This whole London trip has been in the works for a long time. In fact, it's the second place we decided we wanted to go--Ireland being the first. Once we read that the program included a free weekend, we decided that if we were accepted to the program, we should pop over to London for a weekend.
As it turns out, one does not just "pop over to London". Travel is easy enough--flying in from Ireland is basically a domestic flight--but the arranging bit is tricky.
First of all, you can't just fly into the city. Tickets to Heathrow airport cost upwards of $350 dollars, and once you're there, you still have to get around. Airports on the fringes of the massive city are less expensive, but then require train rides to get into the city, where you want to be. You have to weigh the different costs against each other and decide which combination of travel arrangements makes for the cheapest thing, and that means spreadsheets. Lots of spreadsheets.
Of course, all of these calculations have to be done in Britich pounds sterling, not American dollars. I hate pounds sterling, both because I just got used to saying "euro" instead of "dollar" and because the exchange rate is ONE POINT EIGHT DOLLARS TO A POUND. When we planned our trip, it was hovering somewhere around 1.5-1.6, so this not only set off our numbers, but really minged us off because everything is so expensive here now. You can be walking down the street and think to yourself, "oh, a burger for six pounds? that's not ba--WAIT THATS LIKE TWELVE DOLLARS" and then you have to eat there anyway because it's the cheapest thing around.
Anyway, arranging our travel required some mathematics. I told Sarah I was fully capable of gathering the numbers and calculating a line of best-fit to determine the cheapest possible combination of prices in a multi-dimensional matrix I had started setting up, but she just showed me her spreadsheet where she had already figured it all out and wondered (again) why she was still dating me. We took the flight from Shannon to Stansted and the train from Standsted to London, then the London Underground from Liverpool to Vauxhall, where we are staying.
Tony is a really nice guy. He's an Irishman by birth, but he's been living in the UK for twenty years now. His flat in Vauxhall is spacious and neat, and the accommodations are great (I just took a shower and I swear that showerhead is from the future). The kitchen is huge, and the room where we are staying is airy and light and smells nice. So far, we are having a great time. We did a lot of walking around today, and took plenty of pictures. Here they are!
Our first view of the UK, flying in this morning. Our flight got in at 8:35 local time, so we were pretty tired. Every square mile of England appears to be covered in either a) London or b) farm. Sorry for the toaster-quality picture, taken on my phone through the airplane window.
After checking in, our first order of business was to find food. We went to a little sandwich shop down the street from Tony's flat and got some sandwiches for cheap. We went down to sit by the river Thames to eat and jacked some tables from this cute little riverside cafe.
The cafe was right on the river and had a great view of Big Bong and the London Eye. The Thames is not the cleanest-looking river, or the nicest-smelling, but it feels like part of the city. Boats full of tourists kept sailing up and down, right past the shops on the river, guides with megaphones blaring out information over the water. It reminded me of DC.
Sarah says I'm not allowed to make faces in pictures anymore, but I forgot for this one. We were out from around 11:00am to 7:00pm, so we didn't want to carry her big fancy camera around. Every picture here was taken on her phone or mine. The bad ones are mine.
We took a nice long stroll down the south bank of the Thames, along Alfred Embankment. I'm not sure which Alfred it is named after because there are so many Alfreds, but I am sure it was one of the important ones. London is that sort of city. From the footpath along the river, you can see the parliament building on the other side, with Big Bong at the east end.
We decided seeing Parliament and the official buildings on the north bank was a priority, so we crossed the bridge and got up close. This is Sarah's "artsy picture", taken about five minutes after the bells rang out Twelve Bong.
Next, we walked along the clippety-cloppity-clep-clap (that's what they call roads in England) to Westminster Abbey, where Bill and Kate got married. Tickets to go inside were 18 pounds (that's like $30) each, so we didn't get to see the Royal Floor, but we stood in line for a while anyway so we could see the architecture up close.
You can't quite see it in this picture, but the flying buttresses on the wings of the Abbey are the most ornate I've ever seen or heard of. Each one is like the first page of an illuminated manuscript.
Luckily for cheap travelers like us, St. Margaret's Church, located right next to Westminster Abbey and built on the same land as the Abbey (there's some sort of joint degree program going on or something), is still a functioning church and therefore free. We went inside and wandered around for a bit. There are a lot of English buried in and around the church, starting in 1523 when it was built. We saw the stained glass window that Henry VIII commissioned for his first marriage (to Catherine of Aragon) over the altar (slathered in gold) from behind a velvet rope (they take their preservation seriously here).
Then we wandered down through St. James park and to Buckingham Palace, about a fifteen minute walk if you don't stop. We did, obviously, and made friends with the waterfowl.
A baby swan is called a cygnet. They're approximately football sized.
Three baby swans is just called three cygnets. I was disappointed by this because the British seem to have to many silly names for things (our train stopped at Mountfitchet, pronounced "mount-fit-shit"). I suppose I'll have to come up with my own.
"Three cygnets, a mother swan, and a beautiful girlfriend" doesn't have a special collective noun in England, either. This was even more disappointing.
So anyway, we eventually made it to Buckingham Palace. I don't know what it's like on the inside, but if it's anything like the outside, there's an entire gold mine plastered to the walls.
The guards in big bearskin hats were walking around the outside, being all stoic, but they were far enough away that people weren't bothering them too much. They weren't as scary as the Household Guard, who were wielding naked cavalry sabers and riding horses.
The horse was falling asleep the entire time. They're taken really good care of. You can tell because they are shiny and fat and sleep on the job, according to Sarah.
Then we wandered around for another five hours and found cool things in London. Today was a great first day here in the city, and we are looking forward to the next two. Will post more pictures tomorrow. Sleep tight, everybody.
Warning: gross below.