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The traveler: An expected journey This time it's the Scandinavian countries of Denmark, Sweden & Norway before England again for several weeks and on to Croatia.

Last Week in London - Part 2

UNITED KINGDOM | Friday, 29 April 2016 | Views [372]

A lovely old shop front between markets.

A lovely old shop front between markets.

Midway through my week in London I'd arranged to meet two friends of mine from home, who were both studying there. This time I got the right tube station and arrived on the dot despite not knowing how long the journey would take. After catching up on the first details of what we were all up to we proceeded with the early birds into St. Paul's Cathedral. Unlike in the U.S. many places in Europe offer discounts to students, or anyone under the age of 26. Sometimes they require a student ID, sometimes they don't. St. Paul's was one of the more lenient ones, and didn't bother to ask me for an ID. After admiring the ground level craftsmanship and the sweeping ceiling we began to climb the 400 or 500 odd steps to the top. Luckily most of the steps were all of probably 4" tall. After the last tightly spiraling steps we stepped out on the top. What a view! The whole of London was spread across the horizon. We stood there identifying the different buildings and continuing our conversation. One of my friends eventually figured out that the building we were looking at was the roof top cafe she'd been talking about.

Once we descended again to ground level we crossed the Thames River on Millennium Bridge. Previously I'd been under the impression that this bridge only existed for a brief moment in one of the Harry Potter films, but low and behold here it was. On the side my friends took me to one of London's busy markets to grab a bit to eat. To get anywhere you must literally push your way through single file, shoulder to shoulder with the hundreds of other market goers. Nonetheless we reached the Ruclette stand they were headed for and I discovered what that was: cooked potatoes with melted cheese and pickles. We stood on the side eating and talking about the cultural mix of students in London, and Europe more generally, as well as the relaxed attitude to smoking in Europe compared with the U.S. We really have come such a long way on that topic, and gradually Europe is changing too.
The two of us bid farewell to our third friend, who had a performance to attend, and headed along the path by the Thames. We stopped to watch the massive soap bubbles being blown and the children reaching up to pop them. Further down a used booked shop had been set up on the sidewalk for the day. Nearby we sat down to talk more about England, the culture, school there and what my friend must do over the next several years to have a hope of one day becoming a citizen. When we parted I must say I envied my friend as the time of my departure seemed to be fast approaching.
As I walked back towards the Imperial War Museum for a quick breeze through their other displays I past Parliament and Big Ben on the opposite side of the river. Since I haven't been paying much attention to what was across the water on my map I was pleasantly surprised to find them standing there in the evening light.

At the last minute I arranged to meet with a friend of a friend that evening, who I realized was living in the same part of London I was currently staying. Stopping back at my room to look up exactly where it was we were meeting I dashed off upon seeing just how far up the road it was. I spent at least half the distance jogging, not paying much attention to anything, but the shops I was passing. Eventually I found the place, and the lady I was meeting. Still not accustomed to ordering a drink, I skipped it and sat down with my companion for the evening, getting to know her beyond the few things I'd heard from my friends. When her glass was empty we went back outside to the street. As we strolled along she told me about the little pop-up restaurants that have become a new fad. The owners of vacant space rent it out short term to keep it occupied, and the next day a make shift restaurant will pop up there. You never know how long it will last though before the space is rented by someone else for the normal, high price. We walked along the street looking to see if one of those my friend had liked was still up. When we failed to locate it we ended up at a more permanent Middle-Eastern restaurant. As we ate our way through falafel balls and hummus we talked about South Africa where my dinner companion had grown up. I didn't know much about the country, and I certainly didn't have any concept of what it is like today. I was shocked to hear her say she wouldn't go there on her own.

Before we parted ways she also suggested some of the other places I might visit in London including the Columbia Road Flower Market, which my friends had suggested earlier that day. When she saw me off she put me on the bus to avoid a sketchy park I would pass on the way back. I assume I ran past it on my way there earlier, but on the opposite side of the road. After disembarking from the bus my familiar walk along the main road and into my temporary neighborhood was as usual uneventful. Though I surprisingly was aware of the differences in the three neighborhoods I stayed in in London, I never encountered any trouble.

When the morning came again I set off for the tube station near Columbia Road Flower Market, where I'd arranged to meet my friend from Sweden again. When I arrived I felt my heart sink. Unlike the other stations I'd been in where everyone exited through one set of gates this station was also a train station and was 10 times as big. I looked around, walked outside, came back in and was thinking perhaps I'd just stand there for a while before having to give up again when amazingly I saw my friend coming towards me!
We set off together with the eventual destination of the flower market, and between our two maps headed in the right direction. We ended up exploring 3 markets that day though. First we came upon a market dedicated to clothing and other items. We admired the ornately cut paper cards, and the hats that could not be mistaken for anything other than British. As I chuckled at tiles displaying saying that had been changed ever so slightly I realized my friend wasn't in on the joke, so I picked a few to explain. Idioms are surely the hardest thing to understand in another language, even if you speak it fluently!
Long before this time I'd become accustomed to roughly converting pounds to dollars in my mind. When we past a stall selling cashmere sweaters I had to look twice at the price, but it was indeed as inexpensive as I though it was. It turns out they were selling for so much less because of the absence of a small thing called a brand name stitched into them, even though they came from the same place as the others. With rather the opposite problem I'd had leaving Austria I walked away with two sweaters, probably the largest purchase of my entire trip.

As my friend and I consulted our maps and made our way closer to the flower market we had a glimpse of incredible colors, and smells drifting from a doorway. We decided to have a look and stepped into the most amazing food market I have ever been in! There must have been at least a hundred vendors there representing every nationality. We simply walked between the tables letting our eyes feast upon the bright colors, and our noses upon the wonderful smells. If I lived in that area I think I would've been able to go for lunch there every day and still not have tasted all the food in a whole year. Eventually we decided upon sharing a piece of delicious, raw cheesecake made mostly from nuts, which I was familiar with from home, but which my vegan friend had never tasted.

Still on our leisurely way to the flower market we stopped at a book store on a crowded street. Upon finding the section on travel we pulled out books to show each other the parts of the world we lived in in a little more detail. When we did finally reach the street with the flower market there was no way to move, but inch by inch, shoulder to shoulder with the crowd. So as though on a very slow moving walkway we passed flowers upon flowers: cut flowers and potted flowers. We had apparently arrived towards the end of the market and vendors where selling flowers two for the price of one. If only I'd had a vase, and somewhere for it I would've bought a bunch, but as it was we finally reached the end of the sunny street with only a few photos.

Neither one of us were very big on religion, but I'd suggested we go to Westminster Abbey for the evening song that day. I'd enjoyed the lovely voices back at St. George's Chapel in July. The plus was that the evening song was also free as apposed to the approximately 20 pound entrance fee for Westminster Abbey during the rest of the day. After finding that the station closest to the flower market was closed and having a bit of trouble with the buses we ended up walking a good deal of the way before we got to a tube station. Finally we arrived at Westminster well after they'd started, but amazingly we were not the only ones, and everyone was still being ushered in. Either I'd forgotten St. George's service, or the Westminster evening song was much heavier on the preaching than the singing itself. So I took the opportunity to simply gaze up at the vaulted ceiling and other parts of the Abbey I could see from the side aisle where we were seated. If you ever decide to attend the evening song at Westminster get there early and you'll have a chance to sit right along the main aisle with a front row view of the whole place. After service concluded my friend and I walked out with the rest of the small crowd along the aisle where so many royal weddings have taken place. It was one of those moments where it was hard to believe I was actually in the place I'd seen so many times from afar.

Upon reaching the doors we made for the lawn between Westminster, Parliament and Big Ben where we sat down for a late lunch. We took a few minutes to find the best angles for photographs before eventually parting ways. Perhaps one day we'll meet again since we still write to each other from time to time.



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