Wednesday, June 5, 2013

London and my Dance with the Green Fairy

Feeling energized and industrious after a fulfilling visit to the medieval time capsule of Edinburgh, I made plans to wake at 5 a.m., giving myself a few moments to cinch up my pack, strap on shoes, grab a quick granola, and clamber up to Waverly Station for a 6:38 a.m. departure to London.
After absent-mindedly hitting the snooze on my cellular alarm a few times much to the chagrin of my bunkmates who were perhaps hoping to let sunrise pass unwitnessed that particular morning, I finally came to enough to realize I had just 44 minutes before the train I had targeted rolled on to London without me.
As if I were part of some unfortunate cliche cartoon sketch, I jumped to a seated position from the bottom bunk and promptly greeted the top bunk, and its unfortunate resident, with the side of my forehead.
To his credit the fellow slept right through the jostling, eliciting only a foreign sounding, "Ayeohhh huhmm," before rolling over and resuming what I can only assume was the slow skinning of a baby velociraptor. 
There is always someone who snores in a hostel. It is a given. I had been successful in reaching a dream state most nights thanks to ear plugs. However, the young Frenchman on the bunk above and his nasal symphony would not be deterred.  At one point another American opposite our bunk climbed from his, walked across the room, and shook Frenchie back to consciousness just to ask, "Is this for real? Are you trying to be funny and play a joke on us or do you really snore like that?"
The Frog made a similar grunt as the one he had just croaked at me and resumed murdering llamas.
Without stopping to rub the lump that was growing on my head, I threw my scattered belongings haphazardly into my pack, tied the whole project shut, and gave a quick look around for left behind items before sprinting breakfast-less from the hostel.
My pack lobbing from side to side, I took on the form of an Olympic speed walker - hips, feet, and elbows flailing wildly at all angles - trying to find a way to travel quickly enough to catch a train and unable to actually run with the weight of a second grader on my back.
I covered the 2.3 miles to the station, not thinking until I nearly arrived that it might have been a sublime time to take my first European taxi, in about 35 minutes. With the five or so minutes I took gathering up my things, I had just made it.
I checked the departures list, headed for platform 11, threw my things in an overhead rack before collpasing into a cushy chair sweating profusely.
"Welcome aboard Scot Rail with service this morning to London. This train is for passengers with tickets for 6:38 service only," announced the captain over the speakers.
The thing is, my ticket was for a 1:30 p.m. train. I did not realize until I began using the trains in Glasgow, but my tickets were not actually for a specific train, just a date on the calendar, and I could ride any train I chose between those two destinations leaving on the decided upon date.
This announcement was a mild shock, but I assumed I had just misunderstood the information. One of the interesting and potentially tragic practices of the British rail system is that tickets are not checked until after the train departs meaning if you were on the wrong train, you would be charged for the difference, or possibly a new ticket altogether with no hopes of jumping from the car to dodge the penalty. 
After a moment of reflection I decided, as it was announced the doors were about to shut, to verify I was permitted on board.
I grabbed my pack and poked my head from the train car, calling to one of the conductors, "Excuse me, sir!" attempting to garner his attention from the ruckus  of the station.
He responded by holding up his hand, palm facing my direction, while looking in the other.
"It's just that I think I might be on the wrong train is all!"
He gave a repeat performance except this time he blew his whistle at me.
I disembarked the train to speak with him directly and just as I did, with a simple flip of his white-gloved hand as if he were shooing a fly from his fish and chips, he motioned ahead for an operator to shut the doors. 
I was not going to be riding to London on this train I suddenly realized.
"I need to be on that train, I think. I have a ticket, but it says for 1:30 p.m. and I..."
He turned sharply and blew his whistle in my face, but I was thankfully spared the palm.
If you have never had a whistle blown at you in response to a question, you cannot fully appreciate the complete lack of options for response left at your disposal. 
I briefly pondered the ramifications of snatching the whistle from his mouth and attempting to deposit it against his will in an unlucky orifice of my choosing before ultimately deciding not to risk a visit to the Edinburgh police station. 
After the train began to move, he spit the whistle and faced me again.
"Whut is it thah yooo need?"
I thought again about committing simple assault, before turning over my ticket.
"Could I have ridden that train?" I asked handing him the stub.
"Noot wath this tickaht, yooo can't," he drolled. "Yoor tickaht is an advahnced tickaht for 19 pounds. If yooo woulda steeyed on thaht train they woulda charged ya 155 pounds when yooo didn't have the right tickaht."
The frugal part of my mind wanted to drop my backpack and plant a kiss on his pasty forehead. 
"Are you serious? That would've been terrible. I thought I could take any train."
"No, yoo have a discount tickaht only goood for the 1:30 train," he said.
I thanked him for saving me roughly $235 and took the next hour slowly loping back to my hostel, exhausted, chilled to the bone from my sweat soaked t-shirt, utterly defeated, and cursing myself aloud rather to the dismay of other pedestrians.
A return to my bunk and the Frenchman slowly twisting the heads off miniature goats, found me four hours later rejuvenated and ready for my second assault on the train station.
This time I was able to board thanks to the rather obvious fact that I actually went to the correct train at the appropriate time and settled in for the 4.5 hour stroll to London.

Views on the way to London from Edinburgh.

Arriving in London's Kings Cross station I was greeted by the 5 p.m. hellfire that is London's public transit system. They call it "The Tube" and the station I was alighting from was one of the busiest which is saying quite a lot in a city of seven million.
The whole operation looks like an anthill you have just discovered squished under your shoe. 
Everyone is running as if aliens have begun blasting the place and they are willing to use old ladies, children, and lost Americans with too much luggage in tow as makeshift trampolines or airbags if you hinder their pace. It is considered audacious not to know exactly which of the dozens of train routes you need to take and you commit the sin of stopping to check your bearings.
There is a steady stream of older men in crisp business suits bounding up stairs three and four at a time as if they are fleeing a drug deal gone wrong.
Skipping the elderly and the lost in line to buy tickets or to go through the automated gates is not frowned upon, it is championed. 
The train was closing its' doors just as I reached the proper platform to take me to the hostel I had booked.
Just behind me a mid-40s business man in a navy suit and red tie came crashing down the stairs like free beer was being given away.
Upon seeing the train roll by with its' doors already closed the flustered car salesman threw his hands into the air as if he were just stabbed  in the back with a letter opener, dropped his head to his knees, cursed loudly at his loafers, and stamped his foot twice.
Startled, I asked him, "Where are you headed?"
He sprung to an erect posture and, with a tone suggesting he had just escaped police custody and was rather resigned to the prospect of being recaptured, now said, "Home!"
Just behind him an illuminated arrivals board announced the next train to the exact same destination would be along in two minutes. This was the cause of the extreme disgust and frustration for my friend on the platform. Two minutes. He would arrive at home 120 seconds later than he had hoped. This had very nearly destroyed him. 
In London another train is always two minutes away, which gives you an idea about the sheer volume of passengers the Tube transports on a daily basis.
Despite the readily available public transportation, London is not really a city given to pedestrian tourism. It's just far too big.
Coming from Edinburgh where every attraction is strung neatly together in a small town center, walking is a pleasure.
In London you are likely to end up dehydrated and alone on the side of the Thames if you try to hoof it between destinations. For this reason I bought a 24-hour bike pass for $3 which allowed me unlimited use of public bike stands for a day. It was an absolutely invigorating experience and with the ability to glide by cars and busses jammed in traffic by using the bike lane, it might be the fastest way to travel in the city.
After a night's rest I buzzed from the hostel, slamming a couple of pieces of toast and jam as I departed, anxious to see the city.
I took the Tube to Westminster Abbey, the site of so many royal weddings and coronations. This was a natural first stop as it was on the southern end of a long trail of historic buildings and 
museums I planned to visit.

Westminster Abbey

When I climbed from the station, I realized something unusual was afoot. All of the sidewalks had been cordoned off with baracades and the only places to cross were guarded by London metro police officers, some of which were walking around with automatic weapons tethered to their necks. 
I sidled alongside one of the less intimidating members of the patrol and asked him what was with all the fuss.
"It's a celebration," he said. "The Queen's. She's having the 60th anniversary of her coronation at the Abbey today."
"The Queen's going to be here today?"
"In about an hour. Her and all the royals and other important people. They'll all be here."
He told me if I was interested in absorbing it all, I could head around the side opposite the House of Parliament where the paparazzi and others hoping to catch a glimpse would be gathered.
I joined the hoard of media, tourists, and proud Londoners and shimmied up toward the front where I could see more easily. Over the next hour, under the careful watch of snipers draped on the ledges of surrounding buildings, Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge, Prince Phillip, and Queen Elizabeth II all made their way to the Abbey one chauffeur-driven Rolls Royce at a time. 
It all reminded me a bit of seeing Santa Claus at the mall for the first time as a child. You have known they existed for your whole life, but to actually take them in as more than just an image on the front of a tabloid or a fuzzy bunch of pixels on a television is momentarily startling.

Prince William and the Duchess of Cambridge

The Queen of England, Elizabeth II, and the Duke of Edinburgh.

Once they entered I decided to continue my trek across London realizing my plans for visiting the Abbey would have to wait for another time. I popped down Whitehall and made past the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben. 

Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament

When you visit London in brief, you have to make some choices about how you will spend your time. I had decided to tour Buckingham Palace because I was fairly certain it was required fare for first-time visitors, The National Gallery, and the Tower of London.
This would leave me with plenty of time to roam and explore side streets which I have always found more plesant when visiting a new city anyway. Sprinting from one attraction to the next in an effort to check them off the list always felt rushed, stressful, and much less satisfying. 
For some reason it never occured to me on the long walk from Big Ben to Buckingham Palace, that I would not be able to visit the interior of the palace either.
When the Queen is in residence, the royal flag atop the palace is raised and this means no poking about inside. I vaguely remembered learning about this in school, but had to be reminded when I arrived that my plans would once again be altered.

Buckingham Palace

This gave me more time to explore the Trafalgar Square area and the National Gallery, however. After lunch I continued walking north along the Thames toward the Tower Bridge and the Tower of London.
As I attempted to cross an otherwise unimportant road on my journey north I made the mistake of looking left as I stepped off the curb. And because cars in Great Britain come from the right, this can cause mild discomfort up to and including turning you into a fried egg.
As my foot struck pavement I could feel the heat from the sun reflecting in the bus' windshield that was bearing down on me. Momentum being what it will, I carried out with another half step before stopping enough and turning to realize my folly and subsequent impending doom in the form of a red double-decker.
With reflexes that I had not displayed since my neighbor Chris Costello threw a spider at me when we were in grade school, I employed a move I witnessed in the movie The Matrix mixed with a dash of the Cupid Shuffle and replanted myself in one altogether impressive display back on the curb from whence I came.
This performance came much to the relief of the driver, who was blaring his horn as a show of appreciation, and the unsullied entertainment of the pedestrians on my curb of origin.
"Ay mate," one of them half-yelled, half-laughed at me. "They got it on the street right in front of ya, 'Look Right.'"
Apparently my display was a common enough happening in the streets of London that the city had actually painted in front of every cross walk which direction walkers should look for traffic. Likely the locals had grown tired of piles of struck tourists and responding paramedic vehicles jamming up traffic and making them 120 seconds later getting back home.

Another curious aspect of the British traffic system are its' traffic lights. In the States and most of the rest of the world, the lights go from green to yellow, and on to red. When it's time to move again red becomes green. In Britain, after red the light flashes yellow, and then returns green. This is something very similar to the way the  lights are orchestrated at drag races back home to give speedsters the best possible jump on the go light.
It has a similar effect in London where drivers watch a queue of pedestrians cross  in front of them like ducks in a shooting game at the fair, and rev their engines as the last couple straglers dance across waiting for the light to flash yellow. You feel rather a lot like a football on a tee waiting to be booted through the uprights by the next Peugot in line. 
The Tower of London, which I survived traffic to visit, had been the jewel of my stay. 
A couple years prior a relative of mine had completed an exhausting two-year geneology project that culminated in a overwhelmingly massive family tree stretching back hundreds of years in multiple branches. The most amazing connection he discovered, however, was a line on my mother's side that connected all the way back to William the Conquerer.

Interior building in the Tower of London

Because of the nature of exponential family growth over generations, there are literally millions of us walking around today who are decendents of William the Conqurer, Genghis Khan, and many other famous and infamous historical characters.
William desceded from Vikings, rose to power as Duke of Normandy, and in 1066, raided the shores of London from modern day France. Successful in his conquest, he was crowned King of England on Christmas Day of that year.
William built many castles across the land to fortify crucial military strongpoints the most famous of which was the Tower of London. It began construction in 1078 with the erecting of White Tower by William himself.

William the Conquerer, my famous relative represented a bit unfortunately in this tapestry

Today the tower is crowded with tourists and is virtually nothing but an attraction, although the ancient fortress and the army of Beefeaters who patrol it do still have one important assignment - to protect the Crown Jewels.

A Beefeater

The Crown Jewels are really quite a thing to look upon. In the collection at the Tower you will find Cullinan I, the second-largest polished diamond in existence in the world today. The 530.4 carat diamond is the centerpiece of the Sceptre with the Cross, which is meant to symbolize the temporal authority of the Monarch under the cross, but really looks like the world's fanciest yardstick.
Upon leaving the Tower I rambled through the streets of London, wandering in and out of curious alley pubs as they caught my glance.
I had a couple pints before I finally stumbled into an establishment whose name for reasons to be explained, I can no longer recall.
I reached the bar easily as there were only 20 or so patrons and was enjoying a draught of Doombar when the American accent I had displayed while ordering drew the attention of a table of gentlemen seated behind me.
"Hey mate, come ova here and settle something for us," called one of them.
Travelling alone and excited by the prospect of friendly conversation I decided to walk over.
"My friend here is going to stay out until midnight," another of them said, pointing to the person who had originally called me over, "if I eat a cap full of pepper."
He proceeded to dump palm full of black pepper into his mouth, tug my arm to serve as neutral witness, swallow the whole of it and promptly cough, blowing half of it out of his nose.
It was the closest I felt to home since departing for Dublin. This was the first pub I had found that was not lined with boring executives pasted to the wall drinking bottles of Harp beer without raising their voices above a barely audible whisper.
Ireland and Scotland had been roaring parties of crazed drinking celebrating the fact that the sun had risen yet another day and would likely do so again tomorrow.
In London, until now, every establishment had the feeling of a company Christmas social when the boss is in town and everyone is afraid to have too much fun.
An hour after the pepper incident and we were bellied up to the bar discussing the pros and cons of flopping in soccer, driving on the left side of the road, and the American Revolution. 
After some time the conversation shifted to our empty pint glasses.

Pint of Doombar

"Less doo a shootah," one of them said in a drunk English accent.
I was handed a skinny shot glass full of green liquid topped with something brown and slimy that all vaguely resembled a racoon's brain floating in the green jar of liquid they sterilize the combs in at a barber shop.
Like any courteous guest who has a history of questionable decision-making, I shouted "Cheers!" and all glass bottoms went skyward.
What I tasted was much like I imagined the racoon brain and barber shop formaldehyde  would taste.
"Ohhh," I yelled to whoever was responsible for the concoction. "That was the worst thing I've ever tasted. That was radiator fluid in a glass."
"Well, mate," said one of my newfound friends looking around the whole group as if about to tell the punch line of a dirty joke, "No one drinks absinthe for the taste. Is this your first dance with the Green Fairy?"
During the early 1900s absinthe was outlawed in much of Europe and America due to its' extremely high alcohol content and  psychoactive properties.
I know three things about the rest of that evening. First being that I was dosed with absinthe by a group of Englishmen who eat ground pepper to win bets. The second is I made it to the Tube for a ride back to my hostel. I know this only because that is where I woke up the next morning. And finally, I know that I am quite sure I will never remember anything else about that night. 
With my head pulsating like a rung bell the next morning, I did a physical check of my body one limb at a time to make sure I was intact and had not left a finger at the bar or a toe in the doors of a train. 
Ailing but having avoided any permanent scathing, I was cheered to remember absinthe was banned in Paris.

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