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.