Notes from a trip journal, London

[I wrote this on 5.17.2012 and it doesn’t really have an ending.]

I’m in Nuremberg today, sitting in my hotel with a glass bottle of Coke and listening to Jimi. I’ll get to the first leg of my German trip (and the horrible travel day I had getting here), probably about the time I’m leaving here for Berlin. First, I wanted to put down some thoughts about London.

I’ve never been to London before, and I didn’t know what to expect. I envisioned it as a city like New York, except older, darker, and replace all of the Ray’s Original Real Famous pizza joints with fish and chip restaurants, or maybe pubs. What I found was completely different from that, and I have to say that I really enjoyed London.

I don’t feel like recapping in paragraphs, so I’m going to drop right into the bulleted list.

  • We flew out of SFO at around noon. That put us into town at about seven in the morning the next day. It was maybe an eleven-hour flight, and I almost slept an hour. S had a seat in business class, and because her ticket was booked from her work and mine was done by me on the web, I got an economy plus ticket. That meant I had a hair more room than the steerage section, but not enough to stretch out. I wrote for a long time, played games on my iPad, and watched the new Jim Gaffigan special, which was worth the five bucks.
  •  Heathrow is big. We got out and my first impression was that it was roughly the size of Newark, JFK, and LaGuardia put together. It took us forever to get from the plane to customs. Clearing customs was a non-issue, even though I had been up all night and was liable to say something stupid, but they asked me nothing except for the purpose of my visit. I did not answer “to fuck shit up,” so I passed.
  • All of the cabs are the same kind of car, and I don’t know the make or model, but it looks like an old 1940s sedan.
  • Once we got on the highway in the back of a cab, I quickly got confused by the right-hand drive thing. Like I’d look over and think “how the hell is that car driving itself, and why is that kid just sitting in the passenger seat and watching?”
  • For a country from which people get so shitty about the metric system, there are so many god damn inconsistencies. Like on the highway, some warning signs were in miles, but others were kilometers. I also noticed this in the right/left thing. For example, I would always expect a down escalator to be on the left, and on an escalator, for the standing/slow people to be on the left, and the faster/walking people on the right. I found a mix of both. I never knew what side of the sidewalk I should be using for a given speed/direction. Also, there wasn’t a bar where you could buy a 0.473176L of beer.
  •  We stayed in Marble Arch. I have only the vaguest idea of London geography, and I feel we barely scratched the surface in our brief stay, but to me, it felt like this was a slightly richy-rich neighborhood, although nowhere near as much as Nob Hill.
  • We checked into our hotel, which was one of these little boutique things that used to be a row of townhouses, but was converted into a hotel. It was pretty nice, albeit small, but we’re probably spoiled from American hotels.
  • On the first day, we showered and then vowed to not immediately sleep, and try to power through a day of seeing sights, to remedy the jetlag. This meant the first day was hell. I am officially old, because staying up past 9:00 at night will total me the next day, so an all-nighter is absolutely crippling to me.
  • We ate breakfast at a diner-type place, and I had a full English breakfast, which I always used to get at this diner in Queens when I lived there. This was roughly the same, although it didn’t have blood sausage, and had beans.
  • While at the diner, we talked to this couple next to us that had just finished this all-night charity walk, in which they walked a whole marathon over a period of like ten hours, so they were about as loopy and walking-dead-esque as us. One interesting thing that came up in conversation was that they had a son in college who was in an American Studies program, and as part of the degree, he was going to the states next fall to study for a year. He wanted to get into San Diego State University, but instead got assigned to Lincoln, Nebraska, and the parents had many questions about what the hell a Lincoln, Nebraska was. I’ve never been there, but my general guess answers were: a) It will be cheap; b) They have beer (sort of); c) Everyone will be really nice; d) If he likes blonde-haired, blue-eyed girls away from home for the first time, the world is his oyster; and e) I hope he likes steak and isn’t a vegan.
  • We went for a long walk that took us out to Buckingham Palace, where we ran into this huge congregation of people gathering. We asked a cop why, and he said the changing of the guard was happening in 45 minutes. We snapped a bunch of pictures, and headed south for a bit. (The guards, BTW, are now behind a huge fence with about 30 yards of space between you and them. You can get a decent shot with a zoom lens, but you can’t get in their face and try to make them laugh or whatever. I don’t know if this was some 9/11 terrorist thing or what.)
  • A bit later, we saw the Royal Guard building or museum or headquarters, and inside of that fenced-in compound, we stopped and watched them congregate. There was a marching band of some sort assembling and getting ready and inspected by their officer. These were the red coat guys with the big black penis-looking hats.
  • About half of the guards had on their belts, along with mounts for drums or drumstick holders or whatnot, a sheathed knife. S asked me why they had them, and I said “because you don’t want to bring a tuba to a knife fight.”
  • They got ready and started playing, and I expected to launch into some heavily British big brass jingoistic national anthem thing, but they started with this slightly jazzy easy listening-type number, like something that would be played on Lawrence Welk, which sort of blew my mind.
  • I should also mention that the tourists were out in force, and mostly consisted of high school students from other EU countries or further East. So lots of French, Italian, along with some Russian and Polish and other languages I couldn’t catch. All of them had the same Justin Bieber haircut, and it smelled like an Axe factory exploded. (Axe is, coincidentally, called something else in the UK. I think it’s Jaguar or maybe Sex Panther.)
  • We kept walking, and saw Westminster Abby, The Parliament, Big Ben, the London Eye, and crossed the Thames, then got some lunch and took the subway home.
  • One thing I noticed in general the whole time there was that service at restaurants was extraordinarily slow. Most places automatically add on 15% in service, and I don’t know if that’s part of it, or if Americans all suffer from ADD and impatience. (Maybe both.)
  • The undergroud (aka the subway or the tube) is pretty huge, and well-organized. It’s relatively clean, fast, and efficient. I’d compare it to the BART. Or I’d give the NY MTA about a 6 or 7 out of 10, and the underground a solid 8 from my limited experience.
  • I ended up falling asleep for about three hours, and then couldn’t fall asleep that night.
  • On Monday, it rained, and in some ways, being out in London in the rain gave me a better feel for the city. I expected London to be grey and dreary, and being out on the rain matched that. But the city had a bustle to it, and kept on running during the storm, which was impressive.


I’m now in Nuremberg, after a rough travel day yesterday. Here’s a general brain dump in bulleted list format on my short stay in London:

  • I thought London would be a lot like New York, except darker.  I actually liked London more than Manhattan for a few reasons:
    • It isn’t as dense or vertically packed, or at least didn’t seem like it to me.
    • Many of the buildings are pretty new, like New York, but the old buildings are ancient.  I don’t know how any of them survived the blitz, or if they were partially knocked out and then repaired, but there’s some impressive architecture to be seen.
    • There’s a lot more green in the city, and some pretty astounding parks.
    • The city seemed much cleaner. Part of this could be some massive restoration program prior to the Olympics, but I saw nowhere near as much graffiti or general deterioration as Manhattan.
    • Cars are all but banned in the city.  They are allowed, but you need some kind of special “green” pass, meaning that aside from taxis and delivery vehicles, the only cars I saw belonged to the ultra-rich.
    • There seemed to be a lot more money.  Part of that could have been where we were staying, but I saw so many people driving super-high-end cars.  I remember walking down a street, and every single car I passed had a six-figure (in dollars) price tag.  And this was parked on a public street.  When’s the last time you’ve seen someone park a Ferrari on the street in New York?
    • I didn’t hear a car alarm the entire time I was there.
  • That said, the city was insanely expensive.  I didn’t notice this at first, because I was like “hey, entrees are only like twenty bucks here!” but that was twenty pounds, or like $32.
  • I found London insanely polite.  My experience in New York was always that people were insanely impolite, but that was the price of living in a big city.  For example, when I was in New York and riding the subway on crutches, if I asked someone for a seat, the typical response was “go fuck yourself”.  In London, the Underground gives out buttons that pregnant women can wear so that others will give up their seats for them.
  • The food was generally pretty good.  Both Yelp and OpenTable are fully operational there, so we managed to get into some decent restaurants.  I did not have fish and chips while I was there, which is a shame, but I did have pretty decent Indian food twice.
  • I saw the changing of the royal guard at Buckingham, and I totally don’t understand any of the procedure, but found it interesting.  Of course, I don’t pay taxes there, so maybe I would have a different opinion of the large amount of overhead needed for tradition.
  • I went to the Imperial War Museum, which was decent, but not massive.  The big takeaway there was that I know so little about post-WW2 British military history.  The general collection was divided into WW1, WW2, and post-WW2.  I was trying to think of what that entailed: Falklands, Iraq, Afghanistan, …?  Turns out they have been in a few dozen military actions – basically, every time another bit of decolonization happened, there was another “war” or whatever you want to call it.  (“Emergency”?  “Conflict”?)  There’s also the Northern Ireland business.  Bottom line, I have a lot of reading to do.
  • We went to the Tate Modern and saw their Damien Hirst exhibit, which was pretty interesting.  That twelve-million dollar shark was there, floating in formaldehyde, as were the split-in-half cow and calf, the spin paintings, and the butterfly room.  The Tate Modern itself is pretty impressive – it used to be a power plant, and looks like one of those gigantic turbine facilities that some commando team has to blow up in a World War 2 movie.
  • 288 photos.  I’ll try to weed through them and post them to flickr when I have a real internet connection, which might not be until after I return.

And now I must go write.  I walked ten miles today, all of that before lunch, so I have more stories to tell, probably in another annoying bulleted list.  Stay tuned.