Saturday, February 12, 2011

Bing Trip

(Me and Shannon experiencing some wind situations on top of Dover Castle)

I'd always been planning to go abroad in college, so when I first started investigating the Stanford abroad programs, it wasn't so much a question of wooing me to the prospect of going in general, but more choosing what location was best for me. When I first heard about the Bing Trips--the fully funded quarterly excursions to different parts of each host host in each abroad location--it just seemed like the icing on the cake. I'd heard some crazy stories about programs that had flown to exotic locations, gone to sunny islands and experienced rare cultural opportunities. I was beyond excited, and when this winter came around and it was finally my turn to have a Bing trip of my own, my expectations were incredibly high.

To be upfront: the trip didn't quite live up to the hype, but I don't think it was the fault of Stanford. It's hard to find any sunny beaches or incredibly exotic locales in Britain in early February--in fact, it's hard to find anywhere that isn't freezing, grey, and rainy in Britain in early February. Then, we did get some very cool and rare cultural experiences, but they were somewhat dampened by incredibly averse weather in one case and the worst tour guide I've ever experienced in my entire life in the other. Let me explain:

We set off bright and early on Friday morning for Canterbury, with a mid-morning stop at Hampton Court Palace. The weather was cool and grey--classic British, and the sort that I'm actually really coming around to now that I've discovered Barbour coats and the secrets of layering. The palace, aesthetically, wasn't really my cup of tea (only British folks would make a brick palace, I think), but the tour was actually a lot of fun because we were basically released onto the grounds with a map and time to meet up again, and then were left to our own devices. I had a lot of fun going from room to room at my own pace, pausing to hear stories about midgets baked into pies for the entertainment of 17th century nobles from an incredibly friendly guard. My group didn't have the best time-management and so didn't get to see a lot of the gardens which was a shame, because they looked super lovely, but all in all it was a great experience (well, besides paying £3.50 for a tiny slice of apple crumble in the cafeteria afterwards... surely you must be joking).

(The Dining Hall)

(Admiring some Rubens)

(The Gun Room where, yes, the wall decorations were constituted solely of weapons)

(Nice grey British gardens)

(Crazy topiary trees!)

A few hours later (which I took full advantage of to catch up on my sleep) and we arrived in Canterbury. I was really excited to see the cathedral there, as I'm a huge cathedral fan but have never really experienced the British version. When we arrived we were split up into three groups to go with three separate tour guides. My group got an older woman who very briefly appeared sweet... but oh lord what a mistaken impression that would be. After asking the first few members of the group what denomination of Christianity they were and being horrified to learn that (gasp) we weren't all god-fearing Christians, she started berating a member of our group for talking (very quietly and unobtrusively at the back of the group) during introductions and then humiliated another person who quietly received a text message in the back of the group (thus causing far more of a disruption than the actual texter ever would have). She went on to say that we must be from a special needs school and then talked down to us for the rest of the tour, asking questions like, "Have you ever heard of Kings? You haven't, have you," and "Do you even know what Christianity is?" She also made some extremely racist comments and implied that we Americans had done the world a great favor by taking "those crazy Puritans" off their hands (what??). She also not only got offended when we tried to take pictures while she was talking but also got offended when we'd try to take pictures when she was done talking instead of directly walking along with her. Needless to say, I had a hard time enjoying the sense of contemplation and celebration that I usually get in these spaces.

(Canterbury Cathedral in the brief, wonderful window before the tour began)

(No fun)

After the tour, I was feeling pretty down on Canterbury as a whole... until we found Poundland. Poundland is a British dollar store, but unlike a lot of US dollar stores that actually sell stuff that is over $1, here they stuck to their guns and offered every single thing in the store (including a massive array of name-brand candy) for £1 each. After four weeks of mind-bendingly expensive food and necessities, this was a serious sight for sore eyes, and I think seriously revised my opinion of Canterbury for the positive. We loaded up on as much stuff as we could gather and headed back to the hotel for a quiet night of group dinner (which was good but unremarkable), word games, and finally watching British television (Tool Academy!!!). It felt good to sleep in a comfy bed and actually get to sleep early - if there was one serious plus to the trip, it was getting to catch up on sleep!!

(Poundland Love)

(The three dinner options: I'm sensing a pattern with the sauce...)

The next morning we headed to Dover via the seaside town of Whitstable. Whitstable was quaint but rather unremarkable; it reminded me a lot of Rockport, but without the sweet warmth of summertime and the smell of New England Clam Chowder lurking around every corner - though, Rockport probably wouldn't be like that it this time of year, either! I did get a delicious jam doughnut for incredibly cheap, so that was a win.


From Whitstable it was on to the last stop of the trip at Dover Castle. It was incredibly cold, wet, and windy from the instant we got off the bus at Dover, but I would still say that it was my favorite location that we visited. The castle was seriously impressive brooding on top of the hill, and the wind was so strong on the towers that it became a sort of low-impact game to just try to walk along and not get blown over. There were some WWII tunnels to tour, but they ended up being a lot like "The Blitz Experience" at the IWR, which meant that it was less than thrilling.

(Posing with some fake sides of meat in the "interactive" section of Dover Castle)


And then, almost as suddenly as it had begun, Bing Trip was over. I had a great time getting to know the folks in the program better and a moderately good time visiting the sites, though winter travel is never going to be my favorite. Unfortunately, the Bing Trip totally threw me off for work, making this past week even more stressful than it had to be. Oh well! How often do you get a two-day vacation to some of the country's best historic attractions for free??

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