June 6, 2014
Kentish Town. Glimmers of morning light peek through the crevasses of the heavy drapes and force themselves under my eyelids. I stir, unsure of where I am or how I got there. As soon as my eyes shake off the blur and focus in on the tall ceilings, I remember that I am far from home. The beautiful realization that I am in the middle of an adventure washes over me like a refreshing shower, and suddenly every cell in my body is awake and singing. “Steve!” I give him a little shake and he grunts. I look at the clock. “Steve, it’s 7:30. If we are going to make the changing of the guards, we have to get a move on.”
My husband is not a morning person, and that is putting it kindly. I actually have a nickname for his dreaded alter-ego, whom I have deemed “Sleepy Steve.” Sleepy Steve is kind of a jerk, and I try to avoid him at all costs. However, in planning this trip of overturned time zones and non-stop travel, I knew it was only a matter of time before he reared his ugly head. I expect that moment is quickly approaching, seeing that in the course of the previous day and a half we flew from Chicago to Toronto, from Toronto to Heathrow, took a train from Heathrow to Kentish Town, walked a mile to the B&B and unpacked, all with thirty pound backpacks attached to us. We then took a bus from Kentish Town to Bloomsbury where we surrendered to traffic, evacuated, and walked two miles into London, took a quick self-tour of downtown, walked to the Tube (where we minded the gap), took it back to Kentish Town, walked a mile back to the B&B, and finally went to sleep around midnight.
“Steve?” I push his shoulder again. He turns his head from the wall-length window to me and his eyes pop open. The look on his face goes from angry to confused almost simultaneously and then to my surprise, he stretches his arms above his head and smiles. We’re out the door about thirty minutes later.
We head across the street to the little diner associated with our B&B for some free breakfast. (Rule #1 for not breaking the bank in Great Britain is to take advantage of any freebies.) The man at the counter has a strong accent and a heavy mustache that I can’t imagine anywhere else but England. We both get, literally, the “traditional English breakfast,” which consists of eggs, three giant sausages, thick slices of ham, baked beans, toast, and espresso in tiny cups. It’s intensely satisfying.
London. With a day in London under our belts, we feel pretty confident navigating our way to the Tube and then figuring out the route we need to take to Buckingham Palace. We sit down at ease and look up at the map posted above the line of seats we’re sitting in. Our eyes follow along our route to find that our needed exit, Embankment, is marked clearly with a dark X and the words “closed for maintenance.” We quickly decide to exit at Waterloo, the stop directly following. It is now ten o’clock, with the changing of the guard starting at eleven. Using the map in our guide London A-Z, we begin speed walking in the direction of Buckingham Palace. We can see it, big and looming in the distance. We are on the wrong side of the river, so our first step is crossing over. (Maybe we should have gotten off at the prior exit). We reach some construction and a fenced off street. Turning a different direction, I know that I am officially turned around. Steve will never admit defeat (typical male) and just keeps looking to the map, furrowing his brow, and forging ahead. Finally, he stops next to a portly officer in blue uniform and a baton fastened to his belt.
“Excuse me? Which way to Buckingham Palace?”
“Eh, Buckingham? You just stay on this side of the road and follow it down,” he looks down the road, motioning with the side of his hand. “…down, down, and you will see it. They close down the street for the changing of the guard cer’mony.”
“About how far do you think it is from here? Like, how long do you think it will take?” Steve asks as I shake my head, urging a quick answer.
“Well, how fast can you walk?” the officer smiles. “It’s not, too, too far. You can probably make it!”
With that, we thank him and start speed-walking once again through the crowd. We walk, on and on, until we hit Saint James garden. We found this beautiful place yesterday, full of colorful flowers, glistening ponds, a collection of trees, and little gardeners’ quarters that look more like picturesque cottages portrayed in calendars. Unfortunately, we have no time to pontificate on life in this zen location. This is the queen’s garden, which means we are close to our destination, but also running dangerously close on time.
Finally, we hit the expected traffic and the huge rectangular palace we have been following like the north star. We find a spot to post up across from the giant golden statue that watches the palace from the center of a roundabout. The towering entrance gate sits closed and intimidating. We watch expectantly, cameras at the ready, amid the crowd of onlookers. Suddenly, we hear several trumpets, rhythmic drums, a collection of heavy feet. Then we see them, the queen’s own band of body guards in red and black uniforms; their tall, black bear-skin hats wavering in the distance. It’s exciting, and we wait with bated breath for more. As the guards walk by the crowd toward the palace, there is a stillness hanging in the air. The guards continue on their way. The gates open, and in perfect unison they march in. We hear the instruments loudly, at first, and then more softly as they continue their ritual. And then, it’s gone. The music. The guards. The people start scattering once again. The traffic continues moving through the street. Steve and I look at one another. That’s it? I thought this was some big production! Sure, they played a little music, but so did the marching band at my high school.
“That was a little anticlimactic,” I huff. Steve nods in agreement. We decide to head towards the Tower of London, which came highly recommended by my cousin as well as the guidebooks. We look back at our trusty London A-Z map and route ourselves there. It looks like a bit of a hike, but we’re young and we can handle it. All we have to do is follow the river a measly seven bridges up.