Saturday, August 24, 2013
Britain Revisited (Day 1)
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.