Sunday, September 28, 2008

The Little Differences

Remember that bit in Pulp Fiction where John Travolta is talking to Samuel L. Jackson about the "little differences" between America and Europe, like how they put mayonaise on French fries and you can get a beer in the movie theatres in Amsterdam? Here are a few of the little differences between the States and the UK:

It's autumn now (but we call it "fall" cos it's the time when stuff falls from the trees), and there are horse chestnuts all over the ground. In the UK, they're called "conkers," and they're bigger and heavier than our American variety. Conker tournaments are an old pastime, and one is still held in October on Hampstead Heath. Kids poke a hole in the chestnut and tie a string to it, and then try to smash their mates' conkers with theirs. The last conker hanging on a string wins.

The snail population of the UK is out of control. They are everywhere, and people whinge about how they crawl all over their garden and eat their plants. I told my mate Maggie that we didn't have snails like these in Massachusetts, and she offered to give me some from her garden to bring home. I declined. The ones in this picture are casting their long shadows on a gravestone at St Mary's Old Church in Stoke Newington.

Stinging nettles grow wherever the ground has been disturbed by humans, and graveyards are prime places to find them. These are in Abney Park Cemetery. The leaves have hundreds of tiny hairs on them -- if your skin comes in contact with the hairs, it will sting something wicked. Fortunately, nature has provided a handy antidote -- a plant called dock often grows where stinging nettles are found (but there's none in this picture). You can soothe the sting by crushing the dock leaves and rubbing them on your burning skin.

Of course, there are many other differences -- like French fries are "chips" and potato chips are "crisps" -- but we all get conked on the head just the same when stuff falls from the trees. Happy autumn, mates!

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Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Back in the Tofu Valley

Hey mates! Another long travel day yesterday. I got home about 8:30 p.m. Eastern time, but my body thought it was 1:30 a.m. Exhausted as I was, I woke up at around 4:30 this morning and couldn't get back to sleep. So today, I'm taking it easy -- doing laundry, catching up on e-mail and Facebook, adding links to my blog posts, and dumping all my pix onto my computer.

I still can't believe that I didn't have a drop of rain the entire time I was in London. I'd like to think that I brought the nice autumnal weather with me from New England, but I think the UK was just due for a change in weather pattern after all the rain they'd had in August and early September.

Hope you enjoyed reading about my adventures and my little travel tips on how to do London on the cheap (my total out-of-pocket expenses were £165). One last tip: Your shoes don't matter so much as your socks -- buy good hiking socks if you're going to walk as much as I did. Whatever blister guard® is, it really does work. I probably wouldn't have gotten the blister on my little toe if I'd been wearing my bestest socks on Saturday.

Watch for my photos as I start to upload them to Flickr.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Open House, Part 2

Well, mates, it's happened. I've run out of steam. I've just gotten in from my last day of adventures, and I am truly knackered. Thankfully, the blisters didn't start to appear until yesterday, and I had a pretty easy (right!) day planned for today. We had 11 index cards for the day, 10 of which were in the City and one in Tower Hamlets (just east of Tower Hill, where Whitechapel meets Wapping). We made it to 9 of the 11, plus one that wasn't on the original list:
Spooner's favorite from today was the synagogue, while mine was Wilton's. I got some pix, but in many places you either aren't allowed to photograph or the lighting is so dim that it wasn't possible.

When we got back to Belsize Park, we went to Budgen's supermarket to get things for dinner and for our respective journeys (Spooner's with some kids from his school to Scotland tomorrow and mine home to the States). Oh joy, oh joy! HobNobs were on sale -- buy one package for 99p and get the second free. Brilliant!

Pedometer reading: 18,700 steps, 7.6 miles

  • £5 for my half of our pizza at Ciro's
  • £1 for a piece of cake at Wilton's (a bunch of oldies off a bus tour were having tea and cakes in the cafe and I grabbed a piece of ginger cake)
  • 99p for two packages of HobNobs
  • £9.49 for a bottle of wine for Spooner's household
I think I'm ok for money on my Oyster to get to Heathrow tomorrow. Spooner and his flatmates will be leaving before dawn for their school trips, and I'll leave the house around 10 for the long journey home. It's been a really wonderful trip -- I saw a few new areas as I fill in the map of London, I got to spend some time with Flickr mates -- new and old -- whose company I totally enjoy, I saw sites that a regular tourist rarely gets to see, and (I hope) I got a few good pix in the process. I'm especially happy that I got to spend a fair amount of time in the East End (Hoxton, Shoreditch, Spitalfields and Whitechapel) because I missed that patch on my last trip. Watch for the pix to appear on Flickr -- after I rest, play with the cats, and do a mountain of laundry.

Thanks for reading about my adventures. The next post will be from Stateside, when I will tell you all about conkers, snails, stinging nettles and dock. I'll also go back to my older posts and drop in photos and links.
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Open House, Part 1

As we all could have predicted, I'd planned more than we could do on the Saturday of Open House Weekend. Way more. I had 15 index cards that I wrote out and sorted for Saturday -- we made it to 8 of the destinations. Here's a quick list of the places we hit:
When I post the pix of all these things on Flickr, I'll fill in more of the details about each building. I think we had a good mix of historic and modern stuff.

That evening, we went to see a play at the New End Theatre up in Hampstead. I could hardly stay awake (but I did!).

Pedometer reading: 25,000 steps, 10.1 miles (I have blisters to prove it)

  • £3 for a chicken & veg pasty and £2 for a brownie at Borough Market
  • Another tenner to top up the Oyster card
  • Spooner treated me to theatre
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Saturday, September 20, 2008

Graveyards and Graffiti

After three days of roaming on my own, it was great to have company for my explorations yesterday (Friday). I met my Flickrmate Maggie at the Angel bright and early, and we went by bus to Stoke Newington, a place neither of us had been. Our first stop was Abney Park Cemetery -- it's one of the Magnificent Seven (park-like, Victorian cemeteries around London that were modeled on the ones in Boston including Mount Auburn) and is the second of the seven that I've visited (Rosenbeans and I went to Highgate four years ago). Abney Park is the most derelict of the seven -- wildly overgrown, with tilted and toppling headstones, headless and armless angels, and a disused chapel. We had a bright, sunny day for our exploration, and so it wasn't as gloomy and atmospheric as I imagine it would be in the fog and mist. This cemetery is where dissenters (non-C of E people) were buried after Bunhill Fields filled up. The Victorians were really into death, and their monuments and ornamentation were quite over the top. Stay tuned for photos.

From there, we walked down Stoke Newington Church Street to Clissold Park. The area is quite charming. It's an old, working class area that's getting a new lease on life, but hasn't become too gentrified or posh (yet). We wandered around the old St Mary's Old Church (the parish was in the Doomsday Book), cut across Clissold Park and caught a bus down to Old Street.

After lunch in Hoxton Square -- a real lunch, unlike my usual rolls or sandwich for 2 quid -- we rambled through the streets of Shoreditch in search of street art, ghost signs and interesting architectural bits. Maggie and I have similar interests in all that stuff, plus the social, economic and political history of the area. Like much of London, this is an area that's really in transition, and probably always has been. The streets we walked in were mostly lined with industrial and commercial buildings, and in many places the old buildings are being torn down and new, glitzy office blocks are going up. But, if you stay off the High Street, and wander down the passages and alleys, you get glimpses of life here 100 years ago. Now, many of the warehouses have been converted to art studios, design firms, and clubs. Street art is everywhere. We searched out old favorites, and both discovered that things we'd seen a while back have now been painted over, and we found new things in their place. Although it's a bit sad to see the older things gone, the changes and transitions of everything from buildings to street art are what makes this such a great area to explore.

I caught the tube back to Belsize Park, got cleaned up, and then Spooner and I went back to his school for an evening lecture by journalist Bob Woodruff. I thought we were going to be hearing about Watergate, Deep Throat, and meetings in a parking garage, but that would have been Bob WoodWARD. This Bob is an ABC news correspondent who was blown up in Iraq and sustained a traumatic brain injury. He's set up a foundation to aid soldiers with TBI.

After that, we had dinner with Spooner's mates Greg and Esther in a restaurant in Belsize Park.

Pedometer reading: 20,600 steps, 8.45 miles

  • £7 for lunch
  • £15 for gifties for rosenbeans and myself
  • £15 for drinks, dinner and my share of the cab ride

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Thursday, September 18, 2008

East Along the Thames

I just got back to Belsize Park and am sitting down to blog again today for two reasons: (1) Spooner and his flatmates are all out at an event at school, so I have the place to myself, and (2) I have to be out early tomorrow morning to meet a Flickr mate at the Angel -- we're going to Abney Park Cemetery in Stoke Newington.

Soon after I left the house this morning, I realized that my spreadsheet, containing all the important info about where I was going, how to get there, what time things were open, etc., was on the floor of the guestroom. I was off the grid. Flying without instruments. But I freaked out only for a few minutes and went on with the plan that I had in my head.

Sunshine! Blue sky! The best weather I've had yet (it's been grey, but not a drop of rain). My explorations were all east of Tower Bridge. I started out at Tower Hill tube station, walked around the west and south sides of the Tower, and then walked around St Katharine Docks. The highlight was seeing Dead Man's Hole under the bridge -- a place where bodies were dumped into the Thames from the Tower -- but the tide was low and I just had to imagine the water taking the corpses out to sea.

Next, I walked over the bridge and down Shad Thames to the Design Museum, where I stopped in for a quick look at the shop and use of the loo. I debated going in to see an exhibit called Under a Fiver (stuff that costs less than five pounds), but I pressed on and walked along the Thames Walk through Bermondsey to Rotherhithe. I walked past many old wharf buildings (warehouses) that have been converted to luxury apartments, and many purpose-built luxury flats. "Luxury" is the operative word here -- this area has gone from a rat-infested, disease- and poverty-ridden area to prime real estate. I did see one block of council housing with nappies hanging up on the balcony.

At Canada Water, I got the tube to Canary Wharf and walked over to West India Quay to go to the Museum in Docklands, where the major exhibition now is Jack the Ripper's East End. It was a bit more about Jack the Ripper -- and less about the East End -- than I would have liked, but I did learn a bit about poverty, health, policing, etc., in that area in the late 1800s. Most interesting were the household-by-household maps of economic well-being in that time period. As you can imagine, there's significant overlap between the most abject poverty and the places the Ripper's victims lived or their bodies were found. And there was some overlap with what I'd seen on the walk about Jewish radicalism in the East End that I'd done on Monday.

The sky was still blue and the sun still shined when I left the museum, so I took the DLR to Greenwich and rode on the Greenwich Wheel. It's a Ferris wheel, with enclosed pods, that's smaller -- and cheaper -- than the London Eye. I liked it, and I might even be brave enough now to go on the Eye ... on another visit.

While I was in Greenwich, I did a quick loop through the Greenwich Market, where I bought some vintage buttons, and walked around St Alfeges church.

Travel tip: When you find a good loo, make a mental note of where it is so that you can do a pit stop there when you're next in the area. I knew that there were nice loos at the Design Museum and the Information Centre in Greenwich, so I stopped at both, and I'd been to the Museum in Docklands before so I knew to plan a pit stop there. On this adventure, I found fairly nice public loo near All Hallows by the Tower as well.

Pedometer reading: Just over 20,000 steps, 8.21 miles

  • £2.40 for two rolls, a clementine, and a beverage (eaten throughout the day -- this kept me going just fine)
  • £5.60 for the Museum in Docklands (I had a 20% off coupon that I got online)
  • £7 for the Greenwich Eye
  • £3 for Greenwich Market purchase
  • Topped up Oyster with a tenner
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West Along the Thames

Each time I visit London, I try to explore a new area. Last trip, it was Islington and a bit of Chelsea (rained out). This time, I chose Chiswick for one of my new adventures. Chiswick is well west of London -- it took about an hour to get there, past Hammersmith on the District Line.

My first destination yesterday was the Treatment Rooms, just a couple blocks from the Chiswick Park tube station. This is a private house, owned by an artist who has covered the front and back facades, as well as the garden wall, with mosaics. Oh, and there's a truck parked outside that has also been covered with mosaics, including lettering that says "My other car is a Turner Prize reject." There's a big tiki on the front, and little skulls and stuff, with wild bright colors everywhere. The back wall is the most interesting bit -- it commemorates Luis Ramirez who was executed by the state of Texas in 2005 for a crime he didn't commit.

Next, I walked quite a ways due south toward the Thames to get to Chiswick Park and Chiswick House. This was the estate of the second Earl of Burlington, who took the Grand Tour when he was 20, bought tons of art in Italy, became a great admirer of Palladio, and built his stately home using Palladian principles in about 1720 or so. The grounds are currently undergoing landscaping restoration, so there's a lot of orange plastic fencing in different areas and scaffolding on a bridge and a gazebo, but they are still lovely -- wild in part, and more formal as you approach the house. It's a popular place for people to walk their dogs, and the grounds were teeming with hounds and mutts of all sorts, most off their leashes and many wet from a dip in the pond. Disconcerting to an affirmed hater of dogs such as myself.

I did the house tour, which consists of a 20 minute movie about the Earl and then you're left to wander around on your own. Most of the rooms are empty of furniture, but the velvet wall coverings and ornamental gilding have been restored, as well as the famous Chiswick tables. Lots of the Earl's art collection is hanging on the walls. Photos not allowed indoors.

From there, I kept walking towards the river, cutting through the churchyard of St Nicholas to get there. I then walked along Chiswick Mall, which is right next to the Thames. It was low tide at the time, but I could see that high tide had brought the river up over the grassy bits across the road from the posh houses, and just a bit onto the pavement. Sometimes, the river comes right up to people's front doors, and they have special solid metal gates with rubber gaskets to hold the water back. A lot of uneventful rambling brought me back to the Stamford Brook tube station, with a stop for a panino and beverage before getting back on the tube.

Next destination: Pimlico, for the Tate Britain, where I saw the Frances Bacon exhibition. I didn't know anything about him, but now I can tell you that he was not a happy guy. The paintings are dark and disturbing. Where there are bright colors, they are associated with gore or violence. All his people are fragmented and distorted, shown as isolated or anguished. In need of something uplifting after that, I went through the Turner rooms and was surprised to see how loose and abstract some of his landscapes were. They were filled with glowing light, unlike the grey skies outside (but no rain yet since I've been here, so I really shouldn't complain).

My final destination was the Guess Where London (my Flickr group) meetup at a pub in the City, and I had plenty of time to get there so I decided to take the boat that goes from the Tate Britain to the Tate Modern. I walked across the Millennium Bridge, and trudged through crowds of office workers up to Gracechurch Street for the meetup. It was great to see my old mates and meet some new ones. We compared notes for our Open House Weekend plans, and I hope I'll run into a few of them on Saturday or Sunday. I'll be wearing my Flickr button and my Knitters for Obama button, so I should be pretty easy to spot.

Pedometer reading: 21,500 steps, 8.84 miles

  • 60p for a bagel
  • £4.20 for admission to Chiswick House
  • £4 for a panino and limonata
  • Admission to Frances Bacon exhibition: 0 (I used a friend's member card)
  • £3 for boatride
  • £2.30 for beer
Note: Rosenbeans has asked me to detail my transport expenses, but I can't do that. Each journey costs something different, depending on how many zones you cross. There's a maximum amount that you can be charged for a day, and if you exceeded it, your Oyster card is adjusted overnight. As I noted in my first post, I put £20 on my Oyster when I arrived at Heathrow. There was about 6 quid left on it from my April trip. I'll probably put another tenner or two on the card before the end of the week.

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Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Street Art and Skeletons

Oh, crikey, did I overdo it on arrival day! My back was really sore yesterday (day 2). Fortunately, I'd planned a pretty low-key day that didn't tax my body or my brain any too much.

I finally got out the door around 11 and took the tube to Embankment. I like to take the bus whenever I can (it's cheaper and I can see where I'm going), but I made up for lost time sleeping, blogging and dawdling by taking the tube most places yesterday. My destination was the Southbank, and I could have ridden one more stop to Waterloo, but I decided to walk over the Jubilee footbridge since it wasn't raining. First stop: Hayward Gallery, where I watched the Appearing Rooms on the terrace and saw a small exhibition called View Basket: Art Bought Online. For a two-week period in August, the person who put the exhibition together purchased things listed on eBay as "art" from UK sellers. As the items arrive at the Hayward, they are added to the exhibition -- there are now nearly 50 items on display. The "art" ranged from a watercolor of a chihuahua to action figures to a limited edition book made by David Hockney. My favorite was the nearly full-size bust of Freddie Mercury made of Legos.

From there, I headed to Leake Street, where there's a disused train tunnel that's been covered in graffiti. It was the site of the Cans Festival of street artists like Banksy this past summer, and much of it has recently been repainted by second (or third?) tier street artists. It was really dark, but I did get a few good photos at either end of the tunnel where there was more light. I'll add a few here when I get home and can upload pix.

For lunch, I got a tuna & sweet corn sandwich and a beverage and sat near the London Eye to eat. When Spooner first got to London 5 years ago, he ate tuna & sweet corn sandwiches for days while he was looking for a place to live. Rosenbeans and I ate them often when we visited him in 2004. Now, I eat one of these delicacies on each trip as an homage to past times with my mates, cos food connects us to our culture and history, right?

Back across the Jubilee Bridge and back on the tube to Oxford Circus. Destination: Getty Images Gallery to see London Through a Lens, a great assemblage of black and white photos of London from the Getty's archives. Lots of images of Brits at work, play and war. One of the best was of a swarm of kiddies rushing en masse into a sweetshop when the rationing of sweets was lifted in 1950 or so.

I saw on my map that I was very near the BBC Shop, so I went over to Margaret Street in hopes of getting some Top Gear tat for rosenbeans for her birthday prezzie. I thought a Richard Hammond action figure would be really nice. But the shop was nowhere to be found, so I walked 2 blocks north to Broadcasting House to see if they had a shop there. Nope. They do all their sales online now. Sorry, rosenbeans. It's the thought that counts.

Back to Oxford Circus to get the tube to Euston. Next stop: the Wellcome Collection to see Skeletons, an exhibition of excavated remains of Londoners -- Romans, medieval folk, and 19th century dead -- done in conjunction with the Museum of London. Whenever there's a building project in London and remains or artifacts are found, construction comes to a screeching halt while the archaeologists take all the bones and bits out of the ground. These 26 skeletons came from 8 different sites around London. Each is laid out in a glass case, with info about their age, gender, injuries or illnesses as diagnosed from the bones, and speculation as to their occupation or social class. Many had rickets, some had syphilis, and some showed signs of a diet of much protein and fat causing obesity. One woman was pregnant at her death, and the little fetus bones were there with hers. Several children had serious rickets or were born with syphilis. Men had broken bones from battle or brawling. A bit creepy, but interesting stuff.

On my way back up the Euston Road, I stopped in at St Pancras Parish Church to see the art exhibit in the crypt. It was various pieces done with light. The crypt is dark and dank, and the art wasn't doing anything for me, so I moved on and caught the 168 bus back to Belsize Park.

Spooner called soon after I got back to his place to tell me to meet him for dinner in Swiss Cottage, in a restaurant he couldn't remember the name of in a street with a name that he didn't know. But I found it without any trouble. We went to the Hampstead Theatre afterwards -- a new production of Brecht's Turandot that left us scratching our heads.

Pedometer readings: 16800 steps, 6.91 miles

  • £3.08 for sandwich and beverage
  • I owe Spooner a tenner for dinner (I paid up before I left)

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Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Greetings from Old Blighty

Here I am, back in London. In Belsize Park at the moment, using Spooner's macbook, which is a bit of a challenge. I'm getting a slow start today on account of jet lag and a very tiring arrival day. But I got up at 9 a.m., so my internal clock is half way to being adjusted.

The trip over was uneventful, but LONG -- 15 hours from door to door, using every mode of transport but boat. First the drive to the Massport lot in Framingham, then the Logan Express bus to the airport, then the flight (landed around 7 a.m.), an hour and a half on the tube to Belsize Park and a short walk to Spooner's house. The only good thing about the flight (it sure wasn't the food -- this time I tried the Hindu meal, and it was the same as all the other alternatives that Virgin Atlantic serves up, i.e. rice, overcooked veg and mystery sauce -- which upset my digestive system something wicked) was the inflight entertainment. I watched the film Somers Town, which I'd wanted to see while I was in London but it had just left the cinemas in Swiss Cottage and Finchley Road. It's by the same director who made This is England, and stars the same kid, who is about 15 now. There's really not much of a plot -- it's mostly vingnettes about a kid from the Midlands who's come to London, and his new mate, a Polish immigrant boy whose dad works in construction at the new St Pancras International station. It's quite charming, and I always like when I recognize places in Brit movies.

So, after my nap yesterday, I hopped on the 168 bus down to Camden Town, bought a bagel at Fresh and Wild, and headed for Regent's Park to wander around. It's a vast place -- not as big and wild as Hampstead Heath, but it took me longer than I'd guesstimated to make my way past the zoo to the Victorian drinking fountain, around by the bird sanctuary to the west side where the London Mosque is, over to the band shell which was blown up (killing 7 Royal Green Jackets in the band) by the IRA, around the Inner Circle -- with a wander through the secret garden at St John's Lodge -- and out the York Gate to Marylebone Road.

As I was walking down the Marylebone Road to the tube station at Baker Street, a tourist from South Asia stopped me and asked how to get to Oxford Street. This was a first -- it's always been me reluctantly asking someone for directions. Maybe I finally look like I know where I'm going (that's only semi-true). But I was able to quickly show him on my map where he was and how to get to Baker Street for a bus to Oxford Street. Once I was in the tube station, I had to ask someone on the platform if the train for Plaistow (wherever that is) would stop at Aldgate East.

I met up with my mates Helen and Judy in Whitechapel High Street, the beginning point for a guided walk about Jewish radicalism in the East End from 1881 to 1905. Jet lagged as I was, I think I was able to take in most of it at the time, but I can't remember any of the people we learned about at the moment, except for Samuel Gompers, who we learned attended the Jews' Free School in Bell Lane (building destroyed in the Blitz). We saw the Jewish Soup Kitchen in Brune Street, the former site of Mossy Marks' deli in Wentworth Street (I have to find out if that's the place that James Mason visits in The London Nobody Knows), and ended in Princelet Street. Afterwards, Helen and Judy and I had dinner in a restaurant in the newly renovated (read: soul sucked out of it) Spitalfields Market. (Rosenbeans, you wouldn't recognise the place -- it looks nothing like the funky market we went to four years ago.)

Pedometer reading for yesterday: Over 20,000 steps, 8.5 miles.

  • £20 to top up my Oyster card (I'll need to add more later)
  • 69p for the bagel
  • 7 quid for the East End walk (it costs £3.50 if you're non-waged)
  • £1.05 for postcards
  • a tenner for dinner

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