Archive for June, 2010

Change of Plans

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Today (day 5) I decided to stay in paris longer because i had been busy those two days and I knew I wouldn’t get to see a bunch of the things I wanted to. I decided to cut out Perpignan and take the night train to barcelona on the 3rd of July.

So i went to the train station to get a reservation but they were all booked because it’s the beginning of a big holiday for France. Damn! The earliest I could get anywhere south was Monday, so I booked that. More time in Paris, yay! Maybe I’ll take a day trip somewhere else, we’ll see.

Thought I’d let you all know that. I’ll update my itinerary accordingly.

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June 30th, 2010 at 5:21 pm

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Paris Day 4

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So Tuesday ended up being an Internet cafe day too. It was too bad I had to do that while in the beautiful city of Paris but there was just business that needed attending too. Also, I was having no luck with the couchsurfing requests. About 6 replied, all saying they couldn’t. Don’t know what my problem is but it was a little frustrating to not get any leads after spending hours writing 30 personalized requests. If I was a girl, I have a feeling it’d be a different story…

I also spent more time working on the blog. The hotel has barely operable wifi and I can only upload about 4 photos at a time or else the application freaks out. At 5 minutes a batch, it took some serious time to get everything posted.

Enough complaining. I’ll be thankful to have this detailed record later and I’m happy to share it with you all now. Anyway, it was about 8 before I got some free time. I decided to hit up the Eiffel tower, possibly eating dinner there. Of course it was touristé central and I took my place in the line for the elevator. Found out halfway through that they had reached the cutoff point for people going to the top, so I paid €3,5 to walk to the second level.

The view was quite awesome from up there! In the center of Paris, there are strict building height restrictions so everything (except the building that prompted the restrictions) is about the same height. Because of that, you can see the whole city, with church spires and domes poking out here and there. A couple blocks away there was a huge crowd watching the Spain-Portugal world cup match so every once in a while i heard a roar from the crowd. Wouldve been fun to be there.

So after snapping plenty of pictures from the deck and then from the ground, I headed off to grab some dinner. The place on the second level of the Eiffel tower had a set menu for €65 and I thought I could better spend my money elsewhere. Maybe lunch there later. It was 10:30 by the time I found a place but it was no problem getting seated. Parisiens eat late and there were even people sitting down after I arrived.

Dinnner for the night was an appetizer of Burgundy snails and then the main dish of heart of fillet of beef with fries. Snails were pretty good- no doubt due to them being soaked in butter. The steak however was the most amazing cut of meat I’ve ever had. Texture was tender but slightly chewy and without a single line of fat or gristle. Literally perfect and the seasoning was a light salty tasting thing that nicely brought out the taste of the beef. Now I’m completely spoiled!

Dessert was three fruit sorbets- raspberry, lemon, and strawberry. Again, absolutely amazing and a record-breaking taste for a sorbet. Such intense and authentic flavor it was unbeliable!

So that was a good way to cap off the day and I headed home. Went to sleep on a nice full stomach. Mmm. Zzz.

looking north and east from the second deck

tourism 2.0, god help us all

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June 30th, 2010 at 4:28 pm

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Paris Day 3

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The day was Monday and since the museums were closed, I decided to get caught up on my blogs and do some couchsurfing requests. I had seen an internet cafe when I was looking for a hotel the first night so I went back there. The lovely place, called Cyber Espace, became my planning HQ for the next 4 hours. I sent out bunches of requests, fixed my phone, which randomly crapped out the night before, and attended to other Internet-enabled activities. The pace was slow because french keyboards have about 85% of the keys in the same places but the others are put in random locations or require a shift key to access. It was back to hunt and peck.

After four hours there i was cross eyed and cross fingered and needed to escape. Back to the hotel room! But not before buying some small bottles of wine and a baguette for my hotel blogging party! Woot woot! Don’t feel bad if you weren’t invited, the guest list was quite short.

So I blogged my brains out and after making good progress, I went out for dinner. It’s always a treat in Paris cause you never know what delicious plate you’ll end up discovering! That night I ordered (completely in french, yay for progress) insalata rustica and scallopini something. The salad was beautiful and delicious and the main meal ended up being thinly sliced pork in cream sauce with pasta. I thought it was going to be scallops but whatever! Delicious all the same.

At one point in the meal, I paid tribute to the Zahl School of Etiquette and knocked my fork off the plate. It landed on the chair with a loud knocking sound and I swiftly rescued it, glad that it didn’t hit the floor. Immediately, the busy waiter brought me over a fresh fork and knife, just in case I needed one. Nice service, I thought! I like how the French pay attention to the small details and make sure your needs, even if only a possibile need, are met. So while I was thinking that was pretty cool, another waiter brought out an aerosol can and a napkin. I was completely confused until he made a srubbing guesture and I realized it was actually a can of fabric cleaner. Ooh la la! Very thoughtful of them! Merci!

So after dinner I just headed back to the hotel for more blogging. Then sleep. Ahhh, sleep. I should mention here the key to my sleep in the last two weeks. I am a super light sleeper and have trouble going to sleep with any kind of noise. I was wondering how in the world I’d survive for 6 weeks in the world of noisy hostels and thin hotel walls. Well the secret is a little application for iPhone called WhiteNoise. Just put in my earbuds, fire that up, turn it to “airline travel” and I could sleep at a shooting range. Hooray for technology!

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June 30th, 2010 at 3:37 pm

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Massive update complete!

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It’s been a while since I’ve posted up here, you probably noticed. Well through some Murphy’s law combination of iPhone issues, lack of wifi, and lack of time, I just couldn’t get stuff up here. So yesterday and today I devoted a lot of the day to getting caught up. Stuff has been added and or updated all the way back to my first London post. Thanks for reading and I hope to not fall this far behind again. unless I just don’t have wifi in a town, which will happen probably in Perpignan, cinque terre, and innsbruck. You’ll just have to trust that the updates will come. : )

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June 29th, 2010 at 4:04 pm

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Paris Day 2 (part 2)

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On with part two of the day. I met the old acquaintance, Anna-Marie, at the metro station. It was so good to see a familiar face and to get caught up. She’s been living in Paris for the last two years, studying art.

We got our tickets (free, yay!) and sat down. The hall was quite nice and I noticed the seat backs were completely vertical instead of angling backwards like American seats. Must be to keep people awake! Perhaps it’s another sign of how Americans like their creature comforts.

The concert was excellent! The program was lots of difficult music by Bartok, Szymanowsky (spelling?), and Schoenberg and the performers flew through it without a problem. Virtuousos indeed!

After the concert, we parted ways and I headed down to the Latin Quarter for dinner. The area is called that because it’s close to a university where they used to teach Latin. Not to be mistaken for Latino Quarter, which is what I thought at first. Haha. Anyway, I walked around looking for a good place to eat. I was stressing out again about having to interact with people when I can’t speak their language. I eventually found a nice French place called Le Pre.

Once there, I said bonjour and nervously tried to order in French. I ended up confusing the poor waitress so I switched to English and pointing. It was a little embarassing and I’m sure I was blushing. I didn’t really know what I was ordering anyway but it turned out to be a delicious ravioli with chive and shallot cream sauce. Ooh la la! I also got a glass of yummy Bordeaux red wine to go with. What a treat!

Like with breakfast, the food perked me up a lot. I had a moment of clarity when I realized it was actually so cool I was in this situation. In the middle of Paris, eating delicious food, and stressing out over my nonexistent French. The fact that I was even worried about it just seemed silly. I guess it was like wandering into a room full of priceless treausure and then focusing solely on not being able to polish the gold statues enough. A voice just said ” Look around man, it’s awesome just to be here!” True, I was very lucky to be here and that realization helped me to relax a lot.

I finished dinner with an amazing chocolate torte and paid the check. It’s nice cause the tip is included in the price of each dish, so you just pay your bill exactly and leave. No worrying about leaving 15% or 20% or whatever, no calculating or rounding up or down.

After dinner, i started walking around and passed by a church and followed some people in, just to check it out quickly. Once inside, the huge space was filled with beautiful organ music and I looked over to see a mass just beginning. Drawn into it immediately, I decided to sit down for a bit amongst the crowd. It was a magical moment, hearing that haunting and majestic music reverberate off the walls of the church. I thought about all the people’s lives that had been dedicated to this church and catholic churches all around the world.

Even just building the cathedral must’ve involved hundreds or thousands of people. The interior was beautiful and ornately decorated with sculptures, stained glass windows and murals. Being there seemed to suspend time and connect the distant past with the present and the future. Inside the walls, little has changed for hundreds of years.

Later i learned that the organ is one of the most famous of all the romantic era organs. The position of organist at st. Suplice is one of the most coveted out of any in the world. I could see why!

I sat in the Mass until people went up for communion and I decided it was time for this outsider to leave.

Next, I ran across the Luxembourg gardens, which were goregously decorated. Plenty of Parisians were sitting or strolling around, enjoying the evening sunset. I walked around for a bit, then took a moment to relax on a chair.

After relaxing and enjoying the beauty of the area, I explored some more and then decided to hit up the louvre and champs élysées, the most famous boulevard in Paris. It was magical just walking around and seeing so much history.

The Champs was clogged with toursists and outdoor cafes. My phone randomly stopped working so I didn’t get any pictures. Just google it and you’ll get an idea of its grandeur.

At the end of the boulevard was the arc de triomphe, a huge monument to the fallen soldiers of WWI and surrounding it was the craziest roundabout I’d ever seen. 12 different roads converge into this whirlpool of traffic. Cars enter the corcle, head toward the center and then go around until they reach their exit road, at which point they work their way towards the outside. It was pure madness. Cars slamming on breaks, cutting each other off, nearly t-boning each other. From my guidebook, I learned that any accident here is split 50-50 between the insurance companies because fault is assigned equally to both drivers for the collision. It’s the only place in France with a rule like that.

Since my phone was dead and it was getting late, I decided to head home and call it a night.

typical Parisian street

st. Sulpice

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June 29th, 2010 at 7:21 am

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Paris Day 2 (part 1)

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After a much needed night of rest, I woke up to my second day in Paris. I panicked at the thought of trying to speak French and getting around in a city where I couldn’t read much if anything at all. Part of me just felt like camping out in the room. I knew that most French people can understand English but I had heard they can be rude or mean to English speakers and even pretend not to understand it. I wanted to make a good impression on them, so I was placing a lot of pressure on myself to use as much French as possible.

I listened to my speaking French phrases application and tried to duplicate it the best I could. For some reason, my Spanish from high school was coming back stronger than ever and I kept wanting to say that instead. Weird how the mind works.

Anyway, I got my game face on and headed down the six flights of rickety spiral stairs to get to the main level. I walked into the main office and greeted the lady with my best “bonjour.” She returned the guesture and then I awkwardly broke into simple English. I wanted to get the same room for that night.

Through some combination of repeating myself slowly, pointing at the reservation book and nodding, I made my point and got the room again. Another €45 and an awkward “Merci. Au revoir (Thank you. Goodbye)” and I was happily out the door, relieved to have a place to stay that night. “see, that wasn’t so bad”, I told myself.

Breakfast was on my mind as I strolled down the busy street. A couple blocks up, I came across a long line of people standing at a shop showcasing delicious looking pastries. I took my place in the line and began dreading my turn to speak. I saw I wouldn’t even be able to point and grunt to the food items i wanted because the line went along the display cases, towards the register where the orders were placed. The whole place was in a rush and I felt like it was too late to back out now.

Up came my turn as the server quickly said “bonjour” and looked at me with sharp eyes, expecting some quick reply in French like the rest of the clients had done. I nervously and quietly replied “bonjour” and then had to switch to English. I said “could I have a ham and cheese sandwich please?” and it felt like I had just fired up a chainsaw in a nursery. I imagined everyone’s eyes darting toward me, the one who had just been exposed as a filthy, classless American, a touristé. Oh the embarassment!

Well it probably wasn’t that bad and after going back into the line and pointing at what I wanted, the server packed up my two items with a detectable level of frustration. Along with the sandwhich I got a delicious “tartellete aux pomme” or apple tart. I was still blushing when I paid for my food and settled down at a table on the sidewalk.

But after one bite of that apple tart, my embarassment started fading. It was the best pastry I’d ever had and it was hard to stay upset with something so wonderful in my mouth. Delicious sweet and soft apples, creamy vanilla filling, and crispy buttery crust filled me with delight. After a couple bites and renewed confidence, I got a café cremé, coffee with cream.

After that excitement, it was time to get on with my day. The plan was to meet an old acquaintance from my high school piano studio for a 3:00 concert featuring piano and violin. In the meantime, I was going to walk around the center of town.

The weather wasn’t too hot as I exited the metro station and walked toward the first thing that caught my eye. It was some old tower, surrounded by a nice little park. From there, I ran across a nice shop area. Mostly for sale were small pets, like birds, chinchillas, guinea pigs, and even chickens. It was fun to see the variety of people out and it was actually the first time I heard English since I arrived. It felt so good to understand what somebody else was saying that I felt like following them just to bask in that relief.

It was at this point it started to dawn on me that I wasn’t the only stupid, unrefined American in town. In fact, there were plenty of stupider (yes its a word now) and more unfined then me. I was comforted by that fact, as judgemental as it sounds. I didnt want to be the only turd in the punchbowl, if it helps you to imagine it that way.

As I walked around more and saw more Americans, more British and more Asians, I realized that I wasn’t the kind of tourist the French despise. It’s the ones who are completely clueless of the French culture, the ones who clog up sidewalks and block metro stations while gazing at a map or snapping hundreds of photos. It’s the ones who refuse to utter a simple “bonjour” and who go to a restaurant to order a hamburger. I can understand that the French, who are very proud of their culture and way of life, don’t like being bulldozed by these types of foreigners and why they develop a resentment towards them.

That helped me feel better but I still wanted to do my best at defying this stigma. Soon enough, it was time for me to head over to the concert venue, a place called “cité de la musiqué.” I’ll stop the post here and start with that in part two.

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June 28th, 2010 at 3:28 pm

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Paris Day 1 (half-day)

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The train ride to Paris was quite pleasant. We hurtled along at what must’ve been 120mph but the train suspension was so good, I felt almost no bumps or vibration. We went through suburban London before plunging into blackness. I was asleep before I knew it and woke up when the other passengers gave out a soft cry of amazement as we came out into the light again. We were in the French countryside, complete with French cows and French farm houses. Yet it was a familiar sight and was quite relaxing after the concrete jungle of London.

Before long, I was at Gare du Norde, the northern train terminal serving Paris. Around the station stood guards uniformed in camo garb, red berets and fully-automatic machine guns. And to think the French are a bunch sissies!

As I left the train station, I had no plan on where to go. No hotel was waiting with my name on their list and no couchsurfer was expecting to have me stay over. I was vulnerable in a town where I didn’t even speak the language. So I acted as any culture-shocked American would and dashed to the nearest McDonalds.

Actually, did have a good reason to go there. Most McDonalds have free wifi and I needed it to use skype to try to book a room somewhere. If worse came to worse, I could take a train to a small town outside of Paris and find a room there easily. This was an adventure of my own making and I felt more than a little stress over it.

So I ordered a big mac, of course, but gave it the French twist and got it with an herb salad and Perrier sparkling water. It was still embarassing to have that as my first meal in the city of gourmet delights. It seemed to taste better than an American big mac but that was probably just my imagination.

I called a few places from my guidebook had no luck. I also downloaded a talking French phrases guide and tried to drill the basic formalities into my head. It seemed ironic to learn “je ne parle pas francais,” which means, “I can’t speak French.” I could hear a voice in my head saying “but Monsieur, you just spoke French…..” Sorry, that must be the British sense of humor coming out.

Anyway, I felt like I had worn out my welcome at the mcdonalds so I decided to hop on a subway to the outskirts of town. I thought I’d end up in a small village with a quant little hotel just waiting for me. But when I finally figured out how to buy tickets and found a line that would take me to the outskirts, the subway passengers looked a little too rough for comfort. It mustve been a sign from when my way was slowed down for a second and I reached the doors as they were closing. I thrust my arms through the narrowing gap and expected them to spring open, like any other subway. Oh, they did not spring open, they just continued to clamp down on my arms unrelentingly. I was not getting on that train!

Thankful that I hadn’t gotten on that train, I decided to try a different direction. South looked good, for some reason. To make a long story slightly shorter, I ended up in Port d’Orleans, near the city university at about 10PM, looking for a place to stay. A hotel clerk recommended the area. I walked down the street for a ways, checking with hotels, but they were full or closed for the night. I passed a darkened park and thought “how long until I end up having to stay here?” Of course I could have spent $200 and stayed at a big tourist hotel in the center of Paris but I wasn’t going to give up that easily.

Thankfully, my persistence (foolishness?) paid off and I found a very nice Frenchman willing to give me a single room with “toilette” for €45. I didn’t hesistate from leaping at the offer and before long, I was in a shabby but wonderful room. I was just so thankful and relieved to have shelter that it couldve been in any condition or size and I wouldn’t have cared. It was time to call it a day!

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June 28th, 2010 at 12:23 pm

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London Day 3 (half-day)

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Today was my last day in London. I wish I had another day to spend here because there is plenty more I need to see. For my remaining time, I decided to visit the Tate Modern art museum. Housed in a repurposed power plant, it features modern British artists from the 1800s onwards. The space is absolutely enormous, as I hope you can see from the photograph. I unfortunately had to rush through because I was trying to make it to Paris before dinner.

We weren’t allowed photographs of the exhibits, so I’ll have to relay some of the highlights. There was a cool Andy Warhol room which was plastered in his neon cow wallpaper and had a few other crazy pieces. There was also an exhibit taking up an entire room which was just two very large woven pieces of orangish red yarn. One of my favorites was a beautifully sculpted Greek goddess covered up on her front side by a 8 foot pile of tattered, used clothes. It was called “Venus and the rags” or something like that. The juxtaposition of in-the-moment fashion versus everlasting art and beauty was quite striking. It was also just weird to see the two things put together.

After only an hour at the museum, I had to head back to the YMCA to pick up my luggage. I definitely need to go back to the Tate Modern. The National Gallery is also on that list, because I didn’t get to see any of its treasures.

With my stuff, I headed to the train station and only had to wait 15 minutes before boarding the 16:25 train. I was on my way to Paris through the Chunnel!

they’ve got some weird cars over here

train station before Paris

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June 28th, 2010 at 11:33 am

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London Day 2

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The day started out with a trip to the launderette. My 5 changes of clothes get dirty quickly and it was good to get them refreshed. In this hot weather, it’s not really an option to wear a shirt twice because it’s glued to your skin with sweat most of the day. It’s never fun to do chores when travelling but this was a must.

After that, I went to the Tower of London. It’s a castle-like complex that was built about 800 years ago to protect the new king of England. The native people weren’t too happy with his rule, so he had to build a tower, the White Tower, to defend against them. As the years progressed, two defensive walls and a huge moat were built around the tower. Kings and queens, as well as prisoners lived here for about 500 years.

I took a tour of the tower given by one of the Yeoman Warders, or as you gin drinkers may know, Beefeaters. They live in the Tower of London and while they use to serve the noble job of bodyguards for the royalty, they now are mostly just tour guides. Anyway, he gave a great tour, complete with stories of beheadings and tortures. It was amazing that the solution to many problems was just beheading the troublemaker, no matter if it was the queen or cardinal or political dissident. We ended the tour at a chapel within the Tower that held over 1500 buried bodies, mostly headless. Wouldn’t want to be there on Halloween night now, would you?

After the tour concluded, I went to see the crown jewels. The priceless collection includes the largest cut perfect clarity diamond in the world, the Star of Africa I, at 500 some odd carats in weight. In person, it looks like a dollar-store fake jewel because of it’s enormous size. Just unfathomable to determine it’s value when a single carat flawless diamond is thousands of dollars. We weren’t allowed to take pictures, so I’ll include some stock photos at the end. They are breathtaking!

After that brush with immeasurable wealth, I headed to the original tower itself. It was amazing to look at the stones of the building and imagine how long they’d been in that exact place, watching the world around them. Makes you feel pretty insignificant when you think about it.

Once inside the tower, I saw exhibits of king’s suits of armor and swords and muskets and mortars and cannons. Amazing that most of the ruling king or queens job was to collect taxes and fight wars. And how different is it today?

It was cool to see the same walls that once held royalty and to imagine what it mustve been like back in their day. Anyone in our day would think it sucked, but I imagine thy thought they had it pretty good. I mean, an indoor, side-venting fire place, how fancy is that? In another 400 years society will undoubtedly think the same thing and laugh at the way we lived. If we don’t destroy the planet before we get there.

After that, I visited the defensive towers which had been used to hold prisoners. On the walls of these towers had been inscribed graffiti and political/religious messages. Many of the prisoners were imprisoned here for their loyalty to the church instead of the royalty. One inscription said, “the more suffering for Christ in this world, the more rejoicing with Him in the next.” Some of them were elaborate carvings, like something you’d see in a museum, and it made me wonder what it would be like to be trapped day after day, working on a carving to pass the time and just making a tiny bit of progress each day.

I had already spent more time at the Tower of London than I intended so after that, I headed off across the Millenium Bridge on my way to the Globe theater. I wanted to see the museum of design beforehand but ran out of time.

As I was walking along the Thames, I ran across a free wine and culure festival for the wine producing region of Spain called La Rioja. I dropped in for some free wine tasting and music. The crowd was large and there were at least 40 different wineries offering samples as well as food vendors. What a cool event to just run across!

After that, I made it to the Globe theater just in time to get standing tickets to the nights show, King Henry VII. The theater is a replica of the original Globe theater that was Shakespeare’s favorite place to hold shows but burnt down many years ago. The play itself was so-so but it was fun to see the performers acting skills and costumes. There was also the bonus of live music to go along with the action!

After the show, it was about 10:30 PM so I decided to head home. But once on the subway, I started having second doubts about calling it a night. Eventually, I switched subways and headed toward a club called the Ministry of Sound. My guidebook said it was the mecca of clubbers worldwide so as a twenty-something male, I figured I’d better check it out.

The club was pretty cool. It was more like 4 clubs in one because there were 4 large rooms connected together that were each playing their own music and serving their own drinks. The crowd wasn’t too bad when I got there. I danced my way around and got a few drinks. It got kind of lonely though and I realized it’d be much more fun if I’d brought some friends to dance with. Next time….

After that I went home and crashed. That had been a very long day!

clean subways

mind the gap!

a defensive tower at the Tower of London

a corner of the White Tower

unrelated to the Towers history but on display inside it.

legend says this is the block and axe used at the last public beheading at the Tower of London

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June 28th, 2010 at 8:51 am

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London Day 1

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After a red-eye flight from NYC, I arrived in london’s heathrow airport. A trip through customs and a subway ride later, I was in picadilly circus. It’s a popular tourist place near downtown London and trafalgar square but it was uncrowded in the early morning hours. Looking around, there was no mistaking that I was in London. Small cabs and double decker buses zoomed down the left side of the narrow roads and old buildings lined the streets. The air was crisp and the sun refreshing as I walked.

A restaurant called Il Padrino caught my eye with it’s advertisement of the “full English” breakfast. I needed some food after that long sleepless night so I stopped. As I soon discovered, the full English breakfast consists of two fried eggs, toast, bacon, beans, and a fried tomato. That plus a cup of coffee and I was invigorated for the day.

I walked around downtown for a while and stopped in an Internet cafe to get the address of my hostel and to write a few couchsurfing requests. Couchsurfing is a cultural exchange program where people agree to host travellers for a few nights or more. It’s a great way to connect with the city, since most hosts want to show you around and help you have a good time. I hosted a few people in Seattle and it was a great way to meet interesting people. Now, I was looking for hosts in Paris. It was a little late to be writing them, but I sent off a few requests and crossed my fingers.

Then on to the barbican YMCA, where I was staying for the next two nights. The place itself was older but my room was large and on the 14th floor. After unpacking and showering, I took a much needed nap. It was only a couple hours but I needed it badly after being up for almost 24 hours straight.

Refreshed a little after my nap, I went down for the free dinner being served at the place. That sure was a nice perk after paying so much for food in New York!

It was around 7 when i finished dinner and stepped out for an adventure. I walked south, toward the Thames river and the center of town. It was a beautiful evening and London was awe inspiring. I could feel the centuries of history standing on each road. I imagined all the historic scenes happening like I’d seen in movies. I saw sherlock holmes dash into a dark alley and heard the clip-clop of a horse drawn carriage. As I looked at historic buildings, I imagined the scenes they had witnessed and the future they would be around for.

Here are a few of the pictures I took.

the old entrance to London city

St. Peters Church

the London Eye gondola wheel

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June 26th, 2010 at 2:22 pm

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