London, England, UK
Meeting a Stranger and Acting a Tourist
8:00 AM GMT
London Victoria Station, London, England
The bus finally pulls to a stop and I unbuckle my lap belt and sit up, discovering a few newly-formed knots that have set in from our bumpy journey. I disembark and find myself in the middle of one of the busiest stations in London. Disoriented and smelly, I lop over to the bathroom and attempt to freshen up, changing clothes in a bathroom stall and giving the particularly offensive areas a once-over with a baby wipe. As I brush my teeth in the bus station sink, I look at the bags under my eyes and quickly attempt to mask them with concealer, but there’s no doubt I wear the appearance of a road-weary traveler. The best part is, this morning I meet my host in London, a young man by the name of Alex who I only know through a profile. This will be my first genuine stranger I’ve Couchsurfed with and I’m more than a little nervous. I must now negotiate the tube and the London bus system to get to his flat on the north side of Hyde Park.
As presentable as I can make myself, tangled hair braided and face freshly washed, I head into the massive station to procure an Oyster Card. I know I’ll be using lots of public transit so the refillable card is the easiest way to breeze through the system. As I head to the office, I walk past a half dozen police with assault rifles. The aftershock of Charlie Hebdo has put all of the UK and Europe on high alert. I push my uneasiness to the back of my mind and focus on navigating my way over to the flat. The central line on the tube has been closed today, which was plan A for getting there. So I have to brave the bus system instead, which thankfully proves to be rather easy. The system is so extensive and the buses are clean.
10:00 AM GMT
I arrive in Alex’s neighborhood, just north of Hyde Park. I follow his landmarks and soon find myself at the foot of a massive apartment complex. Yet again I’m crippled with a lack of cell service (take note everyone, get a travel phone with local sim card, lest you have to follow my cafe-hopping plan to contact people), so I duck into a McDonalds across the street and text Alex. Realizing he has no idea what I look like outside of profile pictures, I send him a picture of my most defining characteristic: my pack.
Contact successfully made, I head back over to the apartment. At the gate, a spry, smiling young man meets me. We exchange hellos and handshakes and he suggests we go down the block and grab a bit of breakfast since I must be starving. His mannerisms are incredibly warm and friendly, putting me at ease right away. I also know that breakfast serves the dual purpose of making sure neither of us believes the other to be a crazy person before letting me into his apartment, a welcome bit of caution common in the Couchsurfing community.
10:30 AM GMT
We settle into a lovely restaurant I have since forgotten the name of and begin to chat. The first thing I notice about him is his smile. It’s wide and lights up his face. It matches his bright personality quite well and as we chat about travel and work, I can tell we will get along nicely. Alex is a German expat who moved to London to work in finance, though his bubbly personality makes it hard for me to imagine him in a suit and tie. After an exquisite breakfast, Alex takes me to his flat to settle in. It’s a cozy bachelor pad he shares with one roommate, and in the spare office room he’s set up an air mattress, pillows and blankets. I set my bag down and Alex tells me he’s heading out to meet up with his football team for an afternoon practice and then later that evening he’s meeting up with a friend from back home, and then invites me to join him for the latter. We part ways at the door and I head off through the park towards the center of London.
12:00 PM GMT
I take a leisurely stroll through the park, the ground still wet from rain that past night. As I cross through Buckingham Palace’s gardens, I notice a commotion up ahead. Dumb luck has provided me with the opportunity to see the Queen’s horse guard making their parade from the palace back to the Hyde Park Barracks after their changing of the guard.
12:30 PM GMT
Buckingham Palace, London, England
Before I can wander much further, I find myself square in front of Buckingham Palace. Now, I’ve been very fortunate by traveling in the dead of winter to avoid much of the overcrowding in popular tourist spots. The palace, however, clearly maintains its draw year-round. I have stumbled upon the palace grounds just minutes before the changing of the guard and the square is edge-to-edge filled with bodies.
From there I wander on toward the Thames, on the way encountering HM Horse Guard once again before finally reaching that iconic landmark, Big Ben.
1:30 PM GMT
Trafalgar Square, London, England
Further wandering after my musing at the river brings me to Trafalgar Square. My one mission: Climb on top of the lions. After several unsuccessful attempts and much huffing of breath, I finally hoist myself onto the pedestal and sit behind the proud beast.
From this quick respite I head to my final tourist spot of the day, The Tower of London.
2:00 PM GMT
It took a wide grin and then a dose of sad puppy dog eyes to get the lady at the ticket booth to give me the student price on my entrance ticket, which brought the admission price down from £24 ($35) to £18 ($25), still a bit of a hefty price but proved to be well worth it given the size of the tower and the number of exhibits. Once inside, I milled about with a group of others as we waited to be escorted through the tower grounds by one of the official residents and tour guides of the Tower, the Yeoman Warders. Soon enough, a portly man with a bright smile and booming voice approached us dressed head-to-toe in the brazen red uniform that distinguishes this particular branch of HM’s service. From there we are led through the tower grounds as our guide dictates tales of former captives of the tower, including the most famous Anne Boleyn. At the end of the tour, our guide takes us inside the chapel, an eerily quiet space. He tells us that underneath the floor lie the remains of dozens of stately captives of the tower, and at the alter, the remains of Anne herself were discovered underneath. It’s a chilling place, a mixture of honor and malice clinging to it. It’s here that our guide bids us farewell and leaves us to explore the rest of the tower exhibits on our own.
I head for the main exhibit, the Crown Jewels. They sit at the top of one of the parapets inside the tower, nestled behind bulletproof glass and surrounded by armed guards. Along the way a visual exhibit of the history of the jewels is laid out, showing the various coronation ceremonies of England’s long history of monarchs. There are also exhibits detailing the history of some of the famous diamonds enclosed in the scepter and crowns. It’s an impressive display, and when I finally reach the jewels themselves, they are just as impressive as advertised. They present as a glittering symbol of power behind one of the most successful empires in history.
After the jewels, I head to my final exhibit in the Tower, the actual imprisonment chambers. Housed in a turret overlooking the river, there remains an original holding cell reserved for high-profile captives. The graffiti on the walls which is still visible and preserved dates back to the 1500’s.
It’s staggering to be able to touch stone which fingers traced over 500 years earlier. This alone is well worth the price of admission. Soon, the setting sun reminds me to begin my journey back towards the flat to meet up with Alex for dinner later that night. I bid adieu to the tower and head off into the London evening.
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