Archive for March, 2009

Welcome

March 23, 2009

Thanks to everybody from Five Hundy who’s stopped by in the last few days. I feel like I should clean or redecorate or something, just to make it more welcoming. At the very least, I could set out some cocktails. Or tea and scones, which is what I’ve been in the mood for lately.

Word of warning: I have a ton of pictures embedded in the London posts, so the pages might be a bit slow to load. I linked to them directly from Flickr, rather than storing them on the site itself. (If anyone knows a more seamless way to do this, I’m up for suggestions.)

Why I Love March

March 21, 2009

March might be my favorite month of the year. Here are a few reasons:

  • Spring training. It’s in full swing, and they’re not just stretching and tossing the ball around (which still is a landmark time signaling the beginning of the end of winter, don’t get me wrong). There are actual games being played, some of them are televised, and the baseball season is so close you can taste it.
  • March Madness. I love filling out brackets. I love watching the games because there’s so much on the line and everyone is emotionally intense. And I love the upsets and Cinderella teams. I love watching other people’s brackets get busted when mine is equally wrecked.
  • The feeling that the winter is endless, being replaced by feelings of hope. There’s that one day where it’s sunny and 50 or 60, and you can go outside without wearing a jacket and not freezing. You can envision yourself wearing short sleeves in the next few months. Sure, there’s always the inevitable snowstorm to remind us winter isn’t quite over, but it melts within a few days, because the majority of the snow that accumulated over the winter is already gone. Temperatures are warmer, because there’s less snow cover to chill the air.
  • Sunlight, and lots of it. I’ll admit that I have some Seasonal Affective Disorder, which makes January an especially fun time in our house. (January wins for least favorite month, hands down. But that’s another post for another time. It’s all about the joy of March.)
  • Travel. We usually take a vacation in March. It’s usually Vegas, but this year it was London.
  • The wardrobe transition. I love putting away the heavy wool sweaters and winter coats, and pulling out some of the lighter items in my wardrobe. I love spring colors and injecting some brightness into my color palette.
  • Being able to go for longer walks with the dogs without us or them freezing. It’s nice to let them outdoors in our yard for longer periods of time so they can expel some energy, too.
  • Music. I usually start listening to more pop-influenced music. Winter is for sparse, dark acoustic guitar or solo piano. Spring is about lighter fare, although I save the truly fluffy stuff for my summer playlists.

Can’t Talk… Coming Down (Trip Follow-up)

March 21, 2009

People have been asking me if the beer was warm. I don’t remember it being warm. I just remember it being tasty and refreshing and good for the soul.

I wish we would have visited all the locations in Dio’s “Rainbow in the Dark” video, including the rooftop.

I’m seriously thinking of changing my demand for my 40th birthday from “we must be in Vegas” to “we must be in London.” I have a few years to think about it, though.

I apologize in advance if the rest of my blog posts aren’t as exciting as the ones for the London trip. Right now I’m thinking, “OK, so what do I write about now?” I’ll figure something out.

Love, Actually Is All Around… (London, Day 7)

March 16, 2009

“If you look for it, I’ve got a sneaking suspicion… love actually is all around.”– Love Actually

Kristen’s watch alarm went off at a too-early 5 a.m., and I begrudgingly made my way to the bathroom for my last rendezvous with Death Tub.

Due to our pre-packing the night before, we left the room slightly before schedule, but better early than late when you’re dealing with international departures. We lugged our luggage down Shepherd’s Bush Road towards Hammersmith, waving goodbye to all the landmarks along the way.

Goodbye, hotel.

Golden Strand Hotel

Goodbye, Royal Guest House 2, sister hotel. Goodbye, Kebab Machine.

Kebab Machine

So long, cute boutique store with the red sweater I coveted but never bought. Adios, tapas restaurant. See ya later, Brook Green Tavern and Brook Green Park.

Brook Green Park

Catch you on the flipside, Hammersmith Library. Laurie Arms, we hardly knew ye.

Laurie Arms Pub

Caffe Nero, you will be fondly remembered.

We bought our single tickets for Heathrow (our Oyster cards would have only gotten us halfway there), found the lift and lowered ourselves onto the platform. The first train went directly to Terminal 4, so we hopped aboard, luggage and all.

A woman got on a few stops later, asking if the train was going to Terminal 5. Kristen said no, but there were other stops along the way where she could switch. By the end of the trip, we were the ones giving directions. The woman got off at Hounslow Central, when prompted by the announcement on the train.

We tried to check in at the automated kiosk, but we both got messages that we needed to do it manually. After queuing for 10 minutes, we checked our luggage at the counter and got our printed boarding passes.

When we went through security, we didn’t have to remove our shoes. We just had to take our plastic bags full of liquids out of our carry-ons, and I had to remove my laptop.

We had about an hour before boarding, so we got some nourishment at Corsa, a coffee shop that Brian from the Three Crowns pub had highly recommended the day before. Kristen said their coffee was as good as Caffe Nero, if not better. I had a blackcurrant and white chocolate muffin, and it held up to Caffe Nero’s offerings quite well.

I took a final spin through the duty-free shops, purchasing some chocolates for Tim’s parents and a Harrod’s tea tin for myself. We headed down to the gate about 10 minutes before they were to begin boarding. I spied an Abbey Road postcard at the last shop and hastily procured it for Tim.

As we waited for the boarding announcement, we sat in the sunlight, near the window by the gate. A woman in her mid-20s was sitting a few seats to the left of us. She couldn’t stop smiling. I’m not sure how we started talking, but she told us she had just gotten engaged the day before. She and her fiance met as contractors in Iraq. His family lives in England, and they both stopped to visit them before she made her way alone to see her mother in Vegas. He proposed to her at the top of the London Eye. She was so happy, and it was contagious. She couldn’t stop looking at her ring, and she was beaming. We congratulated her heartily, and I sent a quiet wish to the universe to keep them both safe.

Kristen and I had each booked a window seat, hoping that nobody would sit next to us, and our hopes were realized. The plane was about half full, so there was plenty of room for everyone to stretch, although the flight attendant reminded us all about five times before we departed that we weren’t allowed to switch seats until they’d matched everyone to their original seat assignments.

Unfortunately, people tend to sleep less on transatlantic flights during the day, or maybe it was just the group of rowdy football fans behind us, but we were both grateful to have the multimedia center at our disposal once again. We both watched Twilight, which should be recategorized as a comedy, or at least renamed to Dawson’s Creek with Vampires. At one point, Kristen had to punch me to keep my seat from shaking because I was laughing so hard, and it was giving her motion sickness because her screen kept moving. Oh, to be young and angsty again. I can see why teenage girls like it, and I am obviously not the target audience.

I took a break, finished the book I was reading, and chose Slumdog Millionaire as the latter part of my double feature. It was excellent– really riveting. Also, I must say I’m really not interested in visiting India anytime soon.

Our flight arrived slightly ahead of schedule, which gave us plenty of time to stand in the immigration queue. We presented our travel cards and passports again, and I was pleased with the amount that I hadn’t purchased abroad. After what seemed like forever, we made it through the line and retrieved our bags from the carousel. We weren’t chosen for a random bag inspection, so we took the escalator down to the main baggage claim area where Tim was waiting patiently, ready for some extra help with our rambunctious dogs.

Kristen and I hugged goodbye, promised to meet soon to exchange pictures, and just like that, the trip was over.

I’m Going Underground (London, Day 6)

March 16, 2009

“Some people might say my life is in a rut, but I’m quite happy with what I got”– “Going Underground,” The Jam

After a day on the bus, it was time to embrace the efficiency of the tube once again. It was our last day, and we wanted to savor every possible minute.

We checked in for our flight using Kristen’s iPod touch, grabbing a couple seats by the windows, one in front of the other, in the hopes that we’d have empty seats next to us.

Then we went for our usual breakfast at Caffe Nero. We meant to get a full English breakfast at some point during the trip, but it never felt right to us first thing in the morning– we wanted to start with something light, then move on to heavier fare later in the day, when most establishments had stopped serving breakfast. The woman behind the counter at Caffe Nero recognized us and asked if we wanted our “usual.” It was nice to have a home away from home for a week.

We took the tube to Earl’s Court and transferred to Kensington High Street, just one stop away.

We looked around the outside of Kensington Palace but decided against the full tour.

Kensington Palace

We got on the tube again at Queensway, which is now my least favorite tube station. To get to the platform, you had to descend a seemingly neverending spiral staircase which wreaked havoc with my depth perception and with Kristen’s back.

After taking the train to Green Park, we walked through the park to Buckingham Palace and the monument to Victoria. We had a leisurely sit/stroll around the monument and took lots of pictures.

Victoria Statue near Buckingham Palace 4

Me and Buckingham Palace

Buckingham Palace Gates 3

We were starting to get hungry, so we walked in the direction of Fortnum & Mason. Either we didn’t find the main food hall, or their food hall was no comparison to Harrod’s. We didn’t find any food we could afford or a convenient place to sit and eat, so we consulted Kristen’s map and found ourselves in the Three Crowns.

We discovered quickly from looking at the menus that it was another Spirit Group establishment, but we were both famished so we didn’t care. We were initially going to try to visit as many independent pubs as possible, but they’re extremely hard to find, and we found some excellent service and conversations and experiences along the way.

Kristen ordered the pork sausage sandwich, fries, and a Guinness. I figured it was my last chance to try fish and chips, so I ordered that along with a Spitfire ale.

Our table was next to two pensioners (although they preferred to be called “retired gentlemen”) named Brian and Eddie. Eddie was the more talkative of the two. He was originally from Cyprus. He lived in New York for eight years and worked selling vacuums door to door, then insurance for New York Life.

We told them that we’d be heading back to Heathrow tomorrow and Eddie told us that his son might be driving our train on the Piccadilly line.

Brian didn’t say too much, although we started talking about pets (he lives with his wife and two cats), and he recalled a documentary he’d seen about sled dogs. The owner was attacked by a bear, and the lead sled dog he’d raised from a pup kept the bear at bay for hours until his person was rescued. The owner was recounting the tale years later, after the dog had passed away after sixteen years of companionship. We all got a little misty-eyed.

The two kind gentlemen bought us each a pint and a half of Greene King IPA, which was outstanding.

While Eddie was buying the beers, Brian explained that Eddie had lost his wife a year ago, and they had planted a tree in her memory in Yorkshire, where they had often gone on holiday.

As the beer flowed, Eddie was trying to persuade Kristen to stay in the country longer, and was even holding her hand to see if it would fit his. It was both funny and heartbreaking at the same time. I honestly didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Yet, sitting with the two men and talking in the pub is one of my fondest memories of the trip. We talked about other things like politics (only briefly), and the mortgage crisis (which Kristen explained efficiently and with a different angle than I’d heard before), and chain pubs (even though this was a chain, it was still their local, and it was more about the staff and feeling like home than the ownership).

We reluctantly tore ourselves away from the charming gentlemen and walked back to Fortnum & Mason, where Kristen purchased one of the items she’d been coveting from one of the window displays. It was a salt holder, but the proper name for it was a salt pig.

Fortnum & Mason window display

There was a small market just off the street (Piccadilly Market at St. James). Although they only had about twenty vendors, the selection of items was amazing. One man was selling framed photographs of London landmarks. Another was selling paintings of various sizes. There was a display of vegetable ivory jewelry, which was gorgeous but a bit out of my price range. And then there was the Venetian glass. They had necklaces and rings and earrings of various colors and sizes, and they were all beautiful. I bought two necklaces and a pair of earrings to match both. They were the perfect souvenir– something unique that I’ll be able to keep and wear for a long time.

As we were walking on Piccadilly, we noticed a lot of protesters gathered along the street. They weren’t obstructing pedestrian traffic or otherwise, and I didn’t feel in danger, but they definitely made their presence felt. They were chanting “Sri Lanka, end the violence.” I found out later that the Sri Lankan cricket team’s bus had been fired upon during a visit to Pakistan, so I’m pretty sure it was in response to that. At the very least, it made me want to find out what was going on.

We split off briefly to do some sightseeing on our own. I braved the tube crowds at rush hour just to get a desktop background for my husband.

Baker Street

I then went to Oxford Street because it was the closest shopping area, and bought some magnets and tea tins– inexpensive, but things that I could look at every day that would remind me of the trip.

We had planned to meet at the Charlie Chaplin statue in Leicester Square, but when I got there, the entire square had been blocked off. I stood near the statue, watching the people passing by, and suddenly Kristen appeared.

We were starving (again) so we walked down a nearby street that had plenty of restaurants, and we dined at Hamburger +, because they offered a ready selection of meat. I had a burger with barbecue sauce and striped bacon, along with a coffee milkshake. The milkshake wasn’t thick, but it was tasty, as was the burger.

We had plans to meet my friend Simon at the Empire Casino at 8, and he was there waiting with his friend Nathan.

Empire Cinema and Casino

Simon gave us a tour of the casino, pointing out that there were only 20 slot machines allowed by law. I immediately understood why Vegas was so popular despite the long flight.

The casino was nice and modern, with new carpet and chandeliers and neutral decor (lots of beige and chocolate brown). We walked through the slot area and down some lighted stairs near the table games. The four of us sat by the bar and had Pimm’s and chatted and had a great time. I wished we had more time to spend, with them and with the city itself.

The casino reminded us all of Bally’s except with a more modern twist, mostly due to the chandeliers and lack of theme. Simon pointed out the chipless roulette (single zero) and the 3:2 blackjack, so at least the table games had good odds.

As we walked back through the casino, we noticed laminated signs on the slot machines, reserving them for 5 minutes while players were away. So no matter if you lurked, someone could be on a machine for hours.

We took the tube back to Hammersmith and finished packing. As I drifted off to sleep, I had the following thoughts:

  • The trip went much too fast.
  • 5:00 a.m. was going to come far too soon.
  • I had a lot of fun hanging out with the locals today.
  • Are English girls as obsessed with Hannah Montana as American girls? Because she’s everywhere on both sides of the ocean. Is she planning a takeover of the world?
  • Jeremy Kyle is the British equivalent of Maury Povitch. Every show, every day? Paternity tests.

London Town I’m Stalkin’ (London, Day 5)

March 15, 2009

“Zing zing zinga zinga zinga zinga”– “Walk of Life,” Spice Girls

I mixed it up at Caffe Nero with a blueberry muffin instead of my usual white chocolate raspberry. Still tasty.

We took the Hammersmith & City Line to Wood Lane to Westfield Mall, where I returned my defective charger. As I explained my situation to the clerk at Micro Anvika, he was very understanding and gave me a full refund, to my relief. I hoped he didn’t think I was just using the cord for my stay and then returning it. I would have kept it if it had actually worked.

As I walked back to the mall entrance where Kristen was waiting, I discovered that they’ve been hiding all the really cute clothes at a store named Monsoon. However, English history was more important, and we chose the Tower of London over shopping.

At Kristen’s urging, we decided to take a bus ride instead of the tube, and I’m so glad we did. It took longer, but we got to see a lot more of the city. We took the #248 bus from the White City bus stop at Westfield to Victoria, then we took the #11 bus to Bank. It was a very scenic route, taking us around Hyde Park, then to Victoria Station, around Leicester Square, by Big Ben and Westminster Abbey, by the Royal Courts of Justice, and St. Paul’s Cathedral.

Victoria Station

Westminster Abbey and London Eye

Dirty Dancing, The Musical

Royal Courts of Justice

St. Paul's

We got off the bus just after St. Paul’s, walking by the monument to the Great Fire of London on our way to the Tower of London.

Monument to the Great Fire

The Tower cost 17 pounds, which took the last of our cash, so we vowed to find an ATM in the near future.

We walked into the building where the Crown Jewels were housed.

Tower of London 2

They had a series of short introductory films– one showing the Queen’s coronation, and another describing the various crowns and accessories. The main crown used for coronations has over 2,000 diamonds in it.

The main jewels (the crowns) were in a room with a moving walkway, and a station above with facts about each crown. There were more accessories in another room (dishes and cups and swords and things).

One crown was made for a king’s trip to India when he couldn’t let the original leave the country. The crown was very heavy and the king wrote in his diary that his head was tired after wearing it for a few hours.

We saw the Bloody Tower (which is what I might have called the entire complex before I had an emergency granola bar to boost my blood sugar levels). There were interactive exhibits describing the prisoners kept there, and one exhibit was devoted to the mystery of two young princes who disappeared mysteriously.

We looked around a bit more and watched some guards do their maneuvers.

Tower of London 3

Tower of London 6

Then we hopped on the #15 bus towards Fleet Street so we could dine at Ye Olde Cock Tavern.

Ye Olde Cock Tavern Exterior

As we looked at the menu, we discovered that it looked familiar. In fact, except for the name on the outside, it was an almost exact replica of the menu at the Captain’s Cabin.

Ye Olde Cock Tavern Menu

We learned that both pubs were owned by The Spirit Group, which is the second-largest pub chain in the UK. (Wetherspoon’s is first, although The Spirit Group doesn’t have TGI Friday’s-esque menus, nor does it serve the abomination that is Coors Light. I mean, who orders Coors Light when you have the finest beers in the world at your disposal? Well, I have a few ideas, but it’s still wrong.) Being completely famished, and knowing that the steak and ale pie was excellent, we settled in with a pint and ordered some food. I had an Adnam’s Bitter, which was quite tasty, and my old standby London Pride. Plus, the bartender was really friendly and we had a good chat with him for a while before the line at the bar got chaotic with the after-work crowd.

Food at Ye Olde Cock Tavern

We got back on the #11 bus headed towards Fulham Broadway. On the way, we passed through King’s Road, which had changed quite a bit since I was there in the late ’80s. It was filled with boutique stores, which weren’t as edgy as the ones that were previously there, and they were probably ridiculously expensive, but there were fewer chain stores.

We were both surprised when the driver announced that it was the last stop, and we were nowhere near Hammersmith. Oops. We walked a couple blocks to another bus stop, and found another bus (#295) that would take us there. We got off across from the Brook Green Tavern, where we stopped in and had a couple drinks. We got Johnny Jump-Ups, which is a pint of cider with a shot of whiskey thrown in. I also tried a Pimm’s, which was like an English mojito. It was more of a summer drink when they had more strawberries and fresh fruit on hand, but they were happy to make one for me with just mint and limes. It was very refreshing and tasty.

We stopped into Tesco, which was right behind the Tavern, for a reprise of our room picnic from the night before. I also got some souvenir food– Smarties, a couple packs of biscuits, and kettle chips (cheshire cheese and chutney, which I couldn’t resist opening back in the room).

Nothing Falls Like London Rain (London, Day 4)

March 15, 2009

“I’ll close my eyes and sleep, sleep to the sound of London rain”– “London Rain,” Heather Nova

Random quotes from the day:

“Your Cockfosters account is overdrawn.” — KW, after I giggled one too many times on the Piccadilly line

“BTOpenZone, you suck. Not once have you let me in your open zone.”–KW, after trying in vain to access the supposedly free internet using her iPod Touch

“That’s what she said.”–me

We had our usual coffee (Kristen) and juice (me) and muffins (both) at Caffe Nero, then took the tube to South Kensington for the Victoria and Albert museum.

Chihuly at Victoria and Albert Museum 2

We looked at some ancient furnishings and decorations, then wandered through the crypt section. We had a brief rest among the sculptures, although I got up and looked at the fashion exhibit briefly.

Sculptures at Victoria and Albert Museum

Shoes at Victoria and Albert Museum

We went into the rather isolated modern exhibit (there was no clear path to any other parts of the museum, so we spent a good 10 minutes trying to figure out where to go next). We discovered that we’re officially old: things from our childhood (tape recorders, Swatches, Nike Air) are in a museum.

The jewelry exhibit was the best part. They had giant spiral of all the different gemstones, and they had different cases with jewelry from different time periods. It was fascinating to see all the different pieces– hair ornaments, tiaras, rings, necklaces, earrings, bracelets. Many things came in a set and had pictures of people wearing everything at once, and the overall effect was quite stunning.

I’m really glad we picked that museum. It had a little bit of everything.

Victoria and Albert Museum

We left the museum in search of food on our way to Harrod’s. It began to rain lightly. We walked down a side street that looked promising, but didn’t have much in the way of food, only shops. We ended up at Cafe Rouge across from the back entrance of Harrod’s. I had pasta with goat cheese, chicken, spinach, and tomato, while Kristen had a pizza topped with onions, bacon, and creme fraiche. We each had a large glass of wine to accompany our meal.

Harrod's

However, when we walked across the street and saw the Harrod’s food stalls, we wished we had waited. The options were amazing– food from all around the world, and fresh. We both zoned in on a BLT sandwich that neither of us had room for. We comforted ourselves with chocolates (Carbonel violet cremes, which were lovely).

We walked through the perfume department and got some samples. Kristen tried Angel by Theirry Mugler, which smelled fantastic and had a hint of honey in it.

As we were wandering around trying to figure out what to explore next, we met a guy named Leslie who said we shouldn’t miss the fossils on the third floor or the Pet Exhibition on the fourth floor.  He said that if we were tired, we should touch the blue crystal in the fossil area and it would wake us right up.

The fossils were interesting, but there was no blue crystal in sight. The stones were for sale, if you happened to have a few thousand extra pounds on you.

The Pet Emporium was slightly underwhelming. It was a row of displays of guinea pigs and rabbits, with two kittens playing on the end. (The kittens were 900 pounds each, and looked like ordinary orange tabby shorthairs.) The puppies were resting elsewhere, apparently. The displays gave the animals plenty of room to run around, and they seemed to be well cared for, according to the sign that explained their daily routine, and they seemed to get them from responsible places. Still, the money would go much farther at an animal shelter and they would appreciate it more.

We decided to stop into the Harrod’s Cafe for tea. 9 pounds per person gets you tea with two scones, our beloved clotted cream, and jam.

On the way out, we saw the memorial to Dodi and Diana. It was a sculpture of two figures dancing together, with the words “innocent victims” on the base. I understand the father’s grief, but the sculpture was tack-o-rama, as Nathan would describe it later.

We went out the back door, and saw a cream-colored Rolls Royce (or rather, Kristen saw it and exclaimed for me to look). The license plate had Arabic writing on it, and we wondered if it belonged to the owner of Harrod’s.

We stopped in H&M on our way to Harvey Nichols, and I kept re-learning the same lesson: tacky ’80s stuff, and stuff I could get back home. In Harvey Nichols, we admired the Jimmy Choo and Christian Louboutin displays, but quickly realized that we couldn’t afford to be in there.

Harvey Nichols

We took the tube to Victoria so we’d be closer to the Apollo Victoria Theatre for Wicked. We debated getting a pint, but didn’t want to be sleepy for the show. Kristen read one of the free daily tabloids at a coffee shop while I checked e-mail at a nearby internet cafe, and I was able to chat with Tim for a few minutes.

We had dress circle seats, D17 and D18 (fourth row in the balcony). I managed to sneak a picture of the set, before the ushers told the women down the row that they shouldn’t be taking photos. Then I quietly stowed the camera.

Set for Wicked at Apollo Victoria

The show was outstanding. Three hours flew by (no pun intended). I had read a little bit about the show beforehand, and I knew that it was about the “wicked” witch being treated badly because she was different, but that was about it. The set was amazing, the vocals and the songs were powerful, the storyline was engaging and sweet and surprising. Everything was spectacular. I even got a little weepy at the end.

I think I even liked it better as a musical in London’s West End. The character of Glinda/Galinda could be taken to Valley Girl levels in American productions, and it could be grating. I liked her much better with a British accent.

We took the tube back to home sweet Hammersmith, and realized we were famished. Most restaurants and pubs were about to close, but we found a Tesco Express in the tube station. We got wine, a baguette, cream cheese, salmon, a coveted BLT sandwich, water, and some Cadbury mini-eggs. We’d been pretty lucky with the weather so far, but we walked from the Hammersmith station to our hotel in a drizzle. Our goods were in plastic bags, but we only had one umbrella between us, and we didn’t want any stray drops getting to our food. About halfway, we gave up balancing the umbrella over both of us and Kristen walked through the rain while I covered the food with the umbrella.

It was all worth it once we were warm and dry in the room. Our little picnic was sublime.

Sun Is in the Sky, Oh Why Oh Why Would I Want to Be Anywhere Else? (London, Day 3)

March 15, 2009

“The sights that I’m seeing are priceless” — “LDN,” Lily Allen

The day had an auspicious start, because I didn’t wait for Death Tub to warm up all the way and I subjected myself to a lukewarm shower. I also made the mistake of trying to get the laptop charger to work, which was nothing more than an exercise in frustration. But Kristen talked me down from the ledge (again), and we had a wonderful day.

The sun was shining as we walked from our hotel to Caffe Nero for our usual breakfast. We passed Brook Green Park on the way.

Brook Green Park

We took the tube to Westminster and took loads of pictures of Big Ben and Parliament and the London Eye in the sunshine.

Big Ben, Parliament

Me, Big Ben

London Eye

We also took some video (Kristen’s idea) of Big Ben chiming at 11, which is significant to us because it’s the time most of the pubs open.

We crossed Westminster Bridge and stood in the queue for about five minutes to buy tickets for the London Eye.

London Eye

We had thought about ordering tickets online, but we didn’t know what the weather would be like in advance, so we thought we’d risk it and just get tickets the day we were there. Luckily, the line was short and moved quickly, although we could see the ropes they used to extend the line for busier days.

After a quick but important trip to the bathroom, we walked over to the Eye itself and got right on.

And up we went.

River Thames, from London Eye 1

London Skyline from London Eye 2

London Skyline from London Eye 3

The pods held about 20 people. We had several German tourists in ours, including a family with a toddler. Initially, I was not looking forward to spending 45 minutes in a small enclosure with a young child, but it only cried once for a couple minutes, so we all survived.

I wasn’t as freaked out by the height as I thought I would be. I felt pretty safe in the enclosure. I even found the courage to look down at one point.

London Eye, looking down

We passed the halfway point, and got even more views of Big Ben and Parliament.

View from London Eye 8

View from London Eye 11

View from London Eye 15

Just after we passed the top and were descending down the other side, there was an announcement that we were stopping and had to reverse direction. Nobody was upset at the few extra minutes we got to spend with the glorious view. We didn’t reverse directions for long, though, and we were on our way back down.

At one point, they announced they were taking a picture of our entire pod, and suggested that we all gather on one side. Nobody moved from their current spots.

The pods kept moving slowly as we got off and the next group got on. They had it down to a science.

I’m so glad we went on the London Eye. I was initially a little nervous about it, but it was a great experience, especially with the sun on our side. We had great timing, too– it started to get a bit overcast just as we stepped off the Eye.

London Eye

We walked underneath the London Eye and made our way on the south bank of the Thames, towards St. Paul’s.

River Thames

Before we got too far, we decided we needed more nourishment to fuel our journey, so we stopped into Doggett’s Coat and Badge, near Blackfriars Bridge.

Kristen and the Doggett's Menu

We started with a couple pints– Kristen with the Thwaite’s Nutty Black, and me with the Isle of Purbeck’s Thermal Cheer. I did ask for the Ginger Tosser (with a saucy comment from the bartender), but in a stroke of luck, they were out and I fell in love with the Thermal Cheer.

Kristen ordered fish and chips, which was accompanied by mashed peas and potatoes, while I ordered the chicken and cranberry sandwich. Both meals were excellent.

Doggett's Food

We ordered another round of pints, and were feeling pretty good by the time we stepped out of the establishment. I might have been so happy that I broke into song.

We passed Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, the National Theatre, the Millennium Bridge, and the Tate Modern.

Shakespeare's Globe Theatre

St. Paul's and Millennium Bridge

We also passed by Vinopolis, Southwark Cathedral, and the Golden Hinde. Finally, the Tower Bridge came into view as we approached the HMS Belfast.

HMS Belfast and Tower Bridge

I absolutely adore this bridge. They were doing some restoration work on the south end, but that didn’t stop me from taking 50 pictures of it anyway.

Tower Bridge 2

Tower Bridge and me

Kristen and I got a little loopy and tried to take several pictures of ourselves with the bridge in the background.

Me and Kristen

We also got to see the bridge raised and lowered, so that was pretty cool and unexpected.

Tower Bridge 4

A very kind woman took pity on our futile efforts to capture ourselves with the bridge.

Tower Bridge, me, Kristen

We walked across the bridge towards the Tower of London. By then we were pretty knackered and we had reservations for tea at The Ritz later that evening, so we took the tube from Tower Hill back to Hammersmith. Kristen had a cup of coffee in Caffe Nero while I trotted back to the room with a Chai Latte to go so I could change into more tea-appropriate clothes.

Yeah, we thought having some caffeine before tea would be a great idea… until it was time to go to sleep.

We took the tube to Green Park and discovered that the trains are extremely cosy between 5 and 7 p.m. due to rush hour.

We were early for tea, so we took a look around some of the shops in the area, although most of them were closed.

Single ladies (and gentlemen seeking gentlemen too), a word of advice: Stop into Marks and Spencers Simply Food on Piccadilly between 6 and 7 p.m. as there are many handsome men in suits bringing home dinner. Never have I seen so many good-looking, well-dressed men in one place. Wow.

We wandered up Bond Street and looked in the windows of shops with things we couldn’t afford (hello, Prada). Even at the haute couture level, the ’80s influence was inescapable. Perhaps they’re the ones starting the whole thing and it’s trickling down to the other shops. I just don’t need any more skinny ties, pleated pants, or bubble skirts in my life. Pleated pants are unflattering in any era.

It was close enough to our tea time, so we walked back in the direction of The Ritz. We checked our coats and were escorted to our table while a quartet played in the background. It was amazing. The decor was very detailed, and it reminded me of Wynn and Encore in Vegas with the brown accents and the diamond patterns in the ceiling– just really lush.
There was gold leaf on the chandeliers, and a giant bouquet of lilies in the center of the room.

As expected, they had great service and an attentive staff. They adjusted the table to keep it from wobbling, and one of the servers recognized that we had switched our tea pots (for some reason, we’d thought we’d get only one pot per table instead of per person, so Kristen ordered my initial pick of the Darjeeling First Flush just in case, and I ordered Earl Grey for her when they asked me what I’d like).

We started with a glass of champagne. Due to the wonders of the internet, we were able to get the champagne tea for the price of the regular tea (37 pounds).

They brought out an elaborate set of dishes with three tiers. The bottom tier held the sandwiches:

  • Egg salad with sprouts on a whole wheat bun
  • Cheese with sun-dried tomato bread
  • Cucumber with white bread
  • Ham and butter
  • Chicken and butter
  • Salmon

The sandwiches, except for the egg salad, did not have crusts. They were about 1/3 the size of a regular sandwich, so they were very filling.

The middle tier was initially empty, but they brought out scones to place there when they brought out the tea. They also brought Devonshire clotted cream and strawberry jam. It was heavenly. Clotted cream was not at all what I’d pictured. It was more like the love child of butter and cream cheese, with a little sweetener, and I was addicted.

The top tier contained a variety of pastries– a chocolate and vanilla puff, a yellow pastry, a napoleon, a mixed fruit tart (all which, sadly, went uneaten because we were so enamored of the scones). We did make room for a chocolate layered cake and a raspberry cream tart, which were both fantastic.

Completely full (I almost said “stuffed” but realized that would have different connotations in the UK), we waddled back to the Green Park tube station for a train back to Hammersmith. We had thought about a post-tea pint, but had no room.

Dirty Old River, Must You Keep Rolling (London, Day 2)

March 14, 2009

“As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise” — “Waterloo Sunset,” The Kinks

We weren’t up in time for the hotel breakfast (a theme for the rest of the trip), so we discovered Caffe Nero, a local chain. They make the most amazing muffins. I had a white chocolate raspberry muffin, and it was fantastic. Not too moist, not too dry, not too dense, not too fluffy. 

We took the Piccadilly Line from Hammersmith to Piccadilly Circus. It was bumpy ride, and at one point I was afraid I was going to get motion sickness. The car was swaying back and forth quite a bit. Once I was out in the fresh air, I was fine.

Piccadilly Circus

We explored the area around Piccadilly Circus, starting up Regent Street.

Road near Piccadilly Circus

We admired the details on everything, including the street signs. Oh, and it says “swallow.”

Swallow Street

Kristen’s map said that there were “lots of quaint shops” on Brewer Street. Apparently, “quaint” means “sex.”

Quaint Shops

More Quaint Shops

We walked down to Leicester Square, where we had a brief rest on a park bench near the Charlie Chaplin statue. We also noted the location of the Empire Casino for later in the week where we’d be meeting a couple friends.

On we went to Trafalgar Square, passing St. Martin-in-the-Fields church along the way.

St. Martin-in-the-Fields

We took several pictures of Trafalgar Square, and noticed Big Ben just down the road.

National Gallery

View from Trafalgar Square

We debated getting on a hop on, hop off bus tour and went into the tourist information centre on Cockspur Street. (Ahem.)

While we were in there, taking refuge from the wind, we decided that we were already seeing a lot of the stuff that we’d see on the bus tour, and neither of us were really in the mood for riding in a double-decker convertible being slightly chilled and all. As we were discussing this, we spotted a ticket booth with an ad for Wicked. We decided to ask about tickets, and they had some available. On a whim, Kristen asked if they offered any discounts, and we got our 60 pound tickets for 48, so that was awesome. We were both extremely excited to see the show, and to see it at a discount. (Tickets were not available at the half-price “tkts” booth in Leicester Square– believe me, I checked.)

In search of a pub lunch, we found the Captain’s Cabin. I was going to have the Sunday Roast, but they were out, so I settled happily for the chicken and pancetta pie instead. Kristen had the steak and ale pie.

Pub Food

I was not disappointed. It was like a pot pie, but so much fresher. Plus, the vegetables were on the side so they weren’t all squishy. I also had a pint of London Pride ale. They were playing Hall and Oates over the sound system, so I felt right at home.

We walked towards Big Ben and Parliament, passing a monument to the women of World War II on the way.

Monument to Women of WWII

We also saw the Carriage House. Despite the sign, several kids were taunting the horse.

Carriage House

This poor guy looked like he was about to fall asleep.

Carriage House

We passed by 10 Downing Street, where the Prime Minister resides.

10 Downing Street

And then, larger than life, was Big Ben.

Big Ben

Parliament Park is across the street, with a large statue of Churchill and some protesters who looked like they planned to be there a while.

Churchill Statue in Parliament Square

Protesters in Parliament Square

We walked around the perimeter of Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret’s Church, admiring the detail and the architecture.

Westminster Abbey

Then we walked over the Thames on Westminster Bridge, taking pictures of Big Ben, Parliament, and the London Eye.

Big Ben, Parliament

London Eye

It was getting close to 4:00 p.m. when we realized we almost missed Speakers Corner, so we took the tube from Westminster to Marble Arch.

Marble Arch

There were several people still in full swing, with various sizes of crowds gathered.

There were a couple guys giving out free hugs, and we were happy to take them up on their offer.

Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park

We saw a guy arguing against the merits of religion. He was holding up a book and had some plastic dinosaurs at his feet, but nothing bolstered his argument more than the Female Body Inspector shirt.

Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park

There were three men of Christian, Muslim, and Jewish faith who drew the largest crowd, but their discussion was getting pretty intense so we steered clear of them. We found much more lighthearted fare from a handsome man who was standing on two buckets, proclaiming his love for Polish women and questioning why women have teddy bears and cats.

Speakers' Corner, Hyde Park

Thoroughly amused, we left Hyde Park and walked down Oxford Street, a huge shopping street in London (and in some parts of the U.S.).

Oxford Street

We stopped into Next, although we didn’t see any home furnishings on street level and were too tired to go downstairs. I saw an adorable black shift dress but again wasn’t in the trying-on mood. Kristen debated buying an umbrella but ended up putting it back. We went through Selfridge’s, which seemed to go on for miles.

Kristen’s map pointed us towards a restaurant called Black and Blue for dinner. We split a bottle of Shiraz, although it was far from the best either of us had ever had. The meal was another story– the burgers with foie gras were fantastic. We also split a brownie with ice cream for dessert.

We took the tube from Bond Street back to Hammersmith. Most of the shops and restaurants were closed, as it was a Sunday night.

On one of our tube journeys, as we were going up the escalator, we heard several guys behind us singing “When the Spurs Go Marching In.” Tottenham Hotspur was playing Manchester United at Wembley that afternoon.

We changed hotel rooms and discovered that the floor they were remodeling was not the bathroom floor, but the wooden stairway leading to the basement, and thus to our room. The main part of the room was similar to the singles, but the bathroom was quite a downgrade.

Bathroom, Golden Strand Hotel, Room 4

The wallpaper was peeling, the toilet seat was slightly askew, and the shower? Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you, Death Tub:

Death Tub

Note that there was no curtain, so you could douse the entire bathroom with an errant spray. Also note that we were responsible for holding the spray nozzle. There was nothing to attach it to. This made washing hair an adventure. Luckily, the tub wasn’t slippery, although with my lack of coordination, anything was possible.

Also, the washcloths were imported later. So the lack thereof definitely added to the challenge.

As much as I carry on, it wasn’t so bad that we felt the need to complain, though. We were clean and safe and dry.

The icing on my personal cake, though, was when I powered up the laptop and began typing merrily with my new charger. Suddenly, I noticed that the little green “charge” light wasn’t on and I was beginning to lose power rapidly. I shut down the laptop, and tried to wiggle the cord. Nothing. I tried plugging the cord into several different outlets. Still nothing. Perhaps this is the universe’s way of telling me I need a vacation from the internet?

We watched the end of Dancing on Ice, where Roxy got eliminated, then we watched an interview with Richard Branson until we both started nodding off.

Because I’m Over the Atlantic, Baby (London Day 1)

March 14, 2009

“One journey for you but it’s worth it” — “Magic,” Ladyhawke

We left at 5:55 p.m. CST on Friday, February 27th, on NW flight 104. Thus began the most excellent adventure of Kristin and Michele. (So if I use “we” a lot, that would explain it.)

The day before, it snowed hellaciously. We had almost booked a Thursday-to-Thursday itinerary, and I can’t say how many times I was thankful that we chose to leave on Friday instead. By then, the snow had been cleared from the runways, and we were able to get to the airport without hassle. Flights had still been leaving on time, but considering that I had a meltdown or five while packing, I didn’t need the additional stress.

We had a conference call 24 hours before departure to reserve seats. The flight wasn’t completely full, so we strategically placed ourselves on each end of a four-seat block, hoping that nobody would grab the two seats in the middle. Our gamble paid off, and we each had two seats to ourselves. However, this did not prevent people with a chatty toddler from sitting two rows behind us. I consoled myself with the facts that the child was gurgling happily, not screaming, and that the parents would have a fun time when the kid threw a sleep-deprived hissyfit later that day.

It had been a long time since I’d traveled abroad, and technology has improved drastically. They have an entire audio/visual studio at your disposal where you can program your own music playlists or watch movies on demand. You can also track the course of the flight or play games. After pressing all the shiny buttons on the new toy, I turned to my trusty iPod with a specially designed sleep playlist to help me snooze for a couple hours. My slumber was interrupted when I rolled over and my butt hit the remote, turning on the small screen in front of me and blinding me briefly. It shut off after a long three minutes.

The flight seemed to go by quickly overall. We arrived at Heathrow Terminal 4 and waited for about five minutes to go through customs. After we handed over our passports for inspection along with a visitor card (which contained our hotel information and purpose for the trip), we were greeted by a wall of alcohol in the duty-free room before exiting into the main terminal. Incidentally, the greeting area at Terminal 4 looks nothing like the scene in Love, Actually. It’s rather gray and bland, but that didn’t dampen our enthusiasm. We stopped at the ATM to get some cash, then we squeezed our luggage through several turnstiles only to discover we should have taken the lift to the Underground level. (By the way, I’m going to be using some British terminology, but don’t think I’m turning into Madonna or anything.)

We bought single tickets to Hammersmith for 3.20 and boarded the Piccadilly line with service to Cockfosters. (Hee!) They announced the destination at each stop, and it took me until Acton Town to stop giggling. The ride took about 40 minutes to the Hammersmith station.

Cockfosters

We found the lift to the street level and crammed ourselves and our bags inside. When we emerged from the station, I was struck by the buildings and the street signs and the general aura of the place, and it hit me that we were finally here.

Hammersmith

The hotel was about four blocks away, but the first journey took a while with luggage and us being unfamiliar with our surroundings and all. Our rooms weren’t ready yet and we were several hours early for check-in, so we left our bags (me with some trepidation, but it turned out to be unnecessary) and began to explore the city.

We walked up to Shepherd’s Bush Green, found a coffee shop, and grabbed a light snack. Energized for the next few hours at least, we walked over to the Shepherd’s Bush tube station (on the Central line) to purchase our Travelcards. The ticket agent was extremely helpful and friendly, and verified that we were making the right purchase for our stay.

There are several options:

  • You can pay for each trip (which is neither convenient nor economical). A single (one-way) trip can cost 4 pounds.
  • You can get a pay-as-you-go Oyster card and fill it up and reload it as needed, but it deducts an amount for each trip.
  • You can get a paper Travelcard, which allows you to get 2-for-1 discounts on some attractions, but the rules seemed to be a little restrictive (having to pick the day you want to visit the attraction and printing coupons and such), plus you had to purchase them at an overground rail station, and we were still quite disoriented.
  • Or, you could get a Travelcard for a specific number of days (in our case, seven) and have unlimited rides in the zones you specify (we chose zones 1 and 2). We chose this option, and we used the heck out of our cards. Even though they are Travelcards, they’re issued on Oyster cards. Our seven-day card for zones 1 and 2 was 25.80.

We touched our Oyster cards on the reader (not a euphemism) to open the gates leading to the station. There was a woman nearby who was manually opening gates for disabled passengers and people with luggage, and she was quite friendly as well, offering assistance to anyone who needed it.

We took the tube to the Notting Hill Gate station for Portobello Market. The market was crowded, but not uncomfortably so, except for the constant stopping and going and stopping again.

The market had a lot of silver items, antiques, costume jewelry, and scarves. Lots and lots of scarves. Tim would have been very sad.

On a side street, we found The Travel Bookshop from the movie Notting Hill.

The Travel Bookshop

We stopped into a Lush store. The employees were really helpful and happy to answer any questions about the products. They performed some demonstrations of the bath bombs, the bubble baths, and the shower creams.

We found a tube station at Ladbroke Grove and got on the Hammersmith and City line back to our hotel. On the way, we passed the glory of the Westfield Mall, and planned a return visit.

After we got off at the Goldhawk Road station, we briefly followed a woman in a mesmerizing ensemble. She was wearing red patent leather boots, and a matching red patent leather knee-length jacket with leopard-print piping and a picture of a giant cougar’s head on the back. Wow.

We stopped back to the hotel to check into our room, but discovered that it wasn’t quite ready yet. They were doing some work on the flooring, so they put us in two single rooms for the night. The single rooms were nice, and had updated bathrooms.

Golden Strand Hotel Room 14

Bathroom, Golden Strand Hotel Room 14

I started to write in my journal and realized that I was hallucinating, so I napped for about 30 minutes, then took a quick shower, and I was ready to head back out.

I noticed that my laptop cord had three prongs, while the charger we’d brought had only two, so I would need to look for an adapter.

We reconvened at about 3:00 local time and wandered back up Shepherd’s Bush Road, towards the Goldhawk Road station. We stopped in a pub called The Richmond. We ordered a pizza, and it was excellent, with sauce in the crust. I had a Strongbow cider and Kristen had a Guinness. Both beverages were cool and refreshing and tasty.

There was a rugby match on TV (Scotland vs. Italy) and it was definitely a lad’s bar, although we didn’t feel unwelcome. The servers were very friendly. One of the customers at the bar was especially friendly to Kristen. We weren’t sure whether to tip, so we left a pound and some pence on the table.

We took the Hammersmith and City Line to Wood Lane and followed the signs to Westfield Mall.

Westfield Mall

The first store we visited was Next, which is the love child of Ikea and H&M, at least in the home furnishings department. Reasonably priced and really adorable stuff. We fawned over several bed coverings, picture frames, and decorations but left emptyhanded.

Westfield Mall H&M

We were disappointed in H&M’s selection, although we were impressed with its size. There were too many ’80s fashion trends, and we had both already lived through that once.

Trends we’d spotted so far:

  • Riding boots, with low heels and buckles at the top
  • Jeans tucked into boots
  • Boots worn with leggings or tights
  • Denim cutoffs or shorts (hot pants) barely covering what desperately needed to be covered
  • Scarves everywhere

Note that most of the trends require the complete absence of buttocks and thighs (or very small ones at least), which meant we were not on board.

I stopped into the Apple store to ask about a converter for a three-pronged cord. I had an extremely helpful guy look for a converter in the store, and when he couldn’t find one, he pointed me to another store called Micro Anvika, where I found what I was looking for. I ended up buying a full charger with a UK plug for 50 pounds, but I thought it would be worth it to have the internet at my disposal.

We looked in Marks & Spencer for a while, and out of all the stores we’d been in, we liked their clothes the most. Neither of us felt like trying anything on, so we headed back to the hotel.

We took the Hammersmith & City Line all the way back to the Hammersmith station, thinking that it would put us closer to the hotel, but it was just across the street from the District and Piccadilly Line stations. We decided to break up the journey to our hotel with a pint at the Laurie Arms.

Laurie Arms Pub

It was my turn to get hit on at the bar. Apparently, there’s an old guy in every Hammersmith pub who hangs out at the bar and flirts with women. I couldn’t understand a word he said, and I was pretty tired, so I just smiled and nodded and said “cheers” before heading back to our table with our drinks.

We watched the end of the England/Ireland rugby match. England made a go of it during the last few minutes and almost pulled out the win, but Ireland prevailed. The crowd was much younger than The Richmond, and the bar cleared out after the game was over. Having finished our Guinness, we walked the rest of the way to the hotel and called it a night.

I fired up the laptop and tested the charger, and it worked fabulously. I skimmed a few web pages and sent a couple e-mails before taking some melatonin and sleeping soundly for many hours.