London, Oh How Grey You Are

Countryside seen from the Bus...Beautiful

First of all sorry for the tardiness of this post and the subsequent posts, but school has actually started to mean work here as finals have hit. I will do my best to finish these as soon as possible.

We left for London Friday afternoon the 19th on a flight that cost far too much (because I booked my ticket late) and took a trip that took far too long to a hostel that was far too outside of the downtown of the city for my liking. I had nothing to do with the planning and/or organizing of this adventure and for the first time I was travelling with a large group of people from my program. From the outset I knew that it would be interesting, but still I was excited for a break from Parma and the chance to see some sites with kids from my program. Even the three hour bus ride from the airport to London and then the Metro to the hostel did not dim my optimism, which is a rarity for me. In fact, considering how little I had actually wanted to come to London in the first place, I was surprised by how excited I was to see the city.

The major reason that I had given in to my friends’ pleadings and go on this adventure with them was that I would see a Jimmy Eat World concert (my favorite band) and hopefully get to meet the band because Abby (one of my housemates) happens to be second cousins with the lead singer! It was hard for me to pass up that opportunity but the lack of desire within myself to see the city made me hesitate to jump on board initially. I had been to London once before, for a day, and to be honest it had not impressed me very much. It’s cold and gray I actually find much of the city a bit ugly. Also, the food is terrible and as all of you know, half of the reason that I travel is to eat well. Despite my trepidations I convinced myself to give the city another try.

We entered our hostel that, though located in the city of London is quite a bit of the way out of the way, at around 6 and the sky was already dark. Our hostel happened to be located over a bar and, this being London on a Friday night, was already fairly full with British people drinking away. We put our stuff down in the room and then went to buy tickets to see the new Harry Potter movie on opening night, which was half of the reason that the rest of my friends came to London that weekend. As for me, I’ve never been much of a fan of the Harry Potter movies despite how much I love the books. They’ve always left something to be desired and I can never help but compare them to the books. Needless to say I wasn’t too excited about the movie and would have rather skipped it to go see the city and its night life. I bought the ticket anyway, and I am glad I did.

After an overly priced, underly flavored dinner at some chain Asian place (God help me) we entered the movie theater. The movie started after about a half hour of obnoxious previews and commercials. Just annoying. But immediately upon the commencement of the movie I could not look away. The movie was SO GOOD. It was dark and emotional. There was no more fake Hogwarts or overly animated scenery. Instead the action took place within a real landscape and the characters actually seemed as if they were experiencing the world around them. The movie series, it seemed, had grown up. In the end I was left stunned and unable to wait for the second part of the finale to come out this summer. Maybe it is because I have only read the seventh book once or maybe it’s because this movie is split into two, but whatever the reason this film was fantastic and I was enthralled in every moment instead of trying to compare it to the books. Seriously great movie.

After the movie we contacted our BC friends from the Madrid program who also came to London for the weekend to see Harry Potter and visit our friend Bobby who is studying there for the semester. Actually, for some reason, this weekend was full of BC kids in London and I was excited to meet up with them. We went downtown to a bar, making friends with some German girl on the metro on the way, and met with our friends there. I think the place was called Rocket’s. Whatever the name of the place what really mattered was seeing kids from my own school in another country. Regardless of how much we hang out at school, or whether I had ever even met any of them before, there is a connection between students of common origin who find themselves together in a foreign place. Abroad brings together disparate and unusual groups of people, people that usually one would not meet in the cliquey atmosphere of Boston College. It’s nice to meet new people and even better to connect with friends that one would not normally go out of his way to hang out with at school. In London there was a combination of all three; good friends, friends with whom I would love to see more at school and entirely new kids who became friends.

At the bar we were greeted by Bobby, a friend who I really came to know through Courtney who took us to the back of the bar where the Madrid kids, including two of Courtney’s roommates Meg and Tess who are fantastic, Dave (who happens to be one of Brian’s best friends) and also another Tess, who is studying at Scotland and will lead a retreat with me next semester. I was introduced to Nick, who studies in Madrid, and Tim who studies with Bobby in London. We immediately launched into great conversations about the different abroad experiences and how we felt about them. It seemed that among us there was a general sense of “time to go home.” We have all loved this experience dearly and would have never given it up for the world, but at the same time, with the holidays and exams fast approaching we all felt exhausted and seeing other Boston College students only made our desire to return home stronger.

The abroad experience is an exhausting physical, but more importantly, emotional experience. There’s no denying it. Of course the constant travel (especially during the shorter Fall semester) and constant obligations or social events takes a toll on the body because sleep and relaxation disappear, but nothing can compare to how it affects the mind. There are so many ups and downs. So many moments of amazement and so many of dread. So many of loneliness mixed with feeling closer to the people around you than almost anybody in your life. Abroad can turn your life upside down. Everything is new, everything is beautiful, everything is amazing. But at the same time everything seems short, temporary, old and distant. You’re here, but you’re not here because you won’t be here forever. So who am I but a visitor? That’s a tiring thought that necessarily accompanies a person who has gone abroad because we are temporary. We live here, but we’ll leave here soon. There’s not much sense of permanence and any time that you do succeed in finding that, it disappears in an instant of temporality (I swear I’ve read this word in philosophy many times) that dismantles your permanence and reminds you that you’re leaving in time that will disappear within instants. The swings from comfort and having a home to feeling like a traveler on a long, extended vacation, wear on the mind. There are two extremes of travelers; backpackers (who spend months going from place to place in an attempt to see everything) and the vacationers (who spend a week or two in one place or another just to have a break from home). In both of those people there is a knowledge of time and a defined sense of how this experience will end. There is no sense of “home” for either because one moves around too often and the other knows he will leave too shortly for a feeling of ‘home’ to establish itself. But for us abroad students, and again especially during the Fall semester, we are stuck in between because we have the lengthy travel time of a backpacker but without the security of moving from one place to another every couple of days or so. Nor do we have the understanding that this time is too short to become acquainted in some attachment as a home because it’s not that short. We get caught between. We establish ourselves here and there but again cannot do it fully because we do not have enough time. The up and down of feeling home and never wanting to leave and then to feeling completely foreign and craving the security of home wear on a person after a while. And that’s I think a bit of where we all were standing; exhausted from the emotional stress of a magical semester and staring in the face of exams and a holiday season without being home for its entirety.

And to only add onto our exhaustion, there we were, a fairly large group of Boston College students together who, whether or not we were the best of friends at home, found common comfort and joy in reliving stories with each other. We recalled the craziness of abroad and dreamed of the Spring semester at Boston College. We talked of what we had done and what we would do. We talked of how this experience has changed us and how it will be missed. Their presence, though, helped to comfort me in that I realized I would have a great place to which to return after this semester. I had not thought much about Boston College during my semester abroad, but having a sort of “Boston College Reunion” in London with people with whom I really enjoy hanging out made me crave a place that I had nearly discredited. Part of my rationale for taking this semester abroad was to give myself a break from the monotony of Boston College life. I needed a break from the place because I was not sure if I could take another semester. But now, after recalling stories and imagining life next semester, I’ve once again found myself excited to return. I would know new people (not that I would forget my old friends) and do new things. I would be able to live my life in a new way and bring back some of the culture of Italy and Europe to Boston and to my life there. The idea of college once again filled with me with the anticipation that it did prior to my freshman year. I loved it, but it unfortunately only added to that unshakable desire to hop into a time machine and bring myself to December 21.

Luckily, the presence of these friends for the weekend let me distract myself from those thoughts and enjoy the present. After an adventurous trip home from the pub (it took us an 1 1/2 to go 4 miles by bus!) Brian and I woke up fairly early to go meet Bobby at his dorm before we would go with him and the other Madrid kids to see some sites. The rest of the Parma people did not want to join us and went off to their own thing, but Brian and I had come to see our other friends and also figured that Bobby would make a fantastic host since he studies in the city. We were right. He did us well. The first thing we did was walk to some market place that, while not one of the major tourist sites one has to see, was pretty cool. Besides, I was not one to complain. I had not come to London to really see anything and was thoroughly enjoying talking to these kids.  We could have sat ourselves down in a cafe or a dorm room all weekend and I probably would have had a great time. Still, there were places to see, so after an hour in the market and then an hour and a half eating some pretty damn good Indian food, we decided to see some sites.

Meg, the “mom” of our trip, had a list of places to see and a fairly detailed plan of how we could see them all in our short time in London, so we followed her lead. We took the metro to downtown and walked through Picadilly Circus and then to some plaza where there was a Peace Protest. We listened to a man ramble about governmental policies that dissuade peace and were surprised to hear him mostly rant about American policy. Weren’t we in London? Meg, Tess, Tess, Brian and I then moved on to go see the British Museum (one of the few places that I whole-heartedly desired to see). The walk there went through, at least to me, the prettiest part of London that I have seen yet. The buildings were old and quaint and the streets narrow and windy. There were few places that seemed to have been rebuilt after the War so I imagine that this area survived much of the attack. It was nice to see older buildings instead of many of the ugly, modern constructions installed in the years following WWII. But as magnificent as those buildings were, the British Museum trumped them all in sheer size.

Rosetta Stone

We knew we wouldn’t have much time in the museum so we went straight to the Rosetta Stone. There it was. One of the most important archaeological finds in the history of man, one that unlocked thousands of years of history and permitted modern man to decipher one of the greatest cultures of antiquity. Though it is nothing gorgeous to behold, the Stone’s importance stuns a person, like me, who lives for history. Imagine finding that? Imagine deciphering it? Imagine the excitement of finally being able to read documents from a lost civilization? Imagine the joy of learning of a completely new part of mankind’s history! That excitement of discovery, of gathered knowledge, of being able to more fully understand the mysterious development of modern man. Those are the things that I wish I  could experience. I strive for them. Imagining myself in the position of those who found the stone and more importantly those who deciphered it, I find myself becoming excited. History is amazing. The amount that has happened is stunning and the amount of knowledge that this stone unlocked is incredible.

We walked around the rest of the museum, laughing to ourselves about how much the British had stolen from the Egyptians. Surely it was incredible and magnificent, but at the same time a bit sad that an entire culture had been moved from its homeland to a museum thousands of miles away. Still, that did not prevent me from marveling at the mummies, obelisks, giant statues and beautiful constructions of the Egyptians. In the same light we went through the Greek and Roman exhibits. Did the British rob Athens? I had never known that before, but we saw sculptures, pottery and bronze works from thousands of years ago that I would buy today as art. We saw mosaics and wall carvings and ornate doors. In our short hour we had nowhere close to enough time to see even a small amount of what that museum holds. I could spend days in there. It was incredible.

We left the museum at 5:30 and it was already dark. We met up with Dave and Nick, two of the other Madrid kids, before going to St. Paul’s Cathedral. We got to the Cathedral too late to enter (but I think it costs a lot of money anyway) so we entertained ourselves by taking pictures outside of it. I’ve been inside before and don’t remember specific details of the place, but I know that it was fantastic and that the view from the top of the dome is something to see. From there we went across the Millennium Bridge to see the Globe Theater (from the outside) before walking along the beautiful river front section to the Tower Bridge. The walk was long, but who cares? The views were fairly beautiful and outside of losing Tess for about two minutes, the trek was entirely enjoyable. By the time we got to the Tower Bridge it was close to 8 and we were met by Bobby and Tim. I love the Tower Bridge. It’s my favorite color blue with white and black mixed in. It’s beautifully lit up at night and sparkles in the dark London night. We walked across it, saw an old Roman wall, looked at the Tower of London (where the Queen’s jewels are kept) and then walked all the way back along the river to the bridge before the Millennium! Another long walk, but another fun one. We went to a tavern along the river for a drink that I guess is famous for being really old. It was really at that table, all of us sitting around a table, that I found myself ecstatic to go back to BC. These kids are great kids and people (outside of the girls) who I really did not hang out with much at school. It’s always great to find, however, that outside of my immediate friend group are people just as enjoyable and just as cool. Plus, they went abroad (something I literally CANNOT SAY for all but a couple of my friends at BC) which means that we will have a special bond and understanding that those who remained at school will not understand. I’ll be able to talk to them about the experience and they will understand. We will have shared common life events. When I talk to them about it, my stories will not seem like some far off dream of some life that never happened as it will to my friends at school because, whether they want to or not, my friends at school cannot relate to this experience. They stayed at school and I went off. They likely don’t understand why I did it, otherwise they would have made the decision to go abroad as well. Now, I felt, that I would have an extended group of people with whom to talk and with whom to reminisce when I got back to BC. That felt awesome.

Tower Bridge

We spent the rest of the night wandering from here to there, but the nightlife in London is way too expensive for words. Bars and pubs close very early, most around 12, meaning that to stay out we would have to shell out a minimum of 1o pounds for an entrance fee to clubs or pubs that remained open (what!!!). That’s an absurd amount of money and one I was not willing to spend for the joy of “clubbing”. We continued to walk around and search, but none of us really had much hope, or desire, to find a place. We called it a night around one. Damn London, you are expensive.

We had to leave London on Sunday around 2 to make it to Birmingham in time for the Jimmy Eat World concert. We still wanted to see West Minster Abbey and Big Ben, which happen to be right next to each other. We woke up early and went to mass at West Minster Abbey at 11. Yes I know. I went to mass, but I did it because we could get into the church for free instead of paying the 14 pounds they regularly charge. We walked into the church and I was floored by its Gothic beauty. The church is covered in tombs, sculptures and beautiful Gothic decorations. It’s nearly 1000 years old, but still appears in nearly mint condition. There were enormous stained glass windows and a fantastic altar piece. I sat through the hour and fifteen minute mass, but entertained myself looking around and comforted myself with the knowledge that I could look around afterwards. Once the mass was done, I found the tomb of Charles Dickens (who has the same birthday as me), Robert Frost, Newton and a ton of other famous people. I could have remained in there for hours, but soon the annoying ushers were directing us outside without allowing us much time to look. They really don’t want to let people see the tombs without paying. Typical church. Still, I saw Newton. I saw Dickens. Wow. I see Newton and Dickens and was in the same room as Darwin. Talk about historical presence?

Charles Dickens (notice the birthday!)

Behind the church was Big Ben. Ok I saw it. It’s a clock tower. I wanted to find fish and chips, but Brian, Tess and Meg wanted to walk to the Buckingham Palace. I obliged, figuring that I would succeed in finding a place before we had to leave. We walked through the giant park in front of the palace, which is extremely beautiful. There were geese, ducks, swans, pigeons and squirrels everywhere and fatter than I had ever seen before. We joked that after Christmas the park would be void of these fat birds. I would love to cook a Christmas goose…Anyway, the palace was fine, but like the White House, was nothing incredible. The palace was where we said goodbye to Meg and Tess who went off to meet some friends while Brian and I walked towards the train station and in hopes of fish and chips. We were unsuccessful at finding a “real” fish and chip place because they are apparently far away from the center of London (we asked a cop), so I settled on a pub. The food was fine, but nothing spectacular.  We then went to try and catch our bus to Birmingham.

I refuse to recount what happened between then and when we arrived in Birmingham for the concert because it will infuriate me, but suffice it to say that Brian and I were screwed over by a large amount of inconsiderate behavior and bureaucratic nonsense.

We finally reconnected with Abby, Jilly and Matt (the other Parma students) outside of the concert venue in Birmingham. We had no idea where to find our backstage passes and waited outside for an hour and a half before the doors opened. It then took nearly another hour before we figured out where they were and picked them up. I began to get beyond excited. Jimmy Eat World is my favorite band in the world and I was now holding a ticket that would let me meet them (I hoped). Thank you Abby and thank your aunt for setting this up. We somehow managed to push ourselves to the front of the packed audience (largely again thanks to Abby’s maneuvering abilities) and had nearly front stage views of the show. Dad, you would have hated this. Cramped, cramped, cramped quarters with people constantly pushing and shoving  and no personal space (not to mention the noise). Usually I would have hated it as well, but the fact that I was seeing Jimmy Eat World made me forget my aversions to crowds and lack of personal space. The show was beyond good. This was my second time seeing them and they did not disappoint. In all honesty they might be better live than recorded which just proves how incredibly talented they are. I love their music because I find connections to a lot of their songs in my life. Their music is my go to music for sad times, happy times, relaxed times and all times in between. I know almost all of their songs by heart and  I identify many periods of my life with their music. They played every single one of my favorite songs except Chase This Light (sorry Courtney!) and I could not have been happier despite the constant pushing and shoving. I loved every minute of screaming myself mute and going deaf. They are fantastic.

Jimmy Eat World!

We waited around after the show for close to 45 minutes recanting the incredible show we had just seen. Even Brian and Matt, who are not exactly Jimmy Eat World fans, were awed by how good they were. We were the only ones, besides the security and concession workers, left in the concert hall when the lead singer, Jim, and the drummer, Zach, came out to meet us. The drummer left soon after, for some reason, but we talked to Jim for about 10 minutes about touring, the life of a band and whatever else came to mind. It was a bit awkward, not sure why, but still I couldn’t help but smile. I’ve never met a famous person before and this was the lead singer of my favorite band! We took pictures and then went on our way into the night to make the 5 hour journey back to Stanstead airport from where we would fly home to Italy. What a crazy weekend.

Jimmy Eat World!

London, not my favorite city in the world. Sorry everybody, but it feels too much like a fake America, especially with the never ending parade of American stores and chain food. It was too expensive and too grey. The night life ended too early and the public transportation system is spotty, though extensive. Of all of my European cities it was my least favorite, but that did not stop me from enjoying my time there with the Boston College crew. I know, however, that the city would have been far less enjoyable without Harry Potter and BC kids. Without them it would have just been dreary, obnoxious and grey.

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One Response to London, Oh How Grey You Are

  1. Andrew Cohen says:

    A wonderful and fascinating post. I’m also very impressed that you were hanging around England with two girls named Tess; Thomas Hardy would be proud.

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