London, England 2002

Friday 17 May 2002

Having recently gotten a recommendation from a fellow traveler, we were turned onto a website that offers travel packages to Europe at reasonable rates. We were looking to book our first overseas trip that was not with a tour group and not with family, just El and I together truly putting our traveling compatibility to the test. So, in the spring of 2002 we booked our first trip through The package would see us fly into Gatwick International, spend three nights in London, take the Eurostar train through the chunnel to Paris, spend three nights in Paris, and then fly home out of Charles De Gaulle Airport. This was not a trip that I had kept a travel journal for, so unfortunately, the details of many of our experiences are missing. El did put together a sort of scrapbook upon our return that was able to jog some memories for some of the trip.

I was more than a bit excited to visit London. A city whose comparison to New York piqued my interest since as far back as I could remember. We did as much research as we could to give our trip some structure, while at the same time leaving enough room for spur of the moment experiences. We took a night flight out of Logan in Boston and arrived at Gatwick very early in the morning (around 6am). In addition to the flights and train, the package we bought also included airport transfers to the hotel in London, to the airport from the hotel in Paris, and the hotel room in each city. As I said, we arrived early and remember that the office of the company that operated the transfer bus was not yet open. Meaning that if you had a reservation, like us, you already had your voucher and could get on the bus that was waiting at the airport. Whereas, those who planned to arrange their transfer upon arrival (or failed to plan at all) had to wait until the office opened. Our good fortune. Like many international airports, Gatwick is not located in the city, but a bit distant 45km outside of it. It takes about 70 minutes by bus to the center of the city and costs a fortune to take a taxi (upwards of US$100). The bus was a good deal for us and eventually we were dropped off at the step of our hotel. We were staying at the Holiday Inn in Kensington which turned out to be a pretty decent place. The neighborhood was quiet and the area seemed decent enough. As we arrived several hours before check-in time, we were, unfortunately, told that we would not be able to get into our room for a while. Even though we were exhausted from the travel and in need of a shower, there was not really much that we could do about it. We were able to drop our bags at the hotel desk and took advantage of the time to do a little exploring of the area around the hotel.

We started walking and used some of our maps to orient ourselves. One of the first things I notice is that at every crosswalk they have a right-pointing arrow painted on the ground with the word “LOOK”. This is to remind people like me that when you step off of a curb in America you tend to look to the left to prevent walking into oncoming traffic. However, you are now reminded that your oncoming traffic now comes from the right side due to the driving on the left side of the street. I am certainly happy they do it. I wonder how many people got plowed by stepping in front of moving cars before they put the signs curbside. Our hotel was walking distance from the underground stop: Glouster. Not too close, but not too far. We eventually found a café where we could get some pastries and coffee (or tea) until we thought we might be able to get into the room. Being that we were so tired from the travel, the plan was to go get some sleep, then, head out to the West End area to explore that part of the city. Luckily, before we left, El’s research included the public transportation options and she discovered that there was a 3 day unlimited pass that was marketed exclusively to tourists. Exclusively, meaning that you could not purchase the pass once you were in London. You had to buy it before you went. I’m not exactly sure where we got ours, but I expect we ordered it online from New York City and had it mailed. There were a few things on our agenda in the way of commitments and a few things that we wanted to do being n London for the first time. One: eat fish and chips. Our first night in London we had tickets to see Blue Oyster Cult at the London Astoria II theatre. So we headed up to Charing Cross and found the club. Ironically, it was here that I ran into my first language barrier. We had ordered our tickets online and needed to find the box office to pick them up. I approached the ticket collector at the door and asked where I could find “will call”. Three of them stood with blank looks on their faces until one said, “that was last night”. For a split second the thought runs through my mind did I have to have my tickets picked up by yesterday for tonight’s performance or did the show somehow already happen? I ask again for “will call” and now the others hear what I am asking for and concur, “that was last night”. I confirm, “Blue Oyster Cult played last night??” They say, “no, that is tonight’s show”. I am now thoroughly confused. At which point one of the guys gets up and grabs a flyer and shows me that Blue Oyster Cult is playing tonight and that the band Wilco had performed last night. The bolt hits me that I guess they do not call reserving tickets and picking them up at the box office “will call”. I think I got more of a chuckle out of the episode than they did. I was then pointed to the box office and picked up our reserved tickets without further obstacle. It is early enough and we have no idea who the opening act is, so we decide to head a few doors down to get some dinner. It’s a Greek restaurant called Dionysus that advertises their fish and chips! Although I want to get the full take away experience where my order would be served in newspaper, we decide to go in and have a sit down dinner. I, of course, order the fish and chips. A couple of notes here about the money situation. First, at the time we took this trip, we were still buying travelers cheques as our method of exchanging money. We had English Pound Sterling (£) cheques and Euro cheques for when we got to France. Secondly, we always got a nominal amount of foreign currency at our local bank for when we first arrived in country, just enough to cover things until we could cash a travelers cheque. And thirdly, over the past few decades my parents had made some foreign trips and would bring home their unused currency. Before we left, dad gave me all of the Pounds he had.

We eat our dinner with both travelers cheques and credit cards and a nominal amount of cash in our pockets. They gladly accept our cheques to pay the bill and give us our change in Pounds Sterling. Very well. We head back to the show at the Astoria II with tickets now in hand. We go inside and find a spot to stand in. It is still early and we are able to get a good spot close to the stage. The place is like an old movie theatre and reminds me of the Chance or Ritz back in NYC. The lights go down and it turns out the Carl Palmer Band is the opening act! He and the band rip through 45 minutes of one of the best sets I have ever seen live. Just incredible. By the end of his set, the place is pretty crowded and El and I move back to where we can get a better view. Blue Oyster Cult comes on and does their thing. Not the best time I have ever seen them, but far from a disappointment. After the show I go to buy a t-shirt and they are £20 each. I check my wallet and it is a good thing I just happen to have a £20 note that my dad had given me. I hand it to the guy at the counter and he looks at the bill like it’s a counterfeit, something I’m sure he couldn’t tell without closer examination. After getting another guy involved to scrutinize and decide if he could accept the bill, he explains that these are the “old” Pound notes and that no one uses these notes anymore. I reach into my pocket and I have do not have enough other bills to total the price of the shirt. I am resigned to not getting the shirt , but ask the guys for advice on how to exchange the note, seeing if a bank would do it the next day? At this point the guy says “OK, I’ll take the note” and sells me the shirt. One of my friends from California was traveling with Blue Oyster Cult for the entire U.K. tour and having never met him in person, I stuck around the soundboard after the show for a few minutes to introduce myself and compare notes on the show. He did show up and we chatted for a few minutes before he had to leave and El and I headed out to find post-show food and drink. For a club show…it was an early one and we still had a long night ahead of us. 10:30 on a Friday night…we were just getting started. Or not! We walked outside only to realize that the city was pretty much dead! Very few people on the streets. All bars and eateries within eyeshot closed. The place looked like downtown New York City on a Sunday morning. We were shocked by how little action takes place at this hour on a Friday. Luckily, the underground is still running and we take it back towards our hotel. The last thing we want is to be stranded in an unfamiliar city with no way to get back to the hotel. We do, eventually, get back to the hotel and ask if there are any places in the area to get food or drink at this “late” hour (now about 11pm). They point us to a restaurant a little ways away, but still within walking distance and we try there. As we walk towards the place, all of the shops are closed and as we get closer, we see, like a beacon the place is lit up and welcomes us as we enter. We sit and order some food and drinks which are a bit on the expensive side- even for this city! We talk to the server who explains that London basically shuts down around 10pm every night and the only places that stay open are the ones that have “late licenses”. Of course, you pay a premium to eat or drink at one of these places which explains why this place is a bit on the pricey side. After we have had our fill we head back to the hotel and plan to get out and do some sightseeing the next day.

Saturday 18 May 2002

We get up and get out on Saturday morning which turns out to be, surprise, raining.

We don’t let it dissuade us. El had read about a rock and roll history walking tour that starts at the Hard Rock Café, so we head there to see about it. We get there in time and spend some time in the Hard Rock gift shop. It is very expensive and we don’t need anything from there. The start time comes and goes and no one at the Hard Rock seems to even know what we are asking about. When no one shows up to give the tour, El finds another rock and roll history tour that leaves later in the afternoon. We grab lunch at “Pret” (short for Pret A Manger which are like sandwich shops where the food is all already made and you just pick your food cafeteria style, pay then eat there or take away. “Pret” are everywhere). I don’t remember how we knew the price of the tour, but we were under the impression that the tour was £4 (quid) each. We found where the tour left from and there was a guy standing on the sidewalk with a mobile credit card machine selling tickets for all different kinds of tours. We ask for two tickets for the Rock N Roll history walking tour and he asks us for £32! That’s almost $50 for a walking tour! I remember trying to argue the price, but we reluctantly decide to go anyway. Our tour guide was nice enough, but I remember thinking that she didn’t seem to know much that wasn’t part of her tour…like she only learned what she had to show and did not seem to be able to answer questions that came up. The only stop I remember on the entire tour was standing in front of the building on Savile Row that used to be Apple Organization offices where The Beatles performed their rooftop gig on 1/30/69. The building is apartments now and you can’t get onto the roof. In fact the street was a bit narrow, the buildings tall, so unless someone tells you what you are looking at, there is no way you could pick out the location.While we are standing there getting our history lesson about the site, a couple was walking by. They stop and listen to our guide until she half-jokingly tells the unpaying customers to keep moving along unless they are willing to shell out the “four quid”. They move on, but I am confused. As we walk to our next stop on the tour I confirm with the guide that the tour is only £4 and ask why we were charges 16? She does not know, but offers to help us out at the conclusion of the tour. We finish the tour and she makes good on her word. We go back to the ticket seller and she explains that the tour we went on was a £4 tour, not the £16 tour that includes a lot more history and a lot less rock and roll. He gives us a cash refund and apologizes for his mistake. After the tour we walk to Harrod’s just to see what that was all about. It’s basically a giant department store (the largest in England and one of the biggest in the world). I went to the cigar room to see what that was all about. I looked into getting one for myself for while I was in London, but the price made that decision for me. I don’t like them that much. While I was in the cigar shoppe, there was a customer speaking with a sales rep about the possibility of purchasing a full box of Cubans along with a full box of cheaper (and non-Cuban, i.e. non-embargoed) Dominican cigars with Dominican vitolas (paper bands) that could be manually switched before flying back to the U.S. He was about to get married and wanted to make the purchase for the celebration. I figured that the customs agents have seen everything regarding cigars and what a way to spend your wedding day…in jail or a lot of money lighter after stiff fines, not to mention the cost of the cigars themselves. El winds up doing most of her souvenir shopping here. During the afternoon we stopped at a pub for a pint, where we struck up a conversation with a local guy and told him we were in town for one more day and asked what he recommended we not miss. Our meeting with the stranger yielded the name of a good pub with a late license called The Intrepid Fox and a suggestion of Camden Town Sunday market as a place to see. That evening we had tickets to see We Will Rock You, the musical based on the music of Queen. As with many of the cities we visit, we have grabbed a page out of the phone book that ad a listing of the used music shops in the city. There turns out to be a street near Charing Cross Rd that has several shops right in a row. I get El to join me and doing some CD shopping before we head to the theatre for the play. The play opened earlier that very week at the Dominion Theatre in London’s West End. As expected, the music was great, the story was awful and I am shocked that the show is still running to this day in that same theatre and is booked through 2010 at least. It was a critical flop, but a commercial success. The best part of the performance for me was that Brian May was in attendance, otherwise, a tremendous waste of money and time. Afterwards, we were in the same spot as the night before where all of the places were closed after 10pm. We went in search of The Intrepid Fox pub, with no luck. We ended up in Chinatown for dinner. We eat dinner at the Harbor City Chinese Restaurant. It was here that we stumbled upon our next minor language barrier with a Chinese gentleman speaking English with both a Chinese and British accent. We found it challenging, but figured it out and wound up really enjoying our meal.

Sunday 19 May 2002

The next day’s weather is much better and we take the friendly stranger’s advice and head to Camden Town which is a bit out of the city. He had drawn us a crude map on the back of a napkin explaining what to expect to see at the market.

The Camden Town market is a pretty popular tourist attraction and has been around for many years. I guess that changes in vendors keep the market fresh, but there are some parts that have been around since its inception. The market is like a street fair selling everything from clothes to crafts to food. Once we got there, El and I split up so that we could each explore on our own and meet up for lunch after a set amount of time. El headed to the lock and stables markets while I headed to find some used music shops on the main street. While browsing through the bins at one of the places, I heard the “new” Breeders disc, Title TK, for the first time. I shopped a little while and had a good conversation with the clerk. I headed back towards the market and saw a little of it, although I had no interest in buying anything. We eventually headed back to London and took one of the hop-on/hop- off double decker bus tours. We ride past Buckingham Palace and drive past Big Ben and Westminster Abbey. Of course, while riding around the traffic circle there, we say “Hey kids, Big Ben, Parliament” more than a few times. We get off at the next stop and walk back to take pictures of the Abbey and Big Ben. We don’t take a tour of either, but just get some pictures as we head off to get some food before heading back towards the hotel. We wind up eating at an Indian place called Delhi Brasserie. This turns out to be one of our cheaper meals in London. Afterwards we go back to the hotel and make the decision to go to see The Moody Blues at the Royal Albert Hall, which is very close (walking distance) from the hotel. We had seen the Moody Blues before, but didn’t want to pass up the opportunity to see them at the historic R.A.H. Now, since that first night we had no problems whatsoever cashing our travelers cheques. Since we are leaving the next morning by train, our cash is at a minimum with mostly only cheques left. The plan is to take the cheques and use them at the box office to buy the tickets for the show. We walk over to the box office that has not yet opened. We stroll around the grounds and run into a scalper who is offering tickets to the show at a considerable discount. As we discuss where the seats are and compare them to the offerings at the box office, I realize, I only have travelers cheques and no Pound notes, to which the scalper says, “yeah, that’s not a problem chap. Just make it out to Seamus O’Brien!” OK, there was a first, a scalper accepting travelers cheques to pay for concert tickets. We bought them and the seats were really great. The hall though, was a little disappointing. We learned later that when it was constructed, the acoustics were not taken into account as well as they should have been and the sound inside is actually quite terrible. Luckily, we were close enough to the stage that the bouncing sound did not affect us as much as it would have if we sat in the upper sections. The Moody Blues always give a respectable performance and we are glad we did make it to the show. Afterwards, it is a quick walk back to the hotel. We are leaving the next morning, taking the Eurostar train direct to Paris.

Although our next three day vacation to London in March 2005 was not our best trip, I really fell in love with the city on this trip. The people were really nice and I really enjoyed wandering the streets of the city. The Underground is very clean and easy to use. Even though we did have some fun on our second trip, it was the first time that will hold a special place in my heart as a world class city that treated me right. We head to Paris which I did not like as much as London. However, we did return to Paris in May 2006, and that turned out to be a great trip for us. By the end of this trip, El and I knew we were indeed good traveling companions. I would gladly spend three days with her in any city I did not like than spending it with someone I don’t travel well with, in any city. We have a lot of great memories from this trip and think we have hit our stride about now. Luckily, we have more good trips than not so good ones and there’s no one else I’d rather figure it out with than her!