November 27th, 2016

Europe Vacation 2016 - Part I - London

My trip started on October 9, when I hopped on an outbound plane at SFO. My first stop was LAX, where I had to make a transfer. If you've never been through LAX, let me just say that they have a serious signage deficiency. I had to stop and ask staff several times where I was supposed to go for my connection, because there weren't any signs showing the way. For example, my domestic flight landed in a tiny outbuilding, and I had to board a bus to drive across the tarmac to a different terminal. There were two available buses, one bound for Terminal 4 and one bound for Terminal 6. I checked the flight departure board for information about the location of my next flight, and all it said was "TBIT."

Nowhere did it explain what TBIT meant, nor did it say which of the two buses would get me there.

That was just my first experience with frustration at this airport. It's a good thing I allowed plenty of time for my connection when I booked my ticket, because such situations kept happening. Either there were no signs, or the sign was facing the opposite direction so that I was approaching from the rear where I couldn't read it, or the sign pointed me toward an area marked "authorized personnel only," or there was an intersection and the sign was at the end of the hallway so you would have to be lucky enough to pick the right path first before seeing it.

In any case, I made my flight, and I landed safely at Heathrow the morning of October 10. My parents, who had arrived there several days earlier, picked me up and helped me get my luggage to the hotel. I was bringing a checked suitcase packed full of games, which I would be trading for different games when I reached Germany. In the meantime, I had to maneuver it through the city's Underground, which was exceedingly inconvenient because half the stations don't have elevators or escalators, only stairs. I guess they expect people with wheelchairs or strollers just won't use half the stations?

Another problem I encountered was that I hadn't packed the right outerwear. The temperature was in the 80s when I left San Francisco. I figured it would be colder, but I estimated it would be in the 60s, so I packed mainly T-shirts and a couple sweatshirts. As it turns out, the weather was in the 40s and 50s for most of my trip; it even got down into the 30s for a while when I was in Munich. If I had known, I would have brought my winter coat. I ended up borrowing a windbreaker from my parents, which helped cut the chill a bit.

After settling my things at the hotel, we went out for lunch at a nearby bookstore called Foyle's, which had free wi-fi (our hotel didn't) and a cafe on the top floor. I had my first meal of tea and scones. It was quite good, and it came with enough tea that all three of us could share one. After eating, we walked over to the British Museum, which was only a few blocks away. There were lots of buses traveling the streets, and my parents had ridden them to see the city a bit before I arrived, but I preferred to walk.

The biggest annoyance when walking anywhere was that the city is full of smokers, and everyone apparently lights up the moment they step outside a building. No matter where we went, we were always surrounded by clouds of cigarette smoke. Heck, even Tokyo has outlawed smoking on the sidewalks, and they smoke like fiends there. If they can do it, why not London? To be fair, Germany had the same issue. There were people smoking not only on the sidewalks, but also waiting on train platforms, sitting at outdoor tables at cafes, and standing in doorways. The main difference was that the population density in Germany was generally less, so we would occasionally encounter patches of breathable air. London was so packed, the smoke was inescapable most of the day. Really, London, WHY SO MUCH SMOKE?!

Anyway, we spent a few hours viewing the museum, by which point I was ready to crash. We made arrangements to meet early the next morning and then turned in for the night.

On the morning of October 11, we set out in search of breakfast. We ended up going to McDonald's, where we knew we could get something hot and fast. They had an interesting system, where they had installed giant touch-screen panels on the wall for people to place their orders. Once the order is placed, people just wait around for their numbers to be called on a display screen, then pick up the order and go. No need to interact with a staff person at all. I haven't been to a McDonald's in years, so I don't know if we do the same thing here, but I had never seen that before.

After eating, we walked down through the theater district. We passed by the place where they were performing the Harry Potter show, which was decorated so that you couldn't miss it. Patrick Stewart was performing at another place nearby. If I had been staying longer, it would have been nice to have seen some kind of performance, but I just didn't have time. We wandered through Chinatown, which was practically vacant at that hour, and continued on toward Trafalgar Square.

By the time we got there, pedestrian traffic was starting to pick up. That's when I also started to notice that about 70% of the pedestrians completely ignore the traffic signals. (I suspect the other 30% are the tourists.) As I was contemplating this observation, I noticed that the pedestrian traffic signals in this particular area did not have the standard images for "walk" as in other parts of the city. Instead, they had been modified to represent various lifestyles. (I pointed this out to my parents, who hadn't realized what the symbols meant.)

We continued on down the road toward Buckingham Palace. Unfortunately, we were there on an off day, so we wouldn't be able to watch the changing of the guard. We could at least see the shiny gates, though.

From there, we turned and headed toward more landmarks, such as Westminster Abbey and Big Ben. We crossed Westminster Bridge, from which we had a panoramic view of the city. I thought there were a lot of bridges here in San Francisco for traversing the bay, but London definitely has us beat in the bridge department. As we moseyed along the Queen's Walk, we kept track of our progress by how many bridges we passed. After seeing the outside of the Globe Theater, we went back via the Millenium Bridge, from which we could see still other bridges farther down the way.

We walked back toward Trafalgar Square and stopped in at the National Gallery to view some art. We followed that up with some shopping at Harrod's. The store was certainly large; it was easy to become disoriented. We asked for directions to the escalator, and the staff person advised that we should take the "Egyptian" escalator, because it was the best one. We were perplexed by that description...until we followed her directions and found it. The escalator was located in its own little connecting hall, and the entire chamber from top to bottom had been sculpted to look like something out of a pyramid. There were carvings and statues on every surface. I thought about taking a picture, but there was just no way to capture it in a single shot.

By the time we finished shopping, it was starting to get dark. We returned to Foyle's for supper (and more wi-fi), then went back to our hotel for the night. In the morning we would be leaving on a plane to Germany.