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    Vatican City: Vatican Museums. Go Now!

    Vatican City
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United Kingdom

Oxford, England


August 2, 2003
Big Ben, Big Bus Tour, & Tower of London

We boarded our plane in Chicago and began our long journey; it was an uneventful flight and we landed without a problem in London the next morning.

August 3, 2003

After landing we headed down to the "tube" to catch a train into the city. We hopped aboard and got off at Parliament and Big Ben. As we exited the subway station we came out to see Big Ben standing tall just across the street from where we were standing. Very impressive and quite real after seeing all of the pictures.

Next we got some water and snacks, then headed out to find a bus service to give tours of the city. We came across two and the second told us the first was "rubbish" so we naturally went with the second company and saw the city. We headed away from Big Ben to Westminster Abbey and over to Buckingham Palace, around to Piccadilly Circus and across the River Thames. The ride was interesting, but slow and every other corner seemed to have a McDonald's or Coke sign; I felt like I was in America, but a more historic America.

I was slightly disappointed with Westminster; I felt it was a sort of Americanized, with a touch of history. Once we reached London, however, I was very impressed; we saw the London Dungeon, Tower Bridge, and of course the Tower of London. It was here that we stopped off and took a look around the castle. We saw the history of a country within these walls and of course saw the Crown Jewels, a sight not to be missed, except the next time around since they were just jewels and admission was outrageous.

We finished our day with a bite to eat, a boat ride up the River Thames, and finally back on the subway to Buckingham Palace. Buckingham was impressive, but the guards were inside the gates and they didn't even wear the big red hats my stereotype from pictures and stories told me they'd be wearing.

After Buckingham we jumped on the subway again and got to Heathrow with plenty of time before our flight to Nairobi, Kenya.

Continue the above trip to: Kenya

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November 9, 2008

While boarding the plane it became quite apparent that I was going to Europe as I spotted a lot of "Euro Trash." There were two in particular which had tapered jeans, greasy hair pulled down into a "fashionable mullet," and some shirts worn way too tight.

It was also quite obvious my flight was headed to Amsterdam due to a young boy's shirt. He was about 10 and speaking Dutch to his parents while wearing a shirt that said "Amsterdam Traffic Signs": the first was just a normal yield sign, the next was an outline of a naked woman, and the third a pot leaf. Welcome to the Netherlands!

November 10, 2008

Amsterdam airport is incredible, but the toilet seats are perfectly round and that bothers me for some reason. I have to line my public toilet seat with toilet paper and it takes quite a project to cover a perfectly round seat. The oval seats are much better in my opinion for both my toilet paper covering habits as well as comfort.

I had no problems arriving to Birmingham, England, but unfortunately had some time before my train departed to London. I bought a pre-paid ticket, hence saving me nearly £20, but meaning it's restricted to a particular train time. I wandered around the train station and the new National Exhibition Centre.

I spent most of my time reading and watching the trains; not as efficient as the German or Swiss train system, but impressive none-the-less. I'll return in a couple days for my meeting.


November 10, 2008
Time with Friends, not a Sight to be Seen

I made my way to London and got on the tube to Dan's flat. It was raining when I arrived and I had a slight problem finding his place. The English have odd number houses on one side and even on the other, but that seems to be the extent of their numbering logic. A single block isn't just the "100 block" with all apartments labeled between 100 and 199, but rather may be 100-120 on one side and on the other, due to a large building on the previous block may number 67-89. So Dan being in 18 was actually a block away from apartments 17 and 19.

He and his wife, Ania have a great place with a great location, but they reminded me why I live in Milwaukee; their flat costs £1,000 a month, which makes sense considering London is just as, if not more expensive than New York or Chicago. I also couldn't help but notice the most common look for young women: uggs (boots), black spandex, and a skirt. It's not the most attractive, especially if they have a fag (cigarette) hanging out of their mouth. Other than my awe of the style, we made it to dinner just fine.

We went to a Polish restaurant for dinner to remind us of the good old times when we were all living in Poland together. I had the three course meal, which consisted of bigos, pierogi, and a shot of vodka (which counts as a course apparently). After dinner I crashed, more than ready to sleep after my flight and day of travel.

November 11, 2008

I noticed this morning that Dan and Ania have only one clock in their apartment and it's off by about 9 hours; I miss the life of a student sometimes; of course they have phones and watches to tell the time.

I got a subway day pass and we headed up to Magnus's place. We had the games Olympics and I again lost, but by a much smaller margin this time.

At one point I was eliminated from play so headed out for food. I really like this part of the city, which is very diverse and active on its main road. The street had Polish, Middle Eastern, Turkish, Ethiopian restaurants and more.

At the end of the day just catching up, Dan and I headed out; the subway stops running at midnight so we were in a rush to catch the last one. I found this very odd given the fact that London seems like a very lively, active place with a distinct drinking culture. As one Englishman later explained to me, they like to drink, but don't have a lot of time, so have learned to drink more in less time.

Back at Dan's apartment, we watched a movie and he explained the PhD program to me. The program is only three years (usually extended to four or even five years though) and only one year of real coursework. PhDs are primarily based on a very well researched paper, so much of his time is consumed with book, archival, and sociological research.


November 12, 2008
Small Town with Great Character

I awoke ready for my trip to Oxford, but Dan told me I had planned too much time in the city, so I tried to change my £9.50 pre-paid ticket, however to switch tickets, I would have had to pay a £10 cancellation fee, then buy a new ticket; I decided to just go and determine when and how I'd leave the city when it came time to leave.

I met a woman on the bus to Oxford; we talked on and off for the duration of the journey. She was extremely nice and told me her son is a student there. She gave me some sights to see. With these suggestions in addition to Dan's suggestions (he went to Oxford Brooks) I had plenty to see, however both of them had nearly identical lists.

I decided to start off by just getting hopelessly lost. I did a fine job, but after only a half hour I realized I was too hungry to continue for much longer so I made my way to Cowley Street for a kebab and to see the more diverse part of the city.

The city is a place of contradictions: the working class city dwellers, the upper class students, the less-than-diverse student population, the extremely diverse Cowley Street, etc. My kebab at "Kebab Kid" was fantastic and enormous. I really miss kebabs; I'm going to try to learn to make my own, again.

After lunch I headed to the university, first passing Magdalen College, known as the more artsy of the colleges. The grounds are beautiful and the college's location on the river seems a perfect inspiration for the artists present. I then made it to nearly everyone's highlight: Christ Church College, the most prestigious of the colleges and one of the more impressive colleges architecturally. It was here that Albert Einstein, John Locke, and 17 British Prime Ministers studied. However, for many it is perhaps more famous for being one of the filming locations of Harry Potter. The college is very impressive; once the self-guided tour was over I made my way out to the rest of the university.

I stopped in at a couple other colleges, but soon made my way to the shopping district. I hate shopping, but the atmosphere is great and people watching was at its peak. There seems to be an "Oxford look" that consists of suits with ties loosely tied on the guys and, well, the same look as every girl in the country for the ladies: uggs, black tights, and a skirt. There must be some sort of law requiring the look for all women under the age of 30. If neither of the above is worn, then it seems wearing a shirt with your college name is mandatory.

The covered market and Ashmolean Museum were very impressive and simply round out the city's atmosphere. The covered market offered sounds, sights, and smells not found elsewhere in the city and the museum is a great retreat from the busy streets, although far from an escape from the elitist feel.

Perhaps my favorite part of the city was the area around New College and the Queen's College. This seemed like a part of the city people forget and you feel almost transported in time. The main road here winds around the buildings with only small passageways allowing escape.

All in all I liked the city, the narrow winding roads, the coble-stoned alleys, the lively butcher shops in the covered market, the vibrant energy. Dan was right though; I did have troubles filling a full day and by day's end I was trying to figure out why everyone was fleeing the city. Bus lines were long by 6:00pm and by 7:00pm even the city's two main streets felt like a ghost town. I spent the end of my day at the public library reading, before grabbing another kebab then heading to the train station.


November 14, 2008
Dinner in a Castle

(Commence snooty impression)

After arriving by private coach to the Stoneleigh Abbey, the inspiration and former residence of Jane Austen, we were greeted with champagne flutes; the palace was splendid and the tour of the historic property only fitting. After socializing and indulging in our hor' deurs we made our way to the palace's west wing dining room for our evening meal.

Our meal began with grilled sea bass and crayfish served over a bed of greens. This starter was served with a medium bodied white wine which brought out the seafood quite nicely. The main course was duck (off bone) with mash accompanied by a medley of vegetables and covered with a succulent sauce. The red wine complimented the density and slight gaminess of the duck quite nicely leaving me desiring a sweet dessert. Dessert did indeed please in both appearance as well as in its ability to quench my sinfully sweet desires. The raspberry flambeau cleansed my palate of the main course, while a sweet white wine helped satisfy my tastes.

Of course the evening had only just begun and, prior to departing, we indulged in both conversation and finality quenching treats. With the partner to my left I learned much about French regional wines and much regarding the country's vines and soil. With my partners to my right we discussed politics from the worldview perspective. As both our meal and conversation came to a close, we were sent off with an assortment of exotic cheeses, chocolate truffles, wonderful memories... and a rather full belly.

*    *    *


March 4, 2012
British Museum, Tower of London, and Westminster

I thought I was being smart when I booked my flight to arrive at about 7:30 am, giving me the whole day to enjoy the city. Unfortunately, the weather hasn't cooperated... neither did the trains. Apparently everyone is on strike and the one group that isn't had its train lose a battle with a bird. It, shockingly took an hour and a half to get into town from Heathrow, but I still had most of the rainy day ahead of me.

After checking into my hotel and dropping my bags off, I headed into town. Although I've seen most of the sights before, I wanted to get some good pictures and enjoy my free day at a relaxed paced. I started at the only place I hadn't yet seen that was on my itinerary: The British Museum. The museum was excellent and being completely free is shocking considering the depth of their collection. Unquestionably the two highlights were the Rosetta Stone and the sculptures of the Parthenon in Athens.

After the museum I used my all-day "tube" pass to go down to the Tower of London, which was more impressive than I remembered it. Just the stone work and structure itself are inspiring, then to consider the history it holds, dating all the way back to the Norman Invasion in 1066, gives the building an even more impressive status. After skirting around the outside to Tower Bridge, I headed out, this time over to Westminster.

Last time I was in this part of London I was slightly disappointed by the McDonald's and other American chain restaurants dominating the area, but this time I seemed to ignore and avoid those the best I could. After walking around Parliament, I headed to Westminster Abbey, then to Buckingham Palace. I finished my walk at the Hard Rock cafe to get a shirt for my brother. The "Rock Shop" was filled with Spanish tourists who seemed to be attempting to buy the place out. Fortunately, there was still a shirt left in the size I needed so I got it off the rack and headed out.

The tube is very easy to navigate and I quickly got back to my hotel for an early evening. Before heading to bed though I stopped by a local kebab shop to grab dinner, a Lebanese kebab that didn't quite live up to my expectations after my most delicious kebab from Oxford on my last trip.

March 5, 2012
Walking Tour and the House of Commons

Today I had meetings all day and just got acquianted with doing business with the English and Irish (as there are plenty of both here). It's a different environment than it is in the U.S. as it tends to be much less formal here, but I'm required to dress in a full suit everyday (despite the jeans and polo shirts my foreign associates are wearing). As usual, we started our day with tea and coffee and throughout the day had a number of additional tea and coffee breaks.

As the day came to a close, the lecturer asked if I wanted to join him on a walking tour of Westminster, which I accepted. We got a sick tour guide and nasty winds, which significantly cooled the entire walk. Despite this, the crowd was decently sized and we fought on. After getting a bit of history here and there, we got dropped off at a local pub that the Members of Parliament like to frequent. Here we had about 10 minutes so many people on the tour got a small beer and quickly downed it to continue the second half of our tour.

Moving to the south bank of the river, we walked north towards Parliament and I spent much time playing with my camera's night settings. We eventually made it back to our starting point, which was the Westminster tube station, at which point the doctor I was with and I headed over to Parliament to see a session at the House of Commons, which was in progress. This looked dull and overly rehearsed as person after person read prepared speeches off of their notes, while no one present seemed to pay attention, but nearly everyone took the evening off so there was little to see as it was already almost 9:30 pm. More impressive than the debates was the building itself. The art and architecture, most notably, the wooden beams were incredible.

After seeing the debate in Parliament, we grabbed a taxi and headed home for the evening.

March 6, 2012
Pub Quiz & English Food

Today's meetings were much of the same. Nothing too exciting to report, but the evening was much better. After working, I headed to Finsbury Park to meet my old college roommate, Magnus. We headed off to Pub Quiz, where we were joined by his friend. The three of us comprised about the smallest team there and as I was no help, it was basically just the two of them.

After trying a local bitter, we got dinner. I was only truly attracted to two dishes, the ultra American cheeseburger and the entirely English fish & chips. Before my trip I promised I would try the fish and chips while I was here and, to help avoid American stereotypes, I order the "Fresh caught North Sea Haddock with Chips and Mashed Peas." It was better than anticipated, but the batter was excellent, the fish was bland, and the tartar sauce was an excellent means to cut the fishy flavor.

The Pub Quiz itself was well beyond me as nearly every question consisted of random British information, like the first one, which was an anagram of a musician in the news lately. The answer was the UK's entry to the "Euro Vision" song competition... an answer I would not have gotten if it was a multiple choice question. This set the tone for the evening and one of the few questions I got right, we eventually scratched since none of us were 100% sure.

Despite my poor performance, we still finished in the top half and had a good time. After catching up a bit more after the quiz, Magnus and I parted ways, with intentions to have the next Games Olympics in the U.S., most likely in Chicago, despite them losing the real Olympics bid.

March 7, 2012
Half a Day Off

After finishing our meetings early, I had a bit of time to head out to see the city once more. I considered heading to Windsor Castle, Grenwich, the Olympic sights, or the Globe Theater, but time was short and there's a charm about random London neighborhoods that I sought.

My first mission was to grab a London 2012 Olympics shirt, which I did on Oxford Street. One the way however, I ran into the Disney store so got some souvenirs for my brother as well. After this, I headed over to Baker Street, as this was the home to Sherlock Holmes and being so close, I had to stop by. In this area I just wondered around, bouncing back and forth from small street to Baker Street, just watching life pass. Despite the fame of Baker Street, it was all the nearby streets that proved more appealing and exciting. I just walked around without any true direction in the Mayfair and Marylebone areas for a couple hours, finally making it back to my hotel and calling it a night.

Learn more about the United Kingdom Return to Justin's Travel Blog