Blast from the past

Back in June of 2001, Belle and I spent a few days in London. She was travelling for work to Asia and coming back through London so I met her there and we hung out. It was my first time in Europe.

I wrote up a post afterward for my blog that’s long since gone and recycled into its base electrons (and was mostly just read by my mom). I stumbled upon it today and figured it was kind of entertaining and, having nothing else to talk about really, I thought I’d share it with all of you (or at least those of you halfway interested enough to follow the jump and keep reading). Note there is nothing in it whatsoever about sex or denial or anything remotely smutty — just some observations of my very first trip to Great Britain along with a few mentions of 13-year-old current events — and the names have been changed to protect the perverted.

A Strange Person in a Strange Land
Thumper’s foray into foreign places

Well, it’s been a while since the last update and, oddly enough, this one finds me sitting on the floor of the international terminal of Newark’s airport in a room demonstrating all the warmth and charm of a set from 2001: A Space Odyssey. As a relic of that period of American architecture where it was assumed people wanted to exist in very large grey rooms with oppressively low ceilings, it’s doing nothing to lift my usual travel-induced grumpiness.

While there’s been nothing worse than the usual soul-crushing degradation of the human condition that usually accompanies modern air travel, I was entertained by the guy behind me on the plane to Newark who, in response to his traveling companion’s astonishment that a jury would penalize Phillip-Morris $3 billion for wanton destruction of human life, loudly remarked that maybe the time was ripe to take up the habit himself in hopes of future financial gain. Of course, my response would have been that fining them anything less than $3 billion would be tantamount to fining me $1.50 for speeding; hardly a disincentive. Slapping them with something other than an actually punishing punishment for their deceptive, immoral, and, frankly, evil behavior only degrades the value of the millions of lives who’ve died from the intended use of their product. Are people ultimately responsible for their actions? For the most part, I say yes. But nothing is black and white. Theirs is a highly addictive product they advertised as safe and even healthful for years after they knew the truth to be otherwise. They lied for decades for the sole purpose of continuing the incredible flow of money they made off their product. The only way to truly hurt them now is to take all that money back and, hopefully, put them out of business. (Well, there goes any hope I have of attaining national office…)

Obviously, I’m in a mood. Having the guy in front of you put his seat back so his scaly bald spot is seven inches from your face has that effect.

Why am I in Newark? What I haven’t had time to tell you over the past couple of weeks is that Belle’s been on her annual trip to Hong Kong and Shanghi. This time, she’s scheduled to make a stop in London for a “shopping trip.” For those of you not familiar with the glamorous world of retail merchandising, trips of these sorts to the fashion capitols of the world are crucial in the successful marketing of discount clothing sold in local Target and Wal-Mart stores. No, really. Anyway, I’m meeting Belle in London and will tag around after her, I suspect, so that she doesn’t have to carry several thousand dollars worth of samples from one chic boutique to another. In this way I am reduced to pack animal status.

It appears as though they’re going to start the process where they pile too many people onto the Boeing cattle car I will call home for the next seven hours. Not unexpectedly, they’re oversold the flight. Sigh. I’ll try to pick this up again once I’m uncomfortably relaxing in my incredibly narrow seat.


Just kidding. While the seats on the plane were, of course, too closely arranged to use my iBook, they did have cool little LCD screens installed in the headrests that allowed me to watch Mel Gibson and the still cute as a button Helen Hunt in What Women Want. Not a bad little movie. On another channel I watched the plane’s progress superimposed on a map of the north Atlantic along with other tidbits of info including speed, altitude, and time until arrival. It’s amazing how much my mood will improve when placed in front of a new gizmo.

I was seated in an aisle seat two over from a largish English guy who spoke too loudly and got fairly drunk after buying a large bottle of whiskey from the duty-free cart. He drank nearly the entire thing and what he didn’t imbibe he spilled into his wife’s/girlfriend’s/hostage’s carry-on bag. Following the brief but heated exchange that followed, I got the idea that he wasn’t acting entirely out of character. At breakfast, the “passenger service coordinator” (or PSC, as stewardesses are apparently now called), seeing his plastic cup half-filled with orange-ish fluid, asked him if he wanted more apple juice. I was mildly entertained by his valiant struggle to string together enough intelligible sounds to explain it wasn’t apple juice he was drinking at 6:30 in the morning. The PSC obviously didn’t expect passengers to actually consume the 750mL bottles of booze they bought off the duty-free cart, but if you think about it it’s probably more economical than buying an unending string of those little bottles they sell if you want to get really hammered.

Upon arrival at Gatwick, I was hassled by a small, wiry Canadian woman who felt that, even though she was clearly behind me when we got in the customs line, was somehow entitled to go before me when we got to the front based solely on the cunning and stealthy way she kicked her bag ahead of me each time the line moved. Mostly due to my advanced state of exhaustion (and the large number of well-trained and armed guards around) I decided not to perform on her the many violent acts that immediately sprang to mind.

London, Day 1 and 2
So here I am in my fairly well appointed London hotel room that could be described as spacious if it were being described by a Munchkin or some other very small person. It has no less than eleven switches that control odd combinations of lights and electrical sockets including one that’ll cut power to the whole room. Imagine my surprise when I discovered this morning that the iron was on in its wall mount in the closet and apparently had been all yesterday and last night. So aside from its fire hazards, strange electrical controls, diminutive size, and a toilet seat a bit wider than I’m used to, I find this room to be quite nice.

I spent the better part of yesterday in my little room playing a game where I tried to guess the time before looking at my watch. Even if I had looked only ten minutes before, I was always wrong. When combined with only one hour of sleep in two days, a six-hour time swing is definitely more than enough to make you loopy.

Today I took the Tube to the Palace of Westminster (aka, Parliament). As I emerged from underground, my very first sight was Big Ben. Having it there in front of me, bigger than life (or, more precisely, as big as life), I was suddenly struck with the fact that I was very far away from home. Up until that point London had kind of reminded me of Boston. While the money was a bit heavier and the people did talk a (little) bit stranger than New Englanders, it didn’t really seem all that foreign. However, once confronted with a building I had previously only seen in cut-away shots of James Bond movies and various Disney films, the enormity of where I was finally sank in. Then, the bells sounded the quarter hour and you know what? It sounded exactly like it was supposed to! I know that’s a silly and naïve thing to say, but Big Ben’s chime is such a clichéd Britishy kind of thing that to actually hear it in person is really something.

I was pleased to see that I was in and amongst a throng of the most obviously touristy looking people I’ve ever seen. Whenever I travel I hate to be seen as a tourist. Standing on a street in a busy city looking up dazedly while consulting an upside-down map in the back of a guidebook is an image of myself I’d rather not portray. I’m trying to blend in and not look too much like an American, but I still find people looking at me on the street and in the train station which makes me a little paranoid. Luckily, I was able to disappear into this mass of cardboard camera carriers and become a little less conspicuous.

I walked across the Thames and tried to snap a nice picture of Parliament (inconspicuously, of course, so as not to draw attention to my tourist status), but unfortunately they made the damn building a little too long for a really nicely composed photo. The picture in my guidebook also has that problem, so maybe a good picture of the place is impossible to achieve without being suspended from a crane or something.

After wandering around Parliament (which won’t open for tours until August, damn it) I found myself at the Jewel Tower where, for the completely reasonable fee of £1.60, I was able to view an exhibit on the history of the Houses of Parliament. Also on display were some of the original timbers used in the Jewel Tower’s foundation when it was built in 1366. 1366! England is old, man, really old. It’s hard for a boy from LA, where the average age of the buildings is something approaching 18 months, to wrap his brain around the fact that he’s standing in a 635 year old building in front of some timbers that were probably 100 years old when the tree they came from was cut down. While viewing the Parliament exhibit I was reminded that Britain has no constitution of any kind to codify its form of government. It’s just sort of developed over the centuries, mostly at the expense of monarchs who kept giving up little bits of their power whenever, it seemed, they needed some money to go across the Channel and beat up on the French. Charles I really got to know who was boss after he tried to put his foot down and stop all this all this business of letting royal power slip into the hands of everyday folks when the House of Commons got uppity and cut off his head. Ouch. The Jewel Tower, by the way, was built by Edward III to house his treasures but had turned into the royal attic by the time of Henry V’s death when an inventory found it to be full of mostly junk.

Next door to the Jewel Tower is Westminster Abbey, which I really wanted to go into, but it had this gigantic line of touristas hanging out its front so I skipped it. Maybe I’ll get a chance later in the trip.

As I was walking over to the Cabinet War Rooms, I passed a bunch of status of famous British dead guys and found a statue of someone who looked very much like Abe Lincoln. Amazingly, it was a statue of Abe Lincoln.

The Cabinet War Rooms are a perfect preservation of the actual subterranean offices from which Churchill led the British war effort during World War II. It was on my list of must-see sights and I’m really glad I went, though I did pass on the Winston Churchill t-shirt they were selling in the gift shop, even though it was marked down.

After the Cabinet War Rooms, I lunched at McDonalds. Before you say it, yes I went all the way to England just to eat lunch at McDonalds! I happen to like McDonalds and appreciated the little slice of home. I can report that McDonalds in London is exactly the same as the McDonalds in Minnesota. The restaurant itself was very small and very crowded and very efficient. If took no longer than 30 seconds for me to place my order, pay, get change, and have my food tossed at me. I guess this is what you want from a fast food place.

After eating my cheeseburgers on the curb, I wandered around a bit and stumbled upon a street sign that said “Downing Street.” Beneath the sign was a big black gate. Behind the gate were a couple cops wearing bulletproof vests and in front of it were a pack of touristas. Wow, I had found Number 10 Downing Street. You can’t actually get to the famous front door unless you’re in the press, a member of government, have a special pass, or are willing to perish in a hail of gunfire. That was a disappointment.

During my jet-lagged induced psychosis yesterday, I watched some of the endless BBC converge of the election on Wednesday in which the eminently sensible British citizenry returned the liberal Labour party back to power for the next four or five years. At one point, the newly reelected Prime Minister, Tony Blair, went over to Buckingham Palace to tell the Queen she’d be looking at his face for a little while longer. This is apparently a tradition followed by all Prime Ministers. The part the struck me was how Tony walked out of his house, into a plain, unmarked maroon sedan, and drove over to the palace followed by a couple of black Range Rovers. No motorcade, no huge procession. I was further amazed when Tony’s maroon sedan actually stopped at stoplights on the way over! In fact, at one point, a big white truck cut him off. Now this is how the leader of a democracy should be transported around a city.

Anyway, after I saw Downing Street I decided my feet hurt and came back here to my little room to write this and wait for my wife to arrive.

London, the rest
Moments after writing that bit, Belle showed up. She washed the Chinese dust off of her and we set out again towards Parliament to see if the line at Westminster Abbey had subsided. Unfortunately, it was closed when we got there (though, on the bright side, the line was a lot shorter). We then proceeded to walk around aimlessly until we found ourselves at Trafalgar Square. This is the point on the Earth where all pigeons come from. I would guess there were approximately 423 million pigeons fluttering around the square (giver or take 422 million), landing on people and, I assume, crapping on a few of them.

The National Gallery overlooks Trafalgar Square. In front of the museum I was confronted with my second statue of an American president. This time, it was George Washington. The statue was a gift from Virginia to England from the late Twenties or early Thirties (I forget). Of all the presidents, I expected this one the least.

We ate that night in a little Italian restaurant and then walked around aimlessly some more until we got totally lost. I was reduced to talking out the guidebook and looking at the maps in the back. Luckily, I was able to find a quite, dark corner in which to do this and I’m pretty sure no one saw me.

The next day we went to the Tower of London. Unfortunately, it’s been too long now since I was there to tell you much about it except that we had a very entertaining guy show us around. Also, we saw the McDonald’s all those condemned to beheading obviously stopped at for their last meals on their way to their fates. The rest of the trip following the Tower has now also receded into the hazy nether regions of my brain, except for the trip to the airport.

We were driven to Gatwick by a cabbie whose name escapes me. Apparently, the cab was not his and instead belonged to another cabbie friend of his who had just died. Really, the guy just died. Our cabbie was taking the dead cabbie’s cab off to be sold or something right after he dropped us at the airport. (For those of you who have never been to London or flown into or out of Gatwick, let me explain that the airport’s location was decided by some local planning agency after years of careful research into exactly the most inconvenient place one might place an airport outside of London. The drive took us something well over an hour and our fare was like £100 – which is serious scratch.) Our cabbie also told us about how he had at one point divorced his wife and taken up with a much younger woman. He then fathered a child with her, she turned psycho, and he re-married his ex-wife. He hasn’t seen his daughter in years. Very sad, really. After this tale, he complained that George Bush was an idiot (apparently an opinion shared by many cabbies and at least two of their passengers) and that all the British sitcoms we watch over here are not only years out of date by the time we see them but also irrefutable proof that the British are significantly funnier than Americans (I can only assume he’s never seen Carrot Top).

That’s it, really. I waited too long to finish this and it’s all leaked out of my head. Sorry about that.

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