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?