London on a Budget – 36 Hours to Explore

There are cities you love the moment you step foot in them.  Then there are other cities that take you a while to warm up to.  Of course, the flip-side of this is that there are also cities you hate instantly or fall out of love with.

My relationship with London has been a complicated one.  It’s not a city that I can say I love, but at the same time it’s also not a city I can say I hate. I’ve now visited London a number of times and each visit seems to launch me to-and-fro from loving the city to mildly disliking it and then somehow winning me back once again.

London's Charm

Of the many European cities I’ve visited as an adult, the city of London is the one I have the most complex relationship with.  In 2004 I returned to Europe for the first time as an adult.  The trip was done through Arizona State University’s Barrett Honors College and was a guided six week whirlwind taste of the British Isles with the first three weeks spent in London. Despite the incredible amount of ground we’d covered during the year-long visit to Europe my family and I had engaged in when I was 11, we’d never crossed the channel to explore the British Isles.  This made London extra exotic and the ideal place to re-launch my wanderlust as an adult. 

As you might imagine, I loved London as I wandered from the Tower to its grand Museums and then out into the countryside to Stonehenge, Bath, and the White Cliffs of Dover. Each cobblestone street teased my imagination and inspired me to explore further. Since then my visits have typically, but not always, been more utilitarian.  A trip to London for a conference, to see friends, or for a wedding.  These visits are likely at the heart of my mixed love affair with London.

The visits that have given me the best taste of the city of London as an entity were the ones where I was most involved with as a tourist. It was on many of the  more utilitarian visits that I found myself disgusted by London’s sprawling, slow and at times grossly over-crowded public transportation system. By the ludicrously short hours for the Metro, and by the sense of dystopian bleakness that defines some of the city’s suburbs. Suburbs that often remind me very much of a scifi megalopolis designed for three or four million but now lumbering under the weight of four or five times that all colored by an aging infrastructure, crime, and urban decay. While this, and the reality that Londoners in some areas are lovely, while Londoners in others are…not, is all true but I’ve come to realize misses what the city has to offer.

Reflecting – The British Isles

Hello again, I’m currently writing from Berlin – Sorry for the lack of updates – there just hasn’t been time or quality access. I also apologize as I will inevitably switch out Ys and Zs during this post – the keyboards here in Germany are different and I may not have time to correct/notice all the errors.

During the final day in London I explored the city a bit more. Unlike the previous days where I had started out at Picadilly Circus or Leicester Square I decided to head toward the London Bridge and the Tower of London. Unfortunately, the map I’d purchased didn’t quite extend that far. As a result, I ended up kinda guessing as I picked tube lines…meandered in their general direction. Eventually, I made it to the Tower of London where I poked around the outside a bit, walked along the water front (it was a beautiful, crisp day, with the occasional light misting/bone chilling breeze), then made a huge loop around the entire Tower. I decided not to pay to go in, as I’d done the tour in ’04 and a lot of the info was still fresh in my memory.

From there I wandered north – exploring the skyscrapers and eventually ending up in the financial district. It was awesome, so much energy and bustle. The architecture – Lloyds building especially – is spectacular. It’s also a pretty eye-opening experience standing in front of a medium-sized old gothic cathedral, and being surrounded by massive skyscrapers that dwarf everything.

After my meanderings I made my way back to the hostel, ate, took a nap, and tried to connect with some family friends by phone but didn’t have any luck. Then, decided that despite my aching legs and feet I should hit up the salsa club again for round two.

I was not disappointed. The experience was a blast. Great energy, friendly people, great dancers. Met two French girls who I ended up dancing with for a good chunk of the evening. We had a fun political discussion before calling it a night and I caught the last tube home – the tube closes down around 12:20 which is a major PIA.

The next morning I dragged myself out of bed, splashed some water on my face and made my way to London Heathrow where I caught a nice flight on BMI over to Amsterdam. I’ll leave off there on the update part and focus on general reflections.

I really loved my time in the British Isles. Even – and perhaps more so – after this second visit I’m definitely still in love-fascinated by the Highlands. The beauty, richness, and majesty of them is captivating. My taste of England was also reallz enjoyable. It wasn’t planned but between Leeds, York and London I feel like my experience was diverse. York was incredible from a historical sense, it was beautiful, and rich. Leeds was an awesome university experience. The warm reception I recieved from Meagan and the guys/girls in her dorm was reallz fantastic.

The other side of Leeds that was truly fascinating was it’s business and economic prosperity. The city, while possesed of historic architecture is also very modern. A feeling added to by the mixture of contemporary architecture and Victorian era shops, markets, and buildings. It truly is a youthful, vibrant, beautiful city. My hunch is between the universities and the economzy – that it pulls a lot of the best and brightest from the small English towns across the country side and retains them.

London – Well London is London. The city’s depth and diversity is incredible. The history is fantastic and for a big city the people were decent as well.

The pound-dollar difference was really rough. It’s incredible what a difference it makes and how it changes the way you calculate things and view them. I suppose the benefit is that it forces you to pick more carefully what you choose to do as well as really increasing your level of awareness about how much you spend, where you spend, and the spending habits you have that you don’t even really realize you have. The lucky thing is that in general things in England are slightly cheaper e.g. – where a burger might cost us $6 it will only cost 4 pounds. I think that slight difference more than anything really saved me…that and finding ways to avoid the tourist areas and exploit that cost of living difference.

I would have loved to visit one of the Colliers offices while I was in GB – but just did not have the opportunity. It was really fun though seeing Colliers-for-lease signs up all over the place. Though I didn’t see a ton in London, they seemed to dominate Edinburgh. There were also a decent number in Leeds.

The last 48 hours have really been a different experience. I’ll write a bit more about it later, when I write on Amsterdam and Berlin – but briefly, it wasn’t until I arrived in Berlin that the language barrier really hit me hard and I really felt like … Ok, here I am. Just me. Right now. Right here. What the hell have I gotten myself into. Oh well – time to swim.

The Isles and Amsterdam were really a great soft transition. The architecture is different (though not AS different as say, Germany). Even the simple difference in background noise really effects the way you feel and think. In the Isles it was familiar, normal, ‘right’ if you will. Now it’s different, it seems almost wrong on a subconcious level. I find myself in a different state of mind – different perspective on how I fit into the culture and need to approach things in part because of it. My ears and brain are constantly scanning. Trying to locate the familiar or make sense of it. It’s incredible, but also definitely tiring. Hostels – so far they’ve been really good. Better than I expect. Some are loud, some are dirty, some are less secure than I’d like – but all in all the people have been fun, decent people. While there have been one or two nights where I couldn’t find someone to explore with, or socialize with – in most cases I’ve met people and found things to do. It’s definitely a different experience sharing a room with 10-20 perfect strangers.

It’s also really interesting to watch how standard protocol and rules go out the window. The mixture between cultures and environment creates a very unique experience. Especially between the sexes. Since many of the dorms are mixed and everyone is constantly coming and going things are much more sexually relaxed. While not, per say common – it’s not overly unusual for people to change quickly in the dark, sleep/walk/mingle in their boxers, or wander around in towels. Especially since most of the bathrooms-shower areas etc. that I’ve seen so far are mixed sex even if the dorm itself isn’t. In a lot of ways it’s much nicer and more natural (in a completely non-sexual way) than things are normally. I think the longer people spend traveling and in hostels, the more comfortable they become not only with themselves but interacting with and being around others.

Some have kitchens, others don’t. So far one of the biggest things I’ve found is the importance of a common area where people can mingle – and a common area with a ‘backpacker’ feeling to it – so people WANT to mingle. The greater the number of long-term residents typically the colder and more clickish the crowd. This can make it hard when you first arrive to try and mingle and meet people.

Drinking – both a blessing and a curse. While in no way necessary, it’s a big part of the travel experience. I’ve come to the conclusion that a new designation needs to be created for young (and perhaps old) travelers alike. That of the TA – the Traveling Alcoholic. Short of Salsa, i’ve found few ways to mingle, meet people, and cement bonds as quickly as sitting around the hostel drinking in the common area, or heading to the local pub, or a pub crawl with people after a long day spent exploring the city. In many ways I think it’s a major component of the hostel culture. It is that one thing that brings complete strangers together, provides a common interest that then allows friendships or at the very least social acquaintances to sprout.

It’s really something else traveling on my own. I knew it would be, but theres even more to it. I have not quite figured out how to put it into words, but when I do – I’ll let you know. Beyond that though, being forced to deal with and push through highly uncomfortable situations is really an incredible experience…One that builds confidence and really makes you more comfortable with facing decisions that scare you, or you don’t want to make.

Times running down, I’ll try and post my Amsterdam – and First Berlin experiences later tonight.

Sorrz again for the ys and zs!