When I decided to forego my plans of a Parisian birthday in exchange for a boat cruise to London, I felt something which slightly resembled relief. And for a moment, I couldn’t quite make heads or tails of why I would feel relief from skipping a train to Paris…
Until I realized I wasn’t simply choosing London over Paris. I had actually just made a choice. A choice completely free of unsolicited advice. My plans had changed because I (myself) on my birthday wanted fried fish in malt vinegar for dinner. I, Cassie, gave zero whistles about eating a lavender macaroon on my day of birth. And rather than explaining this to my macaroon loving friends, or confirming that this wasn’t a hasty decision, I booked a train and headed to a boat dock in Holland.
And it was the greatest feeling I’ve had in years.
Leaving Hoek Van Holland, I noticed two swans plunging their beautiful heads under the cold surface in search of waterbugs for dinner. Could there be a better goodbye from such a lovely country?
When the ferry ported in Harwich, England it was officially my birthday. After another round of warm birthday wishes from my new friends onboard, we bid farewell to the party ship and went our separate ways.
I hopped on a one hour train to London where I was to find an old friend, Eileen. We met 6 years ago in Italy when I did a study abroad program with Reinhardt College, where Eileen led our tour. We’ve managed to stay in touch over the years and she selflessly welcomed me into her home for my brief stay in London. As we’ve corresponded via email over the past half decade, it occurred to me in the station that I couldn’t quite recall any distinguishing features about Eileen besides a short hairstyle and a consistent expression of her cheerful disposition. But as soon as I saw her round the corner we both grinned with excitement and she hugged me like a long lost friend.
After sharing a coffee and brief summaries of our lives, Eileen took me to her home before we set out to “the ladies pond.”
This London gem is a gorgeous spring fed pond down a small, hidden path tucked inconspicuously beneath varietals of foliage and colorful bushes of honeysuckle. The pond had 3 parts, divided by gender, offering the ladies a chance to sunbathe topless in a romantic garden free of testosterone and insecurities. It was so picturesque I kept waiting for cartoon birds to flutter by and drape a robe of tulips across my shoulders while rabbits started pooping jelly beans and gumdrops. The third section is gender neutral, providing a family park for the folks who aren’t interested in a world where modesty has been banned.
After spending a couple of hours enjoying the praised sunshine in a normally cloud laced London sky, Eileen took me to the inner city to explore the Royal Kinsington Gardens.
We traveled via tube, also known as London’s intricate web of trains, serving the city as the world’s first network of underground rail transportation. I tried to keep up and fight the overwhelming feeling of disorientation as we changed multiple trains and hurried through walkways like mice in a maze. But I managed to follow her path and eventually learned the tube well enough to explore solo a few times.
We made it to the Royal Gardens where we promptly ordered ice cream cones and admired the “lungs of the city.” As I’ve gotten used to soft, melty german ice cream, I mistakenly attacked my firm mint chip scoop without care or caution, sending the ball of cream on a plunge to the ground. In one quick motion of panic and terror I caught my suicidal ice cream before it reached the grass. Then my ninja reflexes forced me to smash it into my neck and side ponytail. Fear not, I crammed the scoop back into its crispy waffle home and licked my ponytail clean like a long-haired cat. No ice cream shall escape the wrath of me.
Not forgetting my birthday, we casually returned home for a glass of white port and an evening on their long, plant covered patio. She prepared a perfectly flaky crust which married nicely with a simple egg and asparagus batter for a birthday quiche. With a staple side of potatoes and a glass of Sauv Blanc, I shared a toast with Eileen and her witty husband Stuart in celebration of my 24th birthday.
She brought out a petite toffee cake, with small chocolate chips hiding inside and a drizzle of buttery toffee glaze over the top. Followed by the traditional song and a simple wish, we ate cake and enjoyed another glass of white port.
After dinner we walked down to a nearby pub called Five Bells where we joined several friends to form a team of 8 in the pub quiz. (An evening we refer to as team trivia back home.) The lively group kindly named our team Georgia Peach in honor of my presence and we sat with cold pints, searching our brains for general knowledge facts tucked away in the vaults of irrelevant memory. I was surprisingly a good addition to the team, answering US questions about Yellowstone park and the biggest little city known for gambling and divorce, Reno, Nevada. Fueling my mildly competitive spirit, we fought for first place but accepted the title of second with a sigh and a shucks. Rewarded with 8 pounds, we fell for the not-so-subtle tricks of the pub and traded in our small pot of money for a final round of celebratory ales.
After my second birthday celebration with shockingly friendly strangers, I felt the humbling embrace of new friends and appreciated the warm wishes and glass clinking in my honor. For one final farewell to my trying year of 23, I joined a group of 7 strangers from all parts of the globe for a CouchSurfing.org meeting in a cozy London pub. The group formed weeks ago with a long thread of fellow travelers offering to take me out and celebrate. The booth was adorned with birthday banners and a signed “Hail the Queen” card was waiting for me. It was an incredible evening with amazing new friends. The joys of meeting like-minded adventurers are the plans that follow; of joining again on beaches in the south of France and hiking trails to find canyon diving in the Swiss Alps.
Looking forward to every single day to come.