Planes, trains, and automobiles.

Written on the East Coast Line
King’s Cross, London, England to Waverley Station, Edinburgh, Scotland
Monday, July 14, 13h40

Two days ago in Paris, Steve and I embarked on the last leg of our trip, little knowing that it was going to take a good 36 hours longer than we had bargained for… since we’ve been traveling for about 10 months now, I had thought we were justified in giving ourselves a few pats on the back, being old hands at this travel gig, and getting ourselves from one place to another with a minimum of fuss. Well, hubris never pays. Travel mistakes this half of the world are more expensive to boot!

Our plan was to take a carsharing trip from Paris to London (Eurostar trains making the same trip costing well over 250 euro for the same privilege), and then catch a train in the evening heading up to Edinburgh, which would take us about 5 hours. This covoiturage (or BlaBlaCar as it’s called in other countries) deal is usually pretty good. You pay a pittance to travel in a carpool with other people, and go distances that would usually cost hundreds of euro on a train for less than 50. Our covoiturage trip was amusing enough, as we packed in 7 people in one minivan, and received strange glances from both the French and English authorities, but man if it wasn’t a circus show when we tried to make the Channel crossing.

The Channel or La Manche (as it’s known in France) is 22 miles (~35 km) at its narrowest point between Calais and Dover, and takes approximately 35 minutes. Cars can reserve a time and book passage on these large cargo trains that are completely empty, so you simply drive on, park, and can do anything you want while the train takes you through the Chunnel and into England. Depending on when you arrive, you are assigned a letter of the alphabet, and wait until your letter is called to queue up for boarding half an hour before departure. It’s an elaborate process that can really take a while, and we tried to slip through with an earlier letter (S instead of W) that our driver . The simplest summary of all of this is that we were desperately and totally late in reaching London. It didn’t matter for most of the people we were traveling with (three French and two British) but I had booked our train to Edinburgh at 6 pm since the driver had reassured us we would be in London by 5 pm. Well, it ended up being that and more. We made it to Kings Cross at 7:15 pm, and had just narrowly missed the last train to Edinburgh that day. We wandered the station for about half an hour, not sure what to do. Apparently inept at using a payphone, I squandered three pounds (nearly 6 USD) on phone calls to Sarah in Cambridge but didn’t catch her, and Steve wandered in and out in search of Internet to research our options for the train the next day.

Finally, we conceded that we had to retreat for the day. We bought the cheapest tickets going up to Edinburgh the next day at 1 pm, and set out to the nearest hostel around King’s Cross. Fortunately on both counts, the cheapest tickets was only about how much I had spent on our missed train, not significantly more expensive, and the hostel gave us perfectly serviceable beds and a continental breakfast for 35 pounds altogether. Famished, Steve and I found dinner at a place called the Chop Chop Restaurant, which serves mediocre Chinese food across from King’s Cross for pretty low prices. Funnily enough, a heap of fried rice and some chicken with cashews is all I really need to resuscitate me! We grabbed a pint at a bar across the street called The Water Rats and watched the last few minutes of Argentina’s defeat at the hands of Germany, and then retired to the hostel.

Resumed in Edinburgh
Tuesday, July 15

We’ve arrived safely in Scotland now, but first, I should recount our brief adventures in England. This morning, Steve woke up early because he had the top bunk, and there is a large, ample skylight in this mixed dorm. He nudged me awake too, and we headed down to enjoy the continental breakfast and then off to the British Museum.

Now when I think of the British Museum, I think of stories and books I’ve read like the Mary Russell series, where she meets friends at the Elgin Marbles. (“Oh, the BM? I haven’t been there in donkey’s years!”) Just as I would have said, meet me at Millennium Park in Chicago, or Copley Library in Boston. I was very excited to visit the BM, and it appears London was excited to meet us too.

It was incredibly warm and sunny as we made our way in the early morning to King’s Cross and St. Pancras, two of London’s biggest train stations just a hop away from our hostel. We took a good long look at St. Pancras, which holds the Eurostar trains and other trains coming north to London – it is very tall, built in red brick, and full of lovely spires. Next to it, King’s Cross is a bit shorter, but still airy with its yellow-gold arches, and King’s Cross has the responsibility of sending trains north into England and Scotland. The two share an Underground station, however, since they’re right next to each other. After St. Pancras, we then walked over to the British Museum, about 20 minutes away. This part of London, known as Bloomsbury, is quite fashionable (or posh, as they would say). Buildings were very trim and neat and shiny. Everyone was busy heading to work on a Monday morning, and we were looking right again when crossing pedestrian sidewalks. Aside from the inevitable English, I did hear a good deal of French and Chinese, as there were many, many visitors. We got to the museum early, and got to be some of the first people racing up the stairs.

It’s impossible to tabulate everything we saw in the British Museum, but I think I’ll try. We saw the Lewis Chessmen, one of the most famous chess sets in the world. It was discovered in the 1800s, and dated from much earlier, made from whale tusk ivory. We also saw some beautiful specimens of Japanese art, Japanese wedding kimonos, and Chinese paintings, including the Admonitions Scroll, a scroll about proper noblewoman behavior with illustrated fables and examples. There was an immense Easter Island head, looking very solemn and broad. There was also an Enlightenment exhibit which showcased orreries, which are models of the Solar System. They even had books in Latin on the topic. We trekked about some more until we found the Rosetta Stone, which is pretty excellent. It does not disappoint, being rather huge, and I spent a while thinking about how amazing it was to dissect it and use it to understand what Egyptian hieroglyphics actually meant. The British Museum also does a great job of giving history about everything; in the Chinese pottery section, they give admirably concise written explanations of Buddhism, Daoism, and Confucianism, to help clarify the many references to those virtues and pursuits that run throughout these pieces of artwork. It’s an extra mile that really provides some depth to the museum experience, I feel.

Finally, we came upon the Elgin Marbles which the museum is so well-known for. More accurately, they should be referred to as the Parthenon statues or fragments. In the late 1700s, Lord Elgin, England’s ambassador Greece, and realized that the Parthenon was kind of going to bits and had not been well taken-care of, so he obtained a controversial permit from the Ottoman authorities at the time to remove pieces from the Parthenon. It’s well-documented, with the museum even showing a copy of the permit/letter that he received, but this is undeniably basically sanctioned vandalism. No one also denies that these things would not have been in such good shape today if Lord Elgin hadn’t spirited them away, but there’s an ongoing debate about whether they should be returned to Athens. I don’t care personally one way or another, but I think it has to be admitted that it really was vandalism. After all, the British Museum and many other places also have pieces of Chinese Qing pottery obtained during the Boxer Rebellion (turn of the 19th century) and subsequent looting of Beijing (I’m looking at you, France, Germany, Russia, UK, and Japan!). I’m not sure what should happen to those spoils, but I think we should know how these places came by it. The marbles themselves, many of which are partial, say without heads or hands, are pretty stunning. Many originally decorated the plinth of the Parthenon (statues in the triangular portion, above the columns), and would not have been visible in such close detail. Steve noted that it was striking to see the gods and goddesses all in motion, as it were. Some of them are at ease, relaxing, others in the middle of turning around or standing up. Even the remnants that we do have, without expression or gesture, conveys an immense amount about the depicted figure. I feel like you are pushed to look harder at them when you don’t have simpler things to direct you, and extrapolate more. There are also smaller carvings and panels from the rest of the temple decorating the galleries – one of them depicts a victory procession with men, horses, sacrificial bulls, for the glory of Athena, and the other depicts the battle of the Lapiths against the centaurs. We had a great time walking through the entire museum, which is really remarkable, and completely free. You will however be disappointed if you’re like the bemused Tripadvisor reviewer who wrote, “For a museum called the British Museum, there’s not much that’s British about it!”

We bought some sandwiches when we got back to our hostel, picked up our things, and boarded our train at King’s Cross. It was a very lovely trip up north to Scotland, where I mostly slept against the window. Steve woke me up at one point to point out the Angel of the North, a vast iron statue on a hill leading to Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where he did study abroad in college, but I fell back asleep. By the time I woke up again, we were hitting our last stop, Berwick-upon-Tweed, a small town whose only distinction, Steve notes, is that they abstained from the peace treaty signed with the Scots back in whatever century that was. Technically, they’re still at war with Scotland. =)  Then we crossed the line into Scotland. It’s very green here, inundated by vast amounts of rain, and I saw the North Sea for the first time, off the eastern coast of Scotland. The clouds were iron-grey and the sea dark blue and calm. I feel similarly to seeing the waters and the coast of Normandy, but it has a distinct, lovely flavor here. We drew into Edinburgh a mere forty-five minutes after seeing Berwick-upon-Tweed, and here I am typing this up the next morning. We’re off soon to explore the city and the surrounding park, however, so I’ll leave my first impressions of the city until tomorrow.

Write more soon,

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