I must not have been adjusted to the time difference because I woke up way too early in the morning for someone who only had a short three-hour nap the night before, and saw a rock concert, and flew 5,200 miles in a jet plane. It was 6-something in the morning but I was wide-awake. Oh well, might as well get the party started. I made use of the in-suite hot water maker and the provided instant coffee, after struggling of course to figure out the operation of such, and then went downstairs and made use of the continental breakfast, munching on a croissant and slurping yogurt while drinking more coffee and reading a Bill Bryson novel. The room was brimming with my fellow Astor Court Hotel guests and I wondered for what act of treason they were being punished. Or was I the only lucky one to have a mattress that was a leftover prop from the movie Saw?
I struck out from my hotel and headed north into Regents Park because it just seemed like as good a place to start as any, and I like walking through parks. Yes, I really am that boring. It was a fine, gray London morning and I had the place to myself, except for the pigeons pecking about in the grass. It dawned on me there that London has the fattest, grossest pigeons I’ve just about seen anywhere. It makes sense. A pigeon’s only self-defense is being so unattractive and disgusting as to be seen as positively unappetizing — therefore unworthy of consuming — and evolution has made London home to the ugliest pigeon on planet Earth. Congratulations, guys.
The park was well designed, with walkways leading to fountains, gardens, even a little café nestled in the trees. It was quite an eye-opener to discover that not only do Londoners enjoy gardens they even find them worthy of dining in. In L.A, my local park has a hot dog stand and a man hauling a pushcart of fruit popsicles around. That’s if you go on the weekend. Call me Victorian, but I like the idea of dining in the park. I find it soothing. But I’m not much for picnicking. Paradox? Not really, I’m all for al fresco, it’s the eating on the ground that bothers me. I find it quite uncouth unless there’s a rug, hookah and a belly dancer involved — then it’s absolutely thrilling, divine even.
I eventually, after losing my way repeatedly, of course, found my way to a pond where I was attacked by some plump, black bird with bright yellow beak I didn’t recognize but didn’t like the looks of, and apparently he didn’t like the looks of me either because he charged out of the water and continued in a beeline for my feet. Imagine what the passersby thought at the sight of a grown man screaming in terror and fleeing from a tiny little bird; but I didn’t know what this foreign beast was capable of, whether it would suddenly fly in the air and attack my face or not, and I wasn’t about to have my trip, or my face, ruined from such a trivial thing like not wanting to look like a total wuss to strangers I’ll never see again. In Australia I fled from a common duck named Albert. I can assure you of it being a common duck and named Albert because when I asked an elderly couple who bemusedly watched the entire altercation what kind of bird it was, the lady replied, “Oh, that’s just Albert, a common duck. He’d eat his own foot if you chopped it off and fed it to him.” I just love that expression. Anyway, back to England. After catching my breath and assembling my wits I noticed a well-dressed gentlemen scattering birdseed about for the pigeons. He had a big bag of the stuff and was flinging it about randomly. It was only nine in the morning or so and I presumed this was some pre-work ritual, for he didn’t seem to take any joy in it but looked as if at some point in time he was assigned the task of feeding the birds and did his duties like a good Englishman, without complaint.
I exited the park and decided to head anywhere, to just let my feet carry me. (This would later prove to be a great mistake) I began walking down Baker Street looking for 221 Baker. (Wasn’t that the address?) I knew I was in the vicinity because every shop was named Sherlock this or that. There was certainly a lot of junk being sold in his name but I didn’t see the actual residence or take a tour of the museum in his honor either. If I want a Sherlock Holmes’s experience I’ll read the books, thank you.
Soon after I passed by Madame Tussaud’s and there were already people gathered outside to buy tickets, eager to be allowed entry to peruse the waxy likeness of celebrities and important historical people. Something about this mass of anonymous, average people, commoners if you will, spending good money to view the replicas of those that have broken free of the pack and have truly done something special with their lives made me feel a little sick for humanity. It depressed me, to be frank, and I swore to myself that I would make something of my life, or at the very least I would never pay legal tender to go into a wax museum.
Without any true destination or route you make constant snap decisions about where to head. “Oh look, that’s a pretty building, let’s take a closer look, shall we?” “Ooh, a greenbelt, that would be a lovely spot to walk through.” “My, what an attractive looking lady, maybe I’ll follow her for 16 blocks.” I’m kidding about the 16 blocks, of course, but must admit that I have had my travels dictated by beautiful women and the direction they were walking at least once or twice; and this is why: woman is the most beautiful gift God has ever bestowed on the human race – if you head out of your way to enjoy a lovely piece of architecture, why not a fetching girl? You see, it’s not an act of lechery, I don’t ogle or whistle or any such thing, I just stroll amiably along for a block or two until I’m bored and notice a building or a greenbelt and then change course. Plus, you know a gorgeous girl is never heading into the ghetto, and consequentially you can count on being shepherded to a fine piece of the city you otherwise wouldn’t have stumbled upon. For otherwise, given the choice between Chicville and Mugger’s Alley, I inevitably find myself strolling through the latter, to the delight of the resident thieves.
I must testify that London certainly has its proper share of stylish, becoming lassies. It is my assessment that there’s nothing more breathtaking than a fair English girl, with big blue eyes and a sweet smile, especially when they’re blessed with a dollop of melancholy. They look like the nicest girls on the planet, and being English, I’m sure they are.
Moving on. I wandered through Marylebone enjoying the morning and the rush of activity, the cafes filled with fresh bread, the fruit stacked outside small markets, the bustle of a city going to work. Marylebone was less cluttered with tourists and thus less kitsch, and for this I was grateful. I kept on walking, skipping my chances to take the tube because I figured I wanted to see the city, not ride beneath it, and so I pounded the pavement taking it all in.
Eventually I made my way down to Piccadilly Circus, named after the Piccadilly shirts that were woven there back in the day. (You learn something new everyday, huh?) I don’t know why they call these areas circuses, but I made myself a note to investigate the matter later on. I snapped some photos of the statue and one of myself inside a red phone booth, because it seemed a little obligatory, but didn’t stay too long. It’s basically a tiny Times Square, with giant digital adverts and a mountain of tourist junk being sold on the sidewalk, and being that Times Square does nothing for me, I moved on. By this point it was almost lunchtime and I began to hunt for a suitable place to feed my starving stomach.
I kept looking for that perfect place. You know, a pub with just the right amount of patrons, not full but not empty, an off-the-main-road location, but not grubby or cheap, yet cheap when it comes to the price, and hopefully with a typical English name that I would remember for the rest of my life, i.e. The Scraggly Stag and Horse Hound, or Shepplethorpe’s, or Finchy’s. Alas, there is no perfect thing. No perfect lunchtime eatery. No perfect woman. No perfect city. And so I found myself carried all the way to Convent Garden on an empty stomach.
Convent Garden isn’t really high on my list of impressive sights in London either; it’s somewhere down there with Piccadilly Circus. It reminds me of Quincy Market in Boston — full of those creepy street performers who cover themselves in silver spray paint and pretend to be a statue. I once road the bus down to Venice Beach with one of those guys and his girlfriend and they made out the whole way. It was truly gross; and believe me it was terribly difficult not to interrupt their tongue battle and ask her what the heck she was doing with the man, for she was quite fetching herself. Perhaps there is a segment of the female population that is into these human statues. My guess is they must overlap with the deranged demographic that’s into imprisoned serial killers.
At this point I realized that Chuck Taylor’s, however hip they are at the moment, was about the worst choice in footwear I could have made for this expedition. My feet were quite pissed at me for forcing them all about London in what basically amounts to sandals with a bit of cloth attached and were screaming at me to stop this madness right now. I agreed with them and descended down to the tube in order to catch some relief and a quick ride to St. Paul’s Cathedral.
I got there and this time decided to consult a map first before wandering in search of the darn thing. There was a throng of tourists battling for space in front of one such map and I went to the other side of it, which was completely void of people yet contained the exact same map. It’s funny how people will pile up in a queue (line) when they see other people doing the same, without investigating other, solitary options. Anyway, the map showed St. Paul’s Cathedral directly behind me and should the mob of tourists on the other side of the map simple lift their heads, they would have seen it as well.
I’m not much for churches. Sure, they’re beautiful to look at but how long can you really enjoy looking at an old building? But let me tell you, this is one beautiful looking building. If I remembered more from my high school Art History class, (God bless Ms. Shumate, she may have fancied too many mid-class cigarette breaks in the kiln, but my lack of remembering was no fault of hers) I’d tell you all about the columns, whether Greek or Doric, about the buttresses, and the use of materials and what style it represents and blah, blah, blah. I don’t remember and I don’t really care, all I know is it’s an impressive looking building filled with ornate details and conveying a sanctified air. And that’s just from outside. I snapped some photos, stood around gawking at the façade for fifteen minutes and then noticed a bridge over the Thames. “Ooh, look, a bridge.” And off I went.
I walked on the south bank of the Thames for awhile, past a re-creation of Shakespeare’s Globe Theater, and yeah, if I was a more cultured and interesting man I would have explored it but it’s not the real thing, just a re-creation, and these things always give me the willies, so instead I kept trudging down the footpath in spite of my feet’s growing complaints, heading for what I assumed was London bridge. I wrongly believed London Bridge was the iconic bridge with the two tall towers that you see in the postcards, but what I was actually aiming for was Tower Bridge, duh! I crossed back over to the north side of the river using London Bridge, which is just a plain old bridge, and then proceeded onto The Tower of London and the bridge by the same name.
Quick history lesson: The Tower of London is where the kings of old used to live, or have sex with their harems, or randomly accuse people of treason and politely stretch their necks for them then toss them from the bridge. So that’s pretty cool.
They were charging 20 pounds for a peek inside (not cool) so I opted to study the informational placards around the outside instead and save my twenty pounds for more important things like Stellas and a pair of better supporting shoes. Here is one of those things that really encapsulates the perfected modesty of the English: there was a sign for the St. Katherine docks that abuts the Tower Bridge that states it has been used as a trading dock since before the Romans were hanging out in London but, and get this, ONLY began being called St. Katherine’s docks around 1150. That’s about 500 years before Christopher Columbus even discovered the continent I’m from and yet they use a qualifier that makes it sound like a recent thing. I love that.
I sat for a spell and pondered my next move before deciding to torture my poor feet some more and go check out Trafalgar Square. I only really know its existence from a Blur song so I wanted to see what it was all about. Half the place names draw some connection to the Indie Rock songs I love. So much more makes sense now. Well, at least there is an image to go along with the lyrics, I can’t say I really understand the reference entirely, but when I hear Trafalgar Square I can picture the statue and the National Heritage Gallery and the people milling about….
My thoughts on the Heritage Gallery are quite tortured. It’s an endless building, room after room filled with paintings of Man being punished for his sins by God. Seriously. Turn here and there’s a sinner being dragged down to hell, look over there and a demon is gouging his nails into the side of a drunken fat man, enter another room and Mary Magdalen is weeping at Jesus’s feet. There’s only so much of this a mortal can take before he flees the room in abject terror. There’s probably a painting of just such a scene — me fleeing the museum in abject terror, realizing the futileness of my humanity — but I didn’t see it because it’s most likely in room #327 and I took off screaming when I got to room #22.
My feet were now significantly hobbled from my day of sightseeing and I figured it was best to take them back to the hotel before I shared a gait with Tiny Tim, but I still needed to eat and so on the way back I stopped at a pub called The George and ordered Fish & Chips and a Stella from the bartender and took a seat to jot down some notes and to hopefully eavesdrop on the folks around me, except the pen I brought for such a purpose had run out of ink and so I had to borrow one from the bartender. (That’s the kind of writer I am, perpetually ill-prepared for the task)
The fish & chips proved to be merely adequate and the eavesdropping even worse because it was a father and daughter who were speaking only French and thus didn’t provide me with much juicy conversation. I imagined they were gossiping about me the whole time.
This is what I love about traveling: the first person I really had a conversation with in England was the bartender who turned out to be an actor that resided in L.A. for the last two years and glowed about living in Hermosa Beach. A children’s show actor to boot. How about that? I traveled 5,200 miles around the world and the first person I meet is an actor from Hermosa Beach!
After two and a half pints I was properly tuckered out so I returned to my hotel room for a sound nap. I don’t normally nap but I also don’t normally walk on ankle-splitting cobblestone streets for five hours until my foot feels like it’s been clubbed by Kathy Bates and there’s a giant red bruise on the side of the arch. I was still jet-lagged too, I’m sure, and when I woke it was dark and I was at a lost of what to do with myself. After some thought, I limped down to Oxford Circus and purchased a take-away dinner of chow mien and spicy chicken. I took it back to the room to consume in solitude while watching the local news. There was a big row about a politician who had been using too much of the people’s well-earned taxes on the upkeep of his private garden. The bobbing talking heads were a-nutter about it. It seemed rather silly to me, but then again, when I think back to some of the pointless scandals that used to raise my ire and indignation I guess things aren’t so different here after all. I remember the days that politics used to fascinate me to no end and wonder if it’s just because Obama was elected that I no longer care so much, or if it’s because life is just way more fascinating now to me than the back and forth arguing between Democrats and Republicans.
After some writing and floundering around on the Internet I conceded that although it was only ten thirty it was time to turn in for the night. After such a long and eventful day even my cursed, springy bed didn’t prevent me from quickly ringing the doorbell at the house of nod. I was decidedly spent and fell into a coma in about two seconds that lasted for a hearty 12 hours.