baguette!

I have a tumultuous relationship with my backpack. Let me be clear about this: I really do love my luggage. It never complains about being tossed around by savage baggage handlers, and it doesn’t make a scene at metro turnstiles. It is by almost all measures the best piece of traveling kit I own. But it makes my back hurt once in a while, and it always, without fail, is just barely large enough to need to be checked on airplanes. This last one wasn’t as important on the first stage of this trip, however – because bags are free on the Eurostar.

The time had finally come to take on mainland Europe. Term had been over no more than 10 hours before we awoke in the darkness of 5 A.M. to catch a bus to Wood Green tube station in the north of London in time to get the Tube to King’s Cross, or more properly St. Pancras International train station, the terminal for one end of the Eurostar service to Paris and Brussels (and sometimes Avignon). We’d be going to Paris.

Allow me at this time to introduce ‘we’. This is Kira.

Kira is one of the other students on my program, and one of my best friends. Over the last four months, we got to know each other (and our preferred methods of travelling, namely backpacking) quite well living in London. We’d be traveling together until Prague, where she’d head to Frankfurt for her flight back to the US, and I’d head for England via Amsterdam. Two and a half weeks and more than 2,000 miles (3,218 km) racked up on a combination of trains, buses, and ferries – no planes. Our route would look something like this:

We emerged from the first trickles of Tube commuters at King’s Cross and hurried across the street in the chill of early morning, the sun barely peeking over the top of the London skyline. Through the big glass doors, the station buzzed with the frenetic pace of wave after wave of commuters hustling through on their way to jobs in the city. Both domestic and international trains call at the new St. Pancras, which took over the Eurostar service from Waterloo in 2007 when the High Speed 1 rail link opened, connecting the new international station with the Channel Tunnel.

Thus far, it had seemed in a way as if this whole thing was a rehearsal, a practice run for some grand trip we’d someday take. It didn’t feel real until we were finally past the ticket barriers and into the inner sanctum of the station. A French customs agent looked me over, examining the still-expanding two page stamp collection in my passport.

“How long are you going to be in France?”

“Four days.”

“Anything to declare?”

“No.”

He looked me up and down once more, fired off a few more questions, and then, satisfied, he brought his stamp down on page 8 with a satisfying thwack – leaving fresh, sharp ink in its wake. The big “F” surrounded by the stars of the EU smiled back at me from the page. We were in, even before we had left English soil.

At the top of the lift was the platform and our sunrise train to France. We scooted aboard minutes before the conductor’s whistle blew and the train pulled silently out of the station.

Eurostar is a brilliant thing. It’s cheap (comparatively), fast, and drops you right into the middle of Paris. There had been a few airfares that were slightly cheaper for our given day, but since all the low-cost carriers in London fly out of Luton or Stansted, one must tack on an additional £10 or so to get to the airport, plus the same on the other side to get from de Gaulle or Orly to the city, and baggage fees…it makes so much more sense to take the train. It’s miles more comfortable, too.

By the time the train left the first tunnel, we were already doing 100 mph (160 kph), faster than any train I’ve ever been on in the States. We picked up the pace as the train snaked its way through Kent towards the Channel Tunnel terminal at Folkestone. The landscape of southeast England became nothing but a blur on the train as the passengers settled in for the two-hour ride to Paris. Well-timed snoozes came to many of the people on board.

Before I could fall asleep again, we were under the English Channel. We entered the Channel Tunnel without pomp or circumstance, soon staring out the window into nothing but dark and the occasional crossover between the bores. It’s an odd feeling; the Chunnel seems like any other railway tunnel (though a very very long one), and there’s nothing at all to indicate that one is two hundred feet below the bottom of the Channel, except the *pop* of your ears as you descend into the depths. We finally burst into the sunlight on the French side, after about 20 minutes of darkness. Time once again slowed down, the endless fields of northern France finally yielding to the banlieues of Paris as we approached Gare du Nord. Paris! One of the cities I’d only ever heard about, only ever dreamed about was minutes away. Time to see if mon Français was up to the task.

paris nord

After dodging the beggars who welcomed us to Paris (the Roma ladies with the cards that ask you if you speak English/French/German), the Metro took us to Châtelet, where, after escaping from the labyrinth of passages connected to the Metro station, we fell into the warm embrace of the Paris sun. We rested under a tree in a park and listened to the bells of St-Eustache ring into the quiet afternoon. This was the life for sure. We walked the streets of the 2nd arrondissement and soaked it up – the chatter from people at the innumerable cafés bouncing off the narrow alleys and cobbled streets, the occasional bicycle bell, the distant ring of church bells.

It’s not for everyone, I can admit. Paris cannot be called a super clean city, but of course if it was, it would not be Paris. There’s something terribly endearing about the grit of the Metro, the dark alleys between the mazelike streets of the old parts of the city, even the crazy looking panhandlers along the Seine. It’s Paris; you don’t think about things like that, you just feel.

sauf velo

jammin

That night, we met up with a friend of a friend who had a couch we could sleep on near Montparnasse. We arrived to find that our host had an apartment in one of the tallest buildings for miles, and Paris is a very flat city. As we turned the corner from the elevator, I snatched a glance out of a 32nd floor hallway window. The view pulled me in until my nose pressed against the glass. The entirety of Paris was laid out before me, complete with an illuminated Eiffel Tower in the distance, its beacon light broadcasting silently into the stillness of the night. Dashing out once more into the night, we found a Parisian off-license down the street and bought our first bottle of wine from a man with a beard who spoke only French. It was red, shockingly cheap, and absolutely delicious.

illuminated

more delicious frames from Paris right here for your hungry eyes.

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through the roof – underground

The Tube is, simultaneously, the thing that I most love and most loathe in London. It will get you anywhere in the city, but will, at various times do so at its own leisure, cramming you into a completely packed metal pipe full of sweaty people (sweaty drunk people at any time after, say, 9 p.m.), and leaving you to twiddle your thumbs (if, hypothetically, you can get both hands in front of you) as the powers-that-be sort out everything from more commonplace signal failures to what Transport for London frequently refers to as ‘track obstructions’ – jumpers. Published figures are hard to come by, but estimates range anywhere from 50 to 150 people a year.

roundel

gloucester road

One becomes quickly accustomed to the ever-present crowds, the teeming masses that clog the Tube seemingly at will, at the oddest times of the day. Think the train going into London will be empty at 3 in the afternoon? Think again. From the platform to the lifts to the surface, the crowds come early and stay late. However, by the same token, some trains will be eerily quiet and empty, and precious seats can still be had without having to resort to hockey-style checking antics. It’s about as unpredictable as the weather here: going from packed, hot, sweaty and terminally late to quick, clean, and efficient in a matter of less than an hour. It’s a grab bag.

chancery lane

The London Underground has the distinction of being the world’s first subway. Opened 10 January 1863, the Tube (as it is widely known) originally consisted of cut-and-cover style tunnels that now comprise parts of the Circle, Metropolitan, and Hammersmith and City lines. The system underwent a series of large expansions, helped by the development of the tunneling shield, which led to the boring of deep-level tunnels that could be built with a minimum of disruption on the surface. 3.4 million people use its trains every weekday, making it third in the world in ridership behind Paris and Moscow. Farringdon Road was one of the first stations built, and the original platform on the upper level lines (Circle, Metropolitan, and Hammersmith and City) feels like it’s just as old as the 18th century buildings surrounding it. The deep level stations, like those on the Northern and Piccadilly lines, have their own distinct smell…something like a combination of burnt clutch, damp concrete, and old coffee. It gets kind of endearing after a while.

no service

Once you’ve made it on the Tube (assuming you’re not being molested by the creepy guy pushed up next to you), there is an unwritten code of conduct to abide by. Don’t try to strike up conversation, as this comes off as quite odd. Pick up a copy of Metro (in the mornings) or the Evening Standard for free outside any Tube station. Read about footballers and their flings or the latest planned closures affecting the train you’re currently on. But as you’re enjoying some of London’s fine journalistic tradition, please, whatever you do, don’t hold the doors open. It will irk the locals (and indeed, even the non-locals) to no end, and will only make you look like a complete novice. On the way out of the station, kindly stand to the right on the escalators if you’re not walking up them. You will make everyone’s day six million times better (scientific fact).

intent

It’s been said that the Tube will get you anywhere in London…eventually. Even though it’s plagued by closures, delays, and strikes, the Tube gives London something incredibly valuable. Without it, London would be a clogged, gridlocked mess of cars and lorries all the time, with traffic so foul no congestion charge could help it. Thankfully, it’s here to stay…except on weekends and when there’s ‘planned engineering works’, or when it snows. Never really understood why the whole system shuts down when it snows…it being underground and all.

More tasty morsels of photography here.

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.

transatlanticism

Transatlantic.

The word conjures up images of great steamships like the Queen Mary, men like Lindbergh, Alcock and Brown, and of famous aircraft like the Concorde, taking off from JFK in New York and landing gracefully at Heathrow two and a half hours later. While they may not possess the pomp and circumstance of the olden days, transatlantic flights are a special thing. No baggage fees, a hot meal (try getting that on US domestic service), and a glass of wine (or two) with dinner. And of course, we mustn’t forget what lay in wait for me on the other side of the ocean: London.

I started my journey in Chicago, Illinois, at the cathedral of transport that is O’Hare International Airport. I took an early morning Blue Line and dozed while the train made its way to O’Hare. My first leg was from Chicago to Montréal’s Dorval Airport, where I would spend a few hours sitting around and then, finally, board a plane that would carry me over the pond to England. I sat nervously watching the planes scurry around the ramp, baggage men flinging their charges into innumerable cargo bays. Finally, my flight was announced, and I joined the line at the gate, passport in hand. This was the dividing line: after I left the soil of Illinois, I wouldn’t see the US again until April. Adventure awaited just across the threshold to the jetway.

The clouds below formed an impenetrable wall of fuzz once we ascended above the Windy City, prohibiting me from seeing the country we flew over. I snoozed on and off, finally looking out the window through a break in the clouds 45 minutes later at the neatly squared off rural parts of Ontario. We came into Montréal, cold and nearly cloudless, and a man who (surprisingly) knew my name marshaled me through customs. Transit visa time. Another *thwack* of the rubber stamp, and I was legal for the time being.

My visa didn’t allow me to leave a certain part of the terminal (unfortunately the part lacking poutine), so I bummed around and tried to nap until finally they called my flight. Air Canada 864, with nonstop service to London Heathrow airport, was now boarding at gate 56.

Time to take that step, then. I walked once again onto hallowed ground, onto the jetway, the only thing separating me from adventure.

As we turned onto the runway, I looked out at the airport grounds and realized that this really was it – I was past the point of no return. Winter was already here in Montreal, and the snow flew down in the beams of the huge lights illuminating the tarmac as we taxied to the end of the runway. The pilot then pushed the throttles to the stops and I felt the acceleration of the half-empty Airbus push me back into my seat. We lifted off, and I managed to catch a final glimpse of Montréal before we punched into the cloud layer blanketing the continent. I was on my way.

As the plane turned out over the Atlantic, I eased into what was (so far) the longest flight of my life. Six and a half hours in a graciously empty plane. A woman sitting behind me offered advice; this was getting to be routine for her, based by family in Toronto but by trade in London. I was restless. A flight attendant picked up on this, and with a well practiced sleight-of-hand, slipped two little bottles of wine into my hoodie with a wink. Back in row 42, I stretched out into the empty seat next to me, finished my present, and headed off to an uneasy sleep.

I was roused by the same kindly flight attendant offering me coffee, which I gladly accepted. The sun began to rise, first lighting the sky enough that I could see the outline of the wing, then coming up above the horizon, above the cloud deck that had followed me to Britain. We descended through the clouds, the plane making all manner of noises as the flaps and landing gear did their thing, myself still unable to see beyond the window in the pea soup of the clouds. Finally, around 1000 feet, the ground came into view.

The cars on the streets below were going the wrong way. I had arrived.

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!