We arrive in London, Stansted to a â€œbalmy 10 degrees with light rain.â€ The captain jokes that heâ€™ll wait if we want to purchase a return flight back to the sunshine of Marseille.
But alas, weâ€™ve got a train to catch as weâ€™ve got to be in Nottingham in time for dinner. Our flight from Marseille costs us a third of what our rail tickets from Stansted to Nottingham cost â€“ welcome to Britain!
I enter Britain on my British passport (so I wonâ€™t have to get a visa for the Shengen parts of the EU, since weâ€™re staying longer than 90 days). In the line up Iâ€™m shaking a little inside, suddenly nervous about my Canadian accent and the maple leaf sewn onto my backpack.
What if they quiz me about my Britian? Do I even know who the new prime minister is? (Gordon Brown â€“ yes I do!) Not that there is anything wrong with having two passports â€“ I am considered a British subject even though Iâ€™ve never set foot in the UK before. I just identify so strongly with my Canadian citizenship that I feel as if Iâ€™m doing something wrong passing myself off as a Brit.
I breeze through without any problems or inquiries into my funny accent and have collected our luggage by the time Curtis makes it through the line up for all other nationalities.
There are big signs in the airport that say you are allowed to bring as much alcohol into the country as you like â€“ this is one of my favorite things about Europe. They donâ€™t worry about the booze.
Unlike the Canadian authorities who will tax you heavily if you try to bring back more than one bottle of wine, tequila, rum, Baileyâ€™s or what-have-you from our lucky neighbors south of the border who enjoy their booze at a fraction of the cost.
Since our trains are going in opposite directions, we say goodbye to our new friends, Jessica and Jonathan and stride confidently up to the counter to purchase our tickets.
It feels so good to be back in a country where I can speak the language without feeling self-conscious. The ticket agent directs us to platform 2. We think. Itâ€™s a little noisy and it sounded like he said two but just to be sure, we ask a gentleman waiting outside the train on the platform if this is in fact, the correct train.
He replies, â€œYou are speaking only Spanish.â€
I am crushed. I canâ€™t believe that he is making fun of my accent.
Then he corrects his response with, â€œI speak only Spanish.â€
Aha! He is not a rude Brit but a fellow tourist who doesnâ€™t speak English. The next guy we ask looks so British that there is no way heâ€™s from anywhere else. Sure enough, heâ€™s a Brit. Who assures us that this train is not stopping at the stop we want and rushes on board.
Curtis jogs back to find someone in uniform who assures us that yes, this is the correct train and it does in fact stop where we need to transfer.
Dilemma solved, we have a pleasant ride to Nottingham and are greeted at the station by Richard. It feels so good to see a familiar face!
He drives us back to his flat, which is incredible and spacious with an amazing view. He lives on The Park.
We are seriously spoiled for the next four days.
It begins with a bottle of bubbly before we are taken out to a wonderful French dinner. Richardâ€™s friend Libby joins us and the four of us enjoy a five-course meal, each course paired with a different French wine. We have a wonderful evening and leave stuffed full of delicious delights.
The next day after an amazing breakfast of fresh salmon and eggs, we go for a walk in the warm sunshine. Not at all the weather I had expected.
Later in the afternoon, we drive out to Stratford-upon-Avon where we visit Shakespeareâ€™s grave before meeting up with Libby, Nestor and another friend of Richardâ€™s (I canâ€™t remember everyoneâ€™s name that we meet along the way!) for dinner.
During dinner, we discuss where we should spend my birthday week. Iâ€™m tossing around the possibilities of Amsterdam and Prague but am also open to other ideas. This may be the only time in my life that I get to choose anywhere in Europe to spend my birthday.
Before the question is even out of my mouth, Nestor blurts out, â€œVenice.â€ With so much enthusiasm that it sticks with meâ€¦.
After dinner? Why Hamlet of course. Starring Patrick Stewart and David Tennant.
The set is absolutely fantastic and the actors are excellent. My only complaint about the play would be the costumes â€“ it seems to be an odd mix of modern and classic attire. I would have preferred classic, or at least for them to choose one. But regardless of that, it is a magnificent evening out and we havenâ€™t paid a pence. I told you we were being spoiled!
Another great thing about staying with Richard was that we didnâ€™t have to think. We didnâ€™t have to figure out what to do and how to get there. He planned everything and he drove. After traveling for six and a half months, it was so nice to be taken care of.
He also took us to Chatsworth where the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire reside. Itâ€™s a beautiful drive through the country with flocks of sheep wandering over the hills. I love the English countryside!
Chatsworth is an amazing estate, part of it open to the public, so we can enjoy some of their treasures and the beautiful garden. I canâ€™t imagine actually living there.
After hours spent wandering the house and grounds, itâ€™s time to go home for Sunday dinner. I have just enough time for a luxurious soak in the tub first. I havenâ€™t had a bath in seven months â€“ Iâ€™m sure you can imagine what a treat this is.
Richard is quite the cook and makes us a delicious pork roast with all the trimmings.
The next day he takes us to Newstead Abbey, where Lord Byron used to live.
We have a great time wandering through the house checking out interesting tidbits like his old boxing gloves, letters and books. The real fun begins when Curtis happens upon the dressing room.
They encourage people to try on clothes like the kind that Byron used to wear â€“ and Curtis really got into it. I was taking photos of him when two old ladies stopped to admire how handsome he looked. They insisted that I take a photo of him against the intricate dark wood paneling of one of the bedrooms. They told me to just hop over the rope and that they wouldnâ€™t tell anyone.
I was hesitant to break the rules, but they were so insistent and the wall would make a beautiful background so I decided it wouldnâ€™t do any harm.
I put one foot over the red rope and as soon as it touched the ground, a very loud alarm sounded. It reminded me of those caper movies where the burglars have to avoid touching the laser beamsâ€¦.
The four of us left the bedroom giggling as one of the security guards came ambling up to turn off the alarm.
â€œDonâ€™t worry, it happens all the time,â€ he said. â€œItâ€™s just usually the children who set it off.â€
The old ladies admitted that it was their doing and apologized â€“ then went off down the hall still in fits of laughter.
* * *
Nottingham is home to Sherwood Forest and of course, Robin Hood.
We drove by the â€œRobin Hood Experienceâ€ one day and Richard told us that when his niece was two and his nephew was four, he took them there, figuring that it would be a fun thing to do with kids. It was so bad in fact, that as soon as the â€œexperienceâ€ was over, his two-year old niece declared, â€œthat was rubbish.â€ We gave that one a miss for obvious reasons.
On our last night with Richard, we went out for Indian food and insisted on paying to thank him for showing us the most brilliant time in the UK.
The UK was never really one of the places that was on my â€œmust seeâ€ list â€“ so it was a great surprise to find out how wonderful it is.
Nottingham also happened to be home to one of Curtisâ€™s friends from University so we spent two nights with him and his wife â€“ the boys catching up on old times over a bottle of Scotch.
I made the mistake of indulging in the pub lunch two days in a row â€“ once in Britainâ€™s oldest pub, once in itâ€™s oldest inn. At both places I had this amazing roast beef wrapped in Yorkshire pudding and served with gravy and chipsâ€“ delicious. But I had a terrible ache in my belly for a day afterwards. Being a pig never pays!
After our week in Nottingham, it was time to board a train for Edinburgh, Scotland.