We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.
I’ve been back in America a little over a week now.
The culture shock started as early as my flight from Amsterdam to Atlanta. On one side of me was a mother hoarding a large rucksack filled with vacuum sealed packages of Pop-Tarts and beef jerky, passing it out to her children and glaring at others as if there would be a famine on the flight and she must provide for her offspring. On the other side of me was a man in a Texas Cowboy’s baseball cap and a shirt with an American flag on the front. Both were extremely interested in small talk. These were things I had not experienced for quite some time.
Touching back down on American soil, I realized how much I had missed cheap Mexican food, free refills on beverages, and stores that stay open past 4pm on a Sunday. I realized how much I had not missed public Bluetooth conversations that cause people to look like they’re yelling at you, a lack of efficient public transportation, and country music. The sun seems much closer in the sky, and I had partially forgotten the enormity of the concrete deserts which are our parking lots. What were all of these movies filling the cinemas I hadn’t even had the privilege of seeing trailers for? And where, for the love of God, were all the queues?
Falling into rhythm with a place takes a bit of time, but it’s amazing how stealthily a total-body takeover can occur, leaving you foreign in your home nation. At times I still have to do a double-take as I plug in my laptop because the cord looks small without an adapter. And at dinner the other night I tried to order just beans on a jacket potato, and got a plain baked potato with a funny look on the side instead.
Nerd that I am, I subscribe to Conde Nast Traveler. It’s one of my favorite travel magazines, and recently it’s been focusing a lot on the UK because of the Jubilee and the Olympics and everything going on this year. Paging through an issue, I saw a large piece on the Shoreditch area of London, talking about how it’s the new hipster area, symbolizing all the growth and diversity in London and the UK. Yeah, cool. I thought, my mental map thinking it was still close and accessible to me, instead of across an ocean.
I’m sure it won’t take me too long to catch up with America. The jet lag is already gone, and my fingers can deftly count out US change again. But I still started a new list of where I want to visit. First line: Shoreditch.
What I was really hanging around for, I was trying to feel some kind of a good-by. I mean I’ve left schools and places I didn’t even know I was leaving them. I hate that. I don’t care if it’s a sad good-by or a bad good-by, but when I leave a place I like to know I’m leaving it. If you don’t, you feel even worse.
Wimbledon—it’s where the tennis is.
And it’s where I found myself before returning back to America.
While the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club is an exclusive club (aspiring members must know 3 current members before they will even be eligible, and then be put on a waiting-list about 1000 individuals long) for playing all year long, starting next week, the 25th of June, the Wimbledon Championships will also take place there. For two weeks, some of the best tennis players in the world will gather to grunt it out on the courts to prove supreme mastery of the racket, and the entire area is flooded with spectators. Then, even more overwhelming this year will be the Olympics, as all the tennis matches for the games will take place in Wimbledon as well.
I must admit, my first association with Wimbledon used to be with Kirsten Dunst and Paul Bettany. But the Championships are really as big of a deal as the movie makes it out to be, with celebrities such as Jay-Z even attending to watch from time to time. I do find all of the hype rather interesting, but as I’m not entirely consumed with the idea of little balls whizzing across a court, I was up for looking around for other things to do.
Besides the tennis, Wimbledon is actually a very interesting place, with quite a rich history. While coverage of the tennis might not always indicate it, Wimbledon is only about 6 miles from the very heart of London, and only about a 20 minute Tube ride away. And while it is so close to the urban glamour, it has a quaint, almost country-esque charm to it. Between Wimbledon and Wimbledon Village rests the commons, a large sprawling area with running paths, benches, ponds, and stretches of grass filled with kids chasing after soccer balls and even some horse riding. Just past the commons is Cannizaro House, a massive mansion-like house over 300 years old which is now a hotel, complete with maze-like gardens that make you want to get lost in them.
Walking a bit further, you can find the Wimbledon Windmill, which was built in 1817 and now houses a little museum. Another, slightly more hidden are of interest is the Buddhapadipa Temple, a beautifully ornate Buddhist temple tucked away in the residential area, and despite having to look a little bit harder for it, definitely worthy of a visit.
To me, Wimbledon is a wonderful example of how diverse London is; in a span of just a few miles you can go from a palace to skyscrapers to a cozy temple. But also, it displays the wonderful British trait that no matter how close of proximity a place might be to something else famous, they still wish to leave their own mark. As I wasn’t able to stay to witness the renowned tennis, I settled for the consolation of sipping a Pimm’s cup, a fruity drink common in the summer and at events like tennis and croquet, and a perfect way to end a sunny afternoon.
The first condition of understanding a foreign country is to smell it.
“A good holiday is one that is spent among people whose notions of time are vaguer than yours.”
-J B Priestley
About 85 degrees underneath an opalescent blue sky and a golden sun, I clearly was not in the UK anymore. The island I found myself having happily traveled to was the charming and ever so popular Greek Island of Corfu. The island, actually called Kerkyra to the Greeks, is a popular tourist destination, but despite all of the well-known aspects which draw individuals there, the island and its inhabitants gleefully succeed in retaining a thoroughly small-town Greek feel to the island atmosphere.
The airport, despite receiving a constant barrage of international flights, still seems like a sleepy little construction perhaps yet fully unaware of it’s purpose. As we were passing through customs, we found the officer, not in the little booth calling forward individuals separately for inspection, but rather in the middle of the room, calling forward the hoard of people to vaguely glance at their passport. I, being not of EU citizenship, was gestured to. He clamped onto my passport and grunted something in my direction as he continued to wave others past, me staying meekly by his side like a little puppy. After everyone had past through, he took my passport to the booth to properly enter in the information of an outsider. I felt very special.
We were greeted with our airport transfer by a man with a cigarette dangling curiously from his mouth, who drove as though being an enthusiastic Mario Andretti fan through the winding roads. The flat terrain slowly changed as craggy mountains built up around us, and for a while it seemed as though we were no longer on an island. A few short kilometers later, we arrived at our hotel at Paleokastritsa, known for being the ‘unspoilt secret’ of Corfu. Our hotel was nestled cozily halfway up a slope, with views of the surrounding mountains and bay from all directions.
The first day, we were content to simply lounge by the pool, and having settled in successfully, we searched for pool towels, but having found none, approached the reception. The receptionist had a mess of thick curly hair piled on top of her hair, and lengthy red nails clawing their way down some list, as if taking inventory. We, under the silly delusion the reception was there to help us, approached. Inquiring if there were pool towels to check out or perhaps rent, she slowly raised her head and simply gave a thick, ‘No.’ Apparently our blank faces caused her to think we were a little slow in thinking, because she loudly repeated the same word, possibly extending it to 5 syllables, something I would never have thought possible for that word. We managed to drip-dry quite successfully throughout our stay.
The following day, we decided to venture a bit further afield, and at breakfast having spied a nearby beach, asked a waitress if it was possible to walk there. She calmly gave us the directions to walk about 2 kilometers and turn right, then ask if we needed help. Thinking it was simple enough, we set off in our bathing suits and flip flops. After a while, thinking perhaps we might have undertaken a foolish journey, we saw a sign informing us our hotel was 8 kilometers back. No matter how delusional one might be, there was no way their sense of distance could be as faulty as mistaking 8 for 2 kilometers, so we set back. Upon finding a bar boasting the best view of the bay, we proceeded to ask them if they knew the way to the beach. A quick look over at our party caused the man to say, ‘Yes, you are young, you may make it. Take that path, maybe 10 minutes.’ Elated, we clambered up the slope into the mountainous brush. A solid sense of determination drove us on as the brush closed in thicker and thicker, but after mysterious animals started scurrying around by our feet, we admitted defeat. Perhaps my only regret of the trip is not knowing how to get to that mysteriously elusive beach.
Much of our holiday seemed to find the same pattern when interacting with locals. Everything was on a vague timescale, and the outcome not necessarily a certainty. Yet everything was met with grand exaggeration and boisterous conversation. As Hollywood as it is, the film My Big Fat Greek Wedding is not entirely off on all aspects. Another somewhat stereotypical reality, yet still endearingly confusing, is that every male on the island seemed to be named either Spiros, Nikos (or some variation of Niko, Nikolaus, etc.) or Costas. In fact, we had at least 3 bartenders at the hotel named Costas. I imagine when drinks start flying and requests come quickly, this could be quite confusing. Another quirk is that the Greeks seem to, erm, have difficulties with the plumbing. In nearly every toilet you see a sign announcing to put toilet paper, not in the toilet, but in a bin next to it, as the pipes are too small and will get clogged. At first this was a bit stressful, as images of flooded bathrooms with, shall I say, debris, came to mind if I failed in this task. But obviously this was not enough to ruin a holiday, and faded into just another aspect of the local culture.
Another day we ventured into the town of Corfu, a main attraction of the island. To get there, we planned to use the local buses. At the bottom of the hill near our hotel, a signpost informed us that local buses ran every two hours starting at 9:15 am, and the last bus came back at 4 pm. As the schedule did not allow for much time in the day to actually be exploring, we decided to set off at the earliest bus time. Perky under the morning sun we started waiting at 9 am, hoping to not miss it. 9:15 came and went, and our perkiness turned to worry. But by 9:45, a big green bus came lumbering down the narrow road. We got into the town slightly after 10, and by 10:15, we had made it to the new fortress, one of the main sights to see. The old town is situated between to hills, upon which the old and new fortresses sit. From the new fortress, we caught a wonderful view of all the intertwining little streets in the town, and the tops of several churches. We also spied several lizards scuttling out of the brightness and into the cool shadows. As expected, most of the town was lined with vendor stalls, all boasting the best prices on their souvenirs, and swearing to God that the rest of the vendors are all trying to swindle you. Bargaining is almost a hobby to the Greeks, and a woeful shortcoming on my part. I was attempting to drive the price down on a leather bracelet I was interested in, which merely caused the woman to wail, ‘Why you trying to cause my family to starve? This cost me so expensive!’ with her hands lifted in the air as if asking for divine intervention from such a selfish tourist. We stumbled across several churches in the tangled streets, and in one I was ushered into a line by a burly Greek man, and further shepherded into a small room housing what appeared to be a sarcophagus. Slightly bemused, I tried to pull a face showing my admiration and curiosity in such a beautiful room. The man was not fooled though, and leaned his head forward in example, saying ‘Kiss kiss’. I tried pretending I did not understand, which just prompted more charades, and eventually succumbed to hovering my lips a half an inch over what might be a tomb disease ridden from all the mysterious lips before me. This seemed to appease him, and he hurriedly moved me out of the way so others might slobber their appreciation in a much more exuberant manner than I.
Much closer to our hotel than the town was the renowned monastery of Paleokastritsa, about a 20 minute walk away. It was built in 1228 on the top of a hill, with sweeping views of the sea all around it. It includes an ornate sanctuary, a small museum, and even an olive oil press. Sadly, not much of the original structure remains, but the renovations have been done beautifully over the years, with crisp white walls and lush pops of color from the flowers which seem to flow over the walls and onto the ground.
It was very interesting being in Greece at the time we were, because they were preparing to elect a new government, mainly with the intent of deciding if they would stay in the Euro Zone or not. I was aware of all of this due to watching the news. However, if I had not done so, I would have no idea that this was occurring, for life in the tourist world remained as normal with beaches visited and food and drinks served. It crossed my mind several times that the locals might find our ignorance of the issues which affect them so strongly rather irritating.
Of course, being a holiday, much of our time was consumed in eating and being lazy. The highlights for me included moussaka, a kind of Greek lasagna, and the copious amounts of feta cheese and Greek yogurt. Also popular is ouzo, a strong liquour with a pungent liquorice taste, and and even stronger punch.
Our last day was met with much sadness. The island had a sense of timelessness, with the sun providing a sort of warmth making you feel as though you’ve sank into golden honey with the sweet smell of the concoction of local flowers and the buzzing of all the insects. It’s quite easy to see how the island was featured in the Odyssey as an island where Odysseus spent time on.
The only comfort as our plane lifted into the sky was that we were returning to slightly more stable plumbing.
This weekend, all of Britain is showing their colors for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee. Shops are sporting everything from cupcakes to sunglasses pained with the Union Jack, and I even saw a Corgi with a flag t-shirt and matching collar on.
The four-day weekend is marked by a bank holiday (a simple day off given by the Queen, something I’m still wrapping my mind around) to enable everyone ample time to celebrate. Saturday the Queen visited the Epsom Derby, as she simply loves horses. Then yesterday, in a truly amazing feat (or shall I say fleet), the Queen took part in a huge boat pageant on the Thames.
Streets all along the river were closed off as police patrolled the masses of people bedecked in patriotic garb making their way to line the river. Over 1,000 boats found their way down the river to honor the Queen’s 60 years on the throne (only the second British monarch to accomplish this, Queen Victoria being the first). I found my favorite part to be when a legion of little boats, each with a flag depicting one of the British commonwealths, dominated the river. Another remarkable moment was when the Tower Bridge lifted open in salute as the Queen’s boat passed through. This evening, thousands of people will crowd outside of Buckingham Palace as a concert, including Sir Paul McCartney, is held in the Queen’s honor. Finally, Tuesday, a service of thanksgiving will take place at St. Paul’s Cathedral, before a procession through the city.
It’s not often that most of London is shut down (perhaps the last time being for last year’s Royal Wedding); however, this weekend most definitely warrants such an occasion. And even outside of the city, people all across Britain find themselves marking the celebration with street parties and other excuses to stay away from work. I find the whole affair quite interesting—it reminds me a little of the 4th of July, with so much national pride wafting through the air. But seeing as this celebrates the occasion of a crowned ruler, as opposed to the freedom from one, there is, quite obviously, an altogether different atmosphere, one with a love for tradition and all the sparkly regalness which goes along with it. But regardless of how someone here might feel about the Queen and her lengthy rule, I say any excuse for a little bit of a party with some Victoria Sponge Cake is worth celebrating.
2012 is a big year for Great Britain. Not only is it the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, but it is also the host of the 2012 Olympics. As always, there is a lot of hype leading up to the Olympics—various issues and excitements have been in the media since I’ve gotten here. Some people are worried London will be too congested, and worry the fears will consequently keep individuals away and not generate enough attraction to the games. (In true calming British fashion, cartoon posters depicting commuters taking alternate routes for their everyday errands during the games are plastered along the Tube in London.) There has also been worry about the meaning of these 2012 games, as it has been mentioned that Beijing’s 2008 games have no lasting legacy.
The pre-game festivities have reached all the way to us in Aberystwyth. The National Library of Wales currently has an exhibit about the Olympics, even. And once everyone here found out that the Olympic torch would be coming through the town, even more excitement was generated.
The torch was scheduled to stay at Aberystwyth overnight yesterday (the 27th), and as such, there was an extensive party planned for its arrival. A massive stage with accompanying stalls from Samsung and Coke, featuring attractions like taking a picture with a replica torch, invaded a nearby Welsh field, along with a mess of fair food stalls, and a legion of porta-potties. About half of Aberystwyth descended upon the festivities, with prowling pre-teens, university students looking for free samples, elderly couples (some looking old enough to remember the last time GB hosted the Olympics in 1948), and hoards of small children tussling in the grass.
About two hours before the arrival of the torch, bands and other entertainment took the stage to temper the rising excitement, something especially necessary after it was announced the torch would be about a half hour late. But after long last, we saw the flame bobbing up and down in the distance as it was brought forward by a group of torch-bearers in such tight synchronization you’d think they were a group of secret service protecting the president.
I was lucky enough to be right next to the fence by the stage, where it was ran past—I was tempted to take someone’s cigarette and light it as they passed by, if I wasn’t afraid of being tackled for interference. After the flame was lit in the cauldron to protect the flame for the night, a group of local school kids sang in a choir, and the ceremonies were starting to wrap up. Most people though, after waiting around for so long, were more interested with making their way to the exit before there was a mass exodus trying to squeeze through the tiny barriers.
This morning the flame left Aberystwyth early in the morning, and took a route by the National Library of Wales before leaving town, and continuing its journey to the start of the Games. Even though I’m not part of Team GB, it was really wonderful to be a part of this historic event, and the pride and enthusiasm at the event yesterday was enough to at least make me feel like an honorary Brit for a day.
Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.