Cold. Cold. Cold. My boots clatter against the icy cobblestones to this repeating mantra. I try to wiggle my toes to see if the sleet has seeped in beneath three layers of socks—but they are too numb and plump to tell.
The brilliant red and blue glow of the Tesco sign peaks through the bleak London weather two blocks down, and I know that I am almost home. Home, is a relative term for the moment (as my region of residence is miles across the sea). For these two weeks home means a warm radiator to hang my gloves over, dry socks, a steaming cup of real, English tea, and two friends to chatter deep into the night with. It is also a double episode of my favorite British television program, Midsomer Murders, watched from the warmth of my sleeping bag.
HONORABLE MENTION 2010 YOUNG TRAVEL WRITERS SCHOLARSHIP
A year ago I spent five months traveling through the United Kingdom on a Westmont semester abroad. We spent glorious weeks in London where we frequented the theaters like they were bathhouses, and studied Shakespeare and Elliot on their turf. We traveled as poetic nomads, leaving playbills and scholarly essays rustling in our wake. We ate beans on toast for breakfast while chewing over the scandal of Malvolio’s tight yellow stockings at the Royal Shakespeare Company. We sang Evensong in Canterbury, hoarded chocolate from Cadbury, toured the heavens and hell of the Globe, meandered with cows in the countryside, lit candles at St. Paul’s, nibbled on gurkins in Scotland, drank Guinness in Galway, ate scones in York, and exchanged tears and currency in Northern Ireland. Somewhere along our mad rush of traveling, I fell in love with London. I treasure the memories I have of all the other places we went—but I am content with albums and flash-drives full of photographs and journal entries. Not so with London; this was a city that had gotten under my skin like a persistent itch.
I scratched the itch. I am back. Thanks to a cheap ticket on www.statravel.com, and two equally adventurous friends, I was able to revisit my favorite city. This time, I am traveling with a much lighter group—two friends, rather than thirty. It is quieter now, and colder. The temperatures have dropped to an unforgiving 2 degrees Celsius that mocks the sleeveless dress I packed for New Years Eve.
Each time I step outside our four-story London flat, I am accosted by a myriad of color and sensation—red, frost, and the earthy smell of wet cobblestones. Red is a token color in London and I can instantly point out the scarlet circle marking the Vauxhall tube stop, the double-decker buses that blur by, the faint frame of a telephone booth a few streets down…these colors pop against the frosty, foggy world. The sun boldly nudges through the clouds to melt the icy roads, creating the fresh gravely smell that I love; ironically it’s light is not vibrant enough to add any warmth. I find out that I can take my leather gloves off for thirty-three seconds before my fingers ache from th
I am finding that my old favorites spots live up to their charm, and that new gems take a day’s walk and several tube stops to discover. I am also seeing that these places have layers of overlapping memories and events—from both last year and today— that color their significance with shades of meaning.
For instance, I have always gravitated to London’s bridges, especially at night. The way the lights of the city wriggles on the Thames liquid surface is an alluring compilation of nature and civilization. It is pure magic. Last year I would show up early to the National Theater, and stand in the middle of the Waterloo Bridge overlooking on London’s famous skyline. To my left was the robust curve of St. Paul’s Cathedral and the snake-like line of the Millennium Bridge. To my right I could glimpse the regal frame of Big Ben and the London Eye. Precociously, I would balance my camera on the side of the bridge and attempt to capture the lights with my lens. But it was nothing compared to last night.
Last night was New Years Eve. My friends and I walked a few freezing miles to Westminster Bridge where the annual News Years Countdown takes place. The bridge was packed with an estimated 20,000 spectators—most of us bundled like children on a snow day, and most of us grasping a warm beverage. Big Ben loomed above us, illuminated by yellowy lights. To my right the London Eye was alternating colors—pink and green, yellow and blue…every few moments it would change. The crowd was buzzing with language and culture; most of what I overheard was not English. Our noses and cheeks were becoming increasingly pink as we stood in the cold for one hour, two hours, three hours, four….It was almost time for the final countdown. The fog over the water was thick, and to our amazement a clock was projected on the fog, counting down the seconds to the New YeaWhen the clock reached zero a brilliant flash of light erupted from over our heads and the thunderous boom of the first firecracker made me scream. Fireworks exploded from the London Eye, filling the sky with magnificent colors that glistened in the reflection of the water. Boats dotted the Thames, and I could hear tiny, far away screams of glee from the onlookers. The fireworks continued to spew color, and the crowd moved and shouted and hugged and clapped. Then, the last bursts of light rocketed upward, and slowly disintegrated down, down into the belly of the fog.
All was calm and quiet.
And then, something started falling down on the crowd, like ashes that clung to our hair. I started wiping away what I thought was firework residue when I heard,
Sure enough, as I stood on Westminster Bridge at midnight on New Years Day, a soft January snow was dusting the sky. I stuck out my tongue and tasted my first London snow. Next to me, strangers were doing the same. We smiled, all 20,000 of us, mesmerized by the fireworks, the snow, and the beauty where we stood. It was magic.
As the crowd broke apart and started wandering home, all in different directions, the spell broke and the snow stopped. A tiny bit of it stuck to the streets for several heartbeats before a stampede of boots and feet trampled past. And as I joined the jolly mob on that London bridge I breathed deeply, feeling almost as if I was finally home.
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