London. The bookend of my trip. An inconvenient place to start, really, since travel to and from the UK isn't covered by my Eurail Pass (or cheap). But this is where I know the most people and I've been lucky enough to stay with my friends Mindy and Jay.
Getting to their place from the train station remains the biggest challenge of the trip so far. I forgot to print out a Google map before I left and had to rely on public city maps and support from locals. Neither were all that helpful. The street I was looking for, Sandwich Street, wasn't really a street but one of a million tiny alleys in London. I even approached an elderly couple who claimed to be lifelong neighborhood locals and they never heard of the place. The old woman squinted up at me and repeated what she had heard with trepidation, "The... Sandwich House... on... Sandwich Street?" She turned to her husband, who shrugged, and looked back at me as if I were trying to sell her magic beans. "Is this some sort of joke, love?" I don't know what she thought I might do. There aren't too many punchlines I can think of, but the British are terribly wary of being embarrassed. Maybe she thought any sort of response would trigger me to pull a foot-long grinder out of my backpack, whack her across the jaw with it, and yell, "You just got SANDWICH HOUSED!!!" I don't know. I think it would have to really be toasted well to be effective.
Anyway, I made it. I stayed at Mindy and Jay's flat for four nights. They had just moved from Portsmouth a couple weeks ago, so I slept on the floor among empty suitcases and unpacked coats. It was perfect. I felt bad intruding for so long, but I was out walking around the majority of the time. I didn't want to waste money on public transportation since I had enough time to see all the tourist attractions, so I took to London on foot. After three full days, my legs are singing....
On the first day I walked through Regent's Park, Hyde Park, SoHo, Piccadilly Circus, and The Mall, and saw Royal Albert Hall, The Albert Memorial, and Buckingham Palace. Day Two was Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey, Covent Gardens, The National Gallery, and Trafalgar Square. On my last full day I spent five hours in the British Museum, then walked along the Thames for a few miles, crossed the Tower Bridge as it was getting dark, and on the way back I passed by St. Paul's Cathedral, The Bank of England, and The London Tower.
A trip highlight was on Friday. On my way back from the National Gallery I saw dozens of policemen (in their funny tophats and reflector vests) closing down city streets and setting up metal barricades. Turns out the Pope was in town. Probably stopping by for fish and chips and a warm beer, maybe saying a prayer or two.
So I hung around Westminster Abbey for a couple hours waiting for the Popemobile to roll in. The Popemobile, I soon discovered, is nothing more than a European SUV with a glass, bazooka-proof shower stall attached to the back. Only the Pope and his select entourage are privilidged to ride in there. I have to imagine that farting in the back of the Popemobile must be seriously frowned upon. Can you imagine letting one rip in front of the pope while you're sitting in a tiny air-tight cubicle? The remainder of the unpleasant trip will most likely be your last ride with the Pope, bazookas be damned. Excommunication has got to be a very real possibility.
When he arrived the Pope got out, waved his hands, and shuffled his way up the steps of Westminster Abbey as only an 83 year old man can. Most people cheered. Others booed and waved a sign that quoted some fanatical Bible passage. The Pope certainly can bring out the crazies. But some people, like me, just smiled because they were in London and had seen the Pope instead of walking home.
On Sunday I take a train into Brussels. After one night, I go to Bruges for two nights, then I visit my friends Mieke and Lien in Ghent (which is where I post this from a very difficult keyboard). Four nights in Belgium, proud purveyor of the best beer in the world. Do I plan on enjoying myself? Well... after all, the Pope is Catholic.