A Visit to London: The Flight
While I am briefly asleep on the overnight flight to visit London, I am startled awake by a man with monster-like, glazed eyeballs looking crazed, lurching toward me. He is weaving like he will fall onto me, like he wants to put his hand on my shoulder for support. I notice his pants are undone. Gene says the man already fell onto the two girls in front of us. I try to pick the man’s hand up and move it off me and off my seat; at the same time Gene and I both go for the Flight Attendant call button. The male flight attendant rushes over and tries to drag the man away, but the man falls flat on the floor in the aisle and is out.
I think he is dead.
A second attendant holds the man’s legs in the air. I wonder what that is supposed to do. Then I smell the stink of shit. Another attendant asks if I am okay and says the man has not been to the toilet for several days. As if that explained everything.
As it becomes morning and we are descending, they announce in a weird over-polite, British, roundabout way that everyone should sit down or go into a holding pattern. No one complies and we are not surprised.
The Trafalgar Hilton
Waiting for our hotel room to be ready, we wander a few blocks searching for breakfast. We find a tiny café and have the best cappuccino we ever tasted. We wander through Trafalgar Square and I realize that London is more than New York with British accents and fish & chips. It is older, more austere and frankly, more impressive. The buildings are big and sprawling and seem to match, unlike New York’s random mix of old and new and mostly tall. Our hotel is minimalist and sleek; our room has a deep bathtub, white terry robes and taut white sheets. We sleep for four hours before we are ready to check out London.
Alison Lapper, Pregnant
When I snapped this photo, I didn’t know the story behind this Trafalgar Square statue, Alison Lapper Pregnant. I just thought it was arresting, beautiful and different from the rest of the art in the square. Alison Lapper is a living artist born without arms and shortened legs. The sculptor is Marc Quinn. The statue will only be in Trafalgar Square for another six months. I recommend checking it out if you are going to London in the near future. Read more about the statue and the artist herself at Alison’s web site,
alisonlapper.com. There is a surprising amount of debate and discomfort surrounding the statue. Venus di Milo had no arms either.
We almost don’t catch up with Kerry & Carl, our Kiwi friends who live in Kent. We leave a message on Carl’s cell, but his generic outgoing message makes me unsure we have the right number. We are antsy and leave a message for the Barkers at the front desk (if you can call it a front desk; its more like a front table). We say we will be at Waxy O’Connor’s, a pub four or five blocks away. We swim upstream through the theater-goers to Waxy’s.
The pub is packed and smoky and we decide not to stay. We race back through the sea of theater-goers to change the message. But Carl and Kerry have picked up our message and are on their way to Waxy’s. We race back through the theater-goers and find them looking through the tree house rooms of the pub for us. Waxy’s isn’t their type of place either and we move on.
We duck into at a deserted pub called Two Gentlemen for a couple of pre-dinner drinks and to catch up. We haven’t seen the Barkers since our last visit to New Zealand in 2001.
We choose the ornate Thai restaurant next door for dinner. My red curry isn’t that hot, but something in it makes my throat close up. For two beats, I can’t get any air. I drink water and the feeling subsides. I fill my curry bowl with rice to dilute it, but three times more, I feel the same strange sensation. I wonder if I am allergic to peppers.
We have a nightcap in our hotel lobby bar. Kerry and Carl have to be at Victoria Station to get the last train back to Kent by 11:20. Carl tries to book a hotel room during dinner, but a room costs £286 (double that for US dollars!).
We walk them to Charing Cross Underground station and say goodbye to our friends from Kent.
Gene and I both need pre-bed snacks and find a 7-11ish place with plastic-packed pre-made sandwiches. I get a plain bagel. Hours earlier, I told Carl and Kerry that I would never eat a bagel outside New York. But this bagel tastes pretty good.
Bucking Ham n’ Cheese
We wake up this morning with only minutes to scramble to the breakfast that is included in the price of our room. I have granola, croissant and fruit. Gene takes the opposite: sausage, toast, mushrooms and eggy-type stuff that may or may not be eggs. I remember how much I liked garlic mushrooms on toast, a popular breakfast dish in New Zealand.
We walk down The Mall (rhymes with “shall”) to Buckingham Palace. (Don’t say “Bucking-HAM”, said Kerry, its “Bucking-um”.) Bucking Ham ‘n Cheese is like nothing I’ve seen. A garden of purple flowers outlined in red flowers sits in front of glittery gold gates. Older American architecture has some ornamentation and sculptural elements but nothing like everything in Royal London.
We stumble upon the Changing of the Guard, an event tourists often plan their day around. I wonder if the guards feel silly or if they enjoy the ritual. (I feel silly when I realize that the little ceremony we watched is not the changing of the guards at all, but maybe, a request to use the john.)
Click on the picture to see what is NOT the Changing of the Guard.
Record Shopping, a Must in Every City
We walk the Queen’s Walk to Shaftsbury Rd, then up Berwick Street to browse some record stores. Berwick Street is perfect for me and Gene: record stores alternate with jewelry stores. Gene buys a Small Faces box set in a round tin and Harry Nilsson’s third album. We walk down Charing Cross and browse through a couple of bookstores.
We walk down The Mall at dusk, past Buckingham Palace again to The Albert, a hotel/pub on the corner of Buckingham Gate and Victoria. We eat Fish & Chips in the pub and are surprised that this is not “the best Fish & Chips in London,” according to Fodor’s.
After dinner, we wander around and I put my map away, confident I know which direction is home. It doesn’t occur to me that I can just scour the skyline for Nelson’s Column to orient myself toward Trafalgar Square.We look at Westminster Abbey—stunning at night—and St Margaret’s church. Even at night, the gates to the churchyard are open and we can walk through, though the lawn is cordoned off.
Who’s the Four-Faced Liar?
We walk by the Houses of Parliament and we debate whether the Clock Tower is Big Ben. It must be, but I thought Big Ben was a two-sided clock. We only see two sides of Big Ben, but they are adjacent sides, so it must have four sides.
When I moved to Milwaukee, someone–everyone!–pointed to the Allen-Bradley clock and proclaimed it the largest four-sided clock in the world. In response to my “What about Big Ben in London?” Milwaukeans told me BB is a two-sided clock and therefore, Allen-Bradley wins. I am certain I have perpetuated this rumor.
A Google search reveals that the largest clock in the world is the Colgate clock which we can see from our Battery Park City apartment window. And, the Allen-Bradley clock in Milwaukee is the largest four-sided clock in the world. Up yours, not-so-big Ben!
Is the Glass Egg Half-Full?
We walk across the Westminster Bridge after peeing in the tube station for 50 pence toward the London Eye. I’ll pay 50 pence to pee in a clean, safe place, especially since I’m not quite sure how much 50 pence is. I think a spontaneous night time ride on the Eye would be fun. Gene is reluctant to be trapped in a glass egg with strangers.
I admit I’m intimidated by The Tube, irrationally, as I ride the NYC subway daily. It’s the ticket system that intimidates me.
We stop at a pub on Whitehall Street. We sit outside with a wine and a beer and discuss plot points for the next Channel 102/Baked Ziti film and discuss what’s with Christmas bookings here? Every merchant has a sign outside begging customers to hurry and book for Christmas now, in late September. Does everyone one here eat Christmas dinner out? Even Burger Shack is hawking for Christmas reservations.
Opulence at Harrods
Gene stays behind while I trek to Harrods in drizzling rain. I take two slight wrong turns before I find the department store monolith. Harrods makes Saks look like a dime store. Much of the first floor is Egyptian-themed; a big gold mummy case towers over the escalators to the basement.
The food market and café amaze me: chocolate counters with pharaoh-shaped Belgian chocolates, a cheese case that lines an entire wall, baskets, champagne and tea and teddy bears large and small. A million kinds of herring too.
The London Tube
I take The Tube back as it is the only rational way to go. My inaugural ride involves a transfer from the PICADILLY to the BAKERLOO lines. I make no mistakes. Basic NYC subway skills plus memory of the ticket system in Sydney helps.
The trains are clean and plush; the seats are sofas with armrests. The tracks look scrubbed down and rat-free. I doubt if maniacs push people off the platforms to their deaths in London. Anyone who lands on the tracks could simply step right back up onto the platform. Of course, there are other ways to die on The Tube. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
The rain turns into all-afternoon affair and we go to the National Portrait Gallery on the north side of Trafalgar Square. We start in the Angus McBean exhibit. McBean was a surrealist photographer who photographed theater stars and later in his career, album covers. Notable subjects: Vivian Leigh, Shirley Bassey and The Beatles.
He also created an annual Christmas card self-portrait. He placed himself in various sets and often double-exposed himself. You can get arrested twice for that.
Moon in Outer Spacey
Our concierge scores us good seats for tonight’s performance of Moon for the Misbegotten, my favorite Eugene O’Neill play, starring Kevin Spacey, now the artistic director of The Old Vic theater.
Our hotel doesn’t have a front desk, just a large, waist-high table with four computer stations, both sides identical. Employees wear all black. We ask the nearest black-clad person where we can pick up our theater vouchers. She tells us we must ask at the concierge desk. Where might the concierge desk be, we ask? The concierge desk is the other half of the table. Oh.
We saw old photographs of The Old Vic theater in the Angus McBean exhibit today and tonight, there it is, beautiful, on the South Bank. But A Moon for the Misbegotten is long and disappointing. I read it as a very tender play, but this performance has very little tenderness. Kevin Spacey overacts and goes for drunken laughs. (Gene gives him the “Jack Benny Award” for drama.)
Nowhere do I recognize the handsome alcoholic and dying Jamie in Spacey’s performance. The O’Neill play contains little action; it’s all about the dialogue, but Spacey and Eve Best, the leading lady, scramble all over thestage trying to create action. The father, played by Colm Meaney, who played the father in “The Commitments”, gives the best performance in the show.
We take The Tube back to Charing Cross and walk toward Leicester Square just as all the pubs are closing. Needing a bathroom, a cash machine and food, we stop at an overly-lit Italian place we know will be disappointing. Gene has been looking forward to a hand-drawn ale and tonight, he isn’t going to get it. The waitress tells me the Chardonnay truck broke down (?!) and I too, settled for less than I wanted.
The Bloody Towers
The Tower of London feels like the one “can’t miss” on a four-day London 101. We join a large group on a tour guided by a Yeoman Warder, or Beefeater. Our jolly Beefeater has a good shtick and we suck up the bloody history of subterfuge and beheadings. Imagine, buildings still standing from the 1100s.
We climb the White Tower and look at the Crown Jewels. Black ravens haunt the grounds. We walk across the Tower Bridge. It’s much shorter than any of the New York City bridges.
We go to The London Dungeon and get in the dark queue. Gene feels a little squeamish and claustrophobic and at £17 apiece, I concur. We leave the line, walking against the crowd in the dark. Despite bailing out, I get the thrill/scare I am after. As we approach the exit, a door swings open at us. Both me and the costumed employee jump out of our skins. Somehow, his crotch walks into my hand and we are both embarrassed.
The Best Fish & Chips in London
We stop next door at a pub call Skinker’s. Gene has a pint in a silver mug and I have a half pint, more my size. We take The Tube to Bloomsbury to see the Charles Dickens House. Then, we hail a cab to the North Sea Fish House for what is supposed to be the best Fish & Chips in London. It is only ten past five and the restaurant doesn’t open for dinner until 5:30.
We go to the pub across the street and sit outside watching our restaurant until it opens. Three men in white shirts and aprons sit outside the restaurant enjoying their break.
We are the first ones in, but people fill up the place quickly. It is an after-work crowd, mostly men. A large red-haired, red-faced man, a classic Englishman, sits at the table next to ours. He opens his pocket watch and places it on the table where it remains throughout his meal. Gene and I agree that the North Sea Fish House is the best Fish & Chips ever: thick, clean-tasting fish and a great batter that doesn’t overwhelm the fish.
Oddly, our hotel never identifies stuff; it’s like they are too cool to label anything: blank restroom doors, no info in the rooms, the gym location—a mystery. Gene and I go to the hotel’s rooftop bar for some wine. We had no idea the hotel had another bar until we ride the lift with a guy and two girls. When we get off on 4 for our room, the guy says, “this is a hotel too?” Why, where are you going? The rooftop bar? I guess we can figure out where that is.
The bar has stools around the perimeter of the white-walled roof and modern white sofas. Candles inside orange cubes sit on low white tables. We have a night time view of Trafalgar Square and beyond.
We go to the Scottish bar/restaurant next door. A sleek New York-y bar contrasts with the old wood pubs we’ve visited the last four days. Gene confounds the bar staff by ordering a bourbon Manhattan. The waitress, after a slight hesitation, says she knows what a Manhattan is. After ten or fifteen minutes she brings my drink but not Gene’s. I watch four bartenders, two on duty and two off, consulting on the Manhattan.
When the waitress swings by again, she tells us there is no problem making the drink, they just had to retrieve Knob Creek from the basement. I watch the bartenders measure and shake and stir and taste and give each other tastes. Finally, Gene receives his drink and he likes it, though it doesn’t taste exactly like a Manhattan. The big orange peel floating in the drink looks like a barbecued potato chip.
We love the abundance of public toilets all over London. The toilets in The Tube are sparkling clean and have full-time attendants. Watch out for the “To Let” signs, they look an awful lot like “Toilet”. Its easy to get in the habit of saying “toilet” but the word has a vaguely dirty connotation back home.
Gene is feeling sick today, probably too many fish & chips. I hike back up Charing Cross road and stop in Foyles, the famous bookstore. I peek into Ray’s Jazz, a jazz CD and album section of Foyles. I hustle down Oxford Street to the costume jewelry store I read about.
But I am running out of time and I duck into Marks & Spencer. I try on purple jeans and brown cords. What I try on is less than perfect, so I put them back and hurry to The Trafalgar.
We have just enough time to pack before our late check-out deadline. I haven’t bought anything and still, my suitcase can hardly close. We abandon the idea of a trek to Abbey Road for lack of time. We contemplate zipping through the National Museum, but settle for cappuccino and shortbread cookies at Caffe Nero on Charing Cross. The cappuccino in London is much better than anywhere is the United States!
Now we’re off to Victoria Station and the Gatwick Express train and onto Barcelona!