Away to the UK

I’ve spent the last week or so traveling outside of Ireland for my first time since I got here. For our first major trip, we chose to venture to England and Scotland, and visit the cities of London, Oxford and Edinburgh.

First stop, London.

To get to London, Taylor and I flew Ryanair, a discount airline that travels to main destinations throughout Europe. The rest of our friends would meet us there the next day. I had heard that the airline should be avoided, but, since we found tickets for less than 20 Euros, we decided to suck it up and give it a try. Honestly, it was a totally fine experience. The flight was really short, and although we had to fly into an out-of-the way airport, we just hopped an easy bus right into London’s city center. From there, my friend and host for the weekend, Teddy, gave me directions of how to meet him by tube.

As I left the tube station, I walked as if I knew where I was going until I saw this nice little park tucked away behind a tall, dark and menacing gate. I plopped my suitcase down and took out my book while I waited for Teddy. Somehow it felt right to spend my first half hour in England sitting on a curb in park, with my feet propped up by my suitcase, breathing in the English air and reading D.H. Lawrence. After I while, I heard my name called out by a familiar voice. I was so happy to see Teddy, an old and great friend of mine from high school. He is living in London this year while he studies at the London School of Economics.

When we found each other, Teddy grabbed my bag and led me out of the park and confidently wove through the pedestrian traffic (always so many people crowding the sidewalks in London!) towards our destination.

“Is your place close to here?” I asked, dreaming of a shower and a change of clothes after a morning of traveling.

“Yes, but we aren’t going there.” Teddy said. “We’re going to the wine bar.” So we did. I felt pretty out of place, toting my purple duffle bag, and donning worn-out blue jeans with my hair messily tied back. The London-ers seemed to all be constantly dressed in perfectly orchestrated preppy ensembles which is never something I’ve mastered. But, it was a lovely day and it was the perfect thing to do. We shared some wine and bread and cheese together with a group of friends that met us a bit later. The weather was beautiful, and we sat outside chatting and eating for quite awhile.

I’ve already been to London on a family trip a few years ago, so I wasn’t really into doing the main tourist attractions all over again with the rest of the group. Instead, I focused on enjoying the company of my friends and exploring the city on my own terms. We did go to the National Gallery and the National Portrait Gallery, which were both incredible (and free!). The buildings themselves were maybe what impressed me the most — all marble floors, rich furniture and high, elaborate ceilings. It might just be in my head, but most things in England seemed to have a palpable regal quality about them, and these monuments were no exception. I especially enjoyed our fifteen-minute reading break in one of Teddy’s favorite rooms of the museum.

On an afternoon while Teddy was off at school, I had a bit of time to myself so I decided to venture towards the Royal Academy of Arts to see a David Hockney exhibit I had heard about before I left. I had to wait in line for half an hour or so to enter the exhibit, and it was packed in the final open hour of the day. But the exhibit was worth the wait. I had known Hockney for his pool paintings and not much else. But this exhibit was full of works that focused on landscapes in East Yorkshire.

I think my favorite part was a series of paintings he did depicting the same spot in rural England at different times of the year, throughout all of the seasons.

The plaques on the wall explained that Hockney had experience as a set designer for the theater, and I could definitely see that influence in this project. The paintings were arranged so that the narrative began in one corner of the room with the dead quiet of winter, and gradually lead up to the bright excitement of spring. The progress was well-orchestrated and quite dramatic, leading up to the grand finale, a huge, colorful abstraction of the spring blossoms (shown below).

The colors and style reminded me of the cutouts of Matisse, one of my all-time favorite artists.

The next day, our group grew. On this particular weekend, Teddy’s youngest sister was to come visit over her spring break. Then, as a last-minute surprise, Teddy’s other sister decided to come as well. So, the visit quickly turned into a pretty epic reunion. It’s always so nice to see old friends again. It seems like these days, the chances to do so are getting few and far between.

Here they are. Pretty cute, right?

Next up: Oxford.

On Sunday, I decided to part from the crew to join two other friends on a day-trip to Oxford. We caught the 9 AM bus into the small city about an hour’s ride outside of London. I really didn’t know anything at all about Oxford itself, as much as I had heard about the university, so I was surprised by how much I enjoyed the day. We started off by shopping around on the quaint streets and just soaking up the views of the beautiful architecture shining in the warm sunlight.

A highlight was Alice’s Shop, a tiny little store full of Alice in Wonderland items. We also found a bookshop where every book cost only 2 pounds and spent a good amount of time scouring those shelves. It was perfect timing, as I had just happened to finish the book I was reading. Then we walked around the campus for a while and explored a few cathedrals.

This is a photo from Christ Church Cathedral, made famous by the Harry Potter movies (it’s where they filmed the dining hall scenes). I’m not a huge fan or anything, but it was still neat to see. Emily was much more excited than I was initially, but I think some of her enthusiasm rubbed off on me in the end.

People go to school here. (?!?!???)

Finally, Edinburgh.

Early Monday morning, we took a train from London to Edinburgh. The ride was about 5 hours, but we hardly noticed the length of the journey. Possibly the world’s cutest baby was sitting opposite us and we played peekaboo and were just entranced by his cuteness the entire way.

I liked this city much better than London. It seemed to be running at about the same speed as Dublin, but was much more scenic. The whole city is full of really gorgeous stone medieval buildings. It’s also really hilly, so there are tons of spots where you can just sit and overlook the entire area.

From just about every place in the city, you have a view of the Edinburgh Castle, probably the city’s most famous attraction. I loved the way it stood ominously above the town, like it was keeping watch on everything happening below.

On one of our last days, Taylor and I finally toured the inside of the place. Maybe I was too tired, or maybe I had built it up too much in my head as I stared at it for the first few days exploring the city. But it was sort of a let-down. Taylor and I were pretty bored after the fifth war museum we moseyed through. Oh well.

Probably the best part of the tour was seeing these kids dressed up like kings running around. I tried to sneak a photo.

We left early Friday morning, in time to get back and rest for the St. Patrick’s Day festivities that were going on in Dublin over the weekend. It kind of scared me how much coming back to Ireland felt like coming home.

Next up: Spain and Portugal in two weeks!! I can’t wait.