Sunday, June 24, 2007

London: Day One

Yeah. It's been nearly a month since I got back from Scotland, but what am I going to do? Not post up a long, boring account of my trip on my blog? Of course not. Personal blogs DEMAND long boring accounts of vacation trips to distant lands, often with little consideration for the interest level of the readers of that blog. Who am I to be different? So I'm a going to get into it. I will try my best to keep this thing short(ish) and mostly sweet. And there will be photos.

Prior to our departure from Hartsfield on Wednesday, May 23rd, I had never really been overseas before. Yes, I was born on the northern part of the boot of Italy and grew from an enormous infant to a monstrous toddler over the course of a year or so, but I don't think this makes me a world traveler. My wife, however, has been around the world with some frequency these last 3 years, and in January of 2004, she stopped for a couple weeks in London. Because she was bunking with a friend there on business, she was mostly on her own during the daylight hours. Though she had a lot of fun zooming across the city on double-decker sightseeing buses and subways, the countryside on luxurious cross-country buses, one crucial element was missing:


Specifically, my sparkling commentary. Can one truly say they've seen, for example, Stonehenge, if they don't have a gangly, pudgy-faced smart-ass remarking, "It's really just a pile of rocks, isn't it?" in their ear while viewing it? What, you say? Far from enriching your travel experience hearing a steady stream of adolescent editorializing would actually go a long ways toward ruining it? Well, lucky for me, my wife is that peculiar, singular soul who enjoys my brand of relentless sardonic "humor". Even luckier for me, she so enjoys it that for years she's been counting the days until she could return with me to stroll the city of Shakespeare and Dickens just so she could listen to my low-register mumbling voice crack dumb along the way. So when her friends from business school decided to get married at St. Andrews, Scotland at the beginning of June, and my wife's folks agreed to give their daughter a pair of plane tickets to Great Britain, it was if the stars aligned to put my ass in London. And so it came to be.

Sad to say, the trip did not begin well. Don't get me wrong. There wasn't much to dislike about my 3 weeks in Great Britain, it was all in all a blast, but what little there to dislike all happened that first day, and a lot of it had to do with Air France. No one likes a guy belly-achin' about a bad plane ride, so I won't spend a lot of time doing it here, but I will say that my aisle seat became a middle seat plum in the middle of the plane between my wife and a big-sitting guy who looked quite a bit like the depressive novelist Russell Banks. The temperature, which on most flights runs from pleasantly cool to blanket-worthy chilly, was a zesty 80 degrees on this flight, the perfect temperature to induce not only a delightful sheen on the dryest of brows, but the spicy natural odors of one's plane-mates. Viva la France! I won't get into the surprisingly hands-off attitude of the flight crew towards the distribution of drinks and snacks, or their off-putting customer service style of overplayed but obviously pretend concern for the passengers' well-being during the 10-hour or so flight, but you get the idea. So, exhausted from lack of sleep (I can't sleep on planes), and keyed up from suppressing a claustrophobic freak-out for 10-11 hours or so, we landed at Airport de Kafka, otherwise known as Charles de Gaulle. As my wife tells it, Charles de Gaulle has been under construction for about 48 years? And from the looks of things, I'd say they're nearly halfway through.

It was bright and sunny in Paris. And also stiflingly hot. And worse than that, very very smelly. The bus the airport uses to cart off-loaded passengers from one terminal to all others was un-air conditioned, the terminal from which we boarded our connecting flight to London was un-air conditioned, and all drinks for sale in that terminal were un-air conditioned with nary an ice cube in sight. Yes, these tired observations place me squarely into the Spoiled Whiny American category of international travelers, especially given the fact I'd been informed of the silent European distaste for all things unduly cold before we left the States, but the lack of relief from the unbearable weather was still jarring. In the face of temps soaring into the nineties and blessed with the technology to chill both one's beverages and one's air, the French and the English's surrender to intolerably hot weather was baffling.

After we cleared Customs in London, we took the Heathrow Express into London's Paddington Station. The structure was beautiful and grand in an airy, practical way. Distant, soot-stained ceilings rose 50 feet into the air, old Victorian brick columns appeared here and there around the edges, (also soot-stained from the coal-burning engines that still pull in and out of the station). This station and others like it stood as backgrounds for arrivals and departures of soldiers going off to and returning from World War II. That is if they weren't bombed to smithereens during the Blitz. So, wide-eyed and loaded down with 3 bags over my inward-curving shoulders and one big suitcase rolling behind me, I walked through the cavernous station following my wife towards the street and our hotel.

While standing on the street corner just outside Paddington station waiting for the light to change to WALK, I watched the native Britons stream past us to cross the street and experienced a quiet and completely nonsensical thrill. "These people are all British," I thought to myself, awed. I listened to them talking, picking out snatches of conversation spoken in genuine British accents as opposed to the fakey mongrelized version of a British accent I do too often. We must have looked lost because a nice British woman came up to us and asked if we needed directions. As it just so happened, we did! Smiling and polite, (and in a lilting British accent mixed with something else) she directed us towards our hotel which was in the exact opposite direction of the way we'd been going. (Coincidentally, not long after we checked into our hotel and headed out, we saw the same woman again walking past and we said hello like old friends who'd been living in that part of London for years.)

If I haven't said before, let me say it now: it was hot in London. I don't know what the exact temperature was because I can't do the conversion from Celsius to Fahrenheit, but it was damn hot. I'd been sweating for going on 24 hours (and, as I hadn't yet slept, miserably aware of every salty drip) and was looking forward to the blessed kiss of some A/C and an icy shower soon after. However, there was no A/C in the lobby, no A/C in the coffin-sized elevator up to the 5th floor, and no A/C in our cramped but clean hotel room. Lack of sleep made all of this seem disastrous, but when viewed in hindsight, the heat and the dearth of ice was an entirely survivable inconvenience. I'm writing here, so obviously I survived it. In my defense, though, I didn't know then that the hot weather would end the following day, or that many if not most buildings in London do indeed have air-conditioning. But I know that in those hours post-arrival and pre-sleep, I was a sullen, unhappy bore. Eventually, I recovered.

So after an icy restorative shower, the wife and I headed back to Paddington station to get on the famous London Tube. More on the city's public transportation system later, right now I want to get right to the London Eye and some photos.

Towering there just behind my smiling face is London's newest landmark, the British Airways London Eye. Though it looks like a ferris wheel, it differs in a few important ways. Riders of the London Eye do not ride in the usual leg-dangling metal benches familiar to all state fair and carnival visitors. Riders of the London Eye go around in roomy capsules. The Eye is officially called an "observation wheel". There is no sensation of movement. Throughout the ride, you are as stationary as you would be on the observation deck of any tall building. And, unlike your typical ferris wheel, the Eye does not spin with any speed. In fact, it rotates only once every half hour. And for the price of admission, that's exactly how long you get to be in a capsule.

Even before we left Atlanta for England, I was already a little scared of the Eye. I was only made completely aware of my own fear of heights one day years ago down at the Santa Monica pier. My wife and I walked down the pier fully expecting to get on and ride the wheel all around like regular folks. We even bought tickets (which, if I remember right, were not as cheap as I'd imagined). But when I stood at the base of the ferris wheel and looked up at the dangling, peeling-paint iron swings whipping past and then shooting up heedless into the sky, I couldn't do it. More than that; I believe it would have been impossible for me to voluntarily place myself into one of those swing-benches. So with that distant day in mind, I approached the Eye worried the same base fear would reassert itself and make a little girl of me. And, to make things a little worse, tickets to ride the Eye (already pre-purchased) were quite a bit more than the Santa Monica ferris wheel. So, once again, both my masculinity and a bit of cash were on the line. But after camping at a table in an outdoor eating area at the base and drinking some coolish bottled drinks, I mustered my courage, slapped both cheeks to wake myself up, and climbed aboard.

Happily,the Eye really is an "observation wheel" and resembles a ferris wheel only from a cursory glance at its exterior. The only slightly vertiginous moments came as I stepped a little too close to the floor-to-ceiling windows and looked out over London. The photo to the left was taken during the first half of our revolution, looking up at the capsules preceding ours. The Eye moves so slowly that, even looking out at any one particular point on the cityscape, it is not immediately clear the capsule's moving at all. A couple times I was sure we'd stopped entirely. I took a bunch of digital photos while we were up on this thing. My wife watched the city sink beneath and then lift above us from the comfort of a long bench that runs through the middle of the capsule. Most of the photos I took suffer from the camera's proclivity to focus on the glass rather than the world outside the glass, but I got a number of shots that, if not particularly straight or interesting, are at least in focus and feature recognizable London landmarks.

Like this photo, for example. Here you can see Big Ben to the left and Parliament to the right. All of this was famously blown up in both the graphic novel "V for Vendetta" and the film adaptation of the same name. Yes, as I am more a student of cheap pop culture than of history, these are the images that come to mind when taking in the great historical landmarks. Oh well. I'd have to say that taking the Eye up 400 or so feet into the air over the city is a pretty good way to get acquainted with London for first-time visitors like me. You can see all the obvious sightseeing destinations in a half-hour floating capsule ride, and get an idea from high above of which old buildings warrant a close-up viewing or perhaps even a tour.

This oblong building in the distance here is called by Londoners "the Gherkin". Its full title, given to it by its designer, is "the Erotic Gherkin". No one at all, according to our Jack the Ripper tour guide, calls it that. Whatever its goofy name, it's a striking building, and adds a bit of much-needed modernity to London's skyline, which I thought was surprisingly lacking in that regard.

Anyway, we did the half-hour revolution, and here are a few more of the photos I took on the way round.

More Big Ben.

A high view of the Thames at high tide.

This is a not-so-clear shot of the London Eye employees checking our capsule for bombs or somesuch with the use of mirrors affixed to the ends of sticks. Terrorism, or the fear of it anyway, is everywhere.

And here I am with Darth Vader. There was a Star Wars exhibit in a building adjacent to the Eye and different Englanders came out dressed as characters from both the original films and the prequels. Some goofy-looking "Padawan learners" who came out after Darth made his exit.

In the foreground: me wife. In the background: the London Eye in full.

After we stepped off the Eye and met Darth Vader, we walked across the bridge to Big Ben. This is me on the bridge.

And here I am at a cafe just a block to two down the street from our hotel, about to dig into my first official English meal of fish and chips. The fish and chips pictured here were okay, but far from the best I had while in England and Scotland.

Anyway, that was day one in England. I don't expect each day to warrant all this verbiage, so future postings will be more brief (hopefully).

All right, this entry is long enough. Stay tuned for Day Two.

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