Tuesday, August 5, 2008

London Calling

My time in the UK has seemed to come and gone faster than I could have imagined. Having no real expectations other than hanging out with Richard, I allowed myself to take in everything England had to offer. My first week was spent aimlessly wondering the streets of this giant city trying not to get lost. Never before have I spent so much time in a city, and never before have I found myself enjoying a city more with every day spent there.

My first impressions of London were that is was huge, massively old and super expensive. Everything here costs about twice as much than in America. After roaming the countryside, a short visit to Cambridge and a jaunt to Richards folks place just an hour outside London, I really couldn’t help but wonder what is was that made this place worth so much. Why was it so expensive? And why was the pound so strong? It really confused me cause I didn’t quite get what they had. Other than the massive city of London, England just seemed like a lot of old villages, rolling hills, a few pubs and loads of wheat fields.

It wasn’t until my day trip to Greenwich that I realized what it was. It was an hour boat ride on the Thames river to the village. I sat on the deck of the ferry in the 85 degree sunshine listening to my I-Pod and watched the old buildings of classical downtown London give way to old apartments and condos. The ferry captain who found enjoyment in describing in detail what every building and monument was we passed along the way soon said “from here until Greenwich, there are few areas of interest, so I will shut up and let you enjoy the ride.” Thankful of his generosity and my ability to totally tune out the rest of the ride to my music, I began to see giant skyscrapers appear on the horizon. Upon docking in Greenwich, I took another look at these massive buildings and saw that they were all very modern and all owned by giant, well known international corporations. Thinking nothing of it, I went exploring.

Greenwich is probably one of the most amazing places in all of London. The British Maritime Museum, the Queens Palace and the University of Greenwich were so impressive. Then there is this massive park which is so picture-perfect that it looks like some machine has been designed to manicure its gardens and lawns. In the middle of this park is a big hill which I started to climb. On top there is a place that is filled with tourists taking pictures of themselves standing over a line. Big deal, right? Upon further inspection it turns out that the line marks 0 degree longitude and the beginning of time. You can stand there with one foot in the West and one in the East.

While looking at all these people crowding this line and then looking out over the city and all it’s massive skyscrapers, it hit me. Time. England has time. Without any large-scale export, time is something they have that nowhere else in the world could possibly have. This is why it’s so expensive. Everyone knows you can’t really buy time. But England has come closer than any country in the world. GMT. Greenwich Mean Time. Ingenious.

With exactly a 5 hour difference from North America and a 5 hour difference from all the development in Asia, time 0 or London, is perfectly positioned to do business with the world. In a standard 8 hour work day, your business can coordinate with the industries of Asia in the morning and deal with the markets in Europe and North America in the afternoon. This mean business and not just business but big business. Ones that bring lots of money, enough money to make a small island nation very wealthy.

Originally Richard and I were to do a surf trip up into Ireland. However, he just changed jobs and was unable to get much time off. This actually turned out to be more than perfect because as my whole schedule freed up I was able to go meet some family in Cambridge I’ve never seen before. I called up my Grandma’s 87 year old sister and nervously explained who I was and asked if I could come meet them. “Of course dear.” was her reply. It was a two hour train ride from London and some of the most picture-perfect English countryside you could imagine. There is something about trains that is so peaceful and introspective as you listen to the wind rush past the window going 70 miles an hour, staring in awe at beautiful green pastures, duck ponds and old churches.

I had an amazing evening with my Great Aunt Irene and her husband Peter. We spent most of the night looking though thousands of family photos…always a necessity when you meet family for the first time. I found it awfully remarkable that there were people whom I’ve never met on the other side of the world in a country I’ve never been too that has photos of my family hanging up in their homes. The evening was topped for me when my Grandma back home, who I haven’t seen in about 9 months, called to say hi and I was there to talk to her. She had been battling cancer the whole time I’ve been away and it’s pained me to not be able to be there for any of it. Talking to her really was more than awesome.

In the morning, I was able to visit with Vicky (the grandchild of my great aunt, I‘m not sure what you call that in relation to myself, but she‘s some kind of cousin). She actually stayed with my family for a few weeks back in 1991. I was only 9 years old, but I vividly remember her and was really excited when she phoned up and wanted to meet. She was only 23 when I first met her and she’s now 40, married and has 3 kids. But her friendly smile, peaceable attitude and generous nature had remained unchanged. She has also become an incredible mother to three incredible kids, William, Phillip and George. Hanging out with her, her kids and her awesome husband Rolan, I instantly felt like I was family. I was able to meet her dad, Berry (my dad‘s cousin), briefly and really knew from there that we all really were related. My time with them was way too short. I really wish I could have stayed longer. Vicky and her kids William and Phillip walked me to the train station and watched me leave to go back to London. Sitting in my seat on the train and looking out the window waving goodbye to people I had just met, I really felt as though I’d known them for my whole life. It was more than bitter-sweet because I was so glad to have met them but also sad to say goodbye. It was one of the most moving experiences I’ve had on this trip.

I returned to London sometime after midnight, packed my bags, crashed for a few hours then Richard and I began the 4 hour drive to the beach. We were headed for the county of Devon to surf a beach set in front of a backdrop of beautiful rolling hills, steep cliffs and farm pastures. There was a word of a small swell hitting these beaches, and for this time of year, it’s a novelty to have much surf at all, so we were on it. We arrived to a beautiful sunny day with small, blown out surf. I hadn’t been in the water for almost a month since I was in Indonesia, and I have yet to surf the Atlantic ocean, so we ran down to the beach with our boards as soon as we parked the car. The water was cold but the thrill of just paddling into the ocean on a board again felt better than I could have imagined. We had about 3 really fun surfs in Devon, one sunset session which was more than magical. The sun poked through the clouds the last few moments it was above the horizon. It lit up the beach and it’s backdrop of bright green pastures dotted with grazing sheep. The sun gave off rays shooting in all directions as it snuck behind the clouds in it’s final bow to the finale of an amazing day. We camped for two nights out in Devon. Richard drove me to South Hampton where I caught a flight to Dublin. I only have two nights here as I see some sights and prepare for my flight back to the States but I can’t help but reflect on the last couple weeks spent in the UK.

England to me came as a bit of a huge surprise. I really came here with no expectations. London turned out to be one of the most amazing cities I’ve ever spent time in. I spent 8 days wondering it’s streets and everyday I found something new and mind-blowing. I’d go back in a heart beat. I found a family that I’ve never met in Cambridge, I felt warm and welcome and that I had a home. Cambridge itself was one of those perfect, postcard-like English towns that you imagine only in pretty picture books. And I found amazing times and awesome waves hanging out with a good buddy I haven’t seen in almost 5 years. It was all more than I could have asked for. I can’t wait to come back.

-Please note that this posting is linked with 3 different albums. The Greenwich and British Museum, the Cambridge and Family Album the Devon Surfing trip.

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