Sunday, 15 February 2015

Home, Sweet Home: Part 1

Over two years ago, I started this blog with the intention of documenting my experiences living, working and travelling abroad. Predominately, it would focus on my time teaching in Korea, though I always planned to backpack across Asia afterwards as well. For the longest time, my return to England seemed so far away it was barely worth considering. I was wrapped up in a new life, preoccupied by new friends, new environments, and of course, a new partner. Though I kept in contact with friends and family back home via Skype and Facebook, living abroad often felt like living in another dimension.

Angela and I were due to arrive in England on the 27th October 2014, a day shy of two years since I left for Korea on October 28th 2012. After all the dozens of incredible places we'd visited, the hundreds of memorable experiences we'd shared, and the thousands of people we'd met, it was finally time to finish our travels abroad. I insisted we take the ferry from Calais to Dover instead of the Channel Tunnel, since I'd envisioned for myself a rather heroic homecoming. I would spread my arms wide as I stood at the bow of the ship, white cliffs would surge over the horizon, and there'd even be trumpets and cheering crowds to herald my arrival.

But life rarely has that same momentous sense of crescendo that we find in novels and films, and in many ways, our journey ended more as a fizzle than a finale. While we'd enjoyed our time in Sweden and France, and were looking forward to returning home, there was little of the excitement or exhilaration we'd felt at other points on the trip. Things were plodding along mechanically towards a predestined end. We were like painters adding mundane finishing touches to a work of art, already long past the most dramatic and imaginative parts of the task, and simply eager to get it finished.

There was also an inherent sadness to it all. The journey was over, and worse than that, we would soon have to separate for a while. Even as a newly-wed married couple, we were hampered by legal bureaucracy, by our conflicting nationalities, by not being born in the same part of the world. The plan was for me to obtain a US green card so I could live with Angela in America, but even when you're married this requires a ton of paperwork and lot of patience. Barring some occasional weekend visits, we were looking at being apart for potentially a whole year, which seemed harrowing and frankly unfair. We had grown used to being around one another 24-7 for the better part of a year, and the thought of suddenly separating ourselves across different continents cast a horrible spectre over our return to England. I was excited to see my friends and family, and to introduce them to Angela, but my god, I did not want to say goodbye to my soulmate.

We did have a few weeks before we had to worry about that, however. We would stay at the home of my mother and her partner, Gary, who were such generous, welcoming hosts, taking us out for lovely meals, driving us around, and generally making our stay in England a pleasant one. Their house is in Grays, an unremarkable Essex town just near the Thames estuary, its only major points of interest being Lakeside Shopping Centre, the Dartford Crossing, and old Tilbury Fort. But we would take the train into London several times, and even went as far afield as my former university city of Bath.

Our route by train, ferry and bus from Valenciennes to Grays.
Passing our last bit of French countryside.
Our final stop in a foreign country would be Calais, perhaps France's blandest town. We lugged our backpacks for several miles, opting to walk to the ferry port instead of taking a local bus. We were pretty hot and sweaty by the time we got to our boat.
We took the ferry across the English Channel, and within a couple of hours the white cliffs of Dover appeared.
After two years abroad, I finally made it home!
We had to wait ages to get a bus from Dover to London. It turned out that National Express had messed up our booking, and the bus could only take us as far as Canterbury, where we'd have to wait to catch another one. This made an already very long day even more laborious. Still, at least we passed some pretty Kentish countryside on the way.
Stopping for an hour in the historic cathedral city of Canterbury.
After another bus journey, we arrived at London Victoria Station in the evening. We were exhausted, and sick of travelling, but our troubles weren't over yet. It was the weekend, and the London Underground was ridiculously crowded. Several lines, including the ones we needed, were closed, so we had to take a long-winded detour in order to get back to Grays.
Finally we reached Grays, and I reunited with my mum and Gary. That evening, the four of us ate some pizza, and chatted for a long time. Throughout our time in England, Angela and I were extremely lucky to have my mum and Gary's support while we prepared for the next chapter in our lives.
The next morning we went to a local cafe to enjoy a traditional English breakfast, something I'd missed while living in Asia.

Afterwards, we went for a daytrip to Bluewater, a shopping mall in Kent.
Getting some meat from a butcher in Waitrose, in preparation for a sorely missed Sunday roast!
Back home, I was also happy to be reunited with my old classical guitar. I hadn't had many opportunities to practice over the last two years.
At Gary and my mum's house, we had some family round for a Sunday roast, including my sister, Natalie, my niece, Scarlett, and my nephew, Dylan, who'd I'd never met in person until now.
Here's Dylan again with my brother-in-law, Paul.
Angela poses with the new family of which she's become a part.
Enjoying our delicious Sunday roast, courtesy of Gary's excellent cooking skills.

After the meal, Angela and I gave out gifts and souvenirs that we'd bought for everyone while on our travels. Here, Scarlett poses in her yoga pants that we bought in India.

On one of our many excursions to London, Angela and I visited the Tower of London during the 100th anniversary of World War I. A sea of 888,246 red poppies surrounded the tower, each one representing the life of a British or Commonwealth soldier killed during the war. The only downside to visiting London during this period was that it was even more ridiculously busy than it normally is. We could barely even get a view of the poppies without pushing through dense crowds.
We've taken pictures together in front of a lot of famous monuments, ranging from the Taj Mahal to the Eiffel Tower. It felt strange to be finally taking one with a famous monument in my own country.

Taking a pleasant stroll along the south bank of the Thames.

A replica of the Golden Hind, famous for her 16th century circumnavigation of the globe with Sir Francis Drake as her captain.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre.
The Millennium Bridge.
A brief visit to the Tate Modern art museum.

Gabriel's Wharf.

Westminster Abbey was also surrounded by poppies in celebration of Remembrance Day.

We also went inside Westminster Palace to watch members of parliament discuss political issues in the House of Commons.
We weren't allowed to take pictures in the actual House of Commons (to be honest, there was only a handful of MPs there, and none of them were famous), but we did get this nice shot of the palace's beautiful interior.
We saw more Remembrance Day offerings as we made our way toward Trafalgar Square.

Poppies, poppies, everywhere.

Angela stands with Oscar Wilde.
Exploring Chinatown.

One evening during another visit to London, we met up with a friend Angela made while living in Paris, and enjoyed a meal at a fancy restaurant.

Click here to continue the adventure in Part 2!

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