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Contiki European Experience


Day 2 - April 30, 2005 - London, UK


I was awoken this morning on the plane by the sun when the French-named English girl opened the shade on her window.  Soon after, the flight attendants passed out an arrival card that required basic information.  On our way in for landing, I looked out the window and waited until we passed through the thick clouds.  As soon as we did, we were very low.  The English terrain was lush green and I immediately noticed the left side driving.  We then landed at Gatwick Airport around 9:00 am, Greenwich Mean Time.  I was finally officially in Europe.
On my way through the jet way, I passed my new friend from Still Remains, from whom I never obtained a name.  I wished him good luck with the band and the tour.  I'm sure I'll see him sometime in the near future.  I waited for a seemingly long time to collect my luggage.  It was humorous to see several large pieces of musical equipment fed out onto the belt.  I got my bag, and headed through customs.
Next came the first of what would be dozens of times to figure out how to get to a given location.  I had a one way pass on Euro Rail to Victoria Station.  After some unexpected confusion, and help from some very pleasant people, I found the correct train.  The train was unlike any I had seen back home.  It looked like a long, narrow fast food restaurant.  Each row of chairs was accompanied by a table.  Don't be fooled into thinking it was too extravagant though.  The train was somewhat old and rundown.  It was, however, a nice scenic hour long ride into Victoria Station in Central London. 
The ride provided an excellent glimpse at a portion of the English way of living, as the train sped past hundreds of homes.  The yards were very deep and narrow and virtually every house had their laundry drying in the backyards.  Overall, the homes were rundown and unimpressive.  There was also a good amount of graffiti on the homes, fences and sheds.
My expectations of central London did not turn out to be accurate.  It was larger and more chaotic than I envisioned.  Several tall buildings in the immediate surrounding area also came as a surprise.  Victoria Station was enormous and it was filled with restaurants, ATMs, and small shops and kiosks.  I made my way outside and realized I had no idea where my hotel, the Royal National, was located.  I proceeded to ask a few people on the street and none of them had even heard of it.  I then checked through my Contiki documents and the address was nowhere to be found.  I decided that I would get a cab and tell the driver the name of the hotel, in the hopes that he would know the location.  I went to a bank nearby and it was closed.  I learned that Saturday is apparently the UK's Sunday.  Everything is closed.  I then went to a currency exchange place and got ripped off in convenience fees to the already not so great exchange rate from US dollars to British pounds.  For some reason, at this point, I completely lost the urge to take the cab.  Part of the excitement of traveling, in my opinion, is figuring things out like language barriers and, like in this case, mass transit.  I suppose I didn't want to "give up" by taking a cab.  So I went back into Victoria Station and stared at the maps on the walls.  I then found a booth that assisted in hotel reservations.  I went to the booth and asked the attendant if he knew the whereabouts of The Royal National.  He instructed me to take The Tube to Russell Square station. 
I bought a 24 hour ticket and picked up a Tube map.  I then took the Circle Line to the Piccadilly Line to Russell Square.  I exited the station and asked someone where the hotel was.  He had no idea.  I then saw a group of cops on the corner up the block.  I made my way towards them and, while they eventually pointed me in the right direction, they were a bit confused on where exactly it was.  I was beginning to think that the Royal National was a hole in the wall somewhere, since no Londoners seem to know where it is, even the cops!  Two hours after I arrived in Victoria Station, I made it to the Royal National.  This is essentially a 15 or 20 minute subway trip when you know where you are going.  Nevertheless, I was excited to be there and happy I didn't "give up" by getting a cab.
While approaching the hotel, I noticed that it was quite big.  This was a surprise since the lack of knowledge from the Londoners made me think it was very small.  Then I noticed that I was only looking at half of the hotel.  This place was huge.  I went to the front desk and they instructed me to go around the building and down the stairs into the basement to check in at Contiki's desk.
I made it into the Contiki Basement and I was glad to be there.  Until then, Contiki was just a web site and a brochure for me.  Now it finally felt like I was traveling with them.  I approached the desk and waited for a girl in front of me to finish her check in.  I noticed her American passport.  I then handed over my documents and they gave me some paperwork to fill out.  I began chatting with the girl, who was Chrissie from Minneapolis.  The woman at the desk then instructed us to go back up to the hotel's desk (where I originally had gone) to obtain our room keys.  While walking upstairs, Chrissie told me she was on the London to Rome tour, which was slightly shorter than my tour.  She also told me she flew into Chicago, and then to London and that the flight was only seven hours.  I found this to be interesting since my flight from Philadelphia, which is much closer to London than Chicago, took eight hours.  We got our room keys and headed for the elevator.  I intended on asking Chrissie if she wanted to have lunch but we got separated in different elevators.
I made my way up to the room.  It was much nicer than what I expected, being on one of Contiki's "budget tours."  The bathroom was particularly noteworthy.  The shower head was at least seven feet high.  Minimal shower head heights were actually a concern of mine, seeing as how I'm 6'4".  Also, there was a strange apparatus in the bathroom, coming up from the floor, like a toilet.  Basically it was a toilet, just without the tank on the back.  I actually thought that it might be a foot bath momentarily.  I concluded that it had to be a bidet or a urinal.  Overall, the room, not surprisingly, turned out to be either the best or the second best accommodations of the whole tour in my opinion, despite some criticism I heard later on in the tour.



My other two roommates weren't yet at the hotel, so I left my bags there and headed out to explore the city.  I remembered from my trip towards the hotel the general whereabouts of Piccadilly Circus.  Since it was only one stop away, I decided to go there first.  On the way, I stopped in a small sandwich shop and ordered a very expensive lunch.  It was a basic sandwich (I think turkey) with a Coke and chips (French fries).  It was decent but not to die for.
I took the Piccadilly Line to Piccadilly Circus, which is referred to as the Times Square of London (sorry for the New York comparisons).  I found it to be pretty dull and overrated as a tourist destination.  However, I was still basking in the initial thoughts that I was in Europe and it didn't have much of a negative effect on me.  I also noticed the London Trocadero.  Probably my favorite concert venue back home, in Philadelphia, is the Trocadero.  Whenever I check the Internet for concerts, I always have to specify which Trocadero (London or Philadelphia) I'm searching for.  Never in a thousand years would I expect to randomly run into the Trocadero in a huge city like London.  I must point out that my knee was hurting a lot at this point.  Before I left, I was jogging almost daily.  The night before I left, my knee started to ache.  All this walking wasn't helping.
I then went to a Tower Records because I was curious to see if there were any differences from home for some reason.  There were none.  In fact, they were playing Nirvana on the sound system.  It should be noted that one of the illuminated billboards at Piccadilly Square was advertising Coca Cola and the upcoming Destiny's Child tour.  So much for ridding myself of American pop culture for a month.




After what was probably something like 20 minutes, I found myself bored with Piccadilly Square.  I decided to head to Big Ben next, something I knew I'd find more interesting.  I searched my bag and my pockets everywhere for my Tube map.  It was nowhere to be found.  On top of that, it was surprisingly impossible to find another free map in and around the Underground entrances.  I proceeded to head back to the hotel to pick it up.
I entered my room and Andrew from Australia was resting, but not sleeping, in one of the two other beds.  Andrew was a bit older than me and was leaving for his second Contiki tour the following morning.  He was from Sydney, Australia and from what I read, I didn't expect him to be the last Australian I would meet while in Europe.  He kept assuring me that Contiki was great and the next four weeks would be the best of my life.  I think he sensed I was a bit apprehensive about being stuck with the same fifty people for close to a month.  I invited him to go to the Westminster area with me but he said he needed to catch up on some sleep.
I consulted my Tube map and made my way to the Westminster area.  Once I got off the subway, there were at least four exits leading up to the street, all leading to different directions.  On top of that, I wasn't as confident as I would've liked that I was at the right stop to begin with.  I picked an exit at random and approached it.  There were a few art vendors lining the corridor, all with drawings and paintings of Big Ben.  I figured I was in the near vicinity, but when I got to the street, I didn't see anything that I recognized.  I then turned the corner and there it was.  It was like it slapped me in the face.  It was very impressive.  The gold highlights particularly stood out.  I immediately thought of my Big Ben 3D puzzle that I spent months on as a kid.  I took a ton of pictures and then crossed a bridge over the River Thames.  The London Eye was fairly close, on the other side of the river.  At this point, the weather was perfect.  I was still high on the thought of merely being there.  That, in addition with the perfect temperature and weather, was enough to put me in the best mood I could ask for.  I probably had a visible smile on my face as I walked the streets that afternoon.



Next, I made my way to the London Eye and noticed there was a Dali and Picasso exhibition at the adjacent aquarium.  I considered going in but I chose to wander the streets instead.  I came across two entertainers in a park right next to the London Eye.  Usually, I find acts like these dull and predictable.  However, during the time it took me to walk past them, something caught my attention.  I sat down and watched.  They were very funny and great at working the crowd.  I wish they would come out with a DVD.  The most impressive part of their routine was when one of them pulled off the common stunt of removing a tablecloth from under a table setting of plates and vases.  He then however, performed the same stunt in reverse.  He replaced the tablecloth without displacing the table setting.  I was literally jaw dropped.  I actually tipped them 2 pounds, something that I would rarely do.  I'm frugal to begin with, and I was on a huge budget.






I was then starving.  I think, at that point, I was also due for a nap.  I crossed another bridge back over the Thames and searched for an entrance to the Tube.  Before finding one, I realized I ended up in Trafalgar Sqare.  There was really nothing noteworthy other than the familiar Nelson's Column.  Similar to Piccadilly Circus, I found Trafalgar Square to be disappointing.  The two aforementioned places were nice and well kept, but I wouldn't regard either as an interesting tourist attraction.


I found an entrance to the Tube nearby and set way back to the hotel.  I soon realized I was on the right train, but heading in the wrong direction.  I got off and hopped on the next train heading in the correct direction.  On this train, I kept dozing off.  I was afraid I would miss my stop.
I remember a family of four sitting across from me.  I imagined what their lives were like compared to mine.  I considered many of the everyday differences there must be.  I think it's interesting how something that seems so commonplace to me can be so different or even unheard of for someone from the other side of the world.  I also pondered what they thought of me.  When I see tourists in New York, I always think where they are from, and what they are doing.  Part of me wanted to answer those questions for them, even if the questions weren't asked.  Luckily, I wasn't currently dozing off when my stop came.
I exited to an emergency situation.  There were police and medics everywhere.  They directed everyone out of the station without swiping our tickets (in the London Underground, tickets are swiped at the beginning and end of each trip).  I wanted to stick around and see what all the commotion was all about but I was literally falling asleep standing up.  Also, my knee was really hurting now and I just wanted my bed.  As an unrelated note, I must point out that the London Underground is several stories below street level.  Some of the longest escalators I've ever seen led to and from the trains.  Giant and uncomfortably warm elevators could also be found at certain stops.
I got back to my hotel and I couldn't sleep.  It was a perfect day and I was in London.  I think I could've been awake for a week and not been able to fall asleep.  Also, my need for food was comparable to my need for sleep.  Andrew was still sleeping, more or less.  However, I did ask him if he wanted to join me for dinner.  He declined by rolling under his blankets and stating that it was cold.  It was like 70 degrees Fahrenheit in there.  I will be nervous about the heat if I ever make it to Australia.  I ate in the hotel's restaurant, for an astronomical price.  My soda would be the first of dozens of drinks on the trip that would not come with much desired ice.
I then went to the Internet cafe and emailed home.  The keyboard was horrible.  It was like one of those flat boards on the cash registers at McDonalds.  Only half the keys registered as I typed.  I only had 15 minutes for my 2.  There were lots of typos.  This would end up being the last time during the whole trip I would use the Internet or email.
Next, I decided to head out to St. Paul's Cathedral.  It was beginning to drizzle, but I kept going.  As it was getting late, the inside was closed so I was only able to see the outside.  It was very big and impressive.  It started to rain harder and it was almost dark so I went back to the hotel again.



I had been emailing James from Sydney for a few weeks before the trip.  We made arrangements to meet up at the hotel because we were the only people we knew of that would be there two days before the tour began.  I went up to the desk and found out which room he was in.  He wasn't at his room, but I chatted with his roommate for a bit.  I can't remember his roommate's name, but he was a great person to talk to.  I then left a note on James' bed with my room number. 
Right as I was entering my room, James came running down the hall and he introduced himself.  We arranged to meet at the bar in the lobby in 15 minutes.  He ran back down the hall.  I would soon come to find out that James runs everywhere.  If he wasn't running, he was walking as fast as he could without running.  He was always in the front of whatever group he was in. 
Back at my room, I noticed someone else had left their luggage on the third bed in the room.  I read the name tag to find out where they were from and it was Myungsoo!  Myungsoo, who was from South Korea, was booked for the same tour as me and I had been emailing him for months before the trip.  I thought it was incredible that, out of this huge hotel, he had the same room as me.  I left a note for Myungsoo to meet us at the lobby bar if he got it in time.
I met up with James and we waited for Myungsoo.  He didn't show so we headed across the courtyard to the London Pub.  It was just a standard bar, similar to a typical place you would find in the US.  We had a few drinks and chatted until 11:00 PM, when they kicked us out.  Pubs close in London at 11?  Oh yeah, it was Saturday, when everything was closed or closing early.  We did drink on the sidewalk in the front of the pub though, which was different for me.  I've never seen anything like that back at home.
I got back to my room and met Myungsoo.  We chatted for a bit but I quickly fell asleep at 11:30 PM.  Minus small naps on the plane and subway, I was running on 35 hours with no sleep.  This would be I think the earliest I would go to sleep on the entire trip.