So, I finally gave up on finding a memory card for my camera by the time we got to London. The first chance I got I went to a little convenience store and bought two disposable cameras because that was about all I felt I could spend of the euros I had left. By that time in the trip we had two days left and I figured I would just take as many pictures as the cameras would afford me and hope they came out alright. It’s funny to think back on it now, but those photos I took were probably the most authentic of the whole trip, which in some small way makes London the most authentic place we traveled to and through. Perhaps it was because I couldn’t see and analyze them, deleting the ones I didn’t like. Once I took them they were there to stay, for better or for worse, and I never saw them until I got back to the States and had them developed. It turned out to be a good choice.
We went on a bus tour of the city early that next morning and I took pictures through the bus windows, photos of Big Ben and the Tower Bridge. In fact, I recall us driving over London Bridge, and I was thinking, “This is London Bridge?” The bridge itself was pretty ordinary, and it made me question why anyone would write a children’s song about it. Then our tour guide explained to us why London Bridge was so ordinary, how it was a far iteration from the original bridge that was as wide as a city street, the one that did indeed burn down a long, long time ago. He told us that the bridge that’s there now is just functional because it costs too much to keep replacing the bridge, and the latest one was shipped to a town in Iowa, or some other midwestern place (I wasn’t really listening, so fascinated was I by Tower Bridge, that I could see on the left as we drove across).
Then we were dropped off the bus outside of Buckingham Palace right around the time for the changing of the guard, which is one of those things you can’t really describe unless you see it. Our tour guide explained that the queen was in residence because the “Union Jack” was flying high over the castle. He said it changed whenever she wasn’t in residence, and I remember making a comment about terrorists that wasn’t well received. Honestly, though, if everyone knows the queen is at home doesn’t that make it more likely for others to strike then? Although I guess if it hasn’t happened yet, maybe the British are more civilized than Americans are. The changing of the guard was a spectacle to behold, with the ones on duty being relieved by others who marched down the avenue and took their place. We followed the outgoing guards as they walked away from the Palace, and I noticed that the Union Jack had been lowered. That’s when I knew we had just missed seeing the queen.
As we traveled farther away from the Palace more people joined us and we heard other tour guides explaining the places we were passing. There were so many palaces that it was a little bit dizzying. I had another tour leader take a photo of me standing just inside one of the gates to a palace where Prince Charles stayed for a while when he was younger. I stretched my arms as far as they could go and they still couldn’t reach the sides of the enormous gate. Of course some of the girls who were part of my group decided at one of the palaces that they wanted to see if they could make the guard laugh. It’s apparently something that happens often, but I was embarrassed nevertheless. They blinked, but they never laughed, and it was somehow comforting to see that they were as stalwart as advertized.
After a short lunch all together as a group we were on the move again, but this time without an official tour guide. The second half of the day was all ours, and some members of our larger group took a bus tour down to Wimbledon while others headed to see the new Globe Theater, in keeping with the Shakespeare theme we had started at Stratford. The bigger part of my actual group, though, wanted to stay in central London, so we did, going to visit the gardens and castle where Princess Diana stayed right before her death. It was a beautiful area, and the gardens were lovely. Half of the group wanted to go to Hyde Park on the outskirts of West London to just relax on our last afternoon of the journey. And I led the other half into the shopping district because we were the group who had yet to get souvenirs from London.
We went into so many shops it was a bit crazy seeing all of the merchandise that was London and England-themed, and there were so many tourists doing the same thing that it reminded me of New York City and the bevy of tourists and souvenir-themed merchandise there as well. I’m sure it happens in every major city, as it reminded me of central Dublin as well. As we left one of the shops I saw an old time phone booth that was painted the classic red, just sitting there in an alley. I just had to take some pictures of me inside of it pretending to make a phone call. The tour guide had told us that it was indeed a rare occurrence to see one of them anymore because the city was systematically removing them. It was sad to think about that, and I was glad I got to see one before we left London and take that picture in it. Others followed suit with a lot of the students taking pictures with the phone booth as well. It was a fitting tribute to the city before we left it.
Then we headed off to Hyde Park with my map of London leading the way, and we only got lost the one time (it didn’t count). Of course, though, Hyde Park is HUGE, and it took us a good hour after getting there to find the other members of our party. We finally found them and they had commandeered several chairs for us to lounge on. As the sun went down that’s where we were, enjoying the company and the exhaustion that had come with eight days abroad, and all the bus travel, and the boat travel, and all the early mornings, and all the late nights, and all the information that was swimming through our heads. Just to be able to relax and soak in the London atmosphere was incredible. There were musicians playing nearby and kids tossing a frisbee back and forth, and all around us we could hear the British accents that reminded us where we were. You see, Hyde Park was still mostly Londoners, those who had run from the city center to escape the tourists. But we were quiet as mice and didn’t disturb the scene.
Before too long, however, we had to take the tube back to the Wembley station so we could get a good night’s rest because once more we had to get up early for our flight home. And for our return to normalcy. But we will always share those eight days, and those memories, with those particular people, memories to last a lifetime. Even if the showers did suck.