I can attribute my mild obsession for Europe to a story about a certain boy wizard with a lightning scar on his forehead. For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to go to Europe, specifically England. I knew my dreaming was folly when I was younger; I finally mustered up the courage to ask my parents if a trip overseas would be feasible before I left for college. Next thing I knew, a trip was booked for my aunt and I over Christmas break to tour the wonderful city of London. I was filled with excitement, complete euphoria filling me up to the brim. The sweet sensation of finally being able to realize that I was going away for a whole seven days in one of the greatest cities of the world. As soon as the trip was booked, I was making mental lists in my head of what I had to pack, where I wanted to go, what I wanted to see, what I needed to buy. I almost had the book the tour company sent us memorized to the last punctuation mark. I was finally going to Europe, and there was nothing that could stop my giddiness.
I didn’t start to get nervous about the plane ride until I was talking with friends a few days before I was to depart for England.
“Are you nervous?” one asked.
“No,” I said.
“But you’re going to be above all that water,” another said.
“What does that have to do with anything?” said another.
“It’s water. The plane could blow a turbine and crash in the Atlantic and she could drown,” the other replied.
“Nice, great way to calm her down about this flight,” the other said, a hint of sarcasm in her voice.
As truth may have it, I hadn’t thought about that, and from then on out that was all I could think of. I didn’t even think of terrorists hijacking the plane, and that was a highly more probable circumstance than crashing and drowning into the cold ocean. Of course, I was worried about the less probable. The sheer thought of an airline sending me back in a plain wooden box, dead to the world, before I even got to my destination. How disconcerting. Dead before graduation. I can hear my friends and family in my head, already forming eulogies for my funeral service.
“I’m not even going to be able to see the water. It’s a night flight,” I said.
“But now you’ve got in the back of your head that it’s there, thousands of feet below you,” said my friend.
“Great. Just great.” I could feel my teeth gritting as I said the last two words.
As it happens, I made it to London in one piece. It was smooth sailing over the Atlantic, only mild turbulence. I watched movies the entire way there, and ate what seemed to be the tastiest vegetable lasagna I had ever had; who would have known that airplane food could be so good! I had heard about the horrors of plane food before, but maybe it just dealt with American plane food. The Europeans seem to know how to cook a decent delicacy thousands of feet in the atmosphere. But, alas, the food on the airplane is completely besides the point. The point was that I was on my way to London, England. Even on the plane, I already felt the warm and welcoming feel of England. The flight attendants with their little hats and their brilliant accents as they asked me, a mere eighteen year old, if I “would like a spot of red wine for the flight, darling.” That was one of the things my friends told me I had to do: Get drunk on New Year’s Eve because the legal drinking age in England was eighteen, not twenty-one, as it was stateside.
Once we had landed and gone through customs at Heathrow (it was an enormous line–nearly an hour and a half wait) we grabbed a taxi cab and made our way to the hotel. As soon as my aunt and I opened the door to the room–and after a long, five minute quarry trying to figure out how to turn on the lights–we crashed on the small beds for a lovely three and a half hour nap.
The rest of the trip, even though it has only been not even a month since I have returned, is already starting to get blurry. There are a few specific things that I do remember quite vividly, though. On the first night with the tour group, we had a welcome dinner in this quaint little pub. I got the menu and was horrified. I am one of the pickiest people you will ever meet, food and otherwise. After interrogating the waiter on a few things on the menu, I decided on the ham. After receiving my dinner, I realized this wasn’t just any ham.
“Oh my God,” I said, the sweet ham rolling through my mouth.
“What? What’s wrong, it’s just ham, Hannah,” said my aunt.
“This. Is. The. Best. Ham. I. Have. Ever. Tasted,” I said in between slow bites to savor the amazing taste of the meat. My aunt rolled her eyes and went back to her own ham meal. It really was a good ham; it was like a Heavenly Ham, in the literal and figurative sense, coated in savory honey. It melted in my mouth with every bite and I barely had to cut it because pieces just fell off the whole with a scrape of my fork. The meal completed itself with spherical, miniature baked potatoes that had a light drizzle of butter on them and butter soaked cooked carrots. Out of all of the meals that I had in England, this one was by far the most satisfying. I can still, weeks later, taste that glorious ham. I had other good meals in London, but none quite as good as this pub ham. The ham in general, unlike other meats in England, was very delicious. The bacon, oh the bacon, was particularly good. It wasn’t the kind of bacon we had here in the States. It was Canadian bacon, but not the cheap Canadian bacon that we get in the States from the grocery store or on an egg McMuffin from McDonald’s. It was slices ham, cut off the pig like our ‘normal’ bacon strips here with all the fat and meat, but cooked how we cook bacon: nice and greasy and fried. That’s all I ever had for breakfast; sweet bacon and freshly baked buttery croissants. It was sooooo good! The bacon was even like that on the hamburgers which were completely disgusting. I have never had a more horrible tasting hamburger than I did in England. Aged meat does not agree with me; it was completely disgusting. I can also say that I have had enough fish and chips to last me until Lent starts again. Man, were fish and chips good. The traditional fish in fish and chips was cod or hadcock, and was completely delicious. A large fish fried to perfection with juices still intact, the meal came with chips, which aren’t actually chips as we know them here at home. Rather, they’re potato fries, which were rather good.
Shopping and sightseeing took up most of my time in London. Everyday, we saw something that I had only seen in pictures or on television. The second day we were there was when the heavy touring began. My fondest memory–and wow moment of the trip–is from this day. The tour group and I had come up from the Westminster Underground Tube station, and the next thing I knew, I turned around and–BAM–there was Big Ben, standing there, in the flesh. Not in a picture. It was just there, tall, telling time, and well, big. And the amazing part, it was only yards away from me.
London is known for the old architecture (which is why our tour guide called the London Eye the London Eye Sore because of its modernness). I found Westminster Abbey particularly interesting; although, it wasn’t nearly as big as I expected it to be, and frankly, that was disappointing. It was just a tad larger than St. John Church in Whiting. I was one of the very many who was up at four in the morning huddled under blankets in front of the television with Twitter opened to the royal wedding live feeds, and I was in awe at how huge Westminster looked. Camera lenses can indeed work wonders, even in the smallest of places. It was, however, very cool to walk down the same stone aisle that Kate Middleton walked down to marry her prince. Not only did I walk in the footsteps of Kate, but also the footsteps of Sir Elton John, one of the greatest musicians of all time, I believe. Elton John was present at the royal wedding in April 2011, as well as for Diana’s funeral in 1997 when he sang “Candle in the Wind”. As truth may have it, Elton John was actually upset that he had to sit behind the choir that marred the entrance to the nave of the abbey for the wedding.
“Why?” asked someone.
“Well, you bloody well can’t have two queens sitting within feet of each other, can you?” said our tour guide, Martin. Martin was from Wales, and had been employed by the Rick Steves’ tour company for quite some years. He was an interesting man, short and bald, and was a walking history textbook when it came to the history of London, England, and just about any other place in Europe. He had us running around London like mad men. Even though we took the Tube and double-decker buses to get to places, London was still a walking city–we walked at least twelve miles a day, which was very good in the sense that we always lost what we gained from eating and bad in the sense of my lower back, feet, and calves always hurting after being out for only a few hours. We would be making our way through the crazy streets (and they were crazy. Europeans drive on different sides of the road and the car) and we would walk towards the next stop, then Martin would backtrack through the group, his arm tucked into his side with his index finger pointed, a sly look upon his aging face and the next thing we knew, we were heading down a narrow alleyway or corridor with him telling us more tid bits of history or to point out the structure of a window frame. Martin, Martin, Martin, what a crazy old man.
One night we had a traditional fish and chips dinner at a restaurant in Covent Garden. With our fish, we were served two types of peas, mushy, as the English call them, and the regular kind we have here. I, not being a fan of peas, declined the green vegetable. Martin, who sat a few seats opposite me at the table, turned to me and said, in the way a mother would scold her child, “Now darling, how many times have I told you to eat and finish your greens? How many times?” I would laugh a little, along with the rest of the table, and Martin just smiled widely, eyes rolling as he served himself some more peas.
A few days later, another member of the tour, Meghan, and my aunt and I went shopping in Covent Garden. As luck would have it it started to rain, pour, rather, but that didn’t stop us from blowing all our money in the quaint shops and the flea market. I was also the one who dragged my aunt and Meghan in the rain to Waterstone’s bookshop to buy a few British editions of the Potter books.
“Why do you want them if it’s the same exact book in the same exact language as the books you have back home?” asked Meghan, with Aunt Rose nodding in agreement.
“The books were first published in England. I want them in their original format!” I said, trudging through the rain.
After I paid at the register, I found Aunt Rose and Meghan, who both said, almost in unison, “We need a beer.”
So we went back out into the cold and wet night, and then walked into the first bar we saw. It wasn’t a pub either, which you’d expect to walk into. So Meghan (who was Irish), Aunt Rose (full blown Hispanic), and I (a Polican–Mexican and Polish) walk into Cafe Pacifico: Mexican Restaurant and Cantina. Yes, there are indeed Mexican bars in England, not just pubs with age old whiskey and scotch. It was quite an experience, as I sat there with my quesadillas and glass of water while Aunt Rose downed a bottle of beer and Meghan sipped a glass of red wine. New Year’s Eve really gave me a taste of home, though. We ate again at the seafood restaurant in Covent Garden, and this time there was a live band playing. This wasn’t just any band though. It was the European version of Noll’s very own Arora, which is headed on lead guitar by my best friend’s boyfriend. They played all my favorite music–from Queen to the Blues Brothers to the Eagles. I had a sip of champagne before we left for the firework show on the Thames river, and it was disgusting. Completely and utterly disgusting. I am never, ever, ever, ever going to have champagne again. Yuck. Martin once again walked us all around London just to get to a decent spot in St. James’s Park for the fireworks. Eventually, we got split up from Martin, and my aunt, Meghan, Meghan’s father, and I watched the brilliant and mind blowing eleven minute firework show from the street that leads up to Buckingham Palace. I will never, ever view the Labor Day firework show in Whiting the same way ever again. Even with the Tube’s free access until four a.m. on New Year’s Eve, we still didn’t get back to the hotel until after three o’clock. Instead of going to Windsor castle the following morning, we slept until noon and went shopping again.
After a long, tiring, exciting, and fulfilling seven days, I was more than ready to head home to my family and friends, who had surprisingly missed me; I received a number of Facebook posts, one of which said, “It’s like you have died.” I laughed, because this was in reference to my constant need to update the blue and white social networking site twenty four-seven. I watched three more movies on the ride home, and was more worried about crashing into Iceland, Canada and polar bears rather than terrorists holding me at gun point. I was so happy after customs said “Welcome home” at O’Hare. We got our baggage and made our way for the bus, but not before I could find what was left of my American money so I could get myself a good old fashioned McDonald’s cheeseburger.