London Day 1

I'm going to London.

Close to close 10 weeks of classes and a mediocre finals week is a trip out of this world: at least out of the country. I leave behind blue skies and sunny days, professors, professions, confessions, confusion, mutts, marmots, and mongrels. This is a vacation.

After rolling tight a week's worth of clothes stuffed into a bloated backpack, the electronics and digital paraphernalia found home in a computer bag. Pack light, I was told. I could easily traverse two miles with this backpack and a notebook case, thus making the official cutoff. Jokingly, Barry asked where I was going as he picked me up outside his office, not two miles from my house.

"London!" I answer.

I board the plane late evening pacific time in San Diego, find my aisle seat near the back, and most importantly find the newly borrowed Bose noise-canceling headphones. These make me smile every time. The airplane takes off, or so I believe, because I've learned to fall asleep while taxiing and wake 15 minutes into the flight when the beverage cart rolls by and electronic devices can be used. I am an electronic device apparently. I fumble through the bag between my feet and dig out the headphone case. Slip those bad boys on, and say goodbye to 300 kHz noise. They truly did make for an excellent flight and a restful sleep to New York.

I managed to sleep for most of the first leg. No, my leg didn't fall asleep. I had been going to bed and waking earlier each day before the trip to minimize the 8 hour time change. That particular morning, I had gone to bed at 8pm and woke at 2am, ready to start my day. This was two hours earlier than the day before and two again before that. Altogether, I was pretty exhausted by the time my plane left at 4am London time. The intention was that I should have landed and yielded immediately to London clocks, in theory, but more on that later...

A 777 is a beast of a plane. I had never been on one before. I had seen pictures, but didn't' imagine a flying contraption half as large as a Catholic school. It flies, too. With two aisles and massive overhead compartments, I just followed example and found my seat. There wouldn't be any sleeping this time. After the 7 hour flight, I would land at 8:30pm. According to logistics, I would find the hotel at 10:30 and need to sleep. Instead, I managed two in flight movies with the screens built into the back of the headrest. Touch screens too. Listened to some new cds as well, but mostly just tried to pass the time sitting in a tube of supposedly compressed air miles above ground.

Distinctly now I did not feel as if I was going to London. Sure the plane was atypically big. But understand that nearly half of my trips in air have landed in Ohio. The other half have carried me to San Diego, barring layovers. I drove in Ohio. I drove to San Diego after the first orientation, so when I fly I'm crossing ground internalized and navigated, rather than endured at 600 mph. Sadly, I was denied such a road trip to the UK. In the Lucas-centric universe, I sit in a stuffed tube and peer into a mailbox window of motivational scenes: the top sides of fluffy clouds with the caption "Work hard today." When finally landing again, the external scenes undergo a transformation from this, quite literally, high-level form of transportation back into driving on runways. I still don't get flying, particularly to supposed London.

Once in the airport I had more important things to worry about than where I was on the globe. First was customs. This proved not to be half bad. I filled out a form and naively handed the official my passport. It got stamped. I then had to walk to terminals 1,2,3, having been placed in terminal 4 as an international flight to make way to the Underground. For those who don't know, the Underground, known locally as the Tube, is London's elaborate subway system. The Piccadilly line (yes, you can giggle when you say it, I do), shown in blue on the map, stretches all the way out to Heathrow. I landed in Heathrow Airport, and found my way to the Heathrow station and a kind old man behind the ticket counter.

Because most all of London proper exists within zones 1 and 2, it's a safe bet to have an unlimited pass for the Tube within these zones. However, Heathrow is in zone 6, nearly 14 miles from the city. After a trying subway ride, I can see why they'd call it Heathrow. Imagine some Londoner of yesteryear having ran the whole way to the airport to greet you, but in a winded gasp can but mutter "Heathrow". "Heathrow yourself," you'd reply. Altogether, you have to pay a for a single ticket from zone 6 to zone 1, in addition to whatever else you'd want. But at 20-some pounds, it's worth it.

Keep in mind that during this time, 100 dollars will get you 51-54 pounds. I've learned quite a bit on relative exchange and worth. I don't like it.

I bought the ticket, and was given a delightful plastic rfid Oyster card. I don't know why it says Oyster. But it does. Proof is in the picture.

In boarding the train, the loudspeakers overhead recommend to "Mind the Gap". There is a small yet variable gap between the station landing and the train's base. Stateside, we'd advise someone to watch their step. London peoples apparently say mind. As a verb, the only time I've minded anything is as an awkward counter to not minding. For example, I mind that there is dog hair on my futon. Otherwise, I've arguably spent my whole life not minding, except for manners, of course, mom. Here, in London, you are to mind the gap.

I was somewhat disappointed that the first many stops of the Underground were not, in fact, under ground at all. But I was able to take in some suburban outskirts from sizeable subway windows and the slow retreat of evening light during that period. England is more north than anything in the continental states, I believe, and two days before the summer solstice, you could still see at 10:30pm. Stirring light also ekes out at 4am. But for now, periodically gazing out the windows, there is nothing particular to report. It is old suburban.

Instead I spent most of the ride watching people, trying to figure out why kind of Londoner uses the Tube. Answer: all of them. Late-night executives in tired suits and tired briefcases, gaggles of teenagers, mothers with strollers, mothers with red ponytails and three daughters all with red ponytails in due fashion, writers, eaters, sleepers, video gamers all trained to brace to for the next stop. They all knew the routes by repetition, and it was quite obviously a different ride for them than me checking the Tube stops against the route maps on the train to figure if I had yet arrived. It's no fun when there isn't a driver to pester if, in fact, we are there yet.

Next stop, Russell square. I mind the gap and board the station platform. People bustle, and I try to figure an exit. I look up to see big yellow signs "Way Out". They all say Way Out. Clever. Finding my way out, I follow through tube-shaped stairwells where the entire hall is rounded tiles. The top of the stairs is a rhetorical dilemma: a choice of three elevators to surface travelers, or over 750 stairs in a curved and dusty well to the right. Apparently that figures to 13 stories or so underground. Once up, I have to present my Oyster card to the reader to allow the exit gate to open.

Now to find the Ruskin Hotel. How convenient it is that London follows the map I expect. The sun is already set and I'm kept loosely to the amble street lighting. Russell Square is closed, as are most of the parks at dusk, so I walk around the block, peeking into the park between the metal rails that fence it in. Many large trees, lots of open grass, and some walkways are all neatly organized into the plot. At the diagonal opposite the Russell Square Tube stop is Montague street headed towards the Ruskin, halfway down the street on the left.

The hotel door is locked with a sign to ring bell for service 7:30am to 11:30pm. It's about 10:30pm. Here's the owner, perhaps Mr. Ruskin himself. He runs the front desk the full 16 hours a day, with the desk adjacent to his private room encasing his sofa, reading chair, library, and tv. He has a bit of a French accent, which makes the "English" just a bit harder to understand. Room 205 at 50. The carpet is very busy and involved, so it's better to look up when possible, particularly when traversing stairs.

I get in the room and remember I have a camera. Here's the room, with me pinned against the corner as much as possible to capture the whole room...

Here's the camera perched on the window sill:

Altogether, it fits the description: 1 room and not much more. Two toilets and a shower are shared among the six or so rooms on the floor. I couldn't find the soap (the next day I figured out the mirror was a cabinet) but noted that they did have tea and a water boiler. My first impression of English life: the whole thing about cleanliness vs. tea timeliness actually holds. I did find the soap, so this was later retracted. The bed came with extra springs, and you could really feel each one when you laid down on it.

Here also begins all of the backward things compared to the states. Flipping a switch down will turn on a light. The toilet flush is on the right side when standing, or over the left shoulder when seated. Granted they are arbitrary design decisions, but different nonetheless.

Because I was on a plane for the entire "day", I decided to find some food. None in the hotel. I walked down the street next to the British Museum right across, figuring they had restaurants. I found a number of pubs nearby, but none of their kitchens were open. One bartender, or pub-minder perhaps, directed me to the main street which had several places to eat. Making my way down the two blocks, I found the Ultimate Burger.

What California Pizza Kitchen is to pizza, this was to burgers. They had several exotic burger combinations, turkey and chicken burgers, veggie varieties, and even two styles of lamburger. I ordered, and the fun began. I managed to get a BBQ burger, but what to drink? I look and see no dispenser behind the counter from which to choose my soft drink. To the right is a set of stairs leading down behind a small wall. The couple that ordered before me both head down while they wait for their food I figure. Perhaps the drinks are just self-serve, down the steps. They had ordered wine with their meal, so I didn't have much to follow. Remember "Mind the Gap"? Well, here we get to see what I used to fill in some conceptual gap, and you get to laugh at how wrong it was. This will come up again and again...

I turn back to the cashier and ask for a pop. Immediately, I realize how many local dialects for soft drinks there are in the states, and what on earth could it be called in a land of lorries, scones, and cricket. I continue "...pop? soda? soft drink?". I remember Wisconsin. "...fountain?" I'm drowning. The cashier offers "just a coke?" Yes. Please. She pulls a coke bottle from the cooler behind her and pops the cap for me. I have my option of a straw or glass with ice. I take my glass and bottle and numbered flag and head to a window seat. Stupid steps, they lead to the bathrooms and kitchen beneath.

Not a bad burger. I wouldn't call it "ultimate" though with Steak-n-Shake still around. Still, the best "British" food I've had yet. The window overlooks the main street intersecting another. This particular intersection has two stopping areas before the light. The farther of the two is for cars, while the other is for motorcycles and scooters to crowd without obstructing the crosswalk. Bicyclists get the left curb to creep. Most every car is courteous to the "lesser" forms. Civil driving, what a pleasant surprise.

Ha. They almost had me fooled. I finished my burger and headed back to the hotel. Here's the traffic lines right out front of the Ruskin as seen from my window the following morning:

What a lazy line-painter. As I get closer to the Ruskin, there are some cars parked along both curbs. For the most part, there isn't much traffic, so cars, mostly taxis, can avoid parked cars by moving to the center to pass. Not an unreasonable system. However, consider now four cars parked in a row, and a small school of taxis following the same way. Now add a double-decker bus going in the opposite direction. For the entire street, the bus does not follow a lane. It drives straight down the middle of the street. Clearly it misses parked cars, but those driving MUST get between parked cars or face the penalty. In this school of taxis, the first three find a space without a problem. The last of which, however, still has two more parked cars to get passed while the oncoming bus shows no sign of slowing. I hear the taxi shift down, noticeably gun the cab to make the next gap before the bus. The tires squeal once for the sharp left and again to miss the curb. The bus continues to barrel through, missing the taxi by 20 feet from my angle. The taxi straightens back to miss the next car and continues on its way, probably still in mid-conversation. Right.

11:30pm, and time for bed. Through my open window I hear late-night conversations of passers-by. "oy, where the bloody 'ell is John anyways...."