|Great Britain and Paris 1996|
Travelogue: Great Britain and Paris 1996
By Roger W. Reini
Friday Oct. 4 Today is the day I leave for London -- my first trip to Europe! I arrive home from work, collect the mail, do a final check of my e-mail, and prepare to go. I leave my regular wallet at home and transfer the things I'll need to a different wallet. I'm wearing a suit today, something I usually don't do. I had made a presentation at work today, so that's why I'm wearing one. Also, I figure I might have less difficulty at security checkpoints, immigration, customs, etc. if I'm nicely dressed. So I go with the suit. Around 4:50 PM, my uncle Lloyd arrives. He's going to drive me to the airport. There's no sense in parking my car at the airport for 2 weeks and paying dearly for the privilege. Since he's a bit early, we sit down and watch the news on channel 2. At 5:30, I decide it's time to go. We put the luggage into his Camaro and head off for the airport. His front passenger seat is rather cramped for someone of my size and stature.
We arrive at the airport at 6, three hours ahead of my scheduled departure. Lloyd drops me off and heads home. I check in without any problems, so I have several hours to kill. How about going to the duty-free shop? I've never been in one of those. Uh-oh, can't do that; they're closed for inventory. What luck! I walk the length of the airport once (from F corridor to the end of C corridor) and back. Anyone who's familiar with the layout of Detroit Metropolitan Airport knows that this is a long walk. I get my shoes shined -- it's my first time to have them professionally shined (they needed it). The guy does a good job -- no, a great job. $4 plus a $1 tip. We have a nice chat about a few things. Afterwards, I check in at the gate and settle in until boarding.
As we boarded the DC-10, we could select from several British newspapers (that morning's editions). I chose the Times. I'd also brought the Detroit News from home, as well as part of the Wall Street Journal. I also had the new Entertainment Weekly, which I plan to give to my sister when I meet her next week. They're starved for American culture in Bulgaria. Thanks to the Northwest Frequent Flyer program (as well as several trips home to Texas and several work-related trips to San Francisco and Las Vegas), I had enough miles to upgrade my ticket from coach to business class. As I boarded the plane, I turned left to go to my seat -- 5G, right side of the center section, back row. I was on an aisle. I quickly became spoiled. The amenities are OK -- the complimentary headphones (as opposed to $4 or $5 in coach), the red booties you could slip on your feet after having removed your shoes, the blindfold, pillow, etc. -- but what spoiled me most was the leg room. If the person ahead of me reclined, the seat back wasn't jabbing my knees or pinning me in the seat. This gave me the freedom to feel free to recline my seat back, something I rarely do on flights. Then again, the flights I've flown in the past haven't been that long. Detroit to Houston is a 2 1/2 to 3 hour flight, depending on the weather. Even San Francisco is "only" a 4 hour flight. This flight to London was to be 7 1/2 hours long, so I would definitely want to stretch out and try to sleep -- or at least relax.
Another amenity of business class on Northwest is the personal video display. It's an approximately 4" LCD display which plays several in-flight movies, classic humor, lifestyle reports, etc. The movies are shown on two channels simultaneously -- one channel is in English, the other one is in another language, like Japanese or German. One channel was showing old episodes sitcoms -- Simpsons, Cheers, Wings and Absolutely Fabulous (Ab Fab). The movies being shown were The Birdcage, Mission Impossible (which I'd seen in the theaters but wish I hadn't), Sgt. Bilko, The Phantom, and Spy Hard. I watched bits and pieces of several of them, mostly Spy Hard. There was one other program on the video system: a map that showed the plane's location, altitude, speed and outside temperature. I first turned it on when the plane was 100 miles out, following the north shore of Lake Erie. At 30,000 feet, the outside temperature was a bone-chilling -49 ºF!
Dinner for me was a seafood stew, with shrimp, scallops and halibut. It was pretty good. It was just the sort of thing to make me relax and attempt to sleep. But I had a hard time getting to sleep. I think I did sleep for an hour, but I'm not sure of that. I must have been running on adrenalin or something.
Saturday, Oct. 5 Daylight is breaking. We are nearing our destination. We were offered breakfast, but I passed on it. It was too soon for me after dinner. Remember, the 5 hour time difference was beginning to become apparent. As we approached our destination, I could see some glimpses of the British countryside. It wasn't easy, because I had to crane my neck to see through the windows. It's not easy to do that from the center of the plane. I couldn't identify anything on the ground, though the terrain didn't look too unfamiliar. I could easily have been flying somewhere in America. Eventually, as we approached Gatwick airport, I could see the southern shoreline -- the English Channel.
We landed at the South Terminal -- or one of the satellite gate areas, to be exact. It's connected by a shuttle train to the main terminal. As I board the train, I hear a familiar voice call my name. Surprised, I turn to see who it is. It's Randy Rockershousen, one of the supervisors of electrical connectors for Ford. He works in my department, though I don't work for him. He and buyer Jim Gaus (whom I didn't see) were on a business trip, going to Ford facilities in Britain and Germany. Small world! We talk on the train, and then for a short time in the arrival hall, where we pass through immigration. After a pit stop, we go our separate ways. Since I had flown business class, I was entitled to use the Fast Track lanes at Immigration. There was no line there, versus a long line in the regular area. I have no problem clearing Immigration. I change some money, then proceed to collect my bag and go through Customs. I'm waved through. I'm somewhat surprised to find myself in the South Terminal; I had been advised that Northwest flights from Detroit went to the North Terminal. Perhaps this is a new setup. Whatever. It means that I have an easier trip to the train platform for the Gatwick Express, which takes me to Victoria Station in London.
I'd bought a ticket for the Gatwick Express before arriving in London, which saved me some time. The train was OK, nothing special or fancy. It took about 30 minutes to travel from the airport to Victoria Station. The countryside was nice, though not especially scenic. I was reading a paper most of the time anyway. We arrive at Victoria Station -- the name reminds me of an old restaurant chain in America by the same name. I was feeling rather tired, and I wanted to find a place to sit down and rest for a spell. Union Station in Chicago has a big waiting hall where one could sit, and I thought Victoria Station would have the same. No, it didn't. There were restaurants and pubs, but I didn't want to eat, I wanted to sit. So I wandered around for a while. Eventually, I went to the London Transport Information Centre and exchanged one of my Visitor Travelcard vouchers for a real London Visitor Travelcard. In my case, it gave me 7 days unlimited travel on the bus and Underground system. Then I visited the W.H. Smith bookstore (two stories) and picked up the current Time Out and Radio Times. Time Out is the weekly magazine that says what's going on around town, and Radio Times is a TV and radio guide. After all of that, I took a taxi to the Mount Royal Hotel. Had a bit of trouble getting the seatbelt to go in, but I finally got it. The fare was £4.50 -- I gave him a £10.
The Mount Royal Hotel is on Bryanston Street, near the Marble Arch. The back of the hotel is on Oxford Street. I went to the front desk a little after noon, trying to check in. I did check in, but I was told the room would not be ready until 2. So I sat in the lobby until 2. Actually, I didn't mind that all that much, because I was still tired and in need of rest. I sat in the lobby and read my magazines. Finally, my room was ready! My suitcase, which I'd checked with the doorman, would be waiting for me.
Up to room 374 -- a deluxe room. It wasn't a particularly large room, and it had a view of the inside "courtyard" -- ventilation equipment. But it was nicely equipped. There were two twin beds, a desk, and a small table with 2 chairs. The TV rested atop the minibar cabinet. The closet had a small safe for locking up valuables. I put my spare tickets and extra money in there, along with my cameras when I wasn't using them. There was an ironing board and pants press (which I never used). There was central air and heating, electronically controlled.
The TV could receive several radio stations -- Radio 1, Radio 2, Radio 4, Capital Radio, Capital Gold, Greater London Radio -- an internal hotel information channel, several regular TV channels -- BBC1, BBC2, ITV (Carlton/LWT), Channel 4 -- and several satellite channels --Sky 1, Sky News, Sky Sports 1, Sky Movies Gold, Sky Movies, The Movie Channel (not the US channel of the same name), CNN International, ARD from Germany, Galavision from Spain, and Japanese TV. There were 6 pay movie channels, too; seems like half of them carried some sort of adult fare. While I was in London, I watched Sky News a lot. They carried the CBS Evening News at 11:30 PM, which was the live 6:30 ET broadcast back home. So I didn't feel totally out of touch.
Back to the story: I unpacked, rested a bit, then decided what to do. I decided to take a short walk. I walk down Oxford Street for a short ways, going towards Hyde Park. I pass by several businesses (including a Kentucky Fried Chicken and a McDonald's) and the entrance to the Marble Arch Underground station. I eventually end up in Hyde Park and walk around briefly. I'm near Speaker's Corner. The big day for speakers there is Sunday, but there was one speaker there. I forget what he was speaking about. Then I decide to take the Underground to the New Southgate Cemetery, the site of the grave of Shoghi Effendi, Guardian of the Baha'i Faith. I take the Central line from Marble Arch to Holborn, then the Picadilly line from Holborn to Arnos Grove. While on the Tube, I feel someone patting me down on my left -- at least that's what it felt like to me. Perhaps it was a pickpocket, checking to see if I had a wallet in my hip pocket. I normally do, but I didn't while in London. Good thing.
From Arnos Grove, it's about a half-mile to the cemetery. The route goes up and down, up and down through a nice neighborhood. There are a few small stores, a traffic circle, a BP petrol station, and a medium-sized park. I finally enter the cemetery and find the shrine. It's fairly simple -- a column topped with an eagle. But it is very dignified and majestic. For a Bahá'í, it's also very moving, for it commemorates one of the most revered individuals in the Faith (Shoghi Effendi was the great-grandson of Bahá'u'lláh and the grandson of 'Abdu'l-Bahá). When I arrived at the Shrine, I found a person chanting prayers. I kept a respectful distance and waited until he left; I believe he was one of the custodians of the Shrine. I prayed, contemplated, and meditated. Since I didn't have my prayer book, I sang some songs -- Blessed is the Spot, Thou Art My Lamp, and I'm So Glad He's Come (the last two, I wrote myself, at least in part). The Shrine closed at 5, which meant that I was the last visitor that day. Around the shrine are the graves of scores of other Baha'is, including that of Hand of the Cause H. M. Balyuzi. His grave had a statement from the Universal House of Justice engraved into it, as did a few others. They must have been illustrious believers.
The return trip on the Tube was uneventful. After returning to the Marble Arch, I have dinner at -- McDonald's. Not very adventurous, was I? I was curious to see how a British McDonald's compared to an American one. The Big Mac tasted very close to the American standard. Hopefully, it was made with non-British beef; there was a scare related to mad-cow disease running rampant, and a fear that it could be passed to humans by eating infected beef. After dinner, I visited the Virgin Megastore across the street -- it's a record/video/software/bookstore (not a comprehensive bookstore, mind you). Didn't have much time to shop; the store closed at 7 PM (most stores on Oxford Street closed at 7). I decide to see what Tracey Ullman CD's they carried, to see if there were any I didn't know about or have. There were a couple of Dutch compilation CD's -- different cover art, but no previously unavailable material. So I passed on them.
On Sky Sports 1: an ice hockey game, or Hockey Night in England, as I called it. It wasn't NHL quality, and I missed the CBC announcers. I don't know if there's an English Don Cherry or not.
Sunday, October 6 -- I wake up around 8 AM. I buy the Sunday Times and Sunday Express from the hotel gift shop after taking a shower. I don't eat breakfast, though I do munch on a candy bar I buy from a machine on the Tube line. My journey takes me to Tottenham Court Road and the starting point for the Beatle Magical Mystery Tour walk. It's led by Richard Porter, president of the London Beatles Fan Club and holder of the title "Beatles Brain of Britain." Our tour takes us through Soho and the West End. We stop in front of MPL Communications, the headquarters of Paul McCartney's business operations. We pass by the studio where "Hey Jude" was recorded. We visit the London Palladium, where the Beatles played in 1963. We visit sites made famous in the film "Help!". I'm taking several pictures and lots of video during the tour. We stop by 3 Savile Row, the first home of Apple Records. Then we take the Tube to St. Johns Wood, where we stop in front of EMI Abbey Road Studios and cross The Crossing made famous on the cover of "Abbey Road". While our group is waiting to cross Abbey Road, a passing car honks, and a passenger appears to give us the finger. I take a picture of a woman from Brazil making the crossing, and she takes a picture of me. We promise to exchange photographs on our return from our trips (I send her mine, but I never receive hers). The amount of graffiti on the walls of the studio fence is amazing -- two months, and nearly every square inch is filled. I have the pictures and video to prove it.
After the tour concludes, a few of us journey to London's Beatle Day at the Bonnington Hotel, Southampton Row. It's basically a record and memorabilia show devoted exclusively to the Beatles. I bought a couple of books there. I also watched a few videos which were airing in the corner -- the appearance on the Swedish "Drop In" in 1963, and their Paris concerts in 1965. A nice day. I walk back to the Holborn Tube Station, but then I make a wrong turn. Instead of walking west towards Tottenham Court Road, I walk east. When I pass by the closed Chancery Lane station (closed on Sundays), I realize my mistake and walk back to Holborn. I visit the Virgin Megastore near Tottenham Court Road, where I buy "The Beatles' Merseyside", a book that pictures and describes the various sites associated with them in Liverpool and surroundings. Next, I go to the Dillon's bookstore. I don't get anything there, but I liked it. Then it is back to the hotel, where I collapse from exhaustion. I had done a LOT of walking, and I was tired!!!
Had supper in the restaurant -- chicken & rice pilaf, and a salad. It was pretty good. Since I went early, the restaurant was nearly empty save for a family from Australia. Later, at 9 PM (4 PM ET), I watch a real football game, San Francisco vs. St. Louis. It was basically a Fox broadcast, using the Fox play-by-play announcers but local personalities for in-studio stuff (no James Brown, Terry Bradshaw, et al on Sky). I learn that the Detroit Lions will be on next week; how convenient for me! Also on TV that night (ITV): You've Been Framed, or Britain's Funniest Home Videos. This show is affilated with America's Funniest Home Videos. Before both of those, I caught an episode of Voyager. It seemed sped up to me; everyone's voices were a little bit higher than normal. Wonder why?
Monday, October 7 I have croissants for breakfast this morning, courtesy of room service. I could put an order slip for breakfast on my door, have it collected overnight, then enjoy it at the time of my choosing the next morning. I think I also got apple juice with my croissants. Was it worth £8.95? Don't know, but breakfast was good. While watching my breakfast TV, I saw an ad for "Nestle's" Cheerios, which struck me as unusual. Back in America, Cheerios are made by General Mills.
I decide to take one of the many sightseeing bus tours today. I decide on the Original London Sightseeing Tour. The hotel information desk sells tickets for this tour and for several others, so I decide to take advantage of the service. The adult ticket costs £10. The closest departure point for the tour is Marble Arch -- how convenient. Actually, it's south of the Arch on the eastern boundary of Hyde Park. While walking to meet the bus, I decide to drop off my first roll of film at Bliss Pharmacy, which has a one-hour film operation. It costs £5.99 to have a 24-frame roll developed with single prints, plus you get a 24-frame roll of film in return.
This is as good a time as any to note that, due to the VAT system, the price that's marked on the object is the price you pay. No additional 5 or 6% added on at the register. Certainly makes knowing your out-the-door price easier to calculate. But the prices, in general, seemed to be higher in London than back home. Many times, the marked price would seem to be reasonable if it were denominated in dollars. But since it was denominated in pounds, it was actually 50 to 60% higher. CD prices were a good example. In both countries, regular price was 15.99. America comes out on the better end of that deal.
After dropping off my film, I cross under the street to get to Hyde Park and the buses. Unfortunately, the bus is running on winter time; first run is not until 10. It's only 9:15. What to do? I walk down the eastern boundary of the park, enjoying it as a large island of calm in a bustling metropolis. I imagine Central Park in New York must be a similar experience. I end up at the southeast corner, where I take a picture of one of the statues there -- Achilles, was it? I think that the statue was cast from melted-down cannon captured at Waterloo. Time to walk back for the bus. I pass a car park that has a BP station. The price for gas (or petrol) is around 60p. That's per liter, mind you. This works out to somewhere near $4 a gallon. For regular grade! And we in America gripe when it's over $1.30 a gallon for regular! At least I do.
At last the bus is boarding. It's an open-air doubledecker bus, and it's a reasonably nice day (not raining), so I go up to the top of the bus. You get to see more that way. I decide to concentrate on capturing this trip on video (or most of it, anyway); I will take only one picture on the tour, one of the dome of St. Paul's. That reminds me of the Capitol in DC.
Being in the open meant that things got a bit chilly for us in the top of the bus. But it wasn't too bad. It wasn't too windy either, though I did turn on the wind filter in the video camera. I was able to hear all of the live commentary provided by our tour guide -- who did an excellent job, by the way. The tour lasted approximately 2 hours, and we went all over central London. Through Mayfair and Picadilly Circus. Past Trafalgar Square. Past the Houses of Parliament and Westminster Abbey. Past 10 Downing, current home of John Major - and future home of Tony Blair? Downing Street was gated, so you couldn't get very close to the Prime Minister's house. Over the Thames and past Waterloo Station and the South Bank complex. Back across to travel the Strand (nothing like Galveston) and enter the City. We cross London Bridge, which isn't a very fancy bridge. Fortunately, it wasn't falling down. Past the London Dungeon and War Years museum. Across Tower Bridge (the fancy bridge -- I never noticed it was tan and blue before), past the Tower of London. Near Buckingham Palace, where the crowd had gathered for the Changing of the Guard. I see some of the guard marching into position. Past Victoria Station, where I first arrived in London. Through Belgravia -- Upstairs Downstairs territory. Then finally past Hyde Park and back to where we started. All in all, a nice tour for 2 hours. I'd say it was worth £10.
By this time, my pictures were done, so I stop at the pharmacy to pick them up. I go back to the hotel. The maids are still working in my room, so I return to the lobby to review my pictures. They turned out pretty nice, I think. They should, 'cause I invested in a nice camera for the trip. My previous camera was also good, but it wasn't very flexible (couldn't zoom in or out or change lenses), so I got a Minolta Maxxum 400si. It was so good, my sister and brother-in-law would ask me to buy the same camera for them, as their camera was acting up. Back to the pictures: I decide to identify them while the scenes are fresh in my mind. This is a wise decision; I would have had a hard time doing so had I waited until I returned home. Also, the film could have been damaged by X-rays at the airport.
Finally, I return to my room and decide on my course of action. I decide to walk down Oxford Street. It's a VERY busy street. I stop at the HMV store; this store played an important part in Beatle history, for Brian Epstein had an acetate of some songs made here, and the record cutter said to take it to the music publishers. This led to their working with George Martin and ... but I digress. I also stop at Dixons electronics; I'm looking for speaker wire for my brother-in-law. Didn't find any. I notice a Wendy's on Oxford Street near the Bond Street Tube station. I pop into the Tesco supermarket (don't get anything). I eventually end up at Tottenham Court Road and Charing Cross Road. The latter is the home to many bookstores. I visit three of them -- Waterstone's, Books Etc. and Foyle's. I am somewhat familiar with Waterstone's, as they have a store in Chicago. Foyle's is a very large store, and it's rather confusing in layout. The checkout process is a bit strange, too, I hear. I don't avail myself of it because I don't buy anything there. On the other hand, I do buy something at Books Etc. across the street. Actually, I buy several somethings -- Sophie's World, a novel about philosophy; an encyclopedia of British television; a volume of excerpts from Samuel Pepys' diary; and a couple of postcards. Looks like I had a productive visit. Back towards the Tube station and the hotel.
Back at the hotel, I put the news on. There is a news story about Dennis the Menace. But this Dennis is not the same Dennis as in America. No, he's completely different! Weird! I eat supper at Pizza Hut across Oxford Street -- had breaded mushrooms and an individual pizza. The pizza was OK, but the mushrooms were great!
I catch an episode of Game On on BBC2. I'd heard about it on the alt.comedy.british newsgroup on the Internet but had never seen it. It was OK.
At 11 PM, I see that channel 4 is carrying an AFC football game (tape delay, of course). Buffalo was playing; I forget who the other team was. This was the NBC broadcast.
Tuesday, October 8 I wake up leisurely this morning, deciding not to bother with breakfast. Today is the day I use my BritRail pass for the first time. I decide to go to Dover, to see the White Cliffs and the English Channel. I take the Tube to Charing Cross Station, where I have my pass validated. Then I take the train to Dover Priory. Since the pass is a first class pass, I decide to try the first class car. Unfortunately, it's a bad decision; that car is not going to Dover. So I go up several cars and find one that is. It's a regular car, but there are few people on it. The trip takes about 90 minutes. Somewhere en route, we cross over into the Eastern Hemisphere; it's my first time for that. As far as I can determine, the train seems to be following the route that the Eurostar train takes to reach the Channel Tunnel. We pass through several towns. At Folkestone, we begin to parallel the coast. I see some of the white cliffs.
At last we reach Dover Priory. It's a gray, foggy day. After getting my bearings, I decide to walk towards the harbor and shoreline. I find the tourist information centre and get some information, including a basic map. Then I walk to the shoreline. In the distance, I can see some of the cliffs. They are white, but have spots of green due to vegetation. I see a hovercraft arrive in port -- it came from Calais, France. I could see Dover Castle at the top of the cliffs. If the weather were nice, I might have been able to see France from up there. But since it wasn't nice, I decide not to bother to visit. I have lunch at a fish & chips place in town (the girls were listening to Radio 1; there was also a jukebox with a lot of Cliff Richard and Beatle records). I visit the White Cliffs Experience. I'm able to get inside for free because I got a coupon with my BritRail pass. The exhibition started in Roman times and worked its way forward to today, covering periods like the age of smuggling, the heyday of the Channel ferries, and the Blitz. It was OK, though some of the exhibits and programs were a bit corny, like they were aimed more at children. There was at least one school group there that day; the boys were about 9 or 10 years old, I thought. Their teacher was fairly young (my age or younger) and rather cute (I thought she looked a bit like Holly Hunter or Tracey Ullman).
The Dover Museum is connected to the White Cliffs Experience, and my ticket was good for both places, so I went into the museum. There were some models showing the evolution of the harbor over the centuries. I also recall seeing several championship rowboats (there must be a better term to describe them than that). While in the museum gift shop, I see some hand-painted letters of the alphabet. I decide to get a C and an H for my nieces Candice and Heather. After leaving the museum, I decide to return home. I try my ATM card in a Barclaycard machine; it works! And it doesn't eat my card! I pull £50 and set off for the station. I return to London via a different route which takes us through Canterbury and ends at Victoria Station. This time, I do take the first class car. The car layout is very reminiscent of "A Hard Day's Night". I have the compartment to myself. After arriving at Victoria, I decide to eat supper at Garfunkel's, where I enjoy some French onion soup and some bangers and mash (sausages and mashed potatoes) and peas. It was a good meal. Garfunkel's has several restaurants around town. Every time I see one, I say to myself, "There should be a Simon's restaurant, too". Ha ha. Back to the hotel at 6:30, where I get ready for my visit to Paris.
Wednesday, October 9 Today is the day I go to Paris! I leave very early in the morning, around 6, and take the Tube to Waterloo International Station. I check in at the BritainShrinkers desk, where I receive my tickets for the Eurostar. Only ticketed passengers can enter the boarding lounge, which is past passport control. There are metal detectors and x-ray machines, just like at the airport. There are a few shops on the other side, including a money exchange counter and a bookstore and newsstand. I exchange some money – £5 for 80 FF. You can also buy Eurostar souvenirs.
Our group is not the only group going. There is a large group of Asterix fans traveling to the Asterix theme park (called Parc Asterix, oddly enough) just outside of Paris. It seems the new Asterix book is going to be published tomorrow, and these people will be the first to receive their copies. Seems like everyone is wearing their winged helmet. There is one man dressed in Roman armor who’s walking around (Asterix is set in that era, I believe). A BBC TV crew is filming the proceedings.
We board the train around 7 for a 7:23 departure. There is only one stop, at the Ashford International station. The trip through the tunnel takes about 20 minutes. You can't see much, 'cause it's dark. But you can occasionally see things in the tunnel pass by at high rates of speed. Finally, it's light again. We're now in France, where they drive on the right. Back to normality! The countryside is gently rolling and rather nice. The track in France has been upgraded to allow the train to reach its top speed of 300 kilometers an hour (186 mph); it can only go 100 mph in England. When we reach 300 km/h, there is an announcement over the intercom. The train is a nice experience, one that I wouldn't mind repeating someday. Central London to Central Paris in 3 hours. Another train goes from London to Brussels in 3 1/2 hours.
The weather is rather dreary throughout the trip. At times it's raining; other times it's just very cloudy. Not conducive to a great travel experience. My breakfast is a croissant and a can on Minute Maid orange juice (from Belgium), provided by the food cart. A jarring sight: seeing a Toys R Us in France. American "culture" is everywhere.
We pull into Paris around 11:30 Paris time (one hour ahead of London). I was expecting to pass through Customs and passport control, but we didn't. Our group then headed for the tour bus. Unfortunately, I got a lousy seat -- lower level aisle. Still, I use my video camera to the best possible advantage. At times, I point the camera out the left windows; other times, the right windows. A few times, I zoom in and point it out the front windshield, for a driver's eye view. "Annie-Laurie", our tour guide in Paris is excellent; you can hear her on my tape. We travel throughout central Paris, cross the Seine a few times, pass by Notre Dame Cathedral, the Eiffel Tour (which our guides says should be pronounced "Ay-full", not "eye-full"), and the Arc du Triomphe.
Our only stop on the tour was at the Eiffel Tower, and everybody got out for a picture opportunity. It was still a gray day, but I could see the top of the tower. I took a couple of pictures and 2 minutes of video. We drive down the Champs-Elyssee and return to the Paris Opera House, where we have a couple of hours on our own. I go through the food hall at Galeries Lafayette, walk around the neighborhood for a bit. If the weather were nicer, I would have returned to the Arc du Triomphe. As it was, though, the rain started again. Feeling somewhat tired, depressed by the weather, and intimdated by my lack of knowledge of French, I walk back to the Gare du Nord. I work up a bit of a sweat on the way back; the weather's at the funny stage where you're cold if you're outside, not wearing a coat and aren't doing anything, but if you're doing something significant, it's OK. Makes it hard to dress. One time, I hear some men talking loudly behind me (in French, of course). Are they talking to me? I don't know and don't want to find out. It doesn't make any sense for me to go to the bookstore at the station; all of the titles are in French. Some words, I can figure out, but not enough to make it worthwhile.
We depart around 5:10 and return to London 7:10. About halfway through, UK immigration officers come through for a passport check. So my passport is stamped with "Channel Tunnel" in addition to the Gatwick stamp. As we near the exit to the tunnel, I point the video camera outside the window, hoping to capture the moment when we emerge. I do, in fact. Not much of a sight, though -- the terminal for Le Shuttle, an Elf petrol station, etc. But the clouds had broken up, and the sun was peeping through. Back at the hotel, I watch Beck on BBC. It was pretty good.
Thursday, October 10 Another leisurely start this morning. I travel via Tube to Charing Cross and visit Trafalgar Square. At the newsstand inside the station, I buy a Times and an international edition of USA Today. It felt good to read something that had fairly recent American news. One story catches my attention: the death of Ted Bessell, who played Donald on That Girl and directed many sketches on the Tracey Ullman Show. Took many pictures today. And why not? It was a wonderful day, with nary a cloud in the sky. But there were hundreds of pigeons on the ground. They wanted to be fed, and they usually got their wish. I remember hearing news reports that some people would like the pigeons to be removed from the square, due to their being a health hazard. Just as many people want them to remain. It's tradition, they say. I leave Trafalgar Square behind and walk toward Picadilly Circus. On the way, I encounter the Texas Embassy cantina. The menu looked interesting, but they were not yet open. So I moved on to Picadilly Circus, where I took more pictures. I visit the local Tower Records. Afterwards, I walk down Picadilly Street and St. James's Street until I reach Pickering Place, the location of the former embassy of the Republic of Texas. Lynn Ashby, columnist for the now-defunct Houston Post, wrote about this place a few times. One of the guidebooks I bought mentioned it, too, so I decided to find it for myself. I got a nice picture of the plaque mounted on the building.
I walk up to Oxford Street, where I visit Selfridge's department store. I have pizza for lunch (didn't know what else I wanted). The pizza was served unsliced; most people cut theirs up that way. Not me; I sliced mine and ate the slices -- the good ol' American way. Afterwards, I visit the book department. It's actually a pretty decent department. The store reminds me of Hudson's. This shouldn't be surprising, since the original Mr. Selfridge was from Milwaukee (the guidebooks say). The appliance department had both European-standard appliances and American-standard ones. Getting an American-style refrigerator is a big deal over there, it seems.
Earlier in the day, I went to Marks & Spencer ("Marks & Sparks") and bought some socks. A pair of mine had become sacred -- i.e., "hole-y". After Selfridges, I went back to M&S and visited the food hall, where I stocked up on a few things. Got some croissants for breakfast, a bag of crisps (i.e., chips) and 2 packages of chocolate chip cookies -- one for me, and one for Sharon and family, who were due in that evening. I saw some small birthday cakes, in case we wanted to celebrate Heather's birthday early. But I didn't see any utensils. Not having them would make the cake hard to cut and eat.
Sharon's plane was due to arrive at Gatwick at 6 PM. I took the train to the airport to meet them there, arriving shortly after 6. Unbeknownst to me, they arrived 20 minutes early and proceeded quickly through customs and immigration. So while I spent 90 minutes waiting for them in the North Terminal arrival hall, they were in the South Terminal looking for me. I gave up at 7:30 and went back into town. By that time, they were arriving at Victoria Station. When I got to the hotel, I called the front desk and asked if they had checked in yet. The reception clerk said no they hadn't, that they weren't due to check in until tomorrow. I was stunned to hear this. I called Bulgaria, thinking they never left. Yes, they did leave, said Vessi the nanny. For a few minutes, I was worried that they had no place to stay. Finally, Sharon called. They were in room 653. Was I relieved!
I went up to the sixth floor to meet them. Heather opened the door for me, but I thought she was Candice for a minute. I hadn't seen them for nearly a year. They hadn't had supper, so they ordered room service. I got some breaded mushrooms. They gave me souvenirs from Bulgaria, stuff they had been unable to mail me.
Friday, October 11 We had breakfast at McDonald's. Last night, we decided to take the same sightseeing tour that I took on Monday. So we bought our tickets from the hotel information desk. I don't think the girls needed tickets. So we walked over to Hyde Park and boarded the tour bus. This was a bit different than Monday, for we didn't have a live guide. We had to listen to taped narration in several languages. Unfortunately, I could barely hear the narration. And neither could Randall. Sharon and the girls didn't bother. Heather sat next to me; Candice sat next to her mommy. The tour followed the same basic path as on Monday, but with a couple of differences. We didn't go very close to Buckingham Palace today, for one thing. I think everybody enjoyed themselves. Afterwards, we went back to the hotel for a spot of lunch. For me, lunch was a can of Coke.
After resting a bit, we went back to Hyde Park for some pigeon-feeding. I didn't feed any pigeons, as I was too busy taking pictures. But the girls seemed to enjoy it. At times, they would run up to the pigeons, trying to scare them away. Apparently, they like to do that in Bulgaria. The pigeons there might be a bit nastier, though. We walked down to the Serpentine, a lake inside the park. The girls and I played hide and seek for a bit. Candice was picking some purple flowers that were growing at the bases of some trees. We ended up walking to the southeast corner of the park, then back to the northeast corner, then back to the hotel.
We decided to have dinner at the Deep Pan Pizza restaurant. That was down near Oxford Circus. I went to get our Travelcards validated, then returned. We all took the Tube to Oxford Circus and walked to the restaurant. I had the all-you-can-eat pasta bar, and so did Randall. Can't remember what Sharon had. The girls had chicken nuggets from the children's menu.
I developed another roll of film today. These pictures were of Dover, Paris, and London.
Saturday, October 12 Our day started with a walk to Dunkin' Donuts. I didn't feel like any donuts, as I'd already eaten something (a croissant, perhaps), but I did have a drink. The donut show shared space with a souvenir shop that appeared to be closing down. We then proceeded to board the 274 bus (not a doubledecker) to Regent Park and the London Zoo. This was the girls' first visit to a zoo, and they get to go to the oldest one in the world. We spent over 4 hours there going to and through nearly all of the exhibits. Some of the exhibits frightened Heather; they were dark. So on several occasions Sharon and Heather went outside and waited for the rest of us to join them. I usually went through those exhibits faster and joined them first. One of the strangest sights was a gibbon with a very loud yelp. I caught it on video. We could hear it from the snack bar area. I thought it was some kind of electronic siren. No! It was a gibbon. We went inside the elephant house, where we saw a couple of elephants. One of them decided to relieve himself -- loudly. It would seem that elephants have big bladders. We saw a statue of a gorilla. Sharon, Randall and Heather stood by it to have their picture taken with it. Candice was scared of it and didn't want to go near it. The girls rode the merry-go-round -- twice! We went to the petting zoo, where Candice got to pet a wallaby and Heather got to pet a ram. A rooster was crowing, and we saw at least one bunny rabbit. This rabbit happened to look like Bugs Bunny, I thought. We went to the gift shop, where the girls bought souvenir stuffed penguins. Outside the gift shop, there was a man who was using a filter to look at a partial eclipse of the sun. The day had started off cloudy, but the sky was now clear. I didn't look through the filter, choosing to see the reports on the news that evening. And besides, this eclipse didn't compare to the annular one I saw at home in 1994 (which I took pictures and video of). We took the bus back to the hotel; again, it was a single decker. This time, our bus went down Baker Street, so we had to have passed the legendary home of Sherlock Holmes. Then I left them for a short time for a special trip.
After dropping off another roll of film, I took the Tube to Paddington Station. I wasn't planning to go anywhere, but I wanted to check out a store. Candice had become familiar with Paddington Bear (her kindergarten teacher was British), and I had heard that there was a store at the station featuring Paddington Bear merchandise. The store's location is appropriate, since Paddington Bear was originally found at Paddington Station. Anyway, I bought them each a bear, a book, and a sketch pad. These were to be their birthday presents -- well, it was a birthday present for Heather, but it was a Heather's birthday present for Candice. They liked them a lot. Heather sounded impressed when I told her where I got the presents. "You went to Paddington Station?" she said excitedly.
Supper was at the Kentucky Fried Chicken, where I had a Zinger sandwich. I've never heard of Zinger sandwiches back in America. You'll notice that we weren't being very adventurous in our choice of restaurants. Some of that is a comfort factor; we know what to expect from these places. In one case (Sunday the 13th), we went to Wendy's because Sharon and them hadn't been to one in nearly a year. No Wendy's in Bulgaria. Now I would not necessarily have gone to Wendy's, for I could easily go to them back in the States. But if I hadn't been to one for a long time, I would feel differently. I'd almost certainly go if I had the opportunity. I didn't go into any pubs, but that's due mainly to one reason: I don't drink. I thought about going to some Mexican places, but I had the nagging fear in my mind that the food wouldn't be any good, that it wouldn't conform to my expectations of what makes good Tex-Mex. Coming from Texas, I think I know what to expect from good Tex-Mex. It's not easy to find good Tex-Mex outside of Texas, though it certainly does exist. Perhaps I'll be a bit more adventurous if and when I return to London.
Sunday, October 13 We were undecided what to do. They wanted to see the Changing of the Guard at Buckingham Palace, which I wasn't that interested in. We all wanted to take a cruise on the Thames. I wanted to go to Greenwich, which they didn't really want to do. Given the time constraints that we had (more so for Sharon and family than for me), we decided to split our efforts. They would go to the Changing of the Guard, while I would go to Greenwich via a river cruise. We promised to share pictures and video.
So I set off towards Greenwich via Tube. Actually, I took the Tube to Tower Hill station, where there were a lot of people waiting for our guide. He was running a bit late. The group was quite large, no doubt attracted by the very nice weather (sunny and comfortable). Eventually, our guide arrived and briefed us on what to expect. We then walked down to the riverbank, past the Tower of London, and waited for the boat to arrive. The boat did arrive, we boarded, and we set sail. We proceeded underneath Tower Bridge and past the old Docklands area, spending half an hour in transit to Greenwich. I took very few pictures but captured much of the cruise on video.
We arrived at Greenwich and disembarked. Our first visits were to the Cutty Sark (the world's fasted tea clipper) and the Gipsy Moth (which circled the world solo in 1967). Interesting facts about Gipsy Moth's skipper, Sir Francis Chichester: he shares several things in common with Sir Francis Drake. They both sailed around the world, and they were both knighted by Queen Elizabeth (the First for Drake, the Second for Chichester) at the same location in Greenwich. The same sword was used in both ceremonies. We then walked along the bank towards the Royal Naval College. It was formerly a royal palace but fell out of favor. Soon, the Naval College will leave, and the buildings will be given to the University of Greenwich. We walked to the National Maritime Museum and heard about its history. From a distance, we could see the Old Royal Observatory, defining point for GMT and the Prime Meridian. At 1 PM (1200 GMT), we saw the ball on top of the observatory descend from the top of its mast to the bottom. That signal was the original definition of GMT. The ball also influenced the ball in Times Square on New Year's Eve. We then walked through the neighborhoods of Greenwich, stopping at a wonderfully restored church. It was damaged severely during World War II, but most of the damage has been restored. Here, the tour ended.
I decided to visit the Observatory. It's at the top of a hill, and the path to get to it is rather steep. People were leaning sharply to keep their balance. I had to stop once to catch my breath. But the trip was worth it. You get a nice view from the top of the hill. The City of London is easily visible (I could see the dome of St. Paul's), as are the Docklands and the Canary Wharf area. Many people were getting their picture taken while standing on the Prime Meridian, with one foot in the Eastern Hemisphere and one foot in the Western. You could do this both inside the Observatory and outside. I did so in both places. Once inside the observatory, I decided to buy a ticket which was time- and date-stamped with the time I stood on the Prime Meridian. In an interesting coincidence, my ticket was stamped 13-10 (Oct. 13), 13:10 GMT. I could not take pictures or video inside the museum, but I bought guidebooks which showed many of the exhibits. There were old astronomical instruments and models of clocks. One key exhibit dealt with the need to invent an accurate chronometer to accurately determine longitude. I saw the telescope whose eyepiece crosshairs define the Prime Meridian. A thought: it's too bad there can't be any special exhibit at the ultimate center point on the earth, 0 degrees latitude and 0 degrees longitude (the intersection of the equator and the prime meridian). That point is at sea.
I decide to return to central London via the Docklands Light Railway. This requires that I use a pedestrial tunnel under the Thames. It's fairly deep, as I descend a very long flight of stairs to get to it. On the other side, I decide to take the elevator. My Travelcard is good on the DLR, which is an elevated rail system. The Docklands are being redeveloped, and the area looks rather nice. I hook up with the Tube system and proceed back to the hotel.
Meanwhile, Sharon and family did go to see the Changing of the Guard. They did not get a good vantage point, so they didn't see a whole lot. But most of their pictures turned out OK. On the way back to the hotel, Candice fell and skinned her knee.
We walked to Wendy's for supper. This was their first visit to a Wendy's since leaving the States. Bulgaria has several fast food restaurants -- McDonald's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Pizza Hut -- but does not have a Wendy's. This Wendy's was 2-leveled; you ordered at street level, then went downstairs to sit down and eat. The girls got toys with their meal. The menu was a little different than the American standard, but everything was recognizable. While walking back, we stop at souvenir shops and stock up. I get several items for myself and for relatives back home -- trays showing the map of the Underground, street sign magnets, models of Big Ben, those sorts of things.
Monday, October 14 Once again, we had breakfast at McDonald's. We then walked to Hamley's toy store, which was on Regent Street. It was a rather long walk. Had we realized how far it was, we wouldn't have walked there but would have taken a cab or the Tube or something. Hamley's is London's answer to FAO Schwarz -- or is FAO Schwarz America's answer to Hamley's? The stores are very similar. One section of the second floor was devoted to Barbies. You could say that Candice and Heather were in Barbie Heaven. They had some money which they could use to buy a doll. They chose to each get an Angelica doll (from Rugrats). In the meantime, I saw some interesting ideas for Christmas gifts. We went down to the basement to rest and have a snack. I rested while they played several games, including air hockey. Somebody had to stay with all of the stuff. On the way out, I got a magnet that has a picture of the girls on it. I took the Tube back to the hotel, while they took a cab. I picked up my 4th roll of pictures and got some lunch from a nearby convenience store (sandwich, yogurt drink). Sharon went to Selfridge's book department, while the rest of us stayed at the hotel.
Afterwards, we were deciding on what to do. They wanted to take a bus tour at dusk. I didn't want to do that, since that would have been my third tour. So I went to Harrod's instead. That is a remarkable store. I picked up a cat toy with the Harrod's logo for my aunt Marie, and I got several books for myself that I've never seen in America. It looks like you really can get just about anything there. Came back to the hotel, got 2 bottles of water at M&S and picked up an Evening Standard. Meanwhile, Sharon and family did take the dusk bus tour. Apparently, the weather was a little less cooperative, as I think they had to retreat to the (covered) lower level of the bus a couple of times. They had dinner at the Shakespeare Tavern near Victoria Station. Randall received a certificate for being able to eat "The Shark" (a rather large cut of fish).
Tuesday, October 15 Today, Sharon and family were to return to Bulgaria. I didn't go with them to the airport, so we said our goodbyes the night before. Instead, I went to Liverpool. I took the 8:05 from Euston Station to Liverpool, riding in first class. The countryside was pretty nice. Some of the sights I remember seeing: Wembley Stadium, the Ford Halewood plant (where they build the European Escort), Allerton (Paul McCartney's boyhood neighborhood). Then we pulled into Lime Street Station. There's the famous song "Maggie May" that mentions Lime Street: "Oh, dirty Maggie May/They have taken her away/And she'll never walk down Lime Street any more" (from the Let It Be LP). It was noticeably colder in Liverpool than in London. Had lunch at a Burger King in the station, then proceeded to look for the tourist bureau. The street signs were confusing, so I had a hard time finding it. It was inside a downtown shopping area. I picked up a tourist booklet and several maps and one book about the Beatles and Liverpool. Then I proceeded to look for the Cavern Club. The city centre is dedicated to pedestrians (during business hours, at least). I noticed a "T. K. Maxx" (same as T. J. Maxx in America; wonder why the difference?). The regular stores were there -- Littlewoods, M&S, HMV, Virgin, Boots the Chemist. I found the Cavern Walks Shopping Centre, which is built on the site of the original Cavern Club. Inside is a statue of the Beatles. Today, it was festooned with several decorations and cards, no doubt in tribute to the recent birthday of John Lennon, who would have been 56 on Oct. 9. Inside the centre is the Abbey Road Pub, which seems a little out of place when you consider that Abbey Road is in London, not Liverpool. A few doors down from the centre is the reconstructed Cavern Club. It was built from the original bricks. At night, it's in use as a regular club. It's open during the day for a look-see, and that's what I did. There's a long mural as you descend the staircase. Then you're in the club. I wonder what it would have been like to have been there all those years ago. I didn't stay long.
I went back into the city center, trying to find the old NEMS location. I may have passed by it without noticing it. I did see and go into Rushworth's Music, where John Lennon and George Harrison received Gibson acoustic guitars for being winners of a local poll. I popped into a store on Mathew Street that's a Beatle memorabilia and record store; didn't get anything. I went into the HMV store looking for a few discs -- specifically, Sleeper's "The It Girl" (I'd seen ads for it and it sounded OK) and the Gigolo Aunts' "Where I Find My Heaven" (the theme to "Game On"). Found those. Also picked up the 3 CD Searchers' box set and the Big Three's "Cavern Stomp". It was most appropriate to buy those CD's in Liverpool, as they were part of the Merseybeat boom. Went into the W. H. Smith bookstore -- didn't get anything. There was a street market happening, and it looked like there was a lot available. I thought to myself, I wouldn't mind spending more time in Liverpool sometime. I knew I wasn't going to be there more than a few hours, so I wasn't going to get to see Penny Lane or Strawberry Field or any of the houses the Beatles had grown up in. But I was able to walk down to the river (a nice walk) and see the ferry dock. There were no ferries there -- these being the ferries 'cross the Mersey. Saw the Royal Liver building and the Liver birds, took a photo -- which came out very well, almost postcard-quality. According to my timetable, the next train to London left at 1:45. I had to hurry back to the train station. I made it, but I was very warm as I boarded the train. On the way back, I saw several rainbows to the east, including one that went from horizon to horizon. I think I even saw a double rainbow. Went past a huge antenna farm; not sure what that was for. Arrived in London around 4:30.
When I got back, I went to Selfridge's to buy some gifts (Tiddley Winks and 2 copies of British Monopoly, one of those being for myself). My supper was a sandwich from the convenience store.
Wednesday, October 16 I started my last full day in London with another visit to the grave of the Guardian. I had promised to offer prayers on behalf of certain people back in Detroit, and I had forgotten to do that my first visit. Hence, my return. This time, I remembered and offered several prayers on their behalf -- and on behalf of everyone I knew. At the Arnos Grove Tube station, I bought a single carnation from the florist, intending to lay it at the shrine. Unfortunately, the gate to the shrine was locked, preventing me from approaching. So I placed the flower on the gate. I spent several minutes here in prayer and meditation.
After I left, I went to Madame Tussaud's wax museum. This place is world-famous, and rightfully so. The exhibits are very realistic, almost life-like. As I entered the first exhibition hall, you could arrange to have your picture taken with Arnold Schwarzenegger -- or his replica, anyway. I passed on that opportunity and proceeded through the exhibits. In the first hall, you could see "people" like Dudley Moore, Joanna Lumley, and soccer star Paul Gascoigne (sp?). Next came the likes of Muhammad Ali and Olga Korbut, the Duke of Wellington and Napoleon (recreating a scene from history where the real Duke, as an old man, came to the exhibition and saw the model of Napoleon). In the Great Hall were several kings and queens -- Henry VIII and 5 of his 6 wives (one was away being repaired), Elizabeth I, Richard I and III, Edward VIII (AKA the Duke of Windsor, who's been accused of being a Nazi sympathizer and collaborator), George VI -- and of course, the current Royal Family. Diana was still there, though separated from them. There were several American presidents, Russian leaders, Middle Eastern leaders, Martin Luther King, the Pope, Gandhi, several Indian prime ministers. Oh yes, the Beatles were there too. I took many pictures here, though I could easily have taken more.
The next stop: the infamous chamber of horrors, where we see acts of torture recreated. We see castings from the actual death masks made of the French Revolution's victims by Madame Tussaud herself. It's not for the squeamish or faint-hearted. Next was a ride showing the history of London, then a visit to the gift shop (didn't get anything) and out.
My next task was a bit unpleasant: I had to find a new lens cap for my camera, since I had lost mine inside the museum. Selfridge's was out of stock, but they directed me to a place on Regent Street. I eventually bought a lens cap then proceeded back to the hotel. At this time, I was rather tired and irate. No, make that very tired. I was at the point of burnout. I didn't want to go to any more museums or see any more sights; I just wanted to rest. And rest is what I did. I only went out to have supper at Pizza Hut and to take some pictures of Oxford Street at dusk. I went to Bliss Pharmacy to have them developed, but their equipment was broken and wouldn't be fixed for a few days. I would have to have this roll developed back in America. That night, I packed. I think my vacation had been just the right length.
Thursday, October 17 Today was the day I left London and returned home. I checked out of the hotel and took a cab to Victoria Station, where I caught the Gatwick Express. Check-in for the flight was in the South Terminal. I arrived sufficiently early so that I could stop in the business and first class lounge, which (as you might imagine) was rather nice. Got to read several papers there. One of the women working in the lounge sounded a bit like Tracey Ullman. I turned around one time to make sure it wasn't her (it wasn't).
There were several stores at the airport, on both sides of passport control. On the outbound, duty-free side, there was a Dixons electronics, a Disney Store, a bookstore and newstand, and a few other things. But I wasn't going to buy any more, for I had determined I was pushing my duty-free allotment. Boarding the plane was uneventful. This time, I sat on the left side of the plane, in an aisle seat. When we took off, I could see a blanket packet sliding down the aisle of the plane. Somebody had forgotten to secure it. So I stuck my foot out and stopped it. After we'd leveled out, the stewardess came by to pick it up and thank me for stopping it.
I could see the southern coast; we were flying over Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight for a time before heading northwest towards home. Never saw any icebergs.
Our plane landed an hour ahead of schedule. But we had to wait a half an hour to proceed to the gate, since the gate was occupied until then. I had no problems getting through customs and immigration, even though I had brought over $400 of imported goods with me. It wasn't cigarettes or liquor or anything like that, so it must have been no big deal. It also helps to be one of the first people off of the plane. So at 4:15 I was out of the airport and taking a taxi home. The fare was $20.60, but all I had were 20's, so the cabbie got a nearly $20 tip. I had a lot of mail waiting for me -- both the regular kind and the electronic kind (75 pieces).
©1996, 1998 R. W. Reini. All rights reserved.
Written by Roger Reini