London Reflections…

As I leave London and reflect not only on wrapping up this little leg of my journey but the past month – I had the following insights and observations. Again, no particular order of significance – just some random thoughts…..

As a person who knows what ethnocentrism is and does try to remain open to cultural differences and not insisting that they do it my way -subscribing to the “When in Rome” theory of travel – I continually amazed myself at how the little expectations from home kept coming up. Case in point – we have street signs on the street back home. Makes sense to me. In trying to navigate initially I couldn’t find a single street sign – not a one. I finally asked a friendly looking person where the street signs were and she looked a little surprised and pointed up to the side of the building. Well….who knew…..and now I know. Do you think there is any social significance in a London street called “Petty France”?

Traveling gives me plenty of opportunity to realize afresh that I’m just not as smart as I’d like to think I am. And in the first half hour in London I had a number of Brits who were more than happy to remind me. In trying to find my B&B by the published directions I managed to get myself completely lost and they were only about a 3 minute walk from the train station (read a very small radius) After what seemed like forever I finally found Ebury street – Yea! – but which way were the numbers going? They seem to go up so I trudged that direction but then they started getting smaller – What?? So, I asked a nice looking lady if they were indeed getting bigger as I headed in THAT direction. She told me in an exasperated tone, “Well, as you can see as you look down the street here that the numbers are getting larger and if you are looking for 113 Ebury street this is obviously the even numbered side so you are going to have to be on the OTHER side of the street, Correct?” Wow, I felt like the kindergartner that just got scolded by the teacher. Ten minutes later -after checking into the B&B – Simon, the proprietor, told me my room was just up the landing. I looked around a little confused and he repeated “up the landing!” (what in the hell is a landing?) “Ya gotta go UP Girl, UP” I was told. Well….who knew and now I did. His exasperation was probably precipitated by our earlier conversation in which – after he handed me a slip of paper with the wireless network name and password that I swore read “DangerMoose” and repeated it as such – I was told it was “DangerMouse” and did I need glasses? I was by this time keenly aware of my flagging intelligence and I just wanted to get to my room, pee and not move for awhile – or talk to anyone.

I stuck my key in my room door lock…… and promptly broke it off… in the lock. Not kidding. I stared at it in utter disbelief. The worst part was I was going to have to go DOWN the landing and tell Simon. And I still had to pee. Simon looked at me incredulously and told me that had never happened before,,,,ever. I choked back a snarky reply especially after he told me it would take most of the afternoon to fix so I’d better just head out and see the city. Adding insult to injury I still had to pee and had to ask if there was a bathroom available (it was seriously becoming an emergency) Sighing he told me go UP two landings and watch my step. At least it didn’t require a key to get in. As I left the building it started to rain but armed with the knowledge that street signs are on buildings, even numbers are on one side of the street, odd on the other – I had a fantastic afternoon. If I had to figure anything out – I applied good old fashioned American ingenuity and figured it out myself……frankly my self esteem just couldn’t take another beating that day. I will leave out British coins and the completely illogical relationship between denomination and size…. LOL!

All that being said – there are little angels everywhere. The wonderful gentleman on the train who helped me take my backpack off and then helped me put it on at our destination. The delightful woman who helped me puzzle out the train schedules. The internet cafe guy that let me use his private wireless so I could use my iPad to skype an emergency call. He did proceed to diss my iPad but I gave him that one – I wasn’t in any position to argue. The fantastic train ticket guy who saved me about $50.00 and 2 hours of time by figuring out an alternate route. Countless people over the course of the last month came to my rescue, aided me, and in general – saved me from myself. Being willing to sound stupid and ask the question anyway and make mistakes – in public no less – has been a great growth opportunity. As a recovering perfectionist – this has been a little difficult at times but overall has lead to some of the nicest folks and the best experiences. I was a little angel for others as well in numerous capacities. All in all – my faith and basic belief that most people really are decent has been restored. At the end of the day I think we all go about achieving the same goals and aspirations – just differently.

The House of Parliament makes the White House look like a shack.

I’m not sure how I feel about continually running into folks who know more about my country and country’s politics than I do. They are simply more interested than I am. I figure if there is anything hugely important to know – someone will tell me.

Of course I had to see the Tower of London. Ok, another mark for the dumb – or perhaps under informed girl. I thought the tower was literally just one big tower. What I found most interesting is that men back then – unlike the huge hunks that play medieval roles in movies – were actually kind of small if you take their armor as a measurement. A testament to how strong they were – those broad swords were huge and heavy. I got to stick my head in a half helmet to get an idea of what the field of vision was like – pretty much nil. The only comforting thought would be that your enemy couldn’t really see either. I imagine the battlefield to be Slash, Hack and Hope. A number of pieces of Henry the 8th’s armor were on display. I was a little taken aback by this suit. Check out what else he was protecting. Big Armor, Little……? Draw your own conclusions.

Westminster Abbey is equally as impressive but St. Margaret’s right next door is much more intimate, free, no lines and has a lovely stained glass window that Henry the 8th had made for Catherine of Aragon – presumably before his affair with Ms. Boleyn. It creeped me out a bit when I realized I was walking on graves in the aisle between the pews. I tried to be respectful but there wasn’t much of a choice – the markers took up all the space. So I just tried not to think about what I could be stepping on. I find it an interesting way to honor the dead. That and the plaques on the walls. Many dated back to the 16th century and some were as current as the 1990s. St Pauls – The Actors Church – was another great little gem. Noel Coward is one of the honorees. There were also wall to wall graves on the floor and ground outside but by this time I didn’t mind so much…..when in Rome……

I did manage to see Harrods department store but that’s only because I had to pee and department stores typically have restrooms (free restrooms…) I possess a bladder the size of a walnut and my meanderings always have to include frequent bathroom breaks which is a huge inconvenience but, I digress… Kim, if you are reading this – Harrods is Your Store!! I have no idea what Niemen Marcus is like but I am sure Harrods is right up there. Traveling for 3 months with only one pair of shoes – sensible ones at that – and being a shoe collector myself – I did have to go to the shoe department just to look. It was hard to tear myself away without a purchase but I am traveling carry on only and there just isn’t any room in the inn so to speak. The princess in me was heaving heavy sighs all over the place but one heft of my bag without any additions made me happy I resisted temptation. My Naots are the best travel shoes ever – although I may hate them by the time this journey is over. Maybe I’ll bronze them……

Another note on Harrods – this I found a little disturbing. Their fall window displays included a number of stuffed animals. Each one of these windows had the following notation in small print on each display window “all of the animals in these displays died of natural causes” ……… Really? I mean – if you have to go to these lengths to be PC – why bother?

Back to bathrooms and varying degrees of need. London has this thing were you need exact change to use most public loos. Inevitably I’d feel the urge, heed the call only to discover that I did not have exact change – along with several other people in the same boat. Made for a few truly uncomfortable scurries around to locate a sympathetic bar person who’d let me use their facilities. My catholic guilt (I am a recovering catholic) would then kick in – and I’d feel compelled to buy a beer by way of fair exchange. Ultimately this was poor strategy for obvious reasons. I learned though – new city? Include WC locations as part of the orientation walk.

London’s Tube is a cinch to figure out as are the trains. Back home I would definitely use public transportation if we had a system that was remotely reliable. I know they are working on it but – please – cities like London, Paris, Boston, New York, etc. have been doing this successfully for eons – what is our problem???

Hyde Park – London’s version of Central Park. Fabulous and worth a wander.

The Tate Modern. Worth getting lost to finally find. Ai WeiWei’s Sunflower Seeds was the most impressive piece to me. Each one of these true to size seeds is handmade in porcelain and hand painted. Google the history and significance of this exhibit – you might find it interesting as well. Taryn Simon’s exhibit is worth following as well – in my opinion.

Food – I am hip to try anything once. I had julienned jelly fish in Japan and that was really weird. I have to say – traditional British fare is largely uninspired – at least what I tried. Bangers & Mash was really greasy sausage and mashed potatoes in a sea of gravy. I actually had to make a moat out of my potatoes in order to try the sausage without it drowning in the gravy first. This will definitely be on the never try again list. Local beer was out of this world though. The whole pub culture was a lot of fun although being a single female typically earned me a lot of eye time. Oh well….someone has to do it. I’d just stare back…..and smile. Now that got them to get back to their own beers quick!

As I said in my last post – I could have an affair with London and I did – 5 days and now it’s over. Like many affairs – started quickly – burned brightly – and then sputtered out. I have to say while I did thoroughly enjoy it while there – I am not in any hurry to come back. No harm, no foul – we just don’t have that much in common. Steinbeck made the observation in Travels with Charley that sometimes a journey continues for years after the journey’s end – other journeys die before their intended finish. The London piece of this journey definitely ended on time and within budget and that’s that. Time to move onto Scotland and my own cultural DNA.

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