Friday, March 21, 2008

London revisited

You will recall, no doubt, the tragedy that was our last visit to London in 2000, me with a badly sprained ankle from our Cotswolds journey. Riding the tourist buses back and forth through town. Limping through the British Museum. Jack's dream of visiting the Tower of London deferred. The flaming Greek cheese, which was pretty much the highlight of the whole thing. And the really bad Chinese liquor.

This time was going to be different. We were both in reasonably good health for once. This time we were going to walk till our feet were bloody stumps and come home hobbled. On purpose!

Jack and I have different approaches to traveling: he likes to come up with a list of things to do and see, of which we actually get to some percentage. I'm happy to go just about anywhere and look at anything, so it doesn't really matter if I'm in a museum or in a litter-strewn sidestreet. (He is, too, but likes to have a more defined structure beforehand. Usually we'll go to see something famous and then see that the line is too long and decide to head for the nearest litter-strewn sidestreet.) He asked me what I want to do before we left and I said "eel pie!" That was it. I read about them several years ago in a Washington Post travel article. I just wanted an eel pie. Upon further research I discovered that the eel pie place had closed since the article was written so I had nothing.

We got cheap tickets from Ryanair, meaning we were flying out of Brussels Charleroi airport for the first time. Our flight was very early so we hopped on the bus at the Brussels train station for the 45-minute trip and got to the airport before dawn (which is no great feat in January).

Charleroi airport is known for being up until recently the exclusive domain of Ryanair, the granddaddy of cheap European carriers. It's dingy and small and not anywhere you'd want to spend much time--more like a bus station than an airport. There was a cafe at one end and we managed to get an decent cup of coffee there to wake us out of our morning fog since the check-in counter wasn't yet open. The guy operating the coffee machine was also working the cash register, so he'd serve a handful of people and then go around to the other side of the U and ring up the same handful of people, waiting impatiently to complete their transaction.

After we checked in I bought some snack mix at the small shop they had there, which is hands down the nicest space in the building. The woman who sold it to me asked me what my destination was. I forgot that "London" was a different word in French (Londres), so I just said "London" with a French accent which caused her to switch to English. I'll never get the hang of this crazy language.

Upon arrival at Stansted, which was much bigger and cleaner than our departure airport, and which had the most powerful hand dryers known to man, we got on the train to the center of town. We were delayed by some track issue halfway through our journey (I found the announcer more difficult to understand than the ones speaking French on the Belgian rail due to a combination of his accent and the crappy PA system), and in the interval Jack saw an Asian mini-deer flit by in the adjoining marshland. Apparently they're taking over the island and pushing out native species while eating everything in sight. But by god if they aren't the cutest things.

Even with the time change in our favor, it was nearly lunchtime by the time we got into Liverpool station (our flight was also late leaving). We took our time wending our way through the financial district to our selected lunch spot, and we got there at a reasonable time but early enough to avoid the rush.

The restaurant was located down a back alley and was staffed entirely by elderly women. One asked us if we had a reservation and then told us to sit anywhere we liked. We chose a spot that was like a booth cut in half--a wall on one side and three seats facing a wooden divider. Another elderly woman brought us beers. Jack ordered the "chump chop". The waitress asked, "Would you like a side of sausage with that?" Jack readily agreed. How could he pass up a side of sausage? Jack's chosen vegetable was (British) chips. I had a "beef and real ale pie" with pickled red cabbage. The food was just so-so, but the ambiance was lovely. The place began to fill up with hearty laughers and nearly-identical young men in fancy suits. The last unoccupied seat was the one next to Jack, and eventually it was taken by a cheery man who enjoyed visiting every few weeks. He also got the side of sausage, and told us that the people who frequented the establishment were all in the insurance business.

By the time we excused ourselves from our table the place was filled with those waiting for space, and more smoking in the alley outside. It seemed like they were all ready to get their Friday on even at this early hour. Their carbon-copy appearance was really quite disturbing. The only difference seemed to be the hues of their outrageously-colored ties.

We headed back out onto the streets and crossed over to the south side of the Thames via London Bridge. There was a really extensive food market exuding delicious aromas nearby, and we thought about deciding that this would've been a better lunch option, but between the beer and the atmosphere and the sitting at the first place, I think we made the right choice.

Our next stop was the Globe Theater. We paid our money and were told that the next tour would be starting in so many minutes. So we took our time on the exhibit space, which we thought was rather small, but when they rang the bell for the tour we saw that we had only covered a third of it, the talky boring part rather than the mannequin-laden re-creation part. Ah well. The guide was great and seemed to enjoy being there, which really made for a pleasant experience. While we were on the top level, a group of teenage dramatists came out on the stage. Their guide asked them to split up between girls and boys and recite a line, probably from Romeo and Juliet, in unison. First the girls approached and turned away, and the boys responded. It was amusing to be the private audience for what was surely an embarrassing spectacle for some of them.

We went back to the north side on the Millennium Bridge and made our way to our hotel. After checking in and having a little sit, we rushed back out again to try to catch evensong at Westminster Abbey. We hadn't had the opportunity to ride the Underground last time we were there due to my infirmity, so Jack was interested in checking that out. Conveniently, the subway is also a way to quickly get from one place to another. We got some rechargeable Oyster cards from the guy in the booth and were on our way.

We got to the church in time to get seats that were not in the choir stalls themselves but with a good view of them. I didn't really know what to expect--I thought maybe the boys would sing for a bit and then it'd be over. In reality it was an entire service with readings and the like. Some guy from the Australian Embassy was invited to the pulpit in honor of the impending Australia Day. The music was sublime. I wondered how much work the kids had to do on a weekly basis to be able to sing like that. I certainly wouldn't have stuck with it, but then again, I'm generally known to be lazy. On the way out we noted the tombs of the famous dead people such as Newton and Darwin as we passed. They didn't really want you eying stuff since you had to pay admission during the day, so we felt good about sneaking some looks in for free.

On the way back to the hotel to develop dinner plans, we decided to pop into a pub for a brewski. Every bar was packed with young people spilling out onto the sidewalks and streets. These people were practicing TGIF as if it was a religion and that day was the final judgment. I'm sure there was some snogging going on at some of these places. Where there's agglomerations of young Brits and alcohol, you can be certain that snogging will follow. We managed to find a place celebrating Australia Day that was slightly less full than the rest and I wiggled my way past the bodies to the bar and procured a couple of beers. I had little faith that I'd be able to locate Jack AND not spill anything at the same time, but he had miraculously found a table and was standing on the foot rungs of the chair waving his arms so I'd see him from across the room. Brilliant, as they say.

Thus restored we eventually decided on a dinner spot in a neighborhood of dinner spots on the northern end of Soho. We ended up at a fancy burger joint. Jack is always researching the perfect non-American burger--he finds that other countries don't get the bun-to-meat ratio right most of the time. When a burger is eaten with a knife and fork, as most uncivilized cultures are wont to do, the ratio doesn't matter that much, but picking it up is the true test of its mettle. The system at the restaurant was complicated--you were led to your table at the back, you looked at the menu, then you went back up to the front and ordered, having memorized your selections AND your meat temperature AND your table number. And the chips were called fries. I had the buffalo burger, which may very well have become the new king of the Most Expensive Burger, as it was something like £12 without any sides. But it was tasty and it was London and I was converting from euros and not dollars so I wasn't complaining.

On the way back we passed an open Roman Catholic church which featured this sign in the vestibule. There seems to be a lack of faith that one's neighbors will do the right thing. I'm glad they managed to get the very proper English word "whilst" in there--that's how you know they're not messing around.

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