Back From Abroad!

Back From Abroad!

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We’re home!! And it was wonderful, magical, challenging, expensive, enchanting, familiar, exotic, and as always, life-changing and perspective-changing. It was a terrific adventure.

But first things first, my apologies for being extremely quiet over the last two months. The updates dwindled because of extremely challenging, very precarious events taking place at work which came to a head, spilling fourth drama the likes of which I have never seen in my professional life before. It caused anxiety and stress that I also have never experienced in my professional life, and a lot of uncertainty regarding the future. HOWEVER. It seems the storm is passing and things are really looking up, so now that the flurry of crazy has died down, I’m looking forward to directing my mental energy back to the things that make me really happy, this blog being one of them!

OK. With that out of the way…

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It was marvelous, guys. I could write about the wicked financial hangover we’re nursing (…we knew it was coming, and feel it was worth it, but it still hurts!), or the inevitable let-down of returning to every day life (not as bad as last time!), or the very real challenges that the three of us encountered that make up the experience of travel…but I won’t bother, because all of those things pale in comparison to the graces upon grace that we were given daily, and the seeds that have been planted in our souls from these experiences, preparing to bloom and ripen over the coming months and years. I sincerely hope you don’t get terribly bored of seeing travel pictures and hearing travel stories, because that’s going to be a major theme of my blog for a long time to come!

We started our trip in London, staying in a beautiful apartment in an award-winning, eco-friendly building in Elephant and Castle, a vibrant and diverse neighborhood that won our hearts immediately. This was the view from our bedroom:

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We stayed in London for four days, and it was fantastic! We did a lot of sightseeing, catching up on sleep, walking, riding the busses and the underground…but the downside was that London was in the middle of the the worst heatwave they’ve ever had and we were hot as HELL. Poor London just doesn’t have the infrastructure to deal with heat like that, and our apartment, the busses, the tube, basically everywhere, didn’t have adequate air conditioning. We were sweating buckets and remained sticky the entire time. Still, we did the best we could and saw some glorious sights:

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Possibly our favorite London experience was getting to eat at St. John, a Michelin-starred restaurant owned by renowned chef Fergus Henderson. Who I met. Who I got to thank. Who I kind of fangirl-fawned over as I gushed to him, and who graciously thanked me and told me he hoped we enjoyed our lunch. Guys…it was basically the highlight of the entire trip. I almost cried several times after returning to my table, but forced myself to hold back the tears remembering I was wearing mascara. Oh, the food was outstanding, by the way! I’m planning to do a second food retrospective post for this trip, so you’ll get to see what we ate!

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We visited Stonehenge and Bath:

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Both were lovely. This was the most touristy thing we did, and it was fun but I wouldn’t do them again (at least not by chartered tour bus). This was a challenging day because we were all very tired and Sister was worn thin, but we still got many fun memories out of it and I will definitely remember it fondly.

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Husband and I got to do a day exploring London on our own while Sister rested, and we had the best time! We visited ancient tea shops and ancient perfume shops (surprise, surprise, Husband bought his very first grown-up cologne and it’s MAGICAL). We visited the London Transport Museum, to Husband’s delight, and we visited my beloved Twining’s tea shop, to my delight.

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Then in the evening we ate at this lovely place, a beautiful pub. There is so much beauty in the U.K., it’s almost unbelievable. Everywhere you look there is something ancient, eternal and charming looking back at you. The details make all the difference, and we were constantly looking at each other and saying things like “This is REAL! It isn’t Disneyland…it’s REAL!” It sounds so silly, but the beauty, the details…they fed us. They fed us right up, filling starving parts of our souls that we didn’t even know needed nourishment.

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After London we took the train to Holyhead (home of the Holyhead Harpies, for you Harry Potter fans!) and stayed in a lovely B&B. I took an evening stroll by myself and was rewarded with these vistas.

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The next day we took a ferry to Dublin and, after a near-disaster regarding return-ferry scheduling that Husband heroically solved, we spent seven hours in this remarkably and stunningly beautiful city.

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We decided immediately that next time, Dublin is where we’ll be coming, sorry London! We’ve had enough of you! Dublin was just…comfortable. Next to the hustle and bustle of London, Dublin was like your grandpa’s easy chair…we felt we could sink into it with a hot drink (a real Irish coffee, perhaps) and just stay indefinitely. Alas, we had to return to Holyhead…but thankfully we got a stateroom on the return journey, and one with a fantastic view:

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Mostly we slept, though. Then, of course, we got to Conwy. OH, CONWY.

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If you read my (long) post about Wales you’ll know my love for Conwy. I can’t possibly reiterate it here, but suffice it to say, Conwy is my most favorite place on earth. If any place feeds the starving parts of my soul, it is north Wales, and Conwy might as well be the capital.

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Of course, there are other stunning towns in north Wales, like the almost absurdly picturesque Llanwrst:

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We spent a few days in the north just taking in the splendor, and then said goodbye to Conwy at it’s lovely little train station:

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Now we are home, jet lagged, still needing to do laundry, unpack, prepare for the work week (I return tomorrow!). But I’m going to ease back into the grind, and I have a handful of changes that I’m going to be making to improve my quality of life. Last August I wrote a post called “First Fruits,” discussing the “fruit” that travel bears in the weeks after returning home. I’m already seeing these first fruits, but I’m looking forward to the harvest, which will come in time. Of course, it feels so good to be home. Traveling is exhausting and it’s wonderful to be in my own bed again, with my own sweet kitty curled up next to me. We are so lucky and so grateful, and we’ll definitely bask in this glow for weeks to come.

 

 

To London, With Love

To London, With Love

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Sitting in the back of our MiniCab, we craned our necks to take in every detail of the landscape flying past. I hadn’t realized how far Heathrow was from London proper. Our driver, who had been so patient as we delayed and delayed, waiting in the endless customs line to enter the country, zipped down the freeway through construction detours, weaving carefully and quickly through traffic snares. I’m sure my eyes looked like saucers. It was like waking up and having the whole world as you know it reversed, the uncanny valley of familiarity meeting otherness.

We sped past farmland, neon yellow with flowering mustard, football stadiums, and eventually row housing that looked alarmingly decrepit. Entering London, we pulled to a stop just as a pedestrian smashed in the window of the car next to us, shouting. The light turned and we sped away before we could see what happened. I hadn’t known what to expect, but what I saw wasn’t it. Ancient buildings filthy with centuries of grime shot past, miles and miles of hyper-urban landscape swarming with people who didn’t look at all like myself, more hijabs than I had ever seen in one place, above-ground trains, unfamiliar signage and crossing signals, and the sheer immensity of London intimidated me…in fact, it terrified me.

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Before we exited the cab at the Citizen M hotel, I was convinced I hated London. I was fearful, so nervous. Just the cab ride had given me real culture shock. I had expected something thoroughly Anglicized, romantic, quaint, something Victorian, something posh and refined. Maybe I expected a village, but instead I had gotten something like New York City—overwhelming urban sprawl that I hadn’t fathomed. I’d known about London of course—it’s types of crime, it’s population density, it’s demographics. That’s what’s so silly about my unexpected reaction. I knew London wasn’t those things I had been expecting! And it’s embarrassing to admit that I was at all taken aback by such things, but I’m being brutally honest here– I was. It was like meeting a blind date who’ve you’ve only seen a tiny, pixelated picture of. Suddenly you see them in the flesh and regardless of what they’ve told you about themselves, they are nothing like what you anticipated. I wanted to hide in my hotel. I was afraid of so much otherness, so much that was unfamiliar.

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Husband was ecstatic. He wanted to walk, to dig into this place and get to know it. Knowing I hadn’t traveled all this way to sit in my hotel being afraid, we walked to a tea shop I wanted to visit, and ate savory pies at a fancy restaurant. Following a route Husband made up as we went along, we passed the Royal Courts of Justice, the London School of Economics, strolled by Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Trafalgar Square. We walked and walked and walked. And as we walked I relaxed a bit, amazed by the sights, sounds, smells, all the differences large and small that made this place “other.” Endless monuments, endless beautiful architecture, endless accents of many types. I was impressed by so much of what I saw, but I was also unable to form a real opinion—I felt like a toddler, taking the whole of creation in for the first time, with no frame of reference through which to judge it or to orient myself.

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And then, when it looked like I was beginning to soften, I had a bit of a meltdown. After many hours of walking, and after Husband’s thoughtful warnings that we had a long walk still ahead of us, I became very physically and mentally weary and began to crack. It was in the theatre district that I started to panic. Swarms of people were out on the sidewalks, ales in hand, enjoying the warm late afternoon sunshine. I perceived that it was growing late and I was exhausted, quickly getting hungrier and hungrier. Husband showed me how far we had wandered from our hotel—we were at least an hour’s walk back. I had had just enough novelty and suddenly felt overwhelmed, stranded, frightened, and alone for no good reason at all. I actually started crying a little (I’m not proud of this memory). I moaned and groaned, and was a thorough pain in the ass for poor Husband who was having a ball and couldn’t see what the matter was! Patiently, he led the way back to our hotel as I seethed in high dudgeon and anxiety that continued to bubble up, despite the good time I’d had over the last few hours. I can’t remember what we ate for dinner, but it was near our hotel. Our jet lag kept us up very late despite our exhaustion, and when we came-to it was noon.

I woke up knowing that I hated London. I had wanted to befriend it on my terms, ones I had imagined for it, and it had failed me. Nevertheless, I was willing to try again. I regretted sleeping in so late. Still, we had enough time to walk over to the Tower of London by way of Borough Market and take a tour, before meandering leisurely back to catch a performance of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” at the nearby Shakespeare Globe theatre. This second day, rested and well-fed, the vastness of London—cobblestones, wide streets, enormous bridges and seemingly endless sprawl—was less of a shock.

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We had a wonderful time! I got a picture with the first female Beefeater, we ate sausages and cake, drank ale and tea, saw the burial sites of people like Anne Boleyn. As I stood in the Church of St. Peter ad Vincula I closed my eyes and imagined– my soul remembering a time and place never seen, manifesting love for people never met, missing memories never had. So many sights in London make you feel this way. London holds the present in its palm, but gestures at the vastness of yesterday, reminding you that you are merely passing through…that it alone will remain. This experience was so different compared to the day before. Well rested, I was better oriented. I felt safer, I had a mental grasp on the place I was in. The crowds of people I felt were pressing in on me the day before were, today, just people enjoying the sunshine.

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That evening, we climbed into the balcony of an historic theatre, roof open to the warm night air, and spent the next four hours transported into another world—one of hilarity, beauty, and utter magic, the evening stars twinkling overhead. We left the theatre and grabbed huge bowls of pasta across the street, unable to find words adequate for what we had just experienced. “That was, hands down, the best performance of any kind I have ever seen in my entire life,” Husband proclaimed. I smiled in total agreement as I devoured spicy fusilli. Something had clicked that day. First impressions aren’t always accurate. I had given London a second chance, and it had wooed me. I began to “get” London. It was working its magic on me, but I had to approach it on its terms, not mine.

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We boarded a train the following morning and spent the next few hours whizzing through impossibly beautiful English countryside dotted with sheep, low stone walls and hedgerows bisecting green meadows spilling over with blooms. I realized why England is known for its lush greenery—every nook and cranny, where in America there would dwell a weed, here bloomed a flower. At the base of stop signs, sprouting from cracks in sidewalks, every growing plant turned a colorful face to the sun. We disembarked in Cardiff, Wales and in unseasonably warm sunshine we sat in the verdant and charming Sophia Park sipping tea, falling in love all over again—with Wales, with the United Kingdom, with traveling, with each other.

Wales was one of the best adventures of my life. I won’t go into it because I could write a novella about my love affair with Wales, so I’ll save that for another time.  Trust me when I say, we fell HARD for the Welsh people, the Welsh countryside, the Welsh language, and everything Wales had to offer. It was a visit to Middle Earth for us, and it nourished something deep inside the quiet parts of our sleeping souls we didn’t know we needed.

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I boarded the train back to London on our last day in the UK and sped back to the city that made me feel a thousand different things. For the second time, we walked. We walked to the Houses of Parliament, walked to the London Eye, walked to King’s Cross Station to visit Platform 9 ¾. We stopped for the second time at Twinings on the Strand (established 1706!) and spent a small fortune on tea. This time around, I wasn’t anxious. London, after such a short and volatile romance, had us both at its mercy. I accepted it on its terms, not mine, and its generosity overflowed. I teared up again flying westward, leaving pieces of my heart behind. I had always ached to experience Britain. Now I had, and despite my anxieties of various kinds, I had fallen as deeply in love with it as I always thought I would.

Some people hate traveling. There are several I know in my immediate family alone who could gladly die happy never having left home again. And after lifetimes of hard work, why should they leave home to spend money elsewhere and be uncomfortable for a brief period of time? Travel isn’t easy. It’s hard on the bank account and hard on they body. If you’re like me, travel can spark anxiety and strangely agoraphobic episodes! The unknown and unfamiliar can be legitimately terrifying, even when there isn’t any real threat present. Being in unfamiliar places can be threat enough to a person prone to nerves at the best of times. But here’s the thing…

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Stepping far outside our comfort zones forces us to adapt and reveals parts of ourselves we might not know exist. I didn’t expect to react to London so negatively. After that first day, I didn’t expect to ever thaw towards it, either. But in a remarkably tiny space of time, I not only had all kinds of preconceived notions quashed, but was forced to reflect upon what those preconceived notions meant about me, about what makes me uncomfortable and why. I got to reframe my discomfort, and ultimately let it go when I realized that much of it was baseless and silly. And that was liberating and rewarding.

The upshot is that I have absolutely zero qualms or anxieties about our forthcoming trip. London is far too old, far too big, and far too complex for me to ever fully “get” it, but I like to think that we are friends insofar as a person can befriend a place. I’m looking forward to introducing Sister to it, and to seeing Husband (London’s fast friend) reunite with a place he appreciated from the beginning. I’m excited to see parts of it I haven’t seen, taste things I haven’t tasted, and step once again outside of the familiar—the place where true adventure begins. We’ll reunite on its terms, not mine, and I’m looking forward to seeing where it takes me.

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