Unable to decide between spending Christmas with Mike's family in East Tennessee (and Middle Tennessee ... and West Tennessee ... and California ...) and Meredith's in Southern California (and Illinois...), we decided to go to Hawaii.
Unfortunately, Hawaii is, it seems, one of the most popular Christmas destinations in the US. We could have flown there, but we would have had to sell Meredith's car to pay for the plane tickets. This didn't seem like the best plan.
So, if you can't go to Hawaii, the next logical choice is: London. Well, maybe it isn't. But it's what we came up with. Mike had been once before, years ago on a trip for Apple, but Meredith had never been to Europe at all. Happily, we discovered that London is one of the least popular Christmas destinations for US travelers. It occurred to us later that this might have something to do with all the rain and cold.
But, before it occurred to us, we bought plane tickets. This in itself was an exciting adventure. Changing travel dates by even a single day, on either the departure or return, can change fares by literally thousands of dollars. Continuing our new trend of going for the least popular days, we chose to fly out Christmas Eve, arriving in London Christmas morning, then returning to the US on New Years Day.
Yeah, well, at least it was cheap.
All in all, we had a wonderful time. We'd definitely do it again. It was a really fun trip.
Travel in London
While the vastly reduced air fares for our travel suggested that perhaps the plane would be mostly empty, this turned out not to be the case. It was, in fact, completely full of people with all their Christmas luggage. We next discovered that British Air doesn't reserve seating in advance -- you get the seats they assign when you get to the airport. Had we thought about this in advance, perhaps we would have realized the inherent conflict between our goals of getting to the airport a mere two hours before flight time, and actually sitting together. So, we ended up sitting about fifteen rows apart. The flight attendants tried to find people who might want to move, but no one did. Well, at least the flight was only eleven hours long. At least we got to sit together on the return flight, although in the middle two seats in a set of four. Note: British Air coach is just like every other coach class: cramped.
Finally, we landed. Despite the funny accents, we made it through customs easily, and found our ride. Another thing we discovered about landing in London on Christmas morning is that ground transportation is very challenging. It's the one day of the year that the tube isn't running at all, and everyone strongly advised us to reserve a taxi in advance because, supposedly, we wouldn't be able to just hail a taxi. Oh, did we mention the part about how taxis on Christmas Day cost double?
But we did arrive, safe and sound, at our hotel -- the Radisson Edwardian Vanderbilt near Gloucester road. The hotel looked was very nice, but the rooms were very, very, very small. Our room barely had room for us. Meredith wound up stacking the suitcases on top of the mini-bar so that there would be room for us to move in the room at all. This is, evidently, much more common in London than we had realized. Oh well. It certainly encouraged us to spend the great majority of our room outside our hotel room.
The tube is definitely the way to get around in London (except, of course, on Christmas Day). Reasonably fast, not very expensive, and it goes everywhere. The tube is sort of infamously unreliable, but we didn't actually have any problems until our last day, when it seemed to suddenly have all sorts of problems. The Circle line wasn't running counter-clockwise (or, as they say, anti-clockwise) because of some problem, a couple of stations were closed because of flooding, and the lines that were running were taking ~15 minutes between trains. But, other than that last day, it was fine. Another word of advice: thanks to the kind folk (can 'folk' refer to one person?) at Travels With Al, we found a program for the Palm (and Pocket PC) called Metro. The program contains subway maps for many cities, including London. Just tell it where you are, where you want to go, and it figures out the quickest route, telling you where to change lines. This was an invaluable tool during our visit.
Walking in London is a cultural mystery. Since everyone drives on the left, you might assume that people normally walk on the left, just as two people crossing each other on a sidewalk will typically walk to the right of the next person. And, indeed, in many tube stations, there are signs saying "WALK TO THE LEFT". Except on Escalators, where you are admonished to stand on the right. On sidewalks, people walk on the right. Or the left. We could be walking along, all on one side, and then, seemingly because of some sign that everyone but us could see, the lines would switch, and suddenly we'd be walking on the left. Perhaps if you grow up there it all makes perfect sense. All we knew is that after a week, we were just feeling a bit confused.
Food and Beverages
During World War II, London converted all of Hyde Park into a giant potato field. This should tell you something about the British affinity for the potato. All meals come with potatoes; you'd think it was required by law. Meredith ordered a pasta dish at one restaurant that came with pasta, on top of rice, mixed in with potatoes. At another restaurant, with a dish that they couldn't quite figure out how to work potatoes into, they brought a basket of chips (or, as we would say in this country, fries) with it. Amazing.
UK food is, frankly, not that interesting. Even aside from the whole potato fetish, the food is just really, really bland. Search Google for "British food is bland", and you'll find only a handful of sites, most of them referring to "the myth that British food is bland." This is a myth that's right up there with big whoppers like 'the Earth is round'. Mike's theory is that the Indians finally broke free of the British Empire by sneaking into the kitchens of the UK Military and adding spices to their foods to drive them out.
Which brings us to: how to find good food in London. The answer seems to be to go visit an Indian restaurant. There are, as one might imagine, tons of them. We ate dinner at one on Christmas day, right next to our hotel, that was outstanding. We ate at another in Oxford that was also excellent. We also ate at Regent Tandoori, off Piccadilly Circus that was, well, less excellent. We believe they worked by purchasing meat that all the other restaurants in town had rejected. They said it was lamb; it tasted like shoe leather. Oh well.
Drinking in London, however, is an entirely different experience. Guinness there is sublime. It really is better than it is in the US. (Meredith insists this is absurd, but every single person who has had Guinness in both the UK and US heartily agrees.) And Guinness is just one of many outstanding beers there. The bitters are great, the stouts are great ... Mike was a very happy person.
Meredith, on the other hand, found bliss in the tea. Unlike in the US, where people are always surprised when she orders tea, and never remember to bring her cream for it, in the UK everyone expects you to order tea. And they always offer cream. By the time we got home, she was starting to get caffeine deprivation headaches if she didn't get her morning tea.
Coffee was sort of a mixed bag. More and more places are selling coffee -- certainly more than when Mike was here six years ago. Starbucks are everywhere, with a density that leaves the Bay Area at home to shame. Curiously, Starbucks was also by far one of the best places to find good coffee, unlike the US (or at least the Bay Area).
Museums & Old Things
In Boston and many parts of New England, things that have been around for 300 years are old.
In California, anything around 100 years is considered quite old.
In England, we attended the Evensong service at Westminster Abbey on the occasion of the 937th anniversary of its dedication (December 28, 1065). Old has a very different meaning here.
We first tried to visit Westminster Abbey on the 26th, but discovered that, like almost everything else in London, it was closed for Boxing Day. We went back on the 28th, hoping to tour around inside, but then discovered that seemingly half the tour buses in London had just dropped off at the Abbey. The line was ... daunting. So, off we went to other things, then came back for the Evensong performance. Meredith was delighted to get to sing 'Westminster Abbey' in Westminster Abbey.
London also has more museums than you could imagine, and they're all evidently free. We toured around the Science Museum for a while one day. This place was enormous. We spent three hours walking through it, and probably saw about 1/6 of the total museum, if that. We also went to a special James Bond exhibit they were running at the museum. While fun, it definitely suffered from traffic flow problems. There were some things that it was just impossible to get to see because of the crowds.
One of the real highlights of our trip (possibly the best part) was the visit to the British Library. We didnít make it into any of their stacks, but they have a huge book collection. There was some sign explaining the size of their collection that mentioned that if you went through five titles a day, it would take 80,000 years to get through their current collection. They get one of everything published in England or Ireland. We poked around an exhibit they had on illustrators of childrenís books, then looked at an exhibit that had some of the works from their very old collection. The set included some of the original versions of the Magna Carta, a Guttenberg Bible, Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, the original (hand-written) Alice in Wonderland, Da Vinci's notebook, and (Mike's personal favorite), an original printing of Newtonís Principia Mathematica. Wow.
We also toured the National Portrait Gallery.
Our last full day (New Years Eve), we took the train to Oxford. It was definitely fun to go tour around. Meredith took delight in having her picture taken outside of Oxford while wearing her Yale sweatshirt. It was also the coldest day (by far) of our trip. Meredith bought an Alice in Wonderland tea pot so she could continue to satisfy her tea craving once at home. Very appropriate, since Lewis Carroll was really Charles Dodgson, a professor of mathematics at Oxford.
Here's a difference between the United States and England: in London, the premiere department store is Harrods. This place is virtually a shopping mall in itself, only much more upscale than anything you'd easily find in the US. The signs on the doors posted the 'extended shopping hours' -- they were open until 8 PM. Except on Sundays, of course, when they were closed. Coming from a country where stores are routinely open until 9, and open until 10 or 11 during the month of December, this was rather different. Not bad, of course -- but very, very different. We did eventually make it to Harrods, despite it being closed December 25, 26, 27, and 29th. We finally made it on the 30th, which was the first day of their big annual sale. As far as we could tell, half of London was there.
Of course, another difference between shopping in the UK and the US is that in the US, stores don't tend to have memorials outside to commemorate the victims of bomb blasts. But Harrods has one, noting the IRA bomb blast that killed five or six people (various web sites report this count differently) and wounded 80 during Christmas shopping on December 17, 1983. The rest of the world has been dealing with insane terrorists a bit longer than we have, sadly.
Meredith was disappointed with the difficulty she had in finding Paddington Bear books. Harrods had a section just for Paddington Bear, but it was a little too small for her taste. She was, however, gratified to find a cart at (where else) Paddington Station selling books and other Paddington stuff.
If you walk down to the theater district, you can buy half-price tickets for same-day performances that haven't sold out. We did this twice, getting great seats both times. We first saw 'Contact', then 'What The Night Is For'. Both were excellent. What The Night Is For (starring none other than Gillian Anderson in a rather different role than that in The X Files) is all about a couple meeting up again several years after breaking off an affair. It follows in the grand tradition of the two of us seeing plays and movies about terrible, failed marriages. (We're not sure what this means, either.)
Going to see plays turned out to be the one economical thing that we did in London. Everything is more expensive than it is in the US, except, curiously, going to see plays. Even if we hadn't been able to buy the half-price tickets, the highest-priced tickets were about £40 (~US$60). Probably the cheapest seats at a play in San Francisco would be around that, and even more so on Broadway in New York. London theatres also have an interesting way of handling the rush for drinks at intermission: you can order your drink in advance, before the play starts, and they'll have your drink waiting with your name by it at intermission. Seems to work well. Meredith's favorite part was the small personal-sized Ben & Jerry's ice cream they sold at intermission. As she observed, "it's like going to a baseball game, but cheaper." Indeed.
More Things That Are Different
Here's a clear way to tell that you're not in the United States: the £10 note has a picture of Charles Darwin on it. Just try to imagine that happening in the US.
You hear a lot about the London obsession with security cameras, but it's hard to really appreciate just how prevalent they are until you go and see them. They are everywhere. We went into the 'Methodist Center' for a brief visit; the room in the basement outside their cafeteria had three video cameras in it alone.
Here's another difference: only in London could you spend New Years Eve at a place called 'Pizza Express', and have it actually be cool to do so. Upstairs is a normal pizza restaurant, but downstairs is... a Jazz club. One that serves pizza, of course. So, off we went, to listen to the Scott Hamilton Quartet (which was actually a Quintet for New Years Eve). The music was pretty good, particularly when the vocalist wasn't on stage (well, nothing's perfect). One weird thing was the table with the two men next to us. One of them fell asleep shortly after we arrived (at about 9:00). He slept until about midnight, woke up briefly, then dozed again for another half hour, then woke up for the remaining half hour before they left. What was the point?