Sunday, October 27, 2013

Livolyn's UK Adventure, Part 1

This one time, I went to England and Ireland and Scotland with my best friend from college.
It was awesome. A real game changer.

We planned it together from the day I graduated UNC, one year before Carolyn did. A year and a half later, I was standing in Chicago O'Hare with my camera ready to catch a picture of her walking off the plane from Raleigh. We lucked out because the cheapest flight for both of us was also the one that routed us both directly through O'Hare. There was just a simple matter of convincing some passengers to rearrange themselves so we could sit together on the flight to Dublin.

Standing there waiting, I realized I couldn't remember when we had picked Ireland for our destination, or when we had even decided that this was a thing we had to do. It felt like it was something we'd always known would happen. Like destiny. We reached our gate for Dublin, and a happy Irishman with a big belly and a beer in his hand was regaling other travelers with a story of how he met his wife, sitting right next to him. Our ears were drawn in by his delicious accent, and we turned to each other grinning, no need to say it out loud because we saw the same excitement in each other's eyes -- we get to hear this for two weeks! 

That feeling of destiny melted away when we got off the plane in Dublin, bleary eyed but excited, and Carolyn's bag never appeared at the baggage claim. We reported it missing and left the hostel address with the airline, but had a sinking feeling that she would never see her bag again, at least not during the trip.

But strangely enough, it's as if Carolyn knew that was going to happen, because she packed her carry-on bag perfectly -- a change of clothes, her camera and extra lens, toiletries, and even our gifts for our hosts. We hopped directly on a bus to our hostel, and met the first of many bus drivers who would go out of his way to help us. We asked him to let us know when he got to the stop near our hostel, and he said no problem. On the bus ride, a teenager noticed our big packs and asked where we were from. He was curious why we'd chosen to come to Ireland, which I thought was funny, since just about everyone in the U.S. dreams of visiting the British Isles some day. He asked how expensive it was to take a trip like ours, and we said not too bad because we were going to keep the food expenses cheap by going to grocery stores.He answered with something that turned into one of many themes of our trip: "Hunger is the best spice."

The bus driver dropped us off in front of our hostel, calling out the name of the hostel to make sure we didn't miss the stop. Exhausted from the flight, we thanked him and stumbled into the hostel to check in. But they wouldn't let us into our room -- a 16 bed dorm -- until 2 p.m., and we had three hours to kill. So we took a free walking tour, and I think the highlight for both of us was our guide Sinead's accent. That afternoon we finally got to take a nap, and we were both already thinking in Sinead's accent.

Our roommates started trickling back in just as we were resurfacing from naps into a drowsy late afternoon haze, our bodies completely confused on the time zone. We had some Frenchies, some Americans, some Germans and some Danes in our room. From eavesdropping, we figured out they all planned to hang out together before going out that evening, so we planned to tag along. But first, we needed to take out some cash, to be prepared for the rest of our trip. We marched down to the nearest ATM. After waiting for one person to finish ahead of us, I confidently stuck my debit card into the machine, and it, in turn, proceeded to confidently chew, swallow and digest my card, with no apologies whatsoever. I looked at Carolyn, panic-stricken. I need that!

I mashed all the buttons on the machine, but it was unrelenting. Two Irish travelers stood in line behind us and asked what was the matter. We explained, and they immediately offered phones to let us call the bank, or the police, and tried to coax the machine into regurgitating my card. But it was useless. The machine, satiated from munching on my card, declared itself out of order. We thanked them for their help, and went to find a grocery store that accepted credit cards to get maybe some dry bread and cheap meat to soothe our growling bellies. We didn't feel up to a fancy dinner, and we had no cash.

Back at the hostel, I moistened my bread with a few tears that seeped out despite all my willpower being focused on not crying. This is vacation. You have fun on vacation. There's no crying in baseball!!!!

We pulled ourselves together, cleaned up from dinner, and set out to make some hostel friends with a deck of cards, a bottle of wine and a single die. We taught some Spaniards my favorite card game, Hijack (I have actually explained this game in this post), and then as the group grew bigger, we brought out my favorite game, Dare Dice. You simply take turns rolling the die and daring your friends to do something entertaining. If the die rolls on the number you guessed, they're obligated to perform the task. For example, if I roll a 4, Carolyn has to spin around in a circle 20 times and then give a stranger a hug. The more creative, the better. Unfortunately, this crowd severely lacked creativity, and the game died out in favor of some more efficient pre-gaming exercises. But as the self-proclaimed international ambassador of Dare Dice, I felt like I had done my part to evangelize the European continent. Carolyn went to bed early, but I went out with the boys to experience a Saturday night in Dublin. It did not disappoint.

Day 2:
We discovered a few great tips for traveling Europe on day two in Dublin. First, if you want to see the inside of a cathedral, time your visit during a service involving a choir. The acoustics will blow your mind, and you won't pay admission. Second, a break for tea and scones is always a wise decision. Our first experience with this was at Queen of Tarts, a homey little cafe with delicious scones and tarts, and tables so close together you felt comfortable enough with the people next to you to ask how the raspberry tart tastes. Third, when planning a visit to a tall viewing point in a city, try to get there at golden hour and stay through sunset.

Our last destination in Dublin was the Guinness Storehouse, and after wandering through five floors of Guinness facts, lore and trivia, we headed up to the Gravity Bar, perched atop the museum to afford 360 degree views of the city and the mountains to the south. We stalked a group who looked ready to leave and swiped their seats before their butt impressions had even faded. Once we had both finished our complimentary pints of Guinness, we were reluctant to leave the lovely view, and the free Wi-Fi. Since the Guinness comes with the price of your ticket, many visitors get to the top of the museum only to find out they don't actually like Guinness, so they abandon their glasses after one sip. One such pint sat forlornly on the table by our chairs. I watched it, and it watched me. Finally I could take it no longer, and Carolyn deftly swiped it, shielded it with her body, and poured it into her now empty glass.

We thought we'd gotten away with it, and we both took a triumphant sip, but then a British guy with a keen sense of humor turned over his shoulder and said, "I saw that."
"We didn't want to get any germs!" we said.
"Eh, you can't get AIDS that way," he said, laughing.

That night back at the hostel I had to steel my resolve against the pleading of the French boys, who tried to convince me to go out with them again. I would have loved to, but to catch our flight to Edinburgh we had to wake up at 3:45, and I knew a second night out with that kind of deadline could only mean bad news. As it turned out, the Frenchies weren't even back to their beds by the time we left.

Day 3:
Despite operating off of a cumulative total of about eight hours sleep in the past 48 hours, we were blown away by our first glimpses of Edinburgh. We were staying with, Rosy, a friend of one of Carolyn's former roommate's, but neither of us had met her.
"Carolyn, is Rosy in school? is she working?"
"I don't know."
"What's her last name? Does she live in a dorm or does she have any roommates?"
"I ... don't know that either."
"Do you know anything about her?" I asked.
She thought for a second. "I don't even think we're Facebook friends!"
Good thing we trust our friends, I thought.
Carolyn used the free Wi-Fi on the bus ride from the airport into the city to friend Rosy, and let her know our ETA.

We stepped off the bus and Rosy immediately recognized and greeted us, clearly having done a much better job of Facebook stalking us than we had with her. She led us to her flat, and introduced us to her three roommates. She had to dart off to class, as she was, in fact, in school at the University of Edinburgh. After she went to class, and we took a much-needed nap in her bed, she gave us a tour of the city. That night, Rosy and her roommate Rachel went to dinner with us at a fun basement-level pub called Under the Stairs. As we walked back, we took a detour into Greyfriar's Cemetery, which is right behind The Elephant House, where Harry Potter was born. JK Rowling wrote parts of the books in the cafe, which overlooks the cemetery, and she got inspiration for the names of some of the characters from the gravestones.

We wandered around the cemetery in the dark, but surprisingly warm evening, guided by the flashlight apps on our iPhones, trying to read ancient names behind vines and years of grime and soot, with the full moon casting spooky shadows. The graveyard was just scary enough to get the adrenaline drip started, but all too enticing to scare us off. The headstones are mounted on huge walls that transform the hilly graveyard into something like a huge castle, and it's definitely best experienced at night, although we returned back during the day for pictures' sake.

Day 4:
After a day of wandering around Edinburgh pretending to be in Harry Potter, or every fairy tale ever written, we closed out our Scotland tour by cooking the most American meal we could conjure for our hosts. Bacon, butter and cheese abounded. We teased each other by imitating each other's accents, and played a game called Articulate, which is similar to Catchphrase, but full of British sayings that threw Carolyn and me for a loop.

Day 5:

We took the train to London, and got acquainted with our new hostel. The common room smelled like feet. And unfortunately, as we would learn later, every other guest in the hostel was apartment hunting, and not interested in making friends. But we got a map of the city and decided to explore the Tower of London and Tower Bridge areas. We spilled out of the tube onto a busy street that reminded me of the financial district in Manhattan, and debated whether to climb a random monument. But then a horde of school kids being herded to the monument made our decision easy, and we ran away towards the Thames river walk. I consulted a map, then looked up at the river.
"Ah, that's London Bridge!" I said. "Looks like it's still standing."
Coincidentally, it is also 100 percent unremarkable, reason being, when it was in the process of falling -- a surprisingly slow process, as I understand it -- a rich American who must have had everything in the world, except the London Bridge, decided to buy it and transplant it into the middle of the desert in Lake Havasu City, Ariz. So the one currently standing on the Thames is the newer, and way less interesting, albeit structurally sound, London Bridge.

We got to the Tower of London and realized there was a large hole in our British history when we both looked around, surprised.
"Where's the tower? All I see is a castle."
Adjusting our mental picture, we walked around three sides of the castle, and to my delight, determined it looked remarkably like the Playmobil castle, which will forever be the universal standard for 'castle' in my mind.

Day 6:

The British Museum has a distinctly low statue-to-nose ratio. Touring around it at a blitz pace on Thursday, Carolyn and I started to wonder what anyone could possibly want with all those noses, and if somewhere in the black market underworld there's a separate museum called Noses of the British Museum. Filling in the gaps with our imagination, we joked our way through thousands of years of ancient history, hieroglyphs, tomb decorations, sphinxes, ancient coins, mummies and all.

We stepped into Primark, our favorite cheap department store, to buy socks, since Carolyn was now six days without her bag. At the checkout, or 'till' as they call it, the lady commented on the healthy splash of freckles Carolyn and I both wear year round. We both thought it an odd compliment, until we noticed she bore plenty of freckles herself, and we realized how rare freckles were in London. The lady went on to say she had spent some time in California, and a homeless man had once told her "a woman without freckles is like a night without stars." How about that. I'll take second-hand compliments from a homeless man any day.

We strolled on towards Trafalgar Square, passing a trio tossing a frisbee. It took all my resolve not to run in and layout D a catch, but we moved on instead. We enjoyed one of our most delicious backpacker meals sitting on the edge of the fountains in the square -- hummus, pita, sharp white cheddar cheese and pastrami. Then we found a coffee shop another backpacker had told us about and sat down for some espresso and hot chocolate, and a chance to rest the weary feet, while of course nomming on scones. We had a 5 p.m. appointment with the choir of Westminster Abbey, so we checked out the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben for a few minutes before shuffling in with the multicultural assembly of tourists looking to hear hair-raising choral music and sneak past the whopping 18 pound entrance fee to the abbey. It was mostly what we expected, although surprisingly less awe-inspiring than St. Patrick's.

One of my top goals for London was to be able to play ultimate with some Londoners in a city park. I had looked up pick-up games and thought I'd found a reliable source about one on Thursday evenings at 6:30 in Regent's Park. I marked an X on my city map, and led Carolyn through the tube to get off at Camden Town market. We found Regent's Park, and in the distance I saw flying discs, and I could barely contain my excitement. With no reliable shelter or cover to change in, I deck-changed out of cute touring clothes into ultimate gear, while Carolyn nervously eyed a family with young children walking nearby.

"OK bye," I yelled over my shoulder once changed, tripping along with one foot half-in a shoe. Carolyn trailed behind and found a bench to catch up on some journaling, and I ran and introduced myself to the "pick-up group," who were standing in a huddle. But as soon as I arrived, I got suspicious of the matching jerseys. They were not, in fact, a pick-up group, but instead a young team from University of the Arts London, who have no central campus grounds to practice on, so they meet at Regent's Park. That night was their first practice for new 'freshers' on the team, but seeing's how I was so stoked to play, they graciously allowed me to play with them.

Their freshers were enthusiastic, and those with experience were patient in explaining the rules. I was just happy to run around and get some touches on the disc. But after just a half hour, it was too dark to see, and they wrapped things up, inviting me into the team huddle. I'd by then figured out that this was not at all the group I'd intended to meet up with, but meeting up with them didn't feel like an accident either. I looked around the group, half wearing UAL jerseys and half wearing sweatpants, colorful leggings, flannel, graphic tees ... all around a collection of the last clothes I would have ever shown up to an ultimate practice wearing, and I surmised that England's ultimate culture must cater more to the arts crowd than the engineering crowd, as it does here in the U.S.

The team invited me and Carolyn to go to the pub with them after practice, so we all walked together to Camden town, found a pub and proceeded to rearrange the furniture to accommodate our group of about 15. We ordered drinks, and Carolyn and I ordered one tuna melt to split, in true backpacker fashion. After we'd explained our trip and how we came to be in the right place at the right time, there came a lull in the conversation. The group was still new to each other and there were a few shy ones holding back. I reached in my purse and pulled out the die, and cleared my throat.

"New friends, I have a gift for you from my ultimate team back in Ohio. It's called Dare Dice," I announced.  They were intrigued, so I proceeded. We started with half the table, and soon everyone joined in. One poor newbie to the team had to take a shot of vinegar from the condiments rack on the table, another had to stall count a stranger at the bar. Carolyn had to hug a bartender, and another kid had to lick mayonnaise off another's arm. The group fully embraced the game and took it to new heights that I'd not even experienced back home, and we realized it was a great ice breaker game that forces you to learn everyone's name. We hugged it out at the tube station entrance before parting ways with our new friends, happy that we'd fostered the first team bonding night.

Day 7:
London is huge. And exhausting. The end. Just kidding, there's so much more to say, but I have to save it for a second post. In the mean time, check out my photos from the trip on Facebook, or read Carolyn's version of events (with photos!) here: