Adventure Part 2: Backpacking Europe. London, England – Day 1

Starting the next phase of the “where is Andrew now” adventure… I had just walked down the gangway, gave my final hugs and watched the enormous Crystal Serenity slowly shrink into the distance until the bus from the port of Southampton rounded a corner. The ship – my home and life for four months – was now a memory, and I was onward to London, England. Europe on my own (and with some generous hosting by family in various countries).

Now, in retrospect, taking an extra month of travel after leaving the ship was the smartest thing I could have done. So many of my fellow crew members left the world cruise to return home. Having the time to fully indulge my travel/adventure bug, and the time to decompress after the whirlwind of the ship, proved to be not only great fun… but a terrific transition.

See, my overwhelming emotion upon leaving the ship was a long, satisfying sigh. Not “phew, I survived” (although I’m glad I didn’t fall off in the middle of the ocean) and definitely not a sigh of “finally.” It was, indeed, quite sad to say goodbye to the incredible experience. But stepping off the bus at Victoria Station, ready to explore London, I just felt it all rush together – the breakneck pace of the last four months and the realization that I now had a month just to myself.

Interestingly, I never once felt stressed or tired during the time on the ship. I think that the excitement and endless fascination with the new experiences made the lack of sleep and constant activity unnoticeable. Adrenaline probably had something to do with it.

In London, for the first time, I felt tired and felt my legs hurting – something I never noticed despite walking for around two hours almost every day for four months. In sum, with all the energy exerted on board Serenity, I finally hit empty. This month on my own at my own pace was going to prove terrific therapy.

And my first day in London, I took a fairly relaxed pace. Got myself settled in at my hostel, explored the Kensington area where my hostel was located, and went to see a musical in the evening. Then went to bed early(ish).

A few practical points that I’ve been asked about how I made this all work – this traveling around Europe. First off, I said my legs finally felt tired… but I never once picked up a blister! Amazing shoes from Keen that to this very day look good as new (check them out here), best investment ever… all I wore around the world. Secondly, was about a month of preparation while I was still on board: emailing family who were going to host me in various countries to form a loose itinerary, booking all of the transportation between the various countries, and for England and Scotland which I was going to explore completely on my own I researched things to do and picked up an outstanding guide book for London. I sorted out London (the excitement of visiting a city I’d never ever seen before, all by myself) by picking the sites I’d see each day from the book, and using it to get me from place to place.

I picked the hostel by seeking recommendation from a fellow crew mate. The Ace Hotel/Hostel was in a nice quiet part of Kensington, clean and safe and very pleasant. I stayed in an 8-person room on a bunkbed for 18 British pounds a night. Seemed like a fair price, and a lot nicer than some of the horror stories I’ve heard.

Two of the neatest aspects to adjust to upon leaving the ship and setting out on my own were: a) setting my own schedule and pace and b) not running into people I knew at every single place I visited. It was sort of refreshing.

But an amazing thing happened at the hostel: the ultimate “small world.” Chatting a bit with the others in the room, we learned where we were all from (other parts of Europe, Hong Kong). Everyone found it interesting that I was from another place called “London.” But then one guy from Spain said, “Oh! London, Ontario?” I couldn’t believe he’d heard of it. He then produced his London Transit Commission bus pass that he kept as a souvenir of his semester abroad, studying English at the University of Western Ontario in my own hometown.

It was interesting to hear the stories of these other travelers, but it was also interesting to see their reaction to my story of just having sailed around the world. I guess that having lived it, the scope of it hadn’t hit me… but every so often it would. Especially the fact that I had actually been to all of the places that the other travelers were from! Cool…

Another logistical aspect of starting my travels in Europe was shipping my luggage from the ship home. I went on board in January with a standard suitcase and a traveling backpack. Now, I reduced everything to just the basics and sent everything else home in my suitcase. The Royal Mail worker had a chuckle filling out the form FROM: London TO: London. I warned my dad not to get a hernia when he picked up my suitcase in Canada!

I’ll stop now with the “backgrounder” of transitioning to this next stage of my travels. My next updates will be more “destination-based”… but this first day in London was spent mostly getting myself ready, and that was the necessary travel preparations.

Officially settled in, and after a short nap, I simply wandered around without a plan along Kensington High Street not far from my hostel. High Street is British for “Main Street,” and Kensington was definitely a very nice, wealthy part of London. I stopped for a burger and chips (didn’t feel like fish), and experienced my first real challenge with someone not having a clue what I was saying. Yes, in England!! See, many store workers I found were British immigrants who had learned English according to the British accent. Here I was speaking English, but with a completely different sound. It was very difficult to communicate. And, believe it or not, I found the true “English Accent” very difficult to understand… it’s quite different from what I term “BBC English” which is smooth and easy to comprehend. Despite the communication barrier, I still found Londoners to be extremely courteous.

The joy of wandering without a real plan is surprising yourself with what you find. Down Kensington High Street I noticed a rather official-looking side street blocked off by police guard. I also noticed lots of people walking through the police guard, so I joined them. I had stumbled upon Kensington Palace and the very beautiful grounds of Kensington Gardens (and neighboring Hyde Park). What a great find. Walking around the grounds and trekking through the park gave me an important conclusion: late Spring is quite simply the very best time to visit Europe! The park helped me relax and regain my energy.

I took a double decker bus back the hostel to get ready for my evening play. The busses have all been modernized from the old, pollution-spewing legends. Many of the telephone boxes (though still red) had also been modernized.

From the hostel, across the underground line (great subway system!) to Piccadilly Circus and into London’s West End. I was very excited to see my evening play!

I scored heavily-discounted tickets to Les Miserables online about two months before leaving the ship! I had never seen the musical before, and the performers on board had several songs from it in one of their performances – so I was really stoked. Especially to sit in the third row! I was so close that Valjean actually nodded appreciation to me when I stood up to give a standing ovation. Best. Musical. Ever.

I promptly returned to bed – completely tired out, but excited for another day in London.

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