Growing up, I always associated early waking times with excitement. If the alarm clock went off at 5 a.m., it was probably because it was our annual family outing to the NC State Fair. Or maybe a predawn departure to the Blue Ridge in the fall, or to Carolina Beach for the Fourth of July. Maybe even an early flight to Disney World, or a train to New York.
In more recent years, however, early waking times have been growingly associated with trepidation. A cross-country flight for a grad school interview, perhaps, or a crack-of-dawn flight to an international conference. Or maybe a moving day before Phoenix temperatures reach 110º, or to prepare for a 7:30 a.m. final graduate exam.
It should be against human nature to rise before the sun.
But we were out of the apartment by 4:20, 30-pound backpacks strapped at waist and chest, making our way along the dark canals to the bus stop. It took us several attempts to find the right bus stop, and to make matters worse (or at least more annoying), the streets were crawling with drunk teens recently shooed from closing bars.
So there we stood, having overcorrected our arrival time by 35 minutes, enduring our aching feet and backs while shouting, singing, laughing kids jostled around us, stepped in front of buses, or just fell off of curbs.
Side note: Amsterdam is a beautifully clean city. It’s rare to find trash on the stone streets or gunk on the brick sidewalks, both of which could easily house litter in their grooves. Amsterdam’s secret? An army of street-sweepers that converge upon the city each and every morning to correct for the monstrosities that clearly occur throughout the night.
If that’s where taxes are going, I’d support that.
Our bus arrived at 5 a.m., so packed that Ryan stood sandwiched between people of every age while I perched like a pigeon on a luggage rack, still half-asleep and hating the world.
We got to the airport just in time for Starbucks to open, as if the Red Sea had parted just for us to reveal a glorious land of caffeinated perfection -- and because Amsterdam only allows people to leave the main waiting area for their gate 40 minutes before departure (i.e., 10 minutes before boarding).
And of course it would be the case that the moment I sat down with my grande coffee, our gate was assigned.
Ryan can chug a venti iced Americano like a man dying of thirst, so as the other hundred or so London-bound passengers surged past us for the gate, he looked down at me with an expectant raised eyebrow.
My choice was between a grande coffee, which I couldn’t bring past the gate entrance, and my chances of boarding an absurdly early flight to London.
An obvious choice: I stuck with the coffee.
So there I sat, alone and chugging my still-burning-hot coffee until I felt nauseous (coffee, like Southern Comfort, should never be chugged) before sprinting for the security gate. After being pulled aside and thoroughly frisked as a consequence of my fascination with metal-ridden accent necklaces, I made it down to the plane.
After a short, uneventful flight, we arrived in Gatwick, London’s redheaded stepchild of an airport in the absolute middle of nowhere. The view as we were landing was perfectly reminiscent of the intro to The Vicar of Dibley, and the infamously sprawling London was nowhere to be seen.
This, friends, is the downside of flying the cheapest airline possible. Easyjet compensates for its absurdly low prices by charging, for example, 50€ ($67) if your carry-on is even two centimeters larger than their briefcase-sized standards. Want water? That’ll cost you. Didn’t print your ticket? Hope you have 20€ ($27).
Thanks be to God for CapitalOne’s Travel Eraser, which paid for my pre-checked bag…and doesn’t charge a penny for international spending.
So there we were, in the middle-of-nowhere Gatwick Airport, standing at the end of a customs line to rival a new Harry Potter midnight release. Because naturally the customs line for EU passports deserves five customs agents, while the twice-as-long line for all other passports deserves just one.
One grumpy ginger man who didn’t want to let us into this country.
Gingerism is a thing, y’all -- and especially in England, where 40% of the world’s gingers reside. In the last decade, gingers have endured many hardships in the workplace and particularly in society.
So whenever I see a fellow ginger here, I feel this special sense of brotherly connection that probably seems psychotic to passersby, including the ginger of focus. It’s the same way I feel toward anyone who drives a Subaru, wears a U2 t-shirt, or listens to Loreena McKennitt.
After close to an hour of waiting without Wi-Fi to distract us, I finally strolled up to the ginger behind the desk, feeling that significant Ginger Connection that I immediately realized was not reciprocated.
That man questioned me as if I’d come bearing automatic weapons and a swastika on my forehead.
When I’d gone through a similar procedure in the Tel Aviv airport, I’d known what to expect. I was prepared. I had answers ready, and a will of steel. London customs was the last place I would have expected to need similar preparation.
So after stuttering and stammering my way through a few questions, even going so far as to confuse England and Europe (which certainly didn’t help my case), he gave me a disdainful look and asked if I was traveling with anyone. Who. How did I know that guy 10 feet behind me who was watching with worried eyes. What was he doing here. Oh, singing? Was he being paid. Why was he staying so long. Why was I with him if I wasn’t singing. Where was our proof that he was singing. Where was our proof that Trinity Cathedral was a church at all.
At long last, he seemed to mentally mark us as insufficient threats, or possibly even as lost causes, and our passports were violently stamped before we were allowed to pass through.
But even though we’d crossed the border into the UK, our trip still wasn’t over. Now we needed a train from an airport far south of London to a small village far north of it. After paying a small fortune, we rushed through Gatwick to the train station far beneath, tracked down our platform, and waited…for a train that never came.
Cancelled. Of course.
Next one to Bedford, during which St. Albans was a stop? Pending.
Let’s just say that by the time our train finally came, and we were safely aboard, we were so exhausted that we passed out almost immediately.
It was during our 15-minute walk from the train station to our hotel that we -- having been thoroughly spoiled by living in a desert so flat that I could probably have seen Disneyland from almost six hours away if not for the buildings -- remembered just how many hills the rest of the world must have.
I’m willing to bet we encountered a majority of those hills that day, because that walk didn’t once lie flat.
And after three solid weeks in hostels and AirBnBs, I arrived in a beautiful hotel right in the heart of St. Albans, which looks out toward the very abbey where the Trinity choir has been commissioned to perform. Even Ryan, who had been traveling for 1.5 weeks, ran from window to private bathroom with a look of sheer delight on his face. We could even open a window, place a fan on the sill, and pretend we had A/C to combat the humidity and high temperatures outside.
In the bathtub.
Without going into details, I can assure you that by the time we’d finished, the water was a dark, murky gray-brown.
We spent the afternoon exploring, first to track down a grocery store before we ended up lost enough to stumble upon the ruins of Sopwell Priory, a nunnery from 1140. A park had been established around it, and people were running, walking dogs, pushing baby strollers, or simply sitting in the shade of towering trees.
A stroll through St. Albans itself only solidified this sense of a laid-back lifestyle, which has been a beautiful and much-needed thing. The culture is the closest to that of America that I’d yet seen, and yet it’s so very different. England has been wonderful.
That evening, the hotel treated a group of our recent arrivals to a lovely dinner in their dining room, which looks out at one of St. Albans’s main streets and, in the distance, the east end of the abbey. This street would be a stereotypical sight on a BBC show, endorsing so many qualities that I’d come to assume were just as true of British village life as the assumption that all Californian homes look similar to what we see in Hollywood movies. In some ways, there are certainly differences -- no glowing-eyed robots, for example (and kudos to whoever gets that reference) -- but for the most part, it’s everything I’d hoped it would be.
This was only the beginning of our time in England. In the days that have followed, we’ve explored the area, encountered some incredible bits of history, visited the Harry Potter Leavesden Studios, and seen Windsor Castle, Cambridge, King’s College Chapel, London, Hatfield House, and much more.