London, my favorite place ever.

The rose gardens at Regent's Park.  Summer 2012.

The rose gardens at Regent's Park.  Summer 2012.

London is paradise for any lover of culture, but if you study nineteenth-century British literature as I do, London just takes everything to a whole different level.  I could probably write many, many blog posts on London, but here are my favorite places and memories about running around, doing yoga in, and just generally loving London during my first ever visit there, which was also my first time being outside the U.S.  (I don't count the time I visited the Canadian side of Niagara Falls during a high school swim meet.)

I first went to London for mid-June through mid-July of 2012.  Since this was immediately before the London Olympics--and I LOVE the summer Olympics--it would almost have been impossible to choose a more exciting time to go, especially because preceding the Olympics proper was a 100 day period called the "Cultural Olympics."

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I had just run the Wine Country Half Marathon a week before my Virgin Atlantic flight from Dulles to Heathrow.  If you ever fly trans-Atlantically, go Virgin Atlantic.  On the way back, you get regular tea and high tea which includes an ice cream bar, in addition to all the magazines you could possible read in 7 hours.  You can even choose when you book your flight to get a gluten-free meal!  It might not be the cheapest method of crossing the ocean, but they fly you direct to London and the service cannot be beat.  I feel immediately more chipper with all those British accents and red and purple uniforms around me on the way over.  Anyways, fully un-endorsed rave review of Virgin Atlantic aside, I had just run a half-marathon before my London travels and had messed up something in my ankle by stepping in a hole after the race.  Yes, that's right.  I got through the race just fine and then stepped into a random hole in this field and sort of jammed my ankle.  So, I am about to be off to London and am frankly not sure how much running is going to happen there.

Above:  Made it to Dulles, found my Euro phone charger, found my plane!

I arrive in London in the morning after an overnight flight. (Also: for God's sake, please sleep on the plane.  It will drastically improve the quality of your next day.  Buy a sleeping pill at the airport.)  My first glimpse of the Tube aka the London Underground is NOT what I expected!  SO CLEAN.  Not like a dirty New York subway!  Primary colors!  Feels sort of like an amusement park ride!  And SO CLEAN.  And, oh my God, people are READING, LIKE READING REAL BOOKS and--gasp!--the newspaper, not staring down their iPhones and electronics like every person in America. 

Pictured above:  this one time that a pigeon decided to take the train with me for a while...yes, I realize this appears to go against the testament to cleanliness but that pigeon was not finding ANY crumbs.  Beside the pigeon:  just a few typical British headlines.

I am super awake on the Tube ride in, looking out the windows at the sun shining down on these British housetops with chimneys all in a row and just cannot WAIT for the day.  I lug my already overweight 80lb. suitcase (books, don't judge) out at the Baker Street stop and almost die at the mere fact I am AT BAKER STREET.  As in, this was the Baker Street where the imaginary Sherlock Holmes lived.  Bursting with excitement at all of this.  Also analyzing the people around me and determining that a lot of them "look" British though I can't quite figure out why.  And, the London fashion, oh my God, it's fabulous.  In America, a woman walks down the street with pink hair and everyone stares at her, but here honestly ANYTHING goes.  Wear sequins in the daytime all over your entire body and London accepts that.  (I think an apt comparison is that America loves sports the same way that London loves fashion.)  I am already loving this.  A couple UVa undergrads arrive at the same time I do, and together we attempt to navigate the initial maze which is Regent's Park, where we'll be staying.  I am sweating profusely from this overly large suitcase at this point, and thank goodness, one of the leaders from UVa, Jon, takes this up the stairs for me.  In the meanwhile, I run into more UVa people, including Michael Levenson, and realize how funny this is that we all somehow manage to transport ourselves so far away and yet end up in the same place!  This sounds so simple but it felt like magic on some level.  It's like UVa in London!  I drop my suitcase in my room, shower, and head out exploring.  At this point, I am feeling super caffeinated except I've had no caffeine--London has this general effect on me all the time. (On my third trip to London, I brought my boyfriend and we have lots of pictures where he looks super cracked because I've walked him into the ground.)  Just thinking about London probably increases my heart rate.  I walk all over Regent's Park, around the zoo, up to Camden and somehow find a Whole Foods there which makes me laugh because it's like I have Whole Foods radar.

Above generally L to R:  donuts and strawberries spotted during my first lengthy London walk up near Camden Lock Market, the Tube near Oxford Circus, the fountain of Leicester Square during Canada Day (which again, I just happened upon...because that's how London is), bakery goods in the window of Muriel's Kitchen where I became a sort of regular (excellent Americanos), and poetry along the Thames for Poetry Parnassus, the world's largest ever poetry festival.

So, this first day that I arrive in London, I then immediately went on an approximately four hour walk because I was so excited.  However, this then irritated my jammed ankle; later at night I was basically limping as I walked with the other couple UVa grad students to and from dinner.  While I was initially terrified by this ankle trouble because I had visions of myself unable to move in London for a month, this turned out to be a blessing in disguise.  I decided to just not run and go to yoga.  This definitely happened for a reason because I then discovered my favorite yoga studio in the entire worldthe Power Yoga Company, just off the Parsons Green Tube stop on the District line.  Someday, when I own a yoga studio, I want it to be like this.  During this month of London, I went to Power Yoga Co. almost every day and usually for two classes in a row...basically I put myself through a second unofficial teacher training by being very attentive to how their teachers used language and taught.  I also had the best mornings ever.  I woke up before everyone else, dashed downstairs to the Regent's Park refectory, quickly ate a fried egg and some fruit and took some food for "takeaway" for later, and powerwalked while holding my Americano to the Baker Street tube stop, where I waited with the other commuters for my train.  I then got my copy of the Metro which I read on the way to yoga.  (London has FREE newspapers everywhere with amazing headlines that would look too politically incorrect for America but are frankly, spot on).

On the way to yoga in the morning... a nice British lady took this for me and took two because the first one "wasn't very good" which was actually kind of hilarious.

On the way to yoga in the morning... a nice British lady took this for me and took two because the first one "wasn't very good" which was actually kind of hilarious.

About halfway through my month in London, I went to Luxembourg (dear Jesus, that deserves a blog too), and discovered while I was there that I could run just fine!  Thus, my late night London runs were born upon my return!  At this point, I had my lovely Americano-Metro-yoga morning routine down, so I didn't want to run in the morning or otherwise interfere with the rest of my incredible London day with a run.  So, at night, when I otherwise would be too tired to move, I threw my Oyster card (to ride the Tube) in my sports bra and went out for an unplanned run around the city of London. 

First four below (L to R): a pilgrimage to the Museum of Brands, Packaging, and Advertising which was the weirdest little museum ever, Chinatown, Liberty Department Store, Regent's Park.)

Above closest four photos L to R: an Oxford phone booth, the National Theatre, Covent Garden market, and then I just stumbled upon Oscar Wilde's house one day!!

Some days I had a generally direction of where I wanted to explore, but others I just went wherever with the grand plan of riding the Tube back from wherever I ended up.  This was exploring at its finest because I could move fairly quickly to get a sense of the ground and better orient myself, and cover much more territory.  I actually have a great sense now of London's layout, and if you dropped me off anywhere in the city, I am fairly sure I could figure out where I was.  London summers additionally have almost no humidity compared to America.  At nighttime, you usually need a sweatshirt and the breeze is refreshing.  (Once during my daytime strolls, I had to dart into the Top Shop at Oxford Circus to buy a scarf just because it was so windy!)  When I ran at night, I could usually wear the same shirt for several runs because I didn't hardly even sweat. 

Also while I'm thinking of London workouts:  please do walk up all 193 steps (equivalent to a 15-story building) at the Covent Garden Tube.  I am not even sure how many times I did this, but your calves will be on fire by the time you're at the top!  Even more fun:  jog up the stairs (let's be real, I always ran these) and see how many stragglers you can pass, heh heh.  (Next time I am in London, I will make a YouTube video of this because I just checked and YouTube only has ones of people going down the steps, which is its own but quite a different challenge due to steepness, but going up the stairs is much more satisfying.) You could also try to "race the Tube" as the man in this video does here (thanks Sarah for sharing this with me): 

Speaking of running through the Tube, I occasionally cut my spontaneous Oyster card PM run a little close to the time that the last train would be running... (Also: I had to be sure to stay in Zone 1 and 2!  This fact will either make perfect or zero sense to you.)  Once in particular I was worried about making the last train and kept dashing through the tunnels of the Tube station at the end of my run to be sure I got there in time!  Along the way, I passed two British guys who thought it was the most hilarious thing ever that this girl was running through the Tube and commented something to that effect.  Of course, they ended up being on my train, but then we had a great conversation about America and Pittsburgh during which I was probably extremely enthusiastic about everything. (I give my country a good reputation when I'm over there because I'm extremely happy the entire time and I love British people).  This sort of interaction is part of the reason I love London so much--there's so many people to meet, talk, and connect with, and wherever you go a serendipitous adventure awaits.  I've loved this Samuel Johnson quote ever since I heard it because it's entirely true:

Why, Sir, you find no man, at all intellectual, who is willing to leave London. No, Sir, when a man is tired of London, he is tired of life; for there is in London all that life can afford.

In London, a person cannot run out of things to do, and if you just let yourself go where you go, you'll end up in the right place at the right time!

Just a few examples of moments like this to end this blog here:

1.  Once I took the wrong Tube line in my efforts to meet up with my friends Carol and Nick at Borough Market, but figured out I'd never make it there in time with my travel mistake.  So, I got off at Green Park mostly because I hadn't been to that stop yet.  I got some Pret for takeaway and was wandering around to find somewhere to sit for my lunch picnic when....I hear the--I kid you not--Chariots of Fire theme song coming from somewhere.  I follow this to Buckingham Palace where I camp out with my Pret on top of a large stone fence and have a great spot to see (and more importantly hear!) the changing of the guard!

2.  So, London is not NYC in that stores and everything else--except the theatre!--close around 6pm each evening.  The benefit of this is that when you have reached a state of exhaustion from walking all over London, you can then go to the theatre at the spur of the moment.  The National Theatre usually has inexpensive last-minute unsold tickets to get off their hands, so I went to Lisa D'Amour's play Detroit, which I had just read in May with the thoughts that I might teach it.  While initially this play had not made the cut for my Contemporary Drama syllabus, seeing the performance changed my mind.  The play was enthralling--I was SO into it--and FUNNY, and I was the youngest person there.  Some of the humor was a bit much for some of the elderly ladies in the audience; I knew this because the stage was down in a type of pit closely surrounded by the audience in stadium seating...the advantage of this seating arrangement was that I could sometimes see the reactions of those seated directly across from me.  I meanwhile was getting a huge kick out of this play, which at one point involves a huge bonfire scene between the two couples and a lot of chanting and general unexpected energy, but then I look up and make eye contact with an older white-haired gentleman directly across the way who is totally getting a kick out of me getting a kick out of the play.  He was clearly really enjoying it too, so it was this kind of nice moment of a shared audience sympathy between this old man and me; we're both chuckling away, surrounded by these somewhat skeptical old ladies. 

Then, having laughed for about 90 minutes straight and feeling awesome, I leave the theatre to see pieces of paper fluttering down from the sky.  Other people are picking them up so of course I think "I want one!" and stoop down to get one of these and then realize it's a poem!  Helicopters are overhead dropping poetry on me in the largest poem drop in history, and it's just because I happened to walk out of the National Theatre on the South Bank at the very right moment.  Really?  Poems are falling on my head and the surrounding area looks like this?!:

Just outside the National Theatre, after having poems fall from the sky.

Just outside the National Theatre, after having poems fall from the sky.

The countdown clock art outside the National Theatre... I definitely had great timing that day!

The countdown clock art outside the National Theatre... I definitely had great timing that day!

London has a particular kind of energy and magic that is almost hard to explain except to tell stories about poems falling from the sky and being led to Buckingham Palace by "Chariots of Fire."  I am sure I will write on, and return to, London again.

Above L to R, top to bottom: the Power Yoga Co., Oxo Tower as seen from the pier, a view of the Thames at night, the Seven Dials (read the Dickens story!), "Keep Calm and Run Faster," and the London Underground near Oxford Circus.