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St- Albans

A bit of closure

If it weren’t obvious by the time I’d gotten back to the States, I’ve clearly been MIA for these past four (going on five) weeks. Life caught up to me, including moving into a new house (alongside my devoted, hard-working, and interior-savvy mother) and starting my third year of grad school.

Still, I couldn’t leave it at that — I needed closure.

Our last few days in St. Albans were spent entirely in St. Albans, which was a blessing — it was just low-key enough to be able to take a deep breath after almost a month straight of traveling, and yet busy enough to still be filled with new and exciting discoveries. Our evenings, now free after Evensong, became something of a Tour de Albans Cuisine, beginning with a group outing to The Waffle House at Kingsbury Mill.

No, I’m not talking about ye olde Waffle House / Huddle House / Kitchen House / whatever knock-off yellow-block-lettered-sign restaurant you’re thinking of…although I wouldn’t say no to an order of bacon cheese grits and chocolate chip waffle from my dear American Waffle House.

Its British equivalent was simply a flour mill from the 1500s that, although still in use, had largely been converted into a restaurant specializing in sweet and savory waffles. The outdoor patio sat over the water rushing from the churning mills, and a quick tour of the inside showed working parts of the mill behind glass and molding beams of wood.

If you’re having a hard time envisioning what savory waffles might entail, you’re in dire need of a traditional Dutch pancake, because even the thought of one of those things can make my mouth water.

But as for savory English pancakes, picture this: A large, soft, doughy waffle topped with pulled pork barbecue, homemade cole slaw, and some spices for decoration, drizzled with an optional (pure — we ain’t talking Aunt Jemima) maple syrup.

Dear Lord.

By the time we left the mill, the sun was beginning to set, casting a beautiful pink glow on Verulamium Park as we headed back toward the abbey and our hotel…but not before making a two-hour pit stop at Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, the oldest pub in Britain ca. 793. We were joined by close to a dozen others from the choir, and we spread out in this ancient building with its creaking floors, low-beamed ceilings, and marbled glass windows.

The next day, Ryan and I walked to the Hypocaust Roman mosaic, the remains of a second-century Roman mansion that dwelt largely untampered with until the 700s, when monks stole the bricks of this building to construct…yes, none other than the abbey itself. Miraculously, the large mosaic (I would guestimate 300 square feet) remains quite beautiful, even after almost 2,000 years. A hypocaust was discovered in this same mansion, which is a Roman system of underfloor heating (hypo meaning “under”, caust meaning “burnt”). As unbelievable as this still seems to me, some Roman dude moved to the middle of this little island off the coast of Europe and set up a central heating system in 100 A.D. Carolina still struggles with central heating in our ca. 1800 dorms. This oxymoron baffles me.

From there, we trekked northward to the Roman Theatre — yes, the same Roman Theatre I’d originally set out to find the day I got so hopelessly lost. Thankfully, we made it during open hours, and were able to stroll around its perimeter to read various plaques explaining the purposes of each area. A winery here, forgery there, smithy there, barley keep here, stadium where gladiators might have fought over there. Before it was burned to the ground in around 200 A.D., it must have been a center of commerce and entertainment…not unlike Times Square, Roman Edition.

Yes, I did just equate Broadway to a gladiator stadium.

After that evening’s Evensong, we enjoyed our first English Thai food on a lovely back patio that was removed from the surrounding streets (and, truthfully, might once have been a backyard). We caught up with our group to enjoy an informative tour of the town, from facts and buildings to juicy 13th-century gossip, and concluded the night with drinks while picnicking by Vintry Garden, a vast expanse of beautiful green that separates the abbey from Verulamium Park, Verulamium River, and Ye Olde Fighting Cocks.

Saturday morning was spent exploring the well-known St. Albans Street Market, which was resembled something akin to a flea-market-meets-Raleigh’s-Artsplosure-meets-Dollar-Tree, and I say this with the utmost fondness. A few paces could lead you by a fresh fish stand and dollar-office-supply booth, but also by a stand of hand-stitched leather bags and lovely printed scarves. We wandered up, down, and back up the stalls, pointing and touching and gazing at novelties as we passed.

And lunch — be still, my heart — comprised my favorite British food: pasties.

Oh pasties, how I miss you…or more specifically, West Cornwall Pasty Co. I would trade two pairs of pumps for a chicken and spicy chorizo pasty right now.

That night marked a rather special moment in my life: I enjoyed my first meal at an Indian restaurant that didn’t end in disaster. (For those who don’t know, I’m deathly allergic to a few choice nuts that are great delicacies in China, India, and American hipster culture.) I’ve had two not-too-bad-but-let-me-take-a-Benadryl-just-in-case encounters in Raleigh, but this was my first full meal without need of three Benadryl (or a quarter cup, whichever is most readily available) or an ambulance. Our food was delicious, and particularly special given the skylights overhead that revealed first a beautiful golden sunset, followed by a cozy thunderstorm.

Of course, thunderstorms are only cozy when you don’t have to leave the comfort of a covered building, so our walk to The Farmer’s Boy — a local (divey) pub — was pretty damn wet. We finished up the night at the White Hart, an old Tudor-style inn next to our hotel that must have once been a house. Upon entering, you weave through room after narrow room, ducking under door frames and rounding odd corners to get to the bar, and then to a seat. Laughing, singing locals took turns playing the piano, and a few suits of armor stood sentry to listen.

And then dawned our last full day in St. Albans, beginning with Sunday mass (performed by our lovely choir) and then with drinks at the Deanery just down the cobbled path and into what might have appeared to be gardens from the other side of the crumbling brick walls.

We had lunch at The Snug, a pub in the heart of St. Albans, and dedicated our afternoon to feverish packing and frantic answering of e-mails. Our final dinner together could not have been more perfect: All 40-something of us dined at Loch Fyne, a “seafood & grill” restaurant that boasted delicious courses throughout the night (and equally delicious wine, although I shouldn’t give that fact as much weight as I probably do). I’m delighted to announce that the choir was invited back for a possible residency in five years, which is exciting news for Trinity and the many connections it has already made “across the pond”.

And Monday was spent in utter insanity, as should be expected with my luck with public transportation. Regardless, I was home by 5 p.m. Arizona time, and passed out in bed by 5:15. It took more than a week to get over my jet lag, by which point I was beginning a new life in Mesa, Arizona. Weeks later, I still glance through old photos and memories from our time in Europe, and wouldn’t trade those experiences for anything. I’m incredibly lucky to have seen and done so much in so little time, and even more lucky to have met incredible people along the way. Thanks to everyone for reading and taking part in my adventures! Au revoir, afscheid, and cheers!


Royalty, intellect, and red telephone booths

I mentioned in my previous post that several Trinity members organized daily excursions from our locus in St. Albans. The general set-up was to start the morning with a “full English” (breakfast) in the hotel, which was far fancier than my expected Yoplait and bagel, before setting off for our morning destination. We would have a few hours for a tour and our own free explorations, grab lunch, and board the bus to return by our scheduled rehearsal and evensong.

Our first stop was Windsor Castle, one (of what I presume to be many) official residence of the queen and the largest occupied castle in the world. What sets Windsor apart from many other castles in Europe, let alone in England, is that it forms the center of a small village -- small shops, restaurants, cafés, and homes (of, say, castle employees) are clustered within, along, and outside the castle walls, which creates a sense of community around an otherwise austere building.

The castle itself is beautiful, our digital tours informative, and we were even able to see the changing of the guard (which takes approximately 45 minutes; we stuck around for maybe five of those minutes to see the band and listen to some unintelligible shouting, stomping, and gun-angling).

In the heart of the village is St. George’s Chapel, one of many central points of royal burial around London. (Westminster Abbey, for example, is another; but St. George’s houses monarchs from Henry VIII and George III to Edward VII and the Queen Mother.

And no, the queen was not in residence when we visited. Hopes dashed.

The next day was a full-day excursion to London, beginning with a two-hour tour of Westminster Abbey. I’ll go ahead and confess that I knew very little of Westminster Abbey, which is apparently deserving of at least one of Dante’s circles, although I had a nagging suspicion that the royal wedding was held there. (Ding ding ding, although I should have known about it for many other reasons besides.)

Westminster is the site of royal coronations in the UK, many weddings (but not all -- St. Paul’s just across the Thames reserves its right to quite a few), an incredible history across many monarchs, uprises, and changes in the Church, and the burial site of more famous individuals than I could have imagined, ranging from Charles Darwin and C.S. Lewis to Elizabeth I and Handel.

The history of this church was absolutely phenomenal, and if anyone is interested, I highly recommend Wikipedia as a substitute resource for what exactly this colossal building has seen over the last millennium.

We passed the Sherlock Holmes museum, which is based out of his fictitious residence on Baker Street, and although I was dragged kicking and screaming away from the line that trailed down the sidewalk (not really, but if I cared even a hair less about social norms I might have), this museum will remain among my Top 10 dream destinations in the UK should (or when) I ever return.

We revealed our inner tourists outside Buckingham Palace, taking photo after photo before moving on to Trafalgar Square, which has since become little more than a tourist- and street performer-ridden plaza. St. Martin-in-the-Fields was a pivotal stop for the singers among us, as it symbolizes something of a musical Mecca in the Church.

We had the pleasure of having wine with a PR representative of Phoenix Chorale’s record label in Charring Cross Hotel, a hotel created for the sole historic purpose of housing travelers who arrived in Charring Cross train station just below the building. Many of these travelers were French, which led the hotel to be known for its extravagant French balls on weekends. Its first and second floors were grand, and offered a great view of the areas around it; however, our guide pointed out the hotel’s flat, uneventful roof, result of a bombshell in WWII. London lacked the funds to repair it, necessitating what must (to Londoners) seem to be an ugly replacement.

This was a shocking theme in our time in London: the damages incurred in WWII. Anyone who has read Narnia (let alone history textbooks) knows this to be the case, and even Hayao Miyazaki draws heavily on the fears of bomb shells among (pseudo-)London residents in his animated films.

So as we made our way down a narrow street adjacent Charring Cross Hotel, our guide asked where else I’d been in Europe. At the mention of Paris, he scoffed and replied that London must seem an ugly city compared with the likes of Paris. I was surprised, and responded with complete honesty that even considering how little I’d seen of London, that wasn’t the case at all -- that I found Paris quite dirty, the architecture almost identical throughout, and many famous landmarks overrated.

Our guide shrugged and said that London had once been beautiful, perhaps, but had been damaged so heavily by the war that new “atrocities” were built -- buildings from the 1960s that were reminiscent of communism, perhaps, or an architect’s bold attempt at creativity by raising a solid glass claw of a structure that shadowed the historic buildings around it.

But I think it was these hints at London’s past -- both the good and particularly the terrible -- that I loved most.

Our group shared another bottle of wine in Gordon’s, a wine bar open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week that features a wine cave narrow and low enough to send anyone into a claustrophobic fit. (I found it awesome, but I also don’t mind small spaces.) The walls and curved ceilings were charred black from centuries of candle smoke, groundwater trickled down the stone and toward the uneven cobbled floors, and the occasional rumble of wine glasses signaled a passing subway car.

I mentioned in my last post that I’m a sucker for ruins; I’m also a sucker for awesome pubs, wine bars, and beer gardens. The older and quirkier, the better.

The rest of our trip was something of a blur simply from how fast we had to move to fit our to-visit list into a daylight-limited day. We saw Shakespeare’s Globe, Millennium Bridge (featured in the sixth Harry Potter), the Tower Bridge (featured in Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr.), and London Bridge (nothing special). In the distance, we saw the turrets of the Tower of London, home of the Crown Jewels and a historic prison and medieval execution site. Also on the horizon loomed St. Paul’s, another famous church within the confines of the Church of England.

After a ridiculously cheap dinner at an underground pub (which involved curry pie…oh my gosh), we gave a last visit to Big Ben, Parliament, and the London Eye, all of which were lit up in the evening hours.

And it was just before leaving for St. Albans that night that I realized how close we were to King’s Cross Station.

Before I knew it, I was speed-walking toward the gates like a zombie, thoughts focused only on Platform 9 3/4. In retrospect, there were so many things I didn’t even pause to consider, the least of which was whether I would need a ticket to get onto the platforms; but incredibly, miraculously, I saw it. A polished black sign read Platform 9 3/4, accompanied by the characteristic Hogwarts trolley in the process of vanishing through the platform wall.

And now, after trying to picture this scene for 15 years after having no idea what a train platform might actually look like, I can.

Our last excursion was Cambridge, which was more of a treasure than I ever would have expected.

Cambridge, like Windsor Castle, has something of a small village around it. The university owns this village of carefully preserved cobbled streets, historic buildings, and beautiful rivers and grassy squares. The floors above shops house students during their three annual terms, and the university’s 31 colleges are spread throughout the village, ranging from the town centre to the far outskirts across the river.

We had a guided tour of Cambridge, which only sealed the deal in my eyes: By the time we left, I was head over heels for this place. I write this while on the plane to Dallas, an official University of Cambridge letter jacket (lined with fleece and with a royal lion embossed on the sleeve) draped across my lap.

Besides my Butterbeer glass, this is my only souvenir, and I will be wear it with pride in hopes of one day returning.

Because if I ended up as a professor in this place, I would die of happiness before I even saw my office.

A few fun facts, but I’ll keep them to a minimum -- I won’t outline 2.5 hours’ worth of details, and trust that if you’re interested, you’ll consult either Wikipedia or Cambridge’s website.

Isaac Newton invented the cat flap.

I know, I just revealed the secrets of English history in one sentence.

But really…this happened. Isaac Newton, a student of Trinity College (which would be my college of choice out of the 31, given its scientific prowess), was also a professor there. A graft of the apple tree that spurred his theory of gravity now sits outside the college gates, just below the bay window that marks his bedroom.

C.S. Lewis was a student there, as well as Jane Goodall, Rowan Williams, Charles Darwin, Stephen Hawking (who, again, went to St. Albans School before college), Princes Edward and Charles, Emma Thompson, Rosalind Franklin, Lords Aberdeen, Kelvin, and Byron, Oliver Cromwell (the irony), and Francis Bacon (who clearly kept cropping up during my time in England).

But this place isn’t just a prestigious university, it has spirit and culture. I hope no staunch Duke fans are reading this (and if so, please save your opinion of me by skipping the next two paragraphs

good), but Duke sends me into minor panic attacks just from walking around its campus. It’s too perfect, too quiet, too austere, too serious about itself. It seems a place that, for me at least, would staunch the flow of creativity before it even had a chance to grow.

If you’re a Dookie, you can start reading again.

Cambridge is nothing like this. Students are boisterous, funny, and come in all forms of diversity. Intelligence isn’t gauged by test scores, but by interviews and tests of character and motivation. Tuition, although steep in European standards, pales in comparison to even my own alma mater, and from the looks of their scholarship statistics, they actually carry out their promise of supporting students who can’t readily afford tuition, boarding, and fees.

If this weren’t already clear, I couldn’t get enough of this place.

We finished up with a tour of King’s College Chapel, famous -- among many reasons -- for its prominent BBC feature every Christmas Eve, as well as for its internationally renowned boys choir.

Of all the churches, abbeys, cathedrals, and temples we visited over the course of this past month -- and trust me, I’ve seen more than I ever would have believed possible in this span of time -- I found the history of King’s College Chapel the most fascinating by far.

I suggested earlier that anyone interested in Westminster Abbey’s history consult Wikipedia, because yes, it’s fascinating.




King’s College is even more rich in its historical presence. From king to tyrant to conqueror, from war to peace to Reformation, from various stages of beautiful construction to near destruction, this place is just phenomenal.

Okay, I’m done.

Go read Wikipedia…like, yesterday.

And before I wrap up this post about our excursions, I want to tell a bit about the Abbey and Cathedral of St. Albans. (Tourists refer to it as the Cathedral; locals know better, and refer to it as the Abbey. The official title marries both.)

The Abbey boasts the seventh longest nave in the world, and is split into many smaller chapels and worship spaces. The name of the Abbey and town stems from Alban, who hid a Christian priest inside his home during a time when it was illegal to be a Christian in the late 200s, while living in the Roman city of Verulamium. Within a short period of time, he converted to Christianity and was later captured for it; however, even at the threat of death he didn’t renounce his faith to the Romans, and lost his head for it.

The first stone was laid in 1077 following the Norman invasion; however, the true date of completion wasn’t until the 1800s due to constant additions, destruction, changes, and expansion. As a result, its many sections stand at stark contrast to their surroundings as you move from, for example, grandiose Gothic arches to the simple, humble styles of the 1100s. There are ornately carved altars with dozens of perfectly contoured stone servants reaching dozens of feet high, and there are also medieval paintings on the walls of two-dimensional saints with snippets of script made illegible over the centuries.

It goes without saying that we were incredibly honored to be invited to sing at the Abbey, and that we (read: the choir; I sat with my hands folded somewhere behind the altos) did an excellent job throughout the week.

So enough of excursions.

One more post about our time in England, which will discuss a bit more about St. Albans and its many charms and treasures.

All who wander are probably lost

Note: I’ve gotten a few questions of how on earth I got back from HP Studios. It continued to rain throughout my three-hour tour of the studios, so I was expecting the worst: at least a 40-minute walk to Watson Junction, a major bus junction in Hertfordshire, and a 15- or 20-minute bus ride back to St. Albans. Luckily, I left Leavesden right as a double-decker Harry Potter bus (sounds magical, right?) pulled up to the entrance. This was my first double-decker experience, which was particularly fun as they had a TV screen at the front of the second story that showed interviews with Warwick Davis as well as Warner Bros. previews.

As I’ve only vaguely mentioned before, I spent the last eight days in St. Albans with Trinity Cathedral’s choir, which was invited for a week-long residency at the Abbey and Cathedral of St. Albans. Some incredible Trinity members helped plan daily excursions and sight-seeing tours, which I’ll be discussing in the posts to follow (accompanied, of course, with pictures). Because I don’t sing -- or perhaps shouldn’t sing, for the good of many around me -- I was left during rehearsal times and a few evensongs to do whatever I wished. And of course, being in a country that was completely alien to me, I spent that time exploring.

I’m addicted to exploring. Regardless of my familiarity with my surroundings, there’s always more to be learned through wandering aimlessly around, preferably while armed with either a map or a smartphone. I love seeing new things, and in unknown places in particular, I love experiencing new cultures from beyond the confines of tourist traps and beaten paths.

Years ago, when I was an employee at Kanuga Conference Center in the mountains of North Carolina, I had a habit of exploring at least once a day. It’s a hard temptation to ignore when in the heart of at least 16 mountain trails, each one more unique than the last. I also had a habit of getting lost while exploring, once being brought back to Kanuga by a police officer after winding up six miles away at Camp David, and twice being led back by locals who were stunned that I’d walked to Hendersonville or some unknown mountain town.

So the day after my Harry Potter experience, I decided to go exploring. I had a plan, of course: Armed with a map of St. Albans, I wanted to see the Roman theatre and Roman mosaic, both artifacts of the Roman city of Verulamium (100s-200s AD), where St. Albans now resides.

I set off while the choir was rehearsing for that day’s evensong, heading past the abbey and St. Albans School (the latter of which educated Pope Adrian IV, the only English pope, in the 1100s as well as Stephen Hawking). I crossed through a beautiful green field spotted with trees that lay just beyond the abbey’s reach, and followed the sound of running water to a series of small waterfalls that emptied into a shallow creek. People waded through the creek, pants rolled to their shins, often accompanied by an overeager dog; and just beyond the creek sat the kind of building that first comes to mind when an American envisions a stereotypical British pub.

Ye Olde Fighting Cocks, which looks so nestled in its green, leafy surroundings that it might have grown there, is the oldest pub in the UK -- stretching all the way back to 793. Its name hints at its original purpose in the early 800s: It was once a cock-fighting pit, and after weaving over crooked, creaking floors through a series of low-ceilinged rooms, you can still find a smaller chamber several steps below the rest called Ye Cock Fighting Pit. Around back is a patio that could double as a convincing garden.

I crossed a low stone bridge and found myself in an expansive green field with low, rolling hills in the distance, which were spotted with the occasional family, baby stroller, or dog. But most fascinating were the two ponds that stretched toward the north, with paths running at equal height to the ponds so that it felt as if you were almost walking on water. Ducks, swans, and geese swam around the edges of the water, nearing any human that might have food, and in the middle of the larger pond I saw an island completely covered by weeping willows whose branches dipped down into the water.

One path took me to a low Roman wall, perhaps ten feet tall -- the remains of a Roman castle and keep in the early 200s. Rounded stone pits hinted at ancient turrets and towers. I followed a different path that cut through Verulamium Park, passed another low stone bridge that led up to the remains of a Roman mansion from the late 100s, and finally emerged onto a narrow street that might have come out of a BBC show.

To one side, a curved bridge led to a cluster of weeping willows and a narrow creek, which met the Kingsbury Watermill from the 500s AD. The building is still left intact, and is now used as a waffle restaurant with outdoor seating perched over the water, tucked away into the trees.

To the other side, a cobbled street led through a series of Bavarian-style cottages, another stereotypical British pub (the Rose and Crown), and more flower-filled window boxes than I could count.

It was the latter direction that I followed in the direction of distant stone towers. These were the towers of St. Michael’s Church, where Francis Bacon was buried in an unmarked grave. (As I later found out, his wife hated him.) The graveyard stretches long before that of the abbey, which between 1077 and the 1500s followed the tradition of the time and buried its parishioners under the stone floor tiles throughout the church.

I’ll say here that even after seeing this tradition in Reims, Paris, Amsterdam, Haarlem, and now St. Albans, London, Cambridge, and Berkshire, I still haven’t gotten used to walking over graves. Winston Churchill seemed to have a similar misgiving: When offered a spot of highest honor at the central entrance to Westminster Abbey for his grave, he remarked that he’d been stepped over enough in his life, thank you.

Just across the street lay my ultimate destination: the Roman theatre, the last vestiges of what might have been a gladiator arena or a dramatic venue, surrounded by wineries, carpenters, blacksmiths, and other shops in the late first and early second centuries.

But it was closed.

Like much of the rest of St. Albans, it had closed at 5 p.m., and it was now 5:10.

I tried my best to circle the theatre, standing on tiptoe to catch whatever glimpse I could over the high hedges, and finally gave up.

And then I heard the low baa of a sheep.

One glance over my shoulder revealed a long, lone path that looked like something out of Pride and Prejudice, Jane Eyre, or even Emma. One on side of the path, beyond the low, crooked wooden fence, stretched rolling hill after rolling hill. On the other lay a pasture dotted with sheep.

It was too perfect a picture opportunity to pass up.

In one of my first posts, I confessed a true shortcoming about my love for exploring when I admitted that:

although I tend to have quite a reasonable attention span when it matters, I also tend to be easily distracted in novel situations. If the typical joke is “Ooh, shiny!”, mine would be something along the lines of “Ooh, cobblestones! Baguettes! Statues! Basilicas! Vespas! French words! Macarons! Cute outfits!”

In other words, it took me all of three minutes to find myself completely separated from those damned tram tracks, and without the aid of a map, each and every winding street looked like a replica of the last. "

Unfortunately, this was just another example of this ease of distraction in new surroundings.

The sheep led me to the longhorns, which led me to a cute cottage, to a shaded lane, to a dirt path into the hills, to a sunlit meadow flecked with wildflowers.

And suddenly, after taking one too many turns onto different paths, I didn’t have a clue where I was.

It’s funny how a map of St. Albans doesn’t help too much when you wind up outside the city, because there was one thing of which I was certain: We weren’t in St. Albans anymore.

I continued on, and within a few minutes saw what looked like either a Roman temple or a Georgian plantation -- the columns confound the two. Either way, it looked better suited for a government building than for the Hertfordshire countryside.

And it looked vaguely familiar.

I wound my way to it, and discovered the New Gorhambury Estate -- the mansion of none other than Francis Bacon, which had since become a mansion. I peered into the gardens, stared out at the perfectly cut, bright green lawns and rounded shrubs, and nodded approvingly toward the only Subaru I’d seen in Europe -- a cobalt Impreza hatchback parked near the employee’s entrance.

In case this wasn’t obvious before, I didn’t have cellular data while abroad, and relied exclusively on Wi-Fi.

There’s about as many Wi-Fi networks in the English countryside as there are Starbucks. And let’s just say that Starbucks are so rare that even glimpsing one close to the hotel had Ryan in hysterics of happiness.

So I continued on my way, chose a route at random when I reached a five-point intersection of paths far too narrow for even a European car, and plowed on.

My next sight was one that I had expected -- and greatly hoped -- to find close by: the Old Gorhambury Estate, the mansion of Francis’s father, Sir Nicholas Bacon. It once stood in grandeur, with multiple wings, turrets, and courtyards. But 500 years takes its toll on buildings, and this one was left to ruin. What remained were crumbling bricks and stones, stairways that led to thin air, and large windows -- panes still intact -- that gazed out on the wilderness beyond. What most hinted at its former glory was the home’s original back entrance, which must have been trivial compared to its front façade, but which still stood 20 feet tall in sculpted stone, archways, and pillars.

If this weren’t already clear, I’m a sucker for ruins. More so than museum or History Channel documentaries, I’ll travel for hours to find a good set of ruins. How lucky I am to have wound up in Arizona, which boasts some incredible ones on the way to Flagstaff and Four Corners. My Southwest bucket list, which outlines everything I’d like to see in and around Arizona before I finish grad school, is something like this:

  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • The original London Bridge in Lake Havasu
  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • Aspen
  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • Kartchner Caverns
  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • Ruin
  • Havasupai
  • Ruin
  • Durango
  • Ruin
  • Ruin

I should probably be concerned about just how happy a pile of stones can make me.

Beyond this point, however, my exploration became more of a nuisance than an uplifting experience. Two hours later, I was still to be found wandering aimlessly somewhere between Redbournbury and Hemel Hempstead (if you consult a map, you’ll see that neither of these are even remotely close to St. Albans), and although I was perfectly aware of my surroundings and didn’t once feel in danger, I was ready for a meal, a toilet, and a rest.

Before anyone asks, no, there were no taxis, buses, or police officers for miles and miles around. These were back roads and footpaths that passed by the occasional bed and breakfast or cottage with a cheerful woman in the garden, watering her peonies.

By the time I started seeing signs of life beyond sheep and cattle, however, there was no point in asking directions: After seeing an old sign for Prae Wood, a forest on the crest of a distant hill, I could bring to mind a rough map of the area that I’d consulted before leaving for Leavesden the previous day. A glance at the sky confirmed the direction I needed to follow, and it’s not like I would have accepted offers for a ride back to the village.

No, the most dangerous thing I encountered on my walk was a particularly pesky bee that followed me so closely that it got stuck in my hair until I was able to shake it free.

Thanks to the compass app that Apple won’t let you delete, I was able to find my way back to St. Albans. When I reached the top of a hill, I could see far in the distance the towers of the abbey and a series of cottages comprising the town’s centre.

I met up with the choir for dinner at the Peahen, still nursing my aching feet, and we ended the night with darts at Garibaldi, a small pub close to the Sopwell Nunnery that featured its very own pub cats.

Pub cats should be my life mascot. In both Amsterdam and St. Albans, you’re likely to find a resident feline in pubs, bars, restaurants, and cafés, strutting around like they own the place (and they probably do).

In all, I had a wonderful day. I was sore, exhausted, and in need of a shower and nap, but throughout the rest of my time in St. Albans there were more than half a dozen occasions where these travels became not just relevant, but important. Whether it was pointing tourists (or choir members) in the right direction when in search of ruins or a good place to eat or drinks, or giving more background information on the Bacon family and surrounding county of Hertfordshire, those four hours (and 9.51 miles, according to my phone) were some of the best during my time there…and that’s saying a lot.

Harry Potter Studios, Leavesden

I'm one of those weird people whose emotions are most loudly expressed when they range between a 4 and 7 on a 10-point Likert-type scale, meaning that if something is vaguely unfortunate (a 4 out of 10) or relatively exciting (a 7 out of 10), chances are I'll react as if I'm the most miserable or most ecstatic person on earth.

I know it's weird. Enthusiasm, animation, craziness, I don't know what to call it. But because about 19 out of 20 days necessitate emotions in the 4-to-7 range, it keeps life exciting.

As a kid, I was infatuated with Barney.

Yeah, one of those kids.

And when my parents took me to see a life-size Barney (i.e., man in a Barney suit) at a local fair, they expected the reaction that even at three years of age was expected from little Jessica: over-the-top bubbly excitement.

But I stood there, lips pressed together, eyebrows furrowed, staring up at this six-foot Barney with wide eyes.

I wasn't scared. Mannequins could send me screaming out of JC Penney's (and let's not even talk about escalators), but right then, this creepy-ass Barney suit wasn't even remotely scary.

I was elated. It was like an out-of-body Barney experience. Absolutely an 8 out of my 10-point emotion scale.

And when my happiness gets to the 8 or 9 range, I shut down. The world cannot understand my elation, and for risk of exploding from feverish exhilaration, my mind knows no better way to control myself than to just stand as if petrified.

Before I explain the relevance of those last few paragraphs, let me backtrack a bit.

So as some of you may know from my Facebook photos, I had the insanely lucky chance to tour the Harry Potter (Warner Bros.) Studios in Leavesden, Hertfordshire. Cora, bless her soul, refreshed the ticket page between 40 and 50 times a day to score tickets.

For those who may not know, scoring tickets to this studio tour is near impossible if within a one-month window. I write this on August 6, and the soonest available single adult ticket is August 25.

And so at 2:00 in the afternoon I was to be found standing at a bus stop off London Road (a misleading name; it's smack-dab in the middle of St. Albans and, from what I can tell, certainly wouldn't be a good route for the London-bound among us). I was waiting for a 2:22 bus -- the 724 Greenline -- that would take me to Watford, not far from Leavesden.

Unless you're Ryan or my father, you might be wondering why on earth I arrived at that bus stop 22 minutes early. As unparanoid as I am about typical arrival times (I have no problem arriving 5 minutes early, rather than 30), this was my only chance at getting to the studios in time for my 4 p.m. tour. If I missed this bus, I was either missing the tour or forking up £20 ($27) for a one-way taxi.

Let me tell you the way my mind works:

$27 is a week's worth of groceries, two meals out, a pair of nice heels from Target, or two dresses and a blouse from Ross.

It's a helluva lot of money.

At 2:20, a young woman sprinted up to me, asked if I could hold the bus, and ran into a nearby convenience store.

If you think I'm going to run the risk of being left behind because the bus driver doesn't want to wait for your miniature shopping spree, you have no idea what you're dealing with.

But even as I called after her that the bus would be here any minute, she vanished into the Morrison Local.


Despite the early hour, it started to grow dark -- the bright skies clouded over, and I felt the slightest hint of raindrops on my shoulders and feet.

The young woman reappeared.

It was 2:25.

The bus was late.

We started to talk -- a conversation first spurred on by her blatant statement that I "looked Celtic", and question of whether I was visiting from Scotland for the week.

And then our topic switched to America, jobs, St. Albans, research, and the downsides of living in a technology dependent society.

And then it was 2:45.

The young woman shook her head, let out a tsk of woe, and informed me that I must be unlucky -- because after taking this bus twice a day every day for the last two years, it had never been so late.

In all seriousness, is there a saint for travel and what did I do to piss him off so badly?

By 2:55, I knew that the 2:22 bus simply wasn't going to come, which left only the 3:22 bus -- a bus that would get me to the studios a full 45 minutes late.

I didn't have time to find a taxi (because even after a week here, I haven't seen a single taxi in the town). So that left me standing at a bus stop more than five miles away from the studios -- a trek that didn't guarantee sidewalks, cut through neighborhoods and bike paths, and would require an hour of speed-walking (almost jogging) to get me there in time.

With a goodbye and not a single glance back, I left the bus stop and just started walking. I'd taken a series of screenshots of the bus route, which became my sole reference point as I made my way through Hertfordshire. I had barely made it out of St. Albans city limits before the slight sprinkle became a downright pour. And because I've grown accustomed to desert climates, I sometimes assume that the rest of the world experiences three days of rain a year, too.

Umbrella? Sure. A nice Heineken green one.

In my my hotel room.

And so my jog turned into an outright run for much of that trek as I darted from tree to tree, trying to stay out of the rain as I made my way to Leavesden.

If you think I was going to give up my nonrefundable $75 tickets to see the -- the -- Harry Potter studios because of rain and nonexistent taxis, you clearly don't know me very well.

I arrived on the far north side of the studio compound with 10 minutes to spare, and because Leavesden was once an aircraft production compound during WWII, you can imagine how large this place is.

The studio tour entrance?

South side.

Which had me trekking in knee-high weeds along the side of an eight-foot barbed wire-topped fence, staring wistfully at the compound so close and yet so far.

By the time I arrived at the studio gate, I must have looked like an alley cat that had weathered at least two hurricanes and a mudslide. One of the security guards at the front gate gave me an incredulous look and moved around the line of cars waiting for entrance to walk toward me. He gave me a once-over and asked in a nonplussed voice, "Where did you walk here from?"

Still huffing and puffing from my run, I managed a hoarse, "St. Albans."

"St. -- St. Albans? You walked here from St. Albans?"

By this point I had neither the time nor the patience to dwell on my stupidity and staunch hatred of the Greenline bus system. I'd started to rummage through my purse for my entrance ticket, but the guard stopped me with a mumbled "I don't need to see your ticket, just get inside."

And thus began my tour of the place where the book series that utterly shaped my childhood and teenage years became a reality, where page was transformed to screen. Leavesden Studios houses virtually every interior you see in the movies, including Gryffindor common room, Gryffindor dormitories, the Ministry of Magic, the Burrow, Dumbledore's office, Hogwarts classrooms, the Great Hall, Hagrid's Hut, #4 Privet Drive, the Knight Bus, Alfonso Cuarón's crooked bridge to the distant Hogwarts grounds, the Potters' cottage in Godric's Hollow, the Leaky Cauldron, Gringott's, Diagon Alley, and so many more.

And then there are props, costumes, characters, masks, animatronic creatures, concept sketches, white card models, and everything else needed to construct what we now know of as the Harry Potter films.

So let's get back to that Barney experience.

I think I -- and everyone else -- expected me to be bouncing off the walls for the three hours that I spent there. Never in my life have I met a more avid Potter fan (and I won't go into details to prove this for fear of embarrassing myself, but let's just say the evidence is extensive) shouldn't it be the case that such a momentous day would necessitate an insanely bubbly, enthusiastic, overwhelmingly happy response?

If Barney was an 8-out-of-10 experience, this was a 9.5.

And I don't think I so much as cracked a smile during my whole time there. I was too happy for that. My lips were again pursed, my eyebrows furrowed, and my mind resolutely focused on each and every detail around me. It was an unforgettable experience.

I think I unnerved Ryan when he asked me how it went, being the guy who knows my overly enthusiastic responses (to pretty much everything) better than anyone. So when I looked him in the eye and said in an emotionless voice that it was an incredible experience, he truly knew that it was everything anyone could have dreamed.

A question I've received from many people: Was the walk worth it?

You have no idea.


Wanted: a saint for travel

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.

So after more tangibly recent years of classical conditioning, I’ve come to associate early waking times with dislike. And when our alarm went off at 4 a.m. Sunday morning, I was pissed.

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.

And the first thing we did with this room five times larger than my Reims abode?


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.