One Day More!

It finally happened.

No, I did not see the queen.  No, I did not get one of those palace guards to break his stalwart oath with a twitch.  I did not accidentally say “pants” only to have it misinterpreted as “underpants” by a large room filled with British people.

None of that.

I got to see Les Mis last weekend.

Insert a squeaky fangirl scream right here.  Wait for a few minutes (that’s how long the fangirl moment must last) and once the inner sanctum of your brain has had enough of my shrill squeaking them you may read on.

Jeopardy theme song…

Okay, we’re good.  So, Les Mis.  Or Les Misérables for all you French majors out there (which includes me actually…) It is a novel originally written by Victor Hugo telling the tale of the convict Jean Valjean, his dogged pursuer (and my personal heartthrob) Javert, Fantine the woman in need, Cosette, her daughter, Marius, the student, and several other memorable characters who all play a vital role both in the book, the film, and the musical.

I could just go and tell you to read the book.  But, let’s face it, who would willingly want to go and read a book from the 19th century about French revolutions after the real French Revolution written in French by a dead French guy?

Okay, so… I would, and quite frankly I know about three other people who’d share my enthusiasm for all the dead Frenchiness but for the rest of the readers of this blog I’m guessing that a musical is more the avenue you’d want to take to get the gist of the play.

You know, without the French conjugations.

So I have been trying to get tickets to see Les Mis since I first came here and before you ask me “Well, Johanna, why didn’t you just purchase your tickets beforehand so you’d have a guaranteed spot?” I will tell you here and now that I am far too cheap for that.  I mean, those tickets can run upwards of 75 pounds (which is more than 100 American dollars) and I figured it was better just to go to one of the half-price ticket booths in Leicester Square than bother with preordering.

So off to Leicester Square I went.

Four.  Freaking.  Times.

Each time I asked if they had tickets available for Les Mis and each time I was turned away with a shrug, a shake of the head, and a broken heart (can you hear that violin playing in the background?  Because I can.)  It wasn’t all that bad though; twice when they didn’t have Les Mis tickets I ended up going to see other shows.  That’s how I saw The Phantom of the Opera and that’s how I saw the Legally Blonde Musical (don’t look at me like that, it was a good musical!)

But this time I must have had some luck with me.  I also had a friend with me, which might have made a difference.  It was also a Thursday and not a Saturday so really…

Okay, well the point is my friend (Lydia Miller from Hollins, class of 2013) and I got tickets for the show at a very reasonable rate of 25 pounds.  Needless to say we snapped them up like angry turtles and made plans to meet up later that evening.

Meet up later that evening we did and made our way to the Queen’s Theater (theatre, excuse me).  I had been here before—almost a year ago exactly—to see this same musical with my friend Sam.  I was visiting her in London whilst I was participating in the Hollins Abroad Paris program (pause to allow me a brief moment of smugness) and if I had to determine one moment when I realized I’d need to come to London for a semester I’m pretty sure that I’d pinpoint this exact time.

Musical.  Magical.  Same difference.

That night was one of the best of my life.  Sam and I watched Les Mis with a mixed range of emotions:  elation, sadness, fascination, adrenaline, shock, horror, and misery.  I’m pretty sure I cried several times during the performance (and anyone who knows me can tell you that I do not cry when it comes to things like touching movies or pieces of theater.)  Well, I cried here.  Like a wee baby with a diaper rash.

I did not cry so much this time around.  I was, however, constantly pawing at Lydia’s arm in a series of all-too-excited gasps and I-can’t-believe-this-is-happening moments of despondency.  Lydia came well prepared with a handful of tissues but I, alas, hadn’t warned her that she also needed arm-guards and well, yeah, sorry for the bruises Lydia.

So performing the role of Jean Valjean was the admirable Alfie Boe and playing the most scintillatingly, the-law-is-black-and-white, Javert that I have ever known was Hadley Fraser.  Go ahead and look him up online.  Make sure to go to Google Images first.

I’ll wait.

I KNOW!!!  RIGHT?  Doesn’t it just make you want to break the law so he can come after you?  Trust me when I say that there was more than one occasion on which Javert was singing about order and laws and all I could think about was me, him, and a pair of handcuffs…

Okay, too much information, but in all honesty their voices were magnificent.  Valjean and Javert were able to take the audience so deep into their characters that at the end I wanted to jump on the stage to prevent Javert from committing suicide.  Valjean tugged at my heartstrings like always.  The cast of supporting characters was also just as wonderful.  The woman who played the role of the down-and-out Eponine was only an understudy but I thought hers was the best female vocals of the night.  Marius was terribly cute both in and out of love and his friends at the ABC Café were all very well attired in tight pants and—

Er, had very lovely singing voices.

The night ended with a standing ovation that was so well deserved it wasn’t even funny.  Lydia and I had an amazing time and even though our seats were in the last row at the top of the theatre we were still able to see everything that was happening on the stage.

Now allow me to take a moment and dish out a warning to all those who enjoy going to the theater.  You might not know it, but there are three things that annoy theatergoers (wow, I did not know that was one word) like me like nothing else.

  1. Coughing:  I don’t care how you do it but there is one simple rule you need to remember, and that’s don’t do it.  I can understand if you have a chronic coughing disorder but other than that?  Uh-uh.  Most people in theaters only seem to cough because they have nothing else to do with themselves.  Pick at your fingernails, pick at your nose, I don’t care, but do it silently.  Because when A Little Fall of Rain is being interrupted by your boredom cough I have half a mind to go over and shove my hand down your throat.  Sure, you’ll most likely choke and die but you sure as hell won’t be coughing anymore.
  2. Using your phone:  you think people can’t see you because you’re being all crafty and hiding the light under your hand.  Well you’re wrong.  I can see you and I will shoot you a dirty look!
  3. Canoodling:  Seriously.  Javert’s proclamation to the stars was touching but there was nothing in there that indicated you should start touching your partner (excluding, of course, handholding or head-leaning.)  But if you start making out in front of me you are distracting me from the rest of the play.  Continue any longer than I think is socially appropriate and I will yank you apart.

The above irritations were made a bit more tolerable though, by what Lydia and I did after we saw the musical.  Since it was only a Thursday night we didn’t want to stay out too late lest the Tube not be open for our way back, but we did take the time to indulge in something after the show.  We thought about a pub but then decided that we should go for the one solid staple in any Hollins woman’s diet:

Ice cream.

There is a Hagen Daas restaurant in Leicester Square (yes, you heard me, it’s a restaurant) where they sit you down at a table, give you a menu, and serve you some of the most delicious ice cream on the face of the planet.  (Okay, so maybe it’s second only to ice cream at ColdStone Creamery but I think the experience of having a restaurant and wait-staff fully devoted to ice cream makes up for the lack of an All Lovin’ No Oven.)

I would caution you, however, to be a bit wary of your surroundings if you’re around Leicester Square at night.  It’s generally very crowded and well lit but there is something that happens there at night that Lydia and I found rather… uh… interesting isn’t the right word but neither is disturbing.  Frankly it was sort of a mix of the two.

There are guys who will wander around the streets talking to any single (or groups of) women that pass them by.  No matter how fast you seem to walk they’ll stick beside you and try and convince you to go out with them.  One approached Lydia and started walking beside her like he had been doing it all evening.  Their conversation went something like this:

Strange Man:  “Hey, how you doing?”

Lydia:  “Go away.”

Strange Man:  “We’ve met before.  You might not remember though because you were a little drunk.”

Lydia:  “Leave us alone.”

Strange Man:  “Are you sure?”

Both of us:  “Yes!”

This happened about twice more before we finally got back onto the Tube.  I know that anyone who reads this blog will not fall for such stupid a trick but let it stay here just as a warning.  There are guys like this who try and prey on young girls (often foreigners) who are just out looking to have a good time.

Trust me on this one, if you want to have a good time, go and get some ice cream with your girlfriends.  Don’t go picking up random guys on the street.

That’s about it.  Man, I seem to be in the habit of making some sort of preachy statement at the end of all of my blogs nowadays.  I should probably stop doing that.  I want people to think I’m young, hip, and daring after all, not… well, the opposite of all of that is responsible, right?  Psh!  Then screw young, hip, and daring!

Okay, sorry.  Digression again.  Point of this blog:  When you’re in London, GO SEE LES MISERABLES!  You’ll remember it forever!

“Oh what fools these mortals be.”

I begin my blog with this phrase for two reasons.

One:  It’s true.

Two:  I’m going to talk about Shakespeare.

Now if you remember anything about the Shakespeare that you were probably force-fed in high school you also probably remember that you didn’t like it very much.  The words were too complex, the sentences were just weird (who needs to write in iambic pentameter anyway?) and all of his references were, like, from the 16th century.  Who could be bothered to read something like that?

Ahem.  Now, I’m not going to use this blog to talk about the merits of Shakespeare’s works or how it’s not really that hard to get—you just have to apply yourself and all that—but there is one point that I would like to make before going any further:

Shakespeare didn’t write his plays primarily for the wealthy.  He wrote for the people who were going to go and actually see his plays performed in the theaters.  These people generally those who came from the peasant class.  You know, those who were poor, uneducated, and more often than not stricken with some kind of plague.

So if they could understand and enjoy what Shakespeare was saying then it would stand to reason that a well-educated denizen of the 21st century would also be able to understand and enjoy the works of William Shakespeare.

That being said, I will move on to the true topic of this blog:  to the complete and utter prostitution of William Shakespeare.

I use the above description with a certain measure of distaste but that doesn’t make what I am about to reveal any less true.  The fact is that I can think of no other way to describe just how the town of Stratford-Upon-Avon has taken the coincidence of William Shakespeare’s birth and turned it into a thriving business.

Everything in Stratford is Shakespeare oriented.  Everything.  You pass by a quaint tavern and it’s The Shakespeare.  You pass by a newsstand and it’s Shakespeare’s Newsagent.  You pass by a sweetshop and it’s Shakespeare’s Sweet Shoppe.  Hell, you pass by a Barclay’s bank and there, above the entrance, is the image of the Bard, done up in golden mosaics.

The prime example of this can be seen in the rather cliché display that precedes entering Shakespeare’s birthplace.  See, so much about Shakespeare’s life is pure speculation.  We don’t know if he went to this exact grammar school or stayed at this particular house.  Heck, we don’t even know if he (don’t tell my teacher I said this) wrote all of his own plays!

So when we got into Shakespeare’s birthplace and were introduced to the gold signet ring that might have graced his hand at some point in his life I began wondering where they had put the gilded chamber pot that his celebrated arse might have deflowered.


Stratford-Upon-Avon was like Disneyland for children of a more literary persuasion.  You could not turn your head without getting something Shakespearean shoved down your throat.  I don’t mean to say that it was bad or anything, it was okay for the most part, it was just terribly overwhelming at some times.  You just could not do anything in that town without being confronted by the image of a slightly plump, semi-balding man who never seemed to crack a smile. But, you know, I was a tourist, so I went along with it even though in the back of my head I was constantly sighing some rendition of “are you serious?

I will admit though, that I had a great deal of fun despite being force-fed anything and everything Shakespeare.  As a class we went along to see the place where Shakespeare was buried and then generally roamed about Stratford.  I ended up at the café Royal Shakespeare Company getting drunk and high on their hot chocolate (it is possible, believe you me) and writing out my thesis (almost finished!).  Our group also went to go see a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream that evening.  But we all met at the Dirty Duck Pub beforehand and indulged in a pre-show drink (I asked for a cup of hot chocolate with a splash of Bailey’s and yes, they did look at me funny for it, but my drink was delicious!)

A Midsummer Night’s Dream was wonderful and has taken the place of my favorite play from all the shows my Shakespeare class has seen.  It’s hard to imagine that the Royal Shakespeare Company can put on a bad production of just about anything (I have heard that it does happen once in a while) but from what I saw I have my doubts.  The play was done in modern dress and had our entire class alternately rolling around laughing and dabbing our eyes with tears of joy.

The play began not in the tradition of Shakespeare’s Athens but in a seedy nightclub setting, where women dressed as harlots sang and men in suits and ponytails tugged at their lapels and glared.  The set was sparsely decorated and generally only had one couch or fluffed chair in the center while the rest of the plays accoutrements dangled from the ceiling.

The play featured the same actors in the contrasting roles of Oberon and Theseus as well as Tatania and Hyppolita.  Hyppolita, we saw in the beginning, detests the idea of marrying Theseus, and actually spits at him at the very start.  However, since both actors also played the roles of the warring Oberon and Tatania the audience was there to witness the growing love of their Athenian egos via the mended love connection of the fairy king and queen.

The rest of the play was tremendously well cast—particularly the woman charged with the role of Helena.  She ambled about on stage, often tripped and traipsing over her stunningly malleable heels as she hounded Demetrius through the forest.  Though Helena’s plight was desperate, the actress never allowed the audience’s regard for her character to lapse into pity.  She was able to transmit what could be construed as a pathetic situation into one that was driven by determination:  a woman willing to go to all lengths to get her man.  Had she kept her constant warbling from her voice the performance would have been stellar, as it was it was often difficult to discern her laments during a few of the lengthier monologues.

The absolute best part of the play involved the players intent on acting out the “tediously brief” rendition of Pyranimus and Thysbie.  All of that particular company brought the audience to a roaring laugh whenever they appeared on stage—with Nick Bottom taking primary acclaim.  His humor was bawdy, loud, often grotesque, but never seemed to cross the line into “trying too hard” territory.  And then there was the setting, which took a minimalist approach that worked well for the modern-dress production.  The mystical wood—instead of being crafted with trees, garlands, and flowers—was created by alternately lowering and raising chairs that were dangling from the high ceiling.   Though odd, it worked well with the suave-to-tatters suits, ties, and evening gowns donned by the members of the fairy troupe.

In short:  I loved it.  (Insert radiant smiley face).

Then the next morning I got up and went running.  Now that was not a decision that I had thought through very well the night before.  But hey, I get up every morning and go running so I didn’t see why Sunday had to be any different.  So I started like usual at six in the morning and set off, sticking closely only to the roads that I knew and the ones that were tremendously well lit.  In fact, I had to because that morning was particularly dark and foggy and even though the sun was supposed to be rising soon the clouds prevented most of the light from hitting the earth.

So even though I stuck to the trails I knew well I did end up in some interesting places.

Including a graveyard.

One of those well-known and well-lit roads that I traveled down was the street that led towards the church where Shakespeare is interred.  I blithely enter the churchyard, happily bopping my head to my music, and trying to flex my frozen fingers before coming to a stop at the front doors to the church before I take a moment to assess my current position.

  1. Young woman, all alone in a graveyard that is just barely being lit by the encroaching dawn.
  2. Fog rolling around on every inch of visible ground and alternately obscuring and revealing headstones of many different varieties.
  3. The temperature is barely forty-five degrees and I am dressed in only a long-sleeved tee shirt.
  4. The only “weapon” I have on me is my Hollins lanyard and a few dull keys.
  5. I had no holy water, cross, or stake with me.

Needless to say, I sprinted out of the graveyard only marginally terrified that I was about to be eaten by ghosts and decided to stick to the City Centre for the rest of my run.

I returned to the B&B, showered, ate breakfast, worked more on my thesis, and by mid-morning my class and I were visiting Anne Hathaway’s cottage (Anne Hathaway was Shakespeare’s wife, not that chick from The Princess Diaries.)

The rest of the afternoon was ours to do with as we wanted.  I went back to the RSC and had (more) hot chocolate but otherwise meandered about Stratford with the other members of my class.  We enjoyed its quaintness, its river chock full of ducks, geese, and swans, and tenderly mocked the business of prostituting Shakespeare’s influence.

Then it was getting back on the train and returning to London, a week of work and school, and just continuing on with life.

So my final opinion on Stratford-Upon-Avon is this:  it’s cute but it also needs to seriously reevaluate the deification of their local legend.

But then again, I guess that’s why they call them legends.

Until next time!

My Fall Break

I can guarantee, without a shadow of a doubt, that my Fall Break was probably better than any Fall Break in the history of Fall Breaks.  No, mine did not involve large quantities of alcohol, rampant parties, and massively loose morals.  Instead, it involved three cities, trains, and Europe.  Great Britain to be specific.  Or at least sections of it.

Which automatically makes it awesome.

I started out my journey at the Marylebone Station in London, where I took a train straight on in to Birmingham, a city which was just a sleepy little English village until the Industrial Revolution smacked in on the side of the head.  A few years later and boom, it is now the second largest city in England.  The minute I stepped off the train platform and walked out into the street I was floored.  Not by the beauty and richness of the architecture or by the aura of historical significance of the general area.  I couldn’t have been, really, because Birmingham only truly blossomed in the early 20th century and then was pancaked during World War II, so a lot of the architecture is pretty new.

No, what floored me was The Biggest Mall in the World.

Picture it like this:  The Valley View and Tanglewood Malls of Roanoke plus the River Ridge Mall of Lynchburg plus the Tyson’s Corner Shopping Center of D.C. plus the United States National Mall and then you’re somewhere in the vicinity of just how massive this place is.  I hadn’t come to Birmingham to shop but man-oh-man, if you’re looking for an out-of-London place to spend some serious amounts of pounds sterling then this is the place.

Just make sure to pace yourself.

I stayed at the Hatters Backpack Hostel, on Livery Street, and it was a pretty cool place to stay.  The staff at the front desk was friendly and the atmosphere was pretty cool.  My only issue came with my roommates.  I had gone for the cheapest option and was therefore placed in a dorm style bed so naturally, I was in a room with six other bunk beds and a few people from around the globe.

Russian bodybuilders to be precise.

On the first night I was there, I came in from downstairs and slid into my room.  The light was off but I could hear these weird grunting sounds that were coming from inside of the room.  Afraid that someone was dying, I turned on the light and hoped I wouldn’t find the exact opposite of death (i.e. a vigorous expression of life).  So the room is illuminated and I turn to look around the corner and—

Oh.  My God.

Standing right there, in a man-kini, was Russian Bodybuilder Numero Uno, striking pose after bodybuilding pose.  He was glistening with sweat and jamming to some tunes on his iPod.

Okay, so I have never felt more awkward in my entire life.  I mean, sure he’s got a great body but what was I supposed to do?  Ogle him?  Pass right by him without acknowledging either him or his musculature?  Would I hurt his feelings if I did?

Either way I sliced it there was no coming out on top.  So, I did what I could to bypass him in silence—only to burst out into silent gales of laughter as soon as I was enclosed within the bathroom—and tried to avoid him for the rest of my stay.  However, whenever I caught him and his friend chatting in Russian I always wondered if they were saying something about my eyes and their aversion to their persons.  But whatever.  I mean, to each his own and all but that wasn’t something I was planning on seeing that day.

My full day in Birmingham was pretty relaxed; I read a lot, went to some art museums, chatted with the Occupy Birmingham people who were camped out in front of their government buildings, saw an old church and a cemetery everyone used as a public park and overall just had a rather good time.  Birmingham was nice but since the City Centre isn’t all that big there wasn’t a whole lot to do culturally.  Museums were okay but if you’re like me and have no interest in going to clubs (yeah yeah, go ahead and have a chuckle.  Just remember that I plan to maintain all of my brain cells I was born with, not kill them slowly with drink and loud music) then finding something to do after five o’clock was a bit of a pain.

Nevertheless, I persevered and the next day I was on my way to York.

When I arrived the beauty of the city immediately took me aback.  Or I guess I should say took me back.  You see, York is one of the oldest cities in England.  It was used as a fortification during Roman times and then has it’s own histories regarding the rule of the Angles and the Saxons, the Normans, and then the English kings as we know them today.

York was very pedestrian and tourist friendly and thanks to its abundance of signs and free maps I never really got lost.  My hostel was embarrassingly easy to find (thank you public street signs) and right next to the train station.  I stayed at the Ace York Hostel, which was cool for several reasons:  Free breakfast, which is always a win.  This place is protected by the Heritage Fund of England, which means that it’s a historic site.  And boy is it historic; it was a manor house from the 18th century and is still decked like one today.  Chandeliers and cozy leather couches are all over the place, along with regal staircases, pulley style toilets, and communal ballrooms.  My dorm was actually situated in one of those assembly rooms, which I thought was pretty neat.

My stay in York was great.  I started off by moseying around the City Centre once I had checked in.  Right smack dab in the middle of everything there is a street that’s called the Shambles.  The Shambles consists of original English houses dating from the 16th century and is the oldest surviving medieval street in England.  It’s filled with shops that sell everything from world class dining experiences to little knick-knacks for tourists.  It’s great to walk along those pathways mostly because you really feel like you’re travelling back in time.

You know, until you run into the Starbucks.

I then went around to the York Museum of Fine Art.  The gallery was tiny but at the moment it was doing an exhibition on the works of a prominent local painter from the 19th century—a certain William Etty.  The Exhibition was titled “Art and Controversy” so, intrigued, I went inside (admission was free, which I always love) and was quite floored.

Controversy indeed.  The minute I stepped inside I found myself staring at several dozen portraits of naked women.

Okay, they were “classically” painted naked women but naked women nonetheless.  And I say classically with the quotation marks around it because, at the time, Etty was considered a bit of a psychotic horn-dog for his constant fascination with the female nude.  You see, this was the Victorian Era, and any females nudes that were painted had to be done so in a modest and pure fashion—apparently you can do that by making their facial expressions show of shyness of have their hands covering the most important bits.  If done for modesty’s sake then you’re in the clear.

But Etty?  Not so much.

He put many of his women on full-on display.  Several of them even hint towards sexual kinks that don’t run strictly vanilla, such as voyeurism.  There was this one painting which showed a story from the bible about some dude’s wife stripping for him, and then his friend (whom he had invited to watch so he could prove that his was indeed the hottest chick around) peeking in around the back.  This apparently scandalized people who saw it and, well, I mean I can see why.  For us it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but put yourself into a Victorian Era mindset and you’d probably fall to the ground with little more than horror and an immediate need for smelling salts in your brain.

Anyway, I come out of the art museum and am wondering what to do next.  As chance may have it, there is a sign right in front of the museum, saying that free, guided tours of the city are given everyday at 10:00am and 2:15pm.  Yes, that’s right, free.  You might guess at the hilarity that ensued as I reached down and tried to unearth my loose watch from beneath my several layers of clothing (it wasn’t too terribly cold but I was not taking any chances.  I had on a coat and had an umbrella and a set of gloves in my purse) and voila, it was only 2:05.  I was going on the tour.

The tour was given by a nice, older gentleman, who had been doing this sort of thing for two decades.  He was very factual and took us all about the city to explain to us some of the finer points of its history and culture.  It was a little dry but very informative and hey, it was free.  Once the tour was over I walked around for the rest of the day.  I didn’t have any particular destination in mind, I just walked.  I can’t tell you how many times I must have gone the two miles around the York City Walls.  It was just so pretty, seeing the city from up higher and being able to walk on ramparts that had been constructed and reconstructed for over two thousand years.  That night I also went on a Ghost Hunt, which was more amusing than it was scary, but well worth my time.

My second day in York was dominated again by many miles of walking—this time around the walls, the rivers, and the Shambles.  I went on another tour of the art museum, did some souvenir shopping for the family, saw an exhibition on the burial site of 80 different gladiators, saw the Castle Museum, and just did a whole bunch of other things that were, well, pretty darn cool.

Then the next day I was off for the part of my trip I was most excited about:  Scotland.  Their capital city, to be more precise, of Edinburgh.

The train ride took only a little over two hours and when I got out of Waverly Station (I wish they’d given my passport a stamp, as I like to collect those wherever I go, but alas, as I traveled by train and was coming from just inside the U.K. they didn’t require it) I was practically vibrating with excitement.  Here I was, still in the United Kingdom but in Scotland.  Scotland, the land of kilts, bagpipes, and many, many, many, (many) romance novel heroes.  When I started to walk around, looking for my hostel (map in hand, of course) I could feel my heart constricting in my chest.  Even on a public street, the view that I had was so beautiful and mystical that looking at it for too long hurt my eyes.

Right at the top of this large, rising hill was Edinburgh Castle.  It hangs there like a beacon of royal power and Medieval might on the top of this massive cliff-face, staring down at the rest of the city in a way that is both imposing and beautiful.  Below it is Prince’s Street Garden, a tiered city park that is as green as can be and has paths for walking, benches for sitting, and flowers for sniffing.  Then inside of the garden is the memorial to Sir Walter Scott, looming over passersby with a humble type of literary significance.  His tower might be huge, but his statue, by comparison, is still small, and he looks out on the pedestrians of Prince’s Street with the eye of a writer:  observant, quiet, and all consuming.

I found my hostel just fine (turns out I could have just climbed up and down the Castle Rock hill to get to it and instead spent thirty minutes navigating through a maze of city streets going around it) and it was a very nice hostel.  The Castle Rock Hostel had a great atmosphere, a fantastic location, and was very colorful.  The people at the front were characters in the extreme but also tremendously helpful.  They gave me heaps of information on what to do and helped me pace my trip without making me feel like I was just another dumb tourist.

On the first full day that I was there I visited the National Museum of Scotland.  The admission was free (which was awesome) and the museum was actually quite fantastic.  Probably one of the most fantastic national museums I’ve ever been to, if not the most.  It recorded the entire history of Scotland, from the prehistoric era to today, in a way that was interesting, fun, and constantly captivating.  I cannot tell you how many times I headed for the exit only to be waylaid by some other exhibition that I told myself I’d look at for “just a minute.”

“Just a minute” turned into being there until the museum guards kicked me out at five o’clock.  But hey, ‘twas totally worth it.

On the second day I was in Scotland I got up early (as per usual) and went to Prince’s Street Gardens to wait for the National Art Gallery to open.  I was there for an hour, scribbling away at my thesis in front of—of all places—the Sir Walter Scott monument.  And yes, before you ask, I had placed myself there on purpose.  And yes, before you ask again, I did feel a bit smug when I churned out fifteen freaking pages in one hour under the watchful eye of Sir Scott.  Thank you, no applause necessary, just buy a copy of my book when I publish it.

The museum was quite wonderful.  A lot of the art spanned continents as well as time periods and there were even quite a few famous names in there.  Pieces by Van Gogh, Raphael, and Monet hung on the walls.  I also met a group of retired American citizens from Corpus Christi Texas, who saw that I knew quite a bit about the paintings they were staring at (you don’t go to Paris without learning something about the impressionists) and they started to ask me questions about the Monet’s before them and where they could possible see some of Degas’ ballerina’s.  I told them there were no Degas’ here but that they should see the exhibit that was currently going on in London.  They regretfully told me that they had already been to London and weren’t going back.  When I asked if they were headed to Paris soon the woman shook her head and said, “Not this trip.”

I guesstimate their ages to be in the eighties.  Needless to say, when I am in my eighties, I sincerely hope to follow in the example of these fine people.

I left the museum a little after noon and at one o’clock I was situated next to a Starbucks on the Royal Mile, white ticket in hand, waiting for my free guided tour of Edinburgh, and (do I even need to add this?) yes, I said free!

It was great.  The tour lasted about three and a half hours but my guide, whose name was Troy and from Australia, was so informative, jubilant, and quirky that I think I fell halfway in love with him.  He obviously loved what he was doing and gleefully showed us all bits of the city he had fallen in love with.  We saw the Castle, St. Giles Cathedral, the Elephant House (the café where J.K. Rowling started writing Harry Potter, a graveyard that is extremely haunted, several closes that were part of the medieval market circuit, and so much more.  At the end, all he did was gently remind us that this was what he did for a living and that if we would give him whatever we thought the tour was worth he’d be content.  The man deserved at least a hundred pounds per person but—as a student on a shoestring—I gave him a bit less (okay, significantly less) but thanked him profusely and told him I’d most definitely recommend him to my traveling friends.

So a day of walking around, my three-odd-hour tour, my awe-inspiring tour of an art museum, and hours of thesis writing had led me to half past eight on a Saturday night.  I was tired but couldn’t deny the stirrings of hunger boiling in the pit of my belly.  Having not eaten since three in the afternoon I knew I needed sustenance soon.  I went down to a small pub only a few inches away from my hostel (thankfully it was void of all Halloween revelers) and ordered a traditional Scottish dish.

Go ahead.  Guess (insert evil grin).

For those of you who just gagged a little bit then you guessed right:  I ordered haggis, nips, and tatties.

Allow me to insert the definition of haggis as according to my MacBook Dashboard:  “A Scottish dish consisting of a sheep’s or calf’s offal mixed with suet, oatmeal, and seasoning and boiled in a bag, traditionally one made from the animal’s stomach.”

Yes, I ate sheep’s guts.

Yes, I knew what it was before I ordered it.

And yes, it was delicious.

(Insert another evil laugh) and for those of you who aren’t up on the hip lingo of Scottish gastronomy, the nips I mentioned earlier are turnips and the tatties are potatoes.  The nips are boiled and the tatties are mashed and I was served all of it in a cylindrical tower formation.  Haggis on the bottom, nips in the middle, and tatties on top, covered with a fine sheen of gravy.  I ate it with a small side salad and a draught of cider (the hard kind) and then for dessert indulged in was the traditional Scottish whiskey cream pie.

It.  Was.  Delicious.

Believe me if you want to or ignore me if you don’t (don’t think I don’t see a few of you retching over there behind the screen), but I swear to all that is holy in the world, the haggis I ate in Scotland was one of the best meals I have ever had in my life.  For those of you who do believe me, also take the advice I am giving you right now.  Do not go out right now and try the first haggis you see.  According to Troy, the only really good haggis you can get is in Scotland.  So let that be both caution and incentive; you want to try haggis?  Go to Scotland.  If you can’t go to Scotland just yet, then wait.  Unless you want to be ralfing up remnants of undigested boiled sheep’s guts that you got for half-price at Walmart.

Kind of poetic actually… ralfing up sheep’s guts…

Anyway, Saturday led to blissful dreams that I brought on by counting cows (I couldn’t exactly count sheep now, could I?) and on Sunday I had a train to catch at noon so I only had a little bit of time to look around the inside of the castle I’d been staring at for two whole days.  I went inside Edinburgh Castle and went on a short, guided tour, then did the quickest tour of any place I have ever done in my life.  I saw the statues of Robert the Bruce and William Wallace (which I was told was put there strictly for the tourists), saw the room in which King James I of England (the VI of Scotland) was born (it was tiny.  Very, very tiny.  Talk about humble beginnings for such a weird king), a roof from the 15th century, and then I visited the Scottish Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny (insert an oohh and an aahh from the crowd).

From there I ran (yes, ran, because I was late.  I had been doing that whole “I can look at one more item” thing and was now in danger of missing my transport to London) to my train but got there with about twenty minutes to spare.  My train ride back to London was fraught with beautiful scenery, alternative rock music, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, and more thesis writing.  By five o’clock I was at King’s Cross and by six I was back at Bedford Road in Crouch End, being barked at by the Kingsley’s dog, Romeo.

Back home.

Okay, so that’s the gist of my Fall Break and allow me, for a moment, to toot my own horn.  If the simple tooting comes out sounding like a full-on brass band then I apologize, but allow me just a few lines.

I went on my Fall Break by myself.  If someone else had come with me that would have been fine but, as it was, we all wanted to do different things and that was okay.  I’m happy that I got to go by myself.  It allowed me time just for me and the beautiful cities I was in.

The thing is though that I wasn’t stupid.  I was smart; I didn’t walk in any dark alleys, I didn’t get blitzed, I didn’t overspend my money, I didn’t listen numbly to my iPod with heavy traffic around, I asked for maps, I didn’t talk to any creepy looking strangers, and I always made sure I knew where I was and how to get back to where I needed to be.  My Fall Break was full of fantastic sights, wondrous occurrences, and—most importantly—it was fun.  I was able to have so much fun while still remaining level headed and mature about it (okay, so I wasn’t mature all the time.  I do have to admit that when I first saw someone in a kilt I swooned).

My point in all of this is as follows:  Travel.  Nothing will help you to grow as an individual more than having to rely solely on yourself for your own wants and needs.  It is an amazing thing feeling completely accountable to yourself.  When you’re traveling, you’re not beholden to anyone but yourself and only your actions will create the outcome you desire.  So keep this in mind when you are ready to order that next drink or travel down that shortcut that doesn’t look 100% right.  If you want to have fun then do it the smart way.  Not all college breaks have to involve alcohol and general lasciviousness.  In fact, they’re ten times better if they don’t, mostly because you remember more of your time abroad and not just bits and pieces.

Me in Budapest

Me in Budapest

Here I’m at the top of Gellert Hill, overlooking the city.