Archive for August, 2008

Sojourn in Europe: London Bridge Is Not Falling Down!

Saturday, August 30th, 2008

      On the twenty-second of July I arrived in Zürich and on the twenty-fifth, Marlisa and I flew on British Air from Zürich for London.  It is an hour and a half flight.

     The flight was in a plane that I had never flown in before and I found out later that it was a British built BA 146 Class, “Jumbolino”.  What intrigued me about the plane was the fact that the plane looked huge from a distance, but was not; but, it did have four huge jet engines on a high  placed wing.  When we took off, it was like being shot out of a cannon; you could feel the power.  It was exhilarating!  The pilot set the plane on its tail and in no time we were at thirty thousand feet and flight attendants were serving drinks.  I had two.

      We had had trouble finding a hotel in London, when planning this trip, because England was in the middle of the Wimbledon Tennis Matches; it was just over about the time we arrived.  Ultimately, we had obtained accommodations in a hotel that I found recommended in a travel book.  They lied.

     We were able to get from London City Airport, to the hotel by subway (‘underground’ in British).  I already spoke French for subway, ‘Metro‘, but now I had to learn British and they refer to subways as ‘underground‘.  This was my first time in England and language was one reason I had not been there; I can not understand the British language.  When I watch British movies, I need English subtitles to understand what is going on.

      My first lesson in understanding British culture, took place in the underground.

     There were two narrow stairs going down to the ’underground’ platforms and I picked the one to my right of course.  I always walk, keeping to my right side, on sidewalks and in aisles just like a civilized person, to maintain social order.  The stairs were empty when I started down but after I had gone a few steps about six people started up the other end coming straight at me walking down with my huge luggage in hand.  Marlisa laughed at me.  It seems that the British not only drive on the wrong side of the road, the also walk on the wrong side of the sidewalks and on the wrong side up and down stairs.

     But hey!  I am flexible.  I can walk on the wrong side as well as the British do.

     However a little later, we discovered that hordes of tourist keep to the right, despite the British ’wrong-way’ tradition.  However, later in the day when the British got off of work and workers were on their way home, the British worker traffic kept to the left.

     We took the underground to Kings Cross and walked the three blocks to the hotel from the station.  The hotel looked nice enough.  There was an enticing bar and dining room off of the lobby.  Our room was small but was clean.  There was a small TV in the room, but no phone.  There was also no room service, which was no problem for us.  The desk clerks at the hotel appeared to be as ignorant about the hotel operations as we were and I discovered that the bar tender responded to your order, eventually. 

     We found it interesting that we were informed upon arrival that the hotel doors were locked at ten o’clock at night and you had to use your room key to enter the lobby; this appeared somewhat strange to us.  It was also necessary to use your room key to get from the lobby to the elevators which added to the mystery.  We felt secure but not sure what we were secured from.

     When we arrived back at the hotel that first night after being gone all day, we solved the mystery of the locked doors; it would appear that the hotel specializes in serving youth groups.  Every night the whole front of the hotel would be trashed and crowds of young people would be congregating in front of the hotel enjoying the evening and apparently the booze.  One night, a group of foreign young men were drinking and doing acrobatics in front of the hotel; they were not real good at drinking and even worse at acrobatics.  The good news is that the hotel was good for sleeping and that is all that we needed.

      Of course, I could not say that the hotel was cheap; nothing in London was cheap.  London was more expensive than Switzerland which I always believed was too expensive.  Our two star (the stars were generously assigned) hotel was considered inexpensive at eighty one British Pounds Sterling (about $162.00) per night; actually the hotel was about the least expensive thing we found in London.  In order to reserve the room, I had to pay in advance.  The exchange rate was about two dollars per British Pound Sterling. 

      The  currency exchange of dollars for British pounds made Americans feel like they were from a Third World Nation.  We discovered that the dollar was practically worthless in Europe; we had been spoiled by our previous experiences when the dollar was respectable.  In London, a modest dinner for Marlisa and I in a restaurant advertised as inexpensive was almost eighty-seven dollars and fifty-three cents.  What a difference in European currency exchange  from the year 2000, when I had moved to Europe.  I could not afford to live there now.

     Our nephew, Philip works and lives in London and he had invited us to visit him.  We chose to stay at a hotel, rather than inconvenience him (us) in his bachelor’s pad.  Philip met us after he got off of work on the day we arrived.  He and his girl friend showed us all over London all during the time we were there.  Marlisa and I are always interested in the culture of the places we visit on holiday; Philip gave us a good feel for culture in London.

      He asked if we wanted to see London Bridge.

     “You are kidding me, right?” I answered.  “Actually, I  saw the London bridge and walked over the London Bridge, in Lake Havasu City Arizona, a number of years ago.  A crazy American bought it and moved it from London to Arizona.”

      No one believed me of course.

     However, the former London Bridge built in 1831, was literally falling down and could not handle modern London traffic so in 1962, the British government offered to sell it and Robert McCulloch, an American of questionable intellect and CEO of the McCulloch Oil Corporation, bought it for $2,460,000.  The bridge was dismantled piece by piece, shipped to Arizona, reassembled across Lake Havasu in Lake Havasu City, and the bridge was dedicated and opened in 1971.  The British government got the best of the deal.

      Marlisa and I were able to see all we had hoped to see in London and Philip showed us interesting places that we had not anticipated seeing; he had a five day schedule typed out for us.  Thanks to him we have a good knowledge of everyday life in London.

     For the most part, Marlisa and I were on our own to explore the city and satisfy our own curiosity.  We became well acquainted with the underground, buses, and trains and made good use of daily passes we purchased.  A daily pass for underground, bus, and local train in London was 5.30 BSP (about $10.60) for one day; that was expensive compared to similar passes in France, Italy, and Switzerland.

     When Marlisa asked me what I wanted to see in London, a strange feeling came over me.  Over a lifetime of watching movies filmed in London, a person knows all the famous places and I thought those were the places I wanted to see; however, being there and personally observing the sights felt somewhat anti-climactic to me.

     From a vantage point on the beautiful Golden Jubilee Bridge on the Thames, it seemed that all the landmark monuments were visible from there.  Of course, we did go to all the historic sites, but the feeling was, “Yes, that is what it looks like,” instead of, “Gee, Becket was assassinated here.”  For some reason, the ‘feeling’ of the sense of history did not seem as apparent as it did in other historic places I had been.  But the history cannot be denied, and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of it.

     The history of places in London, probably contributed to the certain lack of excitement on my part; I tend to enjoy the artistic as opposed to the brutal.  I marvel at walking in the footsteps of Michelangelo or Picasso or Mozart; it just doesn’t compare with walking in the footsteps of Jack the Ripper or murderous kings.

      However, I was quite impressed with London’s many beautiful parks and the fact that they were packed with other people enjoying them.   Observing people obviously enjoying themselves is stimulating to me, more so than simply viewing monuments.  Of course, I am definitely a people person and every traveler enjoys different things and looks for different things.

     One thing was definitely a must on my list and that was to enjoy a pint in a London pub; I accomplished that for the first time on our first day and the second, and  . . . .  

     Another thing that I definitely wanted to see was the Queen’s house.  When I was young, I always had a crush on her sister (don’t ask why); we were about the same age.

      Buckingham Palace is next to a beautiful park and Marlisa and I walked through the park to Buckingham Palace.  Damn, the Queen wasn’t home; but then, I didn’t inform her that I was coming.   However, we joined the crowd of tourists, who like us, wanted to experience the Buckingham Palace feeling; here we were, there the royalty were.

     We also visited the ’original’, though not in the same location, Globe Theatre of Shakespeare.  It looked very much like the reproduction in Balboa Park in San Diego; I did not have a resounding, “To be, or not to be”, in my ears but it was interesting and exciting.

      Philip had graciously procured tickets for us all to see, “Mama Mia!”.  We had fantastic seats; Philip had connections.  I must say that this was the highlight of my London encounter.  As it happens, I have seen almost all the most inspirational and exciting musicals at one time or another including several on Broadway in New York.  However, I do not remember being so excited by musical theatre that I was with “Mama Mia!”.  The audience response amounted to everyone being on their feet, singing along during the encore!  Enthralling!

     Since I had not seen the movie and was really not acquainted at all with this production, I had just hoped to enjoy the experience.  It was a really warm that day and despite the fact the Prince of Wales Theatre proclaimed that it was air conditioned, there was none that I could feel when we entered the theater.  After the show started, it did seem to me that there was occasionally a breath of fresh air here and there.  No mind!  “Mama Mia” was spectacular from start to finish.  No one was concerned with the temperature.

      “Mama Mia” had the advantage, of course, to be composed of nothing but ABBA hit tunes; how could it miss.  My choice for ‘show stopper’, was “Winner Takes All”! 

     Our stay in London was a huge success.  It fulfilled my need, to experience for myself the nation that begat my own, the United States of America.  I will look forward to ‘the next time’ in Britain, and perhaps take a peek at Scotland and Ireland.  But for now, our British experience was over and I still could not understand a damn word they said.

     As  for now, it was off to Paris.  Sorry, I am prejudice when it comes to comparing cities of the world; I haven’t found an equal to Paris, yet.

     To be continued.

Sojourn in Europe: the Voyage

Saturday, August 2nd, 2008

As much as I love to be in Switzerland, I always dread the long flight getting there and especially the preparation and travel prior to boarding the trans-Atlantic plane to take me to Zürich. It seems that I am always apprehensive while getting to the plane that takes me to my final destination but I can then relax on the long final leg of the flight. This time was no different; I sweat out the shuttle to San Diego Airport, the flight to Los Angeles, and the wait to board the Swiss International flight of ten hours, forty-eight minutes from Los Angeles to Zürich.

Things went smoothly however and I found myself in the Los Angeles Airport with idle time on my hands; I don’t do well with idle time, it makes me mischievous. Over the loudspeaker came a serious voice, “Unattended articles will be confiscated by police. Report any suspicious behavior to the police or Security Guards!”

Certainly, I would never leave my luggage unattended. However, when I took a personal inventory, the thought entered my mind that with idle-time-on my-hands, my personal appearance might appear to be somewhat suspicious to anyone who did not know me well. Hopefully, I would not be reported as acting suspicious!

Airport security since September 11, 2001, has given me a ‘guilt’ complex. Since long before that date, I have had metal knee replacements and when I walk through the security gate, my metal knees cause lights to flash, sirens to go off, and I am taken out of line and required to submit to a pat down search in front of everybody, which is a real bummer and embarrassment. Then, of course, there was an added concern of mine because every time I was required to open my carry-on luggage for inspection, the spare underwear that I handily carried in my luggage would fall out on the floor in front of the crowd. Of course, I had to go through security check both in San Diego and again in Los Angeles and singled out each time. Despite my seemingly suspicious appearance, I am not a terrorist and wish there were some other way of proving it to airport security.

Finally after a long wait in Los Angeles and a costly airport meal of calamari and fries, I am allowed to board the Swiss International Air Bus A340-300, a type of aircraft that I have never flown in, before.

Air passenger class, has always intrigued me. First Class passengers board first, then Business Class, and finally Economy Class must then parade through and under the snobbish eyes of both First and Business classes, as if a parade to show respect for their superiors. I am always Economy Class because I am an Economy sort of guy and I have not yet decided if air passenger class is the last vestiges of royalty or the first signs of fascist elitism.

My reserved Economy seat is the first seat after Business Class, behind the wall and curtain that separates Business Class from economy. As the first seat from the Class wall, it allows more leg room which was good. The seat is very narrow which was bad because my shoulders tend to extend beyond the back of the seat for everyone who traverses the aisle, to brush against as they go by. However if you fold yourself up and compress your body into the smallest contorted ball of flesh possible, the seat fits.

The seating configuration in the Air Bus is a row of two seats on the left, a row of four seats in the middle, and a row of two seats on the right; my seat is the aisle one of two on the right and my companion is a delightful young Dutch business man who will exchange pleasantries but fortunately not carry on a discussion during the flight. I say fortunately, because I can remove my hearing aids and not hear the engines roar or the kid screaming on the opposite side of the plane, who is also in the first seat after Business Class.

The screamer kid is not suffering pain; the three-year-old child is simply greatly irritated and determined to punish her mother and all other passengers, considered accomplices to her indignation. It is obvious this child has real talent; she has great tone and can really project. So, fortunately I can remove my hearing aids.

Observing the mother of screamer-kid, I note that the mother has a pony tail that sticks straight up from the top of her head and has a very ugly tattoo on her upper arm in sinister green, red, and black colors; when the mother stoops in the aisle to attend to her other quiet one- year-old child, her blouse hikes up and her pants descend revealing an equally sinister and ugly red, green, and black companion tattoo on her spacious ass. No wonder her kid screams; I am suddenly sympathetic.

The flight attendants are all male, which is interesting and unusual; they are not young men, they have white ‘grandfather’ hair. The huge plane takes off at 7:15PM, rises up, up, up to thirty thousand feet, and the flight attendants immediately offer passengers a drink. I take two for medicinal purposes.

After a short while, dinner of chicken and rice is served. It is palatable, which for airplane food is considered good. My dinner wine is an Australian wine (to the chagrin of Swiss vintners, I am sure), and the label states that it is especially selected for Swiss International Airlines by Coop, a popular Swiss grocery chain comparable to America’s A&P.

This flight was basically a ‘red-eye’, or night flight. It left Los Angeles at 7:15PM and arrived in Zürich at 4:20PM the next day (9 hours difference in time). It was a good flight I am told: After dinner, I fell asleep and slept for eight of the ten plus hours flying time, only to awake over the English Channel and land in Zürich. To be continued.