setting sail

Allie and I left Amsterdam the next day, taking a local train through Rotterdam to Hoek van Holland. Despite the pull of the great city of Amsterdam, both of us had more pressing engagements; hers in the form of the rest of term at Swansea Uni, and mine in the form of a plane ticket back to the States from Heathrow. The end was near; my long journey home began, really, as soon as I left Prague. From that point on, I would push no farther into Europe, and each step I took westward was another closer to home. The only thing to do, then, would be to make the voyage in style.

We hopped a local train to Rotterdam Centraal station and from there boarded the ‘woo hoo!!!’ express to Hoek van Holland. The huge port complex near the station held container and passenger ships from all over the world. Back in Prague I had booked us passage on Stena Line’s Stena Hollandica, running from the Europoort at the Hook of Holland across the North Sea to Harwich on the coast of England. From Harwich, a late-night train would take me back to Liverpool Street. The tickets were going fast, and all I could manage was a sailing four days in the future, but we were hoping to get out much sooner.

The train was full of stranded passengers like us, and we had been told that the ferries had been operating at near capacity to move the sudden exodus of airline passengers. Though the queue at the ferry terminal stretched almost back to the doors, we walked calmly up to the desk and managed to exchange our tickets (and cabin) for a ride on the next ferry out. Excellent!

Through customs and up the gangway we went, into the bowels of the ship that would carry us across the sea. The Hollandica can carry more than 900 people, and it seemed today that the ship was filled to capacity. Travelers sprawled out through the seven decks, taking their rest anywhere they could find it. The onboard casino and restaurant looked more like a refugee camp, with luggage and small children strewn about the room. Up on deck, the ship’s horn sounded its departure, and we set sail.

The rumbles deep within the ship translated into movement, and the ship lumbered down the canal and out onto the open ocean. The wind turbines spinning lazily in the distance waved us a goodbye as the waterway lost its boundaries and breakwaters to the expanse of the North Sea.

Being a landlubber from a state surrounded on all sides by other states, I had never been on a ship or a body of water of this size before. The sensation of movement was only discernible when the ship pitched and rolled slightly on the sea. Up on the sun deck, the gulls circled for handouts, and a few brave souls pitched tents in the wind and curled up for a few hours’ nap. Allie and I settled down in a corner of the restaurant-turned-refugee deck and chatted up some of our fellow passengers.

Charlie, 22, was on his way back to the UK after his spring holiday, much like Allie and I were. His mates had caught an earlier ferry, and now Charlie was playing catch-up. The prognosis now looked rosy; he (and we) were on our way, now nearly fifty miles out to sea, headed for jolly ole England. Suddenly, we noticed something odd: smoke rising from a trash can nearby. We investigated, and found what we suspected to be a smoldering fire caused by a discarded cigarette. Charlie and I leapt into action, sacrificing our beers for the sake of saving the Hollandica from a certain, fiery doom. Well, okay, maybe not fiery doom…but at least a shrieking fire alarm.

The sun began to set on the sea, and I took a moment to find a quiet corner of the deck near the lorry drivers’ lounge to get some photos. I can see now why travel by sea has tugged at people since time immemorial; there is a certain serenity that comes with the expanse of water, the quiet, faraway whoosh of the bow of the ship slicing through the waves. Once in a while, a group of gulls would make a pass on the ship, trying to find some handouts from generous travelers. My mind was on the hours ahead, on getting back to England and, all too soon, returning to the States. Commence reflection/contemplation/etc.

Soon enough, the sun was setting as the ship came into Harwich. Back on the sun deck, we watched as the ferry swung itself around and pulled alongside its berth. The sunset that greeted us to the UK was orange-red with the volcanic ash still being spewed by Iceland, but now and again we could see the contrails of the first planes to dip their toes into the cloud. The ban would soon be lifted, but we were still glad to have been able to make it back across Europe during the shutdown. Our plan had been an unqualified success.

Allie and I bid Charlie goodbye and headed through customs to the Harwich International rail station. Our last journey of the night would take us from here to Liverpool Street in London, and from there it was only another tube ride to the hostel. The train pulled away from Harwich, and almost as soon as it had, Allie and I were asleep in our backpacks. The hostel in Borough couldn’t come soon enough.

under a slate grey sky

I half expected to hear the bells of Big Ben blaring over loudspeakers upon arrival in the UK, but the only thing greeting me off the jetway at Terminal 3 was passport control. Oh, passport control, that joy of joys! Be still, my heart.

a rubber-stamp welcome.

I staggered into Terminal 5 to meet up with my colleagues, completely exhausted from more than 20 hours of nonstop traveling. Their flight didn’t get in for another hour and a half, but even a small nap seemed unattainable for the time being. Suitcases littered the row of seats the students had chosen, some of the students bringing entire designer wardrobes encased in £700 luggage sets. Priorities, I suppose. I’m here to cash some checks in the Life Bank, but if all that’s on your mind is the par-tay, suit yourself. I’ll be the cheery bloke in the corner falling asleep still strapped into his backpack.

Skip ahead an hour or two, and our school-chartered coach pulled out (the wrong way, for les americains) onto the M4 headed for central London. I was of course riveted by the view out the window, but my enthusiasm was no doubt hampered by my acute lack of sleep. The drizzle I had heard was such a characteristic of London smeared the windows of the coach as we sped toward the city.

Lack of sleep was addressed fairly soon as we arrived at the University of London, my new daily grind. The foreign student centre soon looked like an impromptu backpacker’s hostel, with bodies strewn over the much-in-demand couches and backpacks and more bodies littering the floor. I staked out a spot in the corner near the radiator and passed out as the world outside turned dark again.

Our hosts got home around 5pm, and my roommate and I headed out into the neon-studded night. Our taxi wound its way through the serpentine streets, our foul-mouthed Cockney driver shouting stories of dodging evil traffic wardens, until we arrived in our new home for the next four months.

The next few days were a blur, punctuated by lack of sleep, endless orientation seminars, and generally being smacked around by jet lag. Names, places like Bloomsbury, Finsbury Park, Kensington. Being told over and over and over not to get in unlicensed minicabs. The traffic’s on the left and sometimes if you don’t mind the gap, you really will fall flat on your face. You’ve been warned.

Eventually the insomnia subsided somewhat and routine settled in. Get up, fight the crowds on the Tube, go to class, head back home and sleep. Sprinkle in the pub and more pedestrian things like getting phones sorted and grocery shopping, the first few days were booked wall to wall. Soon London would even out, and we’d get around to enjoying ourselves, but at the beginning, London was a pressure cooker. Take heart, the sun would shine soon (literally! incredible, i know), and things would become much less hectic. This is only the beginning.

onward and upward

I know I’ve been slacking quite badly lately with the update of this blog, but that’s about to change. I’m currently on the first leg of my biggest trip yet: four months, mostly in London. Also on the list: Paris, Amsterdam, Berlin, Prague, Warsaw, and wherever else we think we can get to.

This idea was a long time coming. I’d always wanted to do some study abroad before I left university, but hadn’t looked seriously at it until the beginning of this semester. After a good deal of research and many hours of wonderful number crunching, I made the decision to apply for a 3-and-a-half month long semester in London. Chosen for its proximity to the rest of Europe and my general want to experience the city, London seems like a good plan. After my program ends in mid April (it seems so long from now), I’ll be traipsing about the rest of Europe for a few weeks until either:

a) I run out of money
b) I fly home on the day my tickets are for in late April

I give it split odds.

Anyway, there will be updates with stories and photos from the US and Canada, since I’ve still got a large backlog to clear, but watch this space for tales of lunacy in Europe.

Stay classy!