Wednesday, 28 July 2010

British dress code: what to wear to look like a native

When I was a grad student, my adviser would occasionally let slip a few anecdotes about his previous life as a student in Britain, and one of the recurring themes was the wearing of unusual (one might even say inappropriate) clothing out in public, often for no reason at all. In fact, he even brought this fondness for playing dress-up to America, where his outlandish Halloween costumes became legendary in our department. At the time, I thought this was a part of my adviser's personality; it never occurred to me that it might actually be a part of the British psyche. But then I began dating my now-husband and, as is practically mandatory in these modern times, I Facebook-stalked him. Imagine my surprise at finding this:

(Dressed up at one of the retro-themed nights at Falmouth Week. He's the one in the red shirt and the once-ubiquitous-but-recently-misplaced black 'fro wig.)

...and this:

(Dressed up at another retro night during Falmouth Week--this is supposed to be a Miami Vice costume, by the way.)

...and even this:

(My husband is the one who's sitting down, thank God. The person in the lovely pink ensemble is a guy from his team who's torturing him with a cross-dressed lap dance in honor of his birthday.)

Interestingly, these photos are relatively mild examples of my husband's costumed past; other pictures have even more extreme costumes, not to mention the many where he is dressed as a woman. You'll have noticed that two of the above pictures come from a single event (Falmouth Week is an annual occurrence and has multiple nights that involve costumes, including "'70's Night," "'80's vs. '90's Night," and "Caribbean Night"). However, I am happy to tell you, my husband is hardly the only Brit to engage in costume-wearing, and Falmouth Week is hardly the only event associated with dressing up. In fact, special events aren't even necessary.

In Britain, "costumes" are known as "fancy dress," and there are fancy dress shops all over the place, in addition to all the vintage clothing stores that are also a useful source of costume pieces. In a town so small that it doesn't even have a full-size grocery store, we have two large costume shops. People wear fancy dress for all sorts of occasions--birthday parties, holiday parties, regular parties, dances, the beginning of the school year, the end of the school year, after-parties for athletic events (whether you've participated in the events or just watched them), bachelor/bachelorette parties (stag/hen dos), and many more that I can't think of because the Brits seem capable of making pretty much anything into a reason to put on a costume before wandering up to the pub. If you are on High Street late on Friday or Saturday evenings, you are nearly guaranteed to bump into at least one person wearing fancy dress.

Now, obviously, not everyone indulges in this national pastime; as you might expect, there is a correlation between age and frequency of costume-wearing. However, there's a plateau between childhood and, oh, middle age; only after about 50 do people seem to feel less inclined to make fools of themselves. This is particularly interesting to me given the amazing amount of money you can sink into costumes. One of the major reasons I stopped wearing Halloween costumes when I was in college--despite the fact that there were many costume parties to choose from--was that I just didn't have the money to buy outfits, or even to buy supplies to make outfits. It is not cheap, even if you reuse some of the pieces (which people here do--my husband has a couple wigs, in particular, that appear quite regularly in all his fancy dress photos). Shortly after I first moved to Falmouth, I visited the costume shop in order to buy supplies for the "'80's vs. '90's Night" at Falmouth Week. Here is the outfit I put together:

(I am representing the '80's here, in case you couldn't tell. I purchased leg warmers (which, unfortunately, you can't see here), as well as fishnet stockings, the see-through shirt, the elegant neon plastic necklaces, and the fishnet fingerless gloves. If only I'd been old enough to actually dress like this in the '80's.)

I also purchased a few items for my husband:

(My husband, dressed as Billy Idol, or the lead singer of The Prodigy--whichever you prefer. I bought him the gloves, a leather cuff, and some fake nose rings.)

Altogether, I spent about $70 on our outfits, which is pretty outrageous considering that I was still on my graduate stipend at the time and didn't exactly have a surplus of cash. However, since it was my first time living in the UK, I wanted to act like a local. Now, imagine how much is invested in a collection like this:

(A small portion of the total collection--these were chosen as especially embarrassing pieces to be worn by a hen at a hen do.)

Another interesting thing is that people here are not obsessed by choosing the sexiest/sluttiest outfits possible, as is the case in the US. One of the other reasons I stopped wearing costumes in college was that most girls saw dressing up as an opportunity to go out in public looking as scandalous as humanly possible--the naughty nurse, the naughty librarian, the naughty Mrs. Claus, the naughty kitten, the naughty anything-you-can-think-of. Every year when I was in college, one or more girls attended the annual Halloween party wearing nothing but saran wrap (I'd like to point out that these girls were always from Bryn Mawr College, rather than my alma mater, Haverford). When I was a girl, costumes were fun because they involved ingenuity to create (in my case, my mother's ingenuity) and they reflected things that I liked. For instance, over the years, I was a butterfly, a Cleopatra, a Spanish dancer, and a gypsy, to name a few. During one of my rare costumed appearances in college, I was a bluebird nest (my study species); on another occasion, I was a hermaphrodite (don't ask). However, these biologically-themed costumes couldn't really compete with all the short skirts and cleavage-revealing tops around me. In the UK, though there is still plenty of flesh being revealed, people are at least doing it creatively, and there are also many more people who just care about putting together a convincing ensemble that is notable for any of a variety of other reasons.

There are also many events where your costume needs to meet certain rules. For instance, I attended a weekend-long getaway to celebrate the birthday of my friend Tom. We were all requested to dress like him for dinner on the evening that we arrived. Because Tom has attended several meditation retreats, I dressed as the Buddha:

(The tissues are not part of the costume. I was very, very sick during the whole weekend, which is why I'm as pale as a ghost here.)

The reason that I happen to have fancy dress on my mind right now is that I attended a hen do over the weekend (my first!) and got to witness first-hand the power of fancy dress. It is fairly routine to make the hen put on something ridiculous and/or embarrassing before hitting the town. Indeed, we had a quiz game where every wrong answer was rewarded by an additional bit of costume. Here is what the hen looked like after a few questions:

(I'd love to show you what she looked like at the end of the game, but that is just not appropriate for a family audience.)

Before we went out for dinner and drinks, we changed into our fancy dresses, but the hen was also forced to wear fancy dress:

(Yes, that is a pair of granny panties stuffed with a wig on one side and a pair of gloves on the other. You'll notice the hen is also wearing a feathery tiara.)

During our evening out, the hen's costume pieces were slowly discarded, but when we got back home at about 12:30 AM and headed to the kitchen to listen to music and snack, someone (who'd obviously had a few drinks) got the idea to delve back into the dress-up box. What ensued was another 30-45 minutes of fancy dress dancing:

(Both of these outfits were put on, in their entirety, during the midnight dress-up session. I believe the background music was provided by Paolo Nutini.)

(Even the dog got in on the action by donning a lei.)

I should mention, by the way, that the hens were hardly the only ones who got in on this type of action: The stag also had a costume--rented from a costume shop, no less--and I noticed that the members of his entourage were also wearing some unnecessary accessories.

I was quite surprised to make these discoveries about the British, since normally we Americans think of them as being rather proper and uptight. We don't generally envision Brits running around every weekend in Halloween outfits, and we certainly don't envision British men having an inclination to cross-dress every chance they get (okay, that's an exaggeration--but there's still an awful lot of cross-dressing). It's rather endearing, though, and it's also fun. Falmouth Week is coming up again in less than two weeks, and it will be happening while my parents are visiting. I wonder if I can persuade my mom and dad to be a wench and a pirate (or a pirate and a wench--after all, cross-dressing is the norm here) for the Caribbean night? As they say, when in Rome, do as the Romans do...

Saturday, 17 July 2010

The end of the shipping saga (almost)

On the day that I traveled up to London for my husband's birthday, I received a message from J.A. Coles Removals telling me that my shipping crate had been "rescued" from the dock in Felixstowe; all the shipments in it (mine and seven other people's) had cleared customs and were now sitting in the moving company's warehouse. All I had to do was pay the additional dock/processing fees (e.g., the fees that I'd already paid for the first time around, but which hadn't been passed on from the original company to the local company), and I would be reunited with my things. The total amount of the second payment was a "mere" $1900 (for anyone keeping track, that's a grand total of $5400 from start to finish--$4000 more than the original estimate). Rather than focusing on this unsettling detail, I just gave the company my credit card information and concentrated on the joy of picturing my things sitting safely in a warehouse rather than exposed and unloved and seconds away from destruction on a dock. I was told that the items would be delivered within a couple weeks, and that I would be receiving a phone call to arrange the exact date and time.

If you are as suspicious as I have become, you might be thinking that the local mover could have been in on the swindling scheme all along; in other words, I may have just paid someone an extra $1900 that he was not even owed. Originally, I was inclined to think that J.A. Coles was trustworthy--when I talked to the representative on the phone, he sounded genuinely miffed about all the trouble that GKrates International was causing with his business. He went off on a rant about how much time and energy he was putting into handling this crisis even though he wasn't being paid to do so, and it sounded extemporaneous enough that I was convinced it was actual frustration and not just a well-rehearsed performance. However, as I was putting together the documentation that I need to send along with my official complaints to various consumer organizations, it did occur to me that J.A. Coles could be in cahoots with GKrates and that they could so easily use their "I'm-just-a-nice-guy-helping-you-out" story to trick people like me into paying additional money, and actually paying them gratefully because we thought they were real heroes. Slimy, yes;

In keeping with my nature, I was completely consumed with worry over this idea once it had taken root in my brain. I wrote J.A. Coles and asked if I could have copies of whatever paperwork they had so that I could include it with my complaint "dossier." I received no response for several days--which makes sense if they had paperwork showing that my shipment had actually cleared customs shortly after arrival, and had been sitting in their warehouse all along. At this point I began panicking more earnestly, and sent a second e-mail with the same request. However, this time I added more information: the fact that I'm funded by the US government, that US government money had been set aside to pay for my shipping process, and that the people who funded me were assisting me with pursuing legal action. Technically, all of these things are true, though in reality none of these items is actually as threatening as I made them out to be. For instance, I'm merely given a stipend by the National Science Foundation, rather than being an employee of, say, the CIA. Additionally, although my NSF grant did include a request for shipping funds, I can't actually use that funding to pay for the shipping because my moving process began before the grant officially became active. Finally, I've received a bit of advice from my NSF handler, but the US government isn't actually helping me pursue legal action. But none of this matters if you choose the correct wording, and wouldn't you know that the very day after I sent that e-mail, I got a call from the Cornish movers who'd been subcontracted to bring my shipment here to Falmouth? Of course, this could be complete coincidence, but I am beginning to doubt it; after all, I still have received no response to my request for the Customs documentation. Eventually I'm going to have to threaten to report J.A. Coles to the UK consumer officials, who apparently are more stringent than the officials in the US. Hopefully it won't come to that, but if I don't hear from J.A. Coles by the end of the week, I'm going to have to take that route. Incidentally, you may have noticed that I mentioned yet another subcontracted company involved in this process. In case you're keeping track, that's a total of SIX different entities required to get my things from point A to point B: Global Forwarding-->GKrates International-->Local movers in Athens, OH-->Nilsson-->J.A. Coles-->Local movers in Cornwall.

Luckily, the last of these actually have their heads on straight. For the record, they are called Frank Tripp Removals of Penryn, Cornwall. They were helpful and friendly and--get this--they actually did what they said they would do. I got a call on Monday and was told that my things would be delivered on Wednesday. After hearing this news, I actually ran around my apartment and jumped up and down, after which I messaged everyone I knew in order to share the good news. The lady on the phone took the time to verify something I had been wondering about for a while: Was "my" shipment really my shipment, and was it there in its entirety? The most notable of my objects was a kayak, and after its presence had been confirmed I felt more relaxed. However, I was told that the entire shipment was 63 pieces, and for some reason I had the number 65 in my head--I think I do actually have a document somewhere with the number "65" on it, though maybe that is a typo or just bad handwriting. In any case, over the 2 days that I had to wait for my shipment to arrive, I nearly drove myself mad wondering about this discrepancy. Had two things been lost? Had two things been combined with other packages in order to make 63 from 65? Further, what did the lady mean when she told me there was a note about the "poor condition" of my order--had things been damaged? Would I open boxes only to find everything shattered and bent? I have a very vivid imagination, and I put it to good use coming up with a multitude of scenarios in which my precious belongings were mutilated or thoughtlessly discarded.

Imagine how excited I was to get a phone call the night before my shipment was to arrive and being told that it wouldn't be delivered at lunchtime, as first scheduled, but first thing in the morning! All I had to do was go to bed, and when I woke up I would have my things. I already felt like a kid on Christmas Eve, and now this metaphor was proving more apt--I'd wake up in the morning and Santa would visit! It was truly Christmas in July. I actually took a whole day off work so I could immerse myself in opening boxes and reorganizing the apartment and rolling around in a big pile of my stuff strewn across the floor (well, not really that last one, though I was tempted). In the back of my mind, I kept thinking that this might just be one more disappointment, and that something was going to happen to get in the way of this reunion, but--for once--I was not let down. I actually got my things.

The movers showed up at 9 AM and spent the next 45 minutes carrying each of my 63 items up two flights of steps, sweating and huffing and puffing, but not making a single complaint. They put things wherever I want them and even insisted on helping me move the furniture into its final resting place. They pointed out boxes that I should open and check immediately, in case there was damage, and they helped me figure out the mystery of the 2-box difference (the "65" had been a miscount--the original manifesto listed 63 items only). They offered to take out all the garbage that I was generating as I unwrapped and opened things. I had almost forgotten what good customer service was like.

I chatted with the overseer/manager a bit, and he told me that this was not the first time they'd experienced problems with orders from the US. Apparently, they'd recently delivered a pallet of stuff to another American woman in Cornwall (I'm not the only one?!), and she had found 38,000 pounds' worth of damage. That almost made me feel guilty for complaining about all my travails. Almost. Then I discovered that some of my dishes were broken, a leg of my coat rack had been cracked, and a leather handle on my antique trunk had been ripped, and I felt justified in being grumpy.

Once the movers departed, I busied myself with opening and examining everything, since we had a guest coming the next day and I wanted to try to get the apartment presentable by then. I was definitely in a zone; I did not even stop to eat lunch. All of the furniture and non-carton items were packed in padded brown wrapping paper, so uncovering my desk and sewing machine table, etc., was like ripping into giant presents. I filled the entire kitchen with an ocean of the paper, then proceeded to fill the living room with an ocean of boxes. Unfortunately, at the end of the afternoon I then had to make about a dozen trips down to the dumpster, carrying unwieldy boxes and balls of wrapping paper down two flights of steps and past two restaurants of gaping diners. I definitely got a thorough workout during the 8 hours it took me, from start to finish, to go through all my boxes and clean up the aftermath.

After having pretty much given up hope that I'd ever see this stuff again, I practically wanted to cry when I finally did. I swear I'm not materialistic, but it's hard not to have an attachment to things that come from special people or special places, and remind you of all the other years of your life that you have experienced up until now. I don't love my things because of what they are, or because of how they might make other people perceive me, but because they resonate with memories. Also, in this case, I was finally bringing a bit of myself here to England, so that I could stop feeling like a guest in my husband's home, surrounded by his things, and start feeling like an equal part of the enterprise. After I filled the guest room with my bureau, trunk, bedside table, desk, and hat boxes, I walked past the door and noticed that it smelled like home:

(The guest bedroom. To the left, where you cannot see, is my desk, covered with my Buddha collection and the many stuffed bird toys that I've received as gifts over the years. From this angle, you can see my grandmother's mirror on the bedside table; I used to be enchanted by this as a little girl and so my grandma gave it to me a few years ago. Next to it is an ostrich egg that miraculously made it over here without breaking. I received that as a prize for winning a road race at an ornithology conference when I was an undergrad. On the bureau are a bunch of pictures, including a portrait of my late kitties.)

Now, I have to admit that I probably have more possessions than a single person should, but I've been living on my own for a while now, and that requires a lot of stuff. Every time I move, I always find it surprising to open boxes and rediscover all the things I packed--I actually have so much that I can forget about it in between packing and unpacking. This time around, it was like greeting friends that I hadn't seen in decades, since some of the stuff was first packed as long as a year ago (almost to the day), when I made the move from Williamsburg to Athens. I had to run my hand over the cover of each of my cookbooks (all those recipes I can make again!) and admire all my shoes (so many more outfits I can wear!) and strum my guitar (yikes--seriously out of tune!). I assembled my shelving unit and put out all my baskets and boxes, rearranged the kitchen drawers so I could fill them with my silverware and cooking utensils, rolled out my rug in the living room, and started sprinkling decorations around the apartment:

(The new rug in the living room--it really ties the whole room together. You may also notice the Ellie Krieger cookbook on the end table. I bought it just before I left and didn't even get the chance to look through it before I shipped it off.)

(My faux-antique distelfink-style German Bible verse. I found this at the Williamsburg Antique Mall while shopping with my mother, but didn't buy it because it cost too much. I later went back after thinking wistfully about it for a good couple weeks, only to find that it was on sale for 50% off the original price. Destiny! I temporarily lost it during one previous move, so I'm glad to see it made it through this round unscathed. It is particularly cool because a) I love birds, and b) my mother's maiden name is Distel, so it reminds me of my family.)

(My dishes in the cabinet--now we have a full set of matching dishes, like normal grown-ups. Unfortunately, someone obviously dropped one of my boxes of ceramics, and I lost one of the bowls plus 2 of my collectible mugs--one from my department at college and another from a cafe we frequented as undergrads in Philly. Oh, well--I can just collect mugs from new places in the future, though as you can see, there isn't too much space to fit them in.)

(My shelving unit with storage containers. I love seeing an Ohio Longaberger basket in England. I also love the Chinese hat boxes, the larger of which is the first real antique I ever purchased myself. That was one of the things I was truly heartbroken about losing, back when I thought the shipment was gone forever. On the wall, you'll notice my samurai sentry/sentinel--I have hung him near the door of every apartment I've lived in. The tradition started just because that was where he fit, but now I like to think of him as guarding the door.)

Another interesting aspect of this was that I packed many of the boxes just after Christmas. I had all sorts of recently-received presents that I didn't even get to enjoy. When I ran across those things, I was almost surprised to find them: a microplane for zesting fruit, silicone cupcake holders, a pie sheet, a book I'd been promising myself I could read as soon as I defended my dissertation. Perhaps the funniest was this:

(My 2010 calendar. For years, my mom has bought me a new calendar each Christmas. This is the first year that I missed an entire 6.5 months of it.)

I also found some entertaining evidence of the length of time for which things had been packed and stored in Ohio. Most notably where the many desiccated lady beetles rattling around the bottoms of the cartons (for those not in the know, Ohio has unbelievable lady beetle infestations). After hearing a strange sound in a travel coffee mug, I peered in and discovered a dead cockroach (I should mention that things were stored outside at my parents' house--they aren't dirty people). The furniture, in particular, had many old cobwebs, and there were even some remnants of pawprints from my cats. *sniff* As you can see, it was quite a trip down memory lane. It was especially poignant to pull out stuff that had been handmade or hand-tailored in some way: the "necklace sheep," tea caddy, and desks done by my grandfather, the mirror and bookshelf done by my father, all the antiques picked out by my mother. Normally, I am not a sappy person, but sometimes when you realize how truly far you are from home, it is very reassuring to look around and have some reminders of where you've come from.
When I was unpacking the bookshelf boxes, I came across my photo album and was temporarily distracted by all the old photos. It was especially interesting to see the pictures of me during my first trip to England, a point in my life during which I would have laughed if you'd told me I'd end up marrying a Brit and moving to the UK.

Basically, all's well that ends well, as far as this little story goes, though all will be even better if I can make someone experience even mildly painful repercussions for ripping me off and making me wait a ludicrous length of time for my belongings. The only remaining evidence of the massive moving-in process are a few extra boxes (there's no more room in the dumpster!) and all my books awaiting shelving:

(A few of the seemingly millions of boxes that were crammed in here. You can't tell from this selection, but a good portion of the boxes were picked up from alcohol stores, and have brand names of booze written on every side. The movers probably think I am a massive drunkard.)

(My books, both those that have already been unpacked and those that are still boxed up. The scary thing is that I only brought a fraction of my total library over--the rest of the books are still at my parents' house because there is simply not enough room for them here. We have plans to purchase two new bookshelves, but that will just give us a place to put these volumes; if we buy many more, we're going to need to expand yet again. That is one drawback of putting two serious readers who are also serious academics into a single household. Luckily our tastes overlap, so we can share many purchases.)

The funny thing is, I had intended my next blog to be about all the rearranging/redecorating I've been steadily doing since moving in. Now I can discuss the two stages of that process: pre- and post-shipment-arrival. I've been working my magic on this apartment for over a year now, and it looks like we're finally coming to the home stretch. It's cleaner, it's better organized, it actually has some decorations, and now it represents both inhabitants. In other words, it's finally becoming a home.

Sunday, 11 July 2010

London, England (or, My Love Affair With My New iPhone)

It is easy to think that Britain is small and that British destinations are close together. After all, it is only 94,060 square miles, including Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland, and England together, which makes it larger than Idaho but smaller than Oregon; if it were a US state, it would be the 11th-largest in the union. Undertaking a trip to or from Cornwall quickly reminds you of the nation's size:

(The route from Falmouth (A) to London (B). This cross-country trip takes approximately 5 hours, give or take a half hour, by either car or train. This also outlines the quirky shape of the country--we basically live on a peninsula on a peninsula, which definitely makes you feel remote.)

A couple weeks ago, my husband was attending a conference in London, and we thought it would be nice for me to join him in order to celebrate his birthday in the city. This was supposed to be a nice, short trip, but in reality it was quite exhausting. I started out by catching a train at Falmouth Town station to Truro. One interesting thing about this train is that it is only a single car long--so really, it isn't a "train" at all, strictly speaking. Another interesting thing is that it passes through Falmouth Town station to drop off passengers, continues down to Falmouth Docks, then comes back through Falmouth Town again about 10 minutes later to pick up more passengers before heading to Truro. I had never taken this particular train before, so I kept feeling very paranoid about what was taking the train so long down at Falmouth Docks. I knew it was the end of the line, and that the train had nowhere else to go, but I also couldn't figure out why it was so late in returning. Because I would have to buy a whole new ticket if I missed my connection at Truro, I got increasingly nervous as each minute ticked by. Finally, I pulled out my new iPhone, the traveler's greatest companion, and looked up the number for a taxi service. I decided to give the train 4 more minutes (until 10 AM) before making the call; just before the deadline, it showed up. Crisis averted.

One of the many wonderful things about the National Rail system is how you can save quite a bit of money by buying your tickets early and then picking them up from a machine at the station of your choice. When I got to Truro, all I had to do was visit the automated ticket dispenser in the front of the building, stick in my credit card, and have my tickets for both legs of the trip printed out for me--no lines, no fuss. I even had time to grab a cup of tea to take on board with me.

People here travel by train quite a bit, because it's often the most convenient and affordable method of travel. They are very nonplussed about the whole idea of train rides, but even after undertaking many (including some seemingly endless ones), I still find them quite remarkable. I think I am particularly thrilled with trains because I am used to driving such long distances in a car--it took me 7.5 hours to drive from either Haverford or Williamsburg back to my parents' house in Ohio, and I always found it quite taxing to spend a full day concentrating and staring into the searing sunlight, worrying about maniacal drivers and where I was going to find a toilet in the middle of rural West Virginia. With trains, though, there is no work--you sit down and let someone else do the driving, during which time you can read or play on your computer (electric outlets are even supplied) or listen to music or just stare at the countryside. It is very relaxing.

Because I was traveling during lunchtime, I had visited Tesco the night before and stocked up on snacks. One of the great joys in life is picking out travel snacks; you have to be very careful in your selection because these can really make the journey that much better, or, if they aren't satisfying enough, they can make the miles drag on. Sometimes I am feeling particularly healthy when I pack food, and the next day when I am driving, when I get an urge to have chocolate or Cheetos or Coke, I feel quite depressed to find only apples and Triscuits and bottled water. This time around, I did a good job, and I felt very pleased with myself as I munched on a tuna sandwich (sorry to everyone around me for the smell!) and cheddar crackers and fresh raspberries.

My iPod made itself useful again during the journey--I passed the time listening to music and playing games. After a while, the train's course took us close to the shore during low tide, and I was able to do some birding. I am not all that great with sea- or shorebird identification, but luckily I had my handy British Birds app and was able to use my phone to help me identify what species I was seeing. There were some new species to add to my list--not necessarily my total "life list," but at least my British list:

(A whimbrel. We have the same species in the US. That bill makes it pretty unmistakable, and I got a nice profile view of this guy.)

(A black-headed gull.)

(A little egret.)

There were also some other interesting little birds that I didn't get a very good look at because we were moving too fast, and there was an enormous flock of swans hanging out in the mouth of a tributary. Not a bad haul for some casual birding done at 50 mph.

When at last I made it into London, my first order of business was to procure an Underground ticket so that I could get from Paddington to Waterloo Station. I have discovered that the easiest way to travel by Underground is to plan everything out beforehand. Although there are maps in the station, they do not always tell you all the information you need to know. Also, Underground stations can be massively crowded, and it is not easy to bully your way into the group of people already standing at the map, or find a nice quiet corner where you can consult a pocket map. One thing that is wonderful about the Underground, though, is how easy it is to buy tickets--there is a nice little picture showing you which destinations are in Zone 1 vs. Zone 2, etc., so there is no guessing and no calculating.

I did not need to meet my husband for a couple hours, so I anticipated that I would get to Waterloo Station and then do something entertaining--have a walk by the river, do a little shopping, sit down for a cup of tea, etc. I did not factor in two important concerns: my unfamiliarity with navigation in London and the fact that it is very hard to become found in London once you have become lost, thanks to the extreme confusion of its layout.

I had planned my route down to the minutest detail the night before, using Google Maps. I knew what road I needed to exit onto from the station, I knew what turns to take and what roads I would pass, and I knew how long it would take me to get there. Unfortunately, and not for the first time, Google Maps led me astray. It directed me towards a route that was physically impossible on foot, despite the fact that I had asked for the "on foot" rather than the "by car" option. It also made the assumption that I'd know what roads I was walking on, which is impossible in London because only about a quarter of the roads actually have signposts. On top of this, they meander in bizarre directions and occur at multiple levels because there are bridges everywhere. Another error, this time on my part, was the decision to pop into nearby Waterloo Train Station to use the facilities before heading off into the city. Once I was in there, I could not seem to get out. Every time I tried an exit, I either found myself on a dead-end road, or waiting at an elevator that seemingly had no buttons, or going back out the way I came in--none of which I wanted to do. I must have spent about 15 minutes wandering around and around and around, getting angrier by the minute. I finally made my way out to the street, but by that time I had become disoriented and ended up heading in the wrong direction.

After a bit, I had the sneaking suspicion that I was not going towards the South Bank, as I desired, but, rather, into the heart of the city. I whipped out my trusty iPhone and pulled up the GPS function to help me get reoriented. Eventually, I got pointed in the right direction and headed back the way I had come. Unfortunately, my travails were not quite over. In the near distance, I could see the building that I needed to reach (it was conveniently labeled in large capital letters across the side). I had to cross a bridge in order to get there, or so I thought, and the further I proceeded along the bridge, the more I noticed construction signs and roadworks paraphernalia. Before long, the sidewalk had completely ended, and I was left with two options: run across two lanes of traffic in the middle of London but stay within sight of my destination, or head back the way I came and start at square one. Obviously, the only choice was to dash across the traffic. Luckily for me, the cars disappeared for the briefest of moments, and I rushed across to my destination. After seven hours of travel, I had finally arrived.

London always seems to be experiencing odd weather when I visit it, and this trip was no exception. The first couple times I was there, it was unseasonably cool; this time, just to balance things out, it was unseasonably warm. When you are outside, warm weather is quite pleasant in London. For instance, for my husband's birthday dinner, we were able to get a table outside along the South Bank promenade and enjoy the warm summer breezes while watching the motley population of London wander past. I didn't even need to wear my jacket. Afterward, we strolled along the river and then up into the city, taking the long way to Victoria Station. We wandered around the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, then across the grounds of both Westminster Abbey and, my favorite, Westminster Cathedral:

(Westminster Cathedral, located off Victoria Road. I stumbled across this by accident a few years ago when I spent spring break in England. It is quite rightly called "one of the great secrets of London.")

One of the things I like about Europe is the combination of new and old--you turn a corner and find a 19th century statue or an 18th century mansion or an 11th century church. We got a great sense of this juxtaposition--or intermeshing, depending on how you look at it--while we strolled.

We stopped by another restaurant to have dessert, and I felt quite cosmopolitan to have eaten dinner in one location and dessert in another. It was quite a culture clash, too--Japanese noodle soups for the main course and then Italian mousse and sorbet to end the evening. I suppose that is a nice way to celebrate the diversity of London--which, incidentally, is something else I really like about that city. This is not to denigrate the variety in US cities, where there is unmistakable diversity--all the continents are represented, there is a whole rainbow of hair and skin colors and a huge variety of clothes and music. But in the US, the immigrants I've met are usually of fairly well-known nationalities that are relatively well-represented throughout the country and in other large international cities. In London, on the other hand, there are large communities of people from places I can barely locate on the map; you hear languages you can't even being to identify and see traditional fashions that are so unfamiliar they might as well be from an alien world. Going to London is a great way to remind yourself of how huge this planet is, and how many things you still haven't seen or experienced.

With our food eaten, we proceeded to Victoria Station and then Clapham Junction, from whence we made our way to our lodgings for the evening. Do you remember a while ago when I said that heat in London is pleasant when you are outside? Well, there is a reason I made that distinction: Very few places in Britain have air conditioning, partly because of the age of the buildings and the greater level of environmental consciousness here, but mostly because it is usually unnecessary; even in the warmest months, it is never that warm here (by the standards of most countries, that is), and you can make yourself pretty comfortable by opening a few windows to catch the breezes coming off the water (whether that be river or sea). However, the weather occasionally gets warm enough for long enough that it can become pretty stifling indoors. My husband had spent the entire day in a giant stone building with no AC, and when he came out he was as sweaty as if he'd gone jogging around the block a couple of times. Our lodgings were similarly uncomfortable; there was only a window on one side of the room, so we could get no flow of air, and the two of us spent the entire night as far away from each other as the bed would allow, in order to reduce the amount of heat shared between us. Needless to say, we were a bit tired when we woke up the next morning.

Nevertheless, I was relatively excited because I was going to spend the morning at the National Gallery while my husband attended the last bit of his conference. I went with him to the conference building (he showed me how to get there without dodging traffic on bridges) and checked my luggage at the cloakroom so that I could wander unencumbered. Surprisingly, I did not have any navigational issues getting to the Gallery; at one point I thought I'd gone astray, but my iPhone GPS correctly encouraged me to stay the course. When I got to Trafalgar Square, just outside the museum, I was surprised at how different it was from the last time I saw it. Admittedly, that was about 11 years ago, and my memories are a bit hazy, but it had quite a bit more activity then. Since my first visit, the authorities have banned the feeding of the Trafalgar pigeons, which is a real shame since that may have been the highlight of my previous trip--for a bird-lover, having "wild" birds land on various parts of your body is pretty exciting. Anyway, I vaguely recalled street vendors and artists and throngs of tourists, but either those are gone forever or I arrived too early, because all I could see this time around were the fountains and statues; it was actually quite sophisticated and pretty.

Because I was so efficient in my navigation, I arrived almost a half hour prior to the museum's opening, so I sat down outside and passed the time by reading. Someone had placed a bag of old bread on the lawn of the museum, and a flock of pigeons were busy gorging themselves, which allowed me to relive some of my Trafalgar memories a bit. After a while, the museum officials came to unlock the gates/doors and I was one of the first people in the gallery. This turned out to be a very good thing, because the museum got increasingly busy as the day went on--tourists and school groups showed up to fill the rooms with the noises of shuffling feet and whispered comments and art history lectures. It was nice to have the echoing rooms virtually to myself for a while, though I imagine that the museum guards--one of whom was positioned in each room--found this to be a bit unstimulating (what a boring job that would be--sitting all day and watching people wander around a room).

The National Gallery has a truly amazing collection of pieces, and I only just cracked the surface during my nearly three hours there. Because there is just no end to what an iPhone can do, I whipped it out and took some notes on my favorite pieces:

(Francisco de Zurbaran's "St. Margaret of Antioch."

(Salvator Rosa's "Witches at Their Incantations." This was a surprisingly dark painting--which I mean not in terms of its subject matter, which is metaphorically dark, but its colors, which were so dark that the images were difficult to make out. The digital image here actually provides a clearer view than I got in person.)

(Giovanni Battista Salvi da Sassoferrato's "The Virgin in Prayer." I do not particularly love this representation of Mary, because, as I've mentioned before, I prefer the Renaissance style where everyone looks kind of sickly, but I have never seen such a vibrant blue in my life--it looked unreal. Apparently the pigments required to make this color were quite expensive back in Sassoferrato's day.)

(Unknown Flemish painter's "Cognoscenti in a Room Hung With Pictures." When I was little, both my grandma and mom had these alphabet books where each letter of the alphabet got a scene crammed full of items that began with that letter. I used to love those books, because it seemed like you could look at the pages forever and not see everything in them. This painting reminds me of that. There were some high school-aged students wandering through during a class trip, and one of the girls brought over a friend to show her this painting, which I thought was pretty cool. I can't imagine any of my high school contemporaries caring enough about a painting to discuss it with a classmate.)

(Cornelis van Haarlem's "Two Followers of Cadmus Devoured by a Dragon." I was interested in this painting because it was so gruesomely detailed--you could see the brain stem in the decapitated head, and the puncture marks of dragon's claws and teeth. Pretty hard-core.)

(A follower of Rembrandt's "A Man Seated at a Table Reading in a Lofty Room." Pithy title, huh? Apparently, for many years it was thought that this was one of Rembrandt's early works. Only recently did the experts change their minds and decide that this was painted by someone who was mimicking the style that Rembrandt used while working in Leiden. If I could have purchased any of the paintings in the museum, I think I would have chosen this one, despite the fact that it really is as dark as it looks here.)

At this point in my wanderings through the museum, I had become rather hungry and so I went down to the cafe and enjoyed a tasty cream tea--rather ironic since cream tea is a relatively Cornish tradition, and here I went all the way to London to partake in it. In any case, I stopped by the gift shop in order to browse the postcards. Unfortunately, with the exception of the last painting mentioned above, none of my favorites were on offer in postcard format. However, I did stumble across a postcard of this:

(Jan van Eyck's "The Arnolfini Portrait." This is one of the first paintings/artists that I learned to recognize without the help of a label.)

Well, imagine my surprise to learn that I had come very close to leaving the National Gallery without seeing one of its most famous and beloved images, and one that I've liked for many years. I stopped by the info desk and got some directions, then headed back upstairs and took an extremely circuitous route through about 10 different galleries before finally arriving. Luckily, the room was still pretty empty. There were a couple ladies in front of the painting, but they moved aside after one of them repeatedly leaned in so close to the portrait that the guard asked her to leave. I had the painting all to myself for a few minutes, and could examine the mirror and the reflection and the signature (but not as closely as I would have liked to, because I knew the guard was a bit edgy). There were several other van Eycks in the room as well, and they were all very interesting. A couple paintings away, I found this:

(Rogier van der Weyden's "The Magdalen Reading." You can tell this is Mary Magdalen because of the jar of ointment beside her--the ointment with which she anointed Christ's feet. This painting was originally part of a larger work, which is why the guy behind Mary has no head and why the cabinet behind her is cut off. I was surprised at how many pieces in the Gallery were incomplete--what kind of maniacs allowed such fine artwork to be dismembered over the years?? Still, it's good that the museum rescued them from further desecration.)

As I retraced my footsteps out of the van Eyck room (did they purposely hide such a famous painting in a tiny corner of the museum?), I found a few more choice pieces:

(Saints Genevieve and Appollonian, and Christina and Ottila, as painted by Lucas Cranach the Elder--or Lucas "Crunch," as my iPhone decided to interpret my text, though since that's the only mistake it made during my trip, I'll forgive it. These were from the St. Catherine altarpiece and were originally positioned on the backs of the shutter doors so that the object would still be decorated even when the doors were closed. If these were the backs of the doors, I'd love to see the fronts.)

(Cosimo Tura's "A Muse (Calliope?)." This was thought to be one of a series, and this one would have been positioned high up in the room, hence the high vanishing point.)

By the time I completed this second circuit, it was time to leave again in order to meet my husband. I would definitely like to go back to the National Gallery and see some of the post-17th-century stuff, which I didn't really make it to during this visit. One thing I noticed about this museum was how many truly enormous pieces it had--things that were life-size or bigger, which would have decorated rooms from ceiling to floor. This definitely contrasts with the paintings in the Scottish National Gallery, which tended to be relatively smaller (though still, by the standards of what I have hanging in my own house, fairly large). Even for the pictures whose style or content I did not particularly enjoy, I had to be impressed by the sheer scope; I can't even complete a small doodle on a sheet of paper, so I can't imagine doing something that would fill a whole wall.

Once I left the museum, I headed back the way I came in order to meet my husband for lunch. Or, at least, I thought I did. Actually, I managed to take a road that ran parallel to my original route for a while, but then went off at an angle. It didn't take me long to notice that I was not passing the same businesses I had on the way in. At this point, you may be thinking that I get lost an awful lot, and that's not entirely true--I do get lost occasionally, but generally I have a very good sense of direction. I have a tendency to trailblaze whenever I go places--if I encounter construction or a traffic jam on my intended route, I just take the first turn and then wander around until I get where I want to go. Generally, this works quite well for me, and, if nothing else, it is never boring. However, it is hard to orient yourself when you are surrounded by buildings that obscure the sky, and when the sun is covered by clouds. Also, London is just totally disorganized because it did not begin as a planned city with nice, straight roads laid out on a grid; it grew organically as people wandered in from the surrounding countryside and set up shop (sometimes literally) wherever they could find space.

Of course, it is not an option to look confused or turn around and retrace your steps, because that makes you look totally uncool. Instead, you can pretend that you are sending a text message or scrolling through you music database and, instead, (can you see where this is going?)...use the GPS on your iPhone. I discovered that I was approaching a bridge that was on the opposite side of the building than the bridge I had taken when leaving that morning; in other words, I was about to complete a full circle. Heartened by the simplicity of this route, I proceed blindly ahead, only to surprise myself by arriving at a construction site where the sidewalk suddenly ended. Yes, I had taken the same bridge as the night before, only from the opposite direction. The truly annoying thing here was that I could have been on the side of the bridge with the sidewalk, had I just crossed a bit earlier at the pelican crossing, as they are called here in the UK. I didn't think that would be necessary, so I didn't, and here I was being forced to run across two lanes of traffic, AGAIN. The trouble I can get myself into.

After another nice outdoor meal in the sun, we headed back to Waterloo Station to meet my husband's cousin for a quick drink before taking the train to Falmouth. When I say quick, I mean very quick, because we only had about 20 minutes before catching our connecting ride on the Underground. As we rushed off, I felt sure that we were going to miss our train, so imagine my surprise when we showed up at Paddington and found that all trains were either delayed or completely canceled. The first thought through both my husband's and my minds was that there had been some sort of terror attack. Luckily (for most people), that was not the case. Instead, someone had been hit by a train at Twyford about an hour previously, and the mess was still being cleaned up. After a bit, we were told to board the train at Platform 5, where we had another surprise waiting for us: Everyone from the 2 PM train was still on there, having been delayed by the accident; we, the 3 PM crowd, were joining them, rather than replacing them. Luckily, nobody from the previous trip had been booked into my seat, and there was an empty seat next to it, so both my husband and I got to sit down. The same was not true of dozens of other people, who either had to stand in the middle of the aisle or sit on their suitcases out in the hallway next to the toilets. It was a very cramped and uncomfortable ride for the two or so hours until we hit Exeter, at which point the crowd had thinned out sufficiently for everyone to have a seat and for us to manage the trip to the buffet car in order to get some tea (what's a train ride without a nice cuppa?).

When I got home, I was rather morbidly curious about the whole idea of someone being killed by a train. In my neck of the woods, this generally happens for one of three reasons: 1) People mistakenly think they can outrun oncoming trains at crossings, 2) People blunder into rail/road intersections because the crossing aren't marked well enough, or 3) Drunken idiots and kids walk along the tracks and somehow fail to get out of the way of approaching trains in time. In the UK, train fatalities are fairly common, both because there are so many miles of train tracks and because the platforms can become so busy that people accidentally get knocked off. Then, of course, there are people who commit suicide by train, which would have to be particularly awful for the family and friends left behind. At first, I could find almost no information about this particular fatality, other than some notices that trains had been delayed that afternoon. After a few days, however, I was uncovered a writeup of the story on the BBC, and it was much more scandalous that I had anticipated: A man had stabbed his wife to death in the morning, and then committed suicide by jumping in front of the train that afternoon, leaving the couple's 13-year-old daughter an orphan. How depressing is that? It made me feel very guilty about complaining about something as meaningless as the cramped conditions on the train.

After that, we made it back to Falmouth without further incidents, and I am glad to say that we are here to stay for a while. I'm feeling a bit exhausted from all the long train rides and navigational difficulties, and I am quite happy to wander around the well-labeled streets of Falmouth and avoid bridges under construction.