(Not Quite) Wordless Wednesday: Revisiting royal fever

Underground


So. Given my anglophilia and general love of babies and happiness, I’m a wee bit excited over the arrival of William and Kate’s son. My family was in London just a week before their wedding in April 2011, a time laced with excitement and sunshine. I wish I could have hopped a flight to linger outside Buckingham Palace waiting for the royal decree with so many well-wishers on Monday but, alas, I’m a desk-bound American with no funds or vacation time save what she’s using for her own upcoming nuptials.

Still, a peasant can dream.

In honor of the Royal Prince (is he a prince already? Must Google), I’m revisiting my favorite photos from trips to English trips in 2009 and 2011 today. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: London is the city of my heart. My heart hurts a bit looking at these, remembering how exhilarating it was to walk around Trafalgar Square or along the Thames . . . some of my happiest days have been spent in London. I really must get back there. For a day, for a week — I don’t know. But I have to go.

And I really must go find myself a scone.


Trafalgar Square

Aerial view

British money

Gardens at Buckingham

Big Ben

Busy London street

Gardens at Hyde Park

Mind the gap

Hyde Park ferris wheel

Westminster Abbey


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Experiences, not things

Nothing beats seeing London for the first time.

Except maybe seeing it the second time.

The first came during a family vacation in 2007. Fresh from my college graduation and still bearing that the-world-is-my-oyster glow, my parents, sister and I hopped on a plane across the Atlantic. It was my first truly international experience. (Sorry, Canada; you’re our lovely northern neighbor, but I don’t count Toronto. Plus, you’re all so nice and I didn’t experience any culture shock. So.)

Arriving at Gatwick Airport around 6 a.m. local time, we immediately experienced the joy of being barked at in a British accent, having to throw ourselves on a busy commuter train and the shock of seeing a woman’s unclothed torso in a city newspaper — but it was no matter. I was too distracted by the “Mary Poppins”-esque buildings sailing past our windows to care much. The sunrise was just beginning to bathe the towns in pinks and golds. I sucked in a breath. I felt . . . away. So far away. From my world, my life, my worries. It was like I’d stepped out of a Megan-shaped skin for a much-needed break.

That joy was a drug.

And it’s why I travel. Why I’d rather empty my checking account on experiences instead of possessions. Why I’ll likely never have a McMansion or a fancy car or a housekeeping staff. (That and, you know, I’m a writer. I’m not exactly bathing in cash.) But that’s not important to me. I don’t need a Coach bag for each arm, don’t need fancy shoes or expensive hair treatments. What I need is my passport, my camera, my man and a plan. I’d rather be out and experiencing life than watching it on my expensive television. I’d rather be elsewhere than wandering my expensive house, trapped and anxious as a caged animal.

When I returned to England to see a friend studying abroad in 2009, I worried London might have lost some of its shiny-slick appeal. But I was as excited to get away then as I had been years before — and that was my first solo trip, the first time I’d gone anywhere alone. When Stacy met me at Heathrow, standing in the international arrivals area, I almost cried. It felt like a turning point: a before and after. I will always remember her face, that hug.

The details of that trip can’t be separated from my emotional responses. I can’t recall the cute British hot-dog vendor in Hyde Park without remembering the thrill of being single for the first time in my young adulthood. When I went home days later with a numb toe, the pinched nerve from too much walking in flip-flops was a bonus souvenir — and I nursed it proudly.

And I still can’t listen to Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” without remembering that terrifying, amazing moment of riding back to Heathrow Airport alone — save my iPod. And giant suitcase stuffed with English candy, London piggy banks and snowglobes. I chose that soundtrack specifically for that moment: the song I wanted to play me home.

I bought my plane ticket to England and the return fare home. But that pure moment? The euphoria of being 24 at that specific time and place? It couldn’t be purchased. It wasn’t for sale.

“Buy experiences, not things,” financial editor and expert Jean Chatzky told USA Weekend. “Spending on experiences makes people happier than spending on things. Things get broken and go out of style. Experiences get better every time you talk about them.”

And that last bit is probably why I write, too.


Evolution of a London tourist (and photographer)

Freshly graduated from college and traveling abroad for the first time in my life, my first trip to London — in May 2007 — found me wandering around with my family and a tiny point-and-shoot camera. I’d barely had my PowerShot a week when we boarded the plane, but I was ecstatic to be going overseas.

Dad was our tour guide, plotting out the places we wanted to see in the city before boarding another plane for Rome. In Italy we met up with our tour group (Trafalgar, of course!) and ate amazing food while visiting gorgeous, historic places. It was life-changing.

But before Italy was London, and London has my heart.

Being a 21-year-old who had only ever traveled with her parents, I was completely reliant upon them to get us around the city. As the Tube seemed too complicated to attempt, we traveled by tour bus or taxi to see Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, the Tower of London and more. By some miracle we even found ourselves at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre on the other side of the Thames. And though we didn’t get to see the Houses of Parliament on foot, we whizzed by on our “coach” a few times.



My photos were pretty terrible. I didn’t know anything about Photoshop or post-processing. Terms like composition, exposure and aperture meant nothing to me; I was just concentrating on getting something in my frame. Sometimes I succeeded, and other times not so much. In my own defense, we were on some form of transportation most of the time . . . and it’s pretty challenging to get an amazing shot from a fast-moving tour bus.

But looking at it with a critical eye, I just didn’t know what I was doing.

The next time I returned, I was ready — and not just with a better understanding of photography. My friend Stacy was studying abroad and living in England, so I knew she could navigate us anywhere we needed to be. We stayed away from very “touristy” spots and favored local eateries. We took the Tube everywhere, and when we wanted to go to Surrey — where I did got to the quite touristy (but awesome) Hampton Court Palace — we took an actual honest-to-goodness train.

We were on foot and busy, excited and without trepidation. Stacy was my tour guide, showing me another side of the city I’ve come to love so well. Though my parents dropped me off in D.C. and my friend met me at Heathrow, it was my first time actually traveling alone. If visiting England for the first time was life-changing, visiting for a second time was incredible. When I close my eyes, I can still remember what it felt like to ride the Tube alone headed back to the airport on a quiet Sunday morning. Coldplay’s “Strawberry Swing” came on my iPod, and I looked out the windows and felt . . . alive.



Aside from all that emotional growth, the photos I took — those above — were so much better. Between that first and second trip to London, Mom and I took a local photography class. I got really into macro shots and began to understand my point-and-shoot’s settings. Same camera — different perspective. And more knowledge. And more passion.

And I wasn’t on a tour bus then. Trust me, I love tour buses — and they’re a great way to quickly get the lay of the land. But if you want the real action? The real deal? You better get your feet on the ground. You better start walking.

When our travels brought us back to London in April, I had my Canon Rebel in hand. I’ve spent years cultivating my interest in photography and have had plenty of time to obsess over the city. Without a friend there to guide me, I developed an itinerary of what we should see and do during our four days in London — both before our group Trafalgar tour through the U.K. and after.

I was the tour guide.

I navigated the Tube with (relative) ease, getting us from Trafalgar Square to Charing Cross Road and back again. We rode on the London Eye. Shopped at Covent Garden. Attended Easter Mass at Westminster Abbey. And though we took the long way from Hyde Park to Buckingham Palace, we got in some excellent exercise — combined with a memorable story to tell. (Yes, it was one step away from a death march. But it was a fun death march.)



Same places, different perspective.

And who knows what I’ll see — and how I’ll see it — the next time.


British escape, part I: London, England

London is my BFF. On this, my third visit to England in four years, I wasn’t sure what to expect. It was pre-Royal Wedding week, after all — and having had the greatest time on my previous visit, nerves pulsed in my stomach. What if London wasn’t the way I remembered it? What if — two years later — I felt older, wiser — and thoroughly less enchanted? What if something bad happened and it was forever tarnished for me?

Oh, the agony.

Well. It wasn’t tarnished — or anywhere close. It was . . . comfortable. Familiar. It was a place I’d already navigated and seen and photographed, which opened up a whole new door for me: feeling less like a tourist and more like a local. Branching out and doing different things.

I wasn’t a local, of course; I was an enthusiast. And I met locals — including Lyndsey — and was still the sweaty, disoriented and Tube map-clutching American wandering around the city with her family . . . but that was okay. I had my bearings. And seeing Big Ben peeking through the treetops still gave me a happy, familiar jolt of excitement.

Twice before I’d taken red-eye flights to England and arrived in London just as the city was waking up. This usually left me bleary-eyed and exhausted for the full day ahead of me, so we made a different plan this time: leaving Washington, D.C., in the morning and arriving in London at night. So that’s what we did — getting to Heathrow around 10 p.m. local time.

It was a very strange sensation, watching the clouds turned golden as our plane dipped closer to the United Kingdom. “It’s sunset!” I cried at one point, peering at my small watch. Night closed in and encompassed the plane, tampering with my body clock. It was 3 p.m. at home.

After a good night’s sleep, it was off to explore the city on Thursday and hunt for royal souvenirs — and that meant leaving our hotel near Heathrow for central London, where we were staying in Islington. With four heavy, 50-lb. suitcases apiece, getting to the next location was a little scary. We packed up our stuff and found a bus that would take us to the closest Tube station, where I was in charge of navigating us to our next hotel.

I’ll toot my own horn right here: over the course of our four combined days getting around London at both the beginning and end of the trip, I didn’t get us lost on the Underground one time. This is all thanks to my friend Stacy, who taught me not to be afraid of the train system with its complicated, crazy maze of lines and colors and names. After stowing our stuff, we left to explore the city.

We hopped on the Tube en route to Knightsbridge, where we had lunch at Spaghetti House near the world-famous department store Harrods. Exhaustion was setting in at that point, rendering me a hungry, disoriented beast; I woofed down some pasta after laughing with my family about a guy who looked like Edward Cullen on a “date” that didn’t seem to be going well; neither he or the hairbow-wearing lady he was sitting with were saying a word to each other.

The man had show-stoppingly good hair.

After walking through Knightsbridge, it was over to Hyde Park to try and find “traditional English gardens.” Like me, my mother is never without her camera — and we were eager to find flowers to photograph. It was a gray day, but warm and without rain, so we embarked on foot for the park and a chance to see the Diana Memorial Fountain.

And that’s where I screwed up.

We’d gotten off the Tube at Hyde Park Corner, which was close to lunch but . . . not the fountain. Without a phone on which to check a map or the location of the fountain, I had no idea how far away it would be — but hey, I debated, how bad of a walk could it be? We’re on one side of the park; the fountain’s on the other. We need some exercise. We can make it.

Right?

Well.

We made it. An hour or so of walking, detours throughout the grass expanse of Hyde Park, stops to photograph a few stray tulips and a Ferris wheel that had taken up residence there and . . . we made it. But by the time we arrived at the fountain, we weren’t much in the mood for photographing little kids splashing in the burbling water.

We were exhausted.

I felt bad. No, really — I did. I was okay, but I knew we were all suffering badly from jetlag (it was barely morning at home!) and the last thing we needed was a miles-long walk around an entire British park. Still, my family was a trio of troopers! We even walked over to Buckingham Palace next, where we purchased royal souvenirs and loitered in the shops there. Television crews lined the streets surrounding the palace, some interviewing passersby and others doing stand-ups with wedding news. My sister, a video journalist, was drawn to the cameramen and anchors like flies to honey; we couldn’t resist pausing by a woman with a BBC lanyard to see if she needed any, um, interviewees. (She didn’t, I guess.)

And then? Then we walked from Buckingham to Trafalgar Square, one of my favorite spots in the city, where was I tremendously disappointed to see the fountains weren’t turned on (but I did get to make a wish in the Victoria Memorial fountain by Buckingham)! Crowds still loitered on the steps of the National Gallery and gazed at the large clock counting down the hours until the 2012 Olympics, which will soon take the city by siege.

We sat for a few minutes to collect our thoughts (and calm our racing hearts), then headed to The Sherlock Holmes nearby — a restaurant I’ve been dying to visit since first spotting it in a calendar years ago. It looked so pretty! So fresh! So British! And it didn’t disappoint. Dinner was delicious — a perfect collection of hearty and savory foods, and it was fun to sit in a place with so much atmosphere. Downstairs the pub was jumpin’, with the after-work crowd loitering in the streets for happy hour. In the streets. With beers. That was a funny sight, honestly: people drinking right out in the open. At most spots in the U.S., do that and you’ll have a nice chat with a police officer for your “open container.”

After dinner, my energy level was hitting a low point — and our collective legs were screaming from the miles we’d walked that day. We popped in a Waterstone’s bookstore en route to the nearest Tube stop, where I had fun looking at the differences between British and American book covers (like this one, for Emma Donoghue’s Room). Funny signs littered the store, too, and I really enjoyed the ambiance of wandering around a city bookstore in the evening. Though I left empty handed (trying to preserve much-coveted space in my suitcase!), it was a fun visit.

Friday dawned bright and sunny and, thankfully, I was feeling way better after a good night’s sleep. We hopped over to Covent Garden, another place that had long been on my “to be visited in London” list, and enjoyed soaking up the atmosphere of the busy commercial area. Street performers were swamped by crowds of tourists and locals with cameras and phones, laughing at the antics of a man performing magic with audience participation. I loved walking through the open-air markets and dodging in the little stores.

Hunger was taking over by the time lunch rolled around — and how fortunate, because I was meeting up with the lovely Lyndsey of Teadevotee! We’d made plans to see one another when I announced my travel plans months before and found each other at Bill’s, a lovely cafe between Covent Garden and Leicester Square. I’ve met up with fellow book bloggers several times before and am never, ever disappointed; Lyndsey was exactly the funny, sweet person I felt I knew. She recognized me just as I recognized her and, after a moment of accidentally appearing in the background of a fashion commercial (?? Oh, London!), we made it the cafe.

Poor Lyndsey probably didn’t expect to dine with a table of journalists. It’s in our nature to pepper innocent people with questions, so the inquisition began: what do you do? What does your husband do? What’s life in England like? Are you excited about the wedding? (I’m sure everyone in London is really, really sick of being asked that.) Lyndsey was gracious enough to answer our countless inquiries and even brought me a gift: a copy of a Jane Austen biography that I’ve never seen and can’t wait to read. Sweetness! We said our goodbyes and snapped a few photos. I tried not to look like the frizzy-haired, jetlagged monster I was.

With hours to go before meeting up with our tour group later that evening to embark on an eight-day jaunt through the rest of the UK, Mom, Dad, Kate and I went over to see the London Eye, the famous Ferris wheel constructed in 1999. We queued up with hundreds of people to get a birds-eye view of London, which was awesome — and very different from the air! London is huge. Massive. Sprawling in every direction, giant and encompassing . . . and how strange to see Big Ben from the air, where it’s not nearly as majestic as when you’re on foot.

We took a riverboat cruise on the Thames River next, which took us up and down the river en route to Tower Bridge and back. I love being on the water — especially on vacation. You see so much more that way. Though I couldn’t snap many photos without someone’s head or camera in them, it was fun to see the city that way . . . and so nice to just sit down.

After the boat ride, I convinced my family to walk across Westminster Bridge, which spans the Thames, to get a closer look at Parliament and Big Ben (again). On my last trip, walking across that bridge at sunset was one of my fondest memories . . . magical and surreal. It felt good to be there again, but hard to believe — especially since I wasn’t sure when I’d ever make it across the pond again!

We wrapped up our third night in the city by having dinner at the hotel and getting a good night’s rest — and we’d need it. On Saturday morning, our alarms chimed at the ungodly hour of 5 a.m. local time to begin the leg of our tour with Trafalgar Tours, which I’ll tell you all about . . . next time.

Hint: it involves the English countryside, cathedrals, countless medieval streets and clotted cream fudge.

If nothing else, you have to come back for the fudge.

write meg! returns to the UK


Big news! Big, big news. Two years after I last made a journey across the pond, I’m returning to the UK!

With a tour group in April, I’ll be visiting Stratford-upon-Avon, York, Bath, Leeds, Stonehenge and London, my favorite city in the world, as well as a host of other cities in Ireland, Scotland and Wales: Glasgow; Edinburgh; Belfast; Dublin; Kilkenny; Waterford; and Cardiff.

It’s going to be action-packed, crazy and exhausting. I’m going to fill up a hundred memory cards and come home with more photos than I can possibly edit or post. I’ll be making memories left and right as I travel through several countries with my family, and I’ll miss Spencer the whole time I’m gone.

But it will be incredible.

The last time I visited Europe with my family, I had just graduated from college and was just getting ready to start my first full-time job — the one I have now. This spring, I’ll be gone from work for almost two weeks — the most consecutive time I’ve had off in four years. By far. Because of a long weekend and holiday when I visited my friend Stacy in London last time, I only missed two days of work!

So . . . you know. It might get a little chaotic around here. But whatever I have to do in anticipation of leaving, I’m going to do it. I want my head clear when I get on that plane, and I will enjoy the heck out of my scheduled, orchestrated and very stringent time off.

Some people cringe when I mention we’re going to travel around Great Britain and Ireland with a tour company, but honestly? For us, it’s the way to go. You don’t have to worry about transportation or most meals; the highlights you’d want to experience in each city are planned. Because we’re with a group, we don’t wait for most attractions. We show up with our one (overflowing) suitcase, sit back and prepare to have fun.

And that’s just what I’ll be doing.

The downside? Well, it’s the same as the upside: everything is planned for you. With few exceptions, your days are packed — and there isn’t much room for a detour. That being said, if I have to go AWOL from the group to make sure I get to see the Jane Austen Centre in Bath, that’s what I’ll do. Ain’t no way I’m missing that; I’ll hitchhike back to London if I have to. I can’t be in Bath — so, so close to the Austen exhibit — and miss it.

I’ll cry.

Ever been to Ireland, Scotland, Wales, England? What did you see — and what did you do? If I rebel against the Powers That Be and visit something else en route, what shouldn’t I miss? And should I try to clear some room for you in my suitcase? (Spencer might fight you for the spot.)