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Final Reflections on Tour de England 2014

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 “I must to England; you know that?” ~William Shakespeare (Hamlet, III, iv)

If you missed my last several posts, I recapped my recent summer trip to the sceptered isle in a series I called Tour de England 2014.  (You can start with the first one here if you missed them.)  I wanted to take this opportunity to offer some final reflections on my travel experiences and on England itself based on my time and two trips there over the past two years.

My time in England in both 2012 and 2014 was overwhelmingly positive.  For a self-confessed Anglophile, getting to spend over a month of cumulative time there so far has been very fulfilling.  I already have many ideas for future UK trips and now just need to figure out a way to financially afford them!  While I’m mulling that over, here are some of the other positives from my England experiences, in no particular order:

  • Tea, of course – and the scones that go with it; I’ve tried to make my own scones but can’t even come close to actual English ones (I’ll keep trying).  I guess tea time is more of what I enjoy – that the Brits still take time out in the afternoon (and mid-morning, and any other time they can find) to slow down and “take tea;” it’s a welcome break from whatever is going on in the middle of the afternoon and it just seems so…civilized I guess.  The buttery pastries with cream and jam are literally the icing on the top.
Taking tea in Bath

Taking tea in Bath

  • British B&Bs that give discounts beyond the normal advertised rates to solo women travelers – very much appreciated! 
  • I really liked the grocery stores in the towns I visited – specifically, their ready-to-eat meal options such as sandwiches, pre-packed salads, etc.  They’re affordable and a much easier option than a sit-down restaurant, especially for dinner when things get pretty pricey.  And they offer “meal deals” for those pre-packed options, so if for example you get a sandwich, side of pasta and a drink, the prices go down even more.  AND they always had vegetarian and vegan options, I became especially fond of Waitrose’s cheese & pickle relish sandwich.
  • TRAINS!  I love the fact that I can really go anywhere I want in the entire country without a car, although it does limit smaller side trips to more remote areas where the train doesn’t reach.  If you get your tickets far enough in advance you can get some good prices, and so far at least in my experience, the trains are almost always on time.  For someone obsessed with punctuality, I can really appreciate that.
  • On the not-having-a-car front, I really enjoyed the fact that once the train (or tube, in London) did drop me off somewhere, that meant I had to walk everywhere for the duration of my stay.  I guess I could’ve taken a taxi sometimes, but I didn’t mind the walking, and it was great exercise.  It was not uncommon at all for me to walk 5 miles or more in a day, just walking around town and seeing the sights.
  • This trip, I returned to both Stratford-upon-Avon and London, places I’d visited on my last trip.  Some people would spend their valuable vacation time in new and unfound places, but I actually really enjoyed the aspect of comfort that I felt when I stepped foot back onto familiar territory.  This was the reason I saved these two stops for my last week in England; after two weeks of visiting new and unfamiliar places, I needed somewhere that felt a little more like home to balance out the trip.
  • Other than London, the weather was perfect for my trip – and I loved that I sometimes needed to wear a jacket and scarf IN JULY.  (Those of you who can’t understand this, spend just one indescribably sweltering hot day in Austin in the summer and you’ll get it.)  Being able to just open a window and enjoy the cool breeze with NO BUGS (another unheard of aspect in Austin) was wonderful.
  • The no-bugs aspect was a big one for me – it meant I could spend all that time walking outside at any time of the day or night without the constant mosquitoes that plague me mercilessly in Austin.  If mosquitoes do exist in England I never saw, heard or felt them.  It was bliss.
  • The historical significance of, well, practically everything in England.  The British are so good at having the foresight to save, preserve, and protect things for generations to come.  The church in Thursley where my family ancestors are buried dates from SAXON times, and it plods on in stubborn but imposing fashion.  It’s comforting, knowing that what’s been there for hundreds of years (or longer) will still be there the next time I visit.  It’s such a stark contrast to what we have in many parts of America, and my own little strip-mall-laden suburb of Austin where I live feels depressingly and completely devoid of culture and historical reference in comparison.
  • The Shakespeare tube map – a brilliant spin-off the traditional tube map but everything is named after the Bard’s plays and characters.  I first saw this on a tea-tray at one of my B&Bs, and then read more about its invention (by the RSC) at the V&A Museum exhibit in London.  Especially loved the little fork and spoon icon for the Titus Andronicus station…(things get a bit messy in that play)…
Shakespeare Tub Map

Shakespeare Tub Map

Fork & Spoon at the Titus stop

Fork & Spoon at the Titus stop

A windsock for Prospero's station

A windsock for Prospero’s station

  • Sticky toffee pudding.  Why don’t we have this in America??  (Or if we do it’s probably better I don’t know about it.)
  • Swans.  I know they have a reputation for being mean but there’s nothing quite so serene as sitting on the river bank feeding a group of graceful swans.  Just seeing them cut through the water in their stylish fashion is a calming influence.
The world's best sticky toffee pudding.

The world’s best sticky toffee pudding.

The Swans of the Avon

The Swans of the Avon

I wrote about many other positives in the past few posts, including the surprise of sitting in Sir Patrick Stewart’s seat at the Royal Shakespeare Company, getting to explore the land of my original ancestors, and all the new places I visited such as beautiful Bath and medieval York.  And of course there was the thrill of being there for the kickoff of the Tour de France in Yorkshire, including seeing veteran cyclist Jens Voigt in his last ever Tour and being on the very front line for the Grand Départ.  And it was in Leeds that I saw a restored French Citroen HY Van being used as a food truck, which gave me an idea for my own business that I’m pursuing as we speak, so hopefully that turns into another positive development as well.

Seen in Leeds: I NEED one of these Citroen HY Vans for my flower truck! If you know where I can get one, please let me know, thanks!

Seen in Leeds: I NEED one of these Citroen HY Vans for my flower truck! If you know where I can get one, please let me know, thanks!

My England glasses aren’t completely rose-colored…while I do love the country, there were definitely some negatives that put a damper on things from time to time:

  • By far, bar none, no contest, the worst thing about my time in England was the overwhelming number of SMOKERS.  You’d think it would only be a problem in London or the bigger cities, but no, the puffers are everywhere.  You can hardly walk down a street without having to waft through a cloud of choking smoke, it’s very discouraging.  And hold your breath as you come out of the tube stations or the airport or any restaurant, it’s the worst at those places.  It’s such a shame that this beautiful country is marred by such an ugly habit on the part of so many people.
  • No air conditioning – now I realize that this is a typical American complaint and that the temperate climate means England doesn’t need A/C most of the time…but on those really hot days during the middle of the summer, it seems like it would make for even happier guests if lodging accommodations would invest in some small room A/C units.  Or at least ceiling fans.  I got by without it most of the time without too much discomfort, but I wouldn’t have said no to it either.  And there’s nowhere in the entire country that A/C is needed more than the tube/underground in London.  How in the world have they gone this long with un-air-conditioned tube cars??
  • It bugged me that there was a fee for entry into the beautiful riverside park & gardens in Bath, and that the gates closed pretty early in the evening.  Parks should have free public access in my opinion, open for the enjoyment of all, not just those few that can afford a hefty entry fee.
  • I’m seriously not sure I can ever eat goat cheese again after my horrible GI episode in York induced by a bad batch of the stuff…
  • I purposefully arrived in many of my destinations without much of a plan this time, other than where I was going to stay and for how long.  Two years ago I’d planned every detail of my trip down to the minute, but this time I wanted to be more spontaneous.  What I learned about myself is that I need a mix of those two styles to balance out my stress and comfort levels.  There were times I was just aimlessly wandering about with no early idea of what to do or where to go next, and instead of being relaxing it just frustrated me because I felt like I was wasting valuable vacation time.  I’m really good at planning and details and research, so I need to realize that this is not a bad thing and let that drive my experience next time.
  • On many occasions I was met with very positive reactions on the fact that I was a solo female traveler.  People in general were always very nice and welcoming to me wherever I went.  But there were definitely a few instances of bias or rudeness against me simply because I was by myself.  I’ve come to expect this sometimes but it doesn’t make it any easier to deal with.  It usually happened in restaurants, where it’s still apparently a very strange anomaly in England to see a solo diner (I rarely if ever saw anyone else seated/dining alone other than me); waiters would frequently ask me in surprise “No one else is joining you tonight, are you sure?” (as if I didn’t know my own dining plans) or they would place me at a “hidden” table in a corner or behind a pillar, I guess because they thought I wouldn’t want to be seen dining alone.  And on the crowded train into London on my birthday, a woman with a kid asked me to give up my seat (after asking “Is it just you?”) so she and the kid could sit there; I wouldn’t have been so bothered if it had been a baby or small child but the kid was about 8 years old, why couldn’t they have stood for the remaining 30 minute trip, why did I as the single traveler who had purchased a seat have to be the one to give up my place?  I did give them my seat (the kid sat on her lap) but it really bugged me that I was singled out for my solo traveler status.

None of these negatives are enough to deter me from future England explorations, and in a way I actually enjoy getting to know the reality of it all, not just the for-show spins put on for the tourists.  Two years ago during my 2012 trip to Stratford, I met an American woman on the city walking tour that told me she spends a month every summer in England, usually in the same place, but rents a car to go on different explorations each time for day and weekend trips; she too really enjoyed the familiarity and comfort of staying in the same place each year.  The way she described it sounded like a really enticing idea to me, although I feel there are many other regions of the UK I’d still also like to explore that I haven’t seen yet:  Cornwall, Devon, Oxford, the Lake District, the castles of Wales, even Scotland one day (although we’ll find out next week if they’ll even remain a part of the UK). 

It may surprise you to hear that the best part of my Tour de England 2014 trip actually happened about a week after I got back to the States.  I came down with a cold the day after I returned, so it was a few more days before I could see my family & nephews, which meant it had been about a month since I’d seen them.  I walked into my 3-year old nephew Wyatt’s daycare classroom to pick him up at the end of the day but he didn’t know I was going to be there – when he turned around and saw I was there, the surprise registered on his little face and he smiled and shouted “Ant Kristi!!!” and ran to wrap his little arms around my neck.  A few minutes later we picked up my other two nephews from YMCA camp, also surprising them with my return.  I waved through the window at 8-year old Truman as he stood waiting by the side of the road and his face lit up – he ran around the car to get into the backseat, threw his backpack on the floor, and then floored me with my own surprise as he reached up into the front seat to give me the biggest, tightest, longest hug he’s ever given me.  My heart and my eyes were flooded that day as I realized I was loved and missed – pretty much the best thing in the world…even trumping tea and scones.

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Thanks for reading all about my England adventures and humoring me in my Anglophile ramblings.  On to new topics again soon!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Tour de England 2014 – Week 3: London Baby!

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“Sound drums and trumpets, and to London all: And more such days as these to us befall! ” ~William Shakespeare (II Henry IV, V, iii)

At the end of the last post, I was getting on yet another train during my recent Tour de England 2014, this time leaving Stratford-upon-Avon to spend the last three days of my trip in London.  During my last trip to the UK in 2012, I also spent a few days in London and was able to see many of the sights I’d always wanted to see: the Tower of London, a play at The Globe theatre, Westminster Abbey, the British Museum, the London Eye…among many others.  But let’s face it, once could spend a lifetime in London and probably still not see everything there is to be seen, so the key to spending just a few days there is making it manageable and enjoyable – and affordable, which is not an easy feat in the most expensive city in the world.

The day I got on that train to London was my birthday, and for some reason when I mapped out my trip I thought it would be a good plan to make my birthday a transition day.  I kind of wish now in hindsight I’d just stayed in Stratford and relaxed, but there’s another lesson learned.  The day started off good with a few very nice birthday cards from my family that I’d toted around England with me (including some of the world’s cutest handwritten messages by my nephews), and then a generous ride to the train station from my B&B owners.  It’s only two hours from Stratford to London, and once I arrived at Marylebone station I purchased a familiar Oyster tube card from the machines there and assumed my London vigilant travel persona.

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From nephew Hudson, that’s me next to Big Ben! (Juggling knives, apparently…)

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A very royal birthday declaration from nephew Truman

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And from 3-yr old nephew Wyatt, that’s a birthday cake!

I went a different route this time for London accommodations, and instead of a hotel, booked a spot in a guesthouse run by a private service.  It’s like a B&B but usually these houses only host one guest at a time.  My guesthouse was located in the very (apparently) trendy Holland Park area, just adjacent to Notting Hill and pretty close to a tube stop, just a few minutes walk. 

A street in the stylish Holland Park neighborhood

A street in the stylish Holland Park neighborhood

My guesthouse in Holland Park (the yellow one)

My guesthouse in Holland Park (the yellow one)

After depositing my bags I headed back out to my next destination: a Chocolate Tour of London.  I thought this sounded good – it does, doesn’t it?  I’d booked it a few months in advance and after a few lost moments around the Tottenham Court tube stop, found our meet-up spot a few streets away in front of an Arabic coffee shop.  It was hot, hot, hot this day in London, much warmer than at any other point on my trip so far, so that made the prospect of wandering around crowded London streets in a very large tour group to un-air-conditioned tiny chocolate shops much less appealing (even with the looming reward of free chocolate).

But wander around we did, about 30 of us (way too many people for this type of tour), through high-end shopping neighborhoods and Sunday street festivals filled with what seemed like every other vacationer in London that day.  Half of the chocolate samples offered to us contained rum or tequila, so I avoided those, and the other half contained coffee beans, so out of luck there too…  But I did enjoy our short jaunt through Fortnum & Mason, which I’m told is the grocery supplier of the royal family, and savored a raspberry-and-peanut-butter truffle at the last shop that packed a cute little powerful punch of cocoa-y goodness.  I wouldn’t do the tour again, but it was interesting to see a part of London I didn’t see last time and wouldn’t have gone to on my own.

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After the tour ended I took the tube to the St. Paul’s Cathedral stop, with a few hours to kill between then and my birthday finalé planned for later that night.  I’d seen the Cathedral on my last visit so didn’t go back inside, but instead sat on a bench right outside it and Skyped with my mom for a quick birthday call, red double decker buses whizzing by every few minutes. 

St. Paul's Cathedral

St. Paul’s Cathedral

I then walked south of the Cathedral, past the College of Arms (must make it in there for my next trip), and out onto the Millennium Pedestrian Bridge to make my way to the south bank across the Thames.  I love the view from both sides of this bridge: from the south side, you look straight down and can see St. Pauls…and then from the other side, you look across and you see the unmistakeable half-timbered brown and white sides of The Globe theatre.  I made my way over to The Globe and stood outside for a few minutes to listen to the sounds of “Antony & Cleopatra” that was beginning right at that time – swords clashing and Roman soldiers screaming to the cheers of the audience, it was great.  I highly recommend you see one of Shakespeare’s plays here if you get the chance; I’d seen “The Taming of the Shrew” here in 2012 and it was thoroughly enjoyable, but those authentic wooden bleachers do wreak havoc on one’s back after a while, so definitely buy a seat cushion.

South bank view from Millenium Bridge (can you see The Globe?)

South bank view from Millennium Bridge (can you see The Globe?)

View across the River Thames from the south bank (with view of St. Paul's)

View across the River Thames from the south bank (with view of St. Paul’s)

The Globe.  Iconic.

The Globe.  Iconic.

A play wasn’t on my itinerary this time – instead, I grabbed a quick and ho-hum Pizza Cafe dinner next to The Globe and then walked along the south bank of the river,  passing through back alleys alongside the Southwark Cathedral (where Shakespeare frequented when he lived in London), and crossed back over the river on the London Bridge.  I was headed back to one of the greatest sights in London (and really in all the world): the Tower of London.  I’d sent an actual snail mail request many, many months earlier to the Tower for a ticket on this night to see the ancient Ceremony of the Keys This ceremony is where they let a few visitors inside the Tower each night at 9:30 PM to watch the Yeoman Warders and sentry guards lock up the gates of this ancient fortress.

In 2012 I visited the Tower during the daytime and hobbled through the Bloody Tower with bloody shins (story here) for one of the best sightseeing tours I’ve ever been on (led by Yeoman Warder Bill Callaghan, follow him on Twitter @BillyBeefeater), but didn’t really even know about the Ceremony of the Keys that time.  I’m so glad I got a ticket for this trip – there’s a lot of pomp and yelling and actual bayonets involved, along with a huge ring of iron keys and several tall furry bear hats, and it’s really quite a spectacle to watch; the visitors even have to play a part with a verbal response at one point in the ceremony.  So if they lock the gates, how do we get out?  There’s one more side door just for this purpose through which they shuffle us at the end, with one of the Yeoman Warders gruffly barking at us “hurry up, get out!”  It was a very memorable end to my birthday and the best part of the day!

The exact point where I bit the dust in 2012...

The exact point by the Tower of London where I bit the dust in 2012…

Our Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) leading us out of the Tower of London after the Ceremony of the Keys

Our Yeoman Warder (Beefeater) leading us out of the Tower of London after the Ceremony of the Keys

The next morning I headed right back near the Tower to meet an American college friend for breakfast (she’s lived just outside of London for many years now) and then we went on a really great walking tour by London Walks called “Hidden London.”  (Their tours do cost about $15/person but the company offers a huge array of different walking tours all over the city and they’re well worth it.)  It was so great to see a familiar face after almost three weeks on the road, I nearly burst into tears when we sat down to breakfast at the relief of spending some time with someone who actually knows me.  I don’t mind traveling alone most of the time, but that feeling of comfort you get from being around someone who knows and cares about you adds a special aspect to the trip, and I was really grateful to her for making the trip and the time to hang out with me that day.

I’d heard about a special Shakespeare exhibit at the Victoria & Albert Museum and so after our walking tour I made my way there via the Tube.  What a massive place that museum is, I’ve never seen so much stuff-of-a-general-nature in one place – sculptures and artifacts and jewelry and paintings and china and silver and…well, just lots of stuff.  After asking three different museum docents, someone was finally able to direct me to the hidden Shakespeare corner on one of the floors.  It was very dark and somber and the exhibit items were in these shadowboxes, it was all a little macabre and not a large display at all, but I’m glad I went.  The museum also had the most striking and vibrant purple-ly blue hydrangea in their courtyard, unreal colors I never see where I live.

Part of the Shakespeare exhibit at the V&A Museum

Part of the Shakespeare exhibit at the V&A Museum

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After exiting the museum I decided to walk down the street to the famous (infamous?) Harrods Department Store.  Everyone’s heard of Harrods, and I didn’t have a chance on my last trip to visit, so I popped in for a quick look at what all the fuss is about.  What a dizzying maze of floors and departments; I especially liked the bakery and fromagerie sections, and even decided to take a break for some tea and scones in their tea room.  (I kind of wish I hadn’t, it ended up being both the most expensive and least tasty of all the cream teas I had during this trip…but now I can say I’ve had tea at Harrods I guess.)  I’m kicking myself for not remembering to visit the Princess Diana memorial in the store…maybe next time.

Larger-than-life Beefeater Bears at Harrods

Larger-than-life Beefeater Bears at Harrods

Taking tea at Harrods

Taking tea at Harrods

The next morning was the start of the last day of my 3-week trip.  I saved one of the things I’d most wanted to do for that last day: a trip to London’s New Covent Garden Flower Market – where all of London’s top florists and designers get their flowers and foliage.  After a Tube trip across the Thames to Vauxhall station, it was just a short walk to the warehouse district and the flower market.  The small sign that said “Visitor Entrance” over one of the unassuming doors belied what I saw once I entered the chilled warehouse:  flowers as far as the eye could see!  Every color, every variety, different heights and smells, with vendor after vendor filling every corner of the huge room.  And this was even after most of the day’s business had been done – I’d gotten there about 8:30 AM, but they open at 4:00 AM (!) and so I was really seeing the leftovers that day…but they were still pretty impressive leftovers!

New Covent Garden Flower Market

New Covent Garden Flower Market

Every color of anthuriums imaginable

Every color of anthuriums imaginable

There are 20 flower vendors at the Market, six plant vendors, and a few more that specialize in just foliage.  I explored for about an hour, taking a LOT of pictures of all the different offerings, and then had some tea at the little café inside the warehouse.  I saw flowers I’d never seen before, in colors I didn’t even know that existed for certain varieties, and in the midst of it all, I was surprised that I actually started to feel a little depressed; this Market is a mecca for anyone in the floral industry, and the tiny (by comparison) coolers of the few wholesalers at home now seemed woefully inadequate and just…sad.  I’ll never see this kind of variety and quality and lower prices where I live; I’d have to move one of only about four cities in the US with major flower markets, most of which are in California or on the east coast (and there’s no way I’m living in earthquake country), and even then they’d be dwarfed by this market.  And so I left with wistful feelings, glancing back over my shoulder as I walked out and thinking how lucky the local florists were to have this amazing resource at their fingertips.

Clouds of hydrangea

Clouds of hydrangea

Gobs of gerberas

Gobs of gerberas

Midnight purple callas

Midnight purple callas, a Georgia O’Keefe painting come to life

I wanted to relax on my last day in London, so after leaving the flower market I then headed back across the river to the area around Buckingham Palace.  No Changing of the Guard for me this time (one of the most overrated sights in the city, in my opinion, and I’d seen it last time); instead, I walked the length of the very peaceful St. James’ Park, which runs between the palace and the river.  Leaving the park, I strolled past Big Ben to take a few pics for my nephews, and then took the Tube up to the Kensington area, where I got pretty lost looking for a hidden city gem called the Roof Gardens.  I’d read about this oasis-on-a-rooftop some time earlier, and after walking around in circles for a while, was finally able to find it down a quiet side street.  It was worth the journey: seven floors up and through a black door, one enters into sculpted gardens with water features, shaded sitting areas, and even real flamingos!  There are actually three different gardens, in the styles of Spanish, Tudor, and English Woodlands.  I was the only one in the entire place for quite some time; eventually a few other visitors showed up but I was amazed how isolated and quiet the gardens were.  It was a great break from the bustle of the city and I’m glad I took time to find it.

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From there I walked a mile or so up to the middle of Holland Park, another really nice green space just south of my guesthouse.  On the way there I stopped to buy a sandwich, and had a nice picnic on a stone bench under huge shade trees.  It was then I noticed I was missing my rain jacket, a new one my mom had bought me just for this trip.  I suddenly remembered I’d put it down on a chair at the Roof Gardens, so I went into a restaurant in Holland Park and a nice hostess called the gardens for me; sure enough they found it and would hold it for me.  So, back another mile I walked to get my jacket, then another mile back to the park and through the rest of it to get back to my guesthouse – but not without stopping at a gelateria for a scoop to help beat the heat (did I mention how crazy HOT it was in London this time).  After resting and packing for my journey home the next day, I walked back down the street later that evening for what turned out to be a pretty decent veggie burger.  It was a good last day in London.

I’m actually not too fond of London, although I think it has its highlights.  As I mentioned before, it’s very expensive, always crowded, and I feel I have to be on even more of a heightened alert as a solo female traveler when I’m there.  The Tube is very convenient but it’s un-air-conditioned staleness gets pretty weary pretty fast in the heat of the summer.  And as nice as the area was where my B&B was located, I unfortunately had a somewhat negative experience there with the overbearing owner.  The city is iconic, and I’m glad I spent a few days there this trip, especially since I took a less-traveled route to explore some areas that most tourists probably don’t see.  But I find more with each trip that I prefer to get out of London, into the rest of England’s green hills and diverse countrysides.  Which, with any luck, I hope to do again very soon.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Tour de England 2014 – Week 1: Windsor, Surrey, Bath

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 “I dare meet Surrey in a wilderness…” ~William Shakespeare (Richard II, IV, i)

I’m in tea-and-scone withdrawal as I write this, having recently returned from a wonderful, exhausting, memorable three-week solo vacation to England.  I organized my trip around another fantastic opportunity to see the Tour de France, with the rare occasion of the three-week race kicking off in the beautiful Yorkshire region of the UK (before then heading back to France).  Before too much time passes, I wanted to write down the details of my trip in an anglophile account of my own personal Tour de England.

Tour de England 2014

Tour de England 2014

(Disclaimer: Tour de England posts shall be longer than my usual rantings, there’s a lot to cover!)

This is post 1 of 3, and the series will cover my itinerary as follows:  Week 1- Windsor, Surrey & Bath; Week 2 – Leeds, York & the Tour de France; Week 3 – Shakespeare Country & London.

When I went to England last time in 2012 for the World Shakespeare Festival, just prior to the 2012 London Olympics, I stayed for 9 nights/10 days, which sped by in the blink of an eye.  I told myself then that I wanted to go back to England for a longer amount of time, to see more of the country than I had before, and to go at a time when the rest of the entire world wasn’t there at the same time (like they were for the very-crowded Olympics).

Because I was able to use my frequent flier miles to get a free airline ticket this time (well, $192 in taxes & fees which is pretty much a free ticket to London in peak July), I was able to budget to stay a little more than double the time of my last trip.  Three weeks is a very long vacation, I discovered, both in terms of time and expense.  I think it may be longest “real” vacation I’ve ever taken, and if I had to do it over I’d probably decrease it by just a few days – maybe.  But I realize how lucky I was to be able to even go on this trip at all, so I’m not complaining!

(The price I paid for that “free” ticket was unfortunately the smallest, most cramped economy seat I’ve ever been in, on a Virgin Atlantic flight, setting very close to a brand-new college graduate on a celebration trip to Europe who was on his ways to run with the bulls in Spain but who smelled like he’d already done so.  The service on Virgin was also unfortunately really bad, so I won’t be flying that airline again unless by some miracle I have a first-class fold-down.)

I wasn’t able to sleep at all on the flight over, so by the time I got to London Heathrow I was already pretty tired.  I’ve always heard though that the best way to combat jet lag is to not go to bed when you get there from an overnight flight – that you should stay up the rest of the day and then go to bed at the new-country time.  Trouble is that means you’ve been up about 36 hours straight by that time.  That didn’t work out for me too well on my 2012 trip when I spent my first day on a blurry trip to Stonehenge, and it didn’t work out this time either so I didn’t learn my lesson apparently.

My plan this trip was to head directly from the airport to Windsor via bus, drop my bags at my B&B, then head to Windsor Castle to walk off the jet lag on a transitional day.  The first part of that plan went well, and after a short 30-minute bus trip west of Heathrow, I was at the Castle by 10:00 AM.  Because I was traveling alone and not part of one of the huge bus groups snaking around the block, I was told to bypass the lines & go right in.  I immediately caught a warder-led tour of the grounds and I was the only one to show up to the meeting point, so I got my own personal tour which was very nice.

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However, by this time as I wandered around the rest of the castle grounds on my own, I started to feel not-great.  I hadn’t had anything to eat in a while, I know I was dehydrated, but mostly I was just sleep-deprived.  As I walked through an archives exhibit in one of the castle towers, I started to feel very lightheaded and fuzzy, spacey.  I sat down for a while, but after only two hours I decided to go back to the B&B.  It was unfortunate, since it cost $32 to get into the Castle (which I think it pretty pricey for what you actually have access to , which is not much, including a very underwhelming Henry VIII tomb), but jet lag seemed to be hitting me much worse this trip than the past few times over the ocean.

I succumbed to the sleepiness, and I don’t think I’ve ever had a better nap than I did that afternoon at that B&B – in a second floor room with the window open, a cool British breeze blowing in, overlooking the sights and sounds of a cricket practice field session.  I felt much better a few hours later, good enough to venture out to a pub down the street for some dinner and then a walk around the neighborhood, including down by the riverside.  I followed that same river walking path the next morning as I ventured back into the town; Windsor is actually a nice little town, overshadowed by the Castle of course but with some other quaint aspects too.

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A floating flower/plant canal boat shop! (In Windsor)

After a relaxing river cruise through the waters of Windsor and a stop at a coffee shop with a castle view, I got on the train for my next destination: Surrey.  Surrey is a county in southern England, just slightly southwest of the greater London area.  It’s very popular with London commuters for its proximity, and is said to have the highest percentage of millionaires who live there over any other county in England (and therefore the highest property values outside of London proper).  It’s also the most wooded county in the country, with almost a quarter of its land covered by forests, heaths & woodlands, which make it a very beautiful place.

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Surrey County, England

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Surrey County map – my base was Godalming

Many of you reading this may have never heard of Surrey, or the town of Godalming, which was my base for 3 days while visiting the county.  When looking at the map above, you won’t see any world-famous tourist towns within those county lines (although true fans of ‘The Office’ will notice Slough, hometown of the original British series).  So why was this region on my itinerary?  It was actually perhaps the part of my trip I was looking forward to the most, as I was on a genealogical quest to explore the part of England from where my family surname originated.

Through some web research several months earlier,  I’d found a man who is a genealogical and historical researcher in his spare time and maintains the British website for that research pertaining to our common family name.  I reached out to Martin to let him know I’d like to visit the area during my trip to see the land of my ancestors, and he graciously offered to be my tour guide for a day.

And what a day!  Martin drove down from Woking to pick me up from my B&B and we set off as new-found long-lost cousins; over the next several hours we drove through lush Surrey countryside and impossibly perfect English towns.  We stopped in six different locations to view some of the earliest existing tombs and graves of our family ancestors (at incredibly ancient churches in Thursley & Lynchmere that date back to Saxon times, that’s 450-800 AD people), peek through fences at some of the original property sites and homes of the earliest family members, and my favorite: visiting the actual site of the spring well pond after which our family is named.  The pond (located next to the petite hamlet of Bowlhead Green) only fills during the winter, so I was actually able to stand in the middle of the dry spring well bed and think of what it was like to live there almost 800 years ago (yes you read that right – the first recorded mention of our family name was in the year 1235!).  I like to imagine a hardworking agricultural laborer taking a break from his work for a nearby estate owner, relaxing by the welcoming banks of this still, clear, well-spring in the shady glade, and deciding to make a fresh start with his family by forming a new name for all of them.

(By the way, my Marvel-crazy nephews will love finding out that the small village of our ancestors, Thursley, draws its name from Old English Þunres lēah meaning lea of the god Thunor or Thor [in his northern guise], and was probably a site where he was worshipped).

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Saxon-era church in Thursley & tombs of some of our earliest family ancestors

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It was a fantastic memory-making day with my walking-history-book guide Martin, and I was very appreciative that he was willing to share his research with me and drive me around his beautiful Surrey lands.  After our visit Martin began a new quest to enlist the help of nearby residents in restoring and rebuilding the pond to its former glory days, which gives me a great reason to return one day and sit by the banks of our namesake’s nature retreat.  I feel as if I’ve made a very real connection to England now, both in terms of existing family members (distant though they may be) and historical links to the land to which I’ve always felt drawn.

I spent the other two days of my time in Surrey exploring the towns of Godalming and Guildford.  I walked the town streets, perused the street market stalls, and strolled along the river paths and through castle gardens.  I talked to locals about what it was like to live in this area (and learned what a Scotch Egg is).  I attended a play in Guildford called “The Other Shakespeare,” about the Bard’s wife Anne Hathaway and her reaction to being left by him for much of their married life.  My gracious B&B owners invited me to accompany them one night to a special exhibit at the Watts Gallery, which was amazing; before this trip I’m embarrassed to say I’d never even heard of the artist George Frederick Watts, but I’m definitely a fan now of his gargantuan sculptures and evocative paintings. (The exhibit by the way was about his young wife Ellen Terry, one of the earliest Shakespearean star actresses in silent films.)

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The town church of Godalming; perhaps my favorite picture of my whole trip that I took peeking through the garden roses.

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Guildford castle grounds

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Godalming’s famous “Pepper Pot.” (By the way, Godalming was the first city in the world to install a municipal electricity supply!)

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My time in Surrey was definitely the most meaningful segment of my entire journey.  I’m so glad I got off the beaten path and chose to take the non-tourist road less traveled.  I was sad to leave Surrey for my next stop of Bath, but…I LOVED BATH!

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  • That wasn’t my first reaction.  In fact, the afternoon I arrived in Bath and walked around the city to gain my bearings, I thought “Ugh, every building looks EXACTLY the same, how boring.”  But then I saw the gothic Bath Abbey, and Pultney Bridge over the river, and the buildings of the Roman Baths…and then on a fantastic free walking tour the next day, the famous Circus and Royal Crescent buildings, the Assembly Rooms where Jane Austen danced & socialized…and the beauty of the city really began to grow on me.  Every building (by law) is indeed built out of the same famous Bath sand-colored stone, but the uniformity and symmetry and Georgian architecture is actually quite mesmerizing after a while.

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I really enjoyed the tour of Bath Abbey, where I climbed the 200+ steps to the windy rooftop and peered out at the sand-colored city below.  I chose to explore the Roman Baths by torchlight at dusk, once the crowds had died down, and was struck by the history and significance of the structures surrounding the waters (and yes I drank some of the sulfuric pump water, you have to try it at least once).  I regularly exercised my Bath-given right to daily afternoon tea and scones, the best of which were at the Jane Austen Centre Regency Tea Room.  I popped in to the Tallulah Rose Flower School to introduce myself as a longtime Twitter follower.  And after exploring the stately Holburn Museum and adjoining garden grounds at one end of the city, I walked the long way back to my B&B through real (non-tourist area) neighborhoods, which I like to do whenever possible in order to see what’s on the other side of the curtain.

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Oh and I practically brushed shoulders with actual royalty in Bath: Prince Edward was at Bath Abbey the same day I was to oversee the university graduation there in his role as chancellor, I saw him walk out at the front of the procession; and then he was apparently just a few minutes behind me at the Baths that evening (I was told when I bought my ticket not to mind the police dogs and bodyguards inspecting the site in advance).

I would definitely go back to Bath, and would like to see some of the surrounding countryside next time, which is supposed to be breathtaking.  I’m really glad I budgeted three days there and that I gave it a good chance – next time I may even splurge to swim in the healing bath waters.

Stay tuned for the next post when I cover Leeds, York & the Tour de France kickoff in England!

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

 

“Alone or Not, You Gotta Walk Ahead”

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 “…the time of life is short…” ~William Shakespeare (I Henry IV, V, ii)

“The thing to remember is, if we’re all alone, then we’re all together in that too.”  Any fellow romantic comedy fans out there recognize this (and the title phrase) from one of the classics?  Yes, it’s from 2007’s “P.S. I Love You,” which I just finished watching for about the twelfth time.  I don’t even like Hilary Swank all that much but I do like this film, mostly because of all the Ireland scenes; Kathy Bates was great in it too.  (And of course Jeffrey Dean Morgan, holy hotcakes.)

I’m headed back to Ireland’s neighbor next week for another solo UK trip.  For my trip in 2012 just prior to the London Olympics, I had basically decided on a whim to go when I found a really good airfare deal about six weeks prior (yes that’s a whim amount of time for me).  And then I quickly planned every detail literally down to the minute for the 9 days I was there.  It was a great vacation but exhausting, as I tried to pack in every single sightseeing occasion as if I’d never return.

But I am returning, and for this trip, I decided about a year ago that I would head back with the impetus of wanting to see the Grand Depart of the Tour de France in England’s Yorkshire region.  The kickoff will take place over the first three days of the Tour before the teams head back across the Channel to mainland France to continue the race.  I was also lucky enough to be able to use my frequent flier miles to get a “free” airline ticket this time (not really free because I still had to spend lots of money to get all those credit card miles and still had to pay the hefty taxes & fees for the ticket, but it still feels almost free).

I had hoped to be a Tour volunteer as part of the organization in charge of the kickoff, and was actually accepted through the application process, but had to drop out due to not being able to be there in time for the required in-person training sessions.  I’ll still be in Leeds and York to cheer the riders on as each of those first two stages set out, and might be able to also get to Harrogate to see the finish of Stage 1 on the first day.

In addition to the Tour in Yorkshire, I’ll be making a tour of my own to several other parts of the sceptered isle.  I’ll start off in Windsor to walk off my jet lag by visiting the Queen’s weekend home at the castle for a day, and then head to Surrey county south of London to meet up with a distant family relation and explore the area from where my ancestors hail (near Godalming).  Then I’m off to Bath for a few days in Jane Austen country before heading up north to see the Tour.

After Yorkshire, I’ll head back south, stopping over in Nottingham for a day before continuing back to the boats (see blog header picture above) and onto familiar territory in Stratford-upon-Avon to get my fill of all things Shakespeare again.  I hope to explore the Cotswalds a bit and do some real relaxing before heading into London for the final few days of the trip.  I’m really looking forward to visiting the famous New Covent Garden flower market in London this time, as well as a day of catching up with an old college friend who lives just outside the city.

It may sound all planned out, but really it’s just the itinerary of where and when, and I do of course have my accommodations all reserved.  But beyond that, I’m leaving things a little more up in the air this time in terms of how I’ll spend my time in each place.  If I’m being honest, I’m also a little more apprehensive this trip about traveling solo, and I’m not entirely sure why.

I’ve been trying to figure it out, and it just seems that as I get older, there are more things to worry about in terms of health and safety and the unknown.  Issues which appear magnified when I travel alone.  I know I’m strong and independent and resourceful, and capable of handling problems if they do come up, but I guess it’s just the worrier in me that’s got me feeling a little anxious.  I should be used to being alone and walking ahead on my own by now, but sometimes it’s just a little disconcerting and leaves me feeling vulnerable.

On the other hand, I know I should feel lucky and grateful to be taking such a trip, and I do.  A family member of mine lost a close friend this past week at a very young age and to tragic circumstances; it was a heart-wrenching loss for those left behind who cared about him.  It’s got all of us thinking about the fragility of life and how none of it makes sense sometimes.

At the end of “P.S. I Love You,” the main character Holly says “This is my one and only life, and it’s a great and terrible and short and endless thing, and none of us come out of it alive.”  Great and terrible, short and endless.  I guess that’s why I continue to go on these big solo trips, as I have now every two years since 2010.  As daunting as it can be to spend a lot of money and go out there in the world to explore unfamiliar places on your own, it’s empowering at the same time.  It’s a reminder that I’m alive and able to experience new things during this short and endless thing we call life.  I’m not sure how long I can continue this tradition I’ve started, but will at least give it one more whirl this time around.

©operationUNunhappy

©operationUNunhappy

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

Evolution and Enchiladas

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“Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide.” ~William Shakespeare (King Lear, I, ii)

After Christmas, I made a return trip to my homeland of New Mexico to spend some time with family members at a vacation home in the southern part of the state.  During that time, I also drove up to spend a night in Albuquerque, where I lived for 35 years (wow that makes me feel old) before I moved to Texas.  I ate at some of my favorite restaurants (I’m looking at you Saggio’s and Frontier) and got to see and catch up with a friend I hadn’t seen in over four years.

A collage tribute to one of my favorite places ever: The Frontier in Albuquerque.

A collage tribute to one of my favorite places ever: The Frontier in Albuquerque.

But that excursion left me feeling pretty melancholy.  Something had changed since I’d last visited the Q a little over a year ago.  The city itself felt depressed to me, and the neighborhoods around my childhood home appeared deserted and old and crumbling. There seemed to be barely any traffic on the streets anywhere in the city, especially compared to the ever-constant congestion on Austin’s roadways.  The wintery landscape was bathed in familiar browns and grays, with the ever-present lack of greenery that I remember from living there.  New Mexico has a stark and unique beauty, but I didn’t feel it while in my former city this time.

I had to wonder if it was more me than the locale.  As I drove around old haunts and hangouts, including my home I had for 14 years as an adult, I just felt…sad.  So much has changed in my life recently, that maybe I’m more sensitive to other things that appear to have not changed at all.  And while I have a few friends left in Albuquerque, only one of them was able to get together this time.  The others I saw a year ago weren’t available, which is ok; it was short-notice and the end of the year, and I completely understood.  Last year, Bryan Cranston sat his Hollywood self right next to me at a downtown cafe, but this year I just felt like a lonely loser as I brought my take-out enchiladas back to my hotel room.

I think part of the sadness comes from acceptance of the fact that there are several people and places in Albuquerque that are no longer part of my life, and probably won’t be again.  I should have known better than to go by my old house, the mere sight of which floods me with painful, wonderful, life-changing memories.  For better or worse, that part of my life is over.  And as life stumbles on, we come to realize that certain friendships have also run their course.  Sometimes it isn’t even a fight or one specific event that brings the relationship to a slow close…it’s just the evolution of the history and the fading of the future, and then before you know it, you haven’t spoken for years and instead of feeling wrong, it’s somehow ok.

I think many people force friendships past their evolutionary end out of a feeling of false obligation…but they’re not being honest with either themselves or the other person.  Some things just end.  We all know who our true, lifelong, call-me-no-matter-what-you-need friends are; it doesn’t matter how much time goes by either, you can just pick up where you left off, which often was years and years ago.  But let’s face it – most friendships don’t fall into that category.

For me, they are few and far between.  I’ve been faced with fading friendships over the past few years, and it hasn’t been just a result of changing zip codes.  Letting go of people who have been there during good and bad times and memory-making moments is a strange thing to have to do.  Admitting and accepting that we have little in common anymore or that we don’t agree with each others’ past choices is slightly gut-wrenching, but to me, seems necessary as part of being true to ourselves and choosing to be UNunhappy.

I’ve grieved for fallen friendships and lost love, and if I let myself, it’s easy to trudge back into the trenches of wallowing.  But at some point, it has to just be enough.  Move on.  Move up.  Move into the realm of where you feel you are supposed to be.  Even ‘LOST‘ agreed that you have to hit the reset button sometime.

I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be, at least for right now (even though I hate being held hostage in my own house over the last few days by the insanely high cedar pollen counts in Austin, it’s ridiculous).  I don’t know if I’ll return to Albuquerque again or when, although the possibility of never going back seems unlikely to me.  Maybe we’ll tow the nephews along to Balloon Fiesta one year soon; I’d love to see the looks on their faces at the wonder that is a thousand balloons launching off the field in simultaneous waves of fire and color.

Source: Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta

(Source: Albuquerque Balloon Fiesta)

By the way: after some searching since I moved here, I did find a pretty good enchilada place in Austin.  It’s not quite the same, but it’s enough.  I’m hitting the enchilada reset button. (And it’s just around the corner, which is either convenient or dangerous, depending on how you look at it…)  I hope that you too are lucky enough to have enticing enchiladas available to you wherever you are.  Because what’s life without the perfect plate of enchiladas every once in a while, right?  (Let’s see how many times I can use the word enchilada in one paragraph.)

(Source: TripAdvisor)

(Source: TripAdvisor)

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

The Fine Line Between Lovely and Lonely

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“Alone she was, and did communicate to herself her own words to her own ears…” ~William Shakespeare (All’s Well That Ends Well, I, iii)

Last Saturday, I made the 25-mile trip into downtown Austin by way of the Metro Rail train to grab some dinner and support a local improv theatre called The Hideout.  Their show that night was called “Fakespeare,” in which the troupe created a never-before seen, completely improvised Shakespeare-ish play, along with some very funny improv skits and games along the way.  The train was a new experience for me (and brought back fond memories of riding trains in England and France), and I had a great meal at the 1886 Bakery & Cafe inside the historic Driskill hotel before the show. 

The Metro Rail station in downtown Austin.

The Metro Rail station in downtown Austin.

Austin's landmark Driskill Hotel, built in 1886.

Austin’s landmark Driskill Hotel, built in 1886.

A scene from "Fakespeare," in which the troupe performs in the audience-named "Thou Shalt Do It Again."

“Fakespeare,” in which the troupe performs a scene in the audience-named play “Thou Shalt Do It Again.”

This was a solo venture, which is not new for me; it’s the norm actually for most of my outings.  It’s not that I’m completely anti-social – after all, I sat in the theatre as part of a group of similar-minded Shakespeare fans to watch the show – but more often than not, it’s just more convenient for me to do things I want to do by myself.  I’m sensitive to the fact that most (if not all) of my friends and family don’t share a lot of my interests, and it doesn’t feel right to force the issue just so I won’t be alone.

I had a perfectly lovely UNunhappy time.  It was a lovely stroll around downtown, a nice dinner, an entertaining show. Which was why I was surprised on the train ride home to find myself feeling lonely.  I don’t get lonely very often, but I found myself thinking it would have been nice to have shared those activities with someone else.  Surely I’m not the first person to notice there’s only one letter’s difference between lovely and lonely?

I’m mostly used to being alone by now.  You see, I must somewhat-sheepishly admit that I’m the Ross Geller of my social circle of friends and family, in that I’ve been divorced more than anyone else in the group (twice now).  Some questionable decisions in the past and a well-meaning (but misguided) save-him complex led to two failed marriages and some very wealthy therapists out there.  (But seriously, those therapists are also heroes in my eyes who helped save me on many occasions, so thank you.)

Despite me being used to being alone, it still seems to be an anomaly in other peoples’ eyes.  As I arrived to the cafe for dinner and asked to be seated, the host asked “Only for one?  No one else is joining you?”  Bravely staring him down in a non-threatening but assertive manner, I replied “Nope, just me” as I was then escorted to an enormous booth that could have seated six people.  Why not give the single girl the most conspicuous table?  (Whenever I eat out alone, I always think of that great scene from ‘Hope Floats‘ where Harry Connick Jr consoles Sandra Bullock by saying It’s not for sissies you know, dining alone. Gotta be made of some pretty stern stuff to do that.”)

"It's not for sissies you know, dining alone."

“It’s not for sissies you know, dining alone.”

But I needn’t have worried.  The entire time I was there, not only was I alone at my gargantuan booth, I was the only person in the entire restaurant.  At 7:15 PM.  On a Saturday.  I began to think I’d missed a health department report or something.

What's wrong with this picture?

What’s wrong with this picture?

My soup and salad tasted fine though, and finally as the waiter brought the check I asked “why am I the only one in here?”  He laughed and said “It’s August in Austin, no one wants to come to the city when it’s 105 degrees outside.  Plus, we don’t really get hopping until later when they rope off the streets for the revelers.”  Hmm.  Still thought that was weird.

The suspicion of my solo-ivity didn’t stop there.  The rows in the theatre consisted of four seats each.  I sat in an aisle seat, and a few minutes later a man and his party of three asked me if the rest of the seats in the row were free.  When I said yes, the woman with him said “Really, all of them? You aren’t saving the one next to you?”  Sigh.  “Nope, they’re all free for your big butts” I said (in my mind).

On the train ride back home, all around me were couples and groups of people riding together.  I seemed to be the only solo traveler.  Even the police officers serving as our Metro marshals traveled in pairs.  Then bizarrely, everyone exited the train before my station (which was the last one).  During the last leg, I was the only one left on the entire train.  And for the second time that night, I found myself surrounded by empty seats.

It's like a scene from the Twilight Zone.

It’s like a scene from The Twilight Zone.

I felt mocked somehow.  Venture out alone, we’ll show you alone!  (Insert evil laugh here.)

Of course I’m not alone in being alone; I see Twitter tweetmates who also document their solo journeys, getting on with their lives.  Whether by choice or not, we march on, making the best of our solo situations.  It’s not our fault that people in general don’t like “lone” anything; heck, even Johnny Depp couldn’t save ‘The Lone Ranger’ from an unexpected demise this summer.  Our society looks down on singles for some reason as it caters to couples, but the joke’s on them.  Being alone and single has its definite perks, such as: 

  • I can eat cereal for dinner EVERY SINGLE NIGHT if I want to.  Ha!
  • The only person scared by my troll-doll hair first thing in the morning is me.
  • I can ignore that razor in my shower for umpteen days if I feel like it.  A little stubble never killed anybody.

I could go on, but let’s be honest, there’s too many to list.  (But if you want to add your own in the comments section below, I’d love to see them).

I’ve talked before about how I’m a bit of a loner, and about how I’ve traveled alone to faraway places.  And while there’s a degree of pride in that self-sufficiency, I’m only human – I know and remember well that there are certain things in life that are best shared with another by your side.  I’ve been lucky enough to have many of those experiences in my past, and they were great.  I can’t help but think that a little loneliness in my life now is the price I pay for decisions made in the past, and I get that.  I don’t mind paying the toll – the journey was expensive, but educational.

No one knows what the future holds, and I’m a believer in good things happening when you least expect them.  Risk is fraught with both reward and (sometimes-harsh) reality.  I’m more open to the possibilities of change now than I have been in quite some time.  But for the time being, I accept both lovely and lonely into my life. 

And maybe I’ll even go shave.

À la prochaine!

Ant Kristi

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