Thursday, September 21, 2017

Our Summer of Rock

Okay, so maybe it can't quite compare to some of those summers in the Bay Area in the 1970's as far as rock summers are concerned.  Hell, one Day on the Green back then would completely obliterate this summer of rock.  But you know, all things considered, we're not doing too bad for a couple in their 60's.  We went on out this summer and caught us a couple of shows.

First up on our hit parade was a local show by The Psychedelic Furs, you know, that English rock band founded in London in 1977.  Led by singer Richard Butler and his brother Tim on bass guitar, the Furs are one of the many acts spawned from the British post-punk scene. Their music went through several phases, from an initially austere art rock sound and later touching on new wave and hard rock.

I was originally turned on to them through that legendary San Francisco radio station KFOG and this tune: Ghost in You

We were going to see them at Tahoe a couple years back but my dang appendix decided to burst.  That kind of precluded me from doing anything for a while.  If you haven't read about that fun experience you can catch it right here: Angels on My Barcalounger.

The Furs line-up this time around was a bit different than the above Ghost in You link.  Besides the Butler brothers there was a different guitarist, different drummer, a midget on sax and a Boy George dress alike on keyboards.  Only, you know, she was a real girl and pretty darn good looking. Which Boy George was not.  Either.  Actually.

The show was at the 900 seat Grass Valley Vets hall, about ten minutes from the house.  We parked across the street for free in a friend's commercial lot.  The sheer magnitude of the convenience was off the hook.  Our seats were pretty good too.

Bleacher bucket seats.  Front row.  Right smack dab in the middle of the auditorium, right behind the sound board and about eighty feet from the stage.  The sound was awesome.

We saw Crosby and Nash in the same auditorium a few years back.   We were in, like, the fourth row.  We could see the color of their corneas.  Crosby was wearing contacts.  Those front row seats were great for Crosby and Nash.  But I kinda figured the Furs would attract more of a rowdy on your feet kinda crowd.  I wanted to be able to rock freely but also be able to sit and still see when necessary.  I mean, at 63, our mosh pit days are definitely over.

The isles and stage were eventually rushed about midway through their set, my concern was substantiated.  We rocked on completely unfettered.

Richard Butler, the lead singer, besides making all the notes shine, was magnanimous and gracious.  He was all over the stage, shaking hands and playing to every nook in the cranny as he sang.   His brother, the guitarist and the midget on sax were also quite generous with their antics.

The drummer and Girl George pretty much stayed in place.  I mean, can you imagine how hard it would be to lug a drum set around the stage?

The Furs ran through a litany of hits and had the joint jumping   My lovely wife may have just turned 63, but that girl can still rock and roll like she did in her 20's.

Next up on our summer hit parade was at a larger venue about forty miles away at the Toyota Amphitheater in Wheatland.

My lovely wife bought me pre birthday tickets to see Fitz and the Tantrums.  Fitz and the who what?  Yeah, they are an American indie pop band from LA that formed in 2008.  Another KFOG turn on, these guys (and incredibly sexy girl) put on one hell of a high energy show.  You can check them out right here: Out of My League.

The Toyota Amphitheater, while located in the middle of absolutely no freaking where is a very nice 18,500 seat venue.  It was constructed by Bill Graham Presents in 2000 and it was based on the model of Shoreline Amphitheatre in Mountain View, California.

We arrived about an hour before the show and had no trouble getting a decent free parking spot.  You can pay twenty bucks for preferred parking, but I don't think you'd ever get out after the show.  With one four lane road coming in from the south and the same from the north, the traffic out after a show there is legendarily fucked.  Typically it takes an hour or so just to get five miles to a freeway.  And then your forty to ninety mile ride home.  Because remember, this venue is in  the  middle  of   NO    where.

I was a bit concerned about this before we even left for the show.  Hell, at our age we're lucky enough to still be awake at the end of a show let alone having to deal with a two hour journey home afterward.  Might as well just sleep over in a motel.  Oh yeah.  This venue is in the middle of freaking no where and is MILES from any over night accommodations.  Might as well just book a room in Kansas.  Or just sleep in the car.

The security lines were quick and friendly, and I was completely amazed at all the concessions that were available.  There was one souvenir booth, three food booths and about three hundred forty-seven booze booths.  One right next to another.  It looked like Bourbon Street in New Orleans at Mardi Gras.  And the drinks did not come cheap.

My lovely wife had a twenty dollar double Margarita (made with real Patron tequila) and I had a six dollar Arnold Palmer (made with real Lipton tea.)

The booze was a lot cheaper at those Days on the Green.  Besides the fact they were forty some years ago and booze was a hell of a lot cheaper, they also did not sell booze at rock shows.  Ever.  I guess they figured most everyone was frying on psychedelics and didn't need any alcohol.    I guess they finally figured out folks could do both.  We'd always bring our mix own in.  Along with the acid.  And copious amounts of weed. 

What can I say?  It was the seventies and we were young.

Since cans and bottles were not allowed, we'd fuel inject a watermelon with vodka.  Then we'd make a dozen or more Harvey Wallbanger oranges, shooting up each orange with a shot of vodka, a shot of Galliano and a half shot of Grenadine syrup.   At least we were healthy drunks.  And nobody ever confiscated our fruit!

At the current venue my lovely wife and I shared a fifteen dollar tri-tip sandwich, and then had some form of Asian taco for another fifteen bucks.  I know, Asian and taco usually don't go together in the same sentence.  It's like Ravioli Foo Yung. But they did that night and they were actually quite good.

And as we sat dining on a lovely, shady piece of lawn, I began to notice my lovely wife and I were close to being the oldest people at the show.  There were lots of kids in their teens and quite a few thirty and forty something adults chaperoning those kids. 

It was definitely NOT the same sort of crowd that attended those Days on the Green or Winterland shows.  I was really hard pressed to see any kind of puffing of any kind of sort going on anywhere.  And no one, not nobody, was freaking out on psychedelics.

I brought my handy dandy very discreet vape pen.  It got me by on the streets of London, I figured it would get me by at an apparent almost teeny bop rock show.  Hell, back at those Days on the Green my compadres and I would always bring a stash of ten to sixty joints.  Pre-rolled, ready to go.  Besides the acid.  Or mushrooms.  Or mescaline.  And every one around us was toking and tripping too.  It was glorious.

This time around I had to pretend to be a responsible adult, taking very discreet, casual, puffs at opportune moments.  Good thing I had my sunglasses on.

Being about the only sixty somethings in the crowd reminded me of the time my lovely wife and I went to see Stevie Wonder at the Cow Palace in San Francisco.  We were, quite possibly, the only two white people in the room.  Out of about twelve thousand.  It was a fabulous show.

Turns out Fitz was number two on the bill, some group (I had never heard of) named OneRepublic was headlining.  And some way too loud douche bag named James Arthur opened.  I don't know what he was trying to over compensate for, but he was almost making our ears bleed.  And we've been to some loud shows. 

He's got a couple catchy songs getting air play, but he was really loud.  My lovely wife went off and got some ear plugs from first aid.  They helped immensely with his set, they weren't necessary for Fitz or OneRepublic.

Our seats were almost as fabulous as the Fur seats were.  Second row center behind the sound board.  The sound was great as were the visuals.  Until the tall guy with the big head in a baseball cap sat down in front of me. 

I was never that tall, even at my zenith, and now I am shrinking.   I was once 5' 8", and now I'm something like 5'61/2''.  Something like discs compacting.  Or arthritis.  Just Gettin Old.

Or maybe I've been jumping up and down at too many rock shows.

I took a measurement.  The top of my shoulders were about even with the top of the chair back.  And I wasn't even slouching.  The top of the jolly green giant's shoulders were about eight inches above the top of his chair back.  Same chairs.  Same back.  And then there was his jolly big head.  The size of a basketball.  How does a short guy deal with that?

It reminded me of the time I went to a reggae show at The Wilturn Theater in LA.  We had great fourth or fifth row seats until a guy with an afro the size of Mars sat down in front of my friend's partner.  There was no way to see around that, and there was no way to see above Lurch.   I had to continually lean from side to side for a visual.

They should make a rule that if you're over six feet tall you're not allowed in the first few rows.  Anywhere.  For anything.  The same should be said for those crew cab pick-ups with the massive trailer hitch on the back.  They only get to park in the back two rows where they can considerately take up the two spaces they actually need so they don't stick four feet out into the driving space.

Fitz was marvelous.  Noelle incredible.  They were toe tapping upbeat and flawless.  Fabulous flowing vocals as well as great harmony and chemistry between the two.  And then there was another short guy on sax, a bass guitar, drummer and keyboard.  No guitar.  How about that?

Fitz, Noelle and the midget were also quite generous with their antics.  All over the stage, both singers were moving and dancing throughout the entire set.  They were also quite gracious, thanking the crowd for helping them live their dreams.    

I have to say, most every one there came to see OneRepublic.  The young eighteen year old girl sitting next to me had never heard of Fitz.  She was totally there to see OneRepublic

It was her fifth rock show.  It was somewhere in the one hundreds for us.  I mean, we are in our 60's and have been rocking for over forty years.  She was incredulous when I said my lovely wife and I used to go to shows in the 70's on acid.

One Republic was very professional.  They are an American pop rock band formed in Colorado in 2002 by lead vocalist Ryan Tedder and guitarist Zach Filkins.  Tedder was all over the stage, working the crowd.  And most of the crowd knew every word of every song. 

I hadn't even heard of one of the songs.

I know they have scads of hits, and I have heard a couple of them here and there.  But we left after the sixth song, they all sorta sounded the same to me.  We didn't quite get it, besides we wanted to be sure we wouldn't have to spend the night in the car.

Fortunately, everyone was still inside singing along to tunes I didn't understand when we made our escape.  I'm very glad we left when we did.  There were scads of kids in bright orange vests waving flashlights like they were 4th of July sparklers.  If there were more than one car converging someone was probably going to die.  I think they thought they were directing traffic.

Speaking of Traffic, next up on the Summer of Rock tour was Steve Winwood at the Fox Theater in Oakland.

Now I know what you may be thinking.  Why the heck didn't we go see him in Reno?  It's a lot closer and we could get room service.

Good thought, but my father/daughter date was way overdue.  As a matter of fact, our last date was a Giant/Dodger game in 2015.  Or was it 2014?  See how derelict I can get?

And since she lives in Oakland I though I'd check out what was happening at the Fox Theater.  And Winwood was.  On September 6th.

I asked her if she'd like to go see a rock legend for our date this year.

She said, "Sure".

I asked, "How does Steve Winwood sound?"

And she replied, "Ooh, wasn't he with the Eagles?"

I blame myself.  Apparently I skipped the Winwood lessons.  Oh well.  Better late than never.

She has seen a couple other legends on her own, like Trent Reznor and David Bowie.  I am also happy to say we saw the Dead together while Jerry Garcia was still alive.  So there's another one.  And then both the kids first show was Fleetwood Mac, unfortunately after the pop duo had joined.  But they did get to see Fleetwood and Mac, along with Christine McVie.  And I suppose the pop duo of Buckingham/Nicks is almost legendary, but not to me and I am digressing.

The Fox Theater is a lovely, 3,000 seat venue.  Beautiful inside, the sound is also quite good.  I splurged on tickets, we were front row in the balcony, just off from center.  No big heads this time.  Once again I figured the front rows of the main floor would get a little rowdy, they did.

Especially when he launched into "Light Up or Leave Me Alone."  As a matter of fact, the first few rows, which already harbored a number of dancing patrons, got real lively.  The air in the auditorium also got quite lively with that old rock concert standard, marijuana.

Ahhhhhhh, I was back in familiar territory.

The crowd apparently did not want to leave him alone, so quite a few lit up.  Including us.

The show opened with Lily Winwood, Steve's daughter.  A blossoming folk artist, she is touring in support of her first CD.  I'm pretty sure that's why Steve is touring too.  In support of her first CD.

She has a lovely voice and is an accomplished guitarist.  Midway through her short set she asked if every one was ready to rock and roll.  After a resounding cheer from the audience she then said she had a few more sad folk songs to sing first.

The girl has a sense of humor too.

The Winwood set on stage was small and compact.  They were using about a third of the stage.  In contrast to the last show with Fitz and One Republic.  Who used up the entire stage.  The difference being one was a rock show and the other a rock concert.  More familiar territory.

Steve didn't disappoint.  He also didn't need to dance around.  His music spoke for itself.  He's primarily known for his work on the Hammond organ, but he is also quite an accomplished lead guitarist.  He also had this other guy on guitar named Jose Neto

Wow.  Just wow.  A tall, thin guy, Jose was attired like some sort of a wino derelict in casual sweat pants, baggy shirt and stocking cap.  But when he began to play you knew.  Both his hands sashayed all over the face of his guitar like two wild rabbits playing tag in a field of daffodils.

There was another guy that was an all round utility musician.  Sax, flute, clarinet, organ.  A handy guy to have on your team.  He was exceptional too.  And then there was a conga drummer and a regular drummer.  No bass.

The "high" points for me were "Can't Find My Way Home" and "Low Spark of High Heeled Boys", both singalongs with the mostly greying crowd.  As a matter of fact, we'd gone to another extreme at this show.  My darling daughter, at 37 was probably the youngest person in attendance.

"Dear Mr. Fantasy" also garnered a lot of vocals.  Old folks singing along to tunes they listened to on the sofa during psychedelic exploration.

The band was tight, the music exceptional.  They'd get lost in jams quite a bit, and more than once the conga and drummer probably spent too much time bopping back and forth.

I kinda wish they spent a little less time on their jams and maybe included a couple more hits from the 80's.  While a little bit of a pop slick era for Steve, that decade long catalog has quite a few catchy tunes, like "Valerie", "Arc of a Diver" and "While You See a Chance".   They only played "Higher Love" from the 80's. 

They mostly played tunes from his Blind Faith and Traffic days, with a couple Spencer Davis and a couple jazzy new songs mixed in.  Blind Faith and Traffic?  Tunes from two legendary bands played by the original composer?  Yeah, I can settle for that.

We were just at a local Farm to Fork or Whatever the Fuck event.  It was fun.  Good food too.  They also had a three piece band in cowboy hats do a very rudimentary version of  "Gimme Some Lovin."

Winwood played it much better.

That pretty much concludes our Summer of Rock.  Since it's almost fall.  Thank goodness.  it got hot here this year.  We do have a date with Garrison Keillor in October at the GV Vets.  My lovely wife's Valentine's present.  Some folks might think that's more our speed, but we still do it all.

Homestead Update: The new rooster in the hen house, Bruce, appears to be acclimating nicely.  He's already trying to jump on a few of the hens and is garnering a surrounding harem when he perches up for the night.  It must be good to be king.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Ding Dong the Rooster's Dead

Well, it had to happen, eventually.  The impetus for this blog, which eventually led to the completion of my first book, "Late Night Letters to the Moon" has passed on to that great Cock a Doodle Do in the sky.

How do I feel about that?  A little bittersweet.  He was, as I said above, a motivating factor in my life.  But then he was also a great big massively huge fat pain in the ass.  A beautiful bird, but a pain in the ass.

Goldie was five and a half years old.  The average life span for a rooster is five to eight years.  Some live longer, some less.  He's right in there, and he's damn lucky he lived to see his first birthday.

This last winter when it got wet he started this weird high stepping walk.  It was like his feet were bothered by the wet ground.  So he'd lift them high and then put them down ever so slowly.  Hinky jerky like.  I thought it could be arthritis, but never pursued it.  The fact that he was not walking well meant he was not threatening me.  When things dried up his walk went back to normal and he started attacking again. 


Then a couple months ago he seemed to slow down a bit and started this really loud, obnoxious squawk.  Only, apparently, for me.  Nobody else, just lucky ol' me. 

As soon as I'd get in their yard he'd start, "Squaaaaaaaaaaawk squawk squawk squawk squawk".

"SQUAAAAAAAAAAAWK squawk squawk squawk squawk."


See how annoying that is?  And it'd get longer and louder, just like above.  Only you have no idea how freaking loud it was.  That squawk could drown out the Foo Fighters.  But his music would make my skin crawl.  I prayed he'd get well, shut up and start attacking me again.  That would have been a relief.  Fingernails on a chalk board sound like Braham's Symphony No. 4 in E Minor compared to that squawking feathered banshee from hell.  

Then about three days before he died I noticed he wasn't perching up with the hens.  He was inside the cage but stayed below on the ground.  Apparently he could not make the leap.  But he showed no overt signs of distress.  And if he did, I doubt I would have tried to fix him.  I'm sure I would have just shot him instead.

Nature took care of his sorry ass.  I went up a week or so ago in the early afternoon to fill their puddle and give them their corncicles when I noticed him down.  And gone.  Still limp and warm, so I'm thinking I might have missed him by mere minutes.

My first impulse was a pang of sorrow.  And then I started dancing a jig.  He was a constant source of agitation for me.  I put up with him for years because the hens seemed to like him.  I don't know why.  He had to be a rough, lousy lay.  He'd jump on their back for three seconds and was done.  In his prime he was doing two to three hens an hour.

But they'd preen him and tussle a bit to get in the prime perch spots around him at night.  He also engaged in a couple predator attacks with a hawk and bobcat.  So he was protective of his girls.

But for roughly 4,015 visits to their domain over the last five and a half years I always had to be on guard.  I'd kick him back six feet and he'd charge for more.  I couldn't turn my back on him or he'd be on me in seconds.  He pecked my lovely wife numerous times as well as our darling granddaughter once.

He almost got his neck rung on that one, but I let him ride.  My lovely wife and I even hand held and nursed him back to health a couple years back.  Did that stop his antagonistic attacks?  Hell no.  He was back at it as soon as he was able.

I have learned this though.  It's a waste of time to try and reason with a rooster.  They may appear to be listening, but even if they are, they don't care.  At all.  It's like trying to teach a pig to sing.  Wastes your time and annoys the pig.

When he started his squawk thing I threatened to cut off his head numerous times.  But then some peaceful easy feeling would float gingerly through my cranium and I'd let him slide.  Although I did start wearing my wood cutting ear muffs.  Yet even those did not totally drown out that ungodly noise.

I buried him up on the hill with our three cats, Tom, Joe and Sammie.  I gave him that respect.  I felt like squirting lighter fluid on him and dancing around the flames like a Chippewa, but it's fire season. I didn't want to burn down the neighborhood just to get my ya ya's out.  Now if it was the middle of winter...

The flock actually seems to be flowing a little easier now that he's gone.  Even they seem to feel less agitation.  Or maybe it's just me.  Nah.  A couple of them were starting to peck at his dead head when I arrived on the scene.  Respect for your rooster apparently only lasts a very short while after death in poultry culture.  Or their memory only lasts about a second. 

"Damn rooster.  Wish he'd get off me."

"Oh look.  Dinner!"

I wonder if those thoughts ever ran through the mind of one or two members of the Donner Party?

"Damn Henry.  Wish he'd get off me.  I'm so hungry."

"Oh yum, Henry's got some mighty tasty thighs."

It was quite a bit quieter around the old homestead for a while.  I actually took a leak in the middle of the night and didn't even activate a rooster.  That bird had some ears.  I could go in the furthest bathroom, at least a hundred feet and several walls from his perch, not turn on a light and he would still hear me tinkling and crow.

He was also a pretty good "watch" rooster before we put up the gate.  He'd always make an announcement when a vehicle arrived.  He was usually quite protective of his flock and took quite an exception to the human male.  He wasn't especially nice to women, but he was a rabid monster to men.  Our son hated him.

How do I really feel about the rooster leaving the henhouse?

I think our son said it best in response to the text I sent informing the family of the rooster's demise, "Damn sorry.  Fuck him though.  LOL."

Well, the henhouse was without a rooster for about a week.  I mean, we do have that Bruce Jenner or whatever the hell bird but he still hasn't come out of the closet.  In the meantime, meet Gorgeous Bruce, the newest addition to the flock.

A friend with a large flock waaay out in the country took in this fabulous fellow from someone who could not harbor him.  But he wasn't fitting in with a wild country flock and appeared to be a bit more domesticated.  To the point where he would invite himself in the house whenever the opportunity arose.  Fearing for the rooster's safety and not wanting a rooster pooping on his mantle, Bruce came home with me.

Bruce is a gorgeous, adolescent Rhode Island Red, and so far not a threat of any kind.  As a matter of fact, he has been picked on by many of our hens, including the youngest.  He was in the companion cage for a few days, but one morning flew that coop and then initially spent most of his time hiding out in the henhouse.

But he' slowly venturing out now, and I think the natural order of things will eventually fall into place.  He's already established his morning vocal duty, a pretty clear "Cock a doodle do" has been greeting us at dawn for about a week.  

My lovely twin sister-in-law had her best night's sleep here during a visit while we were cock-a-doodle-do-less.  I fear that will be no more.  There's a new rooster in the hen house. 

Monday, July 17, 2017

So Much Lovely, Not Enough Time

Although our brains were already a little culture weary, the last day on the ground we hit the British Museum.  This institution, like the V&A and National Gallery, is free to the public.  All they ask for is a five pound donation.  This particular freebie contains the world's greatest collection of artifacts of Western civilizations.  You can actually follow the rise and fall of three great civilizations-Egypt, Assyria and Greece all in one building. 

Since we weren't sure of our museum moxie that morning, we decided to take the Top Ten Tour firstThis little excursion would take us to all parts of the museum to see things like the Rosetta Stone and nine other must see thingamaroos. 

The Rosetta Stone is a piece of rock, which, just by looking at it allowed us to speak several foreign languages at the same time. 

It sounded a lot like gibberish.

And then there was this famous piece of rock dealy-bob which represents something historical from some place about which I have no idea. 

See?  I told you we were culture weary.  It's a good thing we took the Top Ten Tour cause that's about all the energy we had.  After eight days of pretty much non-stop cultural and historical infiltration we discovered our heads were about to explode.  It took us just over an hour to catch all the Top Ten, and then we were done.  I mean toast done.  Our brains were fried.  The last time I was that fried was at a Grateful Dead show in the early 1970's.  If you know what I mean.

We ventured outside where we caught a snack at a museum outdoor café.  And then we were off to Abbey Road, because, Abbey Road.  Personally, I think the uber famous crosswalk should be enshrined, but probably not in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum.  Because then it would be in Cleveland.  And not nearly as fun to visit.

As it stands today, the crosswalk is part of a real and very lively road, amazingly named Abbey.  And there were hoards of pilgrims there vying with traffic to have their picture taken ala Beatles.  It was almost like a bull fight, or dodge ball.  Only, you know, the dodge balls were human.  And I would imagine folks who live thereabouts and travel the road a bit might be tempted once in a while to treat a meathead like a matador.  Ole!

I opted for a shot getting high in front of Abbey Road Studios.  It was my homage to rock.  I figured I'd puffed enough to the music over the decades, a couple puffs where it all came from seemed apropos.  It was a very fine moment indeed.  Ole!

The previous day we took a train ride out to the hamlet and castle of Windsor.  I've already mentioned my sadistic appetizer, but the rest of the little town was delicious as well.

Windsor is a short, thirty to sixty minute train ride out of London, depending on stops.  The surrounding town was quaint, the castle magnificent.  And the Beefeater guys, the ones with the tall furry hats that everyone always makes fun of?  They sport Uzi's with bayonets.  Like hell I'm gonna make fun of them!

The public is allowed to tour part of the state rooms of the castle, which are still put in use when foreign dignitaries or Justin Beiber are being feted.  It's just amazing; tall ceilings, lush floor boards and a shit house howdy bunch of old weapons, like guns and swords and armor and shields all done up real nice on the walls and such. 

I also noticed a multitude of antique clocks, at least one in every room.  And every single one was on time.  I had noticed this in a number of other historical sights; the antique clocks were all on time.  Being a raving obsessive compulsive type a lunatic fringe kinda guy, I was impressed as hell.

I expressed my impressed as hellism and sincere appreciation with one of the staff.  It was then I found out Windsor Castle employs a full time clock keeper.  And apparently his name is Steve.  Steve takes care of over four hundred and fifty clocks.  Imagine his overtime when he has to switch them forward and back twice a year.  There's actually some articles about Steve and his job, you can find one here.    

I also got a little glimpse into the monarchy of England at each of our royal stops, but trust me, a full education could easily take up a college semester.  There's Yorks.  Tudors.  Stuarts.  Plantagenets.

See what I mean?  How do you even pronounce that?

My lovely wife and I felt also began to feel sorry for British children.  U.S. kids only need to go back a couple hundred years for their country's history, British kids have to go back a couple thousand.  And then there's that whole monarch thing.  Another bonus for US kids.  There's only one over here, and it's a butterfly.

Our first day on the ground we rode the double decker on/off bus.  Yeah, just like tourists.  We have discovered this is one of the absolute best ways of getting your bearings in a sight packed city.  Plus you can get off at any time and most all the stops are at some of the best places.

It was a chilly but fabulous ride.  And since traffic is so snarled within the main city limits we had plenty of time to enjoy the sights from the upper deck.  It was about this time I started feeling the need for a nice wool scarf, but that was still a couple days away.

We had most of the main sights and museums already slated on the excel spread sheet for future visits, but one of the places we had to visit that day was Harrods, the world's most famous luxury department store.  They got designer everything in there, including designer chocolate, caviar, underwear and wool scarves.  The store occupies a five acre site and has three hundred and thirty departments covering one million square feet of retail space.  In the middle of this monolith is an Egyptian themed escalator.   Because, I have no idea.

Seriously.  No idea.

At the very least you knew where you were and potentially the way out.  Until you hit the ground floor.  Then it took superior route finding technique to get the hell out through all the gourmet food rooms.  Just like all the museums, one could spend a couple days in Harrods and still not see everything. 

I did see some wool scarves.  They started at $150.  Went to $600. 

I said, "Um, no."

I waited and got two James Pringle Weavers authentic wool scarfs for $30 in Cambridge.   Harrod's can go ahead and Salvatore Farragamo my Burberry ass.  Nice escalator though.

We had to pick our battles.  Like at the National Gallery on Trafalgar Square.  Another freebie.  My lovely wife, an art history major in college, has a keen affinity for the Impressionist era.  You know; Van Gogh, Monet, Manet, Cezanne, Renoir and that little guy that reminds me of Charlie Chaplin. 

The National Gallery has hundred of paintings; Ruben, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, Da Vinci.  To name a scant few.  I mean, it would take a couple days to see them all.  So we sort of tried to view their Top Thirty and then spent an hour or two in the Impressionist era.  It was all we could do, and that was early in the game.

Westminster Abbey and St. Paul's Cathedral were also three star absolute must see sights per our travel guru.  And they were.  The design and architecture were absolutely astounding.  Incredibly amazing.   They are both a visual feast inside and out.

About nineteen monarchs are interred at Westminster as well as a few other famous people, like Sir Isaac Newton, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin and Rudyard Kipling.  To name a few. 

Just think, if nineteen monarchs were interred here in the states they could fit in a shoe box.  Not so at Westminster.  These were kings and queens with fabulous wealth.  Their coffins were substantially larger and much more ornate than a shoebox.

Sir Christopher Wren is interred at St Paul's.  He is the famous 17th and 18th century architect responsible for St Paul's as well as a number of other notable sights in and around London.

We strolled the Westminster Bridge, where several weeks prior some coward mowed down some innocent tourists with his car.  That didn't stop us or the multitude of other tourists enjoying the bridge that day.  It was a lovely stroll, we enjoyed ourselves immensely.  And the view of Parliament and Big Ben was infinitely better than any picture.

Another small and rather unknown art gallery was the Courtauld, which we visited the same day as the National.  What is so special about the Courtauld is that it is rather small and features world famous masterpieces.  You can get through the entire museum in about an hour. 

Plus on our wander down to the Courtauld from Trafalgar Square we passed through part of the theater district.  There were at least a dozen Broadway plays available, for a lot less than Broadway.

I took my lovely wife to 42nd Street, the musical, featuring Sheena Easton for Mother's Day.  The show was wonderful, full of top tunes and plenty of razzle dazzle.  Like Kew Gardens, the show adhered to the philosophy that if some is good more is better.  Why just have two tap dancers?  Let's have sixty instead.

The Theater Royale on Drury Lane where the show was playing was also full of history and razzle dazzle.  For three and a half centuries it has provided entertainment for the masses and has been visited by every monarch since the Restoration. The theatre has two Royal boxes and it was here that the public first heard both the National Anthem and Rule Britannia. 

We also were treated to a little impromptu opera one afternoon.  No, we didn't get all dressed up and buy a pair of those really small binoculars.  We were actually strolling through Covent Garden, a fabulous market area when we suddenly heard a fabulous aria.  Drawn towards this wondrous sound we soon found a black diva singing divinely.

Yeah, most cities you stroll in might have a singing guitarist.  Or maybe a horn.  We have those here once in a while, plus we have five gallon plastic industrial drum beaters.  On meth.

Trust me, the impromptu opera in London was way better. 

We missed a lot of places.  The British Library, The Tate Modern, the Dickens Museum, among others.  And we easily could have spent a day or more in each of the museums and galleries we visited.  Except the Courtauld.  That was perfect.

We also could have strolled the streets a little more.  That is my absolute favorite pastime in Europe, simply strolling the streets.  Soak up the atmosphere.

It was a whirlwind and we still didn't see it all.  We almost needed a vacation from our vacation to rest our weary feet.  Next time I think we're going to do wherever we go a little differently.  Maybe seven to eight days in the trenches, then two to three days unwinding somewhere out of town, like in the countryside or at the coast.

Put our feet up and soak up another aspect of some wonderful foreign atmosphere.  Maybe find a couple of bathtubs overlooking a vineyard somewhere, say, maybe in the south of France. 


Friday, June 30, 2017

Blackbird Pie

British cuisine gets a bad rap. 

"It's bland.  It's all meat and potatoes.  It tastes like Grandma's insoles.  There's no creativity."

I beg to differ.  There is lots of flavor.  There's also fish and chips, which I suppose could be misconstrued by an idiot to be meat and potatoes.  There is epicurean creativity and who the hell eats their grandmother's shoes?  Besides her dog?

By the way, there is a difference between fries and chips.  Cause sometimes we got fish and fries instead of fish and chips.  I'll get to that in a moment.

Our first night on the ground we were quite travel weary and decided to simply walk down the street to our local thriving hub.  And there we found a very English, local thriving pub.  Most of the pubs, by the way, have this dark green and/or black with gold lettering standard look.   That way, if you're wandering about really hammered you should have no problem identifying one in a line up.

Besides the omnipresent fish and chips, most of the pubs and restaurants offered a variety of meat pies, among other things.  The pies are about the same size as the Banquet ones you can get in the freezer section of grocery stores here in the States.  But that's where the similarities end.

I had several different pies in several different pubs.  They were all excellent.  Blackbird is actually chicken but sounds like a song.  I also had a steak with onion and mushroom.  My lovely wife had a pie with goose, duck and pheasant in apricot sauce that night.  And there were many more varieties.  Possibly even a Sweeney Todd.  Hopefully I didn't have one of those, but if I did, I guess I can join the ranks of the Donner Party for really intimate dining.

The pastry was light and flaky.  And the gravy in the steak pie was swimmingly sumptuous.  This was no package sauce, nor was it a quick roux.  No, this was one of those gravies that has a couple precursors before they get to the main event.  Layer upon subtle layer of savory flavor.

Sure, you can toss together chicken giblets, lima beans and a couple carrots like Banquet, or you can shoot for the moon with a flavor extravaganza.  Who knew?  Flaky pastry and sumptuous gravy with every bite?  And it keeps warm throughout the entire meal all by itself? 

I had NO idea.  I am ordering a half dozen mini pie pans.  If you're lucky enough to get invited over for dinner this fall guess what we're having?

That first night we were waited on by an attentive young English girl who had spent a couple college years in California.  But other than her, we found many of the waiters to be rather indifferent.  Many don't expect a tip and they kinda treat you that way.  One has to be a bit aggressive in order to facilitate a meal that doesn't go on until tomorrow.

Speaking of meals that go on forever, we went to this thing called The Medieval Banquet.  I was made aware of its existence through this other thing called The London Pass.  Which turned out to be a pretty darn good deal for us.

The London Pass is a sightseeing city card for most of London's top attractions, saving both time and money.  You can purchase one for two days or all the way up to ten.  It includes over seventy attractions, including all the top ones like Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London.  We went the ten day route because it's impossible to cram everything into a couple days.  Even trying to do it in ten we ended up being brain dead from all the cultural input.  And even though the ten day is more expensive than the two, four or six day pass, I did some math and reckon we still saved over two hundred bucks.  And we didn't see half the things on the list.  You'd have to be the Energizer Bunny and/or snort a bushel of cocaine in order to see and do everything included with the pass in a ten day period.  Period.

The card also touts saving time by avoiding lines, but we were only able to by-pass lines at three  locations.  They were long lines-so that was good-but there's security now at just about every attraction and everybody has to get their rucksacks and purses searched.  Thanks terrorists.

Still, you know, FUCK YOU, all you fucking cowards.  Your little antics have not stopped us from going anywhere or doing anything we've wanted to do.  Sure, we're not going to your home turf in Iraq or Syria or where ever, but those shit holes were NEVER on our list.  So just FUCK. YOU.

Sorry.  Rant.  There was terrorist activity just before and just after our trip at locations we visited.  Those guys were lucky they didn't run into me and my marvelous rucksack full of marmalade.  They'd have surely been sorry.  And sticky.

I also splurged and for ten bucks I ordered the Dining Pass.  You can pass on that.  The first and only time we tried to use it we discovered all the restaurants that were participating and offering a discount have to be notified 24 hours in advance.  So, like, there's no spontaneity.  I mean, unless it's a big deal like a 60th birthday dinner in Paris, we don't book any meal more than a few minutes in advance when we're on vacation.

We discovered this advance notice requirement at a restaurant called "The Light of India", our only foray into Indian cuisine while in London.  This restaurant was highly touted and I have no idea why.  It was small, maybe a fifteen table establishment.  It was nicely attired, as were the waiters, but none of them smiled.  And they all unsmilingly tried to upsell us at every encounter.

"How 'bout some Cham-Cham with that Vindaloo?"

"Would you like Tikka with your Biriyani?


It might have helped if we had even the vaguest notion of what they were talking about.

The Dining Pass, if honored, would have given us a 25% discount off the entire bill.  Which would have amounted to about twelve pounds, or ten bucks, the amount the card cost.  But we were told it would not be honored because we didn't call 24 hours in advance. 

OK, so, the booklet that came with the card did say to call in advance, but NOT 24 hours in advance.  We didn't call at all, but this was a Wednesday night, not a weekend, and they had many open tables.  As a matter of fact, they still had open tables when we left.  They NEVER filled up while we were there.

And let me make one thing clear.  We would not have been there at all if the Dining Pass had not made us aware the restaurant existed.  I mean, it was a couple tube stops away from our home base.  Or anywhere for that matter.  We would NEVER have just stopped by.  So as far as I'm concerned the restaurant owed somebody something for us being there, but they unsmilingly said nope.  Probably in Indian too. 

We should have walked out, but I didn't want to play that game.  Besides my lovely wife was hungry.

And that's a major something I've learned about travel.   Never let your wife or partner get tired or hungry.  Because if either of those two events occur she might get a little grumpy.  And wife or partner grumpiness while traveling (or any other time for that matter) should be avoided at any cost.

I've since added pee break.  Because if she's really gotta pee she can get a little cranky.  I can easily find a tree or a tire, but you know those girls.  They gotta find a seat with walls.  Or an occasional bush-as long as no one else is around.

Besides receiving no conflict resolution with the card, the food was mediocre at best.   All the little bay shrimp in my curry were way over done, they were close to becoming the consistency of an eraser on a pencil head.  And my lovely wife's dinner, while palatable, was obviously not memorable.  We ended up not tipping the constantly upselling and unsmiling waiters, thus recouping about half the cost of the card.

We never tried to use the Dining Pass again.  Too much planning, too much bother.  I told them so too in the survey they sent after our return.

So, do get the London Pass, but don't bother with the Dining Card.  Unless you like planning out your evenings, days in advance.  Don't bother with "The Light of India" either.  Unless you like chewy pencil eraser heads.  It's highly over rated and nobody's happy.  Especially on Wednesdays.

For that matter, we would not have been there at all if our Jack the Ripper guide hadn't canceled on us.  We had signed up for a tour called, "The Blood and Tears Walk", put on by a guy that has written a book about London's bloody past.  But apparently he had to cancel because of a subway suicide, which sounds altogether rather ghoulish.  So we pulled out the Dining Pass book, hopped on the tube and had a one star dining experience.

The Medieval Banquet was kind of a bust as well.  As I mentioned, I discovered this existed through the London Pass.  And even though we received a forty percent discount that still wasn't enough.

The banquet is put on in a large brick warehouse on the docks near the Tower of London.  All the hired hands are dressed in medieval costume like they're on acid at a Renaissance Pleasure Faire.  Or wait a minute, maybe that was just me. 

Some of them sing, some of them dance and all the young lasses showed off cleavage.  There were also a couple of acrobats that twisted and contorted in amazing ways ala Cirque de Soleil.  Guests could even rent silly hats and other vestments of the day and get lost in the shtick, as long as they were partaking of the included with dinner free flowing ale and cheap red wine.  But that's about it for the positives.

The food part of the banquet deal was beyond subpar.  Every stranger at the boisterous communal tables got to share loaves of lousy dry bread (without butter) and then got treated to an overdone chicken thigh and leg.  Just one.  And it tasted like it had been boiled.  There were also some over done vegetables.  My ten year old grandson cooks better than this.  Salt would have been a huge, welcome addition.  Talk about Grandmother's insoles.

It might have been a better experience if we had partaken of the free flowing lousy ale or cheap red wine, but those days are behind us.  A number of patrons got into the shtick after enough of the cheap booze, but that falderal was lost on my lovely wife and I.  They get three stars (out of five) for entertainment, no stars for food.  Seriously, the food was horrible.

The rest of our dining experience(s) ranged from good to excellent.  All the pies I tasted were fabulous as were all the fish and chips.  For lunch in the lovely little hamlet of Windsor, I ordered this appetizer called Plateau de Pain.  I usually don't eat lunch, but come on.  With a name like that I had to. 

It turned out it wasn't some weird sadomasochistic food deal like I'd hoped, that last word is pronounced "pan".  Which means 'bread' somewhere.  Boy was I disappointed.  Nothing like a little BDSM for lunch. Or is that BSMD?  I get confused.

The dish was actually quite delish.  It was three slices of three different home baked breads with a butter that was infused with herbs.  I also tried Sausage and Mash at a pub in Cambridge, which could be construed weirdly as well.  If you have my mind.

I wasn't sure what "mash" was until the plate showed up.  I'm certainly too cool to ask.  I'd rather be surprised anyway.  Unless whatever's on the plate is still wiggling.

Turned out the sausage part was basic.  Three different kinds of sausages on a bed of mashed potatoes.  Which had a thicker yet creamier consistency than what you normally find here in the states.  No box mix here.  Possibly a little egg yolk.  Cream.  Butter.  It was quite good.

They also call ground beef "mince", short for "minced meat."  In case you wanted to know.

Fish and chips?  Fish and chips?  Of course, about four or five times.  Here, there, lunch, dinner.  Sometimes chips, sometimes fries.  How could we not?

I also had shrimp with capers.  Which I left on the shrimp because they were actually eyes.  I didn't eat the eyes. That didn't make any sense.

We've been fortunate now in all three of our European excursions to have a kitchen included with our accommodations.  I cannot stress how convenient that is.  Not that we've ever cooked a meal, I mean, we're on vacation.  But just to have a fridge and microwave available is fantastic.

Why?  Because we love going into foreign grocery stores.  It's almost like going into a Grocery Outlet here in the states, only gourmet.  You never know what you might find.  And if you're in a non English speaking country, with, like a whole entire different language, then it's really a blast because you have no idea what anything is.  We'll spend an hour or more in a neighborhood market, it's as fascinating to us as a museum.

The granddaddy of all department stores, Harrod's, besides having designer everything on its acres of floors also had a dazzling array of gourmet food items, from caviar to pheasant to pastry to tea.  And chocolate.  We spent an hour or two just gazing at all the food, which, if you've ever been to Harrod's, can range from costly to mortgage your house eccentrically expensive.  Seriously.  Some of that stuff is easily a hundred bucks a bite. 

The neighborhood markets are much better because you can actually afford the food. 

We had sandwiches in our room a couple of nights, as well as salads and snacks.  We also had instant coffee every morning.  Yes, instant coffee is kind of a thing over there.  So I'd make a couple cups of that soup every morning just to get us down the street to a real coffee shop.  There we'd grab some serious stuff and venture on our way.

And then there was Paul.  Sweet. Delicious. Paul.  Right across from Earl's Court Station.  Open til nine, every night.  Paul's, a quite obscene French bakery, offering sweet, passionate pastry delights for the true Sugarland junkie. 

Ah, yum. 

Tarts, tartelettes, cakes, pies, turnovers. 

Ah, yum. 

Paul's pulled off puff pastry perfectly. The lightly sugar topped apple turnovers were sublime.  After that first night when we stumbled in after dinner, Paul's became a regular every night occurrence. 

Yeah, even though I broke up with Little Debbie a few weeks earlier I had a nine day love soiree with Paul.  Every night I would savor two to three of his salacious, delicious creations.  And every night my taste buds and tummy were filled with sweet sugar bliss. 

I waited a couple weeks after vacation to have my glucose level checked.  I'm back down to acceptable levels.  It's amazing what cutting down from five portions of dessert a night to just one can do.  Or two, if Paul's is around the corner.  It's fortunate his establishment is a world away. 

The second best meal of the trip was also found in our local thriving neighborhood.  "Orowan", featuring Lebanese cuisine.  We ambled in at just the right time, a couple minutes before the last two tables were taken. 

My lovely wife ordered a main dish something or other with lamb, I had four appetizers for my meal that had nothing to do with lamb.  Everything was fabulous, even her lamb.  According to her.  I, myself, am not a lamb fan.

And even though the restaurant was small and crowded, all the waiters were smiling.  The atmosphere was buoyant, the food excellent.  We'll five star that entire experience.

We noticed there weren't many Brits working in the restaurant service, even some of the pubs.        Most of the places we ate in had foreign wait staff, which did add a little fun and challenge in ordering- even in an English speaking nation.  The most memorable was a forty something Russian lady with a sassy attitude.  Her service was on point and fun, even if we could hardly understand a word she said.

One place that did have Brits working was The Sherlock Holmes, a crowded pub we visited one evening after a day of art history.  We found our way upstairs to the restaurant and after a ten minute wait a long sitting empty table was cleared and we were seated. 

To mention they were understaffed would be an understatement.  There were two girls that I think were waitresses, and the gal that sat us was a hostess of sorts.  Who decided she needed to take a fifteen minute break after seating us with a line out the door.  And a couple more empty but dirty tables.

We were actually able to order drinks about ten minutes later, and then continued to watch as a debacle unfolded.  One of the waitresses was new and had not a clue.  People that were seated were waiting for their food, their drinks, their checks.  And there was a line out the door.  It was a complete cluster fuck.  By the time management came upstairs from the main bar to assist the entire place was on fire.  I managed to pay for our drinks and then we skedaddled, figuring dinner would take a week to order and then another month before it showed up.  Our departure opened up one table for a couple of the throng that was now leading out the door and down the stairs.

I think that turned out to be a sandwich night in.  Which, by the way, Europeans aren't that big on condiments.  You might get 1/2 teaspoon of mayo and mustard on the bread, but that's about it.  So have some extra beverage available to wash that puppy down.  And get a small jar of foreign mustard and mayo while you're at it.  Who knows, you might even get turned on to Louie Maille!

It was Samuel, my namesake's thirteen year old son who educated me on the difference between chips and fries.  Fries are the smaller, thinner cuts with square sides.  Like McDonalds.  Chips are the thicker cuts, more rectangular in shape and with substantially more girth.  Like many of the Americans who eat them.   And now you know.

Friday, June 16, 2017

A Stranger in Paradise

I love this version of Stranger in Paradise.

London is a BIG, crowded city.  There's lots and lots of people there, even when you're not at some tourist location.  Our little commercial hub surrounding Earl's Court station was thriving from sun up until well after sundown. 

There's lots of foreign languages spoken too; Italian, Russian, German, Oriental, Cockney.  You name it, or make it up and you can hear it.

We usually try to travel pretty non-descript.  Talk soft, try not to stand out.  We don't wear any item of clothing with US sports logos on it, I also leave my autographed Hooters baseball cap at home.  Nevertheless, we still get recognized as American.  This was never so apparent as when we went to meet my Facebook namesake in Cambridge.

A couple years ago I noticed I had a new friend request on Facebook.  When I clicked on the link my mind fairly fried, and that's not easily done anymore.  The person requesting my FB friendship had the same name as me!

And we're not named John Doe or James Smith.  Our surname is rather rare, as a matter of fact I've only known of two others with the same last name in the State of California besides my brother and I.  And of course my British FB namesake and I share the same first name as well.

A budding FB friendship grew, half a world away.  And since he resides in Hitchin, 30-40 miles outside of London, we simply had to meet.  The chosen location was Cambridge, home to many fabled universities.  It's where DNA was invented, or rather discovered.  There's also a scientist currently residing there that is getting very close to a cure for MS and other auto-immune diseases.

My lovely wife and I took the train to Cambridge from Kings Cross Station on our fourth day in London.  It was probably an above average tube run to get there, we had to change twice before acquiring our objective.  But we made it there without a hitch, thus advancing from intermediate to advanced in the field of London tube riding.

Our particular Cambridge train was direct, we arrived about thirty minutes after departure.  There's  another train that has about ten stops along the way, including Hitchin, which we took on the way back.  Without stops it only took thirty minutes to get there.  With stops it took a little over an hour to return to London.  Plus we were treated to an obnoxious drunk with bad taste in music. 

We arrived about an hour before my namesake and had an opportunity to explore the historic town of Cambridge. 

While exploring I was able to find a couple wool scarves at a lovely little shop in town.  We had experienced a few chilly days and I had kind of been looking for a scarf.  You know, cover the neck and stop that chill from sneaking inside my jacket and permeating my core.

Once I acquired them, I couldn't let go.  I became a scarf junkie.  I found there is nothing like a nice, warm wool scarf wrapped lightly around your neck to help keep warmth in.  And chill out.  Plus they made me feel incredibly European. 

Besides the multitude of fabulously built fabled colleges, the little town of Cambridge is quite charming.  There's lots of shops and pubs and unbelievable architecture.  We met my namesake and his two children, Sam and Izzie, at the Round Church in the middle of town.

From there we spent the afternoon strolling around town, chatting up a storm and dining in the Eagle Pub.  It was there I learned the difference between chips and fries.

I also heard about the Corpus Clock from one of the many tour guides infesting the streets.  It's a long and fabled tale, apparently, and if you are so inclined you can click on the link and read all about what I really didn't listen to in person.

I began to feel like I had the words "American Tourist" tattooed on my forehead.  A bright neon sign  with flaming arrows following me around on a go cart.  Robert Preston and Shirley Jones singing 76 Trombones.  Maybe a Dixieland Band swirling about me playing a John Phillips Sousa march.

I wasn't boisterously talking or laughing real loud.  I was carrying a rucksack, I was even calling it rucksack instead of backpack.  Hell, 80% of all males aged six to sixty over there rucksack too.  So that wasn't it.  I was even wearing a wool scarf that made me feel incredibly European.  Nevertheless, every single tour guide approached me.  Trying to be non-descript me!!  It became rather comical.  I just smiled, shook my head and kept strolling.

We spent an absolutely delightful afternoon with my namesake and his kids.  It's possible we're remotely related in some way, we're both quite witty and funny as hell.  At least we think so.

He's also a very talented artist, of the graphic kind.  You can sample some of his work here: Comics and Illustration.

Being strangers in a historic and foreign land is always a wonderful adventure.  There's always so much to see and experience.  But my lovely wife and I have also learned a few things about foreign travel and we have come up with a primary rule of thumb we'd like to pass on to you.  It's something we have learned over the course of several trips to Europe, the hard way sometimes.  But seriously, pay attention.  Especially if you're over sixty.  Are you ready? 

Never pass up a toilet opportunity!   Ever.  You never know, the next one could be twenty minutes away.  Or four hours.  So even if you only have to go a teeny weeny little bit, do it.  You'll be really really happy you got rid of that quarter cup of liquid four hours later when your bladder is about to explode.

London was actually a bit easier to find a loo than Paris was, primarily because we discovered pay toilets in the large city parks that were near most all the famous attractions. 

But Paris?  You'd have to go into a café and order a drink.  Then you could use the facilities.  But if you didn't wait and relieve yourself again after your drink, you'd end up within an hour in another café ordering another drink in order to use the facilities.  And so on. 

Which isn't necessarily a bad way to spend the day in Paris.

We discovered the restrooms in the park thing on our second day.  It had been a busy morning, starting with Westminster Abbey.   You know, the incredibly stunning cathedral where signs warn you about pickpockets.

Then we ambled over to Buckingham Palace to try and witness the very popular changing of the guards.  But it was crowded, very crowded.  Like that tube ride during commute.  Only here we were outdoors, where theoretically there is a lot of room and one shouldn't be subjected to major crowdiness.  Soon we had to exit stage outta here because I was getting crushed and mobbed by a horde of short, middle aged oriental women all jabbering in their foreign tongues at once and jockeying for position as they held their short, camera laden arms in the air.

Besides the massive amounts of tourists from all over the world there was an armada of press vans as well as a couple circling helicopters.  We soon found out all the hullabaloo was because of the announcement that morning of the retirement of ninety-five year old Prince Phillip.  A rare gem, he is stepping down after decades of public service.

Many of the UK papers chronicled his tenure, also mentioning some of his more humorous and controversial gaffes.  Prince Philip once called himself an expert in “dontopedalogy,” which he explained as “the science of opening your mouth and putting your foot in it.”

From there we wandered over to the Churchill War Rooms, the secret WWII bunker and museum where Sir Winston and company hunkered down for a number of tumultuous months.  And from there, with our minds reeling from all the historical input, we found we had to pee.  We headed towards Hyde Park.

On our way we walked by #10 Downing Street, the Prime Minister's residence.  From all the pictures you see, it sort of looks like a nice, upscale neighborhood that backs up to Buckingham Palace.  What you don't see in pictures are the massive wrought iron gates and the couple of cops with machine guns milling about smartly.  And what you don't see in person I would think could be a real cause for concern for a potential rat bastard perp, cause I'll guarantee there's more security there than just a couple of cops with machine guns.

Kensington Palace and Gardens, on the far west end of Hyde Park, was also quite magnificent.  But hands down for sheer magnitude and foliage wonder Kew Gardens, or the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, takes the cake.  Kew Gardens, like the Tower of London, is a UNESCO world heritage sight.  It is a three hundred acre botanist's wet dream containing some thirty-three thousand different plants and trees.  There's a couple of large glass greenhouses and also a manse that one of the King Georges and his Queen Charlotte spent time in.

As a matter of fact, that was the place the queen and her daughters stayed when the old King was going through his crazy phases.  There is speculation today he may have been manic depressive, but whatever the case the primitive methods doctors employed to try and cure his madness would have driven any sane person crazy. 

It was also at the Kew that I got a real feel for British gardening philosophy.  You know, if two of the same color flower look good then four thousand would look even better.

The only Sunday we were in town we visited the Victoria and Albert Museum, thinking it would not be crowded.  It was.  A Rick Steves top of the line three star attraction, the V&A is the world's leading museum of art and design.  Or, as I discovered, six floors of incredible looking gobbily gook.

From there we strolled a few blocks past the Royal Albert Hall and then gazed upon the grand Albert Memorial.  You know, that modest little thing the bereaved Queen Victoria erected in his honor. 

My lovely wife was so awe struck she vowed to erect something like that for me upon my demise.  I told her I liked the idea.  Only, you know, more gold.

And then we just kept on strolling into Kensington Gardens, admiring the many flowers, trees and shrubs.  We also noticed a few of the roses had popped, but most of the buds were still a couple weeks from blossom.  I also noticed we were a couple weeks away from Eric Clapton at the Royal Albert Hall.  Sheesh, what's wrong with this picture?  Why couldn't Clapton and the roses work with our schedule?

Besides the tour guides at Cambridge, we were also identified as tourists by a delightful British woman when we were wandering at Kew.  She approached us and we had a wonderful thirty minute conversation as we walked.

She lived nearby and the Kew was her grand escape from the maddening world.  She didn't want me to mention Kew Gardens to anybody, she wanted to keep it a secret.  I do have to admit, it was nowhere near as crowded as many of the other attractions were.  So don't tell anybody, OK?

She made an interesting note about the economy in Britian.  Thirty years ago when she graduated college as a CPA she made a starting wage of $22,000.  She was also able to buy her first house for $66,000.  Now kids that graduate with the same degree start with a wage of $20,000.  And that same house costs $600,000.  The middle class is disappearing over there as well as here in America.

Well, all this depressing economic news is making me hungry.  Blackbird Pie anyone?

Friday, June 9, 2017

Mind the Gap

Mind the Gap!

You see and hear that slogan just about everywhere around Londontown.  You can actually get coffee mugs and T-shirts that say "Mind the Gap."  It's literally burned into your consciousness.  I wouldn't be surprised if there's a ballad, or even a song.  Maybe some sort of polka with a whole line of those Irish fox trotting dudes.

I don't know about your mind, but my mind could take me all sorts of places if I didn't already know what "Mind the Gap" means.  If you know what I mean.

So, just what does "Mind the Gap" mean?

The "gap" is the space that exists between the subway "tube" station platform and the subway car.  The space between the two can range anywhere between four and eight inches, and I would imagine it would be cause for great concern should an appendage get caught inside.  Those trains don't dawdle, hence the constant reminders.  There are signs inside the cars and every other station announcement also mentions to, mind the gap.

I was first taught foreign subway travel by an old, well traveled friend of mine.  It's pretty simple really.  Upon touch down in your foreign city get an above ground map as well as a map of the subway system.  And then you start matching underground stations with above ground destinations. 

Although it can be an initial route finding challenge, it's the most efficient and economical way to get around.  Especially in London, which is packed with locals and tourists EVERYWHERE.

Some might say it's better to travel by bus because you're above ground and can sight see along the way.  And that's fine, if you like sight seeing about a block an hour.  Cause that's about how long it can take to go from here to there above ground in London.  The downtown area is very congested, there's actually an extra charge if you drive within certain parts of the city during peak weekday times.

You'd spend a fortune taking a cab from here to there.  Cause the same thing.  You can burn up ten pounds and thirty nine hundred heartbeats just traveling one block.

So we purchased a fully loaded Oyster Card along with our London Pass.  Oyster card?  How are those slimy creatures going to help with commuting around London?

The Oyster Card is actually an electronic credit card that comes pre-loaded with a credit/value which for us, matched our London Pass duration.  All we had to do was tap in and out of the ticket barriers to validate our journeys. Thanks to Transport for London's daily credit cap, you only spend up to a certain amount each day on travel, around 6.6 pounds if you stay within Zones 1 and 2, which is where 95% of what you wanna see is.

Each of our cards had fifty pounds worth of travel on it, or just about nine days.  Our cards did run out the day before our last day, when that happens the turnstile to exit doesn't swing open.  Then sirens start wailing, lights start flashing and everybody in the station turns and looks at you like you're some kind of terrorist.

Kidding.  There's always a really nice and courteous transport person available at the exits to help stupid tourists like us.  We all ambled over to the ticket machine, swiped the card, saw what we had, figured what we'd need for the following day and added some cash.  It was really easy.  And then after our last tube trip I depleted cards of their last remaining schillings.  More or less.  That was really easy too.

It never fails, the first trip or two can get you turned around and you end up on the wrong platform going the wrong way.  Which happened on our maiden voyage.  No big deal.  Get off at the next stop, which is usually the second from your original point of departure.  Cause it takes one stop to confirm you're an idiot and went the wrong way.  Still, unless it's really crowded, it's only about a ten minute whoopsie to get back on track.

After traveling the tube for a week, we were pros.  We were even able to help a couple confused tourists with the correct directions.  One family quartet from Germany made the exact same mistake we did on our first day, thinking they were heading downtown but actually going towards Kew Gardens. 

Commute time can be a pretty packed ride.  We were off to somewhere around 5:30 one evening and the car was packed.  I mean jam packed sardine style shoulder to shoulder please don't fart packed.  There's crowded, but this was beyond crowded.  We'd amble up to a stop and there'd be more folks that would want to get on.  But there was no room.  Good thing nobody had Ebola.

We made it a point after that to be anywhere not needing a ride from around five to seven every subsequent night.  We could do that.  We were tourists.

Route finding becomes a primary activity when on a cultural vacation in Europe.  Besides trying to figure out the most efficient way to get to an attraction, once there you need a map of the attraction to figure out where everything is.  A couple of the museums were more difficult figuring out than London was.  I've been route finding for search and rescue in avalanche territory in the high Sierras, that was easier than finding Picasso in the National Gallery.

Same thing with Hyde Park and Kensington Gardens, which are massive.  Fortunately they had map signage in strategic locations with "you are here" in bright and prominent letters.  That really helped, especially when on a restroom hunt.

By the way, unless the tube station is hooking up with a train station, making it a really large combined station with shops and eateries and such, the odds of finding a restroom is essentially nil.  So don't be thinking you're gonna take a pee at a tube station unless you plan on getting seriously embarrassed or maybe arrested.

Cause there's CCT cameras everywhere.  I mean everywhere.  Inside and out.   Every street corner, every museum.  Every subway car.  Everywhere.  I'm not sure who was watching, but we were constantly on display. 

So, I told myself, don't do anything stupid to embarrass yourself.  Pay attention what, when, and where you scratch.  Don't pick your nose.  Keep your pants on.

You know, basics.

Even though the tube stations lacked restrooms, I think every one had a news stand close by.  One night upon our return to our home base, Earl's Court, I noticed a picture of the back side of Kim Kardashian as I walked by.  I've never really paid much attention to her or whatever it is she purports to be doing, so I really had no idea. 

Anyway, she was on the cover of one of the British tabloids and was wearing a thong.  Or some sort of minuscule fabric.  Essentially her bare ass was on the cover, or took up the cover.  It was an astonishingly large item to behold. 

And then I thought-cause I do that sometimes-if each one of her ass cheeks was a loaf of bread she could feed an entire African nation.  With each one.  So that's two African nations fed for the price of one Kardashian.  I can't think of one flaw with that idea.

While the entire tube system is an amazing engineering feat, some of the stations are even more so.  Some of the stations only serviced one line, some of them would service from two to five.  And since each line had to run at varying depths underneath the surface, this meant a lot of escalators and a lot of tunnels.  Signs.  Arrows.  Underneath a lot of very busy streets.  Who dreams these things up?

There's also an important rule for escalator riding.  Many of the folks riding the tube aren't on vacation and can be in a hurry.  If just riding on the escalator you are requested to stand on the right.  Then the folks in a hurry can rumble by on the left.  And rumble by they do. 

We took a train out of London twice on day trips.  Once to Windsor Castle and once to Cambridge.  Our route to Cambridge took us through Kings Cross Station, which may be familiar to Harry Potter fans.

We only took a cab once.  From the train station in Cambridge to the center of town, about a two mile journey.  We wanted to save our feet for the rest of the day.  We kept talking about taking one of those old style funky looking British cabs but never did.  I guess the call of the Gap was too wild.

We have now ridden the subway in Madrid, Paris and London at all hours of the day and night.  We have never encountered any type of hostile or threatening situation.

There was a drunk on the train back from Cambridge who was rather loud and had very bad taste in music.  But a tube employee told him to can it, to which he started complaining even louder about not having any rights and what is the world coming to.  Fortunately he got off at the next stop.  Which is probably a good thing.  For him.  Besides myself, there was the tube employee and another large male human specimen who was getting a bit irked.  Everyone was bigger than the douchebag, including me. 

While we're on the subject of travel etiquette, most folks riding the tube in London are pretty darn polite.  There's not a lot of eye contact, but if all the seats are taken many men will still get up and offer their seat to a lady.  Conversations between people are generally quiet, unless you're drunk with bad taste in music.

Our last day in the trenches was also our tube final examination.  Even though we had been passing each day's route finding challenges with flying colors, the last day was epic.  We had to take two different lines to get to our first destination, two more to our second.  Then it was three lines to get back to Earls Court from there.  We changed lines and danced through the stations like pros.  And even though Heathrow could be easily obtained by one of the two lines that ran through our Earls Court Station, we opted for a vehicle transfer from a purveyor right down the street.  They were even about ten bucks less than I hate 

Now that we've discussed several methods of travel when in a foreign country, I would be remiss if I did not mention the absolute most important means of conveyance.  Your feet.  You're on them a lot.  Therefore it is of the absolute utmost importance you have really good walking shoes.  Really good.  I have a pair of Merrill's and another really good pair of something or other.  My lovely wife also has a couple pair which of course will match her apparel on any given day.  Even with excellent shoes our feet were barking after each five to eight mile day.

By the way, white tennis shoes identify you as an old white American guy.  As do any socks with sandals.  Or knee high anything with shorts.  I mean, what's the point?

And while we're on the subject of getting around in a foreign country, we have kind of adopted our own Euro travel style.  I don't bring my regular wallet with all the assorted and sundry things inside.  You know, leave the Safeway Club card and AAA card at home.  I bring my passport, and my driver's license -if we're planning on driving.  If not, and if we aren't driving to the airport, I leave that at home too.

We'll bring a grand in cash, but even though there had been a stronger dollar of late most all the currency exchange places rape you.  We generally use a credit card for most purchases.

Currency and credit card travel in my front pockets.  Nothing in my back pockets.  I also carry a light day pack, or ruck sack if in Europe.  There's a small first aid kit in there as well as a few other light weight good to have in an emergency dittys.  If there's a potential of rain, the compact umbrella goes in.  A bottle of water.  But mostly there's a lot of room for souvenirs.

We're generally launching for the day around nine to ten in the morning.  We will return to the room anywhere from four to seven or eight in the evening.  It's a long day, usually, and like the cub scout of yore I like to be relatively prepared.

Plus, a wildly swinging ruck sack with a couple "Mind the Gap" coffee mugs, three jars of marmalade and a large jar of pickled pigs feet can hold off a machete wielding fuck wad much better than bare hands.  It would even take care of a drunk with bad taste in music.

My lovely wife usually leaves her purse and wallet in the room.  She then carries a small over the shoulder cross body bag that she keeps her pertinence in.  Each one of us always carries cash and a credit card just in case we are ever separated.

Our travel guru Rick has pointed out many times that pickpockets are alive and well at many of the crowded tourist locations.  Some of the locations spots even have signs posted, like Westminster Abbey.  Even.  Yeah, be careful while marveling this centuries old incredible church.  Pickpockets are at work!

Fortunately, we have never encountered a pick pocket issue, even in jam packed sardine style subway riding, thanks to taking some small precautions.  We also try to travel non-descriptively, not broadcasting our nationality and trying to blend on in with the local folks.  But as you'll read in the next post, it doesn't always work that way.