Monday, September 14, 2015

An American Family in Europe: Day 14, this is London

(Previously: Day 13, Oxford and Harry Potter Studio Tour)

Though we had stayed in four Premier Inns on this trip, we had avoided the hotel chain's breakfast offerings due to the cost and because I'd heard it wasn't very good.

But on this last Premier Inn morning, I decided we could "splurge."  The price of 8.50 pounds per adult was rather high, but the fact that our kids would eat free made it almost reasonable in the end. The breakfast itself was nothing special, just the simple eggs, cereal and sausage buffet that's offered for free by most U.S. mid-range hotels.

The driving portion of our vacation was ending today, and we were moving on to a little village known as London. Maybe you've heard of it.

We had deliberately avoided driving in central London -- by all accounts, the traffic is  nightmarish, especially for new UK drivers. But today we would have to at least skirt around the edges.

It was little dicey, but with our GPS and my wife's careful map-reading we eventually made it to Blackheath, where we would be staying for the next five nights.

I often find the little differences in other countries fascinating, and a simple thing like going to the grocery store can be a cultural experience. We wanted to stop at a Sainsbury's supermarket to get some groceries, but even though we could see the store's sign, we literally couldn't figure out how to get into it.

The whole store was surrounded by a high wall, except for a small opening on one side that we eventually found. We parked in a "parent and child" space (you won't find those in The States) and inserted a 1-pound coin in the handle of the grocery cart to get one free.

Finally, we got our groceries and settled into the home we had arranged through home exchange. I returned our rental car. No more driving on the left side!

After resting a bit, we walked to the Blackheath train station. London offers a bewildering number of choices in transit tickets, and you probably need an advanced degree in mathematics to decide which sort of pass is best for your particular needs.

Fortunately, I'd done the ticket analysis ahead of time, I had finally decided the 7-day Travelcards would work best for us. They would cover both buses and trains in one price. I was happy with the choice, but even in retrospect, I'm not sure they were the most economical option.

At the train station window, I told the agent what we wanted. He asked if we had pictures of ourselves for the card.  Yes, I did. Feeling very prepared, I showed the agent that I had, in fact, printed out three different sizes of pictures, just to cover the bases.

The agent looked at what I had and frowned, "No, we need them like this," he said, holding up his hands to indicate a full page-size. My heart started to sink -- I thought I had this covered -- when he grinned and said, "Just kidding."

Soon we had our Travelcards in hand -- they looked very official, like something we could flash to get backstage with the Spice Girls -- and caught a train heading to downtown London. It was only about a 20 minute ride to Waterloo station, where we got off and headed for the London Eye, the city's gigantic ferris wheel.

The lines were long, the cost was high (80 pounds for the 4 of us), and the wait was about an hour. Finally, we boarded our pod-like capsule and got great views of London. We were in London! Below us was the Thames, the Parliament building, and Big Ben.  The city stretched far out to the horizon.

The London Eye moves slowly, so there was plenty of time to take pictures. A full circle take 30 minutes. 

Afterwards, we walked to the nearby Westminster Bridge, thankfully leaving the crowded area of the Eye behind, and crossed the Thames, enjoying the classic views of Big Ben. We stopped at Parliament Square to see the statues of Nelson Mandela, Winston Churchill and others, and took a few pictures with the classic red phone boxes on the sidewalks.

While we were done with the hazards of driving in Britain, we were now faced with a whole new peril: Crossing the street as a pedestrian. It's not just that you have to remember to expect traffic from the opposite way, it's that the crosswalks in London had a secret code that I never did crack.

Yes, you could stand there and wait for the "walk" light to turn green. But you might be the only one who does that. There seems to be some hidden signal that triggers the locals on when to walk or not walk. We sometimes joined them, but going on your own is risky -- a bus, a cab, a cyclist can zip out of nowhere in a flash and they really don't like to stop for pedestrians.

We walked up Parliament Street, past the heavily fortified entrance to Downing Street, home of the prime minister, up to Trafalgar Square. There was a lot of buzz in the air from the many people hanging out in the pleasant weather.

But we were tired and headed to a train station, and then home.

Next: Day 15, British Museum and British Library

The full trip, by day: 

Days 1 and 2, Los Angeles to Paris

Day 3, Paris

Day 4, the Palace of Versailles

Day 5, the Eiffel Tower

Day 6, Goodbye France, hello England

Day 7, Windsor Castle & Stonehenge

Day 8, Bath

Day 9, Doctor Who and Swansea's LC

Day 10, the waterfalls of Wales

Day 11, Blists Hill and Ironbridge

Day 12, Warwick Castle

Day 13, Oxford and Harry Potter Studio Tour

Day 14, this is London

Day 15, British Museum and British Library

Day 16, the Tube goes on strike

Day 17, Greenwich, the Thames and Westminster Abbey

Day 18, the Tower of London

Day 19, heading home  


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