Thursday, January 12, 2012

Czarina Obviousa on World Travel

Three years ago, The Big One and I were fortunate enough to take a school trip to Washington D.C. This year, we were fortunate in that we took a trip to London with her school’s marching band.

This was a trip we had been planning since she joined the band in the fifth grade. The marching band takes this trip every three years and marches in the London New Year’s Day Parade. When I was single, it was truly a dream that both of us would be able to take this trip, due to finances, but married or single, I was determined to make it happen.

The trip was worth every penny.

There were about 140 of us on the trip, students and chaperones. That is an almost overwhelming number of people to move across an ocean, but everything was planned so well, that it was amazingly smooth. I had three girls in my group, including The Big One, and we had plenty of free time to explore London on our own.

We’d made plans as a group to see certain attractions, such as the London Eye (if you ever go on this, use the Fast Pass option so you don’t spend more time waiting in line than on the actual Eye), Platform 9 ¾ (Which is nowhere near the actual Platform. It’s outside of the station, across the street from McDonald’s) British Museum, Parliament, Big Ben, etc., but I think we got more out of just walking around and seeing where the city took us. We walked at least 6 miles a day, and discovered things like Goodenough College and St. Mungo’s.

We had structured tours on the coach (it’s “coach,” not “bus” over there) with our tour guide, Darling Nikki. Nikki was smart as a whip and even though I’m sure she repeats the same information over and over again, was enthusiastic about her presentations and answered everyone’s questions. I have to give a shout out to The Big One’s Euro History teacher, because at least one kid knew the answer to every question Nikki asked.

Our first coach tour with Nikki was a general sweep of the London high points. We cruised by the Royal Albert Hall, Grosvenor Square, St. Paul’s Cathedral, Parliament, No. 10 Downing Street, Buckingham Palace, Harrod’s, the American Embassy, Piccadilly Circus, the West End and ended up with a tour of the Tower of London.

The Tower was nothing like I thought. I knew it had been a prison and where the Crown Jewels were displayed, but I expected it to be more prison-like. There was a great display in the White Tower of arms and armor. We whizzed by the Crown Jewels on the people-mover so quickly, I hardly got a look at them, but was later told they were replicas anyway. We toured the dungeon and got some great photos of the Tower Bridge.

After our tour, we were free to explore on our own and got our first experience with the London Underground. We did pretty well, but did hit some hiccups getting back to the hotel because several of the lines were closed. We eventually found Platform 9 ¾, after some assistance from the very helpful transportation worker. We found ourselves on Carnaby Street and Soho and ended up in the M & M store. The M & M store is pretty much a huge tourist trap, and I was extremely disappointed they did not carry raspberry chocolate almond M & Ms.

The next day we got back on the coach and headed north to Windsor Castle. Again, we were treated to a history lesson from Nikki, and I still can’t believe she can keep all those kings and queens straight. We were able to tour some of the inside of the castle and I think everyone’s favorite was the princesses’ dollhouse. Even in December, the grounds were beautiful and think they must be truly spectacular in the summer.

When we returned to London, my little group had our time on the London Eye. I am a total tightwad about touristy things, but this was totally worth it. After that, we walked over to the National Gallery. We had a short time there, but I think we all got to see the high points.

That evening, The Big One and I saw a performance of Phantom of the Opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre. I’ve seen Phantom twice before and while I enjoyed those performances, it’s not one of my favorite shows, but because this was in a small theater or maybe because I was watching it with The Big One and it’s her favorite show, but this performance was amazing. We were close enough to see details and some of the behind the scenes work. The marching band’s halftime show this year was music from Phantom, so it made the event even more special.

The next day we headed north again to Stonehenge and Bath. Any photos or images I’ve ever seen of Stonehenge do not even begin to do it justice. It was everything I imagined it to be.

We drove from Stonehenge to Bath, and most on our coach fell asleep. The Big One and I may have been the only exceptions because we didn’t want to miss a minute.
We toured the baths at Bath and the town. I insisted the girls tour the Assembly Rooms, even though apparently The Big One and I were the only ones who’d read anything by Jane Austen. I got chills, thinking that JANE AUSTEN HAD ACTUALLY BEEN IN THESE ROOMS. And the fifth grade boy in my got the giggles because the Jane Austen Center is on Gay Street in Queen’s Square. Also, apparently, there was a pizza baker at the birth of Baby Jesus.

The whole city was beautiful, even on a drizzly day and unlike London, felt like a real English town, not just a business metropolis.

That evening, we met up with my old friend, English Boyfriend. We dated for about ten minutes in college, and he lives about 2 hours north of London. I hadn’t seen him in 26 years, and I learned it’s nearly impossible to find anything to wear that makes one look 26 years younger. He took us to Covent Gardens and met us the next morning at 221b Baker Street. That afternoon, the girls and I toured the British Museum, the Charles Dickens House, the Globe Theatre, the Tate Gallery and walked over the Millennium Bridge.

Our last full day was the New Year’s Day parade. The kids all got on a coach to go to the parade start site, and I sneaked off to get a few photos of Abbey Road. It started to rain about an hour before the band passed me at the end of the parade route, but I saw nothing but smiles on all the kids.

I’m so grateful we had this opportunity. I’ve dreamed of going to England since I was a kid, and am so glad I got to experience it with The Big One. She even actually wanted to hang with me on the coaches and tours rather than the other girls, so we really got to spend a lot of time together.

Here’s what I learned:
• No matter how old they are, you have to tell kids things over and over again. While taking a photo of No. 10 Downing Street, I had the follow conversation. FOUR TIMES. “What are you taking a picture of?” “No. 10 Downing Street” “What’s that?” “It’s where the Prime Minister lives.” REPEAT FOUR TIMES.
• No matter how old they are, kids are still going to get away from you.
• Even though Tourguide Nikki was cute, blonde, skinny and brilliant, she had bad teeth, so that English stereotype may hold true.
• Avoid Asian tour groups at all costs. Another stereotype, I know, but in our experience, it was absolutely true.
• Even if I walk 10 miles a day and eat nothing but sandwiches, I will not lose weight.
• It is possible for me to sleep sitting up on an airplane if I take enough Ambien.
• My 10th grade daughter will probably be fine in the world on her own.
• Van Gogh’s Sunflowers is much smaller than I thought. But it seems larger than life in person.
• The car-payment boots I bought were totally worth it.

And for the first time in my life, my mom was wrong about something. Wearing jeans in England will not make me look like a tourist because EVERY DAMN PERSON IN LONDON IS A JEANS-WEARING-TOURIST.