Sep. 25th, 2014

jameydee: (oren kill bill Asian race card)
I doubt if anyone still checks this little a way, that's a good thing. I have tried to reduce my digital footprint, to be smaller in the virtual world, and be more aware of the world right in front of me.

2013 was amazing on many fronts. I finally made it to Europe! It was a punishing itinerary I set up; there is no one to blame but myself.  14 days, Scotland, Wales, England, France, and Italy.  To my chagrin, I realized belatedly I had omitted Ireland from my survey of the UK.   A full week to explore the UK, the second week split up between France and Italy. I would have happily spent all two weeks in the UK. I fell completely in love with London--as in, I find myself scheming as to how I could live there permanently.

As we made our final descent, I had my nose pressed against the window glass for my first glimpse of England.  We arrived at Heathrow on a gray, rainy day and found our way to the terminal for our flight out to Edinburgh.  Let me just say in hindsight that terminals in the UK in the winter, whether train or tube or airport terminal, tend to be cold!  On the short flight to Scotland, my neck hurt from staring out the window!  At least it was in the opposite direction from the prior flight!

My first impression was, "Omigawd, it's so GREEN!"  It looked like a special effect from the air  Squares of different shades of green.  The Scottish country side was so breathtakingly gorgeous, from the verdant valleys to the lightly snow-dusted mountains and hills, it was all exotic to this Florida native. I've driven through some gorgeous places in Tennessee, but this was different. I felt like part of it. The UK, as a whole, felt like coming home.

First moment of zen:  staring at a vending machine at the Edinburgh airport and not recognizing a single damn brand or name or any of the candies and chips.  At that moment, it hit home -- I was a long way from home!

Edinburgh the city...So determinedly BROWN!!!  Most of the buildings made out of the same brown stone!  It had a flavor, a feeling (It haz a flavah).  The air smelt of greenery, sea salt, and curry.  The winter sun was low in the sky, even in the morning, and the shadows were long.  I felt disoriented in time.  Being my first experience of a European city, I was struck at the combination of ancient and modern, Starbucks and castles.  Modern glass buildings and ancient cathedrals.

The hardest thing?  Remembering which way to look before crossing the street!

It was evening by the time we got our luggage, picked up a rental car, and tried to navigate to our lodging.  Tight streets, disorientation from being on the opposite of the street for our instincts -- we had a tough time finding our B&B.  And when we found it, we had a hard time figuring out WHERE to park, as parking was at a premium.  The proprietor ended up playing musical cars with us!  Our B&B, the Blossom House, was charming, and our room had its own bathroom and a TV.  And if you want to hear silly things I never thought about, I found out some BBC channels didn't start broadcasting until evening!  We unpacked and then walked up and down the streets and eventually took a ghost tour of the city which was very entertaining.  That night I hit a convenience store and bought up a BUNCH of candy bars.  And it's true, what everyone says, European candy is FAR superior to ours!  Chocolate-FLAVORED versus REAL chocolate...

When we finally came back to the room after so much walking, I found myself watching an odd movie about a teacher having an affair with one of her students starring Cate Blanchett.  Unpleasant movie, yet mesmerizing!

The next morning we had pastries from a baker on the Royal Mile and wandered the streets.  I had fish and chips with mashed peas at the Arthur Conan Doyle tavern and learned a valuable lesson:  at taverns, you need to order at the bar and they will bring your food to you.  Mike had a scotch egg, just as he had dreamed of since we ate at the English pub in the UK portion of Epcot!

We hit the Royal Mile.  Lots of whiskey shops!  We did pick up a nice Macallan on the Mile.  We walked around Coulton Hill where we had a bird's eye view of Holyrood Palace. I slipped a little on the incline, and that's when it truly started in earnest--my ankle pain.  It wasn't sprained or swollen, it just hurt a bit.  Then we walked to Edinburgh Castle.

Edinburgh Castle put me in mind of Stormwind!  We saw The Honours, the crown jewels of Scotland.  There was a whole case full of royal maces...  I expected a holy paladin to appear at any moment!  On the castle grounds was another whiskey shop.  There was a $6000 bottle of Scotch behind glass in a teardrop-shaped crystal decanter behind glass.  Apparently, this was not the most expensive bottle they had, they had recently sold a $9000 bottle... Another customer asked if it was someone famous, but apparently it was just someone with money.

That night we had dinner at a Thai restaurant on the Royal Mile.  Very tasty.  Interestingly, the bathroom was downstairs, below street level.

The second night we drove out to the Macallan Whiskey Distillery, a three-hour drive.  Our rental was a nice Mercedes. Vlad was the brave soul to take the wheel; it was disorienting to drive on the opposite side of the road and get the hang of roundabouts.  Very cool to see the house featured on every Macallan label!  The Distillery was out in the countryside, so we got great eyefuls of mountains, lush greenery, and so, so, many sheep!  After the tour of the Distillery, we had a whiskey tasting:  12, 15, 18, 21, 25 years.

When we finished the tour, we found out we had a flat.  After 5 shots of my own whiskey plus 3 of Rick's, well, I was feeling pretty mellow.  I had promised to buy Mike a nice bottle of scotch at the distillery, so I wandered (wobbled?) back to the shop while the guys worked on fixing the flat.  I bought a couple of keychains and the 21-year-old Macallan.  I remember thinking, "Wow, that was nowhere as expensive as I feared."  Later, when we looked at the receipt, I had apparently paid $80 for a Fine Oak 21-year-old Macallan that normal retails for around $250.  We still haven't figured out how that happened.  Did they count the money I paid for the tour against the bottle?  I only regret I didn't buy two!!!

We stopped by a little town not far from the distillery to swap out rentals and found a little pancake restaurant - I kid you not!  For the first time ever, we were served hot tea with two pots, you know, the whole one pot with hot water to warm the cup business that you read about?  

We drove back to Edinburgh and caught the late train to London.  We were in the sleeper car, so cool!  The hallway was so skinny, I couldn't turn around with my backpack on!  The compartment was tiny and adorable.  A counter covered the sink and there was a pull down shelf so you could sit on your bed and eat.  They gave us a cool resuable toiletry kit.

We arrived in London bright and early.  We stared at the Tube map for quite a bit, trying to comprehend the multiple lines.  The hostel (London Central) was not far from a station.  All I can say is, WOW, WOW, WOW.  Emerging from the station and into London proper, I was just awestruck.  I was HERE!  I HAD MADE IT!  I WAS IN LONDON!

We dropped off our bags in our room at the hostel.  Two sets of bunk beds for the four of us and took a free tour of London (our tour guide was Dave, a charming and entertaining fellow, who worked for tips). Buckingham Palace!  Big Ben!  Parliament!  Westminster Abbey!  All the high points!

Afterwards, we went back to Trafalgar Square.  I can't describe what I felt standing there.  It's a beautiful place!  I felt at peace!

The National Gallery in Trafalgar Square...I would say to myself, "...very much  in the style of Rembrandt..." and look more closely to see the painting in question was a Rembrandt!  To see with my own eyes painting after painting I had studied in humanities--to see the actual brush strokes, the building up of paint on the canvas itself...I had no words. I stood in front of "The Rape of the Sabine Women" in awestruck silence. I was sad because the Van Gogh room was closed, though.

The Tower of London was impressive and I was absolutely mesmerized by the Crown Jewels.  The Koh-i-noor diamond in the scepter...I had no words.  There was a moving walkway that took you past the jewels, I guess for that very reason, that it would be very easy to just stand and gawk endlessly.  It wasn't a greed thing, it was an aesthetic thing. It was so beautiful!  I confess, I took that walkway multiple times!

The armory was equally gawk-worthy.  Heh, I never realized how modular armor was.  They had a set with different arm and shoulder pieces, depending on what kind of combat the wearer would be engaging in.  I saw a wall of just chest pieces of every variation, from floor to ceiling.

And I felt a strange pang as we walked past the site where Anne Boleyn lost her head.

Of course, we went up the Millennium Wheel and the view was stunning.  Afterwords we went to Gillray's Steak House on the South Bank, near the Millennium Wheel, where we had a wonderful meal.  They served us mini Yorkshire puddings as an appetizer.  For dessert, Mike had the traditional sherry trifle, and I had a bread pudding with clotted cream.

Of course, we had to cross London Bridge.  We walked past Scotland Yard.  We went through a market area full of restaurants and boutique groceries.  And the Globe Theatre (of course, not the original). And the Tate Modern Museum.  And we ended up below Big Ben as it struck 10 PM.  We sat in the Starbucks opposite St. Paul's Cathedral and wandered Picadilly Circus, where a huge snowglobe had been erected.

The next day we geeked out in Cardiff, Wales. The Doctor Who TARDIS set was open for a limited amount of time and I booked a tour for one of the days.  Me, Mike, Vlad, and R-r-rick, we stood on the deck of the actual TARDIS!!!!  Then afterwards we went to the museum.  So cool.  River Song's burgundy Louboutins and TARDIS blue diary.  The 10th Doctor's console.  All the costumes, flavors of Daleks and Cyberman!  The Doctor's cradle!  Just SQUEEEEEEeeeeeeee!

You pass the Millennium Center on the way to the Doctor Who Experience, so of course, we had to pretend to be waiting for the Torchwood invisible elevator.  :)

The next day we got on a train for Paris. I loved Paris, too. People have often remarked Parisians are rude, but the people we met were friendly and eager to help us lost Americans, and once one person started trying to figure out where we needed to go, we soon had a small group around us, consulting one another. Another time, an elderly security guard with little English but a big heart stepped out into the cold to point at a road, then our map, to help us find the Louvre.

Of course, the highlight at the Louvre was seeing the Mona Lisa.  I was surprised at how small it was!  Venus DeMilo!  Oh, and Psyche and Cupid!  The museum was so overwhelming, paintings hung from floor to ceiling, so much to take in!

We learned another valuable lesson after we visited the Arc d'Triomphe:  You have to ask for the bill at European restaurants.  The wait staff isn't paid by the hour, so they aren't trying to shoo you out.  They will keep your drinks filled and you can relax and socialize.

In a scene straight from a movie, street musicians entered our subway car at night and began playing, a violinist and an accordion player.  The passengers spontaneously broke into dancing! Wish I had videoed it! It was a lovely moment.

The sheer scale of Notre Dame blew my mind.  They built for titans in those days!  Mass was being held.  The sun came through the high windows in columns of light that no photograph can capture...

We walked over a bridge of locks on the way home, which put us in mind of, "Now You See Me."

Versailles was technically closed when we went, but the gardens were open.  It was cold and overcast, threatening to rain at any moment.  The main fountain/water distribution system was being overhauled ("the spider"), and nothing was in bloom, but it was still impressive.  We walked a long ways from the main house, and then I saw it, "Poisedon Rising."  My jaw dropped, I actually didn't know the sculpture was at Versailles!  This piece had been pictured in my Latin textbooks, been highlighted in my art books.  And here was the real thing!

Venice blew my mind. Scary, dark, twisting alleyways filled with high-end designer shops opened into surprising sunlit filled plazas.  The sun over the blue-green waters of the Grand Canal lined with neo-gothic architecture--I could hardly catch my breath, it was so beautiful.

Rome made me laugh.  Streets in Scotland and England were orderly; the British queue magnificently, even in their cars.  Paris streets made you stop and think before you crossed.  But Rome...Rome always felt like I was taking my life into my own hands when I crossed the street!  Roman drivers seem to take lines on the street as advisories.  People not only double parked on the streets, they triple parked.  I imagine a shrug and a "Bah, I left a lane open so people can getI"

<to be continued>

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