Some profess to see the future in tea leaves; I prefer to drink what they produce. Some claim a talent for predicting weather from cloud patterns; I simply look at them and enjoy unusual formations.
The sky of London on Sunday sent mixed signals to the seers. I took the above photo while standing on a side street of Sloane Street in Belgravia. I was waiting to picked up by a friend for lunch at a quintessential English club (cricket, bowls, croquette, lawn tennis, Pimms, etc.)
I lingered in a district known for inflated real estate prices and people with too much money. I stood in front a Baby Dior, whose window display showed miniature haute couture, absurdly expensive duds for infants to wear once and to impress its parent’s friends.
This is an area for people with too much money and occasional lack of sense or proportion. I witnessed three women emerge from a huge Rolls Royce stopped in a no parking zone; behind it stood a large Mercedes from which emerged other ladies. A doorman at one of the ritzy shops explained that this was some “princess”, with her entourage in the following car. The drivers stood in the middle of Sloane Street to stop traffic to let the women saunter across to some appealing store. No one honked, surely accepting such behavior from their “betters”. And, this is a street clogged with Bentleys, Ferraris, Porches, Aston Martins, and the like. Even Dubai does not have the concentration one sees in Belgravia.
No wonder that I enjoy looking up at clouds...
In case no one noticed, I admit to slacking for the past few days. I have avoided computers during my visit to London, not wanting to be distracted from all the city offers, which is not available at home.
We were delayed departing from Frankfurt due to bad weather in the vicinity of Heathrow. The weather system moved off to the north, opening the skies on our route. Peering out my window, I noticed that little had change of the landscape since my first flight over England decades ago.
When landing to the west, plane fly directly over central London. Anyone with sharp eyes will be able to spot the Thames River and the London Eye in the photo below.
If you are interested in such tourist attractions and taxpayer burden, Buckingham Palace is located in the centre of the photo, between St. James Park and Hyde Park. Of interest to only me, is that I could spot our hotel on the edge of Hyde Park. Also, a bit further along the approach path, I could see that the road into London from Heathrow was jammed with traffic: we took the train.
As I mentioned a few days ago in my last contact with the outside world, I had expected to arrive at a new Heathrow terminal. Unfortunately, Lufthansa has elected to wait a few months to ensure smooth operations. They do not trust the English, who have a track record of operational disasters, to get things running on the first day. So, we arrived at an existing terminal and received a time-travel treat of a 1970s experience. The only upgrade to this terminal, since original construction, has been in the departure area, where brand retailers invest heavily to separate travellers from their money. No one spends money on arrival, so why bother.
Cliché has it that rain always falls in London (well, it did earlier in the day!). In all my trips to London, good weather has outweighed bad weather. Perhaps, this was in compensation for the pain of arrival and departure at Heathrow. Anyways, we enjoyed three days of marvellous sunshine and warm temperatures.
One of the reasons I avoided computers is the amount of stuff one must do in London: shopping, bookstores, shows, movies, restaurants, bars, walking around, visiting friends, just getting from point a to point b in a taxi, and so on. There’s hardly a minute to rest, although the hotel did have a pool, which we used before breakfast, and hotel bars offered a chance to recuperate.
Speaking of taxis, there was a time when I avoided them except in desperate circumstances. Public transportation—subway and bus—was good enough, fast enough, and cheap enough. The price difference was so great, that one stopped to think. And, often, the Underground was faster, due to crammed streets and motionless traffic. With no traffic, the trip from the airport into town or vice versa is faster with a taxi; if one wants to be sure of making a flight, then the Underground is a safe bet. London’s Underground is famous, despite being old, crowded, dirty, and requiring long walks and climbs of stairs. Occasionally, escalators work. This time, I learned that the price differential has changed dramatically, due to new price tactic of the Underground management: to entice people to purchase bulk tickets, they have raised the price for single fairs. Of course, this affects tourists, who don’t know how to buy the cheaper tickets. I considered taking the Underground for a few stops to avoid a traffic jam, until I learned that the price was £4.80 per person (I recall fares of 80 pence not too long ago for all of central London). We elected to take a taxi and paid only £8.00 and avoided stairs, long walks, and crowded cars. One more thing wrong with that country….
Because our flight was at midday, we experienced no traffic to the airport. Check-in was easy and the flight left on time: everything one wants in air travel…and seldom enjoys.
Even those with poor eyesight can spot Heathrow Airport: one needs good eyes and a sense of orientation to spot London in the distance. The flight to Frankfurt took one hour; we waited one half hour for the luggage to travel the few hundred meters from the plane to the carousel; and the taxi needed over one hour to reach our house in rush hour traffic, a journey that usually takes one half hour. So, one needs most of the day to travel to a city that is one hour away…
The forthcoming long weekend (this is Germany, so it has some religious origin) provides a good opportunity to avoid garden work. We will fly to London for a few days. Of course, this means enduring Heathrow, my least-favorite airport in the world. News reports suggest that a new terminal (old one remodeled) might--might--improve the traditional miserable time one is gifted arriving and departing London. I’ll let you know.
During my days of traveling about once a week to London, I threatened to write a book with the title “Fix England”. The first chapter would have been devoted to Heathrow, which is the usual first point on injury infliction.
I have written about my love-hate relationship with London, which will persist regardless of change. Mostly, I moan about things I dislike, because the choice is so wide. But, there are many aspects that are better than some other cities.
Reports about global warming and rising sea levels had made me suspect that the Maldives would sink below water first. Watching British news reports, it seems that England will be the first nation to be covered with water.
Of course, the government is incapable and incompetent, despite what politician spout. The army has finally been put to good use filling sand bags. That is a bit more useful--but not much--than warm words from government officials. Politicians are able to produce only sound bites and take part in photo opportunities. They seem to believe that their words can affect weather and assuage human suffering. Times of crisis reveal the worthlessness--or not--of governments.
The River Thames is rising upstream, but I wonder if people in London will get wet feet...
I learned something watching a BBC program on coffee, which I will share with equally dim wits. The journalist followed the trail from plant to coffee shops in London. I knew that much coffee is consumed in London, having observed the flowering of coffee shops in recent years. Tea is no longer the national drink, but 80% of the coffee is instant, made from robusta beans: the cheapest.
If asked, I would have said that the coffee is sourced in Africa or South America. It turns out that the biggest supplier of UK coffee is Vietnam and that country is one of the leading producers of coffee in the world. I did not know that coffee was grown in that country...and I assumed--wrongly--that I knew the country well. It seems that my knowledge is out of date, because the communist government forced the growth of coffee production in recent years, mostly the cheap robusta variety. The leading exporter has become a billionaire: a long way from Viet Cong fighter in rubber sandals or beetle-nut chewing mamasan in conical hat planting rice...
I have this love/hate relationship with London. For me, it is the most interesting city in the world, because of the mix of cultures. I hate the bloody aristocracy, with its privileges, unearned wealth, and arrogance, but they have allowed a myriad of cultures to live in peace and cross-cultivate. Other cities might have attracted people from many cultures, but there has been less mixing.
I read that the Los Angeles government has translators for 123 languages (which might have increased since reading), but I always felt that foreigners tried to assimilate into America. They came seeking the American Dream, which each imagined in his or her own way, and they sought to turn it into reality that fit in. In London, there is little assimilation, because no one wants or is able to become “English”.
The Canary Wharf area in London is not a place one is accosted for loose change. This is a place where money is collected from the unsuspecting by more devious means. Such people to not like be confronted by or to see poverty. Security personnel roam the streets and malls, without and without dogs. One feels safe, but one also thinks about other parts of city, which inspired the song Streets of London.
Today, I expected to be stopped by the security folks during our shopping spree in the mall below the high rise buildings. Shopping bags hung from each handle of the baby carriage and piled high in place of the child, who was forced to walk or be carried. One might of mistaken me for a homeless person, whose worldly belongings hung from the buggy. This is what happens when two women discover shops with clothes and shoes on sale. I bought only shredded wheat, which is not available in Germany.
Parts of the following will make sense to people that know Canary Wharf, parts will make sense to people that know London, and parts will make sense to anyone that likes to shop or is forced to accompanying someone that likes to shop.
We are staying in a flat (English for apartment) in a renovated warehouse. This is supposed to be cool and is surely expensive. Whoever developed the property kept the centuries-old brick exterior and massive interior beams. The rest is modern, expect, of course, the plumbing, which is typical English. On the scale of modernity, English plumbing is one step above what Somalian women, who carry water in jugs on their heads, must deal with. The furnishings are new, the lights work, and the location is good. Restaurants occupy ground floor space, so it best not to go to bed hungry. Canary Wharf offers everything in the way of shops (Tiffany just opened one, probably because the bankers have no time to get into town on their lunch hour) and restaurants.
I started the day with a jaunt in the cold, windy weather to the nearby mall (corridors below high-rise buildings) to buy croissant, pastries, fruit, and coffee (for others; I brought my own tea bags). We scarfed down breakfast in the flat.
Next, we walked to the nearby tube station (what people call the subway) for the ride to central London. The objective for the day was heavy duty shopping, primarily for women’s shoes. The goal was Oxford Street and adjacent streets. London is not the best city in the world for handicapped people, which means that traveling with a child’s buggy can be challenging, even for three adults. London underground stations can be very, very deep, which makes descending to or climbing from a chore at any station without an elevator (the ones we used). We traveled after the rush hour and before shops became crowded. Little did I know that the challenge would increase with the load of shopping bags.
I got to watched a rambunctious child, while mother and grandmother boosted the UK economy. As the economy grew, so did the burden of bags. The challenge of herding the kid did not decline.
We had lunch in a new restaurant off Piccadilly Circus (seen in the cliché yesterday). It was a in the style of a French bistro (like La Cupole), but offered a mix of English. French, German, and Austrian cuisines. Fortunately, they were kid-friendly (perhaps because the majority of staff were non-English).
At lunch, we decided that we should visit Harrods, which is the best department store in the world (I have visited most, so am allowed an opinion). If you are ever close to England, it is worth a trip to see this. But, plan to spend several hours. One does not buy much (I bought tea bags), but I always come back to look. This is the best-ever museum of modern consumerism. This place is so classy, that the toilets are labeled “Luxury Washroom”. One bit of advice: do not separate, because hooking up again is difficult. This is even more difficult if people do not listen or assume the wrong thing. Two out of three of us spent forty minutes waiting, because number three is stupid (identity will remain unknown to protect me!) What would we do without cell phones? (If anyone is wondering why it took so long to call, that is because receptions is restricted inside the store.)
On the way out of Harrods to find a taxi, we discovered a new feature on the rear sidewalk: a French patisserie. Because the sun was shining and we had had no dessert, what better place to pause for a snack. They even had a high chair, so the kid learned to enjoy macaroons, café liégeois, and pistachio ice cream.
The ride back to Canary Wharf on the Underground train was more “exciting”, because the car was packed with commuter passengers and the kid screamed. This was less disturbing than on an airplane (as he did on the flight from Frankfurt, to the displeasure of other passengers and to the embarrassment of his mother), because Underground trains are rather loud and most passengers wore earphones.
We finished the day with take-out food from M&S (an English food retailer, as well as well-known purveyor of underwear and clothes) and babysitting is a renovated warehouse, with a view on a bit of water--a relic from the days when Canary Wharf was really a place of wharves.
Anyone with power of observation will have noticed that I missed yesterday. I planned to write something after going out to dinner, but we got stuck in the bar.
The above clichés will give a hint to my current location. We popped over for a few days, exchanging cold, windy German weather for cold, windy English weather. This is the kind of weather that helped the Russians defeat the Nazis in World War II. The only thing to do is seek shelter in London’s seemingly endless selection of shops. Which is the reason my wife wanted to come...
Yesterday, I was forced to endure a trek through Heathrow Shopping Mall to reach our plane to Frankfurt. More space is devoted to retail than to security checks, seating, or boarding gates. Because all ground operations have been subcontracted to the highest bidder (who must fleece people to make a profit and pay fees), one has no contact with airline personnel until stepping onto the plane. This is not a problem, if one has no problems, but is a problem, if one does.
Heathrow continues to dwell neat the top--if not at the apex--of my least-favorite airports in the world. I can think of nothing positive say. Most, if not all, trips to London have been less pleasant because being book-ended by that special experience.
Prior to writing novels, the author enjoyed a multifaceted career: from decorated combat aviator to advertising professional to global communications director of a major consumer brand. He has traveled the world and met sports, film and television stars, political leaders, and royalty. He graduated from Middlebury College, is married, lives in Germany, and has two grown children.