Saturday, August 31, 2013

Britain Revisted: Day 6

Wales is a bilingual country of around 3 million people. In fact, Welsh was the only spoken language in Wales until the 12th century, when King Edward (also known as Edward the Long Shanks) began to induct Welshmen into his service. Of course, the Welsh had to learn English in order to be a part of the King’s service, and soon the English language spread across the land.

In modern times (1990s), fearing that the native language was dying out, the government enacted the Welsh Language Act (English and Welsh are to be treated equally) in order to protect the language. All public transportation signs are printed in both English and Welsh, and all public documents are printed in both languages. Children are required to study Welsh in schools until the age of 16. Overall, they have done a pretty good job of keeping the language alive. The most recent census showed that about 19% of the country speaks the Welsh language. 

It was fascinating to be sitting on a train bound for Liverpool listening to the woman just to the left of us talking animatedly on her cell phone—all in Welsh—with the occasional English “Okay”  thrown in. (I guess there’s no equivalent for that word in modern Welsh?) And it was actually a little sad when we left the last Welsh Station—Abergavenny (Welsh: Y Fenni) and crossed over the Welsh border into England where the first station simply read: Hereford.

We had to change trains once in Crewe, and from this point we took a city train that took us straight into the center of Liverpool’s Lime Street Station. But not before we’d had to bear nearly half an hour of badly behaved adolescent Liverpudlian boys, who were on their way to John Lennon airport dressed in what looked like long shorts and rubber galoshes. (We were soon to discover that this is apparently the newest style amongst English boys, as every youth was dressed thus once we arrived in Liverpool). I’m sure the galoshes companies are happy, but I daresay that the adult population will not fret the passing of this fad.

“We’re going to crash!” One of the boys kept screaming out on the train, soon followed by: “We’re all going to die!”

Of course, in good English fashion, no one said anything at all to them, and they were allowed to carry on as boisterously as possible. They also occupied the best seats on the train, so when they mercifully disembarked at the airport stop, whacking everyone around them with their luggage, we moved up into their seats. There, we found, they had left spoils of their journey behind them. No less than four unopened cans of Carling beer were left in their wake (boys can drink at the age of 16 in the UK), and when we exited the train, we helped ourselves to one of them. I can safely say it was the worst beer I have ever tried—virtually undrinkable, in fact.

Liverpool is a really interesting town, and I freely admit that I did not allow for enough time there (we really only had half a day). It feels very modern there—almost like New York City. There are a lot of dred-locked people walking around carrying guitar cases, and heavily pierced persons were the norm in the city center. It is also the dirtiest city I’ve ever seen in England (although I hear Manchester is much worse). Litter was everywhere! Later, whilst reading Bill Bryson’s Notes from a Small Island, I saw that he actually termed Liverpool’s trash-laden streets “The Festival of Litter.” There was a fair amount of graffiti everywhere we walked, and a generic grime covered the sidewalks. Having said that, I really wish we’d had more time there because we both really liked the place!

Not far from our hotel, we found a wonderful Mexican restaurant called Lucha Libre. There, I ate the best (and I’m not kidding when I say this)—THE BEST fish tacos I’ve ever had in my life. They were on corn tortillas and accompanied by aioli sauce and shredded lettuce and honestly…my mouth is watering as I speak…Wow!

Liverpool is full of museums, many of them free, that we never got to see. It boasts the world’s second largest Anglican Cathedral, which is stunning to behold. Again, it’s free to enter, and we didn’t have time. There is an immense shopping portal in the town, full of modern and enticing stores, and a fully renovated and beautiful situated dock area, full of restaurants and shops and beautiful views of the water. Liverpool was once one of the most important cities in Europe due to its dock and import/export capabilities.

But we were there for one reason alone—to experience the birthplace of The Beatles, and to go on The Magical Mystery Tour.   Now, let me say up front that I’m not really a Beatles fan. I know, I know…I hear the jeers –boo, hiss. In my own defense, they weren’t really part of my era of music—although I did like Paul McCartney’s music with Wings—so hopefully that redeems me in some way. Stephen is a massive Beatles fan, and again—I only feel guilty that I didn’t plan this part of the trip right. We really needed more time there, as we didn’t get to do The Beatles museum either. Our bus tour was booked for 4:00, and it was the last tour of the day, so we were on a strict schedule. We had a marvelous tour guide named Nick (at least I think that’s what he said—Liverpudlians talk so fast!), who had been doing the tours for thirteen years. He told us that he absolutely loved his job—he does three or four tours a day (they last around two hours a piece), and he’s gotten to know all of the locals in all of the neighborhoods over the years. This was obvious, as when we stopped off to invade the neighborhood where Paul McCartney was born, an elderly man walking down the street, stopped off to talk to Nick and tell him the status of his wife's health. Apparently, she had been diagnosed with cancer and given two days to live, but she had survived  six weeks and was up and about and doing great.

Later on, we stopped off in the neighborhood where George Harrison was born. “We don’t go into the cul-de-sac, though,” Nick said, stopping one woman who was plowing ahead into the circle of row houses. “We only go if we’re invited.”

Just about that time, a tiny boy who looked to be around four, poked his head out of the door of the house across from George Harrison’s boyhood home. “Nanny says it’s all right.”

“Who says it’s all right?” Nick asked him.

“Nanny says it’s all right,” the little boy repeated. “You can come through.” And with that, we had been invited.  

Someone actually lives in George Harrison’s old home now (and apparently he was born in the basement of the place), but Paul McCartney’s and John Lennon’s are museums and may be toured by appointment. As of that time however, the tours were booked up through September. At any rate, can you imagine living in a neighborhood where a thousand tourists a day traipse through to snap pictures of a house once touched by one of The Beatles? It must be very tiresome.

A great deal of the places we saw at the beginning of the tour were somewhat depressing. Multi-level apartment buildings were abandoned, boarded up, or left to be vandalized and project an eerie picture of smashed windows and darkened doorways. Many parts of the city look so dejected and dark and depressing, but then we moved off into the neighboring suburbs, and the outlook brightened considerably. By the time we had made our way into the area where the red gate for Strawberry Fields has been replicated, we were oohing and ahhing over the beautiful—and gigantic—homes.

There are many, many Beatle-themed sites that have been left to ruin, unfortunately. A bistro in the center of one of the residential areas is completely shut down, and although it is an adorable old building, it badly needs repair. The Empress—a pub that stands across the street from Ringo Starr’s old house, and where his mother worked for a time, is shut down—the letters falling from the sign. It was very sad to see, as the place has the historical plaque on the outside, so it cannot be torn down—but it has been left to decay. I guess there’s no money to keep these places up, but it sure seems like a massively missed business opportunity. I would think tourists would flock to these places. 

The tour ended at The Cavern Club back in the city. Our entrance to the club was included in the tour costs, so we decided to go in even though Stephen had been told not to bother with it. This was the second time on the trip we had been told “not to bother” with something, only to be so happy that we did! This place was great!

The Cavern Club was opened in the 1950s, and The Beatles (then known as The Quarrymen) played there some 292 times over the course of their career. The club was closed down and demolished in 1973 because of some underground railway ventilation duct that supposedly had to be built. It turned out, that they misjudged the location where the ventilation duct had to be constructed. The demolition had been all for nothing. In 1984, the site was excavated, and 15,000 of the original bricks were used to reform the place.

It is literally a cavern. You go way, way down underground to get to this place, and it is quite small and intimate. It is, of course, a tourist trap, and there is a tourist shop down there, but there is also fabulous music being played every day—many of the groups do Beatles tunes—as was the case for us that afternoon. Two guys played guitar and sang all of the old tunes, including requests by some obnoxious Americans (they claimed to be Canadians, but I had heard their previous conversations, and they were definitely Americans) sitting next to us.

So we had a beer and sat to listened to old Beatles songs, and we imagined what it would have been like in the 1960s, filled with cigarette smoke and beatniks all sitting around listening to The Beatles play. It was a pretty cool experience!

After leaving the club, I was having a sugar low and a case of the grumpies. It was quite a long walk back to our hotel, and we really had no clue where to eat. I like to think that the only time I’m really mean is when I’m hungry—and this was one of them. I get silent and peevish (I might even get snappy if I’m spoken to while in this state). Anyway, this was one of those times.  Because it was past seven thirty everything was shut down except for a few restaurants in the center of town, so we settled on an Italian restaurant. Once I started eating, normalcy returned, and I thoroughly enjoyed my dinner.  I only wish I could remember the name of the restaurant, as I would love to recommend it, but I believe it was on Paradise Street in Liverpool.

After we ate, we hoofed it back to our very nice hotel. The Roscoe House is located in old terraced housing and sits on Rodney Street. It may not be as central as some other hotels, and there is no breakfast affiliated with the stay there, but it’s a classic old building with beautifully restored rooms and bathrooms. And it had the best shower in all of the UK! There was actually hot water and water pressure! It was amazing!

Anyway, I hate to say it, folks—in fact—I probably don’t even have to say it, do I? Guess what was on the tele that night? Yes, it was Big Brother’s final show of the season! Thankfully, we were back to the hotel in time … 

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Britain Revisited: Day 5

From what I can tell, there is a great friendliness in the UK toward dogs (and animals in general). While visiting, Stephen and I were thrilled to see dogs everywhere we went. It seemed that every second person walking down the street had dogs with them. Watching the BBC the morning before we left for the Gower Peninsula, I watched a segment on adopting dogs and cats from the local shelters. Yay! I salute this great effort. 

In a subsequent news segment, the BBC reported that the cost of raising a child in the UK to the age of 18 had risen by 4%, and it would now cost an average of 150,000 pounds for one child (that’s roughly $232,000). (Actually, I saw this segment several times on the news over the following few days). So curious did I find this news cast that I wondered with amusement if the UK had an anti-child campaign going on. (Interestingly enough, I researched this when I got home and found that a 2012 article from the UK newspaper The Guardian reported on a politician in Britain who suggested that health benefits only be paid out for the first two children). He (and a couple of other politicians cited in the article) claimed that Britain’s joblessness and poverty were due to all of the benefits being paid out on kids). Very interesting, indeed.

Anyway, not that this has anything to do with our trip to Wales—I just found it interesting, as it sort of coincided with a segment in Bill Bryson’s book Notes from a Small Island, where he pointed out that there was a Royal Society for the Protection of Cats long before there was any sort of protective agency for children.

Back to the trip … Stephen and I traveled to the Welsh Gower Peninsula with a small, family-run tour company called Where, When, Wales. Run by a husband-wife team named John and Jan, this was a wonderful way to travel to the beautiful Welsh coast line and see some sights we would not otherwise have been seen. In the southern tip of Wales, the Swansea Bay area and the Peninsula in general, offer breath-taking coastal sites (along with plenty of opportunities to see sheep and wild ponies wandering loosely on hillsides).

Our tour guides, Jan and John, were hilarious. Jan conducts the majority of the narration to the tour and John drives the bus, and all along the way they poke fun at each other and rib one another mercilessly. At first glance, you might think that John was quiet, but once he got from behind the steering wheel of the bus and spoke about one historical location or another, you quickly found that he was a vast fountain of knowledge on just about every subject under the sun. 
As we passed Port Talbot, Jan asked the crowd if we knew about a star that had his start in that little village. I immediately called out, “Anthony Hopkins!”

“Yes,” Jan confirmed. “That’s right. Sir Anthony Hopkins was born just up there,” she pointed to a little village nestled in the hills. And just a little further down, we’ll pass the birth place of another Welsh actor who was the highest paid actor in Hollywood in 1960. Anyone know who that was?”

Again, I couldn’t help myself. “Richard Burton!”

“Yes, that’s right. Wow, Megan you are my star today!”

I wasn’t sure whether to be proud of all of my trivial Welsh-star expertise, or horrified that this was the sort of knowledge I have retained over my forty-one years. 

Our first stop was Swansea Marina and the Maritime Museum. I had been to Swansea in 1994 with Michelle, and I loved it then. It is a beautiful town and fishing village that overlooks the Swansea Bay. When there in 1994, I remember attending an open market where fish and produce and other sorts of crafty and artsy goods were sold. Michelle and I played mini-golf in the center of town with her friend, Phil, and rode in a Lifeboat across the bay. On this day, we simply cruised through the town on our way to The Mumbles.  The Mumbles is another lovely little village in Swansea Bay that sits right on the shore. As we made our way up a winding, residential road, Jan pointed out, “We’re about to see the home of someone else you all might know. This is her hometown, and a few years back, she married a much older man by the name of—“

“Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas,” I blurted out, thereby confirming that I really do watch and read too much entertainment news. I really don’t care about any of these people…seriously, I don’t!

 Sure enough, John drove us past the home of Catherine Zeta-Jones and Michael Douglas—a gated monstrosity nestled in the hills just above the village. I was actually amazed at how close to the road the house was situated. If we’d wanted to, we could have hoisted one another up and looked over the stone gate into their front yard. As we passed by it, Jan remarked, “None of us ever thought that marriage would last, but apparently they are still going strong after all of these years.” (Funnily enough, as soon as we got home, the news broke on CNN that the two had split). 

From The Mumbles, we carried on to Langland Bay, where we got to enjoy a gorgeous coastal walk from Langland Bay to Caswell Bay. Jan and John picked us all up there, and we drove another twenty or thirty minutes to Rhossili Bay, where we had lunch at a little café (also the café where Stephen and I were sure we had misplaced 20 pounds—a long-convoluted story that only has relevance later), and then were given time to walk the long stretch of coastal cliffs upon which sheep roamed freely. They were everywhere! There were sheep reclining all over the ground (and you had to watch where you walked for other reasons, too), and some of them perched dangerously close to the edge of some of these cliffs. Everyone was walking dogs (all required to be leashed), and I watched as several Border Collies tugged at the ends of their leads, desperate to herd a sheep or two. We also met a couple with a Whippet and Italian Greyhound and stopped to talk to them about our own sight hound.

We left Rhossili and headed back towards Cardiff stopping off at King Arthur’s Stone. Yes, straight from the legend, this is the supposed stone from which King Arthur supposedly pulled his sword. The stone even has the cleft from which the sword was allegedly pulled. And yes, the scenery was beautiful here, and the stone was interesting, and John gave us a running stream of information about the area, the stone, etc. But to be honest, I wasn’t really listening because I was so interested in the wild ponies that were scattered all over the place! A little foal made a high-pitched whinny sound, and with his ears starkly forward and his little tail flipping in the air, he made a mad dash across the plains as fast as his knobbly little knees would carry him. He was absolutely precious, and all of us were madly trying to snap pictures to capture the moment. Apparently the government takes care of these wild horses, and Jan told us that the tour guides also keep a look-out for them—they note which horses are in foal and if any new foals have been born. They make sure that in the dead-cold of winter, the horses are directed toward neighboring barns, and yet they are allowed their freedom all the rest of the year. It’s all very heart-warming, actually.

We arrived back in Cardiff to a town that was completely shut down. It was Sunday, and it was past five o’clock, but I mean—the place was a ghost town. On a whim, we wandered past The Royal Arcade, and stared woefully through its darkened windows at the little antique bus. It seemed unlikely we would be able to purchase it since we would need to leave for Liverpool early in the morning—probably before the store even opened.

For now, our main concern was where to eat dinner, as really—everything seemed closed. We had seen a Brazilian restaurant in the bottom of the hotel, so we thought it might be open for business travelers who came through the city. I checked the times as we returned to our hotel, and yes, it would be open. We decided to wander down there around 6:30 or so.

We arrived at Viva Brazil! at 6:45 that evening, and it was then we realized where everyone in Cardiff had gone. The place was packed! Loud, festive, Brazilian music blared from inside, and we were told that our names would need to wait for a table. We were shocked! But there was nowhere else to go, and the smells inside were wonderful, so we elbowed our way up to the bar to order some drinks.
Since I had really not enjoyed but a couple of good red wines since arriving in the UK, I decided to go with a white wine instead and see if I had better luck with that. So I was completely horrified when I saw the bar tender put four ice cubes into my wine glass.

“No!” I called out, directing Stephen to get the bar tender’s attention. “I don’t want ice in my wine! No, no, no!”

Stephen swiftly grabbed the glass before the bartender turned back around with the open bottle and dumped the ice cubes onto the other side of the bar. The startled bartender looked at us.
“I didn’t want ice in my wine,” I announced.

“No, that was to the chill the glass,” he told us.

We smacked ourselves in the forehead, laughing with embarrassment.

“Are you from the states?” he asked.

We nodded, wondering if he’d had other Americans dump ice cubes onto the floor of the bar, fearful that their wine would be tainted.

Once we got seated, the eating festivities began. In case you’ve never been in one, Brazilian restaurants are gorge-fests. They carry unlimited amounts of meat around on a stake, shaving off pieces onto your plate. You eat a piece of chicken, and within two minutes they’re back at your table with ham; you finish the ham, and they’re back with steak; you finish the steak, and they’re back with more ham. It just goes on and on—it is never ending eating. This is a hero’s quest to eat as much as you can, and leave feeling utterly sick. I tried four different kinds of meat, and I was done (stick a fork in me) and ready to become a vegetarian. Actually, the meat was terrific—tasty, well-seasoned, tender—but there was just so much of it!

Finally, we rolled back upstairs to our room and collapsed on the bed in a food coma. The next day, we would be off to Liverpool for Operation Beatles.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Britain Revisited: Day 4


In my opinion, British Rail has improved over the past ten years or so. Maybe the average Briton would disagree with me, and I really only had a few days to view its workings, but it seemed a little more efficient than usual. I recall frequent and long delays, lags of service, and areas of the country where one could feasible be stranded—as there was no way to get from “here to there.” Our travel by train was relatively seamless, except for our first leg from Paddington Station in London to Cardiff, Wales.

Our train was delayed by 40 minutes, and while we waited, we sat in one of the cafes and drank horrendous coffee. The boards listed the cause of delay as “Crew and Supply Displacement.”  How do you displace a crew? What supplies were displaced, and how on earth did this displacement occur? Like any bold American would do, Stephen finally approached the service desk to ask how long the delay might be, and he was told by a snarky woman in a tone meant to send him away forever, “It will only be a few minutes!”

Once the platform of the train’s departure was announced, there was a mad rush of people all running for the train and clambering aboard. The train moved along without any further delay, and an announcement followed shortly. “We apologize for any inconvenience caused by the delay at Paddington Station. This was mainly due to an assault on a crew member and a resulting smashed window. We are in the process of finding seats for those without ones.”

Passengers on the train lifted eyes and eyebrows, pursing their lips as if to say, “My! That’s quite something!” I was simply amazed at their honesty! And sure enough, when I walked through the train later to get a snack in the food car, I saw that five rows had been sectioned off with caution tape, and bits of glass still sparkled in the seats (although the window had been repaired).

As we had already passed through several stations on our way to Cardiff, the breezeways between each car on the train were littered with bodies who had boarded with no place to sit. Some actually slept on the floor in front of the bathrooms! I had to travel through about five rail cars to get to the café, and as I entered the food car, I found that it had been transformed into a Welsh pub! It was absolutely packed with young, Welshmen all drinking beer and talking about the rugby. (I assumed these were some of the displaced passengers). I had to fight my way through to order my sausage roll, and because it was going to take a few minutes to make, the server suggested to me that I might wait in the next car. “It might be less intimidating there.”

We arrived in Cardiff’s busy, train station that afternoon, and immediately spotted our hotel just across the street! I had booked the hotel randomly with no idea where it was located. We couldn’t have been happier with our good fortune! No cab needed. We could just roll our suitcases across the road.

Of all the places we stayed during this trip, the Maldron Best Western Plus Hotel was my favorite! It was tastefully and artfully decorated, very clean, and had a very decent shower (and that is saying something in the UK where plumbing is an issue).  But we hadn’t a moment to relax, as we only had a day and a half in Cardiff, so we immediately set off for Cardiff Castle with our raincoats and sweaters.  It was actually quite chilly in Cardiff, and the skies were gray and heavy with the threat of rain.

First of all, let me just say that I love Cardiff! It is a pretty capitol city with a well-organized town center. The Welsh are patriotic people, and the streets of Cardiff are lined with the Welsh flag (half green, half white, with a red dragon in the center). There are many shops and shopping centers and places to eat and pubs and friendly people. The streets are clean and there is a feeling there that the town is alive and festive—an overall nice place to be. I think if I had chosen Cardiff as my home base in 1995, I would have liked it very much.

It was already starting to rain a little as we made our way through the town toward the castle, and we stopped off in a shopping center called The Royal Arcade to have a look at some antiques. Stephen spotted an antique toy bus in one of the stores that he really liked. It was a replica of an old tan and brown double-decker bus, and it was well-preserved, still in the box. We should have bought it right then and there, as by the time we returned from the castle, the stores were closed down. The stores close very early in the UK—in Cardiff, the shops were all closed down by 5:30. This is wonderful for their employees, of course—but unfortunate for the consumer.

By the time we reached Cardiff Castle, it was raining pretty hard! It was a strange sort of rain, though. It was coming at us sideways—a misty and thin precipitation—almost like standing in a shower mist. The wind blew the chilly damp into our eyes and against our cheeks, and we cinched our raincoat hoods closed around our faces. 

First of all, I want to say some good things about Cardiff Castle. It holds that rare sort of beauty of which only medieval ruins can boast. It began as a Norman fortress in the 11th century. Over the years, many wars (too many for me to go into here) ensued between the Normans and the Welsh. Finally in the late 1200s, Wales was under the rule of the dynamic leader Llewellyn ap Gruffydd (and this is the time frame that interests me due to a fabulous series of historical novels by Sharon Penfold. The first in the series was titled Here Be Dragons. Oh, it’s wonderful—and Llewellyn comes across like this very romantic, King David sort of character). Anyway, over the years the castle passed through many hands, and in the 19th century, a Victorian edition was added to the original fortress. Parts of the fortress were used during World War II as a bomb shelter, and finally, in 1947, the castle was turned over to the city of Cardiff as a preserved site. And it really is something to behold—both the old and the new.   I love it. But…

All of the information above was not adequately provided to us at the castle. I had to look it all up later (or think back to the information in the novels). Unless you pay to do the guided tour, you do not get a lot of information about the castle origins or any of that. We started off the tour with a 7 minute movie “about the castle.” But it wasn’t about the castle at all. It was 7 minutes of deafening music (most people were holding their fingers in their ears), images of armored warriors slashing at one another, and some completely random side plot of a modern teenage girl and boy carrying drawings of the castle and meeting up with 11th century invaders. No words and no information. It was weird. After that cryptic introduction, we walked through a portion of the castle plastered in newspaper clippings and war posters from 1939-1945. It all seemed random and disorganized, and the whole place looked like it needed a good cleaning. The cobwebs, grime, and mildewed photos were a little disconcerting.

For me, the best part of the castle was the Victorian structure. Restored in 1865 by the Marquess of Bute, it looks a little like a smaller version of Biltmore in Asheville, North Carolina (see pictures). We could only view a portion of the mansion, but the library alone was worth seeing.

Cold and wet, we departed the castle and made our way across the street to The Rummer Tavern (supposedly the oldest pub establishment in Cardiff). There, we chatted with the friendly bartender, had some warming libation, and ate an outstanding baked potato stuffed with cheese and ham and sour cream, and I can’t even remember what other artery-clogging ingredients were included in that monstrosity.

Stephen and I had decided that the following day we would take a day tour to the Gower Peninsula, so we stopped off to book a tour, and continued through the town to wander past the street vendors, and check out the strange man in the center of the square charging folks to attempt to “walk on water.” He had an inflatable pool of some sort surrounded by Plexiglas siding, and we watched as some poor (drunk) soul, whacked his shin trying to jump on top of the water and “walk” across it. He sank. 

We made our way back toward the hotel, noticing that all of the shops were closed, but every pub was full to brimming with people all shouting at television screens (and each other). Wales (and the UK in general) is mad for football (soccer), rugby, and the most boring game every created—cricket (I'm sorry British friends, but I just don't get it. Why don't you have to run?) Every male in Cardiff looked as though they were players of at least one of these games.  As Stephen said, “These guys don’t look like people you’d want to get into a scuffle with.”

That night, however, we learned about another interesting Welsh tradition (actually, I think it takes place all over Britain, but I’d never before witnessed it).

After dinner, Stephen and I stopped by the hotel bar to try out some Welsh beer. We sat off by ourselves, chatting and laughing and recapping the day. Suddenly, four men approached us—one of them dressed as Wonder Woman. We had no idea what was going on, but the one in the costume asked if I would help him apply his make up before they “went out on the town.” In his hands, he held up a brand new tube of vermillion-red lipstick and cornflower blue eye shadow. Well, what could I say? I was the only female there and the only one who could help him out!

Stephen stood by, filming the whole episode, as I took on the role of make-up artist. Afterwards, all of the men thanked us profusely, (I believe one of them told Stephen he was "a scholar and a gentleman") and thinking that they must be going “down the pubs” for some weird contest, I asked what this craziness was all for.

“Oh, it’s his stag night,” one of his friends told us. “He’s getting married next week—to an American girl, actually.”

This bit of information was confirmed minutes later by Wonder Woman himself, as he told us that he was marrying a girl from LA and moving there. We wished him luck, and Stephen sent the video footage to the guys to use as blackmail as they saw fit.

We were to find out later, that this sort of thing (people dressing up in weird costumes) happens every Friday or Saturday night in Cardiff during “stag nights”. We were just fortunate enough to have been in the right place at the right time!

That night Stephen and I got to share a bed for the first night since we arrived in the UK! After all of the excitement, I couldn’t sleep, however, so I was forced to sit up watching another episode of Big Brother and wondering—how many nights a week can this show possibly be on?

Britain Revisited: Day 3

Hampstead Heath is an extraordinary place in North London. If you’ve never been there, I highly recommend it. I went there often when I was living in London to clear my head, pontificate on life, write in my journal, or just to eat a picnic lunch on Parliament Hill overlooking the city below. It is peaceful, woodsy, massive (800 acres), and quite literary (John Keats’s house is there, for instance). Anytime anyone ever visited me in London, I took them to the heath. It is worthy of several hours of time spent.

So it was, on the third day of our visit, Stephen and I decided to combine a visit to Abbey Road and, weather permitting, Hampstead Heath.

Stephen is an avid Beatles fan, so Abbey Road was a no-brainer. As first order of the day, we took the northern line to Swiss Cottage and found Abbey Road with no problem (although it is so inconspicuous that one could miss it!) Besides the road sign itself, the only other distinguishing factor marking this the crossing made famous by the four men on the cover of their Abbey Road album was the small crowd of Asian tourists running back and forth across the road and taking pictures of each other. And this is a busy intersection! Cars zoom through, and you kind of have to run across Abbey Road rather than walk it. In a brief lull, I was able to film Stephen striding back and forth across it, and he was happy.

We continued down to Abbey Road Studios, located in a white, two-storied building just next to the crossing. It is gated, so you have to stand on the outside of the gate and poke your camera through the bars to take pictures. What’s really interesting about this place is all of the graffiti on the walls surrounding it—little illustrations of John Lennon and Ringo Starr and lyrics from their songs adorn the white-washed cement. Love notes and sentiments of respect cover the entire wall in front of the studios—artwork in and of itself—all accumulated over the decades.

 Our Beatles quest complete, and since it was not yet raining (although the sky threatened it), Stephen and I consulted a map to see how best to travel to Hampstead Heath. Still energized from the whole Abbey Road experience, and because I could see the place marker for “South Hampstead” on the map, I decided it must be possible to walk from there. I was sure that South Hampstead and West Hampstead must be very close to the village of Hampstead (need I be trite and remind what happens when we assume…?). We began our walk, chatting animatedly, observing the beautiful old row houses and expensive residences all around us. Because Hampstead is a suburb (or borough as they call them there) of London, it was much quieter than in the center of the city with nary a tourist in sight! Half an hour later, we reached a more rundown area of South Hampstead. I began to worry a little then, as I realized this looked nothing like the village. It began to rain a little, but we plowed ahead, into West Hampstead—an area of London I had never entered and did not know at all. An hour and a half later, we still were nowhere near the village of Hampstead, and the cold rain was coming down hard, pelting us in the face as we struggled along. Feeling less energetic suddenly, we ducked into a shopping mall, recovering for a few moments in a bookstore where I consulted a much more up-to-date London A-Z than the one I had. To my horror, I realized that we had nearly walked a complete circle. I could actually see Swiss Cottage, the tube stop from which we had walked to Abbey Road, located just a few streets over from us. Within a few more meters, we would have walked all the way back to where we started.

Suddenly, I harkened back to my grandmother Carol, who once told me that I had inherited her terrible sense, or complete lack, of direction. I really do have serious impairment in this area. If there is a wrong way to go, I will take it. Thankfully, Stephen has excellent sense of direction, and he was able to redirect us toward our goal before we both dropped from exhaustion. We found a bus stop promising a soon-to-arrive bus headed toward Hampstead, and once it came, we took it. This delivered us to the village, but we still had to walk to the Heath. By the time we arrived at the Heath, it was lunch time, and we were both starving and desperate to sit down. This being the case, I was only able to show Stephen the sign to the heath, a pond that was just a few feet from the entrance, and some trailer park that had mysteriously materialized on the property—much less impressive  than the grand views of the city, the beauty of Kenwood House, or the tranquility of the duck-laden ponds.
Abandoning the heath idea, we made our way back to the village where we found a nice little pub called George IV, and had a magnificent (and very reasonably priced) lunch of pan-sauteed Chilean Seabass on a bed of fresh spinach, peppers, and rice. Excellent value!

Feeling somewhat refreshed and ready to set out once more, we walked to the Hampstead tube station and took it back into the city. We were just stopping off at King’s Cross Station to purchase our rail tickets for Wales the next day, when I realized that I had forgotten to show Stephen a very important tourist monument—Harrod’s! Now, if you don’t know about Harrod’s, the only thing I can say is this: imagine Nordstrom’s, Lord and Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, and any other outrageously expensive retailer, and add about 50% to the cost of every item in their stores. Then put all of those stores together on one plot of land, and add about five more stores to them. Harrod’s is absolutely gargantuan! It fills several blocks in London’s Knightsbridge area, and it is very easy to get lost in the store itself. Harrod’s is not a place where you actually buy anything, however—at least not for the average joe. It is one of those places where you observe a T-shirt that costs $150 and a pair of sunglasses for $2,500. Personally, I don’t really like to look at things I can’t buy, so I don’t even bother with the clothing sections. I usually go for the gift shop section, as there are some nice carrier bags, key chains, and decks of cards emblazoned with Harrod’s brand name, which are all affordable. The store has several restaurants, an entire food department filled with all sorts of traditionally English selections, a dog grooming section, and a pet store filled with luxurious dog beds, toys, and pet pampering products.

On this day, however, the store was packed with tourists. I hadn’t realized it, but this was the anniversary of Princess Diana’s death, and the store had erected a memorial to Diana and Dodi on the ground floor. Unfortunately, they set it up just in front of the escalators, and the tourists gathering around the display actually blocked the stairs to the next floor. Fighting through the crowd and through a moment of claustrophobia, we made it to the next floor. But in fact, every floor was overrun with people, so after about twenty minutes, we found our way to an exit and back onto the tube—both of us desperate for a lie-down before our dinner with Rebecca and Sharon that night.

We arrived at Embankment station later that afternoon and walked the footbridge over the Thames. We were to meet Rebecca before dinner for a drink at a pub on the South Bank, affording us more time to catch up and drink in the sights of the Thames and the London skyline. At the risk of sounding terribly nostalgic and cheesy, I have to pause for a moment to talk about the footbridge from Embankment tube station to South Bank. When I lived in London in the 90s, I was so in love with this spot that I went to it almost every weekend. I think it’s the best view of London, personally. At that time, my twenty-four or five-year-old desire was that I would get engaged on this bridge. And well….that didn’t happen. But something better did. I walked across it with my husband nearly twenty years later. Sniff! Okay, sappy moment over.  I’ll post the pictures…

For dinner that night, Rebecca had chosen a marvelous Italian restaurant with astounding views of the Tower Bridge in the distance.  Sharon, another friend I had not seen in ten years, was to meet us there. The Tower Bridge is an unbelievably majestic and impressive structure during the day, but when it is lit up at night, it is simply breathtaking! It was built as a draw-bridge and created in order to solve a traffic problem, and today, the bascules that lift the bridge are still operated by hydraulics as they were when the bridge was built in the 19th century (although they are no longer powered by steam as they once were). 

The view of The Tower Bridge was magnificent, but not nearly as magnificent as it was to spend time with Sharon and Rebecca—two wonderful women who have impacted my life greatly. As Rebecca so aptly pegged the sentiment—friendships that “transcend time” are so important and so sweet in a life which is ever-changing and rarely constant. It also means much to me that these friendships live thousands of miles away, yet when we are together, we pick right up again. Beautiful.

Anyway, a wild and wonderful time was had by all. In fact, we closed down the restaurant and barely made the last tube out of the East End (the last ones run around midnight). This reminds me of a story from my past with which I will close our London saga.

Back in 1996, I once left the city very late at night aboard a night bus that I realized was going in the wrong direction. Frantically, I hopped off in an area of the East End known as “The Cut.” I didn’t think it was a particularly safe area, but I knew I was going the wrong way, so I had no choice. Panicked, I called Rebecca from a pay phone (this was before cell phones, of course), asking her for the number of a cab company. 

“Where are you?” she asked.

“I don’t know!” I cried, desperately looking for a street name.

“Well, how will you call a cab company if you don’t know where you are?” She had a good point.

A drunken man in a suit staggered up the street, and I leaned out of the phone booth to call out to him: “Excuse me! Do you know what street we’re on?”

He looked up at the buildings, obviously as lost (or at least as ignorant about the street name) as I was. “Sorry. No idea,” he said.

Just then, I saw the blessed, blessed orange light of a cabbie as the car made its way up the street toward me.  “A cab’s coming!” I told Rebecca. “I’m going to flag it down!”

I ran into the middle of the street, flailing my arms. When the cab stopped, I clutched the open window like a life preserver, sniveling into the poor man’s face. “I only have 7 pounds and I’m trying to get home to Notting Hill Gate. Would you take me west, as far as 7 pounds will go?”

The man agreed. But instead of dropping me off in Central London or South Kensington or some point along the way, the dear man drove me all the way back to Notting Hill Gate—a 9 pound fare—forfeiting complete payment and his tip. I will never forget his kindness.

That memory (and so many others from this great city) was etched into my mind as we parted ways with Rebecca at her tube stop. We would carry on to Queensway station, and the next day we would move on to Wales. Our time in London had been short, but for me, it was a healing and redemptive visit. When I left London in 1997, I was an emotional wreck—filled with fears and despair that I had to leave this London life. Now, with peace in my heart, I realized that everything had worked out exactly as it should have.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Britain Revisited (Day 2)

When we awoke on day 2 in London, we were starving and very excited to have our complimentary continental breakfast in the downstairs of the hotel. I was looking forward to toast with jam, yogurt, oatmeal, and maybe lovely fruit of some sort. To my great disappointment, the continental breakfast was a choice of white or wheat roll or a croissant. Faced with choiceless choices, I chose a croissant and some watery coffee with watery milk. The croissant turned out to be very tasty, actually, but coffee in the UK has always left me cold.

Afterwards we took the tube to Westminster, relieved to not be faced with hordes of people so early in the day. As part of our Original London Sightseeing Tour, we received a free River Thames cruise. We could have taken it all the way to Greenwich, but we chose to go only to the first stop—the Tower of London. This was a really nice cruise on the Thames led by a knowledgeable seaman who pointed out the sights as we passed them.

When I lived in London, The London Eye had not yet been built, nor had The Shard, and to be truthful, I’m just not sure about either of them. They are interesting formations, to be sure, but somehow I don’t feel either of them belong in London. The Eye is a gigantic Ferris wheel (443 feet tall) built in 1999. Each “cart” (or pods as they are called) are completely glassed in, affording a view of the city. It takes roughly thirty-five minutes to go all the way around. We chose not to do this in the interests of conserving cash and time (cost: 19 pounds or around $30). The Shard is another potential observation point. It is called “The Shard” because it was built to look like a shard of broken glass (hmmmm….). It just opened to the public this year, and at 87 stories, it isn’t even completely finished, but no time has been wasted in charging people admission to see what they can from the finished portion. The view is from floors 67, 68, and 69, and it affords a 360 degree view of London.  I have to admit that The Shard’s appearance is fascinating, but I prefer the older, aged buildings that London has to offer. Anyway, we chose not to do The Shard in the interests of conserving cash and time (cost to enter: 25 pounds or around $38).

At any rate, we decided to press on toward the Tower of London, a fortress with tales to tell about horrendous and brutal torture, tons of beheadings, and imprisonment of many a noble man or woman (and even a few queens). Once there, we joined the very long queue, happy that we had already purchased our ticket with the sightseeing tour. Everyone in the line was miffed as an odd-looking couple holding hands cut through the line, pushing their way up to the front. But in proper English decorum, no one said a thing to them—they only muttered under their breaths, “What are they doing? Can you believe it?” It took some time to get to the front of the line, but once we did, we were told by the ticket taker that our tickets from the bus company were not entrance to the Tower. Shocked, we exited the line, cursing the name of the tour company, sure that they had stiffed us. “Crooks!” my husband announced. “They completely jipped us! They charged us for the tickets and then did not give them to us.”

Feeling sure that we were going to have to buy new tickets for entrance, we went over to join that line.  “Let’s look at the receipt,” I said. “Maybe we could take the receipt back to the sightseeing company and tell them they didn’t give us tickets.” Stephen began to shuffle through his wallet finally producing the receipt, and as he unfolded it, out fell the tickets. Smacking ourselves in the forehead and feeling very thankful that we didn’t pay twice for entrance, we rejoined the back of the line.

I have been to The Tower once before, but now that I had seen the entire season of The Tudors, it took on new meaning. (Isn’t it amazing how a veritable soap opera from HBO can produce such an appetite for historical knowledge?)

The Tower was built in 1080, and it has a long history with which I will not bore anyone. The main time period I find interesting (along with most people, I would think) is that of the 1500s when Henry VIII had dreams of making this a royal home for him and his second wife, Anne Boleyn. Alas, Anne lost her head there and so did another one of his wives. Anne Boleyn was accused of adultery and executed by a swordsman from Calais brought especially for this reason.  Our yeoman tour guide (also known as a “Beefeater”) was only too adept at telling the stories of the Tower executions. In fact, as he relayed the story of Anne’s beheading, he finished with the punch line: “So expertly and quickly was Anne’s head removed, that when they lifted her severed head to the crowd, her mouth was still chattering.” At this grisly detail, the little girl standing in front of us, threw her arms around her mother’s waist and buried her head. Nightmares for years to come. These guys are good! They earn their pay!

There is a chapel on the property that is still used for Sunday services today, and I was very impressed at their treatment of this site. The yeoman asked all who entered to show respect. Gentlemen were to remove their hats and everyone was asked to treat it as a place of worship. It is an absolutely beautiful little chapel with lovely stained glass windows and embroidered kneeling pads for prayer. There is an empty crypt in the center built especially for a couple who wanted to be buried there but never was. And apparently when renovations for the chapel began in the 1800s, Anne Boleyn’s remains were uncovered (as she had been buried in an unmarked grave in the churchyard, I’m not sure how they knew it was her, but I’ll go with it), and she was buried with a marble marker that now shows in the floor of the chapel.

The Crown Jewels are also to be found at The Tower, but the queue for that looked to be around 4,000 people long, so we imagined them in our mind and carried on. Actually, at this point, my feet were hurting so bad, and I was so regretting my purchase of these adorable shoes, that I actually had to sit down on a bench. Earlier I had purchased what the British call “plasters” (band aids) and literally plastered my feet in them, but now the ends of the shoes were attempting to push my toes towards my heels, so it seemed a hopeless case.

Limping along, I followed Stephen from The Tower, and we made our way outside where we were to meet my dear friend Rebecca for lunch. Back in 1995 when I first arrived in London, Rebecca took me in for several days while I looked for a job and a place to live. I had arrived in the city knowing no one and feeling terribly homesick. She helped me immeasurably, telling me good versus bad places to live, where to look for jobs, etc. Later, when I returned to live in London in 1997, we were flat mates, and I can’t count the number of nights she sat up with me when I cried my eyes out over a romance gone bad. It was wonderful to see her again, and I was eager to introduce her to Stephen. She looked the same and we picked up exactly where we left off, making our way into the East End of London for some fish and chips at a very nice pub called The Cheshire Cheese.

I must take a moment here to remark on how impressed I was with East London. When I lived there, it was an area of town to avoid. Run down and dirty, there was little cheer to be had in that part of town.  Now, it is refurbished, trendy, and a delight to patronize and walk.

And walk, we did. After leaving Rebecca’s good company, we made our way to St. Paul’s Cathedral. Architect Sir Christopher Wren built this magnificent building, probably sometime in the late 1600s after the original burned in the Great Fire. It truly is beautiful, but as we entered the building, we found that the fee would be 16 pounds, so we chose not to enter in the interests of cost and time. Instead Stephen walked (and I hobbled) through the East End, all the way down Fleet Street into the Theatre District. Just as we approached Covent Garden, the wind began whipping around us, and all of the tourists who had been with us yesterday in Westminster were suddenly in Covent Garden. People began to speed walk and then run, packing into every available nook and covered cranny possible. The semi-covered market-place of Covent Garden, which I had so wanted to show Stephen, was now unbearable. We couldn’t move! Stephen just wanted to find a place to sit down and have a coffee someplace, but there was literally nowhere to stand, much less sit.

We decided that this was the perfect moment to purchase me a new pair of walking shoes, so we ducked into a Skechers store, where I got a nice pair of dark grey and hot pink trainers (as they call them over there—a British word for tennis shoes). These blessed, blessed shoes were worth every penny of the 51 pounds we paid. I wore them every day (and night if possible) after that. These little bits of rubber and fabric were quite literally a God-send! I never again donned my cute Dr. Scholl’s shoes while in the UK.

From Covent Garden we walked over to Leicester Square. When I was there in 1997 and worked for Soho Theatre, I used to have to hand out promotional flyers in the square—a painful and humiliating experience, I can assure you.  Leicester Square is always bustling with people no matter what time of day you visit. In the theatre district, it consists of the Hippodrome, several cinemas, and too many restaurants to count. We plopped down in a café just on the edge of the square to have a coffee and people watch. The best part of this experience was witnessing the people flooding into the square and walk straight into one of the four guard poles at the entrance. “Oompf!” “Oh!” “Throooonnnnnnnnggggg!” (the metal pole vibrating). “Where did that pole come from?” One man asked as he walked way holding his groin. Stephen and I haven’t had such a good laugh in ages!

Afterwards, we walked over to the National Gallery of Art where we wandered through room after room until we were bored and desperately trying to find the exit (which took us close to half an hour). The exit led us back to Trafalgar Square where the Scots were still climbing the statues, waving their arms, and brandishing their blue chicken in a proud challenge to the tyrannical English. I wondered—did they camp out here? How many days did their campaign last?

But there was one place in particular that I really wanted to go. You see, when I lived in London the first time and worked at St. Thomas Hospital, I had a very dear friend name Anne (with whom I have since lost touch). She took me to a wonderful little cellar wine bar called The Cork and Bottle. It was literally below street level, but so charming and quaint. Anne and I used to go there sometimes after work, and I attended her wedding reception there as well. At any rate, Stephen and I returned to Leicester Square to find this place, and when we did—unbeknownst to me—we entered from the back (not the front) door. The room we entered looked so unfamiliar and strange, that when the hostess approached and asked if we had booked, I was suddenly rendered mute. I was processing where in the world I was, but it came across as, “I…oh, I was wondering if…Oh, I don’t know…I …”

Mercifully, the poor woman tried to help my inarticulateness. “We’re totally booked up for tables just now. But if you would you like to book for say, six o’clock?”

“No,” I replied, feeling deflated. “No, no. We’ll just ….I ….think we’ll…oh, I….”

Stephen piped up then (Oh, thank you Stephen!). “We just want to have a glass of wine.”

She smiled and motioned us toward another door. “Oh, of course! Just pop over to the bar and they’ll serve you.”

And as we walked into the second room, it all came back to me. The little tables, the beautiful bar area, the friendly and intimate atmosphere—even the little brass plaque where I sat that marked a “reserved” spot for a deceased patron.

“What happened to you?” Stephen asked as we got seated. “I thought you’d lost it for a minute. I didn’t know what you were saying…she didn’t know what you were saying,” he laughed. “You didn’t make one lick of sense with what you were saying.”

Sudden aphasia aside, I had the best glass of wine in The Cork and Bottle that I had the whole time we were in the UK.

Afterwards, we made our way to a Thai Restaurant in Soho called Patara, very near where I used to work at the theatre. There, I tried duck for the first time and Stephen had outstanding beef. I highly recommend the place. The food was delicious, the atmosphere exotic, and the service irreproachable. When we emerged from the restaurant, the streets were teeming with late night revelries (when are they not in London?), and we made our way through the crowds to my old stomping ground at 21 Dean Street.

When I came to London to work as a literary assistant for this theatre in 1997, the building itself was an old synagogue that they were planning to renovate as a four-tiered theatre/writer’s center/educational venue/bar. I had seen the blueprints in 1997, but now I saw the site in its finished glory. And it was spectacular! I only wished we’d had time to see a performance there, but generally, I was overcome with nostalgia. Sniffing and holding back a few tears, I forged ahead, back to the future where we made our way to Tottenham Court Road, caught a smelly, squashy tube to Queensway, and collapsed on our beds at the hotel. Not quite ready to sleep, I turned on the "tele", only to find yet another episode of Big Brother! I watched in fascinated horror as twin brothers were ousted from the show on this night, and in unison they blew kisses to the camera.  

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Britain Revisited (Day 1)

I have been an Anglophile for as long as I can remember. I attribute this to two main factors: 1) My mother’s second husband was half-English, and 2) my grandfather was also an anglophile. His library was filled with British nick-knacks; he owned a Morris Minor that he drove occasionally on Sundays; he loved James Herriot books and BBC mysteries on television, and he ordered magazine subscriptions to This England.

In 1994 I went to Great Britain for the first time to visit a friend, and we traveled all over England, Wales, and Scotland. Upon returning home, I decided it wasn’t good enough just to visit the country and made it my life’s goal to live in the UK. I obtained a student work visa and went to “live” there in 1995. My original plan was to go to Cardiff, Wales to work, but after three days in London I decided that I could do no better, so I stayed. When my visa ran out, I dutifully returned to the US, but within less than a year, I was back for more, and in 1997 I did another seven month stint in London, at which time I worked in a theatre. After my visa ran out again, and I was out of options (I couldn’t find anyone to marry me and no one would risk penalties and fines to hire me illegally), I returned home broken-hearted and certain that at twenty-five, my life was completely done for.

I went back for visits three more times, the last in 2003, so it was with great anticipation that I returned with my husband this summer for a ten day visit to England, Wales, and Scotland. I was eager to see what, if anything, had changed. More importantly, I wondered what it would feel like to once more set foot in this magical land in which, at one time, all my hopes had rested.

In the past, whenever I arrived in London I had always taken the Piccadilly Line from Heathrow airport to the heart of London, but this time we had prearranged transport to our hotel. This was an unusual experience, as I had never before arrived only to search for someone holding up a cardboard plaque with identification. In this instance, we arrived to a sea of cab drivers holding up plaques, none of which were for us. Finally, we found the kiosk for the company providing the transfer. After the woman working the kiosk called up our assigned driver, she remarked that he was actually looking for us. He did arrive minutes later, looking harried and panting apologies.

We shared the transfer into London with an Australian lady whose lodging was not far from ours in Bayswater. Once into Central London, however, the cabbie began asking us the location of our hotels. Uh-oh. Not a good sign. He tried dropping the Australian lady at the wrong hotel, and she adamantly, and rightly, refused to be dropped off there. “This is the Thistle Hotel. I am not at the Thistle.”
He immediately sped off in a different direction—actually passing our hotel on Queensborough Terrace, and winding down several bumpy, narrow side roads, only to once more arrive in the wrong place. Sighing with irritation, the Australian read off the address to him again. He adjusted his GPS, apologizing for its inaccuracies, and sped off in yet another direction, finally delivering the woman to the correct hotel. We then backtracked all the way over to our hotel, missing it again, and making a U-turn, the cabbie finally arrived at our hotel’s doorstep. Thus began my re-visitation of London after some ten years.

I had certainly not forgotten that London lodgings were small. When I lived in Notting Hill Gate area in 1995, I lived in a closet. I kid you not. Most people’s walk-in closets are bigger than the tiny bedsit in which I dwelt. I sort of expected the hotels to be a little larger, I suppose—and I was proved partially correct. Our room was the size of a hallway. At the end of the hallway, two twin beds had been shoe-horned into it. The bathroom was the size of a closet (and not a walk in). If you were a large person, it would have been a hopeless case, as you had to belly-up to the edge of the door in order to squeeze your way to the toilet. Even so, the room was clean, and we were hardly ever there anyway.

When you fly from D.C. into London, you arrive at 6:30 or 7:00 a.m. in the morning, so you have an entire day to see how much coffee you can ingest in order to stay awake until at least 6 or 7 in the evening. I took a short cut and popped a Claritin-D, and was sufficiently awake and alert until well after that (not to mention my sinuses were clear). One of the first places we went was Kensington Gardens, as it was just across from our hotel, not far from Hyde Park, and we were anxious to walk somewhere.

Kensington Gardens is a park of a mere 242 acres. You immediately feel that you’re not in a big city once you’ve entered, and it is everything you would expect from an English park—ponds, ducks, lovely foliage, old trees, fountains, etc.  It is home to Kensington Palace where Princess Diana once lived, and a little less exciting, but still very nice—the Italian Gardens, the Peter Pan statue (very cool, actually) and my favorite—the Serpentine are all to be found there as well. Now, the Serpentine has a fascinating history. It was originally formed in the 1730s by a series of dams and the vision of a royal gardener, but in 1816 (this is the really interesting part) Percy Bysshe Shelley’s pregnant wife, Harriet Westbrook, drowned herself in the waters. Shelley was so distraught, that he married Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin two weeks later. More recently (and much less interestingly) the waters were used during the 2012 Olympics for the swimming competition part of the triathlon.

Kensington Gardens is criss-crossed with plenty of walking paths—and they’re usually pretty peaceful. On this day, however, these paths were like busy thoroughfares. People were everywhere, as it was a relatively nice day (meaning not yet raining). As we walked along, we noticed that whichever side of the path we chose appeared to be the wrong side. We tried walking on the right and had to walk into the grass to avoid people. We walked on the left, and we were constantly dodging groups walking three and four thick. People simply did not give way! It was exhausting and very frustrating, and we never did figure out the formula.

We left the park and made our way to Marble Arch, in the hopes of taking one of those tacky-touristy sight-seeing buses against which we had been warned. The fact of the matter was that we only had three days in London, and I wanted Stephen to see as much of the city as possible. After walking for what felt like forever (I had forgotten how much walking one does in London), we found a spot where a plethora of tourist buses parked. We chose one and embarked upon the top tier like any good tourist would do, and set off across the city. I should point out—as it pertains to tomorrow’s installment –that at the same time we bought the bus ticket, we upgraded to the 48 hour pass, which included a free River Thames cruise (and at an additional cost, we bought entrance to the Tower).

We got off the bus at Westminster, thinking we might want to go inside Westminster Abbey, but we never even got close to the Abbey’s front door. Westminster was literally swarming with tourists just like us. Admittedly, I did not live in London during the summer the first time. The second time I did, but I avoided all tourist attractions because I was so determined to fit in with the culture and not be a tourist. I used to work very near Big Ben and pass it every day on the bridge, but I have never, never seen so many tourists in one place in my life! That walking problem that I spoke of in Kensington Gardens was suddenly multiplied by ten. We weaved and bobbed through the crowds, losing each other several times behind camera-wielding mobs that formed barricades against movement. They all looked up at the sky, pointing their cameras, and although we very much wanted to take pictures, we were simultaneously trying not to be run over by buses and cars, and in desperation, we finally slipped down onto the walkway of the Southbank on the opposite side of the river in front of St. Thomas’ Hospital. There we could breathe a little and take some shots.

At lunch time, I used my cell phone’s GPS to locate a good pub. Of course, there is only a pub on every corner, but we wanted to use Trip Advisor’s good judgment and get one of the top ten. And we decided to walk it. My GPS said it was only five minutes away, but I had used the driving and not the walking gauge. Fifteen minutes later, we were still walking. We ducked and dodged through conglomerates of tourists as we made our way down Victoria Street towards Belgravia and were finally lost in the mess of construction at Victoria Station. The GPS was soon confused as well, and I whipped out my trusty London A-Z map from 1995 to help out. Unfortunately, I seem to have acquired a bit of that eye impairment that occurs with age, and the streets were so tiny I couldn’t make out the writing. I never had that problem when I was twenty-five!

So we walked and walked and walked until the tourists turned into disgruntled business men and women who hurtled past us like meteorites and made us feel like we were standing still. Finally, gasping for breath and becoming stroppy (Britishism meaning grumpy) with one another due to hunger, we made it to the pub we were seeking, had a nice lunch, and set off again, only to find the bus stop to re-embark our bus was not where we thought it was.

I should mention here, that early on in the trip—just before we left Dulles airport, in fact—I realized that I had not purchased proper shoes for this sort of walking. Admittedly, I bought the shoes because they were cute, but they also bore the Dr. Scholl’s brand, so I assumed comfort would not be an issue. By this point in our journey (i.e. halfway through the first day), my toes had lost all feeling, and the bone on the top of my foot felt as though it was in the process of relocating to my arch. I was never so glad to finally find a bus stop where we could catch our sightseeing bus. Once aboard, we did not disembark for the next two and a half hours.

The tour was wonderful, actually! We sat back and watched London go by. We made our way through the West End, the theatre district, Trafalgar Square, which had been invaded by thousands of screaming Scots wearing kilts and wielding a humongous blue chicken. (I thought perhaps they were protesting something, but then I realized that many of them were singing and holding pints in the air, so it turns out it was simply the eve of some big game between Scotland and England). Even so, as we sat comfortably on the bus, Stephen pointed out to me that it was getting close to the time in which I needed to make an important phone call. I had a telephonic appointment for 7:45 and needed to get back to the hotel. This slight hint of concern grew as traffic built all around us in the East End, and the bus moved slower and slower. In our angst and impatience, once we thought we had arrived back in the vicinity of Marble Arch, we jumped off …only it turned out to be one (or maybe two) stop(s) too early. “We’ll walk to Marble Arch, go in the tube station, buy an Oyster pass, and ride the tube to Queensway!” I announced triumphantly, as we careened recklessly through masses of people, obviously still walking on the wrong side of the sidewalk—whichever that was.

Fifteen minutes later, as we huffed and puffed towards the tube station, I began to realize that I had not timed this well at all. The tube station was not large, and it was crammed with people all coming from work, zooming around like they were on roller skates.

An Oyster Pass is new to me. They did not have them when I lived in London, and they really are a wonderful alternative to buying a pass to limited zones in the city for a day or two. You put whatever amount of money you want on the card and then use it on public transport and even some London attractions. I felt sure that with this Oyster card, we would speed up our return time to the hotel by at least half.

But as the great Scottish poet Robbie Burns once warned, “The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry…” We tried one machine, only to find that we couldn’t buy Oyster cards there. Another machine wouldn’t let us use our debit card to purchase (or at least we couldn’t figure out how to get it to work), so with much frustration, we finally decided to wait in the very long queue to buy one at the window. Stephen was showing mild signs of panic, so I tried to feign nonchalance, even though my head was about to explode with stress.

Finally, Oyster cards in hand, we took off through the throngs of people pulsating in and out of the electronic ticket-takers, carried along with the crowd as though on a massive wave. Deep into the bowels of Marble Arch we descended—one set of moving steps, then another, further and further down. Stephen told me he was beginning to feel claustrophobic, and I reminded him that the underground had been used as bomb shelters during World War II (although I don’t think that made him feel any better).

Underground station claustrophobia certainly is nothing compared to stuffing oneself onto a packed 5:30 p.m. train, where no one (especially not British Rail) seems to think that there is a maximum capacity to a rail car. With our faces pressed into the next person’s arm pit, we zipped along to Lancaster Gate where more people managed to squash themselves inside. Fortunately (and probably the only reason I’m writing now) we only had to hold our breath for two stops.

Once we got back to our hotel, a coldish rain drizzled from the sky, and I exhaled, thinking we had just missed the rain and made the deadline for me to look over my notes before the phone call. Minutes later, however, I discovered that it would be impossible to use the phone I’d planned for the international conversation. To use my cell phone would cost a fortune, so out into the rain I went, in search of a prepaid phone card. Alas, the old phone cards I used to buy when I lived in London are now apparently used by no one but desperate bums (as that’s the sort of look I got from every shopkeeper I asked). As I ran from Boots (a pharmacy), to a mobile phone shop, to a convenience shop, the sneers and blank looks (which sometimes accompanied the sneers) made it plain to me that I was Rip Van Winkle and had slept through the technological awakening. Nowhere could I find a prepaid phone card, as they had all been replaced by the apparently superior SIM cards.

With absolutely no time to spare, I made one last ditch effort:  the newsagent. At first the two middle-eastern men behind the counter looked at me with the same confusion and disdain, but then I saw remembrance dawn in the eyes of the older of the two. Hooray! He recalled those bygone, archaic days of prepaid phone cards.  “Give her a 5 pound one,” he said to the cashier, pointing to some secret place under the counter where taboo items were tucked away from the general public. The cashier handed over the card, looking at me as though I were a pathetic beggar in the street. Pride was not an issue here—I had a way to make a phone call!

Rushing back to the hotel in the now relatively heavy rain (and only getting lost once), I arrived to find my husband nearly demented with worry—and with my adrenaline pumping, I managed to look over my notes and have my international phone interview.

The rest of the night was much less eventful, as we ate Italian in a chain restaurant followed by watching strange and wonderful British reality shows on BBC. Something called Master Chef, a cooking competition, was fun, and then Hotel Inspector –a show about a woman who saves struggling hotels and highlights their loopy owners, was extremely entertaining. Alas, a terrible reality show—the British Big Brother aired after those. I haven’t watched the American version of this catastrophic television program in some years, but I think I can safely say that the British version is even more conniving, nasty, back-stabbing, lascivious, and any other negative adjective you can think of.

Finally, feeling sure we’d accumulated enough exciting tales for our first day in the UK, we each went to our own twin bed for a good night’s sleep, where I spent some time before drifting off musing on why London’s tap water tastes so much better than ours at home.