Posts Tagged ‘navel gazing’

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 41: London to home

On 2 March 1998, I went home. Sort of.

I had to wake up early to make sure I made it to Heathrow Airport on time so I got promises from my French dormate Nadja and a Danish woman that they’d wake me before they left for work. I was so keyed up I didn’t need any waking and woke long before I needed to. While checking out of the hostel, I had a very friendly conversation with an Australian woman checking in. In the “go figure” department, it may have been the most promising initial conversation I had with a member of the opposite sex in the entire 6 weeks.

Earl’s Court is conveniently on the Piccadilly Line to Heathrow, and the Tube whisked me to the airport (something Londoners tell me is not typical). The flight home on Virgin Atlantic was festive. The flight attendants gave out shots of Bailey’s and brandy (I had one of each). I watched the James Bond flick Goldfinger and the Muhammad Ali documentary When Were Kings on the Virgin TV. I distinctly remember drunken women singing “Brimful of Asha” in the rows behind me.

My sister Barbara met me at Dulles. My first impressions on being back in the States is that all the green money looked odd, and it was weird to see cars driving on the right. Barbara had taken my car in for repair while I was gone, but it had problems. “It’s the darnedest thing I ever saw,” said the auto mechanic. So my travels extended to one more night in Richmond before I made my triumphant return to Bastardsville on March 3.

This is probably where I should list my favorite parts and lessons learned, but I think I’ve bored you enough with my travelog. Thanks for reading, and if you enjoyed this maybe I’ll tell you about some of my other trips one day.

Travel still life with cat
The end of the journey: rain jacket, passport, journal, and otter with Otto the Cat.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 40: London/Greenwich

On the first of March 1998, I made a rail journey across London to the borough of Greenwich. I had one day left on my Britrail pass so I figured I may as well use it. Part of the adventure was a transfer at Clapham Junction which claims to be the busiest station in Britain and seems to have a gazillion tracks so I’ll believe that claim.

In Greenwich, I straddled the Prime Meridian at the Royal Observatory. I strolled through the timely exhibits but the coolest thing I saw there was a camera obscura which projected an image of Greenwich onto a white table. I thought it was a photograph at first until I saw the cars and boats moving. I also visited the National Maritime Museum where I learned an awful lot about Admiral Lord Nelson. I also admired, but did not board the Cutty Sark clipper (which I wrote about previously), which is in dry dock in Greenwich.

I’d not enjoyed any nightlife since Liverpool, and it would not happen in London either. I passed by many intriguing pubs but was turned off by the crowds of suit & tie wearing patrons who looked like they were discussing stock prices. Really, the Big City was intimidating me. On Saturday night I attempted to go to a night club but when I saw all the hip, attractive young people in the queue I turned around and went home.

For my last night abroad, I wanted to do something and selected from the Time Out listings a early Sunday, relaxed chill-out club night in Brixton. I took the Tube to Brixton with Eddy Grant’s “Electric Avenue” and The Clash’s “Guns of Brixton” in my head. But I couldn’t find the club. I mean, I found the street, but the street number of the club just plain didn’t exist! So I ended up wandering aimlessly again, taking the tube to Piccadilly Circus where I gazed at neon and played a couple of games in a big arcade. Kind of a bum last night.

Prime Meridian

The Otter and I at Greenwich Mean Time.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 39: London

After exhausting myself the previous day, I started of 28 February 1998 rather slowly. I did some laundry even though I would be returning home in a couple of days because I wanted to have something nice to wear to the theatre. After checking my email at an internet cafe and taking care of some other housekeeping, I went to Leicester Square and purchased tickets for two shows: a 5 pm matinée of Agatha Christie’s The Mousetrap followed immediately by J.B. Priestely’s An Inspector Calls.

I had time in the afternoon for one museum and I narrowed it down to The Tate Gallery (which was just one museum at the time) or The British Museum. The Tate won a coin-flip, but I allowed history and prestige to reverse my decision (it was also closer to the theatre district). On the downside The British Museum was undergoing heavy renovation, a rude clerk in the shop falsely accused me of stealing, and after a while I got really tired of looking at lots of broken statues. But the British Museum has a lot going for it. I saw pieces of the Parthenon, items from the Sutton Hoo Ship Burial and the well-preserved corpse of the Lindow Man. I also had to hold myself back when I saw people touching the Rosetta Stone!!!! I mean its the most awesome relic in the world and stupid people were just rubbing their grubby fingers on it.

Back in Leceister Square, I took in some busker performances. One juggler was looking for volunteers from the audience and since I’d read that public humiliation was a good way to meet people, I stepped up. Basically, his act was to tie one leg behind his back clamber up on top of a suitcase balanced on a stool and juggle. My job was to hold the suitcase and act as the ladder for his one-legged climb up, something he told the audience would be very painful for me. The act went off without a hitch, and afterwards two gals from North Carolina congratulated me on my busking debut. That was about it though. I told them I was going to see The Mousetrap, they told me they were going to see Shopping and Fucking, and that was pretty much the end of the conversation.

The Mousetrap is kind of a silly play, but since I’d seen the world’s longest-running musical in New York (The Fantasticks), I figured I had to see the world’s longest-running play period. I was at performance number 18838. An Inspector Calls was more of a social commentary than a thriller, and one of the leading women looked strikingly like my friend Krista (unfortunately this was the understudy so I have no idea who the actress is or if Krista was moonlighting). Oddly, both plays have a person pretending to be a police inspector as an important plot device.

Busker

The busking juggler in Leceister Square who gave me a supporting role (literally) in his act.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 38: London

After more than five weeks of travel, I finally hit the wall on 27 February 1998. Most people just get plain tuckered out when constantly on the go, but I had somehow managed to keep my energy and enthusiasm up to this point. Then London just knocked it out of me.

I returned to the Tower of London, intent on spending the better part of the day exploring. It is well worth the time, and while I was not to interested in the crown jewels, I did enjoy strolling along the walls, taking in the aura of history. In one tower there were historical reenactors dresss in medieval garb demonstrating swordplay. I also took a tour led by one of the excellent Yeoman Warders who are just brilliant fonts of knowledge. The ravens also fascinated me. They’re much bigger birds than I imagined when one sees them up close.

There were a number of school children visiting, all wearing their charming school uniforms. One group got a bit rowdy, and a Yeoman Warder chewed them out, ordering them to behave “like good little people.” I found this much amusing.

After leaving the tower, I found myself riding the Underground and wandering the streets of London rather aimlessly. I felt tired, sore, and really didn’t know what to do next. I just felt I should be doing something to enjoy London. Finally, I gave in to the obvious and returned to Earl’s Court where I slept for about seven hours. While I napped, women from all over Europe gathered in my dorm room and pretty much had a picnic. I didn’t care and they didn’t seem too concerned either.

Good Little People

Good Little People at the Tower of London.

Tower Bridge

View of Tower Bridge and the Thames from the Tower of London walls.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 37: Paris to London

I crossed under the Channel again on 26 February 1998, arriving in London for the final leg of my journey. I checked into O’Callaghan’s Hostel in Earls Court, which was a dump, but a dump conveniently located near a tube stop and charging only £10 per night.

I indulged myself in hokum by paying a visit to the Sherlock Holmes Museum. It was fun to play make believe at 221B Baker Street and read letters that real live people have written to Sherlock Holmes. On the other hand, like the Dublin Writer’s Museum, there’s just something about books that you can’t really get into in a museum. The real fun is in reading.

I passed by Madame Tussaud’s, and while I’d not planned to visit, I figured as long as I was there and there was no wait to get in, I may as well find out what all the fuss is about. I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed the alarmingly life-like waxworks and their clever arrangement in various galleries. I found it interesting to learn the history of Madame Tussaud during the French Revolution and the “how a wax dummy is made” exhibit. Unfortunately, after all the exhibits I ended up on The Spirit of London, a psychedelic carnival ride in a “black cab” through London history with animatronics, anachronisms, and alarming chronological jumps from the Great Fire to Carnaby Street in the 1960′s. It was so disturbingly hokey it soured the entire Madame Tussaud’s experience for me.

That evening I engaged in a much more historic tradition, The Ceremony of the Keys at the Tower of London. A small group of tourists are allowed to witness this simple and rather quiet performance each night. I liked how the Yeoman Warder described the 700-year old ceremony as the “longest-running show in London.” He also pointed out that it happened every night, even with Jack the Ripper prowling around nearby and during the Blitz. Photography is prohibited, but I found this website that has pictures and videos of the Ceremony of the Keys if you’d like to see what it’s like.

I finished off the evening with some food and people watching in the “centre city.”

Sherlock

How many lips have touched that pipe before I put it to my mouth?

Dalai Lama

Me and the Dalai Lama are real close. We go back 3 or 4 reincarnations.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 36: Sidetrip to Paris (day 4)

On Ash Wednesday, 25 Fevrier 1998, I started with a bit of memento mori by visiting Le Cimetière du Père-Lachaise. This “city of the dead” is the final resting place of numerous illuminaries such as Sarah Berndhart, Frederic Chopin, Jacque-Louis David, Isadora Duncan, Edith Piaf, Marcel Proust, Georges-Pierre Seurat, Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein, Oscar Wilde, Richard Wright, and Jim Morrison. It’s ghoulishy cool place to take a stroll. Year’s later I would read a great book called Waiting for Gertrude by Bill Richardson in which all the people buried in Père-Lachaise are reincarnated as cats.

I returned to Norte Dame, this time to worship. The cathedral was quite crowded and a security guard valiantly tried to keep camera-toting tourists out of the choir. I had no idea how to tell him in French that I was here to pray, so I made a sign of the cross on my forehead, and he let me in with a smile. I received the actual ashes on my forehead a little later during a lovely Mass where I sat next to a French woman with an amazing singing voice. Not knowing the language, I really couldn’t sing myself.

On Wednesday, the Louvre Museum was open to 10 pm, and anyone arriving after 2 pm got in for reduced admission. I figured 8 hours was a good amount of time to take in the world’s greatest art museum so I joined the snake-like queue leading into Pei’s glass pyramid. The line was long but moved fast and soon I was inside and overwhelmed by choices. I bought an English-language guide for first time visitors that described and guided me to the 51 top masterworks in the collection. Following that took me about four hours and was well worth it to see all the famous art works I’d heard of (as well as many I never heard of but liked anyway).

On my own, I revisited some of the galleries more in-depth, mainly the collections of paintings. I was amused by the crowds gathered in front of Mona Lisa, all talking nonsense. I figured one could make a comical recording of tourists in front of Mona Lisa with witty bon mots like:

AMERICAN MAN: What makes it so famous?

AMERICAN WOMAN: Marketing!

After being around so many Australian travelers, I was amazed by how many fellow Americans were in Paris. Luckily I had my English-language guide so I could tell the woman from Michigan that David’s Le sacre de Napoléon depicts the Emperor’s coronation, not his sacrifice.

I admired a lot of art, but settled on the following three paintings as my favorites: La belle jardinière by Raphael (I especially like that John the Baptist wore a hairshirt as a baby), La Jeune Martyre by Paul Delaroche, and the drool-worthy Woman with a Mirror by Titian. After a full day’s work looking at art, I was bleary-eyed and staggering through the gallery. I took the Metro back to the hotel and dreamt of curvy, curly-haired women with mirrors.

Pere Lachaise

An “avenue” in the City of the Dead.

Mona Lisa

If you go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa, expect company.

Aphrodite avec otter

Venus de Milo and Newport Otter enjoyed one another’s company because they both understand what life is like with stubby arms.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 35: Sidetrip to Paris (day 3)

On Mardi Gras, 24 Fevrier 1998, I moved out of Jessica’s flat because Madame Françoise was hosting several guests and didn’t have room for me. I enjoyed two nights rent free, but I also looked forward to having a place of my own for the next tonight. Jessica took me to her favorite budget lodging in Paris, Hotel Clairefontaine. I ended up in a petite chamber (9 1/2 x 8 ft) with a faded, dirty floral wallpaper, a squishy bed, a sink, a bidet, a wardrobe, and a window looking out on the courtyard covered by an old brown rag. And I loved it! This was the first place I had to myself in weeks, and it cost less than many of the hostels I’d been staying.

I took the train to Versailles, avoiding the wait to visit the actual palace of Château de Versailles, and instead I set out to explore the expansive gardens. I spent most of the day enjoying fresh air and exercise in a beautiful setting, which was inspiring despite replanting, statues covered in canvas, and no bubbling fountains. My favorite part is Petit Hameau where Marie Antoinette would dress up as a dairymaid and live a rustic lifestyle. Today there’s a working farm on the site, so I got to see a French sheep to go with all the Irish, Scottish, and English sheep I’d seen. It seemed to me that Marie Antoinette was ahead of the curve in creating the Disney/Busch Gardens experience.

Back in Paris, I met Jessica for dinner at a fondue restaurant. To complete my Parisian experience, we had a very rude waitress who responded to Jessica’s French in English, mocked her for ordering a Coke, told us she knew we were American because we came to dinner at 7 pm (too early), and would not tell Jessica what type of cheese was in the fondue. “It’s a secret recipe and I don’t want you opening your own restaurant.” It was so over the top, I had to laugh and simply enjoy the whole rude waitress experience. Oddly, the more I laughed, the nicer the waitress behaved to us, and by the end of the meal we were rather chummy. I figure Parisians are like New Yorkers: if you get offended it’s your own problem, but if you play along, the you’re alright.

Clairefontaine

My petite chamber in Hotel Clairefontaine.

Petite hameau

The Petite Hameau in the gardens at Versailles.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 34: Sidetrip to Paris (day 2)

On the morning of lundi, 23 Février 1998, Jessica and I went to the nearest Metro stop where she recommended I buy a book of 10 billets to save money over the next few days. Unfortunately, the cost of the booklet was 48 FF and the smallest note I had left from the Bureau de Change was a 200 FF, which the clerk wouldn’t accept. Instead Jessica went through the turnstile on her own, and then opened an exit gate, pulled me through and said “run!” When we got on the train and I caught my breath I was mortified that I’d just jumped the turnstiles and worried that I’d get busted. Jessica assured me that her friends did this all the time with no trouble. At our destination we were greeted by the controle who busted me for not having a ticket, and after a heated conversation in French with Jessica, forced me to pay a fine of 150 FF. The controle had no problem making change for a 200 FF note. I found it well worth it for an amusing French experience.

Jessica went to school and I went to Jardin du Luxembourg where I saw great statuary, trees, fountains, people doing tai chi, and children riding ponies. I strolled across the Seine to Isle Saint-Louis, where I tried a cone of the delicious local ice cream. On the next island, Île de la Cité, I visited the Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. After visitng so many Anglican cathedrals, it was nice to be somewhere so thoroughly Catholic and I spent a long time there falling in love with my surroundings. The highlight of course was climbing up the tower so I could see the gargoyles up close.

I walked through Jardin du Tullieres, took a break and studied my map. I noticed that a section of the city had streets all with American names including Avenue de New-York and several avenues named for US Presidents. I decided I had to explore this part of the city. There I stumbled upon a replica of the flame from the Statue of Liberty dedicated as a monument to Franco-American friendship, of which I felt very proud at that moment. I was annoyed that the flame was defaced by graffiti, but soon realized that I was standing on top of the overpass where Princess Diana died in a car crash the previous year and these were messages to her. Still, I wanted her to get her own monument and leave Franco-American friendship alone. I finished the day at the Arc de Triomphe followed by a perambulation down the Champs-Élysées.

boats

Children sail boats in a Parisian fountain.

Flame of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty Flame, a monument officially to Franco-American friendship and de facto a memorial to Princess Diana.

Avenue de New-York

Slouching on the Avenue de New-York.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 33: London to Paris

In less than 24-hours, I saw for the first time London & Paris, Big Ben & The Eiffel Tower, and the Thames and the Seine among other things. Due to my late night tourism, I had some very full days, but in the sunny part of the morning of 22 February 1998 I woke up from a nap at Waterloo Station and started again.

I took another walk around London, this time to see the exterior of Westminster Abbey. I thought about going in for the Sunday service but the risk of my falling asleep was too great. Instead I continued on to a quiet Trafalgar Square, and around the windy streets of Westminster.

I boarded the 11:44 am train for Paris. The Eurostar trains are very sleek and feel almost like the interior of an airplane. I enjoyed that on English soil all the announcements were made in English first, then in French. Once through the Channel Tunnel the order of languages switched. The French woman seated next to me rolled her eyes at the English engineers French pronunciation. The Chunnel itself is rather dull, no more an experience than riding a subway in any city around the world. In fact I slept for most of the 20 or so minutes under the Channel (see Extreme Napping).

Sleepy and disoriented I disembarked at Paris’ Gare du Nord and was hit by waves of culture shock and panic. For some reason I had no problem traveling to a new city where I don’t speak the language, but I allowed my phone-phobia to prevent me from confirming ahead of time that I’d have a place to stay. Worse, when I tried to call Jessica from the railway station with my phone card I couldn’t get through to her. Did I have the wrong number, was she not there? I changed my money and tried calling from a coin-op phone and luckily this time I got through.

My worries weren’t over though, because Jessica gave me complex directions to her flat that involved riding the RER commuter train and two Metro lines. From what little I could remember of my high school French, I couldn’t figure out how to buy a ticket from the clerk, so I just wrote down my destination and held it up to the window and gestured for a single ticket. I have no shame. I jumped again on the Metro when a loud siren went off, but it was just the sound that signified the doors were closing. After that, I calmed down a bit and navigated my way to Jessica’s flat. I was even charmed by the busker who came on the train playing an accordion – it was just so … French!

Jessica welcomed me warmly and invited me up to the flat where Madame Françoise, the French woman who was hosting her, was chatting on the phone (I don’t think I ever saw her not on the phone). Jessica spoiled me with a dinner of gnocchi, Caesar salad, and lots of wine. At one point I casually looked out the window, and dumbfounded realized that I was looking at La Tour Eiffel! Jessica had a good laugh about that. Reinforced by a good meal, I decided to take a bonsoir walk around the arrondissement.

Excitement and curiosity got the best of me and I ended up walking a long way beneath elevated Metro tracks down to the Seine, and finally to the Eiffel Tower itself. Since I’d come so far I figured I may as well go up, purchasing the most expensive ticket to reach all the observation decks. At the tippy-top, a group of teenagers from North Carolina and their chaperons were taking group photos. One of the mothers asked me if I spoke English, and I responded “Like a native!” After I took their pictures I asked them to take mine, and cheekily invited some of the girls to join me for the photo so I would not be atop the Eiffel Tower alone. After that I rushed back to Jessica’s flat, hoping that she hadn’t already called the police.

tour-eiffel.jpg

La Tour Eiffel from below.

eyefull.jpg

At the top with a pair of North Carolinians.

Ireland/Britain 1998 day 32: Bath/Cheddar/Wells/London

I pushed the boundaries of traveling on 21 February 1998 and became a 24-hour tourist.

I checked out of the Bath hostel and went to the bus station to purchase a Day Rambler pass on Badgerline. Then I checked my bags at left luggage only to learn that I’d need to be back by 5:30 pm if I wished to retrieve them. This would make things tight for reaching all three destinations I wished to visit that day: Cheddar Gorge, Wells, and Glastonbury. In retrospect, I should have just asked the hostel to hold my bags.

Cheddar is the biggest gorge in Britain which lends its name to the world’s most popular cheese. This was something of a cheese pilgrimage for me. First I climbed up a set of stairs called Jacob’s Ladder to the to the cliff walk over the gorge. The stairs were marked off with each step representing a geologic era. Humanity only appears on the last step from the top. I walked along the footpath for a bit and took in some lovely views. I chatted with some mountain bikers who were walking their bikes up the hill and making self-deprecating jokes about it.

The village in Cheddar Gorge is full of cheesy attractions (in both senses of the word), but unfortunately the cheese-making facilities were not open this day. The cheese-vending facilities, however, were operational and I bought a wedge of aged blue-veined cheddar. Sadly I missed the bus to Wells by just a few minutes and found myself wandering around this Gatlinburg of England for another hour. It also eliminated any chance of getting to Glastonbury that day.

Wells is a small city with a huge cathedral. The blue skies, dark clouds, the madding pealing of the bells, and the soaring towers of Wells Cathedral combined for a spiritually enlightening experience. The other main site in Wells is Vicar’s Close the oldest intact street in Europe. A line-up of charming houses with their chimneys all in a row. I took a break by the canal of Bishop’s Palace and watched people feed the birds. I was thoroughly charmed by Wells and did not want to leave. Perhaps it was good I didn’t have to rush off to another town.

I returned to Bath, picked up my bags, and boarded a train to Winchester. I planned to stay overnight in Winchester, visit Winchester Cathedral in the morning, and then take the train to London to meet my Eurostar train to Paris the next afternoon. At Winchester station, I decided to call the hostel, and learned that they were not open for individuals, just groups at this time of year. So I boarded the train again, and decided I’d have an adventure and sleep in the train station in London.

At London Waterloo International Station I dropped my big bag off at the high-tech security left luggage station. Then I followed signs out of the station to Westminster Bridge. After walking through a series of confusing “subways,” I walked up a staircase and right before my eyes was the famous tower and clock faces of Palace of Westminster. I crossed over the Thames and spontaneously decided to walk along the riverside path to the Tower Bridge. It was a long walk, but I had a real “wow I’m in London” experience seeing St. Paul’s, the Tower of London, and other sights along the path. After crossing the bridge, I walked back along the south bank and arrived in time to hear Big Ben bong.

Back at Waterloo, sleep wasn’t coming to me. The benches had fixed armrests which made it impossible to lay down. There also was a loud family of Chicagoans who were oblivious that people were trying to sleep, including the young French woman who starred daggers at them. I ended up befriending the college-aged son, partly to save them from the French woman’s wrath (which they deserved) and partly because company is company.

In the wee hours, Glenn and I went for a sightseeing walk around London. I can’t say I’ve ever gone out at 4:30 in the morning in a new city to take pictures before or since. Glenn was one of those charming people who ended every sentence with the words “and shit.” He also mistook several buildings for Buckingham Palace including the Victoria Coach Station. We never did find the actual palace.

We returned to Waterloo where Glenn & family boarded the first train to Paris. I of course hadn’t planned to be in London in the morning, so I had several more hours to try to sleep in the railway station.

Gorge Path

Bounding along the cliffs over Cheddar Gorge.

Cheddar Waterfall

A waterfall in Cheddar Village. In my Willy Wonka vision of Cheddar, this waterfall would be pure cheese.

Wells Cathedral

Wells Cathedral.

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