A Tale of Two Cities

London. Having spent so much time in continental Europe, or more importantly France, my view of London was bound to be skewed. If I had come to London directly from the States, I think I would have definitely felt like it was a charming, progressive, welcoming and cultured place. I think I would have found it just foreign enough to exoticise. Yet, comming by Eurostar train from France, I found it to be an elitist,obsessive compulsive, obnoxious, fascist police state. Arriving in London had the feel of arriving back in the US more than it did a major European city. Ok, ok, ok, I’m being a bit harsh, there was another side of London I did admire, and hence the entry title. Let me elaborate some.

I say elitist because I couldn’t afford a goddamn thing. At nearly 2 to 1, the British Pound kicks the Dollar's ass. Dinner, £10 for a cheap entrée in an average restaurant, translates to $20. Man, for $20 I better get some damn good fancy pants meal not some bullshit excuse for a “curry”. Speaking of “curry” and elitist, they call every slightly spicy Indian-ish dish a “curry”, be it one or not. Ok, so it's not their fault that the pound is just stronger than the dollar? Well, it is their fault that they charge an arm and a leg, in pounds, for everything. Just to enter Westminster Abby cost something like £7, just look inside a goddamn church! Shit, the Tower of London was £15 just to walk around. Did I mention everything is named the “royal” this or the “royal” that?

I say obsessive compulsive because the city seriously has OCD. There was not a spec of dirt anywhere to be found inside the center of London. No graffiti on the walls, no soot on the old buildings, no wrappers on the ground, no dog shit, no piss in the corner, no ketchup glob on the table at McDonald's. Zarita and I even witnessed a city sanitation worker vacuuming up the street with a special street vacuum. THEY VACUUM THE STREETS!

I say police state because there were CCTVs on every major building, on every street corner, at the entrance to every store, above garage doors, even in the public toilets! Cameras are monitoring the entire city 24 hours a day from every angle. Its no secret either, everywhere you look you are reminded by signs that you’re being monitored. Its downright frightening to feel like your every move is being watched. I was nervous to pick the wedgie out of my ass for fear someone might be watching on camera. Maybe thats a good thing huh?

I say obnoxious because of all the people in the street drunk by 10pm, stumbling around shouting nonsense or giggling like idiots.

Still, I’d have to say there is plenty to admire about London and Zarita and I definitely had a good time. There are a ton of museums, probably one for every pub. Of course I couldn’t afford to enter the majority of them with my salary, but there were many free national museums we could have visited. The modern architecture in London is also quite bold and the not so modern architecture is all the more impressive. While I wasn’t well-funded enough to see any of it from the inside, from the outside the national landmarks like Westminster Abby, Parliament, Big Ben, Buckingham Palace, St. Paul’s Cathedral, the Tower of London, Tower Bridge and so on were even more amazing in person than I had expected. Though they’re iconic monuments we all recognize from TV and movies, I was still awed. And while the drunkards in the street were a bit obnoxious, they definitely added a little life to the night. The pub culture is actually quite awesome. In a given pub you might find people of all ages, from teen to elderly, sometimes together, repeatedly buying each other rounds, drinking and having a great, relaxed time. Despite the cost, I also liked the pub food; meat pies and fish and chips, delicious.

So yeah, as far as I could tell London was both a bit of a rich snob and a common drunk all at once. Unlike Amsterdam though, the dichotomies that I thought defined the city were cleanly intermixed. Anyway, without further ado, our weekend in pictures.

070816 – Take the Eurostar Line

Having vowed to not get on any planes in Europe, we chose to take the Eurostar train from Paris to London. Definitely a wise move in terms of convenience, but passing through security is sadly unavoidable. The UK is not part of the group of EU nations that permit free passage between borders. This is likely due to the UK’s close ties to the US and ubiquitous terrorism paranoia. Still, rail security is not anywhere as frustrating as plane security and simply consisted of some simple questions and a baggage x-ray. The Eurostar train was pretty similar to the Thalys we took to Amsterdam and the whole ride lasted about 3 hours. Even though that’s probably longer than the plane would have taken, I cannot stress enough how simple it is to get on at Gare du Nord in the center of Paris and get off at Waterloo in the center of London.

Knowing in advance how strong the pound was, Zaritchka and I pledged to do London on the cheap. So, since our hotel was reasonably close to Waterloo, just a little south of Victoria Station, we decided to walk the whole way and save on taxi or tube expenses. The walk actually turned out to be longer than we had hoped, about an hour to reach the hotel. Notwithstanding our oppressively heavy bags and poor Zaritchka feeling sick, it was a pleasant enough stroll as we passed Big Ben and Parliament in our first few minutes in London.

Waterloo Station, not all that impressive but our first glimpse of the city.

The London Eye, an absurdly enormous ferris wheel that draws throngs of silly tourists with promise of a birds eye view of the city. We didn’t even consider wasting our time.

A totally random but awesome Lion.

Our hotel, the Stanley House … can you pick it out?

The hotel was on a pretty street rather tucked away from what seemed like the more hustling and bustling parts of the city center. I picked it out of a bunch of seemingly similar options online only because it was not wholly denounced by reviewers for being despicable. As far as I could tell, affordable hotel accommodations in London are pretty shitty, but certainly not limited! The Stanley House was not impressive, our room was rather small, dingy and uncomfortable, but that’s the UK for you right? Anyway, after check-in, Zaritchka required a nap so we didn’t really make it out into the city until early evening.

Neither Zarita or I are the kind to get travel guide books to get around with, or even research where we’re going ahead of time, so as usual our first evening consisted mainly of wandering, buying a map and finding food. I also booked the Stanley house because it boasted of being near major attractions and in this case we were not disappointed. Buckingham palace was virtually around the corner from us, so we figured we might as well wander past there before dark and then perhaps kick around for a bit. Our winding about eventually lead us past Piccadilly Circus, Chinatown and Trafalgar square before ending up at a decent pub for dinner and then some ancient one for drinks. Not a bad, albeit late, start.

Victoria Station from the side, an interesting mix of modern and depressing post-industrial … like much of London ;)

Zarita in front of Buckingham Palace … so splendid. Actually, the palace was a bit of a disappointment. Its well adorned and on some prime real estate, but the architecture of the actual building it pretty bland. I suppose its just the town house, I’m sure the country home is much more posh.

I really liked the fountain in front of Buckingham, I believe its dedicated to Queen Victoria. I think that’s the queen that lost India and Australia or something right? They seem to be rather fond of her.

A CCTV in the public bathroom around Piccadilly. This one was just a warning, the real one was hidden from view.

Zarita’s friends are all big fans of this modest little publication, so I figured they might appreciate this.

These concrete towers were part of an installation in the courtyard of the Royal Academy Art museum. We really liked the towers although we couldn’t afford the museum entry fee, even with a generous student discount.

The Royal Academy of Art, it sure looked nice from the outside.

Chinatown looked very festive so we couldn’t help but take a jaunt through. We were even almost enticed to dine on premises, but I had a hankering to try some good ole British culinary delight, so we passed. I mean, I couldn’t leave before I had a fish and chips or meat pie dinner and our meals were limited after all.

We only got to see Trafalgar on this night and not during any daylight. Still, from what I could see under the spotlights, it was quite beautiful. I really loved the lighting of the fountains and pulled off these artsy fartsy long exposure shots of them with minimal blur.

We were quite amused to find this place, the Texas Embassy Cantina. Later I learned that many European countries opened Texas embassies after Texas declared independence from Mexico and before joining the US.

070217 – All the Pomp

After a late start the day before, we resolved to start our second day, Saturday, bright and early. To our advantage, the hotel served a very early breakfast of bangers (sausages), beans and eggs so that we were able to shower, eat and bust out well before 10am. Hey, that’s good time for us. We had caught word that the changing of the guards at Buckingham was going on at 11:30am but when we passed at 10:30 there wasn’t a soul to be found waiting. So, we felt no pressure to secure a position and went for a stroll through St. James Park, the sort-of front lawn of the palace. Wow, the park was beautiful, boasting an impressive pond stocked with a large variety of waterfowl. Amongst the more interesting birds were swan and pelican! It reminded me of a more “royal” Boston Commons, for that matter London reminded me of a more “royal” Boston.

Our little ass hotel room.

Zarita preparing for the day amidst the yellow glow cast by the curtains in the morning light.

Our first creature encounted in St. James Park. I think they call this one a big-footed booby … or bobby … I dunno I’m making it up anyway.

Zarita in front of a cute little cottage in the park. Its oddly labeled private property so we suspected someone might actually be living in it … weird.


Oh my god, this duck was totally deranged.

Zarita, slightly out of focus but for a good cause. The pond was beautiful mostly because it was pretty natural looking, just a few fountains but no overkill.

We found a rather large quad at the other end of the park that was surrounded by rather impressive buildings. At the moment of our arrival it began slowly swelling with a crowd. I asked the oldest looking man in the bunch what the fuss was all about. There was another guard changing ceremony that preceded the Buckingham one, the changing of the Horse Guard. Well, I thought horse guards sounded cooler and we stayed to watch it. It got lame pretty fast, so we hustled over to the other end of the park again to catch the changing of the guards at Buckingham Palace. Wouldn’t you know, in the 30-45 minutes we had spent strolling the park, all of the tourists in London managed to fill every available nook and cranny around the palace. So we only caught the marching bands that lead the procession and missed the actual changing. I think it was probably lame anyway but the bands were fun.

Zarita doing a little drumroll …

Tada! The Horse Gaurds plaza or something.

Zaritchka alerting me to the growing commotion around the Horse Guards building or whatever.

Wow, guards on horses, perchance changing!

All we got to see of the Buckingham changing of the guards, the marching band!

After the changing hooplah, we set out to revisit Parliament, which we had only skimmed past the day before on our way to the hotel. We were also hoping to slip into some of the buildings to get an inside view. Well, extremely high entry fees and security personnel equipped with automatic rifles dashed our hopes. They wouldn’t even let us walk down Downing Street, fascists. So, we decided to ditch the Westminster hood and hop over to the Tower of London. Somehow we still were naive enough to believe we could either see it for free or afford to pay the fee to get in. Well as explained above, the tower cost both your arm and leg to visit. Fortunately, it was free to walk across the Tower Bridge … yay!

All we got to see of Downing Street, a rifle is pointed at my head just off camera while a CCTV recorded the goings on.

Hey, when in Rome … take cheesy photos doing as the Romans do.

BIG BEN! It really is quite big. Zarita remarked how proper it was for them to build a big clock at one end of their parliament building. No excuses for being late son! What really makes it impressive is all the gold trim you can’t quite see from this far away.

Hey, they’re all into Honest Abe here too!

A pretty view of Big Ben, again.

The tower of a smaller chapel outside of Westminster Abby.

The other Parliament Building tower.

The backside of Westminster Abby. I neglect the front in protest.

Zaritchka in front of the Tower of London.

We thought that the “litter” on the garbage can might cause some confusion for Americans.

Zarita and me at the Tower of London.

A panorama of the Tower of London.

A view back into the city from the Tower of London. The stark modernity of the rocket shaped building in the background juxtaposed against the historic Tower was worth a note.

Zarita and me in front of the Tower Bridge.

The Tower Bridge is such a weird thing to see up close. Maybe it’s the shape of the thing or just the paint job, but its definitely the weirdest thing in London in my opinion. It just somehow felt like it belonged in Disney Land.

After the Tower of London we went for a stroll through Southwark, a neighborhood on the other side of the Tower Bridge, the south side of the river Thames. We were trying to make our way west to the Globe Theater and the Tate Modern, and then back across the river to check out St. Paul’s Cathedral. At this point we had wisened up and were no longer expecting to get into the Globe for a reasonable fee, but I still had hope. We weren’t sure about the Tate though, but I didn’t think it was a national museum. As for St. Paul’s, I didn’t really care, just thought it would be something to walk past.

As we walked westward along the river, we were quite pleasantly surprised by an amazing outdoor market. The market was packed with vendors selling what was in my humble opinion one of the finest assortments of fresh gourmet foods I have ever seen. Mushrooms, meats, fruits, chesses, seafood, and so on and so on. It was great and I rapidly got hungry so I satisfied myself on some oysters. After the first outdoor market we walked into another indoor market inside a greenhouse looking structure. It was fascinating and for the first time on our trip I was truly pleased. The Globe Theater was just past the markets and as expected was far to expensive for our pockets. Though miraculously, we were again pleasantly surprised to find the Tate Modern was free!

The Tate is awesome. The collection is as good as any modern art museum I’ve been too, but the museum itself was amazing. The building was an old early 1900s power plant, refitted to be a giant art gallery. Inside, the center of the building was hollowed out and fitted with crazy twisty tube slides that provided transport from the top floors back down. When we came the Tate was showing the works of some dudes, Gilbert and George. I don’t want to go on and on but if you get a chance to see their stuff do it, or just google them, its awesome. Gilbert and George are totally wild and crazy guys.

A cool little fountain/stream thing that ran down a street south of the River Thames in the neighborhood of Southwark.

Probably the coolest thing I saw in London was this outdoor market, beside a church under some train tracks; gourmet foods from mushrooms to cheeses.

This guy was carving up some smoked pork, straight off the leg.

Fruits and vegetables.

I got some amazing fresh oysters from this frightening lady. The oysters were huge, the meat was at least egg yolk sized and delicious. I found out after they were fished just 60 miles from London … I’m not sure that’s any good actually …

Another view of the market. I think it was called the Green Market.

Some delicious pig heads.

How I knew it was called Green Market. Opposite this entry was the entry to another market, but this one was inside a glass and steel structure. This other indoor-ish market was the Borough Market.

A fishmonger working the Borough Market.

Some very pretty flowers for sale.

We got some bangers in a roll across the street. They were being roasted on a spit over sprigs of rosemary so that the rosemary warmed by the roaster perfumed the sausage.

How I knew it was Borough Market.

I was pretty excited to be at the globe theater, but of course admission was absurdly expensive, so we turned away.

Zarah on the river, after an already long day. St. Paul’s is in the background.

Oh man I was so excited that the Tate Modern was free!!! I frolicked in the forest just outside. The building is an old power plant, designed by the same guy who designed the Battersea plant.

Dude, they had this awesome series of crazy slides that brought you from the top floors back to the ground. It was totally awesome but of course, you had to pay … bummer.

An awesome exhibit of a video of a lighthouse. I’m not going to go into details, but it was silent save for the sounds of birds in the night, and it was terrifying.

We concluded the night with a stroll past St. Paul’s and then dinner and pints at some very historic pub at Black Friars. The pub was one of the most elaborate I had seen. One of the rooms was constructed entirely from marble and alabaster and adorned with sculpted figures of friars serving beer. There were also a few murals throughout the pub depicting friars partaking in activities such as gardening and fishing for eels. Then, having sated ourselves on meat pies and beer, it was off to bed after a long day in London.

St. Paul’s Cathedral at the end of the pedestrian foot bridge across the Thames from the Tate Modern.

We got to St. Paul’s way too late after it had closed. Oh well, we probably would have had to pay with our first born to enter anyway.

070218 - In Search of a Small Bear

Sunday was our last day in London, but our train was leaving in the late afternoon so we had all morning to do a little bit more exploring. After seeing essentially all of the major sights in London on Saturday, in a whirlwind tour of the city, we decided to keep things a bit more low key and check out the less touristy parts of the city. We started our day in Hyde Park, in honor of our home in Chicago. There was one particularly intriguing spot there, Speakers Corner, where we had heard people would assemble to engage in public debate or just pure ranting. Sadly, there was no assembly on this particular morning (and likely ever) so we had little business in the park thereon. Confronted with a lack of agenda, Zarita suggested we head towards Paddington Station, just a few blocks north of the park, in search of the famous little bear that shares the name.

Man, this was totally ridiculous. A monument for the animals of war. I mean, I am an animal lover and all and definitely appreciate the role animals have played in the development of civilization and society (especially after reading Guns, Germs and Steel). Still, this is a little bit over the top.

A row of proper little 3-flats.

Zaritchka, post-spontaneous growth spurt.

The walk to Paddington from Hyde Park was pleasant enough, although I don't think it would make for a compelling read. Mostly it was just residential neighborhood, with modest but proper looking brick walled 3-flats, block after block, and gated little gardens scattered about. We did have a very humorous encounter with an extremely thin and lanky middle aged man walking with his nose far above his brow and a little white fur ball in tow at the end of a bright red leather leash. Actually, the puffball seemed to be walking his snooty master as they made their way quite delicately down the street. Zarita pondered the potential consequences of kicking the little white shit, amused by how she thought the flamboyantly proper gentleman might react. I think we decided he'd probably exclaim something along the lines of "Oh! My Word!", snatch up the rat and then scamper off quite positively insulted. I wish I got a picture of those two.

We finally reached Paddington and from first glance outside the station, I was disappointed. It looked downright shitty. Certainly it was overshadowed by the very impressive Hilton that stood before it. In fact, it wasn't even clear how to enter the station and the main entrance, which we unwittingly passed over, looked like the truck docks at the back of a supermarket. Stepping inside, my impressions were corrected. Paddington is probably the most train station-like train station I saw in Europe. It had the browned and worn look of something that must have been full of smoke and soot for at least the last 50 years. The high glass ceilings were supported by a gently curving wrought iron frame and the platforms were long and flanked quaint little commuter trains bound for the English countryside.

Of course these nostalgic feelings were intensified by the costumed actors all about us; part of the movie that was being filmed at the station. At first we didn't even realize that anything out of the ordinary was going on. My first indication that something was not quite right was when I remarked that the luggage scattered about the platform we were on was totally weird; large wooden and leather suit cases and chests were piled up on ancient looking luggage carts. Zarita strolled past a flower stand with beautiful flowers, but absolutely no prices or anyone selling them. Wow, I thought, this train is a total antique, I couldn't believe what amazing condition the British kept their trains in. Then I laughed at how funny English people coming in from outside London dressed. Everyone seemed to be dressed like they just stepped out of post-WWII Europe. Thats when we noticed the makeup chair and the cameras. Boy we felt totally silly and dashed away quickly before someone noticed that we weren't supposed to be on set!!! Not a moment later, the director blew a whistle and all the people we had thought were aimlessly loitering about the platform began to walk in synch. HAHAHAH!

Me on one of the platforms at Paddington.

Zaritchka on one of the platforms at Paddington.

The interior of the station had the feel of an outdoor station from some small town, complete with facades that evoked the front of a town hall or local general store. I really liked it, it was like an indoor mall concept from 1950 or something.

The actors and actresses preparing for the shot. I still laugh when I think about how I was totally convinced they were just dressed like that for real.

Well, much to our dismay, Paddington Bear was nowhere to be found. Still, some bright entrepreneurial mind had the gumption to open a Paddington Bear kiosk, stocked with goodies such as Paddington Bear stuffed animals and book marks. Zarita couldn't resist. From there wandered about and headed in the general direction of Bond and Oxford streets, the Madison Ave. or Magnificent Mile of London. We had absolutely no interest in that shit, but I wanted to get a glimpse of how they do it in London. As expected, there was absolutely nothing of value to be seen, albeit it was all being sold for heaps of cash. We dined on McDonald's, a testament to our pathetic financial state then proceeded back to Waterloo Station. So ended our foray, with McDonald's.

Zaritchka perusing the goods.

The truck-dock-looking main entrance to the station ... not so appealing.

Just a little nostalgia for home.

My attempt at a postcard shot on Oxford Street.

My last glimpse of London, couldn't be better! Its Battersea Power Plant, famous for gracing the cover of Pink Floyd's album, Animals. I would have died if I saw a giant floating pink pig.

So that was London. All in all a pleasant place. I think it could do with a few less cameras, a little more trash and graffiti and perhaps later pub hours. Still, we had a wonderful time and I'm really glad I got to experience the city. Also, I think I'm convinced that the only place to make money is in London. So if I ever decide to sell out and be a banker, I'm getting paid in pounds sucka!

No comments: