Friday, September 21, 2007

Back to London

Raquelle: One interesting feature about many lodging places in the UK is that they don't have a coffeepot in each room--they have a tea kettle. It's a little plastic "kettle" (think kind of like those clunky Tupperware juice containers) with a metal coil inside. Plug it in, turn it on.........and nothing happens. Drat, that's right---you have to turn the plug on too. Ahem: Plug it in, turn on the plug, turn on the kettle and POOF! In about 60 seconds you have hot boiling water.

We each had a kettle in our room at the Old Malt House, although we had to get Jenny to show us how to use it.

Ah yes, Jenny. Jenny was a jewel. She was a maid-of-all-work at the Malt House, a middle-aged lady with short brown hair and blue eye liner. She was the bustliest, friendliest lady--always ready to lend a helping hand, very warm and lively, and altogether a perfect hostess. Did I mention her delicious accent? :D She had that charming British way of leaving the "t" out of the middle of a word---hence, she gave us assistance with our tea "keh 'els." :D

Alas, this morning (after our hearty breakfast and hot tea), we had to check out. Bummer. The Malt House was definitely the best place we stayed at. So quaint, so country, so charming....I think I'd like to back there for my honeymoon. Somebody hurry up and round me up a groom for the wedding, okay? :D

First order on the agenda: Drive to Heathrow Airport and drop off the rental cars.

That sounds too ordinary and easy.

Sinister music builds.....sharks with big, open jaws swim up.....lightening flickers ominously in the black, sullen sky.....

Did you say DRIVE TO HEATHROW????

*Faint with terror*

Let's just say that none of us were looking forward to this part. Metaphorically speaking, Heathrow isn't just a zoo, it's a zoo with all the animals let out and obstructing traffic. :D Most of us were nervous about the drive--Dad and Heather, because they had to navigate us there, Mom because she had to drive there, and the rest of us because we had to ride in the car with Mom. :D

After farewells all around with the friendly Malt House folks, we piled in the cars with a good deal of trepidation. First came the 15 minutes of country driving on the eensy narrow roads. Sometimes some warped people get the idea that they should actually park on these roads (not that there's anywhere ELSE to park) and then the fun begins! Especially when you---eeeek!----meet a bus-----(covers eyes!)----coming from the----yikes!-----opposite direction------ooooooooooh-----------whew!!!! Down with buses! Bah!

Then it was on to the motorway. In the US, the major roads are interstates, and abbreviated as I-85, etc. There the major roads are "Motorways" as we've said before, so we spent some time on M4 and M5. Or maybe M6.

We stopped at another Welcome Break center to gas the cars (cough, that was a chunk of money, even if it was diesel!) and refresh ourselves with coffee or (in Heather's and my case) hot chocolate. Mmmmm!

Have you ever driven around a roundabout? If you don't know, roundabouts are the equivelant of the US 4-way stop. A few of the largest ones will actually have traffic lights, but most don't. A roundabout is a big circle. In the center of the circle is a garden or something scenic, or if it's a tiny one, it's just a big white humped circle in the road. The roundabout will have 3 or 4 roads that lead into (and out of) it. So if you want to turn right onto a new street, you don't stop at an intersection and turn enter the roundabout and drive around the circle until you get to the street you want.

Of course, you're just supposed to KNOW who has the right-of-way. We finally decided it was the cars already IN the circle. (Instead of "Yield" signs, the equivelant sign is "Give Way.") We were happy to Give Way. In fact, in our car, we would have been happy to sit there for many moons and Give Way to all the cars until the circle was absolutely, positively, completely clear. But such luxuries are not possible when you're following another car. Phooey.

Heather: They made such a big deal out of nothing. You know, there's some greenies on the West Coast (Washington maybe?) that are trying to institute roundabouts over here. I read an article about it. The British can't figure out why we don't like them. They're so logical. You just enter the roundabout and keep going till you exit. No slowing down required, no braking, no wondering if it's your turn at the 4-way stop. And if you miss your exit on the roundabout, you just go around again... and again... and again... until the people in the car behind you get on the walkie talkie and say, "Ray, WHERE are we GOING?" Simple!

Raquelle: Providentially, the drive to Heathrow turned out to be FAR easier than expected. There was a simple exit off the motorway, and a simple drive through the airport streets following the signs for the rental car drop-off. And poof! That was it!!! YAY!!!!!! We were all thrilled, but especially Mom. :D

Heather: HA! Simple, she says. Dad and I were sweating it in the front car. Our directions said to merge with Bath Street and then make this turn and that turn. The problem was knowing once we were on Bath Street, because the signs very helpfully direct you to the proper lanes for Bath Street long before it appears. We actually thought we were ON Bath street when we suddenly noticed a sign showing a turn onto Bath Street. Or rather, Raquelle noticed it and squawked it over the walkie talkie. We hastily changed lanes at the last possible minute and then followed the rest of our directions, which made more sense. As we pulled into the Hertz parking long, Dad let out a huge long sigh of relief, and I did too. :D

Raquelle: After thoroughly examining the car to make sure we hadn't left something crucial behind (like M&Ms), we hopped on a bus that took us to the train section of the airport. I hate getting on and off the train with all our luggage, because you have such a short time to heave it all on and off. I'm always afraid in all the hubbub we'll go off without a suitcase. However, we managed just fine.

Dad bought train tickets and we all climbed aboard with all our bags. Destination: Paddington Station.

The train ride took about 1/2 an hour, if I remember right. Paddington Station is a very large, busy station. Some out-of-the-way train stations have nothing more than a platform, a little shelter, and a ticket machine. But Paddington has many, many trains coming in and out and is a large building with lots of bustling and crowds.

Upon arrival, we grabbed a quick lunch. Quick by European standards, that is. Several folks opted for Burger King but I chose a chicken pie at another vendor. Hmmm. This was definitely not as good as some of the others on the trip. It was very rubbery dough. Sort of like silly putty. I ate it as best I could without making too big of a mess or sticking it to the wall (isn't that what you do with silly putty?). It tasted all right though.

Heather: Being a big dough eater myself, I thought it was 'liscious!

Raquelle: I like dough as IS dough. I don't like dough as is RUBBER.

After procuring the necessary number of 20-pences, we headed for the restroom. Yes, they charge you for restrooms in train and tube stations. As I went through the turnstile at the doorway, I saw an extra 20-pence that the machine had spit out. Idly I picked it up and put it in my pocket. On my way back out I noticed a poor little Japanese lady trying to get in. The turnstile machine ate her pence but the turnstile wouldn't turn. She looked at me in great distress. Ha! Cool! I walked over and handed her the extra 20-pence I had found. That time it worked. How nice to be able to help someone!

After munching our lunch, Dad and Mom departed to find the hotel. Supposedly the hotel was just a few blocks from the station. While they were gone, the rest of us stood around our pile of luggage in the train station. And stood. And stood. And watched the pigeons in the building. Yes, pigeons. The entrance to the train station from the sidewalk was simply a very large multi-vehicle-wide walkway. Where people can walk in off the street, so can pigeons. It seems a little odd to see them bobbing around the crowds and benches INSIDE.

I was beginning to wonder what had happened to Mom and Dad. Did they stop to go shopping? Get run over by a taxi? Opted to freshen up at the hotel and go on a tour bus ride? Prop up their feet and eat chocolate? Hey, there's an idea! I went rummaging in my bag for some M&Ms. Mmmmm!

Finally we saw them coming back in, plowing through the crowds of people. They assured us the hotel was nearby - now that they knew the proper way to get there. So we hoisted all our bags and suitcases and commenced down the crowded sidewalks.

The hotel WAS nearby. It was called the "Barry House." It was a B&B of sorts, but without the "quaintness, cuteness, quietness" typically associated with a B&B. Basically, it was just a tiny family-owned hotel that served breakfast.

The lobby, if you could call it that, was about 7 ft by 10 ft. Two small puffy couches and a rack of tourist brochures about filled it up. The reception desk was a very small counter, behind which was a very messy-looking little office space. The proprietor was an older gentleman and very friendly, although I must admit that I felt a little paranoid when I saw his turban. =:O His wife, however, wasn't wearing a burka...she was wearing a sari. So I don't know what religion they were.

Heather: They were Hindus, darlin'.

Raquelle: Hindus wear turbans???

A bellboy---that is, a middle-aged oriental man---assisted us with our luggage. And it was a good thing, because we found that two of the rooms were up on the fourth floor. And no, there was no elevator. (Actually, over there it's called a "lift." And the first floor is called the "ground" floor and what we call the 2nd floor is actually the "1st" floor.) The red-carpeted stairways were very narrow, with tiny little landings on each floor.

Heather: Just so there's no misunderstanding, due to the 11-foot ceilings on the lower floors, we had no less than SIX FLIGHTS of stairs to navigate. And they were spiral stairs too. Uphill both ways, in the snow... er, wait, no snow. Never mind that part.

Raquelle: Thankfully there was a ground-floor room for Grandma and Gramps.

Arriving at the fourth floor, we inspected our rooms. Synopsis: Clean, and about the size of a postage stamp. You know, one of the little ones with some Grand Dignitary's Head on it, not the big splashy ones with flowers or National Beetle Heritage Day on them. There were two twin beds, about a foot apart, with a small night table in between. One bed touched the wall by the window. The other bed was only about three feet from the opposite wall. Between the foot of the beds and the desk and wardrobe, there was literally only about 18 inches. The entire bathroom was about as big as a bathtub. The shower was simply a curtained-off corner with a drain and showerhead, about 2 ft x 2 ft. I'm not exaggerating.

Now, WHERE to put our SUITCASES in a room like that!!! Yikes!!! Well, we made do but it wasn't pretty. :D

Heather: They made such a big deal outta nothin'. Just shove the beds against the wall, stick the third suitcase in the corner behind the wardrobe and put my suitcase under the desk. No problem! At least one person at a time could stand in the room!

Raquelle: There was no thermostat or air-conditioner. If you wanted air, you opened the window (a sign warned us against placing things on the windowsill........after all, there was no screen) and turned on the floor fan that was provided. Thankfully it was a mild time of year....I'd hate to stay in a place like that during the summer! Ick!!!

Everyone opted to take a nap. It had been a pretty steady day of travel.

After naps, we decided to go for a walk in Hyde Park. Actually, it started off as Kensington Park where we entered it, but merged with Hyde Park.

Heather: Sigh, let a non-geographically-challenged person explain it. You've heard of the famous Serpentine in London? It's big, long lake. On one side in Kensington Gardens, overlooked by, of course, Kensington Palace. On the other side is Hyde Park. We walked up Kensington Gardens, crossed the Serpentine, and came back down Hyde Park.

Raquelle: Oh. Right. What she said.

Since very few London flats have any grounds, if you want to see nature, you go to the park. And what a park! Beautiful gardens and ponds and trees and ducks and very tame squirrels who approach you rather presumtuously to see if you're secreting any nuts for them. We saw several people feeding the fact, as one person handed out nuts, a very LARGE mouse (or maybe a small rat) crept up and joined in the munchies. It was sleek, prim little thing, obviously one of the Privileged Elite Rodents for living in Hyde Park.

We watched in amusement as some pigeons drank from one of the ponds. Someone had constructed a tiny wooden "bird ladder." It was a small board with little strips of wood nailed at horizontal intervals. The birds would step on a strip and then slide down to the next strip till they reached the water. They all took turns, with proper birdly decorum. It was quite cute.

However, the stunning scenery and glorious day could not altogether soothe my troubles. Upon entering the park I fished out my camera and tried to turn it on. It didn't turn on. It tried to turn on and the lens came out about halfway and stopped, making a ghastly grinding noise. We fiddled with it a little bit but to no avail. I was crushed. I was devasted. I was beyond consolation. I had finally figured out how to use my new digital camera and actually gotten beyond the basic "flash on" or "flash off" settings and was having a rip-roaring good time taking pictures of EVERYTHING and experimenting with different settings.

But alas! There was to be no more fun!!! Sniff!!! Wail!!!!

Okay, I was immature. Maybe I was just overtired. But I completely lost my self-control and spent the entire stroll through the park sniffling and blubbing behind my sunglasses. (Gotta love sunglasses!) I was in the uttermost depths of despair and the iron had entered my soul and it was such a tragedy!!!! (Do I sound like Anne Shirley yet? :D)

However, it was at least a pretty walk.

Note from Heather: Not to sound calloused, but I had a blast taking pictures in the park! :D

Raquelle: Oh, hush up!!!! (sticks out tongue!!!)

On our way back we saw a Grand Mucky-Muck going along the streets in a horse-drawn carriage with a liveryman at attention riding on the back. For a moment I hoped it was the Queen but then I reflected that I couldn't take a picture, so what was the use? Bah humbug!!! :D I don't know who it was, but whoever they were, they had sure stopped up traffic behind them. It kind of added to the effect though....the long line of black taxis (which look sort of like Model T's) looked like some sort of parade escort.

Not knowing our way around too well, we ended up at a nearby Italian restaurant for supper, as it was close by. Man, these Europeans just can't figure out how to do pizza. Bleh. Thin- crusted, odd-flavored stuff! Supper was rather subdued, as everyone else was tired and I was still feeling desolate over my camera. Usually when everyone else is tired, I am too, so I run my mouth and try to liven things up, because I always hit a stage of hyper hilarity before my final I'm-going-to-collapse-in-five-minutes state of exhaustion. But tonight I wasn't in the mood. Grrrr.

Thankfully we made our escape before the jazz pianist and saxaphonist got fairly started. It wouldn't have been so bad if they hadn't been within pea-throwing distance of our table. Shudder. They were two staid, dignified older gentlemen, so they probably would have been aghast if we'd thrown peas. So we escaped before the temptation mastered us.

Then back to the Barry House, up the obnoxious six flights of stairs, half an hour of blogging and to bed!

Stay tuned for tomorrow's adventures at the Tower of London!

No comments: