Thursday, January 27, 2011

The Royal Stop-Over: Our London Vacation (Jan. 19-23)

As a precursor to our long-awaited Ethiopia trip, we decided to take a vacation in London, which is a common hub for plane changes to Ethiopian Air. It's been at least eight years since we went on a kid-free vacation, so we took the opportunity, and it was well worth it!

We took off for London on a very quiet, uneventful, and unfortunately sleepless flight on Wednesday night. By the time we got to Heathrow on Thursday morning, I was completely exhausted. We stayed at the Millennium Gloucester in Kensington—a great choice, if I do say so myself—and as soon as I saw the bed I essentially passed out for much of the rest of the day. We eventually got ourselves together and walked down to the ritzy department store Harrod’s, just for the experience of seeing the first floor. We didn’t venture upstairs, because really, when you can’t afford a box of chocolates, you can’t afford a diamond-studded dog collar or even half of a pair of shoes there.

If you want a $150,000 watch, this is where to get it!

Later on Thursday, we got our Oyster Passes (subway cards) to take the Tube (subway) to meet Morrie’s friend (okay, mine too) Jay at the stop by his office, and then on to Jay’s house to hang out with his family and then go to dinner with Jay and his wife (my newest Facebook friend!) Alyssa. It was great to catch up with old friends in a new environment. We were last all together in Boston at their older daughter’s Bat Mitzvah last year, and now they’re working in/from London for the year. Did you know that Jay changes into pajamas on overseas flights if they are provided by the airline? He has two pairs to prove it.

Over the next few days, we did as much sightseeing as we could squeeze in. I think my favorite site was the Tower of London. We did the audio tour, which was a good move, since we knew so little about its history and it is so massive. The history is fascinating. If you are one of my Facebook friends (like Alyssa!), you will see some of the cool old stuff we saw. Writing this now, I regret that I didn’t recite any of Poe’s “The Raven” outside the raven cage, or the first 18 lines of the General Prologue to “The Canterbury Tales” (which has nothing to do with the Tower of London other than it was written by a Brit about Brits.)

In front of the Tower of London

Lots of tower. Moat used to be where the grass now is.

The White Tower

I found it "humourous" that the people who worked at the
Tower of London park right under the tower.

Ye Royal Huge Catapult

We also loved walking down the Thames at sundown from the Tower to Parliament and Big Ben, which allowed us to see lots of the famous sites, including London Bridge (not falling down at all, and actually now reinforced with cement, lit on one side with red lights, and totally anticlimactic), the London Eye, Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, the Tate Modern, and of course Big Ben and Parliament. On one afternoon we took a cruise in the reverse direction past those same things.

Totally NOT falling down!

Globe Theater - this photo dedicated to my Salem High students!

We and a few thousand other people went to Buckingham Palace for the Changing of the Guards, which happens every other day. We were right in front of the palace and had a great view. Basically, it’s a lot of band fanfare and pretty horses and marching about. Then the royal band played right in front of the palace. You’d think they’d play “God Save the Queen” or something Englishy. Or maybe something by Queen or Prince. Instead, they played the theme to James Bond and “For Your Eyes Only.” You’d also think that the royal band would be a bunch of really official pros, but this was a very young group, most of whom looked like they were in high school, and the ceremony included them setting up their music stands and sheets, and one drummer screwed up. It was like halftime at a Parkway North football game in 1986. Morrie said he expected the Buckettes to come out twirling flags, but no such luck.

Guards changing

More guard-changing shenanigans

Buckingham Palace

From there, we walked all around that area and got ourselves sufficiently lost, but somehow managed to see a whole lot of sites. We stumbled upon Trafalgar Square and Piccadilly Circus, and then hopped on a Big Bus Tours bus to get to Parliament and Westminster Abbey. We unfortunately missed our opportunity to tour the Abbey, so instead we gawked at the outside and pictured the famous dead people who were buried inside. And again, I missed my chance to recite passages from English literature.

Big Ben/Parliament with the London Eye in the background

Parliament/Big Ben

Main entrance of Westminster Abbey

We decided to take the Big Bus back to our hotel and ride on the top. We had commented throughout our trip that we thought the people that rode the open tops of the buses in the winter were complete chumps, yet there we were, major Dumb American Tourist chumps. Did you know that 6 degrees Celsius translates to “really cold” in Fahrenheit? And did you know that it is very misty and windy at the top of a double-decker? We ignored these basic science facts but felt like we got a little more out of our London experience, including Morrie’s opportunity to start a Z-pack, thanks to the sickness that ensued. We caught it early enough for it not to affect the much more important second half of our trip. Thanks for the prescription, Dr. Lorah!

"Hello, I am a dumb, frozen, American tourist!"

We also dropped a few pounds at the casino in the downstairs of our hotel (the currency, that is, not the weight measurement, which would be stones… didn’t drop stones either, the rocks or the weight measurement). It was really more of a large room with slot machines and a few tables. It was like playing with Monopoly money, since we never really wanted to admit to ourselves that a pound is about $1.75, until we left with less money.

Of note: If you watch Top Model or any other mindless modeling-related show, you know that London fashion trends tell us a lot about next year’s fashions in the U.S. Get ready for 2012, ladies of America! You’ll be wearing very, very short shorts with tights underneath, even when it is 6 degrees Celcius! And, tennis shoes and cross-trainers will be staying in the gym and Uggs in Australia – the fashion footwear will be brightly-colored sneakers and leather boots, short and tall. If you can wear a peacoat and look like you are not wearing pants, you have the look right! And, you will probably not be seeing me in this look. I’ll stick to the shoes.

Didn't we do this like 25 years ago?

The one thing that continuously resonated with me in London was more about the U.S.A. We often regard the Revolutionary War and all that came after as events that took place a very long time ago. But we live in such a young country —not even 235 years old—a blink of an eye in the history of countries like the U.K. And, when people in the U.K. (or Europe in general) get on a plane for a few hours, they end up somewhere really cool and historical and old, whereas when we do that in the U.S., we go to St. Louis or Disney World or Phoenix. I don’t know why this was so striking to me, but it was.

Even though we were only there a short time, we really felt like we saw London, and there’s so much to do when we eventually go back.

And then, we boarded an 8-hour evening Ethiopian Airline flight on Sunday to arrive in one of the world’s oldest (is it the oldest?) countries at 7 a.m. on Monday. And to finally meet our daughter!


Anonymous said...

Next time, don't bother with a Westminster Abbey tour. Just walk right in and wander. There are things you can only see on the tour, but the history and sensibility of the place are right there for the public. First visit there was with Graham while he was stationed in UK. While we were wandering about, we stopped for a service that took place and there was a special prayer for people in military serivce. Seemed like they knew we were coming. Second and many subsequent visits were with Uncle Mike when we went over for Graham and Helen's wedding. We missed many other things (like Globe Theater and Tower) because we kept wanting to go back to Westminster for more.

zimbalison said...

I didn't realize you could just wander! It looked like you had to have a ticket just to walk in. Phooey.

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Looks like you had a very good time in London. Nice photos.
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