Saturday, January 23, 2010

City of London, South Bank

I'm realizing how very isolated I was on my last trip to England. Midway through my graduate studies and painfully shy (though I didn't fully realize it at the time), I was extremely careful not to get in the way or ask for help, muddling through the streets of London instead, growing lost and remaining hungry as the idea of eating alone was too horrifying to consider.

I carried my free map of London in my bag yesterday, pulling it out to show to one of our customers as we discussed the best route to accomplish my list of must-sees.

"The City of London was my biggest regret," I told her seriously. "My camera was out of film, night was falling and I felt my tour bus just swooped through without giving me a chance to absorb any of it. And it seemed so impressive." So I had chosen a hotel on Gracechurch and knew I wanted to get to the Tower of London and associated bridge, wander along the river and stare at St. Paul's. We had a suitable route pretty defined and I carefully memorized it while hoping I wouldn't become terribly lost.

"I should be OK," I told Jenny last night, "if I stay near the river. Then I can keep my bearings without getting distracted and turning too many times to remember which direction I'm going." She edited my plan a bit and I remembered the assorted advice as I stared at the map this morning while getting ready. Deciding I would take lip gloss but would not bring a bottle of water, I put my little wallet around one wrist and camera around the other and set off in my jacket and wedge heels with socks underneath. (I could not fit walking shoes in my suitcase.) While certainly not chic, I decided I was ready.

I assessed my condition as I moved toward the Tower, several discrete but helpful signs assuring me I was directionally correct. Shoes were comfortable. Jacket seemed warm enough. I was a little hungry but had decided a stop for breakfast along the way was in the plan. I followed sparsely scattered tourists and snapped photos at the nearly deserted Tower campus. It shivered with a mixture of intimidation and happiness as I stood outside the walls in the gray morning. Finished, I climbed the stairs and crossed the river on Tower Bridge, thinking it incredibly lovely as I wandered slowly, pausing to stare at some detail or look out over the river.

Too fast, I lamented, watching a bus go by with tourists swiveling heads and craning necks to take in the bridge and view in a matter of seconds. Even the walk seemed to be taking me by sites more quickly than I wanted and I was torn between slowing down to enjoy or keeping pace to stay warm. But before I knew it, I'd passed Potters Field and the Tate Modern, had followed the Thames West Diversion and was growing very hungry and uncomfortable from the cold. I wanted, I thought crossly, a Kleenex, something hot to drink and to cross the river again.

Luckily, I happened across Blackfriars Bridge and trudged across it, realizing I was growing miserable. I should have stopped and rested, had something to eat, regrouped before I reached that point. But I pressed on, growing ever grumpier, and reminded myself that it was nice not to fight crowds. That I actually enjoy cloudy weather. That I was in London and having a fabulous time and should find something to enjoy about it already.

I walked up a hill, thinking I might do something drastic if that building I could see wasn't St. Paul's. It was, and my dangerous mood dissipated as my breath caught, seeing the dome up close. I tilted my head back in a blend of wanting to see more and needing to show some sort of awe at the structure. I walked across a narrow street to a cafe and thought it couldn't have been more perfect had God plopped it there just for me. I found a table at the window where I could gaze at the cathedral, ordered a bagette, hot chocolate and apple juice for a mere 5 pounds (I would have given him 50) and settled in to warm up, sip drinks and nibble on what had to have been the most perfect bread ever baked.

People went by on more tour buses, arms stretched over heads bundled in hoods and hats and scarves to get photos of the dome. The lumbering vehicles would pause for a moment and take off again, leaving me feeling rather wonderful as I lingered over my chocolate and spread butter on the last of my bread. Consulting my map once more, I paid my waiter - pleased to be getting rid of some of these heavy coins - and set off again. Had it not been cold, I would have settled on a wooden bench and said some prayers. Instead, I recited a few as I continued to walk, pausing to make some requests and offering a bit of thanks.

As I moved ever closer to my hotel, I thought my initial visit was more a survey - riding the bus and learning what I liked and where I needed to spend more time. Though I'd been criticized by colleagues for my choice of locations this time, I was utterly pleased with myself. The morning was even better than I hoped, affording me the luxury of stopping to take pictures along sidewalks that might otherwise have been crowded, looking at stunning buildings and feeling rather proud that I'd executed on my plan so effectively.

In a predictable Katie-like move though, I'm back at the hotel to write things down and take a nap.


Psych Post Doc said...

Looks like a wonderful morning of sight seeing. I'm so glad to read you are enjoying your trip. Happy Belated Birthday.

Amanda@Lady Scientist said...

Looks like it was a successful sightseeing morning! I'm glad that you're enjoying London.

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