England has never been on my “Need to Visit” list. It’s due to the same reason that Australia and Canada have never been on my list, either — what’s the point of traveling to a place if they speak the same language, and the culture is so similar to yours? Nevertheless, we were in Western Europe, and my mom’s sister lives in England, so we decided to swing by after Paris.
We caught the Eurostar from Gare du Nord to Ashford International. It was a shaky ride, but it was a satisfying shake because we could feel how fast our train was going. After spending the past two weeks on our own, it was a nice change to see a familiar face waiting for us at the station. We piled into my aunt’s little Audi sports car and started our long drive home. Even the drive felt like I was still in the U.S., despite noticing the steering wheel on the right side. Speeding through the English countryside (and I mean speeding — my aunt constantly drives 30 mph over the limit) reminded me of Americans’ love affair with cars, and made me long for Italy’s well-connected Trenitalia train system again.
Though my aunt had spent the past few decades living in London, she recently moved out of her apartment and bought a second home in the beachfront community of Brighton — “Hove, actually”. Hove residents tend to distinguish themselves from larger Brighton because Hove is fancier, but both communities have that same relaxed seaside feel.
It was cold in England, and my summer dresses that had worked so well in Italy were insufficient for the overcast, blustery days here. Our guest room had huge windows, and we woke up every morning to the loud squawks of seagulls. After our tiny Airbnb in Paris, my aunt’s modern, well-furnished home felt so luxurious to us.
The next day, my aunt drove us to Oxford to see her alma mater. It was a harrowing journey — over three hours long and intermittently stuck in traffic. Living in New York has spoiled me; every time I’m in a car now, I remember why I absolutely hate driving. We finally reached town and had lunch at The Trout with my aunt’s college friend, a lovely eccentric woman who made us laugh throughout our meal of pork belly, scallops, and black pudding. The Trout, nestled on the riverbanks of the Thames, was once a meeting place for former kings and has inspired TV shows like “Inspector Morse”.After lunch, we toured the campus. The University of Oxford is the world’s second-oldest surviving university, and operates the largest university press in the world. We climbed to the top of Christ Church for a view of town, then walked through the dining hall that was used in the “Harry Potter” movies. The dining hall is grand, with framed portraits of university presidents and dark wood paneling. What really impressed me is that students here are still served their meals — no standing in line and paying at a cash register like plebians!
We watched some punting, which means propelling a boat by pushing against the river bed with a pole. My aunt told us that, traditionally, Cambridge punters stand on the till and punt with the open end forward, while Oxford punters stand inside the boat and punt with the till forward. Thus, the till end is often known as the “Cambridge End,” and the other as the “Oxford End”. After enjoying our first afternoon tea in England, we drove back home and watched some “Inspector Morse”.
On our second day, we took the train to London, which was a much more pleasant journey than sitting in a car. While Paris was a mix of stuffy Upper East Side architecture mixed with Brooklyn cool, London felt like midtown Manhattan, with classical buildings and a constant stream of construction of strange-looking skyscrapers. The new skyscrapers coming up are actually more interesting in London than in Manhattan, but no one can top Manhattan’s skyline.
My aunt did the obligatory touristy things with us: Millennium Bridge, Tate Modern, Borough Market, and Tower Bridge. Much to Anthony’s delight, Madame Tussauds was hosting a special Star Wars exhibit, so we had to visit. We met up with his college friend from Berkeley and breezed past the 12-year-old girls drooling over One Direction wax figures. It was worth it to see Anthony’s glee as he took pictures with R2-D2 and Luke Skywalker.
The next day, we returned to London on our own. I had already purchased tickets for us to ride the London Eye, the giant ferris wheel on the South Bank of the Thames. The pods are huge — each can carry about 25 people. It was about a 30-minute ride and provided spectacular views of the city, including its brown river. Does anyone know why the Thames is so brown? It looks like hundreds of people pooped in it.
We met up with Anthony’s friends again. Roaming around London with them was probably my favorite part of our England trip. We had too many Whittard tea samples at Covent Garden, and explored the British Museum. The tiny, distinct neighborhoods crammed against each other once again reminded me of New York.
After saying good-bye to Anthony’s friends, we went to the Sanderson Hotel for our afternoon tea. I chose this place because it had a Mad Hatter’s theme, and if you’re going to have tea in London, you need to go all out. Everything was delightful. The menu was hidden inside a vintage book; the napkin ring contained a riddle; and the dishware was covered in quirky designs. We were presented a three-tier tray of whimsical treats, such as a “Drink Me” potion bottle and meringue mushrooms.
After roaming around Soho and Picadilly Square, we caught a double-decker bus back to Victoria Station. Despite being eager to return to Milan the next day, I wouldn’t have minded one more day to explore Brighton, or maybe try London’s famous Duck & Waffle restaurant.
Our time in England felt like we had just discovered a new section of New York City. I was ready to return to a place where the culture shock would hit me a little harder. Ciao, Milano!
Tips for future travelers:
- Ride one of those red double-decker buses in London. Not just tourists ride them — though, you’ll certainly look like a tourist if you sit in the front row with your camera clicking away, like us. The buses are pretty convenient and provide great views of the city.
- Unless you’re running out of ideas, don’t waste your time with the Tate Modern. I expected it to be like MoMA, but it was much smaller and didn’t have a very interesting collection, at least when we were there. On the bright side, it is free, so I imagine it’d be a good place to escape the cold in the winter.
- If you’re traveling with your lover, tell everyone it’s your anniversary. This is a trick I learned years ago. Whenever I make hotel reservations or book a table at a fancy restaurant, I inform them that we are celebrating a special occasion (it’s not a lie! Every day is a celebration!). This is how we’ve gotten upgraded to a king suite in Portland’s Monaco Hotel and how we’ve been given free desserts at numerous restaurants.