London; Hunger and Games

1 Jun

Apparently I’m supposed to be imploring you to “Like” or “Follow” me or some damn thing. If you find what I have to say interesting, by all means… click away! Post my stuff to Facebook, tell your mom, invite the neighbors over for “The Naked Investigator” reading parties where you serve tea and finger sandwiches and discuss the finer points of my work. All I ask is that you link instead of copy and paste so I am properly credited as having written this stuff. 

Also, I am VERY interested in your feedback. A huge chunk of the reason for this exercise is to help me improve my writing skills. A happy side-effect might be that I will learn to spell “Exercise” correctly the first go ’round without having to resort to the spell-check (And later Google when the spell check can’t make heads or tails of what I typed). I want your input. Really. 

Thanks,

                                                                                                                                   -Roy

Ok… enough about preparing for the trip. In the interest of creating a (Hopefully) more compelling narrative I am moving ahead with the actual trip and I intend to add the helpful planning bits as we go. I am trying my best to tell you all the things I think would be useful for you to know because I really, really, really want you to take a big vacation overseas, but I’ve got to figure out a way to do it without putting you to sleep. So…

We flew to London on Virgin Atlantic. There is a direct flight daily from Las Vegas to Gatwick. We took this option at greater expense because I wasn’t interested in changing planes and adding another couple of hours to a trans-Atlantic flight. Our friends Tim and Holly also highly recommended Virgin. Tim is our local designated “Person, English: 1,” so I trust what they have to say on the matter.

Our flight was on a Friday afternoon. We went to bed early on Thursday and got up at 4AM Friday in an effort to preemptively stave off jet lag.  We spent the morning packing. Julia had a list of things to take that was frankly amazing. She had assembled the list of items from recommendations found on countless websites dedicated to the sensible traveler. Mostly it looked like we were taking a pharmacy with us.  We managed to stuff all of it into two medium four-wheeled “Spinner” hard-sided suitcases and one carryon-sized backpack each.  We had been up for 13 hours by the time our plane took off.

The cabin crew on the flight were courteous and efficient. Virgin has a stack of in-flight movies and television shows that replay throughout the flight on a screen set into the back of each headrest (Or on a swivel that comes out of the armrest if you are in a seat near an exit). My nitpick here is that in this specific instance the movie I wanted to see wasn’t working, but that isn’t likely to be an institutional problem.  The amount of room available was about average. I’m a pretty big guy, 6’2” and 250 lbs. I wasn’t cramped, but there wasn’t any room to spare either.  A couple of Tylenol PM and some earplugs, and we both managed to get a few hours sleep.

Our flight came in to Gatwick which is located to the south of London. I had expected a lengthy wait at passport control owing to the fact that we carried non-EU passports. I had it completely backward. As far as I could discern we were two of only a handful of Americans on the flight (On our return to the States we were the ONLY American citizens).  This meant we walked right by about 400 people waiting in a very long, very slow-moving line, answered one or two questions, and zipped right out.  I don’t really have a good explanation for this other than the apparent fact that Americans seem to not travel abroad very much outside of business or military action.  The numbers I’ve been able to find indicate that approximately 37% of Americans hold a valid passport or passport card. This number spiked in 2007 when having at least a passport card became a requirement for travel to Canada and Mexico (An actual passport is required for international air travel). The number of passports issued annually has been declining steadily since then. I suppose that the first thing that comes to mind is the not-inconsiderable expense of crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific on a plane. After that I am forced to conclude that most Americans just aren’t interested. “We’ve got a big ‘ole country of our own to run around in, why pay to go to someone else’s?”  I hear the hypothetical American say. Well, a bunch of reasons actually, but who am I to judge. Anyway, I digress…

First order of business was to acquire some local currency.  I do not recommend changing currency before you go to the UK.  Most American consumer bank branches don’t even offer the service and the places that do will charge you a premium.  Check in with your bank or credit union to be certain that your debit card will work in the countries you will be traveling to and use an ATM machine. We have an account with a credit union. The commission on currency exchange is 1%, well below every currency exchange we saw overseas. Most of the ATMs we saw in the UK were free of charge, so that 1% was the only fee. There was an ATM just beyond passport control. Money sorted.

Oh, and remember that cash back credit card I mentioned in my previous travel post? It is a Capital One card.  In researching options for foreign currency I learned that Capital One does not charge any sort of currency conversion fee. We encountered only a very few places in our travels that did not take credit cards, and those that did accept cards always took Mastercard. WIN!!!

From Gatwick you have a few travel options into London.  We took the First Capital Connect train bound for St. Pancras Station as this would put us out just a few minutes walk from our hotel.  The train runs regularly and the journey takes about 45 minutes.  Tickets run from £9.90 to £19.90 depending on the time of day.  We did encounter a slight snag at this point. The train terminated at London Bridge Station on the weekend (We’d flown through the night and it was now Saturday morning) due to track maintenance, so we had to switch to the Tube to make it the rest of the way.

This minor setback hastened our first encounter with a difficulty involving our credit card. I knew this was likely to happen but was hoping I was wrong. I wasn’t. Here’s the thing;

Credit cards issued in Europe are now using “Chip and pin” technology. At every point of sale the cardholder must enter a pin number matching the one carried by a microchip embedded in the card.  This is supposed to cut down on fraud. Waiters in Europe do not walk away from the table with your card, they bring a small machine to you and you insert the card and enter your pin. This technology is in only very limited use in America and none of the cards I carry employs a chip and pin. This was usually not a problem EXCEPT AT AUTOMATED TICKET KIOSKS.  The ticket machines in the Underground, the Metro, and every train station we passed through on our trip will not take an American magnetic swipe card.  So no skipping the queue when it comes to travel (Unless I was able to print tickets from home beforehand).

We reached St. Pancras and walked to The George, our hotel on Cartwright Gardens. The George is a budget hotel in a listed historic building on a Georgian circle in Camden.  It’s a little frayed at the edges but was comfortable. Due to the hotel being full we spent our first night in a triple room on the top floor. This meant we did have to climb all the way up a narrow stair with our luggage, the last flight of which I dubbed “Hillary Step.” That was, once we were able to get into the room. The desk staff was pretty adamant about the 2PM check in time and we had arrived at Noon. So we locked our luggage up in the registration area and freshened up in the public restroom before heading back out to see what we could see of London on our first day.

Turns out we were able to see quite a lot.

We took the Tube down to the Victoria Embankment and started our vacation proper walking along the Thames.  One of the first things we saw was the Battle of Britain monument.  The monument features high relief sculpture by Paul Day, who also did the massive sculpture inside St. Pancras Station. The names of the airmen who defended Britain over the course of the four month battle are cast in bronze on the side of the 27 yard long monument (Including several Americans. I had no idea).

Battle of Britain Memorial

I was also thrilled to stand next to the World War I memorial in the exact spot where we see the 9th Doctor standing in the episode “Rose” with the London Eye behind him as he wonders aloud where you could hide a “Round and massive” transmitter, a “Huge metal circular structure” in a city as “Small” as London! (I am SUCH a Dr. Who geek!)

We made our way up toward the statue of Boadieca near Big Ben and right off the bat encountered a gang running a shell game.  If you’ve never encountered this particular con, this is how it works;

The Tosser:     The guy actually moving the shells/cups (Or cards in a 3 Card Monte) about.

A Roper:         Someone who brings in the Mark… “Oh wow, look at this game! Dude, you’ve GOT to try this! I just saw some guy walk away with $100!”

A Lookout:     As the name implies, someone serving to look out for the police.

Shills:              One or several people pretending to play in order to lull the Mark.

The Mark:       The guy about to get taken.

The Tosser is moving the cups or shells or whatever around with the ball underneath. There are a couple of Shills pretending to bet and the Roper is trying to get somebody to play. Once a mark is brought in to play the Tosser allows him to win one or two small bets before getting him to put down some real money, at which point the Tosser uses sleight of hand to rig the game.

The Tosser

The only problem with this particular game was that they were (Judging by their accents) all from the same Eastern European country, and so obviously all related in some way. I can’t imagine how incredibly naïve you’d have to be to put your money down.

Knowing several magicians and, ahem… reformed con artists, we thought it would be fun to get a picture of the crew in action. The moment I snapped a picture with my phone the Tosser was up and in my face demanding £10. I laughed and told him no. He demanded I erase the picture. I laughed harder and told him no and walked away. You have nothing to fear from these guys in a busy tourist area. The danger would be in actually giving them any money, at which point they will simply scatter. Life in the big city!

We looked at the statue of Boadicea (Wildly historically inaccurate by the way. Had to say it. History geek.), Queen of the Iceni who led a revolt against the Romans in the 1st Century. I’m a big fan of Boadicea, and apparently so were the Victorians, hence the statue. The more correct spelling Boudica is widely used now and it is commonly held that the name would translate as “Victoria” from the Celtic word “Bouda” which means “Victory.” A number of folks also believe the modern word “Bodacious” is derived from her name, but no one knows for sure.

We walked around Westminster and were looking at Big Ben and the cathedral when we encountered a woman with a Flat Stanley! We struck up a conversation and took photos for her. She was also kind enough to let us pose for pictures with Flat Stanley that she took with our camera. For the uninitiated, Flat Stanley is the title character in a children’s book of the same name that was written in the mid 60’s. Stanly awakens one morning to find that the bulletin board above his bed has fallen in the night and smashed him flat. Not to worry, our hero can now travel the world via the post! In the last 15 years or so it has become a common classroom project in American grade schools for students to make a paper Flat Stanly and mail him off to friends or relatives, who take pictures in various far away locations before sending him back. The student corresponds with others through Flat Stanley, then constructs a report about his travels. We did one for our niece many years ago. Her report was a huge hit, as we lived in New York City at the time and during Stanley’s visit we took a trip to Las Vegas.

After leaving Stanly and our new friend to finish their sightseeing we made a circuit of Parliament Square (Which has not only a statue of Churchill but one of Abraham Lincoln) before continuing down Great George Street to St. James Park and Buckingham Palace.

St. James is one of several very beautiful parks in London.  The St. James Park Lake runs east/west down the center and the park ends up just in front of Buckingham Palace and the gorgeous Victoria Memorial. There were literally several thousand people in front of the palace and one small German boy climbing on the statuary and doing his best to fall to his death while his parents ignored him. If not for the boy’s brother, who followed him around grabbing him at the last moment every time he started to slide over the edge, we’d have had to spend the rest of the afternoon waiting to give our statement to the police.

Buckingham Palace Guard. Coldstream Regiment of the Household Division

The common depiction of Buckingham Palace is of a massive set of gates with a guard out front and a tourist trying to make him laugh. There are no guards outside the gates. There are two guards inside the gates in the traditional red coat and bear hat and they carry not-very-funny-at-all looking assault rifles. When we were there workmen were running cables and setting up grandstands, I presume for the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee, under the watchful eye of some S.W.A.T. types who also came equipped with less than mirthful automatic weapons.

Just by the Palace on the north side is the Canada Gate. The Brits appear to go in for very ornamental black and gold gates in a big way and the Canda Gate does not disappoint. Beyond the gates lie the Green Park and a memorial to the World War II Canadian war dead. It is meant to evoke a mountain stream full of maple leaves. Despite a sign asking people to be respectful of its role as a monument it is full of parents encouraging their children to walk in the fountain while they take pictures. And so moving on…

We made our way back through St. James Park to Whitehall, where we looked in through the gates at 10 Downing Street (More serious fellows with serious machine guns) and passed through to the Horse Guards Parade Ground and Army Headquarters (Serious fellows with shiny breastplates, sabers, and boots they apparently can’t walk in).  After that it was Trafalger Square and a book shop for a spot of tea and to find a bathroom.

Just like every other major city I have ever encountered it is a bit of a hassle finding someplace to pee in London. Yes, they have public facilities of both the free and the pay variety… when you can find them. You’re much better off in a park as you are likely to find a clean, well lit, functioning toilet every ¼ mile or so, but they will close at 8PM on the dot.  We did encounter the newer self-cleaning coin-op models on at least two occasions but weren’t willing to wait (The automated toilet will allow you up to 20 minutes to do what you need to do).  Most often you just have to go into a restaurant or fast food place and wait in line.

Queue for the loo, it’s what you do…

Also… even I sometimes fall victim to the tendency to view England as a land frozen in time circa about 1947.  I can tell you from experience that if you ask for the Loo or the W.C. you are goingto get a blank look. If you ask for the “Restroom” you might get a smirk but at least they will point you in the right direction.  “Toilet” is the most common term and asking for it will get you where you need to go (To go) with the least amount of hassle.

From Trafalgar Square we took the Tube to St. Paul’s Cathedral, but as it was getting late in the day we only looked at it from outside. We walked across the Millennium Bridge (Yes, the one from Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince) and took a stroll around Southwark, past the Globe Theatre and back across the Southwark Bridge.

We took the Tube back to our hotel and set out to find dinner. Thus began the frenzied nightly search for food that would become a recurring theme throughout our vacation. I like to eat in pubs. I like traditional pub food, fish & chips, steak & ale pie, pasties and sausages and pints of cider. The problem is that most of the pubs stop serving food at 9PM at the LATEST. We wandered about the neighborhood and tried three places before we found a pub still serving at 8:30. You can, of course, find “Take away” places for your fish & chips, Indian, Chinese, pizza, etc, but where’s the fun in that? We ended up at a place called the Lucas Arms that is apparently part of a chain. Pretty standard fare, nothing really special. We would encounter much better along the way.

And so drew to a close day one.  We were back at The George at 9:30, where we scaled the steps to our room and fell into bed.

Next on the agenda: The Tower of London!

Take good care.

© 2012 Roy Guill, The Naked Investigator

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