The time has finally come for us all to pack up our things and head back to the homeland. I think it's a bittersweet moment for all of us, ready to enjoy some familiar comforts but wishing the excitement of travel wasn't coming to an end. All of our discussions and experiences have added up to an extremely memorable trip which makes departing difficult. Besides, I hear it's cold back home. At least around London any "cold" day can be cured with a nice cup of tea. It seems time has truly flown by this entire trip, but London especially zoomed along.
Starting with Wednesday morning, we met with Muhammed Amin, a member of the Conservative Muslim Forum, who happens to have an extensive financial career history. Largely, he tries to promote the Conservative party to Muslims by using more inclusive terminology and showing many of their interests overlap. I felt successfully inadequate listening to a man with an IQ of one in every 250 people, but left confident all answers to life could be found on his website. Later that night, we traveled to the far end of town to watch the play "East by East," all about the struggles of first and second generation Muslim integration. I'm not sure how we happened to be in town while it was showing, but it may be the world's best fit for our class in terms of plays It was wonderful to get a perspective from outside the daily classroom and I now know a variety of British insults that will come in handy so frequently during my life. Oh, and apparently they make fake cigarettes that actually look like they're smoking and ashing. Brilliant.
On our way back that night, I took one of my first rides on a double decker bus. I have to admit, when we first showed up in London and someone immediately took a picture of a bus that went by, I was not overly impressed and thought something like "typical American tourist." However, I have to note my appreciation for those drivers. If you ever have an opportunity to sit in the top of one, I highly recommend sitting on a front corner. These giant pieces of muscle come inches (well probably centimeters over here) from crashing into poles or signs on almost every turn, as well as commonly face head on traffic when there happens to be occasional construction cones.
There is also a fond attachment I have with the bus after Chase and I heroically saved a life. We were sitting there, taking in the views of London when a lady parked her stroller on the floor in front of us. She happened to have two heavy bags tied to the handle, so when the bus took a sharp corner, the stroller started to catapult. Chase grabbed the stroller first, but when the weight prevented it from righting, I reached over to quickly help out. If you ever need a serious adrenaline rush, save a baby. Only if it happens to you, I hope there are beautiful individuals around, admiring your heroic act and are so impressed that they leave their number. Sadly, we had no such recognition.
Although I thought little would top such a feat, the following day was supposed to be a "memorable experience day." The main idea was to go somewhere you normally wouldn't, maybe engage with some locals, or seek out an area of London that could have a special meaning for you. Some people went to libraries, parks, museums, and markets, while others looked at graffiti or hospitals. While my memorable day is by no means the most interesting, you readers have the misfortune of having me for a blogger. This means I have the privilege to make you struggle with boredom as I walk you through my memories.
When I sat at the happiest time of day, known as free breakfast, that morning I really had no idea where I would end up. I decided to open up the map for the tube and saw a place called "Canary Wharf" which sounded interesting enough, so I decided to make it my destination. Plugging in one earphone, I started out my morning and quickly realized I had no idea what I was doing. Wandering was only getting me so far, so I took a new tactic of finding someone who looked interesting and more or less followed them to see where they were going. Some happened to be business people working in enormous buildings while others just kept going back to the tube. Eventually, one person led me to the water and I decided to give up my following while I was ahead and before I got pepper sprayed.
I noticed there was some sort of water taxi on the canal, so I went down to ask what my options might be. After explaining my mission to the kind lady working in the ticket booth, I asked her where she would go if she had the day off and I was told "Greenwich." I could have taken the boat, but it was only a few miles walk so I opted to stroll by the canal and gaze into the dark brown "water" flowing by. Eventually I made it to a building, but realized I was on the wrong side of the canal for Greenwich. Fortunately, I can read so I managed to find a quarter mile tunnel leading under the canal, bringing me to the other side. The echoes of a 12 string guitar accompanied me as I trudged along, and was pleasant enough that I slowed my walk to an almost unbearable pace.
Popping up in my destination, I started to wander again. I found a wonderful market where I met an Ecuadorian man selling paintings. I ended up purchasing one of his originals, depicting the London skyline to help remember the trip. Moving on, I found a fantastic Italian street food stand with homemade pesto ravioli and meatballs that had more flavor packed into them than I thought was humanly possible. I became so absorbed in my meal I hardly noticed where I was going, and ended up at a beautiful university full of monumental stone buildings. I was hoping to sneak into a class, but all of the buildings had a very strict proof of ID policy that made me scurry out before I got questioned.
Afterwards, I walked through a magnificent park and watched hundreds of dogs run around. Not that I was in a bad mood to begin with, but it's difficult to be sad when labs are sprinting past your feet. At the top of the main hill was the Royal Observatory, so I toured as much as possible without purchasing a ticket and managed to find the prime meridian. I stood in two time zones at once, so I guess thats something? Wrapping up the day, I decided to see if I could get back without any maps. It was only a little problematic at first when I didn't recognize any of the stops on the bus, but I knew the general direction and regrettably had no major memorable moments there.
The next day we got up early to head to a fancy lawyering building to talk about financing compatible with Shari'a law, since interest is not typically regarded as an acceptable practice. It didn't hurt to watch the sun rise on the top floor of this building with a cup of tea, fruit skewer, and some pastries, but the presentation was wonderfully done as well. Coming from a business major, I probably found it especially interesting to see how similar financial practices can be reworked to fit ethical guidelines. Since it was Friday, later that day we headed to a mosque to observe Friday prayers. That was truly a memorable experience, watching the room become packed with people worshiping and sitting together on the floor. After the Imam had done his sermon of sorts, the actual prayers began and there was an immense sense of community between their physical closeness and unison that was fascinating to witness.
When the weekend rolled around, we had a well deserved break with a couple of free days. Many people, myself included, went around to see the more touristy locations like Buckingham Palace for changing of the guards. Funny thing, watching some guards in big hats relieve their shift on a Saturday morning is apparently how several hundred people like to spend their time. It was an experience, but I recommend staying away for anyone claustrophobic. We also took the opportunity to see how some locals spend their time in the night scene, and I think we got the full effect. I did learn, however, that apparently the Macarena is an American dance no European has ever seen. Don't worry, we did our best to educate by example.
This morning we began our final day by talking with Myriam Francois-Cerrah who writes for a variety of sources about Muslims in Europe. She was a fiery woman who gave some very interesting perspectives on Charlie Hebdo, claiming it was much less about freedom of speech than most people make it out to be, and passionately defended her views. Apparently she was also once a child actor in "Sense and Sensibility" so that's kinda fun. We ended our class experience with a walking tour describing the local history related to the Walthamstow neighborhood. Besides being incredibly cold, the tour provided a nice reminder for how communities are affected by Islam in Europe rather than always focusing on the big picture implications.
With the class portion completed, we had one final hurrah by having a bonus group meal. I know I said we were all done after the last one, but I'm frequently wrong and when it means another free meal, I'm more than happy to have my ignorance shine through. We piled into an Italian place called Vapiano that cooks your food in a giant metal bowl in front of you, right after you order. My pasta (and the many others I sampled from people in the group) was phenomenal and I would happily return to try the entire menu.
As I write this, I know many of my classmates are packing up. We leave the hotel bright and early to catch our flight, but maybe I'll be able to fall asleep on the plane easier that way. I'm excited to head back and see my housemates that I'm sure miss me dearly, and am looking forward to a few home cooked meals for a change (ahem parents). I'll try to post something as soon as we're stateside so you know we've made it back. Thank you all for following along with our trip. I hope you've enjoyed hearing about what we've been doing as much as we've loved experiencing it. You have my utmost sympathies for having to deal with only my perspective from the trip, and I hope it was timely enough to keep everyone entertained. I'm told I have a pretty high mom approval rating, so personally I feel incredibly successful. Thanks again and please wish us safe travels! Ben Harney