Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

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.