On the Road/Air/Move Again

My trip to Turkey may have gotten off to a slow start (thanks for nothing, rain), but even so, by the end, I felt like I had accomplished a lot. I didn’t know what to expect going in and ended up absolutely loving it there. I left feeling certain that I need to go back someday. When I do, I want to see more of the country beyond just Istanbul. The food, the culture, the apple tea… it all felt “right” to me, like I finally found that sense of home that I failed to feel in Armenia. That was a bit of a weird and emotionally conflicting feeling, but I’ll work through it.

I had a whole plan for what my post-Istanbul travel time was going to look like. I mean, it was still a very loose plan, but a plan DID exist. I say this because when you look at my travel route over the next few weeks, you’re going to shake your head and wonder if I bothered looking at a map beforehand. The plan was to go north from Turkey, working my way up through the Balkan countries to Central/Western Europe and then home. That’s not quiteee what actually happened, and like a good sister, I’m going to blame that entirely on my brother Mike.

When I was in Tbilisi, my mom told me that Mike was planning a trip to Iceland to visit some friends who were living there for a month. My response to that, of course, was, “Um, why didn’t he invite me?” And like a good sister, I invited myself. I’m kidding a little; I did ask him if I could tag along. He said yes, and so my next challenges were figuring out how to get myself from Istanbul to Iceland without going broke and deciding where to spend the one-week gap between the two.

The easiest and least expensive route was through London, so off to England I went! Since I spent some time in London after I left Ghana, I didn’t want to stay there for the entire week. The solution? I asked a couple of Brits who were staying at my Tbilisi hostel where they recommended I go, and I blindly followed their advice. How bad could it be? They did live in England, after all, which meant they had to know SOMETHING about what to do in their own country. They told me to go to Bristol, a city in the southwest of England, and to take day trips from there to Bath and Cardiff, a city in Wales. And so, Bristol became my next destination.

Bristol!

On my way through immigration into Britain, the agent asked where I was going and kind of made a face when I said Bristol. My response to his question of, “Why are you going there??” made him laugh and shake his head a little. He apparently didn’t agree with my random hostel friends. Slightly worried, I asked if he had been to Bristol, and he said no. Okay, his opinion was void. Either way though, my bus to Bristol and my hostel were booked. There was no turning back.

After my flight from Istanbul to London, I had a bit of a trek to ahead. I flew into London Stansted airport which meant I had to take about a one-hour bus ride to the city center followed by a three-hour bus ride to Bristol. Talk about a long day.

You know how I always talk about how you meet the most interesting people when you’re travelling? And often, it happens at the most unexpected of times. I would definitely qualify the bus ride from London to Bristol as an “unexpected time” (though maybe that means I should have expected it).

Not quite the same architecture as Istanbul…
(Wills Memorial Building, University of Bristol)

Anyway, some random guy sat down next to me, he asked what I was doing in England and where I had come from, and from the moment I mentioned Istanbul, we had more than enough to talk about. He was from Northern Ireland and randomly moved to Istanbul when he was in his 20s. He found work at an Irish pub there (because he was Irish, so he was automatically qualified), and somehow, word got out that there was an Irish dance instructor working at this pub… which led to him being recruited to choreograph a show at the Turkish State Theatre. After that, he stayed on and kept working with them for the rest of 5 years that he spent there! You might be wondering why they could possibly need an Irish dance choreographer, and trust me, I asked the same thing. He said that the show they were doing was set in Ireland (don’t ask me what show, I had never heard of it and promptly forgot the name), so they wanted authentic dancing in it. And what did they need from him for the rest of the 5 years? Who knows. But he said that they were some of his favorite years. I can imagine.

That, of course, led me to the question of if he could speak Turkish… which led us to a conversation about languages because yes, he could speak Turkish, and he could speak 16 other languages as well.  He was a linguist, a professor at a university. How cool. Don’t worry though, he’s only fluent in 9 of those languages, so you don’t have to feel TOO bad. Ha. Haha.

The rest of the ride went by in a flash. We talked about Istanbul, about language, about the world. He was absolutely fascinating. He also said that he thought I would enjoy Bristol and that I should visit Bath and Cardiff as well, and in my mind, his opinion held much more weight than that of the immigration agent. At the end of the ride, he thanked me for the good conversation (it’s nice to know that he enjoyed it as much as I did), and we parted ways.

I walked to my hostel feeling great about the next couple of days. Honestly, after that ride, the trip to Bristol already felt like it was worth it. The rest was just bonus!

Headed Home

Aaaand I’m back at the airport. You know, when I was buying my plane tickets, a week seemed like a long time to be in London. Now, I feel like I just arrived and I’m not completely ready to go home. Part of this is probably carryover from leaving Ghana since I was feeling okay in the airport there, but now there’s no ignoring the fact that part 1 of my adventure is about to be over. Am I happy to be going home? Hm… I have mixed feelings. Yes, I’m excited to see my family and my friends. At the same time though, I’ve discovered that I’m fine with being away. I used to think I’d spend the rest of my life in/around Philadelphia, but I’m not so sure anymore. Just what I need… more uncertainty about my future! Anyway, there’s plenty of time for me to figure everything out, and there’s plenty of time for me to ignore the fact that one day I’ll have to figure it out! So no worries for now.

To catch you up on how I got from York to here… James and I spent the morning yesterday hanging out and pretending that we might not be saying goodbye forever. I know, I know. I keep bringing that up, and it’s probably getting old. It’s impossible to ignore though! Last time I thought about never seeing friends again, it was at the end of college. Obviously you’ll keep in touch with a certain number of people, but it’s impossible to keep up with everyone. Now, we’re talking about friends in different countries, not just people moving to different states. Plus, unlike college, we don’t really have a common place we’ll all definitely go back to… the only place we have in common is Ghana, and it’s beyond unrealistic to think that we’ll all meet up there again. I just need to hold onto the small possibility that we’ll cross paths again.

(On a side note: I’m starting to think that it can’t be healthy for me to lie to myself this much. And seriously, how gullible am I that it’s this easy for my brain to fool itself? Hmm or maybe that just means that I am very persuasive. That sounds like a positive… Yeah, we’ll go with that.)

I got dinner with one of my high school friends, Maddy, when I got back to London Saturday night. It’s been three years since we last saw one another, so it was great to have some time together!

My train back to London was at 2, and when it pulled up, we hugged goodbye and that was the end. James said, “I’m not going to do that dumb ‘wave through the window as the train pulls away’ thing.” Fine with me because then I at least had some hope of hiding my tears. That hope was shattered once I got to my seat and realized I was at a table seat, which means my seat was facing two others. So much for my poetic, private, and tearful ride through the English countryside. Instead I got an awkward, “I’m totally fine and am definitely not crying”, and “okay so maybe my eyes are watering but I think it’s from the dust in the air” ride through the English countryside. Good times.

On the way to the British Library… St. Pancras Station is the building on the left, and I forget is the building in the right (helpful, I know).

So many books!

This morning, I had big plans for waking up early and trekking all over town before my flight, but that didn’t happen (you’re shocked, I know). Instead, I rolled out of bed at the last second possible to check out of my hostel on time and only had about two hours to kill before I had to catch the tube to the airport. I decided to visit the British Library since it was nearby. It’s the national library of the UK and has over 170 million items cataloged, including 14 million books. There are some exhibits there as well which is what I went to check out, in addition to wanting to just experience its library-awesomeness (because who doesn’t love libraries? They’re the best!).

Armenian bible!

To poorly summarize the exhibits… there’s Jane Austen’s writing desk (I’ll be honest, I was probably the most excited about this), some Beatles lyrics and scratch notes (which I tried to be excited about, but I’m not that into the Beatles. I know, I’m sorry), tons of Bibles including a couple Gutenberg bibles (first book mass-produced by a metal movable-type printing press) and some beautiful Armenian bibles (woohoo!), one of Leonardo da Vinci’s notebooks, and two original copies of the Magna Carta (kind of a big deal for democracy, in case you’re unfamiliar).

St. Pancras Hotel

After I left the library, I went back to the hostel to grab my stuff, got on the tube, checked in at the airport, and here I am. Now all that stands between me and home (besides the Atlantic Ocean, of course) is 8 hours of airplane food, movies, and uncomfortable sleep positions. See you soon, USA!

Welcome to York!

For the Harry Potter fans out there… In King’s Cross on the way to Hogwarts

Guess who I’m with right now? James!! Yesterday, I took a train to York and now here I am! Seeing him in the train station was the same weird experience as when I met up with Sosane. Like… we were both wearing “normal” clothes and seeing each other in a “normal” situation, but for us, that’s abnormal. Fortunately, just like before, we got over it pretty quickly and picked up right where we left off in Ghana.

On the city walls. You can see York Minster in the distance.

Yesterday, we walked around York a bit and James pretended that he knew something about his city (he doesn’t). Luckily the internet exists, so I did some research to learn the basics and try to figure out what the “must see” attractions are. To give you the 30 second summary, York is a VERY old city. It was founded by the ancient Romans, has the largest Gothic cathedral in Northern Europe (York Minster), and has Roman/medieval city walls that are still intact. James isn’t exactly what you would call a history buff and probably would have been fine with just hanging out, but since I’m only going to be in town for a couple days, I insisted that I have to see at least SOME of the sights.

The walls and one of the “bars” (gatehouses).

We decided to let most of the history tour wait until today, so after our little walk around town last night, we ate dinner, played some ping pong (James destroyed me) and pool (we each won a game, and he promised that he didn’t let me win), and watched a movie before passing out.

Me and James!

Today, we entered full-on sightseeing mode, and it was great! We started off the day by walking a portion of the city walls. The existing walls are a mix of ancient Roman and medieval, and they’re the most complete medieval city walls in all of England. The entire length is about 2.6 miles, but we only walked a portion. If we had more time, I definitely would have been into doing the whole thing because besides getting to check out the walls, you get some nice views of the city along the walk.

More walls

On a bridge crossing the river. James said that the river floods every year, and all the bars and businesses along the river are just used to having to repair damages when it happens.

The Castle Museum

Our next stop was the York Castle Museum. James had never been there, so we really had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. The actual building used to be a prison, and the galleries cover a random variety of topics. There are exhibits about children’s toys, an indoor recreated Victorian street, life in the prison, the sixties, fashion, and World War I, to name a few. The exhibits were well done, and we spent more time there than I think either of us expected. I was happy because James said he actually enjoyed it, so I didn’t feel like I was just dragging him around with me. We both started feeling hungry at the same time, were shocked when we looked at our watches, and headed out on a quest to find food.

The Victorian road replica. It was “night” (not sure if it always is), so it was hard to take a good picture, but it really did feel like you were outside (though slightly warmer, thankfully).

The gallows and stocks in the prison

There’s also a reconstructed flour mill that was relocated to the museum grounds.

York Minster

The last stop after “lunch” (if you can call a 3:30PM meal lunch) was York Minster, the cathedral. We got there right around closing time, so instead of paying to walk around the whole church, we used the “walk inside and see what you can from behind the ticket barriers” strategy and then walked around the outside of the church. Even without the full indoor tour, we still got a good sense of the building. The exterior is beautiful, and there’s a lot of stained glass (128 stained glass windows, to be precise) that we had a good view of from the outside because it was getting dark.

A not-so-great night picture of York Minster. You can kind of see the stained glass windows… guess that’s one of those things that doesn’t really come out in pictures.

Now we’re back at James’s house, eating Chinese food (which is completely different from Chinese food in the USA – can you believe they don’t give you chopsticks?!? – which is completely different from actual Chinese food) and enjoying some down time before we go out to experience some York night life. I’m getting the full cultural experience!

One More Day in London

​This was my last full day in London, and I had an ambitious schedule that, as you might expect, didn’t go quite as planned. Failed plan #1: waking up at 7AM and leaving by 8. I know what you’re thinking. Why did I even think that was a possibility? I was thinking that I used to wake up at 5:30 every day, so why would waking up at 7 be a big deal? Well, it’s different when you don’t actually have anyone counting on you… and when the room is cold but it’s so nice and warm under the covers.

Hyde Park

By the time I dragged myself out of bed and pulled myself together, it was about 9:30. I had plans to go on a walking tour at 11, so I killed an hour in Hyde Park before meeting up with the group. Hyde Park is one of the biggest parks in London, and Kensington Palace, the official residence of Prince William, Kate, and Prince Harry, is on the far west side. I didn’t make it that far though… not enough time. Failed plan #2: the other six things I planned to go see before 11.

Buckingham Palace

This makes me laugh. Can you imagine if you saw this coming down the street in the US? People would lose their minds. Here, it’s just another day, and the only people who even notice (besides the locals who are probably annoyed about the traffic) are the tourists.

Changing of the guard at St. James

The tour was a nice change of pace. I’ve spent so much time over the last three days wandering around in circles and trying to make plans, and it was a welcome change to not have to think about directions or where to go next for a couple hours. I just followed along and learned things. We saw Buckingham Palace (and apparently the queen was actually there, according to the flag), watched the changing of the guard from a distance, and then walked over to St. James Palace to see the changing of the guard there up close. I’ll be honest, yes it was interesting, but I can’t say I understand why people get so hyped up about it.

Me!

Afterwards, I had an appointment to go to the Sky Garden. It’s a “park” on the top floor of a 525’ tall building, and you can go up for free with a reservation. I’d say that the calling it a park or a garden is a bit of a stretch, but yeah, there are some plants up there. Either way, it’s a cool setup. You can walk all the way around and see out in every direction, similar to the Tate Modern terrace except that it’s about 300’ higher and there’s glass in between you and the view. Pros and cons!

How cool is that sky? And yeah, that’s how it actually looked! (It’s not just a trick of the picture.)

Selfie with St. Paul’s!

My last stop of the day was the Evensong service at St. Paul’s Cathedral. The building is absolutely amazing. It reminded me of a lot of the churches in Rome… there’s an awesome dome and a lot of incredible detailing. The service was great too! I didn’t get the prime seat that I got at Westminster Abbey, but the music and the sermon were both very well done. The building is huge and there were a ton of people there, but somehow it still felt intimate. Plus there was audience involvement in the singing, and there’s nothing better than singing a beautiful song and hearing everyone’s voices melt together and become one. Good job, acoustics. What a way to end the day!

Please excuse the warped perspective. The only way for me to get a picture of the full facade with my phone camera was to do a panoramic picture.

Sosane Reunion!!

​I got to hang out with Sosane today!! She doesn’t have classes on Tuesdays, so she came down to London for the day to hang out with me! I met her at the train station, but first I went to buy another jacket because it’s seriously freezing here. I can’t believe that I was complaining about the heat two days ago…

On the terrace at Tate Modern

Seeing Sosane in “normal life” was beyond weird. I think she didn’t even recognize me because it was the first time she’s ever seen me in non-athletic wear. In case you’re wondering if Ghana friendships can survive the transition back to our regular lives, the answer is yes! I know it’s crazy how fast we got close to one another. For example, my friendship with Sosane was pretty much built in two weeks. It’s real though. It’s not just a friendship of circumstance… like just because we were all there and didn’t have any other options, that’s why we spent time together and became “friends”. No, these people are awesome no matter the context, and I’m lucky to be able to call them my friends.

Sosane was rolling her eyes at me because I kept freaking out about how many cranes there are all over the city. She said, “can’t you just enjoy the view?” I promise I was, but I was also laughing at the cranes. I don’t think it’s coming through in this picture, but I’m telling you, it was insane. It’s like every other building is under construction and all of them have a crane.

We grabbed lunch and spent some time catching up before heading to the Tate Modern, a modern art gallery. It’s another free London museum, and it’s located in an old power plant which is cool. The whole museum is massive… an addition was finished earlier this year to create more gallery space. The best part of the addition is a terrace on the top floor where you can walk all the way around the building and get 360 degree views of the city. It was cool to be able to see everything from that perspective.

Modern art… Not creepy at all

We probably spent most of our time at the museum on the terrace. Once we got inside, we could only tolerate so much modern art. Don’t get me wrong, I love art, and sometimes even modern art. There are other times though when everything is so weird that I can’t deal with it. I’m just glad that I went with a friend because then you can pretend you’re art experts and come up with interpretations of the exhibits. Everyone does that, right? Right?
Once we’d had enough, we drank hot chocolate and walked around the city until it was time for Sosane’s train home. We said a rushed goodbye in the underground as my train pulled up, and it felt like another “see you later” goodbye. Today just felt so normal… meeting up with a friend in the city and hanging out for the day… that I can’t believe it’s not. Anyway, I’m back on my own tomorrow, and I’d better get some planning done so I can make the most of the day.

Welcome to London!

​You know what I LOVE? Red eye flights! There’s nothing like getting 4-5 hours of EXTREMELY restful sleep on a plane and then having to function like a human (rather than a zombie) for an entire day. 

This is random but it made me laugh… You know you’re in first class when: not only does your seat fully recline, but there are also “fancy” lights in the cabin. I took this on my walk back to coach…

My flight got into London Heathrow at 5:30AM, and from the moment I was woken up by our plane’s bumpy landing, I wanted to go back to sleep. No such luck. I spent some time in the airport bathroom, trying to pull myself together, before going to get my bags and start the journey through customs. Culture shock #1: I used tap water to brush my teeth (we couldn’t ingest tap or well water in Ghana… we only drank bottled/mineral water there!). Culture shock #2: I had to battle with the sink motion detectors in order to do it (motion detectors? Whattt?). Once I washed my face and brushed my teeth, I felt at least like a semi-human which was probably as good as it was going to get. Onward to customs!

Have you ever travelled alone? Before this, my only solo travel experience was a brief work trip to San Diego earlier this year. I considered that my test run for this whole trip. It’s kind of a weird feeling. You arrive in a new place, and there’s no one expecting you. There’s no one at the airport to meet you. You have to figure things out on your own. If I hadn’t let my parents know I landed safely, no one would have even known I was there (besides the British government but that doesn’t count). I felt a little nervous and excited all at the same time. Luckily, in London, it’s easy to get around because of the tube, so all I had to do to get from the airport to my hostel was follow the signs to the underground, put some money on a transit card, and hop on. Easy! (As soon as you’ve used the subway in one city, I’m convinced you can do it anywhere. They’re all basically the same.)

I think I might be a little paranoid because the entire time I was sitting on the tube, I thought that people were staring at me (this might be a carryover from 3 months of thinking that people were looking at me and it actually being true). My mind was screaming, “they know! They know!” Know what, you ask? I’m not sure. Know that I don’t belong? Yes, it doesn’t make sense, but that’s how I felt. It’s like I was an alien, trying to blend into a foreign planet (not that I know what that feels like, but let me imagine). So yeah… culture shock #3: everything.

I almost managed to convince the people at the hostel that I was normal until I asked if they had hot showers. They looked at me like I was, well, an alien, before saying “yes” but it sounded more like “duh is that really something you need to ask?” To be fair, probably no one has ever asked them that question before. Culture shock #4: readily available warm showers. With running water.

Trafalgar Square and the National Gallery

I dropped my stuff at the hostel and hit the streets. Before I did anything else though, I went and bought a scarf, hat, and gloves because HELLO cold weather. Geez. I forgot what it feels like to not be sweating constantly. Culture (not really culture but whatever) shock #5: seasons and cold weather. Anyway, enough about today’s culture shocks. The other thing about travelling alone is that you need to be self-motivated to see things and do things, otherwise you could spend all day sitting around. You have to make decisions. That’s not one of my strengths, so this is good practice for me!

One of the galleries inside the National Gallery. I never get sick of these ceilings!

The rest of the day was spent enjoying museums and the architecture of the city. An awesome thing about London is that the publicly funded national museums are free! My first stop was the National Gallery. The building is amazing, and it houses thousands of paintings. I obviously didn’t see them all, but I’m a big fan of more “modern” (as compared to like 15th century…) paintings and was sure to go through the entire 18th-20th century collection. The building was just as cool as the art, and I had fun exploring the different rooms.

More ceilings. But really… How cool are they?!?!


After that, I kept on the museum path. My next stop was the Victoria & Albert Museum, a decorative arts and design museum. They have a few different types of exhibits there, and my favorites were in the materials and techniques category. I could have spent hours looking at the glass, ironwork, and architecture sections alone, but I had a schedule to keep!

One of the Medieval and Renaissance rooms. There’s almost too much to take in!

Right next door is the Natural History Museum, and in my opinion, the best part of that museum is the building. I did no prior research, so when I walked through the doors, I had no idea what to expect. The entrance hall is seriously magnificent. I’m not even going to try to describe it… you need to just look at the pictures.

Outside of the Natural History Museum. They also have their ice rink set up for the winter, which made me a little nostalgic because this is one of my favorite times of year at home.

Attempting, and failing, to adequately capture the grandeur of the entrance.

The entrance hall, as you walk into the building.

Looking back towards the entrance.

My last stop of the day (I’m impressed that I was even still functioning at this point) was Westminster Abbey for the Evensong service. The best way to see a church is by going to a service, partly because then you can go for free, but mostly because then you can experience the building the way it was meant to be experienced. Churches were built to be used, and they’re even more beautiful when you see them in action. The Evensong service is great because it’s mostly singing which means you can really appreciate the acoustics. Plus, I don’t think it was as crowded as a Sunday service since they have one every night. I got there early enough to sit in the choir stalls! Those are the fancy looking seats in the area where the choir sits, right behind the choir benches… aka where the big shots sit. No big deal. I would have taken a picture to show you except that photography isn’t allowed inside the church (and I’m a rule follower). The service was beautiful, the choir was great, and the cathedral was freezing (seriously though… about halfway through I wrapped my scarf around myself like a blanket).

On my way to Westminster Abbey. You can see part of the Houses of Parliament and the clock tower that holds Big Ben, plus the London Eye (ferris wheel) in the background.

By the end, I was falling asleep in my seat. Between the angelic singing and my cuddly scarf, it was a losing battle. I picked up some dinner on my way back to the hostel, and after I take a too-long hot shower, I’m going to hibernate.