Monday, February 12, 2007

OMG! I went to Europe!

My trip was wonderful! The 11 hour plane rides were both uneventful and that is exactly how I like it. I am proud to say that I had a bottle full of Xanax for the ride and I didn't use tit. This would be my first flight in many years that I have taken with out the aid of tranquilizers. I had a window seat for the ride over there and my seat mate was an 85 year old man with a cane who had just had a pace maker installed. I didn't want to disturb him so I only got up when he got up and he only got up one time when I was awake. My feet and ankles were quite swollen when I arrived in London but fortunately the cold weather caused them to shrink once I was on the ground. Walking through the arrival gates at the international part of the airport was like being in a parade. There were 100's of people mobbed behind dividers waiting for their loved ones to show up. There were a lot of Middle Eastern people with turbans and such and that was a little un-nerving but thankfully they were all sane people and not terrorists. I had already gotten my pass port stamped, (which was the thrill of a life time...and I'm not kidding when I say that...), and I had already gotten my luggage so I was able to head right out the door. It was somewhere in the 30 degree area and that is really cold for this California girl. I was happy that I was able to catch a taxi right away. The taxi situation over there is so much better than the jalopies we have over here. The taxi's and the drivers are clean and they don't stink. The drivers are, for the most part, pretty good drivers. Some of the cabs even had televisions installed in to the back side of the driver’s seat. It didn't take more than 30 seconds of driving on the wrong side of the road for me to decide that I would never even attempt to drive in Europe. The entire time I was on the road I felt like I was on "Mr. Toads Wild Ride". I could never anticipate which way we were going to turn or swerve and cars kept coming toward us....I must have closed my eyes and shrieked at least 5 times! I got to the point where I stopped trying to look out the front window of the cab and just looked out the side window.

I stayed in a beautiful 3 bedroom, 3 bathroom "flat" in a lovely corner of London. The neighborhoods, as well as most of the towns I saw, were very clean and well kept. It is not unusual to see a building that is over 200 years old right next to a building that is 15 years old. The flat I stayed in is one of the newer buildings. The building is in the shape of a square, with a beautiful atrium in the middle. The front of the building houses the more financially secure population and the sides and the back of the building house the less fortunate. The fiduciary social classes each have their own entrance and never the twain shall meet. In order to get in to the lobby of this building you need to put your front door key up to an electrical device that is installed in the wall. Once the device recognizes your key it will open the sliding glass lobby doors. The lobby of this end of the building is dressed in black Italian marble, a modern water fall coming down the wall, plants, a green leather couch and a concierge who sits behind a beautiful blonde colored desk. The concierge will get your mail out of the mail box for you or call a taxi for you or just chitty chat if that’s what you want. The people who have to enter from the other side of the building have to go through a glass door that looks like the door to a grocery store and their lobby is dark, dank and opens right up to a grubby flight of stairs. Their mail boxes are on the outside of the building and some of them are hanging broken. The Europeans have no problem with class distinction what-so-ever. The elevator to the flat is tiny. I fit just fine but I couldn’t imagine if anyone else would have wanted to get in with me. The view from the huge picture window in the front room was quite lovely. The flat is catty corner from a private boy’s school and their P.E. field/park is right across the street. There is a lot of grass and a few trees and plants. The view from his bedroom, which is on the opposite side of the flat is of a steeple and a turret and the aforementioned atrium. You can't see it but you can hear Big Ben chime from the living room of the flat. My first night there I walked to the grocery store. I was fascinated by all of the different things they had in their stores. There are a lot of things that we have, made by the same company but have different packaging and there are things that they have that I've never heard of. "Long Lasting Milk"? "Digestive Biscuits"? One thing that I found odd in the grocery stores is the fact that the checkers sit in chairs and they don't have box boys. You unload your cart and the checker simply slides the products across the scanner and slides it to the end of the check stand where you are expected to bag your own groceries. Most people grocery shop every day and thus bring their own bigger sturdier bags. I found out that most people shop every day instead of the way we do it because over 50% of the people do not drive and it's hard to carry a weeks worth of groceries in your arms and, additionally, most people have very tiny refrigerators. The refrigerator in the flat where I was staying was just barely bigger than a dorm refrigerator, and it is considered a luxury apartment. For dinner my first night I had pizza. The pizza situation in Europe pales in comparison to American pizza. The pizza was so thin that they might as well have used tortillas for crust. The toppings we could choose from were as exotic as this: pepperoni, sausage, black olives, and tomatoes. That's it. So take note, if you ever go to not order pizza. The time difference from Los Angeles to London is 8 hours. So when it got to be midnight in London it was only 4:00 pm as far as my body was concerned and thus I got to experience a lot of late night television. I found that for some reason the networks see no reason to have a steadfast schedule the way we do in the states. Programs over there start at 10 minutes after the hour or 5 minutes before the hour so it is impossible to be a channel surfer. It is just easier to keep the television on one channel unless you don't want to see the ending of your current show or the beginning of the next one.

My first morning there I awoke to see a beautiful blanket of about 3 inches of snow. It was the most snow London had seen in years. When I went outside to take pictures I was joined by several locals who were walking to the train station who were also taking pictures. Nobody could believe that it had snowed so much. The flat is heated by radiators and I have learned that I love radiators. They are quiet and you can pre-warm your clothes on them without worrying about them catching on fire. The bathrooms in the flat actually came equipped with towel warmers on the shower wall. It was like having your towel always being fresh and warm from the dryer every time you used it. (I am such a hay seed!) Before I went out site seeing I bundled up in several layers of clothes, put my Ipod on and just walked around the neighborhood. With every house/apartment I saw I really expected to see Mary Poppins or Hugh Grant walk out of the door. Everyone keeps their door steps clean and polished. Even in the dead of winter there were flower boxes in the majority of the windows. And speaking of windows...90% of the windows I saw did not have curtains. I don't know if everyone is as rude as I was, but I just couldn't help looking inside the houses. I'm glad to report that everyone on the block keeps a tidy house. Tuesday night I went out for Indian food. (That would be what Tori and I refer to as "red dot Indians" which would clarify that I wasn't talking about horseback riding Kemosabi type people). I ate at a place called “Amaya's”. It was a very nice place. I took a few pictures before I got in trouble. They didn't offer a reason for their no picture policy so I just assumed that they recruited their wait staff from the Witness Protection Program. While sitting in the lounge I had the best drink ever! It was a non-alcoholic beverage called "Laila". It was made out of crushed ice, (which is totally rare over there), pineapple juice, ginger-ale and get this...maple syrup. It was delicious! There were things on the menu that I didn't recognize but the waitress was very accommodating in trying to translate for me. When I asked what an "aubergine" was she tried to explain but I couldn’t understand what she was saying so she went to the kitchen and got an aubergine and showed me. Now isn't aubergine a much prettier word than eggplant? I have no idea where the waitress was from but due to her accent my guess was Pluto. I just didn't recognize her accent. She was quite beautiful and I caught myself staring at her more than once. They brought out the spice tray and it all looked very enticing. One was made of plums, one was tomato, one was mustard and the last one was made with rose petals. All of the sauces had peppers in them so I didn't even taste them, and I regret not tasting the rose petals! The waitress suggested ordering at least 6 plates. I thought the pretty lady was out of her mind but I ordered as I was told and it's a good thing I did. As my plates arrived I found that there was only about a tablespoon of food on each of them. Talk about nouvelle cuisine! I wound up with broccoli & yogurt sauce, yams with tamarind & yogurt sauce, green beans & garlic sauce, something made out of artichoke hearts and rice, (that was too spicy hot and I couldn't eat it.), and lastly something made out of corn that had been crushed, dried and flattened and fried and rolled in to tubes. After dinner I had their only chocolate dessert on the menu. It sounded like it was going to be a huge dessert but alas it turned out to be a piece of chocolate cake that was about the size of a Chunky candy bar and a slice of chocolate mousse pie that was about the size of my fingers when I make a peace sign. These two items came with a shot glass of chocolate sauce. It was wonderful. The "pea-ay-sta resistance" was the glass of port wine with my dessert and it was a terrific combination. After dessert I ordered coffee. The waitress asked if I wanted filtered coffee. I thought to myself… of course I wanted filtered coffee. What did she think...that I wanted it crunchy? Then it was explained to me that the difference between filtered and non filtered coffee was - filtered coffee is made in a coffee pot and pressed coffee is made like they make it at Starbucks. If we had not ordered filtered coffee I was assured that I would be able to stand my spoon up in my cup.

The next day I stayed in all day. The snow had melted and it was freezing cold. I hadn't slept for more than about 5 hours since I left my house on Sunday and it was by now Wednesday. I snoozed on the couch and watched several episodes of The Golden Girls and Judge Judy. (Such modern programming!) I can't believe that is what people from London think all Americans are like. No wonder they think we are “ugly Americans”. When I finally decided to get up I took a luxurious bubble bath and then got ready for my night at the theater. I had a ticket to see "Spamalot", which is the Monty Python version of Camelot. I got all dressed up in my $20.00 dress that I bought at “Ross” and I have to say that after getting it altered and dry cleaned it looked really nice. (I had seen the very same dress at a department store for waaaay more money!) I had 3 other outfits, (from Nordstrom), but this was the warmest dress I brought. I had planned on wearing my fancy pumps but I was afraid that I was going to wind up taking a header if I attempted to walk in the rain/snow puddles in 3 inch leather pumps so after much thought I decided that my flat dress up shoes matched my cocktail dress just fine. I took a taxi to the other side of town and got my tickets at the will call window. Then I set out looking for a place to eat dinner. I wanted to go to a pub but thought that I was quite over dressed for a pub. There were a lot of places to eat near the theater but they were all sushi and Indian places. I finally decided on a tiny little Italian restaurant. I had ravioli and a side of avocado. I like the way these restaurateurs think. My "side" of avocado was an entire avocado sliced and displayed on my plate. I devoured it. I was able to get a diet coke with ice. Mind you, I did only get one ice cube but ice is ice. The theater where “Spamalot” was playing was built sometime in the 1700's. There are no fire exits, no handicapped entrances or accommodations but it was very pretty. The inside of the theater was very ornate. There were carvings in the walls and the curtains were beautiful plush velvet. They sold snacks and soft drinks and alcohol and you were allowed to bring any and all of it back to your seat with you. (Try that in L.A. or Orange County and see what happens.) The play was hysterically funny. The songs were all very catchy and there were a lot of audience sing-a-longs that took place. You have to be a Monty Python fan to appreciate the humor and fortunately I fall in to that category. Tim Curry was supposed to be playing the lead but, of course, he was not there the night I was there. As fun as this play was I can't imagine how much better it would have been with him playing the lead part. (My decision to see this play vs. all of the other plays in London was based solely on seeing Tim Curry!)

Thursday I walked to the grocery store and caught a taxi to Harrods. I've never been to a department store that had doormen, but they do at Harrods. They are dressed in long green coats, green pants and a hat all with gold trim. Sounds kind of icky but it was actually quite elegant. They wore white gloves and they opened the taxi door when I got there and the door to the store when I was ready to go inside. The entry ways of Harrods are gorgeous. White marble floors, walls and stairs, and chandeliers in the foyer of each floor. There is nothing you can't buy in that store. They even sell food. You could actually buy a Prada scarf and a banana and a wind up toy in the same store. You will be paying big money for that banana, though. The pound, their unit of money, is equal to $1.75 of our money. So if you pay for anything in American dollars you will be paying almost double the amount listed. I browsed through the designer clothes section and couldn't help but think that this must be what Paris Hilton's closet must look like. The whole store was having a 75% off sale so I thought, "Whoo hoo..I will be able to afford something from here..." I. Was. Sadly. Mistaken. Even at 75% off I couldn't find any clothing for less than $100.00. There were people running around with huge bags full of would have thought they were giving stuff away but I walked away empty handed. I wound up in their gift shop and got a few measly things. Once again class distinction comes to play. If I were to purchase something in any other department in the store I would have gotten a shiny paper bag with plastic handles. Since I shopped in the gift shop (tourist trap) my bag was just a green plastic bag. As I was trying to find my way out of this gigantic store I saw a wax figure of Mr. Al Fayed, the owner of the store and father to Dodi Al Fayed, Princess Diana's boyfriend who perished with her in the car accident. When I first saw the wax figure I thought it was a real person standing on a big stand, greeting the incoming guests. But on second look I realized that it was only a mannequin. In the foyer of the main entry is a bronze statue of Princess Diana and Dodi Al Fayed. They appear to be dancing a tango style dance, with their clothes billowing in the wind, and for some reason a huge bird is launching off of their hands. I would think that the appropriate bird for a situation like this would be a dove..but this thing looks more like an albatross. (This just in: I just went to the website and it IS an albatross! How romantic is that? An albatross. Huh.) Across the bottom of the marble podium it says,” Innocent Victims". Across from the statue is a huge book for people to write their thoughts about Diana and Dodi. I read as many of the entries as I could and I hope that Mr. Al Fayed is not upset over the fact that I didn't see one mention of his son. That country is still very much mourning the loss of their princess...the Queens' opinion be damned. (I knew which country was mourning the loss because everyone who signed the book wrote their town and country after their name.) After Harrods I went back to the flat and warmed up and took a nap. After I got up I took a taxi to Big Ben. I didn't realize that Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, The London Eye, The Parliament building and the River Thames were all within eye shot of each other. Big Ben is, indeed, quite big. The evening lighting is spectacular and the sound it makes is so much more than just a chime. When standing next to it it sounds more like a choral. Westminster Abbey and St. Margaret’s Cathedral were beautiful. I am in awe of the fact that they started building this structure in 1045 and it is still standing! I had looked forward to riding on the London Eye but it was closed down for repairs. It was about 20 degrees while I was out sight seeing and I soon grew weary of my eyes and nose running so I hailed a taxi and went back to the flat. I decided to go have dinner and see a movie. I wound up going to a pub that fancied itself as an "American" pub. They served hamburgers and nachos and they even had a vegetarian sandwich. I had some type of vegetarian wrap and nachos and it was pretty tasty. They still allow smoking in restaurants over there and I had actually forgotten how totally gross that is. Three cheers for southern California for actually getting something right. I went to the movie theater and saw "Smoking Aces". It is a very action packed movie about the mafia and hit men and bounty hunters and mercenaries. It kept me on the edge of my seats until the very end. It was a little bloodier than I like my movies, but it was interesting nonetheless. The movie theater, as everything else in London, is much smaller than what we have over here.

The next day I was up early and out of the house. Had to catch a plane and come home. I had read all of my magazines on the way over and my Ipod battery had died and I didn’t have the plug converter so I couldn’t charge it. I was forced to try to watch my airplane television. There is only so much TV one can watch in an 11 hour span and plus my seat mate kept putting his elbow on the volume control of my television and I couldn’t hear anything half the time.. so I dozed off. The next thing I knew we were landing and I was back in the land where you can see the air you breathe. My suitcases were literally the very last ones to come down the shoot and so I had to be in the back of the line in order to go through customs. There was a large group of Indians ahead of me in line. Two of them were young girls, probably 19 or 20. One of them was absolutely gorgeous. After listening to their conversations for the better part of an hour I discovered that she is a pop star in India. I wondered why she had to stand in line with the rest of the world. I have no idea why it takes so long to go through customs. When it was my turn they asked to see my passport, thumbed through it, told me thank you and that was it. I had nothing to declare and I guess that just speeds things up. After that ordeal I caught the Super Shuttle and it took me to the Huntington Beach Hilton which is right across the street from where I live. I walked home and saw my kitties in the window and couldn’t wait to get inside to see them. That is when I discovered that I was locked out of the house.

After confirming that my house was locked up as tight as a drum I decided that the only way I was going to get inside was to break in. I used my suitcase as a ladder so I could reach one of the living room windows. I pulled myself up on top of the wobbly suit case and ripped the already torn screen to smithereens. It took all of my might to pull my fat fanny up high enough to climb through the window but I did it. I went ass over tea kettle right in to the front room. I breathed a sigh of relief, regreting that I had to ruin a screen but knowing that that was my only option if I wanted to get inside the house with-in the next several hours. My house sitters were only scheduled to show up every once in while and who knew when they were planning on being there? Of course as soon as I took my second breath my house sitters pulled up with my house key.



Anonymous Sally said...

Enjoyed reading about your trip to London and the adventures there! YHAS

4:15 PM  

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