I flew in on an overnight flight, and as one who can’t sleep on airplanes, that turned out to be a slightly less than ideal move. Having not slept since the previous night, I was feeling wiped out here when I arrived, and passed out at about 11PM – for a few hours. Now I’m up, wide awake, at 4AM local time. Here’s hoping my sleep cycle recovers. But in the meantime, I’ll crank out a piece…
At Heathrow, I arrived cashless, so I used one of the machines to exchange a few bucks worth of US dollars, figuring that would at least get me a subway ticket. But, the little casino arcade in the waiting area had other ideas. Once that money was gone, I went to the row of 4 ATMs, each of which were out of order. Even the ATM by the entrance of the airport Tube station was down. I was about to give in and get molested at one of the currency-exchange desks when I discovered a working ATM.
I took the Tube over from the airport to my hotel. Then, and the few other times I rode it yesterday, I found it to be the polar opposite of the T in Boston. Clean trains, on schedule, highly informative placards, maps and schedules, friendly cheerful staff – all the things one would expect from a decent, well-thought-out system of public transport. There are a few cities in the US where I have found this as well, but I couldn’t help drawing the dramatic contrast with Boston.
Getting out of the Tube and hitting the streets, one rather silly but vital thing was that I needed a quick bit of pedestrian-deprogramming. Now, it’s obvious that the whole driving-on-the-other-side-of-the road thing is a challenge for the American driver, but I didn’t anticipate the challenge it would pose to me as pedestrian. I’m pretty hardwired to look left first before stepping into the street, then check for traffic on my right as I’ve started to enter the roadway. Obviously, that’s a wonderful way to get hit around here. I swear I’ve got it down now.
I am weak for sweets and one of the first things I saw in the mall above the Tube stop were four or five shops hawking doughnuts the size of roadhouse burgers. I managed to escape unharmed.
A quick note on currency… there’s something weird that goes on in your head as one who thinks in US$ when perceiving prices here. Since things are denominated and priced very similarly, it feels pretty easy. But even when you know consciously that it’s roughly two bucks per pound, subconsciously it’s a little harder to absorb how expensive everything is when you see on your menu that the tuna sandwich is “10” and the latte is “4”. Sounds fairly reasonable, right? Part of the problem is the serious weakness of US dollars, and as a debtor nation we have ourselves to blame. But part of it is London’s sky-high prices. Anyway, it’s pretty hard to imagine how working-class people make it work here. And I know I’m sounding pathetically American here, but the whole concept of “change” being worth much more than a buck is something new, too.
After checking my bags at the hotel I wandered around the city for much of the day. I was ravenously hungry and stopped into a funky-looking place for breakfast. I generally don’t like my omelettes the color of French Toast, and it turned out to be decent food but excruciatingly bad service.
I didn’t have much of a clue where I was headed, but mother luck was on my side, as I ended up in Westminster. First, I stumbled across the changing of the Queen’s Life Guard – then toured the thousand-year old Westminster Abbey, which blew me away in its scope and detail. I emerged from the Abbey to find myself standing below Big Ben just as it sung out at high noon – then wandered around Parliament, down to the river, where the view was quite nice. I then made my way back in the direction I came, passing one end of a tightly locked-down Downing Street, vaguely disappointed that I couldn’t see anything, when the gates opened and a motorcade that I assumed to be that of the Prime Minister came up the boulevard and passed me to enter Downing. A touch of action, sure – but what most impressed me were the motorbike cops on these gorgeous white-and-blue BMWs who were steering with one arm while holding up their other hand “stop,” blowing whistles, avoiding various obstacles as they whizzed down the wrong side of the road to hold traffic back for the motorcade. If I tried to do that I would land on my face.
Then, heading back for the hotel to get ready for my evening, I saw a guy in the Tube station playing a guitar. He wasn’t great but he was seriously enthusiastic, and it wasn’t until I was up close, dropping some change into his guitar case that I noticed he was strumming with half an arm – he sortof had the guitar pick wedged into his elbow-meat and was strumming along. Bravo, dude.
I had lunch at one of those conveyor-belt sushi places I’d heard of but never found in the states. Surprisingly, I really enjoyed it.
Then it was off to a couple social engagements with friends – a coffee with a journalist pal at The Wolseley, and then drinks and dinner with another friend at the very warm and enjoyable Electric House.
I’ll probably try to take a few pictures today or tomorrow, we shall see. By the end of the week I’m either going to take the chunnel-train to Brussels or fly to Amsterdam. Maybe I’ll decide by a flip of one of those damn four-dollar coins.