Wednesday 26 May 2004

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© 2004 Giles Orr

Marcel and his father picked me up at 0915 and got me to Schiphol without problems. Marcel even stayed with me through as much of check-in as he could. I think he's driven by the thought of being an isolated Amsterdammer in the U.S. in a couple weeks, and is helping me because he knows how much he's going to appreciate the same help from our friends in the U.S.

I had to check in the big bag for the flight to London, but line-ups for check-in, security, and passport control never got to more than ten people. But the guy at security ran my bag through the X-ray machine twice - they ignored my protests ("please step back sir"). On a trip like this with several airports, I run a serious risk of my film getting clouded.

I changed a small amount of money in the airport and got assistance at the information desk on how to catch the tube to my hotel. The Heathrow tube station is a chaos of tourists with bags trying to figure out which machine to feed how much money, or lining up to get at too few human ticket sales stalls, but I eventually got through it for a long and boring ride to the Earl's Court station. I'm usually pretty thrilled to be in a foreign city, even if it's just riding the metro - reading the ads, looking for differences in the construction of the trains, looking at the scenery when you're not underground - but in this case the ride was long enough that the novelty wore off entirely.

I missed my hotel on the first pass down the street and had to catch it on the second try. I dumped my stuff in my room (tiny - a true single with only a single bed, but a nice view into a very British quadrangle at the back of the building) and went to a local bank to change some more money. Then I walked to the Science Museum.

Here's a tip for visiting London: all the museums (among the best in the world) are free. No one told me that. Shouldn't someone tell you that? Jesse said I had to go to the National, even if I wasn't too interested, because it's free. The woman at the hotel checked for me, and the closely grouped Natural History, Victoria and Albert, and Science Museums are all free, as is the Tate Modern (which has Rodin's "The Kiss"). I exhausted myself at the Science Museum - I walked around for three solid hours and I could hardly make myself stop, even though my shoulders, legs, and feet hurt. They have a big photography exhibit, equipment (cameras!) and processes. They have a huge and superb collection of steam engines, some full size, many running (although not on steam). They have Babbage's number 1 and number 2 difference engines, one of which was made for them in 1992. The mathematics section has models of three dimensional curves, multiple bizarre Klein bottles, and (wonder of wonders) all kinds of regular polyhedra. I spent a summer building many of these from paper and cardboard when I was 15. That was one of the things I took pictures of - no restrictions on photography.

I lucked into a remarkably good and cheap dinner. "Oriental Canteen" is just south of the museums on Exhibition Road. I was walking down to the Thames when I saw a tiny, busy, and cheap Chinese place and decided it looked good. It got even busier and I was packed in with five other people at a not-very-big table ... But the food was fast and good, and the tea was free and refills automatic ... and the final bill for dinner was £3.75. In this town that's great. I had Singapore Fried Noodles, and everything else looked good too. I'll go back if it's on my path ...

I talked some to a 50-something Oriental lady at my table - she was very friendly, her companion (daughter?) a little less so. They made some recommendations. The older lady worked in the Registrar's office in the nearby Imperial College and was from Singapore. I guess it might be worth pointing out it's easy to start a conversation when you ask if they're regulars (she is) and what's good on the menu. If asking for help like that doesn't get you blown off completely it's often a good conversation starter.

The woman also pointed out that I was right next to Brompton Oratory (I'd noticed - one of the more highly rated churches), which she visits daily. Which got me on churches - I'd told them I'd been in Edinburgh and I'd just come from Amsterdam. So I told her the churches in Amsterdam are dull (damn Calvinists) but the ones in Venice are gorgeous ... and I felt pretentious. And simultaneously reasonably well-travelled. And I wondered later if travel might not be my latest collection, and I'll eventually get tired of it. It's expensive, and the "getting there" part is a real pain these days. It'll be a couple years before I wear out the cheap international destinations, and of course there's always the rest of the U.S. and Canada.

From the Oriental Canteen I walked south (more or less - there are no straight roads in this town) to the Thames, took a few photos of the Albert Bridge. I crossed back over the Battersea Bridge and wound back here. If I hadn't just been in Amsterdam, I probably wouldn't have noticed the houseboats near the Battersea Bridge. About 50 of them. As it is, it amused me immensely.

I went to a pub ("The Blackbird") in Earl's Court to sit and write. They didn't have much selection in whiskies, but better than Amsterdam. I got a Lagavulin. Switched to Guiness, which shouldn't be a problem if I don't get drunk ...

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by giles