My apologies for not posting last Sunday. I know I promised a weekly update, but last Sunday was what we might call “stressful.” Anyhow, I have time to write today, so I am, and you’re just going to have to settle for that. So there!
My last post ended with a descent into slumber at the end of my second Saturday in Europe. As you will recall, we got back from a long-weekend trip to Berlin on that Saturday. As the sun rose on Sunday I was asleep. I slept until eleven or so, woke up, and managed to make it downstairs and onto the couch where I took a nap. Waking up about noon I felt mildly refreshed, and decided I was up to something fairly strenuous. I settled on playing Zelda. Around two the other people started to stagger down the stairs. Like normal people who sleep into the afternoon, we were hungry upon waking. Drew, having previous knowledge of a Podunk Kebab shack down the street, encouraged us to seek sustenance there. Straining with effort I managed to get dressed. We walked to 500 or so feet to the shack, went inside, and were greeted by an enthusiastic Turkish man with no grasp of English. So, the sign language began. After communicating the manner of Kebab I wanted, I stood to the side and waited for it to cook. You may be wandering, of course, about the nature of a Kebab. A Kebab is some combination of meat having been roasted on spit, shaved off and mixed with sauces and/or cabbage, and then placed either on a sandwich or wrapped in a tortilla. I, hating leaves, refused cabbage but did get plenty of sauce. I also got lamb meat. Along with this meal I purchased a 1.5 liter of cola. The total cost was only 5 euros! Friends, this meal lasted me two meals and cost very little! This is probably the most exciting thing I’ve come across in my trip so far. We have visited this place so often that the man now recognizes us, makes our orders from memory, and gives us free cookies. I’m not sure I can contain my excitement!!!!!! This place is AMAZING.
Sunday evening we went to church at the same place as the week before, returned to the apartment, did German homework, and went to sleep. Nothing particularly exciting happened on Monday or Tuesday, but Wednesday morning five of us departed for London while the other three headed off to Barcelona. This was the first travel break of the semester. The five of us (me, Drew, Jacqueline, Kyle, and Laura) left the apartments at about nine. We took the tram to the train station where we got breakfast as we waited for 9:55 a.m. to occur. At 9:55 a.m. we boarded a bus headed to the airport, I mean run-down air shack, at Altenburg. Altenburg is a city about an hour south of Leipzig and it has the distinction of being a place that Ryanair, the airline we were flying, actually flies out of. After arriving we checked in, went through “security” and waited for our flight to depart.
You should know some things about Ryanair. First, and foremost, their goal is to make money. I know I know, all businesses are in business in order to make money, but Ryanair has no inhibitions about their intent. They don’t pretend to care about their customers, they make no pretense about charging you for everything, and they couldn’t care less about your comfort. Examples include the following: You may not check a bag, any bag, unless you pay. You may carry on one item only. This one item has to be half the size that normal airlines allow, and if you want to take a purse or a laptop, it must be stowed in that one carry-on. Your carry-on may weigh up to 22 pounds, but in reality it must be lighter because the dimensions are so small. You do not have assigned seats, so it is a first-come-first-serve basis that you find your seats. I have no proof of this, but I bet that Ryanair regularly sells more tickets than they have seats for just so you have to pay a fee to change to the next flight. Once you take your seat, and I’m using seat here as a fairly broad term, you must compress your body into the three square feet you are provided for your flight. Of course the seats are not adjustable. Does the pilot welcome you on board? Nope, flight attendants immediately spread through the cabin handing out magazines from which you can by anything from food and drinks to perfume and jewelry. Perhaps the most ridiculous thing sold on the flight were little packets, like ketchup packets, each containing a shot of your favorite liquor. Seriously, who’s that desperate? Are there complementary drinks? Nope, but you might want to pay four euros for a small cup of water. The flight attendants never sit down. Instead, they walk up and down the aisle constantly trying to sell you stuff. There is also an annoying recording that plays throughout the course of the trip offering to sell you a “juicy cola.” Towards the end of the flight, after the black market of random goods has shut down, the selling of lottery tickets for a car begin.
After we landed and we finally managed to leave the circus show, we wandered through the airport until we got to customs. I think customs officers like to spend time messing with people. I got though just fine, but Kyle was stopped and questioned for a while about the nature of his business in the UK. I guess tourism isn’t a good enough reason? We next caught a bus from the airport (Stansted) to the center of London. We were dropped off on Liverpool street and found ourselves in a huge press of people completely lost. “Do not be afraid!”, I declared, “we are in a land where the common tongue is English.” Our goal was to make it to St. Paul’s Youth Hostel near St. Paul’s Cathedral. We went into a restaurant and asked for directions and we were laughed at. Apparently it would be far too long a distance to walk and should, instead, take the tube (underground). We made it into the Liverpool street tube station, purchased tickets that would enable us to get to St. Paul’s, and eventually found the hostel. That evening we went out and got dinner (fish and chips) and went to bed early.
The next morning Drew and I got up, made it to the TKTS booth and purchased tickets for a 7:30 p.m. showing of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof starring James Earl Jones and Phylicia Rashad. We then met up with the rest of the group for a walking tour of Westminster. Our tour guide was a Canadian expatriate who had advanced degrees in history and knew everything about everything we saw. The tour started at Wellington Arch, which is an archway that was put up to commemorate the Duke of Wellington on his defeat of Napoleon at the battle of Waterloo. Some interesting facts we learned include the fact that for several years the train from Paris terminated at Waterloo st. at 6:15 p.m. which, in European 24-hour time, is 18:15. 1815 is also the year that Napoleon was defeated at Waterloo.
We then proceeded to Buckingham where we saw the changing of the guard (not that exciting), learned about the political controversy surrounding the continued existence of a royal family (I’m a royalist), heard a story about an drunk Irish man who broke into the Queen’s bedchamber and had a conversation with her (pretty cool), and learned how Buckingham palace was originally the house of a duke, but since it was grander than the current royal palace (St. James) one of the Kings decided it should be his palace (good call). We then saw the palace of St. James (the old royal residence where H.R.H Charles lives now with his two sons. We then made it out to Trafalgar square where we learned how the mayor got rid of all the pigeons by feeding them contraceptives. We saw Downing street (we couldn’t walk down it because the wonderful Margaret Thatcher fenced it off back in the 80’s. We then made it to Westminster Abbey. Now this was an IMPRESSIVE building. The story goes something like this. Edward the confessor was invited by the pope to come to Rome on a pilgrimage. He woke up on the morning he was going to go and decided that the trip would take too long, and so he stayed at home. The pope told him he better come to Rome or he would be excommunicated. Edward said “please let me do something else”, and the pope said “fine, if you build the most awesome church ever and dedicate it to St. Peter, then I’ll let you off the hook.” Edward agreed, and he built Westminster Abbey. It was finished a few months before he died and he was buried in it. Since then, most English monarchs have been buried there and all of them have been crowned inside it. Edward built onto a Benedictine Monastery that was established in 960 and the building in its current state was begun by Henry III in 1245. Next to the Abbey is a church called St. Margaret’s. It was built by the aristocracy so that the poor people could have their own place to go to church.
Across from the Abbey is the palace of Parliament. It, like the Abbey, is of Gothic design. Our final stop on the tour was the place where Guy Fox and his compatriots were drawn and quartered. After the tour we went to lunch at a restaurant called the Texas Embassy. It had real Tex-Mex/Texas Barbecue food. We then went back to the hostel and got ready for the show. Drew and I made it to the theater and saw the play. It was amazing. Afterward we rushed out and got in line near the stage door and waited on the cast to come out. After waiting awhile, James Earl Jones came out. He got in the back of a car and rolled down the window and started signing people’s programs. He was very nice, but all I kept thinking about was Mufasa and Darth Vader. Drew even got into a discussion about ACU theater. After he left we waited for Phylicia Rashad, and she finally came out. She was very sweet and told us that we shouldn’t be standing out in the cold and the rain. Afterwards we went back to the hostel and slept.
I think I will take this moment to talk about what I would like to call “British Confusion.” This confusion is heavily related to British insistence on driving on the wrong side of the road. I think I could deal with that if they did everything on the left side, but no, a lot of stuff is focused on the right side. For instance, you are supposed to drive on the left side, but you read left to right. Also, you walk on the right side when you are underground. In fact, there are signs insisting that you walk on the right side. You also walk on the right when you go up and down the escalators, but going up and down stairs or walking out on the sidewalk you are supposed to walk on the left side. And then, of course, there were those times when all rules and regulations were suspended. This, unfortunately, was most of the time. On any street that was strictly pedestrian, chaos reigned. But the biggest chaos I have ever encountered, including the Berlin train station, was trying to get on or off the subway after 5:30 p.m. I learned very quickly that I just needed to shove my way onto the train and worry about the consequences later. Plus, the doors opened and closed automatically which meant that, sooner or later, someone was going to get a limb cut off.
We awoke Friday morning, purchased tickets for Les Mis, ate lunch, and then we decided to go see Avatar. Now, I know, I’m in London and I should probably see awesome London things, but I hadn’t seen Avatar and this was a place I could see it in English. That evening we saw Les Mis, and it was the greatest production I have ever seen. It was even better than when I saw Les Mis on Broadway. I cried a few times during the production and left feeling the most edified that I have ever felt. That night we went back to the hostel, hung out for awhile in the common area, and then went to bed. On Saturday we checked out of the hostel, went to Abbey road to see where the Beatles used to hang out, and then went off to do our own thing. I ended up getting lunch and then heading back to Westminster Abbey where I went to evensong, which is basically a worship and prayer service. They wouldn’t let me take pictures of the inside, but it had to be the most beautiful building I have ever been in. I saw poet’s corner where a number of greater writers are buried, I saw the memorials for numerous monarchs, and then I attended the service. The service was very High Church Anglican with all the prayers being sung. The choir that sang was also very beautiful. Unlike most Cathedrals that are open and airy, this felt like I was underground in some vast and beautiful subterranean cave. It felt very old, like it was over 1,000 years old, which of course it is. After this I went to the Globe theater, a recreation of Shakespeare’s open-air theater, but arrived just after tours were closing. I did take some pictures though. I also enjoyed a pretty awesome view of the Thames.
We all met back at the hostel at 6, except for Drew (he was watching another play), and got dinner at a nearby Italian place. We then went to King’s Cross where we took pictures at platform nine and three-quarters and then we went back to the hostel to wait for Drew. Now, you may be wondering why it is we checked out of the hostel if we weren’t going back to Germany until the next day. Well, rated double for Saturday night, and so we decided to stay out all night. Phase one of our plan: go to a midnight movie. So, we all (except Drew, he never showed up) went to see a movie. The girls saw that George Clooney movie, but Kyle and I saw Avatar again. It was just that good. After the movie we planned to go back to the hostel, but we discovered the underground didn’t run after midnight. So, our plan was to catch a cab. Um, that is way harder than it looks. We finally just started walking in the direction of the hostel (we got directions from a policeman) and along the way we saw a cabby drop a few people off and we managed to convince him to take us to the hostel. When we arrived (now 2:45 a.m. or so) we found Drew asleep on the couch in the common room. We debated how to get back to Liverpool street (we had tickets for a bus back to the airport at 5:10 a.m, but we were hoping to catch the 3:50 a.m. bus). We finally settled on a cab, called one to the hostel, and took a short ride to Liverpool street.
We got out, finally found the bus stop, and discovered that there was no way we were going to be able to take an earlier bus because they were fully booked, and ended up waiting for an hour and a half at a McDonald’s. It being about 3:30 a.m., the place is naturally packed with drunks who have the munchies. One of these esteemed gentlemen kept shouting stuff at us, so Drew, a rather large man, got up to ask him what his problem was. His response was hilarious. He said, pointing at his right eye, “I’ve already been punched here, so if you are going to punch me, please do so here,” pointing at his left eye. We all started laughing and he went away. Well, we made it out to our bus, made it to the airport, and went through security. However, the flight was scheduled to leave at 7:10 and we were running rather late. It was 6:55 when the nice security lady decided that Jacqueline’s makeup didn’t pose a threat. We flat out ran to our terminal, barely made it on the plane, and finally settled in for the same rigmarole we had on the flight to London. We landed in Altenburg, got harassed by customs as usual, and made it onto the bus to Leipzig. I think we all fell asleep for the bus ride back. We got to the train station, took our tram back to the apartments, and while everyone else took naps, I did all the homework I hadn’t done because I was in London.
This week has been interesting for a few reasons. First, it is the first full week of German, which means we have really been kicking it up a notch. I can now construct basic sentences on my own and have been able to make myself generally understood among the locals. Second, we have a new German teacher. Apparently they want us to have a variety of instructors, and so yesterday we said goodbye to Frau Smars forever and said hello to Susanne. Susanne is easier to deal with because she will explain things in English if we need clarification. Third, this is the first week where we don’t have trip planned for the weekend. I am actually going to be able to relax a bit from travel. Well, that’s about it.