If you’re reading this it means that Elizabeth figured out how to post to my blog, which is no surprise since their generation is so vastly more technically competent than mine. I was on a youth retreat last weekend and learned a lot about Ipods but that’s not what you’re here for today. I want to tell you about traveling in Europe. Right now we’re in Boston on our way to London and eventually to Italy where we will celebrate Easter. How cool is that?
The first time we visited London was 2002. We had never been outside the country before unless you count our honeymoon in Mexico City in 1969. We weren’t exactly paying attention on that trip. I suspect we could have gone to Grand Prairie, Texas for our honeymoon and wouldn’t have noticed any difference.
The first thing we noticed about flying to Europe is how long it takes to get there. We were in the air long enough to watch two movies and read half a book. We had studied how to books on travel. Beaven had researched all the smart things to do to avoid having his pocket picked. He had money belts and hidden pockets with zippers. He was prepared. But when we checked in at the hotel he couldn’t find his wallet. He knew he had it in the cab because he had paid the driver out of it. We both went out to the street and there it was lying on the sidewalk. After all his preparation he lost his wallet all by himself right off the bat, without help from anyone. What an overachiever he is.
I guess the next startling discovery was to see in person how old the European countries are. There are many buildings in London built in the 1700 and still in use, and not as historical monuments, either. The floor of our room was carpeted but you could hear the wooden floor creak underneath the carpet. The floor was buckled in places, giving it a slope at times. The plumbing had been added after the building was built and there was cabinetry built around the pipes on the wall. There had been a fireplace in the room, now covered up. The building was three or four floors with no elevator. Fortunately, we were only on the second floor. The bathroom was the most remarkable. Most hotels are converted old houses and bathrooms had to be added to each room-- so, in the give and take of life, they had to be necessarily as small as they could be in order to still have room for a bed. This bathroom saved room by having the smallest shower I’ve ever seen. I don’t know how Beaven did it. He dropped the soap once and had to open the door in order to bend down to pick it up. The toilet was angled off in the corner between the sink and shower.
The stairs in this hotel were delightful. I love stairs, the older the better. Don’t get me started on stairs. Anyway, these stairs were perfect: my size, smallish and with low handrails. And they gave the most delicious creak when you walked. Everything in London creaked: the wood is so old that it is worn loose and rubs against itself. Musical stairs. Don’t get me started on creaking noises, either. More about creaking floors when I describe Windsor Castle.
The first thing I liked about London was the law they have that anyone who rents out a room has to offer breakfast. So all I had to do in the morning was dress and go downstairs. The waitress would bring me coffee and everything else. They had really good toast in those cute little toast racks you see in the movies. The toast doesn’t stay hot but it does stay crisp that way. I understood for the first time what I had heard about the food in England. Their “cuisine” is not what we call tasty. In fact, people and books had all said that the best food in London is “Ethnic”, meaning anything not from there.
Beaven has fairly earned the title in our family of “Mister Transportation.” Any time we travel he wants to ride every available form of transportation. On our first morning, he got us tube, bus and train passes. Then, at Trafalgar Square we found an Internet Café called Easy Access. They had branches all over London and for a pound you could get about an hour’s worth of Internet use. This turned out to be the biggest bargain of the whole trip. We can’t figure out how they make any money for this price, except that they’re open 24 hours a day and were always full. Once we had our transportation and cyber life taken care of, we were ready to experience London.
Trafalgar Square is kind of the town square. It’s a solid block of plaza with a huge statue in the middle of Lord Nelson. The guide told us during the week that all you had to do to get a statue of yourself erected in England was “beat the French” and the worse you beat them, the bigger your statue. Lord Nelson beat the French in a big way and I think his is the tallest statue. I think it was a victory at sea and I think he may have died in the battle; he fought the French a bunch of times—once he lost an arm, once an eye and finally, his life. I had to wonder what the French had done to deserve this but I was scared to ask At any rate, Lord Nelson’s statue is huge and it’s surrounded by four gigantic lions so big that children climb on their paws.
The plaza hosts 600 pigeons on a normal day. The mayor of London has decided that this is a health hazard. He is quoted as referring to pigeons as “flying rats.” The city recently passed a law against feeding the pigeons. There were still 600 pigeons in the plaza, along with what else you would expect to have with 600 pigeons. And there was also a woman sitting beside the “Do Not Feed the Pigeons” sign holding a sack of birdseed. She had pigeons perched on her head, shoulders and arms. I took her picture.
I wanted to attend worship at St. Martin in the Fields. The church got this name because when it was built it was so far on the outskirts of town that it was literally “in the fields.” I’ve heard their choir all my life and loved their soft gentle sound. This was going to be my “church” while in London. About the only differences I noticed was the Church of England Eucharist with going to the rail for tasteless wafers and a sip of real wine. But the biggest difference that jumped out at me was the concept of a state supported church. The congregation at St. Martins in the Fields is very small, maybe 200 (said the preacher) but with tourists there, the sanctuary was full and held about 500 worshippers. The sermon was geared to their annual stewardship drive and the preacher pointed out that, while the church does get money from the government, it is still appropriate for the congregation to kick in their fair share. What a foreign concept to me. Later, at St Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, this was echoed by the fact that there are very small “congregations”, if any at all, in London. Mostly because no one lives in London. Like other big business cities, everyone lives elsewhere and commutes. The big historical churches get all their money from the state.
I visited the gift shop in the basement (they’re called crypts here) and bought a tape of the choir. The crypt was a reminder of the building’s age. I think it was built in the 1700’s. Mostly stone. The pews were out of that old, old wood that creaks and moves when you sit. I feel like the pew is wrapping its arms around me.
For dinner we went to Wagamama Noodle Parlor. We had heard the best food in England was ethnic. And it’s true. We went all the way to London to eat Chinese food. The food was great and I had a lesson on Beaven’s comfort level. Let’s just be gracious and say that it is not the same as mine and that he hates crowded communal tables in noisy restaurants. We also had a glimpse of the notorious politeness of the British. The couple sitting next to us had ordered when we got there. Since we were sitting so close we noticed they had trouble getting their order. They brought one lady’s food but not the other. We ordered and got our food. The other lady told the waiter very politely that she hadn’t gotten her food. The waiter apologized all over the place. We ate and, after three times of asking the waiter for her food without success, she was still saying “Let’s just give them five more minutes.” When we left she was still sitting without food and saying she would give them another five minutes.
We went to see Phantom of the Opera that night and got the worst seats in the house. I didn’t think it was possible to get seats this bad. We were the next to the last row of the highest balcony—we could have touched the ceiling. If I sat in my chair normally I literally could not see the stage. In order to see the stage at all I had to lean forward. In order to see actors I had to lean forward and bend my body to the left and tilt my head. Watch the cheap seats in London.
At 3 p.m. Sunday the tour started. There were 20 of us, including the guide. The orientation reinforced our hopes for the trip and we felt that it was a good fit for our travel style. We could participate in as much or as little as we wanted. We would be using public transportation and the guide knew what he was talking about. We heard a lot of good stories from him, too.
We walked to Buckingham Palace and Martin, our Welsh guide, told us the story of the guy who broke into the palace and made it all the way to the Queen’s bedroom. We heard about it here years ago. But the things the folks in the U.S. didn’t pay much attention to was how and why he did it and whatever happened to the guy. He did it on a bet that he could “kiss the Queen” because “somebody needed to”. And he just climbed over the wall and walked into the palace and by some miracle out of all the hundreds of rooms, managed to walk into hers. Supposedly he said, “Give us a little kiss.” Other footnotes we never heard in the USA are that she sleeps with a black eye mask and without Prince Phillip. The poor sap served time in jail briefly but they had to let him go because, strangely enough, he had not broken any laws. He didn’t “break--.” he just “entered” and that’s not against any law in Britain. He eventually died of alcoholism. Everybody in the pubs wanted to hear his story and would buy him a drink.
We started out the morning with a group walking tour that ended with a little time to shop. This was when I managed to get lost and separated from the group on almost my first opportunity. Getting lost is no big deal with me, I do it all the time and am very accomplished at it, meaning it doesn’t usually fill me with panic. But this time we were on such a tight time schedule I did panic. We all separated to look around a bit at the shopping opportunities. Even Beaven and I split up, with me going into Fortnam and Masons while he went somewhere else. This is supposedly where the Queen buys her groceries. In case you’re getting a picture of the Queen pushing a cart around and putting things in it, forget it. It’s not that kind of store. But they do sell a lot of cool stuff. I got lost in the store and went out the wrong door and lost my bearings. This could have happened to anyone. Beaven eventually found me.
When we visited Westminster Abbey it was exactly a week after the Queen Mother’s death and the funeral had been at the Abbey. There were still flowers on the lawn. The funeral bouquet from her coffin had been placed on the grave of the Unknown Soldier.
This grave is inside the church. They all were. I’m not used to burying people inside buildings. I wouldn’t want anybody buried inside my house. Nor my church, either, for that matter and the flowers were still there and were still fairly fresh. I know because I leaned way down and got up eyeball to petal to make sure they weren’t fake. But they looked very real to me; I finally found a slightly brown edge to one petal that told me I was looking at a real flower.
We visited the British Library and saw the Magna Carta. The writing was so small I couldn’t read it. I wondered if they were rationing paper or something.
We visited Windsor Castle. We had to take a train out of town to get there. Yes, the Queen lives in the suburbs. It’s kind of built on this huge hill and everything around it is at the bottom of the hill. It’s surrounded by this quaint little village desperately trying, but ultimately failing, to keep the franchises at bay. There was a McDonalds and a Hagen Daz among the shops. We took a tour of the castle but wisely decided to forego the side trip to St George’s Chapel inside. Good thing, the line on a normal day took an hour but today it was even longer because of the recent death of the Queen Mum. St. George’s Chapel is where all the royalty is buried. Inside again, what is it with these people that they bury everybody inside buildings? Are they afraid of the rain? It was a nice visit and I got to hear more creaky floors.
Here’s the deal on floors that creak: There is only one way to get a really creaky floor-- time. Time for the wood to shrink and loosen so it rubs against the next plank. And here’s what proved it to me: about ten years ago there was a huge, devastating fire at Windsor Castle. Part of the building was destroyed and had to be totally rebuilt. They did such an excellent job of restoration that the only way you can tell the old and new sections apart is that the floor doesn’t creak in the rebuilt part. I heard it with my own ears. See, I told you not to get me started on creaky floors.
We went to a Mozart Concert at St Martin in the Fields. I read in one of the guidebooks that this was the church where Richard Burton’s funeral was held. I told Beaven how exciting it was that we might be sitting in the same pew as Elizabeth Taylor sat. His reply was that he doubted they made Elizabeth Taylor sit in the cheap seats. But it didn’t matter which seats we had here since the acoustics were so great and the church sanctuary so small; every seat could hear equally well. And the sound was awesome. .
We took the Chunnel to Paris to depart Europe from Paris, not knowing if we would ever have another chance to visit France. Beaven loves trains so much that I knew I could get him to Paris if I made a train part of the deal. And it worked. The underground train to Paris was definitely a different train that any we had been on. All the announcements were in both French and English. The scenery was like a postcard picture (once you got outside the city): green grass and quaint houses—even some with real thatched roofs. The 20-minute trip under the English Channel was kind of a non-event: dark outside the windows but the lights in side the train made it not noticeable. A very smooth and gentle ride. Once we were up on land again and in the outside world, it was again beautiful countryside but France. We had made it to France.
One thing that surprised us is that there is graffiti near every train station in the world and they all seem to be in a separate language of its own. The same style of writing and symbols in England and in France, as well as the USA. I couldn’t tell any difference at all. It wasn’t either English or French; it was a totally unique language.
We also had minor excitement when one fellow confused tourist walked off and left his bag. It was interesting to watch everyone’s reaction to an abandoned suitcase in a train station. People were talking about it and pointing at it while they backed off from it. Train stations and airports are very different places post-9/11. Then when we went through security in Paris they questioned us extensively because I think we triggered a lot of extra questions: Why were we flying out of Paris when we came to Europe via London? What had we seen in Paris? Why were we leaving without seeing anything? Why come to Paris at all? And, of course, the crowning question asked of Beaven was “Did he pack his bag himself?” I had to resist the urge to shout indignantly that “No, indeed, he did not, I had. How many husbands pack their own bags?” But I knew enough to keep my mouth shut.