, you could still get money off if you ask if the Concession price includes students. A Concession is anyone who does not fit in the price range of Adult, Child or Group, and can include senior citizens, the disabled and students. The concession policy may vary depending on site and in some cases you may need to pay the adult price; but this is only slightly more than concession. A good rule of thumb when travelling in general is to be a shrewd tourist. Make sure you research the prices of each site beforehand and see if the money is worth the attraction, at the same time ask if there are special rates that could benefit you in the short term and save you money.

Our second day in London started at 10; after grabbing a coffee and breakfast from Costa and heading to the tube station at Russell Square. Today’s trip would be to Big Ben and Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, Benjamin Franklin’s House and The Globe Theatre. Although the itinerary appears daunting, in fact many of the sites we only wished to take pictures of (The Franklin House and The Globe being the only two we wanted to tour). The tube for Russell Square dropped us off at Westminster Station; in the heart of the capital. As we walked out we were greeted by the imposing structure of the clock tower of Big Ben, with the Houses of Parliament behind and Whitehall to the right of us. Although “Big Ben” has been used in reference to the tower, it is actually the name given to the bell, shortly after the completion of the clock tower in 1859. The tower was designed by Augustus Pugin; who fell into a bout of madness shortly after completion of what would be his final masterpiece. The clock turned 150 years old on May 31st 2009 and today stands as a testamate to Pugin and Victorian engineering and Neo-Gothic style. The clock was meant to be an addition to the new Parliament; that had just been completed, in the same style. There is a wonderful exhibit inside the clock tower that talks of the history of Big Ben from conception until today, however we had a full day ahead and had a lot to do. Across the road from Parliament is Westminster Abbey; where the crowned heads of England have been crowned and St. Mary’s Cathedral; where the members of Parliament would go to church as well as the resting place of Sir Walter Raleigh after his death in the Tower of London. Unfortunately for us, Westminster Abbey did not accept the London Pass and with a concession rate of £12.00 (three pounds under the regular adult price), we decided to just visit the gift shop, St. Margret’s and took as many pictures of the outside as possible. Moving from Westminster Abbey, our group split up; Andy to explore on his own, while the remaining four of us walked through St. James’ Park to Buckingham Palace. St. James Park is a quaint outdoor park located just outside the gates of Buckingham Palace. Although we didn’t go into explore further, we noted the beautifully manicured gardens bedecked with colorful flowers and beautiful sculptures. Across the road is the Guard’s Museum which has many exhibits pertaining to the history of this famed regiment whose guards patrol Buckingham Palace and have become a symbol of British national identity. Several yards beyond St. James’ was the gilded gates of Buckingham Palace; the residence of the Royal Family. This palatial home was first built in 1703 by the Duke of Buckingham and later acquired in 1761 by George III.

Although King George had bought the home, he did not live in it (leaving it for his wife Charlotte instead). It was not until 150 years later that Queen Victoria became the first monarch to permanently reside in the home. The day we went the palace was also closed for some unknown reason; however the flag was at full mast showing that the Queen was in residence. To see this beautiful home and the surrounding gardens made me feel awestruck as it is a true symbol of the power of the English Monarchy; although its power has been limited over the past several centuries. It’s unbelievable that within a few hours we saw some of London’s most famous landmarks and our day had just begun!
Moving from British politics to American, our next stop took us to the Benjamin Franklin House on Craven Street. Between 1757 and 1775, Franklin lived in this modest three story brick home on London’s south east end where he developed some of his most famous inventions such as the Glass Armonica and Bifocals as well as harnessed electricity with his kite experiment. Ironically it was also here where Franklin fought for equal representation of the colonies during the turbulent years of the Stamp and Tea Acts and stands as the only home of Franklin’s that still survives.

Our tour started with a brief introduction by a docent and then a short film on the role of the home as a boarding house during the time Franklin resided there. Next we were introduced to a costumed guide in the role of the daughter of the housekeeper who knew Franklin who then led us through various rooms of the house which had films with sound affects showcasing each part of Franklin’s life in the home. The guide was excellent and played her role very well; it was all the more impressive in that she was in perfect sync with the audio so that it was almost as if she was interacting with the real Benjamin Franklin. If you are expecting a home with an interior decorated during the time Franklin stayed, you’re out of luck. Seeing as the home had been lived in by Franklin for an extended period of time and until recently has been turned into a museum, it is impossible to interpret the home at any one period of Franklin’s life, therefore the decorations are kept at a minimal, but the experience and tour are certainly worth it! My favorite part was seeing some of Franklin’s personal items; such as his bifocals, wallet and several letters written from the home. This house is a shining testament to the impact Franklin made on America and indeed the world.

After our visit to the Franklin House, we decided to head over to the Globe Theatre in Southwarke; but before doing so needed lunch. A few yards from The Globe Theatre is The Real Greek, a fantastic little Greek restaurant that serves authentic Greek food and delicacies for affordable prices. The souvlackie was great and proves that England is not just “Steak and Kidney Pies” and pub food. After a satisfying lunch we headed further back in time to Shakespearean England and the flowering of English literature.
Although the original theatre burned down in the mid 17th century, the reconstructed Globe was lovingly crafted using period construction techniques over the course of 27 years. This mammoth task was directed by exiled American actor Sam Wannamaker and would not be possible without a large amount of money from investors of high re-known to ordinary people. The visitors center shows how the building was constructed from the planning phases, to the completion of the thatched roof; as well as the many costumes, props and musical instruments used to bring the spectator back over 400 years to the time of Shakespeare. The tour then took us to the interior of the theatre itself and our guide was very knowledgeable and friendly. Walking inside the Globe was like taking a trip back in time with hand hewn floorboards, thatched roof and sturdy roof beams. The hand painted stage was the definite centerpiece; two columns made from single logs dating over 400 years old were turned into columns and marbleized using period painting techniques to add a splash of color to the stage. Figures and designs were also painted on and around the stage area (with trap doors to raise and lower actors where need be). One can only sit back and imagine being there in the early 1600’s and being astounded by the violence of Romeo and Juliet or the comedy of Much Ado About Nothing after paying an amount equal to a week’s salary to see it.

It was getting late by the time we returned once again to 21st century London, but we still had plenty to do. Next to the Globe and literally in front of the Millennium Bridge is the Tate Modern Art Gallery. This museum houses a large collection of modern, post-modern and impressionist art and has ongoing travelling exhibits throughout the year. The museum is free to enter and is open until 9pm; so if you see many sites closing after 6 but are still thirsty for more sightseeing than this is the place for you! Although there were plenty of van Gogh’s, Picasso’s and Dali’s, there was not enough to keep me interested; sorry I am not one who believes hanging silver with dental floss from the ceiling is a “juxtaposition of life and fantasy”, and the special exhibits did not accept London Passes so we decided to catch up with Andy and go out to dinner.

We met Andy in Trafalgar Square; he had apparently come across a free concert series at St. Margaret’s Church nearby and checking out the National Gallery on Trafalgar. We immediately began to scope out places to eat; all for naught as it was 7pm on a Friday night and most of the pubs were packed. In such occasions we relied on MacDonald’s; which serves food past 8 and gives a place to sit. There we deliberated over what we would see before the night drew to a close. Andy suggested that we visit the National Gallery; not only was it free, but also offered a wide range of art from the medieval to modern era with some of the most famous paintings in history on display. With that we quickly woofed down our “small Macs” and headed off for the museum.

Like the Tate Modern, the National Gallery was open till 9 and free. It also had a wider selection of art from all around the world and from all major periods of art history. By walking its halls one can view the major changes in artistic thought and creativity. My favorite gallery was the English masters of the 18th century. Seeing William Hogarth’s “Marriage Ala Mode” up close really hit home for me. As fan of 18th century culture, I’ve seen his engravings and paintings in books many times. His attention to detail and the way he designed his paintings as a series that told a story can be considered the earliest form of “Pop Art”. What’s more, my Julie; who had never seen his work, really got into the images and was curious with how the story progressed in each. It’s heartwarming to see someone who has never heard of an artist you like automatically get sucked into an image, it made his work seem new to me and I took each painting in.

Before visiting the National Gallery, I never thought one could fall in love with a painting; I thought art was something to be admired, to be studied and observed. I thought art was to be placed on a historic plane and compared; who influenced who, what image was groundbreaking enough to be engraved into national memory, but after viewing “Self Portrait in a Straw Hat” by Elizabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun (1755-1842), my views changed dramatically. It was just after seeing a grouping of Gainsborough’s in the English Masters wing that I decided to go on my own; while Jen, Julie and Laura took a break. As I walked into the French school wing I saw to my right I saw her. Her hazel eyes staring into me, her face with that welcoming expression of youthful curiosity and her right hand almost beckoning me, she seemed more real than just a painting, as if she was just standing there frozen in time. Le Brun had made a career of painting in the salons of Paris throughout the late 18th and early 19th century; even marrying a wealthy art dealer. By the time she painted her self portrait, she was 27 years old, but looked not a day over 20. It might have been the result of artistic bias on her part, but it nonetheless kept me entranced enough to stare at the painting for 15 minutes. I knew now why people find the Mona Lisa so entrancing, but to me she was nothing compared to the 1780’s painter in a straw hat.

By 9pm the museum had cleared out and we looked out over the lights of Trafalgar Square turning its fountains into a purple hazed light show and the column of Lord Nelson (who won the battle which the square is named after) silhouetted against the lights of Big Ben and mini-cabs. We took the tube to Russell Square and glanced at the postcard of the painting that had entranced me at the gallery until we arrived back at the hostel and awaited our final day in London.

Author’s Note: As I was writing this I drew a parallel between my admiration of the painting and love of living in Europe. I came here at first as a student who came for a specific goal of learning, only to return home in December to graduate. But with each passing day I’m falling more in love with the idea of eventually going to graduate school with the possibility of living here permanently. I dont know whether this is possible in the near future or not, but what is for certain is that night walking out of the museum i made a wish for myself; tossing a pense into the fountain. I know anything and everything that has happened to me up until now has been another checkpoint in moving towards my dreams. Anything I can imagine myself doing I know I can make it possible and that evening at the gallery changed me, it changed how i view the world and myself. With each passing day I am not only discovering a new part of my physical world, but also my inner spiritual world, and that has been the theme of my study abroad experience from day 1.

» Comment on this post!

Too Busy For My Own Good

Posted by Matt Thorenz at 10:47 pm on Sunday, November 8, 2009
Filed under Uncategorized
The Eddies open for The UK SUBS

The Eddies open for The UK SUBS

Hey Space Cadets! Well I have some good news and some bad news; the good news is I have just gotten back from an amazing trip to Loch Ness and the Isle of Skye and will be going on another trip to Edinburgh this coming weekend! The bad news is I haven’t finished my London posts nor have had the time to write anything new (on account of school catching up with me). I promise to have the final entry of my trip to London this week and to have Loch Ness and Skye by the beginning of next. In the meantime here’s some video of a couple of punk concerts I went to while over here! the first is from a UK SUBS gig I saw the second week I was in Dundee. One of the opening acts was a local band P.P.C. who played a phenomenal set! the sound doesnt do them justice! the second and third are from “From the Jam”; made up of original Jam mambers Bruce Foxton (bass) and Rick Buckler (Drums) with Russell Hastings on guitar and vocals. The night I saw them, the original drummer was ill so the drummer from Big Country joined in to back them up. The Jam were not your typical punk band and blended elements of R&B and old school ’60s rock and roll to ignite a movement known as “Mod Revival”. I’ll be seeing their ex-lead singer Paul Weller later on this month and will do a full concert review!

I hope this satisfies the hungry masses for now! Again sorry about the delay; but I promise to be squared away by the end of the week!

P.P.C.

From the Jam

From The Jam (Better version courtesy of daisydundee)

» Comment on this post!

Scottish Graveyard Slideshow

Posted by Matt Thorenz at 1:59 pm on Saturday, October 31, 2009
Filed under Uncategorized

In honor of Halloween, here’s some photos taken at various cemeterys we’ve visited so far!

Scottish Graveyards

» Comment on this post!

Entry 7: London Part I- written 10/27/09

Posted by Matt Thorenz at 10:59 am on Saturday, October 31, 2009
Filed under Uncategorized

When one thinks of London, they think of red, double-decker busses, Big Ben and friendly Bobbies going “pip pip” and “cheerio”. But these caricatures pale in comparison to actually experiencing this vibrant city first hand. To arrive at King’s Cross station at 9 pm after a 6 hour train ride, navigating the streets at night to find a hostel with only a cell phone for a map, climbing the top of St. Pauls Cathedral and having an order of rice with chicken and fish at a Chinese restaurant is to truly understand London in all of her complexity, spectacle and diversity. My adventure in London will stay with me not just for the rest of this trip, but for the rest of my life.

A large amount of time and planning went into scheduling our trip to London; starting with our “travel meeting” our first week in Scotland. A proper date had to be picked, a hostel booked and train tickets bought. The fall semester at University of Dundee does not have a designated vacation break like the spring term; but it does have a “Reading Week” that allows students a chance to catch up on readings and assignments. This break is not the same for everyone and falls on separate dates depending on what school you belong to (for instance School of Humanities Reading Week falls on the week of 19th October). We decided during our travel meeting that this would be the best date for those who wished to go for the trip and to ensure that the trip would not interfere with our studies, we decided to leave Wednesday the 21st, October and return Sunday the 25th; giving us enough time to hand in assignments at the start of the week and returning before class on Monday. We were going to be travelling in a small group which made planning and travel easy to coordinate. Julie, Jen, Laura and bought our train tickets together as well as a four bed hostel; ensuring safety and security.

When looking up hostels (especially in London), you want to ensure that the one you plan on booking is: safe, close to transportation and attractions. We used hostelworld.com to aid us in our search for the right hostel. This database provides a listing of hostels around the world with customer reviews, prices and booking schedules. First off, do not pick a hostel based on their website photos; which can be misleading and inaccurate. Instead give yourself the time to read the customer reviews with an objective eye. I stress objectivity because many of the negative reviews were written by people who had clearly never lived in a hostel before; complaining the beds were too hard and the showers were too small. Do not expect a hostel to be a hotel, a hostel is meant purely as a place to come back to at the end of a day’s travelling and nothing more. Concern yourself with questions such as “how clean is it?”, “Does it have indoor plumbing and heating?”, “is there a safe place to put my belongings?”, “how far to the nearest bus, train and underground depot?” and “is the price worth it?”. The hostel we booked was “Smart Russell Square” at 71 Guilford Street near Kings Cross Train Station and the Russell Square Underground. Our four night stay would cost about £100.00 which included a room for four with two bunk beds and a sink, showers with separate stalls, laundry facilities (paid for separately) and lockers (for an extra £1.50 a night). The hostel had everything we needed: Bed, plumbing, heating and location. In fact we were not too far away from the Charles Dickens House and British Museum; we now felt comfortable with our choice in hostel, but now that accommodations had been settled, the question of what attractions to see came up.

London has a wide variety of museums, landmarks and attractions, but with only 4 days to spend and limited funds we had to choose wisely. After doing some research, Julie came across a website advertising a “London Pass”; a card that lets you into over 55 attractions free and discounts at up to 64 stores and restaurants. The pass can be pre-ordered to be used for a day to up to a week for a nominal fee. As we were arriving Wednesday night and leaving Sunday afternoon, we chose the 3 day London Pass; which cost £56.00. For those who also wish to not pay full price on travel in and around the city, there is an upgraded pass that includes discounts for busses and tube trains; albeit at a steeper price. After ordering the passes, we set about creating an itinerary for places we wished to see. We decided on 10-12 destinations (which included the Tower of London, The Globe Theatre, St. Paul’s Cathedral and Benjamin Franklin’s House; all free with the London Pass). After creating the list, I looked up opening/closing times, special events and seasonal hours of the main places we wished to see; giving us the chance to plan out our days when before our arrival. With the Hostel booked, the train tickets in our pockets and London Passes only needing to be picked up at the nearest London tourist office, we were ready to head south of the border into England!

It was a cold and drizzly day Wednesday 21st October; certainly not perfect travelling weather. I had spent most of the morning putting my room in order, getting the last of my packing done and even getting a haircut. Several weeks prior I had bought a backpack from Mountain Warehouse near Wellgate in Dundee. The volume measured 50 liters and only cost £45.00; a good price considering it was marked down from £70. Mountain Warehouse also gives discounts after the first purchase of up to 10% so not only is there a wide variety of camping and backpacking equipment, but they come at a price cheaper than some of the other stores in Dundee. I figured 50 liters would be enough to get me through 4 days travelling; but to make sure, I only packed the bare minimum of essentials so as to make room for any souvenirs I was to pick up on our trip. These essentials included 4 t-shirts, 4 pairs of socks and boxers, a bath towel, a washcloth, 1 pair of pajamas, and a cosmetics bag that included a travel bottle of shampoo, soap, toothpaste, toothbrush, deodorant and comb. I also brought band-aids, ant-acid and cold medicine just in case of myself or someone taking ill. As an extra security measure; because as the cliché goes it is better to be safe than sorry, I placed luggage padlocks on the zippers that could only be opened by key. I would be wearing the same jeans and sweatshirt for the next several days and was willing to put up with it so much as it saved space in my backpack and thus be less cumbersome moving to and from the train.

Our tickets said we would be leaving on the 2:17 out of Dundee for Edinburgh; switching to another train bound for London. The trip would take about 6 hours, with us arriving at our destination by 8 or 9pm. ScotRail is very reliable and our transport arrived on time and with our seats reserved, calmly sat down and awaited the slight jerk of the train moving underway. The ride to Edinburgh was pretty fast; we arrived in an hour and a half and had 10-15 minutes to have a quick break before getting on the next train; which arrived on time at 4-4:15. Again we sat down and waited for the next long leg of our journey.

After almost two hours on the rails, we were getting pretty hungry; luckily the train came equipped with a café-bar that served sandwiches, coffee, tea and alcohol (paid separately). The food was decent; I had a toasted ham and cheese sandwich, water and a muffin (costing a little over £6.00) and was enough to fill me up for the rest of the night. It was at this point I really felt like the rail cards and train tickets had paid off. It was a real improvement from the bus rides we took in the past; not only was the journey smooth and fast, we also got luxuries that a bus could not accommodate for (aside from the odd restroom).Our friend Andy (who decided to join us last minute) was at that very moment in the middle of an epic 14 hour bus ride from Dundee to London (seeing it as a cheaper option), and the trip soon became an ad-hoc “Consumer’s Report” experiment in transportation. As we let our food settle I took a last glimpse at Scotland as we crossed the border into England.

Suddenly a voice on the intercom “Attention, café-bah now open in cah K”. The strange accent amused all of us; in the time we’ve spent in Dundee we had come across few English people, and those we met sounded nothing like the nasally “posh”; snobbish, accent talking to us at that moment. It was clear to us now that we had to deal with another culture; completely different from the one we’ve been living with for the past month and a half and welcomed the challenge with enthusiasm as we comically joked about walking up to someone and saying “ ‘Ello Guvna!”. We had officially made it across into England at Berwick-Upon-Tweed in northernmost England/southernmost Scotland and soon made it through Newcastle, Doncaster, York and made it into King’s Cross shortly after 9 pm; shortly after Andy’s bus pulled into the terminal. We jumped off the train, backpacks in hand and no clue where to go next. It was nighttime, we were in a crowded train station and no map whatsoever, it was time to collect our thoughts and strategize where to go next.

My first thoughts went to money. Although Scotland accepts English pounds, England (with the exception of certain stores) does not accept Scottish money; ergo the necessity to find a cash point (or “hole in the wall”) was vital; especially if we were to pay for the hostel that night with enough left over for travel expenses. After grabbing cash, we next needed to figure out how to get to the hostel. Jen and Julie both had the street addresses written down and; luckily for me, my phone had Google Maps.

After typing in the start and end points, we began our journey out into the streets of London.
We wandered around confused and frustrated for a good half hour. The map clearly showed an almost straight line from the station to the hostel; with the exception of one curve. But this turn was unknown to us because Google only bothers to mention major street names. I decided it be best to ask for directions to our destination. People in London are very friendly and if you have a problem with directions, they will be more than willing to help. We found a couple whilst walking around Russell Square (which was near the hostel to begin with). They took us from there and walked with us all the way to Guilford Street, talking to us all the while about America. We finally made it to our hostel; which was in a converted flat of apartments, and subsequently checked in shortly after we met Andy in the downstairs lounge. Our room was decent size and the matched the description and pictures on the website. The mattresses felt like rocks and the pillows I likened to plastic bags stuffed with newspaper; but what do you expect, it is a hostel and you won’t be spending your entire day indoors. I then took a shower in one of the public stalls. To save water and heating bills, the owners decided to use push buttons that you have to press and hold for the duration of time you needed to shower; at first I found this frustrating, but by the last day I had become accustomed to the awkward set-up. After getting our things in order, we tucked ourselves in for what would be a trial of our mental stamina.

The next morning we woke up at 8am; groggy, tired but excited to get our first daylight glimpse of London. After a quick breakfast we made our way to the Russell Square Tube Station that would take us to the nearest tourist office at Piccadilly Circus. Unlike New York City, the subway (or Tube) in London is very easy to navigate and after a day of travelling on it even someone as directionless as me was able to figure out how to navigate the London Underground. It is also extremely cheap to use; in fact if you arrive at the station around 9:30 am, you can purchase an “All Day Pass” for £5.60 which allows unlimited access to the Tube without paying for tickets! One of the strange things about the London Underground is that compared to New York City, it is very clean and doesn’t have the litter and graffiti you would find else ware. Instead you see beautifully tiled walls; and in some stations, flat screen projections. The one thing we universally disliked about the tube was that there was A LOT of stairs; most of them spiral, which gave us quite a workout jumping from one train to another. By the end of our trip we all assumed that we had burned off all of the calories we’ve consumed since arriving in the UK! When we exited Piccadilly station and entered London in a bask of light! All around us we saw the famed double-decker red buses, the small black livery cabs and grand Victorian buildings that look just as magnificent as they did when first built. We all looked at each other and just said “I can’t believe we’re here!”

After we grabbed our passes we decided to make The Tower of London our first stop of the day. We used the Tube for our transportation for the entire trip not only because it was cheap, but also because the stations were located near the sites we wanted to see; Tower Hill for example is located directly across from the Tower of London. We got in with ease using our London Passes and were happy to find out that we also gained access to a new exibet on the arms and armor of King Henry VIII. As we came closer to this imposing fortress, we were entering the hub of London’s history; this being one of the oldest structures in this historic city. It is unclear when the first structure was first built; excavations suggest the earliest was around the time of Roman Occupation. The River Thames offered the perfect location to transport goods from east to west and the fish that thrived there a ready source of food. The White Tower was the first permanent fortification; built shortly after the Norman conquest of 1066. The structure was intended to keep the populace of London at bay as William the Conqueror ascended the throne previously occupied by the Saxon King Harold. As time passed, additional towers, walls and buildings were added around the perimeter of the White Tower; turning the area into a fortified city within a city. Throughout the centuries, the tower has been used to fulfill many vital roles; such as mint, armory, barracks, royal palace and even a zoo, but none has been so celebrated as its role as prison and place of torture.

The first prisoner at the tower was Ranulf Flambard; Bishop of Durham, who was held captive in the tower in 1100 for extortion, however he later escaped and lived out the rest of his life in France. Other more famous prisoners included Sir Walter Raleigh (who established the failed English colony of Roanoke in present day North Carolina), Thomas Moore, Anne Boleyn and Guy Fawkes among others. We were able to tour one of the buildings used to house prisoners and one does not need to look far inside to come up close with history. Many of the prisoners spent months, years; and in some cases their life, locked away in cells such as the one near the Beauchamp Tower. To pass the time away as well as leave a lasting memorial to themselves, prisoners carved their names, messages, coats of arms and decorative designs on the interior wall. These carvings still survive today and it is amazing that after centuries many of the carvings are still legible and clear as they were written. The tower has also been a place of execution for a select few; the majority occurring at Tower Hill just outside the walls. Private executions were reserved for nobility and those who were close to the King or Queen. For example, the execution of Anne Boleyn was ordered by Henry VIII to be carried out within the walls of the castle; showing her respect as well as preventing her from becoming a martyr via public execution. There is a memorial outside the chapel of St. Peter Ad Vincular dedicated to those who died within the walls of the tower that is near the spot where private executions were held. However the tower served as more than a prison and the Royal Jewel House is proof of this.

I cannot begin to describe to you how awe inspiring it was to see the crowned jewels of England. With each reigning monarch, a new crown or scepter has been designed and crafted by skilled artisans. Many of the crowns, scepters and orbs featured one-of-a kind objects such as the Culinan Diamond that adorns St. Edwards Scepter. The diamond is a hefty 503 carats and weighs 106 grams and until 1985 was considered the largest cut diamond. That year the golden jubilee diamond was discovered and weighed in at 545 carats and 109 grams. Both are housed in the jewel house today. Other items include a gold coronation spoon dating back to the 12th century (making it one of the earliest pieces on display) and the crown and coronation robes (woven with gold thread) of Queen Elizabeth II. The golden light of the room left all of us speechless; I still could not imagine how much time and effort went into the creation of each piece of jewelry, they were true works of art. But the before being a prison or a jewel house, the tower was first and foremost, a fortress.

This year marks a significant event in the history of Britain; for 500 years ago, King Henry VIII ascended the throne to become one of the most powerful and forward thinking monarchs England ever produced. To celebrate this historic event, the Tower housed a collection of arms and armor belonging to this larger than life king. Not only does the exhibit show every piece of armor owned by Henry VIII, but also sets it up in chronological order; whereby one can see the evolution of arms and armor as Henry’s physical health changed. One of the most impressive pieces of armor was not even complete! Towards the end of his life, Henry commissioned a German armorer to create a fanciful suit that demonstrated his status and money. However the only piece that survived was a magnificent helmet shaped like a grotesque head, with horns, glasses and grinning smile. It was so lifelike, I felt as though it was human. The arms and weapons on display at the Tower of London are true works of art. Even if you don’t find military history fascinating, a stroll through the White Tower is a must!

After spending three hours at the Tower, we strolled to the nearby Tower Bridge with its trademark drawbridge as well as the battleship HMS Belfast. The area surrounding the Tower is filled with history and one does not necessarily need to pay an admittance fee to visit all of the sites. Across the river in Southwark we found the ruins of a 12-16th century manor house as well as Saint Mary’s church (dating to the 13th century). We also saw a replica of the Golden Hinde (the flagship of Sir Francis Drake; who in the late 1500’s was the first man to successfully circumnavigate the globe as well as help defeat the Spanish Armada which threatened England in 1588). However for all of our travels it was getting late and we wanted to visit one more site before calling it a night. That’s when we saw the dome of St. Paul’s Cathedral from the south end of the Millennium Bridge.

The year 1666 was not a particularly good year for London; as the previous year plague had killed off a large amount of the population and one year later a fire started in a bakery swept many of London’s old timber built buildings away. One structure that was hit particularly bad was St. Paul’s Cathedral; which burned to the ground. With the once tallest steeple in England turned to dust, a new church was to be built that would overshadow anything that existed their previous. Sir Christopher Wren was a scientist, architect and Renaissance man. His forward thinking concept for the new St. Paul’s was radical in that where as previous churches were constructed in the form of the cross with the steeple either fore or aft of the structure, Wren’s design would be rectangular with a dome at its center and the steeple to the western wing of the church. What Wren had hoped was to use the dome to transmit natural white light and transmit it throughout the structure; his inspiration taken from the workings of a microscope. Although his idea was controversial, the end result was magnificent!

The cathedral can be seen from quite a ways away and walking up to it inspires you with the ingenuity of those who built such a grand structure. This was the building that had survived four centuries and two world wars (the second war resulting in a famous picture of the cathedral surviving the flames of the Blitz). When you walk in, you are surrounded by sculptures and memorials of some of England’s greatest heroes and figures; including Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington who defeated Napoleon in the early 19th century. The dome is intricately painted and decorated with gold leaf and naturally we were tempted to climb all the way to the top.

This feat was daunting in and of itself because not only were there a lot of stairs but (like the tube stations), they were circular staircases. We first climbed to the Stone Gallery; which gives you a better view of the ceiling decoration. Note, this is not for the faint of heart or those fearful of heights. I was getting dizzy just by looking across the gallery to the other side, but on a personal note, although I was scared, I never felt so close to God. We continued up to the top of the cathedral which required more steps and this time they were narrow and appeared rickety in places. I (with my heavy backpack) had the scenario of me falling to my death every five seconds, but by the time we reached the top and went outside, I knew it was worth it. From the top of St. Pauls you get the most magnificent view of London in all of its glory. It boggles the mind that people living in an age without the high-powered cranes ; that now rise out of the streets of London to build ultra modern skyscrapers and knowledge of high strength steel could build such a structure that so modern and sophisticated. However after 10 minutes of wind beating our faces and with the sky getting darker, we decided it was time to ascend from heaven back down to earth and the subterranean world of the crypt.

The Crypt at St. Pauls contains many of England’s greatest figures of note; however the highlight of this trip was seeing the tombs of Horatio Nelson and the Duke of Wellington; who rose from humble backgrounds to become two of the greatest military heroes of their time. Nelson had defeated the larger navies of Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte of France; once in 1798 in Egypt (known as the Battle of the Nile) and again at Trafalgar in 1805; where Nelson lost his life. Nelson is best remembered for his undaunted bravery in the face of combat and patriotic zeal for his country. Having lost an eye and an arm in battle, Nelson had proven himself to be an able and intrepid young officer that raised the Royal Navy from the ignamony of the American Revolution to success and glory in the Napoleonic Wars.
Whereas Nelson was a victor on the seas, Wellington weakened Napoleon’s forces on land. After successfully leading the allied forces of Britain, Portugal and Spain in the Penninsula of Spain from 1807-1813, Wellington earned the title of “the Spanish Ulcer” by Napoleon himself; as Wellington’s successes drew more troops away from Napoleon fighting in eastern Europe. When Napoleon returned from exile in 1815, the leaders of Europe turned to Wellington (Tzar Alexander of Russia stating “it is now up to you to save the world”). With that Wellington fought and won one final battle against Napoleon at Waterloo (a battle which has been known as one of the most important battles ever fought as it changed the map of Europe for over 100 years). After the Napoleonic Wars, Wellington became a governor of the Tower of London and made significant improvements to its defences and established military men in the position of Yeoman Wardens (the famous “Beefeaters”). Later in life he became an advisor to Queen Victoria and held various posts until his death in the mid 19th century. I have studied as much as I could on these two men and their remarkable lives fascinated me when I was in middle and high school. To be so close to them, to see their tombs, brought everything full circle for me as a scholar and historian.

We ended our day by going to “Ye Olde London” a pub down the road from St. Pauls. I had a Welsh Rarebit on Toast with bacon and a Pint of Fuller’s London’s Pride; as London as pub food can get. It was one of the most satisfying meals I’ve ever had, mainly because of the amount of activity we packed into one day and; in a way, was a celebration of us making it this far. The next day would certainly not disappoint!

useful links:

http://www.hostelworld.com/

http://www.londonpass.com/

London Slideshow

» Comment on this post!

Next Page »