Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Up and overseas: Part I

A journey of a thousand miles begins with an alarm clock. ~Not Lao-Tzu

Every long story needs an abridged version. So, I took a guided tour overseas in March with a couple of my college buddies, Steve and Nate (we're pictured left to right). I left on the 13th and returned on the night of the 20th, spending three days in London and three days in Paris. It was very cool and I'm grateful for the experience.

There you go.

Now, if you're interested in some more details than you ever wanted, read on and on. I've also thrown in some of my 1,100 photos. This'll be the first of three posts (part II, part III), with this one focusing the time in London...

After a couple connecting flights, I jumped on my March 13th international flight to Heathrow at about 8 p.m. in O'Hare (Central time).

Unlike the first class seats on many U.S. flights that don't look all that special, the "United First Suites" on big flights are world's different-looking than the cramped, uncomfortable seats in coach. In coach, you wake up from a couple hours of sleep aching and wondering how and why a breakfast muffin got on your tray.

One of my rowmates was a Las Vegas coroner, who was on his way to do some consulting work in Georgia. (The political state, not the state state.) He shared a bit of international advice, which, like my grandpa's, was to make sure and look both ways before crossing the street in Great Britain. It was good advice.

I landed in London around 11 a.m. local time (4 a.m. my time) and, on the advice of one of my friends back here, did my darndest to stay awake until my usual bedtime. It worked, but I felt pretty crummy that day.

The Tower of London was a clear highlight of the first full day in London town, Monday. We took a guided tour of the old castle with one of the Beefeaters (pictured at right), which was really interesting.

A few words about the guards at the Tower of London: first, the dudes I saw were not entirely stoic and expressionless. One guard, about my age, was doing his routine marching up and down the walkway, when a college-age gal decided she'd be really awesome and mockingly march alongside him. Then, because clearly she hadn't been obnoxious enough, she bellows in a clear American accent, "Am I making you uncomfortable?" To my surprise, the guard did a kind of embarrassed grin, and nodded. To my greater surprise, he did not open fire.

But while everybody thinks it's funny to pose and mess around with the guards, every time they suddenly snap to attention, all the tourists jump back. Everyone knows who's boss.

One thing that really stood out in London was the omnipresence of private and public security cameras. A small part of my amazement surely comes from my small-town roots, but most of it has to do with the fact that, as my tour director put it, London has “more bloody cameras than 1984 and Big Brother.” Some estimates have pegged the number of CCTV cameras in the U.K. over 4 million. I'd believe it. The cameras are supposed to lower crime.

London law enforcement apparently have cornered the market on surveillance.

One of folks in our tour group made the mistake of taking a picture of a couple of London police officers. He was sternly warned not to take pictures of them for security reasons, and, on top of that, told them not to take any pictures of security cameras. Please laugh now for two reasons: 1) because of the inherent irony in being forbidden to take a picture of a device that's taking pictures, and 2) because there's so many flipping cameras that you really can't take a picture of anything in London without a security camera in the frame.

I took this photo of these British policefolk pretty much out of spite.

While the security cameras conveyed a nanny state vibe in the ominous sense, other nanny-ish aspects of London were far more welcome. While the repeated audio and written warnings to "Mind the doors," and "Mind the gap," between the subway and boarding platform grew weary, the messages written on the sidewalks at each pedestrian crosswalk to either "Look left" or "Look right" were quite helpful. The driving on the left-side thing is tough to get used to.

So are the traffic lights:
Ha! Just kidding. That's actually a piece of artwork and not functioning traffic lights, though it confused the dickens out of me the first time I saw it.

We took a trip to Parliament one afternoon, where, after a couple hours of waiting in line, we were able to sit and listen to debate in the House of Commons. (As long as there's room, anyone can do it). We caught the tail end of a discussion about the British Airways strike and then a discussion about something that went right over our heads.

Photos were not allowed in the Parliament building except for Westminster Hall, which serves as a kind of entryway to the Houses of Parliament. The hall, which has been around since 1097, is shown at left, set up for a debate that night.

There are rules for sitting for the gallery, such as, "Visitors are not permitted to read books or papers, stand in or behind the galleries, or carry binoculars, mobile telephones or cameras." Further, I and my compadres had to sign a form that swore that, "I understand to abstain from making any interruption or disturbance to obey the rules for the maintenance of order the Galleries."

We were very careful to obey the rules. Steve went so far as to hushedly whisper to me to put down the provided parliamentary program of the day's debate so as not to violate the “no reading books or papers” rule. It wasn't a problem.
Parliament, from the London Eye

For the record, yes, those guys in parliament are friggin' hilarious. The dialogue we observed was delightfully witty and zany.

Since I didn't dare bring in a pen and paper, I couldn't take notes, and I’m not going to try to recap any of the quick exchanges, but they were good.

The back-bench rumblings of "Here, here!" and repeated calls for "Order. Order!" from the Speaker were reminiscent of a teacher quieting a class or silencing an disobedient dog. At one point, one of the opposition party members called for investigation into the Speaker's use of "foul language," which, one M.P. claimed, was the worst that had ever been uttered in the chamber. (My traveling buddies think he originally said "urination"). The Speaker said he'd welcome a review of the transcript of the session when it became available. I wish our Congress was as colourful.

One of the tourist trips we got sucked into was the London Eye, which is a kind of giant Ferris Wheel towering above the Thames, a little northeast of Parliament. Despite the painful 17 pound ticket and a gross overly-touristy feel to it, the views were pretty neat.
The folks in a neighboring pod of the London Eye.

We also attended a West End performance of Wicked (theater pictured at left), which was wicked awesome.

On Wednesday, to get from London to Paris, we took the Eurostar train.

The train station has zero trash cans, as the empty-coffee-cup-cluttered counter in the bathroom attested. But that's not some bizarre cultural thing. As I was informed by a co-worker when I arrived back in the states, the trash cans were removed after the 2005 bombings on the city's public transit system. Apparently, officials determined that trash bins could be used by terrorists. Now, the only way to dispose of your litter (note the British usage), is to hope a cart-wheeling janitor (not in the gymnastic sense) happens by with a transparent trash sack. Strange.

Upon arriving back in the states, I've fielded a good number of questions about what it was like going through the Chunnel on the Eurostar. I'm afraid I can't be of much assistance here -- I pretty much slept through that 20-minute stretch. As I recall, it was dark, and pretty indistinguishable from any subway trip.

The whole trip from London to Paris takes about two-and-a-half hours (say, 'Wow!'). When you get aboard the Eurostar, the intercom messages are first in English then French. When you get off, the messages are first in French, then English. Makes sense.

Paris was next (part II)...
Buckingham Palace. At night. Couldn't have known that without this helpful cutline, right?


Steve said...

Merveilleusement écrit CJ! I feel quite a guilt trip to write my own. Your photos are superb.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Steve. I had to Google "Merveilleusement écrit" to make sure it was indeed a compliment. :D

Guilt was the only thing that pushed me through to finishing these posts. You definitely should at the very least stick some of your photos on your blog, you had some really neat ones.