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Last night in the United States. For four months. I escape just in time to miss out on the endless tributes to 9-11 that our national media are already obsessing themselves with. I’m actually kind of curious just what the terrorists are going to try this time around. Sounds like they tried to hit Karzai the other day. It won’t be easy for them. Good!
Loose ends today. I found a place with an office in Chicago that can supply me with a European Rail Pass tomorrow morning. The flight out is on Air India. Arrive at Heathrow early afternoon on the eleventh.
The excited British women, their shopping bags bulging with Disney souvenirs, remind me of Monty Python sketches, as they bitch in their upset British housewife accents about the repeated security searches.
There is a lot of security. Bags x-rayed at check-in, the normal metal detector, x-ray, shoes search at the gate entrance, and then a last ring of security contractors, conducting a cursory search of everyone’s bag at the gate itself.
“Calm down, ladies,” I want to say. “This is America.” Then I think about it some more. Air India, a huge 747-400, fueled to fly from Chicago, home of the world’s tallest building, with a load of Americans, British, and Hindus, to arrive in the capital of Britain, America’s closest ally, on September 11. Search me, baby, one more time!
When our airplane pulls up, I have to smile. The window frames are each painted with an ornate frame that reminds me of the Taj Mahal. I arrived with about four hours to spare, earning myself a window seat at an exit row. Seat 42K. It sounds like the rear of the plane, but given its enormous size, this is actually the first row in economy class.
A little past 9AM on September 11, and I can think of no better place to be than above the clouds with Air India, slipping in from the northern Atlantic Ocean towards Eire, an hour away from touch-down at London.
I feel the physical discomfort of an abbreviated night. We got on the plane at 9PM in Chicago, which was 3AM Greenwich. Now it is 3AM in Chicago, 9AM here. 3AM wake-up call with little sleep? It is days like this that I’m reminded of my first day in Army training, at Fort McClellan, in 1994.
This time, however, the new world of experiences that I’m losing sleep for is the old world. London, here I come.
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The view over the North Atlantic, en route to London. Where better to be on September 11?
The English coast is so beautiful, seen from up here. The map of our flight progress displayed on Air India’s monitors is a wonderful treat.
Most of the folks on this plane are elders. Old Indians returning to India, on a long flight from the States. I imagine that at least a few were visiting prodigal daughters and sons, who are making their ways in America.
And with them, some of us hitch a cheap ride to Europe, as they have room for us, and it is on the way. Indian passengers, served by Indian staff, serving Indian food, which was damned tasty.
The idea of Indians transporting Americans to Europe hardly strikes us as weird or novel, but there was certainly a time when it was. That this is entirely ordinary, and expected, is a wonderful, wonderful thing. I pray that all the people should find themselves comfortable in the presence of others. Familiarity promotes trust, trust promotes love, and it gets harder to hijack planes.
9:37AM and I can see them driving on the left! It wont be long now!
We got off the plane, onto a tarmac that was filled with random jumbles of equipment. Officials herded us on to buses, which they called trolleys, because the British call everything trolleys. Okay, drive around the airport for a while, and eventually we were off-loaded at the immigration station. Up a flight of stairs, and those of us coming from outside the EU or the British Commonwealth got to stand in our own queue for not a very long time.
The immigration officer perked up a little at my approach, complimenting my brightly-colored shirt. He asked me what was I doing, I told him I was a tourist. Did I have a ticket home? Yeah, well, eventually, from Osaka. Could he see a ticket? Well, here’s Jordan. Yeah, whatever. You got money? Yeah, like $10,000 on my ATM card. Okay, here’s your stamp.
Wary of the 1.5% commission on the currency exchanges at baggage claim, I wandered through the twisty warrens of Heathrow Airport in to another terminal, which had an ATM. I withdrew Â£50, and asked around for a phone card. Got a Â£5 card at the currency exchange. Okay, time to call Duncan. Busy. Well, how about his work number? Busy. Okay, what else can we do?
I grabbed a set of four passport photos from a vending machine for Â£3, then tried Duncan again. Busy, busy. Hrmmm, okay, well, let’s use one of these photos to secure a seven-day pass, and hop on the Underground to see what we can do from downtown.
I tried again from a pay phone across from Green Park. Busy, busy. Operator comes on and says what’s your card number? I tell her. What number are you dialing? I tell her. Doop doop, says the British ring. Duncan answers.
“Why did you go to Green Park?”
“It sounds like a nice place.”
I navigated my way over to his office, where I exchanged my backpack for a bottle of some strawberry yogurt smoothy thing. Thanks, Duncan. The plan was that I should bum around London for a little while, meeting Duncan back at work about 6:30, when we’d ride back to his place. Okay.
I was operating on lack of sleep and the whole city just seemed kind of magically weird to me, so I wandered. And wandered, and I kept wandering. I found myself in Westminster Abbey standing on a slab of stone that kindly informed me that a few dozen monks who had died in the black plage were interred below. The Abbey is full of stones lain atop similarly distinguished clergy, and quite a few of the inscriptions are worn off. I kept wondering if anyone had at any point studied the rate at which slabs of the floor were allocated to the deceased, and thus developed slab allocation guidelines, as an exercise in capacity planning. This SysAdmin-ly wondering on my part bothered me more than the abundance of former humans, and I didn’t want to put up money for the proper tour, so I wandered my way out.
From there I wandered past Parliament, which also charges for admission. What kind of chintsy democracy is that? Congress has no admission fees, you just wander right in through the metal detectors and watch your government in action. I had a sit in an adjacent park, with a pleasing view across the Thames. I wandered across a bridge, hoping to find something different.
I found the Imperial War Museum, which was free, so I nipped in to get a bit of Imperial War. After getting kind of bored with that, I sat on a park bench next to a very big cannon, and shared some of my salty fried Air India snack food with some pigeons, favoring one plucky chap who was missing one foot, and was a toe short on the other.
I accompanied Duncan to the train station, where I let him rush off to work, while I looked around the news stands some. On the ride in, I got off at Clapham Junction, which boasted that it was Britain’s busiest train station. I took a bunch of pictures, and a bunch more where the train lets out at Waterloo to connect with the Underground, and the Eurostar. The camera subsequently ate my pictures.
I spent the morning bumming around the British Museum, which has a lot of very old stuff in it, but it didn’t really grab me. Instead, I spent some time relaxing outside, where there’s good people watching. More pigeons were fed, some girls admired, I got some pictures of a cat with a collar and a missing tail, who slinked around the tourists.
I found a place across the street where I could check e-mail. This was accomplished inside of half an hour, so I frustrated myself with Canon’s web site, which will let me fill out a form explaining my problem, and then tell me that I’ll receive an e-mail telling me how to contact technical support, if necessary. The e-mail told me that it couldn’t answer my problem automatically, and that I should return to the web site to explain the problem in fewer words. This of course, could then be escalated to technical support, perhaps, which would tell me that I was probably just doing it wrong, because I didn’t explain every last thing that I had done right, because I need to explain these things in fewer words. Argh!
I shot off a note to a couple of social mailing lists in hopes that someone had the capability of getting word to a human being at Canon as to how can I get my problem fixed. I was cut off of my hour right before I could send the message, so I put up the Â£5 for five hours of access.
From: Danny Howard <email@example.com>
This funny British keyboard puts some keys in funny places.
I’m across from the British Museum, and hungry, but I found an hour of access for a modest two pounds.
My anecdotes, are that the English don’t have exits, but lots of signs every where that say WAY OUT, to which my San Francisco – influenced mind can say only, “Indeed: way out, man!”
The train system rocks. At … Waterloo today I took bunches of pictures, to add to some more train pictures I’d taken at something junction: busiest train station in britain. Yay, well, THE CAMERA ATE MY PICTURES AGAIN!! FRICKING CANON POWERSHOT!!
Other than that, and the high prices, I have no basis for complaint, as I have a gracious friend hosting my stay, and feeding me his vegetarian cuisine. Mmmm!!
Aaaah, what else, ah yes, there are stations where you must MIND THE GAP, and they’ll repeat this on a speaker, looped over, MIND THE GAP … MIND THE GAP … MIND THE BLOODY GAP YOU FUCKING TOURIST !!
And I think of the GAP store at Haight and Ashbury, back in Frisco, and I’m like, “Of COURSE I mind the GAP! I mind it considerably, fucking GAP!”
And I have to supress my instinct to WORK. I was looking at the free magazine and had to chew on the jobs postings, just because, you know, well, I’m only here for a week, but finding a job is a reflex I’ve acquired in this recession. :) And at Waterloo they were giving out free cans of Shark energy drink to solicit funds for World Wildlife Fund. Okay, sure, but they had SURFER DUDES telling you not to surf, because of the free sharks. I choked down the instinct to ask if they’d be around tomorrow, and could use a volunteer from actual California to hawk their cause.
Instead, I talked to a homeless dude selling papers, because he had too much desire to scratch for his living than take the dole, bless the welfare state. He said that he too had travelled the world, that was his thing, and in Japan they’ll hire nice English-speaking types to GO TO PARTIES, to mix with people, because Native English Speakers are COOL.
Nice work if you can get it, I s’pose.
Okay, off to find some grub.
After a baguette, on the advice of my guidebook, I wandered to the National Gallery. Oh la la! I totally dug an older, but brilliantly-colored nativity scene, and wandered my way through the galleries, out into Trafalgar Square, which has nice fountains, and tourist crowds. I then wandered … that way, and as I turned a corner I saw a tall, skinny, orange-haired Asian dude whom I heard call out “Leave me alone!”
The lilt of that phrase left me to conclude that the tall, skinny orange-haired Asian dude, was actually a tall, thin, orange-haired Japanese Woman being tailed by an Italian Man. Well, that was my assessment, at least. He sort of wandered off, then she turned a corner, sat down on the ground, and he slowly approached her and sat down next to her. After a bit, she got up and sat twenty feet further on, and after a bit, he followed her. She looked depressed, like she was supposed to be touristing, but she was instead dragging a sick puppy around wherever she went. Augh!
Of course, it was entirely possible that the two were actually in a relaionship, so I wasn’t sure if I, the Nosey American, should get involved. “Excuse me, Ma’am, is this guy bothering you?”
The pushy American was ready for adventure, but reluctant to act unilaterally. I spied a family of middle-aged, well-dressed, dark-skinned blacks, that had two stocky gentlemen in their party. I asked the one’s assessment of the situation, suggesting that if a few of us went over there, the Pushy Italian would easily feel intimidated, and bugger off. He was an Englishman who was inclined to think that a woman in that situation would likely know the proper way to handle such a situation, and that the simplest explanation was that they were involved, but who knows? He was inclined to let them be.
Failing to enlist the support of my British Ally, I resolved that I’d keep an eye on them for a little while, and found a seat across the square to review my guide book. She sat with her head in her arms, as he patiently waited for further interaction, occasionally trying to take her hand, or touch her leg.
I’d read about Pushy Italian Men in the guidebooks, and how to handle them. I figured he may well be tailing naive, Shy Japanese Girls, and that if she was a Shy Japanese Girl, inclined not to make a fuss, or draw attention to herself, or be assertive, and all of that horribly sexist stuff that I have learned that Shy Japanese Girls are taught to abide by, then, well, they were at an impasse.
How to intervene? I thought of different scenarios. First was “Ah … don’t I know you? Yoriko-san! It’s been a long time! Say how’s your boyfriend, Ben, I haven’t heard from him in a while?”
That was too presumptious, I thought, and if I did have the right idea, the subterfuge may blow her mind even more. “Oh, great, yet another man, what now?” Duncan later allowed that if they were a legitimate couple, then implying that she had another boyfriend could very well break the camel’s back, and definately turn things ugly.
What about asking for directions? Nah. Maybe I’d be able to slip her a note and inquire if she was okay? That requires English, on her part, and she’s stressed out. Just walk up, all friendly, and note her discomfort, and simply ask is she doing okay? An invitation to confess that, well, actually, this guy is bothering her. Find another Japanese group and ask them to drop by and talk to her? “Hey, we’ve been looking for you,” and then get the scoop in Japanese, wandering off, if necessary, with their group.
Finally, I decided that the best bet was to lure him away. “Excuse me sir, could you come over this way a bit, to take a picture of me by this cannon, with your back to this young lady, who would now have the opportunity to slip off, if that is her desire?”
In the end, though, I simply doffed my cap at her a few times while she was looking my way, and he was not. Just a quiet sign that the guy at the far end of the square had his eye on the situation. In the end, she got up, they spoke, she wandered one way, he started to follow, she’d sit down, then she’d head the other way, ’til he followed, then she’d stop. They zig-zagged like this a couple of times until they exchanged a few more words, and she headed off in my direction, as he watched. She was coming directly towards me, maybe I’d been an excuse on her part, or an intimidating destination on his. Two-thirds of the way towards me, she banked, and headed through the tunnel to her Majesty’s gate, or whatever that was on the other side. I was more gratified that the situation had been resolved than disappointed that I didn’t get to speak with her, to find out if my assessment had been accurate. After a moment or two, the Pushy Italian still standing on the far side of the square, I followed through the tunnel. This might mark her as mine, in his eyes. I didn’t spot her on the far street. I hung out a little while, then headed back through the gate towards the park that I had previously been interested in getting to, passing, on my way, the Pushy Italian. We looked at each other for just a moment, as we were passing. I had anticipated antipathy, on his part, but saw only idle curiosity.
I took a picture of a group of German tourists, lounging contentedly in the park. I felt, once again, at home in my traditional tourist role.
I took the District line, which had really cool, old-school subway cars with wooden floors, over to Mansion House, and found my way across the Millenium Bridge to check out the Tate Modern, a huge building, that has modern art galleries on two of its six floors. In between galleries, I stopped at a cafe, overlooking the Thames, for tea. The Tate was a darned good time, and next to the Globe Theatre, which looked a little too busy for me to bother with.
I hiked back across the Southwark Bridge, munching on some candied, roasted peanuts, and got on the Circle line over to Hyde Park, through which I walked towards the Serpentine Gallery. Along the way, I stopped to watch a woman and her daughter feeding some soft white bread to ducks and geese, as well as the occasional pigeon willing to wade in an inch or two for wet bread. The girl was excitedly throwing large pieces by the handful, shouting weird incomprehensible gibberish, like “Maaaaaaaaahnge!” The woman asked if I’d like to feed them too. I politefully declined and quietly watched, and listened, as they fed the water fowl. I figured they must be French. “Vous etes françaises?”
She didn’t know what I was talking about, but that’s just as well, because they were Kazak. She asked if I knew where that was, “Oh yeah, the big one in the middle.”
It is just as well that I got detained watching them feeding the ducks, because the Serpentine Gallery was closed, because they were installing the new exhibit. They’d be open again next Wednesday, but I was to be in Amsterdam.
So, I figured I should check e-mail before heading home, and hopped on the Central Line towards Tottenham Court Road. Alas, there was “a person under the train” at a station up the line, so we were encouraged to take other means of getting to our destinations. Okay, let’s give the buses a shot.
I couldn’t decipher the signs at first, so I just hopped on a double-decker bus that was going down the street I’d have otherwise walked on. A wee bit down, I hopped off to try again, and started to understand that there were a handful of buses that were going to Tottenham Court Road, but not all buses stopped at all stops. It all started to come together – the tube connecting with different suburban rail services, the rail lines at Clapham Junction sitting fourteen through tracks astride, the double-decker buses skipping stops in order to serve a population of seven million, plus tourists, plus another 700,000 in the next fourteen years, and I suddenly dug that London was so insanely complex that nobody could ever hope to understand it. Somehow the British had rigged it up so that it still worked pretty darned well anyway, and I dug that that is how you get away with running an empire upon which the sun never sets.
As far as I can tell, the Greater London Public Transportation system is a wild, insane Wonder of the Human World.
I thought of the simple fact of double-decker buses that were too short for me to stand on, but which could carry, say, twice as many people in the same space. Hong Kong, built by the British, has such buses. But Hong Kong runs its crazy systems in Chinese.
And then I thought of what a mad, crazy, foreign-language treat Tokyo will be.
Duncan lives in Richmond. Today I slept in, and then wandered in to town, looking for a nice place to work on the journal. I wandered, looking for a place with a nice view, that wasn’t too crowded, and I find myself now on the bank of the Thames, munching on a scone, and sipping my way through a pot of tea, for under Â£3. Happen you to be in the area, I recommend the Tide Tables Cafe. Just wander down to the Richmond riverbank and have a look around.
It was a great rush of excitement as the plane approached the continent. Everything was going super. I was originally going to skip London, but when Duncan invited me to visit, I had changed things to arrange a one-week stay. When I checked-in at Heathrow, I mentioned the Â£25 I owed to change the ticket. The agent offered that I must have paid with credit card, or that he was otherwise unaware of the charge.
Actually, “are you in a hurry to get to Amsterdam?”
“Can’t say that I am.”
I agreed to be placed on a contingency list, that should it come to pass, I’d volunteer my seat for one on the next flight, a few hours later, and be rewarded with Â£50 for my easy-going nature.
Come boarding, I was indeed asked to stand aside and wait, as all of those uncomfortable middle seats, including my own, had filled up. In the end, I was placed in first class, and treated to tea, sandwiches, a biscuit and jam.
As I disembarked at Shiphol, a clean, efficient testament to Dutch cuture, which stood in stark contrast to the adventuresome catacombs of Heathrow, I felt downright giddy, ready to pronounce loudly that I had arrived. As it would be rude in a uniquely American way to do this, I refrained, containing the giddiness within myself.
I think that the exciting part was not only that I was on a new continent (well, Britain is sort of Europe, but hey …) but that I had left that part of the world where English is the primary language.
To ease this transition, it was handy that most Dutch speak English. An easy switch, especially among those who deal with tourists. The airport signs were all bilingual. Once I got to Amsterdam, though, everything was in Dutch, along a series of twisting little streets, each named something like Globenbleispedelstraat.
As the more preferred hostels were hard to even telephone from England, I hit the pavement, sort of following my guidebooks and inquiring at promising places along my routes. After some false starts, I found a very friendly receptionist at the Crown, which is an English bar with dorm rooms above. I paid, to my recollection, â‚¬21 for the night.
There was one sink, shower, and toilet for the fourteen of us, which was actually adequate, for there was no place to socialize, so everyone in the room kept to themselves and came and left at their own timing.
I had a hard time sleeping. In part, there was this steady ringing in my left ear, which seemed a touch louder than it had been in London, or Denver, when I first recalled hearing it on Amtrak. Ah well, I think I was just restless with being along and disoriented in a new place.
I wandered down to the bar for a shot of rum, measured out by a computerized dispensing gadget that the bars in Amsterdam all seem equipped with. I munched on the remainder of the bread that I had swiped from Duncan’s place on the understanding that he was not a big bread eater, and bread is a conveniently portable snack. I continued my way towards the end of the _Narrative of the Life of Fredrick Douglass_, when one of the bar’s few remaining patrons, a Dutch gentleman polishing off a Heineken and a cigarette with his girlfriend, asked me what I hoped to get from reading something so old. I answered something along the lines of a greater insight into the human condition, and perhaps some comfort from vicarously weathering a condition so much more difficult than my own present challenges. He blathered something about America being obsessed with the past, which only lasted 350 years, whereas the Chinese, of 5,000 years, we had to spy on and couldn’t even admit to it. I suspect he was regurgitating some old, half-remembered editorial piece, and I suspect that he he had such a pereception as well, as he then apologised about his drunken rambling, and was subsequently chased from the bar, as it was closing time. I, as a hotel patron, got the dreary music videos alone to myself.
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A snake on a staff admonishes the Dutch to conserve power, at the Amsterdam Hospital OLVG.
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Copious bike parking, and a pulley to get stuff to the top floor. This scene is typical for Amsterdam.
Sometime in the morning a new, lower tone entered my ear, and instead of the museums, I sought out the local hospital. The beautiful, polite intern who examined me explained that people hear rings, and we rarely know why. It could be tenitus, and it would be useful to have an Ear, Nose and Throat specialist take a look when I return to the States. Also, I could arrange with a General Practitioner to clean the peanut butter from my ears.
After some mediterranean kabob thing and chips topped with ketchup and mayonnaise, I rode back to Centraal, where I’d stowed my luggage in a locker, as hostels have a 10AM checkout. I found another hostel from the guidebook, the Kabul, which had many rooms up a twisty flight of stairs or two. I dropped my stuff off there and trammed over towards the Van Gogh museum. I started with the modern art gallery next door. You know, because it was there. I left disappointed. I guess the thought of dropping â‚¬5 on a dinky little modern art gallery with very little good stuff in it at all was all the more frustrating because just a few days ago I’d been through the happy monument to modern art that is London’s Tate Modern.
The Van Gogh place had a line outside, I figured I’d hit it good and proper in the morning, and wandered through town, vaguely looking for a place I might connect the laptop for an upload session. No such luck.
I got back to Kabul, and wrote Janet a letter, and wandered out in search of the elusive Paradox coffeehouse that the guidebook reccommended as a good place to smoke. I figured that this expedition would have the educational bonus of requiring me to explore a different part of town.
I purchased â‚¬5 of some sort of grass, and proceeded to roll myself a pathetic joint that burned something crazy and fell apart as I tried to inhale it. I scraped the good buds together and returned them to my bag, and approached the bar for advice. A kindly patron consoled me with the cruel fact that “we all gotta learn sometime” and then allowed further that this was perhaps not the most admirable skill that one could be an expert at, as he deftly demonstrated How Things are Done.
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