Arriving in France

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The day began with me being cheerfully clueless and without a plan, as many days of my travels seemed to begin. I disembarked from my ferry at St Malo in the grey rain of a spring morning without a map, any ideas for sleeping arrangements for the night or any useful currency. I also only had a very rudiment idea of how to speak the language. So I wandered. When in doubt, walk around until something happens.

I was lucky and stumbled upon the right bank to get my first euros from. My quest for a hostel or wifi failed rather dismally however. I wandered St Malo trying to find the Old Town, soaking in the details of the place as I went. It had a different atmosphere then anywhere I had been before. It really hit home again just how big the world is – how strange and marvelous, and  different it can be.

I eventually got tired of walking in circles up and down the streets and went for tea instead. That was an awesome experience. It gave me this great rush of confidence to successfully order tea in French (literally three words, but I was stoked at the accomplishment). I thought to myself “if I can order tea in French, I can do anything.”

Not knowing the language of a place is an incredibly humbling, odd, frustrating and sometimes lonesome experience, which has a tendency to bring about some wonderful moments despite, and often because, of this. It’s humbling because it really shows you how large the world is and how small you are – how much there is to learn. And it definitely made me want to learn, to deepen my understanding of people and of life. The realization that there are billions of people across the globe who I could not understand if they spoke to me made me want to pick up a French dictionary and memorize it, then pick up a Spanish dictionary and memorize it too… and so on and so forth. I wanted to understand.

Not speaking the language of a place isolates you into a tiny bubble, trapped by a lack of communication. My thoughts sounded incredibly loud and english in my head. It is kind of like being blindfolded – you have to rely on your less fine tuned senses of communication to guide you through the dark. It can be really frustrating, or it can be a wonderful journey of discovery. It’s up to you. Do you want to stand in the middle of the forest blindfolded, yelling curses at life and smashing violently into trees? Or do you want to get those hands out and start feeling your way around, mapping your surroundings with the finer details of sound and touch? It’s your choice.

From the cafe I found my way to the Old Town, with its ancient buildings encased by a medieval wall. St Malo is a dream. The Old Town is made up of narrow cobbled streets with very few cars and lots of pedestrians. From the top of the old wall there’s a view across the golden sandy beaches and the rolling waves of the Atlantic. There are also a series of small, rocky islands dotting the ocean, each fortified with old castles and ruins. The seagulls wheel, the passerby call to each other in French and everything looks like it came straight out of a storybook.

I wandered the streets with my big bag, knowing that I should seek accommodation but not wanting to. Instead, I followed my heart, which was aching to explore. I walked along a section of the wall and then along the beach and around the old Fort National, out on its rocky hill on the beach. When I got hungry I went out for crepes. There were literally dozens of creperies in St Malo. Every building that had food seemed to sell crepes.

Ordering food was an adventure. The waitress caught me looking at the menu for an overlong period of time and started talking to me in French. I stared at her blankly, desperately trying to get my brain to recognize the noises she was making as words. It didn’t work. Eventually, she realized I didn’t have a clue what she was saying. She tried to say something else I might understand. I didn’t. And yet she was laughing at her own incomprehension of me, and I was laughing at my lack of understanding, and we connected, briefly, over our want and yet inability to understand each other. Telepathically, without words or language, we both knew exactly how the other person was feeling. It was this blinding moment of connection made out of emotion and not words. It lasted but a second, and yet it seemed that someone was opening a door, briefly, into another world. I got to glance through the the doorway and see things with the eyes of another person.

The waitress eventually summoned over someone who spoke english and I got my food and dug in. Shortly after my arrival, a large group of loud Americans showed up and did something that I found astounding. They didn’t even bother attempting to speak French. They didn’t bothering looking apologetic at their inability to speak the language. They simply marched up to the waitresses and waiters and demanded a table in english, expecting them to understand, as if they owned the world and english was the chosen language of the gods. I was dumbfounded that anyone would do this, that anyone would throw away the precious learning experience that I had just had, and that anyone would show so much disrespect for the place they were in. They acted as if the town of St Malo was their disneyland and was only there for their enjoyment. This kind of thing happened again and again while I was in France. It was disappointing.

I spent a long time that afternoon dwelling on where to sleep. I considered sleeping outside, as the day had brightened up considerably. But there was nowhere sheltered or out of the busy swing of things. I didn’t want to be found by anyone while I slept. I considered going out to the nearby tidal island and spending the night there, separated from the town by twenty meters of ocean once the tide went up. I decided that this idea was either genius or completely stupid. In the end I came to the conclusion that it was the latter. Because nothing says safety like stranding yourself on a deserted island with nothing but an ancient tomb for company.

By three in the afternoon, I was tired. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever been that tired in my life. Everything seemed bouncy. Every time I took a step, the ground seemed to be in a different place then it was when I had lifted by foot off of it. I could hardly walk in a straight line either and was in danger of falling over into traffic. I decided that this was a bad sign and that four hours of sleep on the uncomfortable floor of a ferry is not enough. I thought I would walk to a hostel I hoped existed a half an hour walk away, but I was too damn tired to want to walk that far.

So I got on a random singing train and went for a ride. Yes, you read that right. There was a tourist train that takes people on tours of the Old Town. I was so tired when I stumbled upon it that I just had to get on and sit for half an hour to recover myself. It was either get on the singing train or fall asleep on my face in the street. So I got on. It wasn’t that bad of a tour, though by the time they got around to the english commentary after the French, we had already passed what it was they were talking about.

When the train ride was over, I stumbled back into the Old Town and found a cheap hotel. I fell asleep fully clothed on the bed at four o’clock and had a good two hour nap. Then I wandered sleepily for the rest of the evening and went to sleep again at nine at night. It was an insane day.

Epic Towers and Epic Boats

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My train got into Portsmouth around midday, leaving me with plenty of time to explore the town before my ferry to France left dock. I headed first to the terminal to buy my ticket, which was interesting. Apparently they don’t get Canadians over there very often. It took a long time for the lady working there to figure out how to process a Canadian passport, and decide whether or not we had zip codes or postal codes – even though I told her multiple times that we had postal codes, she didn’t seem to believe me. I’m also pretty sure she was new to the job.

At last, things were organized and I got on my way. I went on a walk through the city center and over to the harbour, where they had a seawall type thing. I walked all along the length of the wall admiring the views and the harbour town vibe. The ocean was a very strange colour, one that I’m not used to – a pale green. It’s very odd.

Dominating the town is the Spinnark Tower, a massive, 130 metre tall structure made out of white-painted metal ‘ribs’ and glass. It was built solely for the purpose of amusing tourists. It only has four floors – the lobby, and then three at the top. One floor has a glass floor 110 metres up. One has a cafe 120 metres high in the air. The other is a small lookout room.

I had some pounds that needed spending before I went over to France, so I headed to the tower and paid to take the elevator up to the top. The view of the harbour from that height was truly stunning. The best part, though was the glass floor. I walked across that thing over and over again, fascinated by the empty space beneath my feet. I then went and had tea in the cafe, did some writing and left to find a park in which to play my flute.

I arrived early at the ferry terminal but spent the time reading, doing Sudokus, and staring, fixated, at the brochures I had been given for the ferry. The ferry, I found out, had several restaurants. It had a bar. It had multiple shops and a movie theatre. It even had live entertainment. This is when it sunk in – this wasn’t just a ferry, it was a kind of toned down cruise ship!

I was super excited when I got onto that boat and found out that it was pretty damn big and fancy. I’ve never been on a real cruise ship, and there was no one around to tell me that they are even bigger and fancier then this one. To me, this was the height of sophistication. I felt as I had when, as a small wild child of the woods, I had somehow been able to stay in the Hyatt resort in Vancouver. I tried to restrain myself time time around however, as I distinctly remember that that trip to the Hyatt was a nightmare to every adult in the vicinity.

I went out on the top deck and watched the UK fade into the distance as the sun dipped beneath the horizon. “France, here I come,” I thought to myself. It was so damn beautiful out there standing on the helicopter pad, with the wind in my hair. When was the next time I would see the UK again? Several months? Not likely. Several years? Probably. Never again? I really hoped not.

I walked back inside and went to watch the live entertainment, as the movie theatre was playing Fifty Shades of Grey and I felt the need to stay away from that whole half of the boat because of it. There was a couple singing in the bar that was pretty good, and then a juggler came to amuse the people watching.

At last the couple came to sing again, then afterwards everyone went off to bed. I went to my chair on the boat, having been far too cheap to even consider getting a room. I was feeling a little lost and far from home. I snuggled up on the floor in my sleeping bag, with my multi-use Ravenclaw scarf as a pillow. The boat rocked quietly back and forth over the waves, bringing me from one adventure into another.

Endings and Beginnings

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The following was written on the train from Bath to Portsmouth:

There’s an empty feeling in my heart                                             That battles with the thrill of travel                                                 As the train slips away                                                                   There’s a pang of grief I can’t unravel

I watch the world go by                                                                 But it goes by far too fast                                                              All the wonder, all the joy                                                                The awe of life, gliding passed

There’s that desperate feeling                                                     Of goodbye                                                                               The sorrow of parting                                                                     That clouds my eye

And yet amidst the sadness comes                                              The lilting soar of a heart that flies                                                Among the clouds, and in the towers                                             A joy is felt above all powers

For away, away, away I go                                                             Onwards, onwards, to where, who knows?                                   With feet that walk,                                                                         And eyes that see                                                                          I am untethered,                                                                              Alive and free

There is a beginning                                                                        To every end                                                                                  Where the shadows fall                                                                  The dawn will mend

The train that glides                                                                        Away, away                                                                                   Also speeds                                                                                   Towards the day

And every sign                                                                               That says goodbye                                                                         Has another side                                                                            That ‘welcome’ cries

The world beckons,                                                                          And the road lures                                                                          Along its stretches                                                                          Around its curves                                                                           My feet will walk,                                                                            My feet will wander                                                                        These questions new                                                                      My mind will ponder

On the roadways long,                                                                   Through the forests strong                                                             With passion alight,                                                                        My eyes are bright

For every story                                                                              There is an end                                                                             But a beginning also                                                                       Is around the bend

The Roman Baths and a Madman in a Purple Jacket

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My first morning in Bath, I got up early and wandered in circles until the Roman Baths were open. The lady at the desk charged me the student price, even though she knew I wasn’t a student, which was nice. I spent hours exploring the baths, which were fascinating. I have had a lot of history lessons while in Europe – lessons in medieval times, Scottish clan traditions, and, while in Bath, Roman culture. It was almost incomprehensible to imagine that the stones I was walking on had once been graced by Roman slippers, that the waters I looked upon had once held Roman bathers from every walk of life.

Again, I could hear the whispers of time in my ears. I almost wanted to go back to Roman times and soak in that water. Not for the Roman culture – not for their morals, their living style, their diseases or their battles. But for the glory of their times. For the arching ceilings in all their splendor, for the robes and gowns, the temples and fountains. And yet for them all this would have seemed almost ordinary. It was just their lives. Did they appreciate the glory? Did they look upon their buildings with wonder? Or did they take it for granted? In a thousand years people may wonder the same things about us, if there are any people left to do so.

The baths are remarkably intact – pieces of the temple beautifully preserved, and the green mineral-rich waters still steaming and bubbling. It was wonderful to look into the great face that was once carved into the temple and to imagine that those eyes had once met the gazes of Roman worshipers. By the time I left the baths, I was lost in a daze of wonder.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the city. I admired the incredible architecture of the place, which is a World Heritage site. The Royal Crescent was stunning, as were the other buildings in the area and the towering chestnut trees that had stood outside of them for hundreds of years.

I followed my map up into the less-touristy parts of Bath, searching for a viewpoint that I never found. It was a nice walk and I spent the time dreaming about what it would be like to live in Bath. I’ve heard that they have a very good university when it comes to the arts and I had previously considered studying creative writing there. The city does have a definite student vibe to it. There’s a lot of young people everywhere and you see a lot of student discounts in various different places. I ended up deciding that it would be a pretty awesome place to live if I could tear myself away from the West Coast of BC for long enough to attend school there. Bath joined Edinburgh, Skye and London on my “maybe I should live here” list.

After a few hours wandering and an hour sitting quite content in an incredible used bookstore, which gave out complimentary tea and coffee to the people browsing the books, I headed back to the heart of the city. I did some research, went to some museums and eventually ate dinner at Sally Lunn’s, the oldest house in the city, dating from 1482. That is old. And apparently before then, a Roman house had stood in that spot. The food was good and I was in awe of the history of the building.

I went on a ‘guided tour’ after dinner. It was called ‘Bizarre Bath’ and was a comedy show around the city, featuring lots of laughter and no actual facts. I’m definitely glad I went, as nothing relieves the stress of being 7000km from everything you love quite like a madman in a purple jacket with a toy rabbit making outrageous jokes. It was hilarious and super fun, with a large variety of jokes, tricks that seemed like magic, and general hilarious serendipity. Our guide was fantastic and the city of Bath was gorgeous at night.

I don’t want to give away all of the wonderful jokes, in case whoever is reading this one day goes on the same tour, but I will mention one of the funniest things that happened but was not even part of the show: our guide had walked part of the city blindfolded to prove that he could ‘find the intersection of ley lines’ without sight. He had taken the blindfold off and was now standing on an overturned milk crate, proclaiming why he knew that this was the spot of the ley lines, and mentioning plenty about druids – when suddenly, someone biked by at top speed with a bag over their head. No eye holes at all, just a black bag tied over their head. Our guide nearly fell off of his crate in shock. It was one of the most ridiculously hilarious things I have ever seen.

To Bath

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5:30 in the morning is far too early. Four hours of sleep is far too little. I dragged my sorry ass out of bed at this ungodly time, wishing I hadn’t stayed up late the previous night reveling in British people’s accents (my London host took me out to a brewery with her friend, where I drank orange juice and tried to look as if I wasn’t hanging off of people’s beautiful voices).

Still, I was getting a lift all the way from London to Bath with my wonderful host, who is one of the nicest human beings in existence. I didn’t complain (out loud) at the early hour as we headed off in her car. My eyes refused to stay open for much of the journey, though I tried in vain to force them to.

We stopped at the Long Barrow, which definitely woke me up. It was incredibly cool – it’s the site of an ancient burial tomb, up from the road amidst yellow fields of canola. It’s just sitting there in the field untouched, though I know if we had 5000 year old tunnels that used to contain over 40 skeletons in Canada, it would constantly be surrounded by tourists. This place was empty and we were free to explore. There were so many lost stories murmuring in the cracks of the rocks.

We drove onwards to Avebury, an equally – if not more so – incredible location. It’s a small town nestled in the center of several huge circles of standing stones older than stonehedge. They weren’t what I was expecting (the tightly knit circle like stonehenge) but they were spectacular. They made me want to time travel. Currently, they’re a scattering of huge stones, many missing after people hundreds of years ago tried to destroy them for an unknown reason. But in the height of their glory, they made up two complete circles and were highlighted by trenches and human-made banks of earth. They would have been magnificent. I wanted to time travel just to see them.

We entered Bath through a strange back way, led as we were by a GPS. It was a beautiful way to first see the city – driving over a ridge and looking down at it all from above. Once we got there we wandered the gorgeous city center for awhile and went out for lunch. It was then that I learned that my host who, as I said, is one of the nicest human beings on the planet, had bought me a camera. Just because mine had broken while in London. She just… bought me a camera. I hadn’t even met here before coming to London. She’s my boss’s second cousin. I didn’t know how to react to the impromptu and wonderful gift. I gaped like a fish out of water and said thank you a lot.

Lunch was hilarious because of the people-watching that was involved. There was a group of Italian cyclists (and one British girl) sitting together at the table next to us. At first they were discussing calories and health, but they moved on later to debating the best ways to make pasta. The British girl was just staring at them, and I knew what she was thinking: “when I make pasta, it involves boiling water”. The Italians, on the other hand, were discussing flour types and special tools, and having quite the hilarious argument about it. There was also the matter of them trying loudly to find the English word for broccoli. It turns out people trying to describe what broccoli looks like is funnier than it should be.

After the meal I parted ways with my host with a hug. It was sad to say goodbye, after the four awesome days I had spent running around London with her. But travel is full of hellos and goodbyes.

I spent the rest of the day exploring the beautiful heritage city of Bath. I climbed to the top of a hill where the view was stunning, Alexandra Park. It felt like I was looking at google maps satellite or something, but in 3D. Bath is a glory of twisting streets, old buildings, and cathedrals. I definitely had a good first impression of it.

Camden Markets, London

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The following was written in the Camden Markets, London:

The Camden Markets are easily the craziest, awesomest (yes that’s a word, shhh…) markets I have ever been to. They are huge – sprawling and maze-like, tangled and teeming with life. It is like all of humanity has been shoved brilliantly into a small space, with people from every walk of life wandering the cobblestones, with vendors yelling out and shoving samples into people’s faces, with crowds bottlenecked between the market stands… It is overwhelming and real.

The air is full of dozens of shouted languages and accents and the food section of the markets clangs, steams and sizzles. The smells are enough to make anyone hungry.

You could find something to delight anyone here; the hipsters, the goths, the nerds, and those of pop culture. Hippies would find plenty to satisfy them as well. Musicians, antique collectors, artists, magicians… this place has everything hidden within its many booths and stores. There’s a whole section for t-shirts, another for arts and crafts, one for food… you could get lost forever in here – in the shops that lead to other shops, in the gaps between stands that seem to lead to mysterious places, in the alleyways and dead ends. It would only be too easy.

And the flags that wave! The food area in particular is a forest of diversity. Name a food and chances are you’ll find it here. There’s British, Scottish, American, French, Italian, Colombian, Peruvian, Argentinian, Egyptian, Indian, Malaysian… all shoved into a small maze of good smells sitting beside a canal on which boat trips go.

Here, humanity is truly highlighted, in its delights and horrors. The voices call, the money changes hands with a rapidity unrivaled, the pigeons and starlings swoop and peck, and the crowds move in hypnotizing patterns. The fast pace at which the vendors move amazes me. They are constantly active in the food section. They cook and sell, constantly shouting instructions to their fellow workers, greetings to their friends and incentives to the shoppers. You can’t walk down an alleyway without one of them noticing you and crying a greeting or else insisting you try their food.

The markets are a maze of hidden treasures, brilliant colours, noise, and movement. There is a sense that everyone who works here is clinging to their one shop, hanging to the edge of being able to support themselves. There’s a vitality and an urgency to them that contrasts with the carefree wandering of the shoppers, and yet is somehow contagious, so that the whole atmosphere of the place is imbibed with it. It’s as if every breath taken here means more, as if there is no time to stop and breath deeply. As if this is all some sort of intense race, full of laughter, hard work, talent and strife. It is more real, more vital, and yet far too overwhelming.

London

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My travels were over a month ago and I am still plodding away in the telling of the tale. I’m going to try speeding it up from now on, partly because you might be getting bored, partly because I’ve got plenty of other blog post ideas floating around in my head waiting for me to have time to write them. I’ve also realized that no matter how many words I use, how carefully I craft my sentences, I’ll never be able to truly share the experience with you. My travels exist soley in my memory. No matter how hard I try, you will never feel exactly how it felt to be there.

So London. In my last blog post, I told you all about the wonders of the Harry Potter studio. Well, I stayed in London for four days and that was only the second of my days. I’m going to try to tell you all about the rest of London now.

The evening after my Harry Potter journey, my host and I went into London together. It was wonderful to be shown the sights by a local. She took me into one of the oldest pubs in the area, where I drank orange juice and endured the incredulous look the bartender gave me for the request. We walked through some beautiful streets, ate dinner at a Nandos, and took the tube to Tower Hill station. The Tower of London was gorgeous in the dark, with the lights of the city falling on it. Behind it the Thames sparkled, glinting with the reflection of Tower Bridge and London’s many tall buildings. The architects of London seem to be competing to see who can build the most oddly shaped, bizarre and downright ridiculous building. There’s a huge cucumber shaped tower, a city hall that looks like an igloo that encountered a runaway polar bear, and a tower that looks – I kid you not – exactly like Sauron’s Eye.

My host took me to an awesome restaurant for tea. I would never have found it on my own – it was under the Tower Bridge and on the other side of the wall around the Tower. From my seat, the view was incredible. After tea, we walked over the bridge and along the South Bank. London is beautiful at night.

The next day was another one that left me with feet that felt like bleeding. I went into London on the tube and walked a long ways – from 221B Bakers Street to Buckinham Palace. It turns out my map was on a different scale than I’m used to. I was thoroughly grumpy by the time I reached the palace, but as soon as I reached it, all that went away. It’s was splendid of course, with its fountain, golden gates and many proud flags. I now know exactly what a commoner in a fantasy novel would feel like the first time they saw the royal palace.

I wandered London for hours that day, from Trafalgar Square to the Convent gardens, to the really awesome street that is supposed to be what Diagon Alley is based on. Eventually I found my way to Spitalffields Market, which was wonderful. I really love markets. They are one of the only types of shopping I enjoy – getting lost in the mazes of tents, staring at all of the incredible and sometimes mysterious things for sale. There was even a guy selling antique swords and daggers here.

My final day in London was bittersweet, because London really was one of the my favourite places. I didn’t want to leave it. I spent most of the day wandering the Camden Markets, a written sketch of which will be in my next blog post. I loved the markets far more than Spitalffields. Actually, I think I can say that Camden is one of the best markets I’ve ever been too. I spent hours there.

I spent the rest of the day wandering. I didn’t want it to be my last day there – I wanted to stay longer in the world of red buses, the underground, and the glory of London. My travels were so full of hellos and goodbyes. The places I went will always be in my heart. As I walked London, I wanted to hug the time to keep it from slipping away. I wanted to hug London, hug the Thames and the Big Ben, the British accents and the telephone boxes.