Sunday, September 03, 2006

London News


Day One

It was Israel’s war on Hezbollah when I left the states - still is here in London; but they’re more objective - not taking sides, just reporting on the terrible human toll of war and the senseless overwhelming destruction of Lebanon. Our flight was delayed out of Omaha (of all places) - mechanical problems - had to send a replacement plane which was an hour late. Some Middle-Eastern businessman going to Chicago is watching my little three year old running around playing in the departure area. He politely informs me of the delay, so I tell the young fellow I met (who’s going to Mildenhall) that we got to plan on how we’re going to make our connecting flight out of Atlanta.

But we’re late getting there and miss our flight to London, sort of. We actually did run all the way through massive Hartsfield Airport (heavy luggage strapped to my shoulder, three year old in my arms). And trying to find our way, we even catch the right train and get to the departure gate - fifteen minutes late. Apparently our overseas connection was still there, but refused to take on more passengers. (Thanks Delta.)

The man at the desk said he could get us out at 5pm tomorrow. Huh? What about the 11pm flight tonight? Oh, he says, let me give that a try. I tell the young guy going to Mildenhall (who’s already got his hotel for the night and flight out tomorrow). So he asks another person at the desk and in five minutes gets a ticket for the 11pm flight. An hour later, the man at the desk is still furiously typing on his computer and is on-hold with a phone in each ear. I’m totally freaked out - ten after eleven - little kid crying she has to go to the bathroom, me desperately wondering if there’s time to run down to the smoking lounge (probably at the other end of the airport). And the guy telling me not to worry - this flight’s going to be way late too.

Finally a woman comes over and says - why not do handwritten tickets? That takes three minutes so we scurry way way down there past all the endless gates and finally to the international departure area. By this time I have luggage and little kid piled onto a wheelchair, since I never could get an airport cart to get us around. The boarding attendant makes all of us go down the ramp, out on to the midnight tarmac, and up the rollaway steps to the aircraft - the idea being, if passengers are on-board, the flight crew has to take off, regardless of time limits for crew to wait for preparing the plane.

So this one’s going to London by way of Nice, France. Who cares, it’s better than being stuck in Atlanta until next afternoon. (Note - a smarter traveler would have taken the free night and free food in the fancy hotel and just enjoyed that.) My worry is that the hotel in London where I really want to stay, will give my reservation away if I don’t get there in time. (A smarter traveler would have the hotel reservation in his pocket and would call them to say he’s going to be late arriving.) But after all the hassle, delay, and anxiety of getting onto this flight, the fear of flying in a tin can at 35000 feet is basically non-existent. Of course I can’t hear the movie - those little clip-on headphones don’t work for me - have to remember to bring some real earmuff-type headphones next time.

But that’s all part of the learning of traveling - you don’t know if you don’t go. For example “they always put you on a next-day flight if you’re booked for a late departure and that flight is delayed for some reason.” Duh - I didn’t know, never even thought of that. So…book an early departure if it’s otherwise all the same.

Wake up in Nice and have to not only scramble to get to connecting flight to London - have to go through customs too. So I bump into the young fellow going to Mildenhall again - he’s surprised to see me; didn’t think I made it onto the flight. And talking to him about this and that, and watching this gorgeous young teenybopper of an Indian girl in the endless line of people so slowly making their way through the funny little roped-off corridors that customs lines are made of. She smiles whenever I look at her, knowing that she’s the only thing to see here in this massive muddle of travelers.

So…Nice is a dinky little airport with sunshine and palm trees; probably a nice place if you aren’t panic-paranoid about missing your connecting flight again. (I actually spent several days in Nice some many decades ago, and found it to be a very pleasant relaxing place to be.) But all I want to do is get on a plane to London. It’s bad to be that way, really terrible. I mean if your traveling, on vacation, jeez - try to relax and enjoy it; not just be so all fired-up worried about getting there.

The departure gate from Nice is in like the basement, of all places. The open doors lead out to the sunny tarmac. We’re first in line but of course the little machine they run your ticket through - eats the ticket. So the girl has to open up the side of it and pull the ticket out. But anyway, we get on the bus that takes us up to the plane, again climb up the rollaway steps, and take a seat on Brit Air. Man, haven’t flown Brit Air since many decades ago. That’s alright though; and actually going to Heathrow instead of Gatwick, which is cool.

Let me explain. You always fly into Gatwick from the states, because it’s cheaper, but it’s also quite a ways from London, and you have to buy a train ticket to get there. So if you wanted to spend the extra couple of hundred dollars to fly into Heathrow, it has a subway line connection so you can just take the underground to you hotel area. Of course once we get to Heathrow we have to go through customs again. But eventually we’re through that and now looking for the tube. I spot a little smoking lounge - lounge? - these are almost always like tiny little rooms that look and smell like filthy ashtrays. I get a quick smoke there anyway.

Then queue up to get a tube ticket. That’s changed since the last time I was here. Now they have an Oyster card instead of a ticket or weekly pass. And time’s ticking away way faster than any of these lines ever move. But I get the Oyster (kids under five or so are free on all Brit trains, so little girl doesn’t need one - that’s nice) and we get onto the subway. Little kid is of course totally filthy by now - she’s played on the floor at the airport - lying on her back and laughing, or crying and refusing to move unless I carry her. Now she’s playing on the train and neither of us care that we’re all dirty and grimy. We come out at Paddington and walk across the street to the hotel.

Check in, no problem, take the little two-passenger elevator up to the third floor and find our room. It’s not much bigger than the elevator, but it does overlook London Street which is a pleasant surprise to me. I mean, you request that when you book your room over the internet, but it still seems like an unexpected gift when you actually get it. So now I have to throw in a plug for the hotel. The Royal Norfolk is, in my mind, a great place to stay. The rooms are terribly clean, cozy, comfortable, and all in all, a very nice part of the vacation.

I’ve stayed at this hotel a number of times, and I’m always so pleasantly reminded of why I like it here. Paddington is quiet, safe, friendly, though quite a bit of a distance from central London. You have to take the tube to get there, but so what, that’s only five minutes…well, maybe more. I always like to take the Bakerloo Line, so you have to walk several blocks underground through Paddington Station, take the huge escalator down several stories, and that sort of thing. But that’s what tube travel is all about. Endless miles of bright tile floors under the bright fluorescent lights, colorful tiled walls in the endless tunnels covered with all the ads for theater shows or shopping or travel destinations; thousands of people scurrying about, mostly tourists you think, here on holiday; but also the locals just getting around. I like the underground - it’s like a world unto itself - the creatures of the underground; and all the sights and sounds. If you’re lucky there’s someone playing guitar and singing for tips on the landing below one of the endless escalators taking you down to the music, down to the train platform. Some are so good, we stop and listen if we’ve got time - it’s part of the entertainment on your holiday.

And when you’ve been here a few times, it’s always like going home, to come back here. But back to the hotel. It has the loveliest hallways and stairways all decorate with lovely deep red carpet, mirrors, pictures, and all the doorways that lead to this way and that. Me and the kids could never find the right doors to go through, the times we were here. But it’s this one that leads to the second floor dining room (breakfast only) and to the steps down to the lobby. My little girl figures that out rather quick, but she’s so smart anyway. The only problem with the room (other than it’s so small) is that the big bay window has of course no screen on it - there’re basically no bugs to worry about in London, so no screens on the hotel windows - but beings were on the third floor, I can’t have the big lovely window open for fear little girl will climb up on the sill, and then poof - over the edge. She tries that of course, so I keep the window all but closed, and always keep a watch on her.

Just the way it is, you see. When I was here with my daughters, I liked to sit on the big window sill, smoke my pipe and look out on the life of colorful London Street. All the pretty flowers on the window ledges of the buildings up and down the street, the old-fashioned architecture of turn of the century Victorian London, all the people milling about. Rarely does a car or bus turn down London Street - it’s a side street off the main thoroughfare, lined with restaurants, shops, little hotels and pubs for all the tourists who stay in this area. And this is where they all stay. There are literally dozens of little hotels just down the block around Norfolk Square. Both sides of the street surrounding the square are little hotels that all connect to form one long indistinguishable mass of buildings, only the names are different as you walk up the steps to the little lobbies.

But these are mostly cheaper hotels, just sleeping accommodation, bathroom down the hall. The Royal Norfolk is nicer, cleaner, got your own bathroom (tiny though it is) and the best English breakfast in town in the large and lovely dining room overlooking the street. I like breakfast here - though often eat alone - little girl, like my kids before her, doesn’t get up for the breakfast of eggs bacon ham mushrooms beans bangers toast and coffee. I try not to miss it because it fills you up right and it’s the only time I’m going to have English breakfast served to me (until next year, if I’m lucky).

So the first night there, we arrive about 8pm or so, frazzled, happy to get there in one piece (that’s me of course - it really wasn’t that hard; I mean what do you expect from traveling four thousand miles and crossing an ocean?) Well we took the long way, through France, should’ve been here at noon; but the flight delay stole a day out of our plans. Big deal, it isn’t anything really; just that it could’ve gone smoother. I mean the first time I took the kids to London, I had no idea of where to stay. That is, I did, but I was all wrong. I thought I’d remembered staying in the Russell Square area when I was young, so I took the kids up there, but all we could find was a seedy crumby hotel, and after one night there, a nice girl at the Victoria Station tourist booth suggested we try Paddington. We did, and that’s how we found the very nice, very pleasant Royal Norfolk Hotel. So you’re bound to spend some part of your holiday lost and confused and just trying to find your way about. You just have to chalk that up to part of the learning.

Anyway, that first night after we shower and shave and change into clean clothes, I take little kid and head out to Leicester Square - see, I know where to go after having been here a few times. Leicester Square is where everyone is at night. You take the tube to Piccadilly Circus and come up the steps and into the heart of everything that’s going on. The most famous intersection in the world this side of Time Square, and seems like literally the crossroads of the whole planet. All the huge neon signs half the size of a building, blinking Coca-Cola or Swatch or whatever against the darkening London sky, the throng of people from every part of the globe, going this way or that, or just out with the night; all the shops lit up inviting you in for souvenirs or dinner or theater tickets, or a movie or dancehall or bar.

Little girl doesn’t like it, it’s too much for her; scary - too many people, too many lights and sights and sounds. She wants to go home. And not just back to the hotel, but back to my sister’s house in Omaha where we’d spent the night before boarding the plane. I can’t blame her, it’s a bit overwhelming after the close-quartered comfort and security of tiny cramped airplanes and trains. But we walk the few blocks to the closed off streets of Leicester Square - pedestrian traffic only - in the evening hours. And here you don’t have to worry about the traffic and speeding cars and taxis buzzing around. Of course just to get there you cross the busy side streets with the throngs of people won’t don’t seem to give a care about red lights or green, just someone sees an opening and then everybody plows across and the approaching vehicles just have to wait regardless of what the lights say. But I don’t mind any of it, all of it. This is what I’m here for. To be out in the electric crowded night with everyone in the world on holiday

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