July 5, 2007

Originally written aboard Eurostar #9013 to Paris


You know, you look up for just a second, and three days slip by. I'm looking forward to resuming our France routine, where there's croissants and baguettes in the sunroom every morning, and then a leisurely seven-mile walk through the heart of France.


London was like being plugged into a 220-volt line, and as you know I'm a North American 110-volt appliance. We had a lot we wanted to do in this city, but we really weren't afforded a lot of time to do it. The weather had a lot to do with that. We'd had the rainiest Wimbledon in almost 25 years; by the time we arrived they were 173 matches behind and if the weather didn't get any better, they were going to move the tournament into a third week. So most of our days didn't have the middle rest gap between museum return and dinner that we'd become accustomed to, and where I usually get a lot of work done getting the site updated.


Thankfully, I took the usual average of 100 pictures a day (so you can get an idea of how much I'm culling when you see the web page, I kind of use them as digital bread crumbs to remember where I've been) so remembering what happened shouldn't be too much of a problem. Apologies for the delay.


The alarm sounded early, but the adrenaline was pumping for London. After the previous night at Adrien's apartment, we had gotten in much later than we intended, and I had to be showered and packed by 5 AM. You think this vacation bit is easy? The alarm went off at 4:30; the usual time to wake up if I was working out. I consoled myself with the idea that I really didn't know what time it was anyway.

Everybody else rose in 15-minute increments; in Julie's case, she was packed, so she got up the latest. I could pack while Ken was showering. I got everything in, and my luggage was tight. I had some unusual packing requirements, such as:

1. I was under the impression that Wimbledon was very formal, and I wanted to feel comfortable and not get stared at, so I packed a blazer, dress shirt, and tie. I had polo shirts that could work under the suit.

2. It was low 60s in Paris on the morning we left and was due to be the same and rainy in London. That required long-sleeve shirts. In July! I hadn't worn any of that since February! Meanwhile, my Vegas comrades were "enjoying" 115-degree temperatures.

3. I had to bring running gear. (I'll explain later.)

So combining all of this together, along with packing up the office, required me to use all of the garment bag I was allowed. I had no personal items, just this gigundo garment bag. It had a nice frame and was pretty much bulletproof. I got everything thrown in and we were soon on our way to the Metro.

We were experienced, grizzled Metro veterans at this point, and quickly realized we'd get to Gare du Nord, the Eurostar rail station, a lot quicker using the Metro than if we called a cab. We marched our luggage down the elevator-which holds us three Americans semi-comfortably-in two trips.

I did have to kick my larger bag, which weighed about 60 pounds, through the turnstiles. We were soon at Gare du Nord, moving with purpose, moving with determination, moving without the required landing cards. Our finely oiled machine ground to a halt before we were allowed to enter the United Kingdom. After that was resolved, the work of twenty seconds, we were through.

Gare du Nord is like Union Station, but the train area is a lot more open. Technology has forced train station designers to romanticize train travel the same way that baseball stadiums went through that faux-retro thing starting with Camden Yards. It was fast and quick and that's all I wanted.

We were sans breakfast at this point, so we grabbed the usual-croissants and orange juice. I ordered a hand squeezed orange juice and saw the most amazing machine ever, one that would rival the Zamboni and the Clapper for sheer ingenuity. Ladies and gentlemen, I present...the Zummo.

Zuppo juicer

Now I don't know exactly if that's what it's called, but it was a pitching machine combined with a juice press. I said I wanted orange juice, and she loaded three oranges up into the top of this thing, and then drop, squeeze, splash, fresh squeezed orange juice. I plan on ordering one of these babies for my cubicle and charging people just to watch.

We were soon on the train. Julie pointed out that for my first Eurorail travel experience, it was the nicest one she ever had. This train is supposed to be an elegant alternative to the ferry from Calais (but Sea France still runs one, and it's heavily promoted) or flying (and with the minimal time to get through the places, I don't think that would have been palatable) Julie and Ken were quickly asleep; I motored through the Versailles entry we had a couple days ago.

I was aware of the irony of traveling to London on American Independence Day. It's like your drunk loser kid moving back in with you at 38. We thought you were supposed to be independent; what the hell are you doing here?

Part of the excitement of London was the chance to speak English with impunity, without feeling like I was cheating. I was SUPPOSED to speak English. Hell, I was among people who spoke English a little more like I spoke English-with big, confusing words that make a lot more sense than their American equivalents. So I would up in the bar car, very politely murdering two languages. I heard the woman say "Bon jour! Good morning!" and because she started in French, so did I. "Zhay voud dray deux croissants...dammit, what's the word for yogurt...who wanted the hot chocolate..."and instead of a suave, country-hopping genius, wound up inarticulate in her native tongue as well as a language I've been listening to since birth. We sorted it out.

We were moving backwards as we traveled through rainstorms. So what I can tell you of it is: All of the Chunnel is dark. They could put neon murals of aliens in it so you have a more interesting 20 minutes, but they appear to have optioned for function as they used giant machines to tunnel under the English Channel.

We arrived at Waterloo and found security to be very tight. There had been two attempted car bombings in the center of London in the past few days, as well as another attempted car bombing at Glasgow Airport. There were police on the track islands as we debarked (or, since it was Britain now, alighted) and as we came down the ramp towards the exit, there were at least two dozen police looking straight at us. Looking hard. Wearing expressions that said, "We don't like you, we don't trust you, and if you pull any funny stuff, you won't leave the building."


Soon we were waiting at a line with about a twenty other people, waiting to pick up some more money that didn't make any sense. I am making my first trip overseas, and in keeping with the family history, the dollar is now at an all-time low.(My parents bought a 1973 Oldsmobile Cutlass right before the oil shock doubled the price of gasoline.) One pound cost around $2.06. The problem is also that London is violently overpriced, and as an American, you get lulled into a false sense of security about this. For instance, in real time as I write this sentence, I just bought a Diet Coke to get rid of the last of my UK cash. A half-liter plastic bottle cost 1.69 pounds. My American brain looks at the number and says, "That's about normal." The little accountant with the green eyeshade that has been bound and gagged for the entire trip screams, "MMMffF! MMM Mmmm MMMMMm mff fmmf MMFFF!" (translated, "Fuck! You just paid $3.75 for a Diet Coke!")


We picked up our taxi and were on our way to the hotel on the other side of town, very slowly. Traffic was jammed up as the lanes were limited due to a construction site. The driver was gregarious and the cab was spotless, and the sun was shining. He asked how long we were in for and where we were from, and said we might enjoy the Hard Rock Cafe.



Above: My view of London for the first 15 minutes.


We laughed. "We're not those kind of Americans," I said. "I have eaten enough French fries and own enough T-shirts to last me for the rest of my life."


He laughed. In our travels he pointed out Parliament, Buckingham Palace, the London Eye, Westminster Abbey, 10 Downing Street, and would have explained anything to us if we so liked. He asked, "Are you going to get a chance to see the tennis?"



I beamed. "Yes. We'll be on center court for the next two days." I mean, how many times in your life are you going to get to say that? I plan on finding out the outer limits. I could have put a set of bleachers in my suitcase for all the people who wanted to go with.


"Me too! I go every year, and tomorrow's my day. My neighbor's an umpire and I get free tickets." He told us of seeing Becker, Navratilova, Agassi-years and years of FAMOUS tennis, the stuff that EVERYBODY watched. He was there when Becker dove horizontally, he saw all those Sampras finals, it was impressive. Or it was made up; I'm not sure which. It didn't matter.


We got out at our hotel and checked in. The clerk asked me, "Will this be settled through the Company?" I looked at her quizzically. She asked again, same words. Something in my head froze; I'm not sure if I hadn't slept enough or what the deal was. Ken jumped in and said, "These rooms are already paid for." She nodded and moved on. We checked our bags with the concierge. Since we couldn't check in until three o'clock, we decided to take a bus tour.


We bought our tickets from our hotel concierge and decided to choose "The Big Bus Company" because that's what they were offering at a better rate than "The Original Bus Company" which was indistinguishable from what we chose. We figured this would get us around the city and help us make sense of it in a short timeframe. They gave us directions for the stop. We walked toward it, and then realized that being a pedestrian in London takes no small degree of thought.


When a car is coming at you from the left, no problem. "Hey, here comes a car." It's the turning cars that are tough. London has realized that the majority of people from out of town will stand at an intersection for an hour or so trying to figure it all out. So they've put subtitles on their intersections.



So we were looking for the stop for the Big Bus Company. We figured a big, gaudy sign, a sandwich board, maybe somebody in a plastic bowler hat. We couldn't see it. We asked inside a hostel. They didn't know. We looked for about a block.


They speak English here. Why is THIS place kicking my ass?


Finally we determined the corner where we could catch a bus, mostly by process of elimination. When we looked up, we laughed. We had missed the following:



We jumped on the bus and headed for the top deck, and like clockwork, it started to sprinkle. No problem. We'd brought umbrellas. We started along the route, looking down at the passerby, unashamed of being total rube tourists. The rain would stop for a little bit, then start. We saw the major buildings, all of Hyde Park, the most photographed concrete barrier in the world at 10 Downing Street, SoHo, the West End theater district, et cetera.


The entire trip was oscillating between rain and clear and a lot of rain and overcast. I was happy I'd worn a long-sleeve shirt and a jacket. In July. As we crossed over the Thames on the London Bridge, the wind and rain nearly flipped my umbrella inside out. We had been offered a free cruise as part of our Big Bus purchase, and there were very few travelers interested in braving the waves. The Thames was nearly at whitecaps. Small craft were probably advised to stay in.


We passed the Tower of London, where all sorts of man's inhumanity to his fellow man involving axes and pikes took place. There is a pub across the street with a large neon sign outside: "The Hung Drawn and Quartered." I said I'd happily play for any softball team they sponsored. Ken said he's buy the jersey of a midget lacrosse team if it had that name on it. I was already designing the jersey in my head.


After we were about to be taken on a second loop through Kensington, we dove off at Hyde Park and caught a connecting bus. We watched three buses pass when they dropped us off. We were convinced that another bus in the whole fleet would not arrive until they dropped us off. We were probably close to right. Every bus from the world over, even a couple of Pace buses and one from India with live carry-on chickens, passed us by before ours arrived.



Above: Whatever it is, it's not our bus.


In the meantime, the temperature had dropped even further. The Evening Standard's marker boards, preprinted in "marker" (unless every newsagent from Westminster to Queen's Gate has the same handwriting) read "Freak weather batters London".


We were tired of being battered and sought refuge in the lounge. We sank into large, comfortable chairs and were immediately attended to by the bartender. Julie saw that they had Caffrey's on tap, which is no longer distributed in America. I had a pint of the same. We were watching a quarterfinal match on television between Marion Bartoli and Michaella Krajicek. I had never seen either player before.


They brought me onion rings and Ken some potato wedges, the first food we'd had since France. We started watching the match, which had made it back from rain delay. We saw Bartoli had more tics than a grandfather clock. There was the serve routine: JUMPjumpjumpjump, the bouncing the ball and twisting her arm to such a degree that it looked like she was going to break her shoulder. She spent the changeover rocking back and forth in her chair, sipping from her water bottle while bouncing her right knee, eating a banana like she was on Death Row. She looked as if she could pass out at any moment.


We thought this was fascinating. And, as usual, we were our usual generous selves.


"Kind of twitchy, huh?"

"She looks like Rain Man out there."

"You think she's gonna make it?"

"Twitchy's clubbing that thing."


And that was the nickname that stuck. Twitchy. She won the match, advancing to the women's semifinals. We finished our drinks and headed up to our room. They had installed a third bed between the other two. Even though this was a larger room, it was a larger European room, so it was like all three beds had been jabbed together with nightstands on either side. It didn't matter much because we weren't planning on being there for anything but sleeping, but I think it was why none of us took any pictures. They had a card-table desk over on the side and I set up the mobile office. (Yes, I did bring a keyboard and mouse to London.)



Above: A building in our neighborhood on Queen's Gate. There are a lot of embassies.


We decided to head out for a pub dinner of fish and chips, that and mad cow disease being the two most famous things about British cuisine. I'm being unkind. We were told that there were a lot of curry shops now, I knew there had been for years, but unfortunately I can't stand curry. Not Indian food, mind you-I dig samosas, but curry, the spice, is a no-go. I've tasted it added as a secret ingredient to barbecue sauces, and if it's there, I can't eat.


So fish and chips it was. We found Stanhope pub two blocks away from our hotel when we were walking back from the Big Bus, and it looked good. We got there and it was absolutely mobbed. We found a table that someone had just recently vacated and jumped into it. I started to discover some things I liked and didn't like on my very first impression of London.


I liked the fact that people who were working dressed like they were working, in very nice tailored suits, shirts and ties. There is no Aloha Friday here. The suits may have had slightly zany pinstriping at times, but these were very well-constructed clothes. A Londoner would walk into an office like mine and wonder why everybody was in pajamas. But the other extreme-dress like you're 13-wasn't suiting any of the men and nearly all of the women. Someone should objectively show a 28-year-old beer-bellied man what he looks like in a skin-tight tank top, torn jeans with writing across the ass, and Adidas Sambas.


We waited for a waitress-that's what the term means, right? and as one came by she picked up the drink glasses from the previous round and smiled. Then she left. Not a "be right with you" or "What'll you have." She left. Julie wondered if we ordered food for ourselves at the bar. I saw her approaching other tables with food, did she take their orders?


Finally, Julie asked if we just ordered our food at the bar. The waitress smiled and said, "Yeah." So we were off. A burger for Julie, fish and chips for Ken and I, pints of Guinness and cider all around. The place was mobbed, and it wasn't as if there wasn't one of these every couple of blocks. The people here are apparently big on drinking after work, much more so than in America. Here, someone who goes home and types for a while is just odd, and I didn't pass three fitness clubs on my way home like I do in America. Yet those men in suits are stick-skinny. I don't understand.


A couple of stick-skinny-and shorter-men were discussing politics at the bar. One of them said loudly to the other, "The Americans think that we don't understand them, but we do. We see their television shows, we see their movies. We know."


I didn't just hold my tongue, I clamped it down with rivets. I was about eight inches taller and quite a bit bigger than either one of these guys, so I didn't say, "Do you watch CSI? Here's my card. If you think that's how it works, you haven't the slightest idea what you're talking about." Most of the media that we're watching nowadays-reality shows, sitcoms like The Office-originated in Europe. And I don't know anyone that wouldn't be horrified at the idea that what defines us as a nation is that our news shows are all about Paris Hilton and Anna Nicole Smith. But if we know that the television and movies aren't real, why can't they? I did not ask if it was typical for steelworkers to put on a male strip show here some night, or where I could find Mr. Bean. (Loyal readers know he's playing boules in the Jardin du Luxembourg.)


But I shut up. I'm here to be quiet and pay attention. It also makes it easier to laugh about things. The fish and chips were just what you'd expect them to be and I'm sure contained no trans fat whatsoever. They come with peas. Why? Greenest vegetable you can keep in a freezer? Probably because that's how it's always been done. Just watch; don't try to understand.


We headed out to go check out the city as we were all feeling a little energetic, and Ken and I wanted to get our moves down at the South Kensington subway station, the legendary Tube, since that's what was getting us to Wimbledon the next day. (The Sportsworld people provided free roundtrip cards for four zones of the tube for every day of our stay.) It was similar to the Paris Metro; a system clearly designed to be easily understood by everyone. I had heard the "Mind the gap" slogan and knew it was associated with the subway, but didn't realize that it was also a booming, stern voice that repeated itself every few seconds when you were alighting from a train where the platform was slightly lower than the station. I remain entertained by the sound of the voice in my head but puzzled as to why a train station couldn't be built where these match up. It's not like one second a Hummer's going to pull up and the next one's a VW beetle.



We got off the train at Waterloo and crossed over the bridge to try to get on the London Eye, an enormous ferris wheel with pods the size of pickup trucks that revolved once every half-hour. We were still running on Paris time, which had more often than not meant dinner at 9:30, back to the apartment around 11. Because we're farther north and it's near the summer solstice, it doesn't get totally dark until about 11:30 here. With the clouds and brief showers, though, it was plenty dark now.


The London Eye was closed; there were still passengers aboard who were getting off but not any more being allowed to board. We were just about trying to figure this out when we heard a loud explosion and saw a flash in front of us.


People screamed. Then, I could see fireworks over the tree line.


Somebody else shouted, "Bombing!"


Then I saw three enormous sparkling aerial bombs.


Oh, right. It was the Fourth of July.


We weren't even sure for several days that was actually what it was-like if it was like the fireworks at Navy Pier and they do them every Tuesday and Saturday or if it was actually for the holiday, but looking it up confirmed my suspicions.


And the rain came down a little harder and the bombs bursting in air ricocheted off of the buildings belonging to the men whose defeat we were celebrating. Ba-BOOM. I stared at the flashes and at Westminster Abbey to the right. Ba-BOOM. I looked across the river at Big Ben and Parliament. And even as I was beyond a little damp from the rain and my glasses were getting drippy, I started to laugh.


Less than a week after two car bombs were disarmed, after a vehicle engulfed in flames failed to detonate at Glasgow airport, citizens of my nation, in what was called on the Port of London Authority web site a "private fireworks display" were throwing themselves a birthday party on our once-estranged parents' front lawn while they were trying to sleep.


Now THAT'S delightful arrogance.



Happy Fourth, everybody.


ADDITIONAL INTERESTING NOTE: That is an American flag in the picture above. It was night and I could only see it in the reflection of the fireworks, and with the way the wind was blowing the words were backwards, but I believe it had been defaced and spray-painted with the words "CIA SECRETS SAVE US FROM EVERYTHING." Rather ambivalent, no?


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