Archive for August 25th, 2014

London days 6-9, Toronto, and home

Tue 8/19 – London

Step count: 11,702

Awake 7:57 just before 8:00 alarm. Breakfast (yogurt and muesli) with Lise Eisenberg. Packed up. Twitter DM from Mary Robinette Kowal: coffee? But, alas, it didn’t pan out. Checked out, called for cab. Settled in for 20-minute wait, but then a cab pulled up so we canceled the first. Great view on cab ride of Shard beyond Tower of London.

The Arosfa hotel (it’s a Welsh word meaning “a place to stay”) has a lovely sitting room and friendly staff; the room is tiny but clean and well-furbished. (Yes, autocorrect, I did mean “furbished” and not “furnished.” Look it up.) Twin beds, alas, and a bathroom like what an airplane lavatory would be if it had a shower. There were two pull-cords in the bathroom, presumably one being the light and the other being that alarm cord placed in European bathrooms for the purpose of embarrassing American tourists. I went downstairs and asked which was which. “They’re both lights — no alarm cords here. If you get in trouble, just scream.”

Lay down for a nap, didn’t sleep but did rest for a bit. Went out to explore the neighborhood and find lunch. Many options, settled on Reynolds for a chicken and mango wrap and a corn and quinoa salad (sadly loaded with avocado). Back to the room with a stop at Waterstones across the street for the last Iain Banks book, The Quarry (which had not been available at the con, as the only new-book dealer had foolishly stocked only Banks’s SF). Grabbed our coats and headed back out to the British Museum (it’s free!). Saw mummies, Mesopotamian tile, Sutton Hoo grave goods, Phil Foglio, Cheryl Morgan. Flagging then, went to Tea and Tattle across the street for tea and a scone (flat white and walnut cake for me).

After tea, wanted to grab a Time Out to find out what was on. Stopped into 3 newsagents, 2 tube stations (packed with rush-hour commuters), and a bookstore looking for a copy, with no luck. In fact, no one even knew what it was until Waterstones, where I learned that it’s now a free paper which comes out late Tuesday or early Wednesday. The guys who were offering the Evening Standard to every incoming tube passenger today will probably have it tomorrow.

Back to room, did some online research on museums and theatre for the next couple of days. Realized about 8:00 that we really needed dinner. Went out to restaurant Olivelli for pizza, split a quattro stagione pizza and an insalata di pollo, which were ordered with some slight difficulty. We did not anticipate having as many language issues in England as we have been having (most of the staff at the Aloft were Eastern European, I think). After dinner, came straight home. Plan for tomorrow: TKTS in the morning, then John Soane’s Museum, then hopefully a play in the evening. Some futzing with luggage, electric plugs, and email. To sleep 11:00.

Wed 8/20 – London

Step count: 10,555

Awake 3:00 but got back to sleep eventually. Awake again 8:00. Really good breakfast spread including kippers, marmite, and any number of cooked-to-order options as well as all the usual stuff. I don’t usually eat fried eggs, but in this place it’s “the thing with eyes” so I ordered and ate them with gusto. (By this I refer to an incident in Japan in which I ate “the thing with eyes” which was in my bento. For some reason I will happily eat things in other countries which I would not touch at home, either before or after the trip.) Our host has a dry sense of humor, stating straight-faced that the options for toast were white, brown, and burnt. I think we did hold our own even before coffee. Among the breakfast offerings was a tray of ham-and-cheese croissants. Younger-me would have snagged one of them to have for lunch, but today-me would rather spend money and have a sit-down lunch than lug the thing around all day.

First stop of the day: Leicester Square for TKTS. Spent about a half-hour in line and snagged half-price tickets for our first choice: Jeeves & Wooster. Proceeded from there to Sir John Soane’s Museum. An impressive, rather insane collection of artworks, mostly stone and plaster Classical sculptures and decorative elements but including an Egyptian sarcophagus and hundreds of paintings, assembled by an architect of the late 1700s and early 1800s and displayed in his home almost exactly as it was when he died. It’s free, but they only let in a limited number of people at a time, and no photography is allowed. This intriguing museum also included a temporary exhibition about London and Paris immediately after the fall of Napoleon, very much of interest to me for my novel researches. I bought the catalog of that one.

Lunch at a Thai place nearby called Thiwanya. From there I went to the Hunterian Museum, just a couple of blocks away, while Kate went shopping. The Hunterian is inside the Royal College of Surgeons, and you have to don a badge and pass through a security checkpoint to find it, but it’s free. It consists of a collection of anatomical specimens (animal, human, and a few plants — some normal, many pathological), the story of the museum itself, and the history of anatomy and medicine, especially surgery and the teaching thereof. Exhibits include the complete skeleton of the “Irish Giant” Charles Byrne, Winston Churchill’s dentures, and a cast of Jonathan Swift’s cranial cavity, as well as many other famous and noteworthy specimens. I’m glad I didn’t try to bring Kate to this. Upstairs, focusing specifically on surgery including videos of modern procedures, was a little too disturbing even for me. All in all I spent nearly three hours there.

Met up with Kate back at the hotel, then back out again for dinner before the show. Wound up at Pods, a healthy/organic fast food place. Mostly a lunch joint, they were sold out of everything except the red and green Thai chicken curry so we had one of each. Quite nice, especially with the multicolored rice. That was quick so we had time to kill before the play. Wandered down to Trafalgar Square and admired the art and architecture on display, also the street performers (including an Irish sidewalk-chalk-artist-slash-bagpiper, an energetic Spiderman impersonator, and a contortionist). The play, Jeeves and Wooster in Perfect Nonsense, was very silly fun. The production was structured as a play-within-a-play presented by Wooster, with the help of Jeeves and one other actor, another butler. The two butlers played all the parts except Bertie and also provided the sets and props, sometimes to hilarious effect. Very reminiscent of the play The 39 Steps.

Not a lot of photos today, just about everywhere we went had a no-photos policy. Back home by 10:30, to bed 11:45.

Thu 8/21 – London

Step count: 10,337

Awake 8:00. Skipped the hot breakfast in favor of shredded wheat (which, it turned out, had fruit inside), yogurt, and a little slice of quiche (which, it turned out, was room temperature). Odd.

Courtauld Gallery featured a magnificent collection of masterpieces, especially Impressionists. We shared the space with a gaggle of students from nearby Kings College; the students were annoying but the lecturer pointed out some interesting things about the paintings. A really excellent museum.

Wandered the Strand in search of lunch. Wound up at Birley, a high-end sandwich shop, where most of the clientele was clearly lawyers from the nearby law courts. Proceeded from there to the Victoria & Albert museum, trekking down an astonishingly long underground passage from the tube station to the museum. Once inside, passed an amazing collection of sculptures just on the way to the bathroom. Special exhibit “Disobedient Objects,” about artifacts produced by protest movements, was thought-provoking and well-curated, but crowded. Ran out of spoons shortly after that, took the bus home, fell over. When we woke up it was time to leave for the Tun (London fandom pub meet, rescheduled to this Thursday for a post-Worldcon gathering of the clans). Spent most of the time smoffing with Alison & Steve, Steve & Giulia, and Martin Easterbrook, along with others less well known to me. Couldn’t take the noise and still had to pack before tomorrow’s flight, so bailed by 8:00 (with many fine people just arriving, alas). Back at hotel, arranged for a cab, wrote some postcards, and made an early night of it.

I often wish I lived in a bigger city with more big-city amenities, but London and Paris do take a lot of energy to deal with. I suppose it wouldn’t be so bad if it were my own city and more familiar. I’m ready to go home now.

Fri 8/22 – London-Toronto

Step count: 10,061

Awake just before 6:00 alarm. Packed up, had breakfast, checked out. Cab to airport arrived right on time, delivered us to Heathrow with no issues. Terminal uncrowded at 9am, found no lines at all either to check in or for security (admittedly we used the Business Class line for both — obtained with miles — but I didn’t observe any crowding in the other lines either). Long hike to Air Canada business class lounge. Settled in there for an hour, wrote a blog post about the last couple of days in Mechelen and the first day in London. Boarded plane (again no line, thanks to Business Class), got settled in. Flight was uneventful. Food more than decent (main course: seared cod with a chunky tomato coulis) but the cheese course was pathetic by La Cahudiere standards. Seat a very nice lie-flat pod, though at one point, late in the flight, it refused to sit back up again and the flight attendant had to reboot it, saying something about “we can only do this once per flight or it overheats,” after which I was reluctant to lay it down again. Slept about an hour, otherwise did a bunch of reading, didn’t even look at the on-demand video screen.

Huge crowds at Toronto airport but reasonably well managed, except for complete lack of signage of how to get out of baggage claim area. No issues with customs, except that we stood in the wrong line for passport control (they served us anyway, thank you polite Canadians). Ran into Colin Hinz and Catherine Crockett in baggage claim; apparently they’d been on the same flight. Long trek to Terminal Link train to our on-airport hotel, then had some difficulty finding it from the train terminal (it wasn’t far, but there was a signage failure for the last bit). The ALT hotel is reminiscent of the Aloft in its stark modernity, but the room is about as big as our last 3 rooms put together and has two double beds, a tub, a closet, towel racks, drawers, and washcloths, huzzah. Toronto is 75 degrees and humid, the warmest weather we’ve seen since Paris. Worked on blog for a bit.

Hotel has no restaurant to speak of and there’s nothing in the vicinity (airport is reachable by train but is pretty much a food desert) so we opted for a 15-minute walk to Zet’s Drive-Inn, supposed to have good Greek food. Airport/industrial roadways were actively pedestrian-hostile and under construction to boot, but we did eventually manage to make our way to Zet’s without being run over. We each ordered a peameal bacon sandwich (a Toronto specialty and something of a guilty pleasure of mine). Not exactly cuisine, but definitely tasty. After eating, not sure what to do with our trays. Spotted some other trays left on a table nearby and had the following exchange: “We decided one big pile was better than one little pile, and rather than pick theirs up we decided to set ours down.” “And we had another peameal bacon sandwich that couldn’t be beat, and didn’t get up until the next morning when we all had to go to the airport.” “Remember the airport? Whole damn thing’s about the airport…” Nearly midnight London time and running on one hour’s sleep we were getting kind of punchy. Back at hotel, posted another blog post covering through the end of the Worldcon. Fell over around 8:00.

Sat 8/23 – Toronto-Seattle-Portland

Step count: 7,476

Awake around 3:00, but got back to sleep. Woke to alarm 6:00. Washed up, packed up, checked out. Did not buy anything from the little shop in the lobby (that’s what this place offers for breakfast), assuming that the Air Canada business class lounge would provide breakfast. This proved to be a mistake.

Terminal Link train to terminal. Took a bit of searching to find the right place to check in. Checked in our bags with the assurance they’d be checked through to Portland, but once they were tagged we had to drag them through Customs ourselves. First time using Global Entry for passport control into USA. Security person at Global Entry line said we would need our Global Entry cards. This didn’t match my understanding, and Kate didn’t have hers, but security person let us in anyway. Card was not needed, just passport and fingerprints, but the UI on the Global Entry kiosk could use some work. Getting a little cranky by this point. Next came security. We dropped our bags on the belt and then went to the priority security line. But, alas, I had the dreaded “SSSS” on my boarding pass indicating I’d been randomly selected for special security search. Not even Global Entry plus TSA Pre-Check plus Business Class will get you out of that. So I stood for a long time in a line that wasn’t moving at all, then took off my shoes, took everything out of my pockets, handed over my boarding pass, took my computer out of its sleeve, got my computer and bag swabbed for explosives, walked through a metal detector, walked through the metal detector again without my belt (oops), had my choice of getting patted down or standing in the X-ray scanner (took the scanner because it’s quicker), waited nervously for my boarding pass to be returned as they seemed to have forgotten that bit, then put everything back where it had been. Getting really cranky by now. Long, long walk to our gate. By now it had gotten too late to hit the business class lounge, so we bought some fruit-and-nut bars at the little shop near our gate and that was our breakfast.

Five-hour flight to Seattle in business class was fine, big comfy seats and a very nice real breakfast (omelette, sausage with a fruit compote, potatoes, yogurt, pretty good coffee). Back in the day, not everyone could afford to fly but the service was lots better. Today travel is cheap and uncomfortable, but you can still get the kind of service everyone used to get if you can pay for it. So basically they’ve bolted the Economy Class section onto what used to be the whole plane. Slept some and read some on the flight. Lovely view of Seattle on the way in.

On landing in Seattle, checked my email and found a message sent right after we took off, saying that our Seattle-Portland flight was canceled. After getting inside, trekked down to Customer Service desk to resolve the situation. Good news! Friendly United agent rebooked us on an Alaska flight leaving half an hour earlier than our canceled United one. Now all we had to do was rely on United to transfer our bags from Air Canada to Alaska in 45 minutes. Agent acknowledged that this was kind of iffy and instructed us to check with Alaska if the bags didn’t appear. Picked up a sandwich from Wolfgang Puck on the way to the Alaska gate and split that for lunch.

Uneventful flight to Portland. “Pointy trees! Pointy trees!” Good to be home. Something about the air, the quality of the light, is different here from where we’ve been. Surprised to find only a few bags on the carrousel, the plane wasn’t that small. Alas, none of them were ours. Alaska baggage agent said they’d most likely be on the next flight and would be delivered to us at home, also gave us certificates for 2500 frequent flyer miles each for our trouble. As we had no bags to shlep, took light rail and bus home.

Arrived home about 1pm, house is fine, huge pile of mail. Bleared about the house for the rest of the afternoon; sorted mail pile; cleared out TiVo; Kate went to the store for some groceries. Bags arrived 6pm, yay. Tried to watch Dr Who premiere but was falling asleep and had to give up halfway through. To bed 9pm.

Sun 8/24 – Portland

Awoke 1am, then 5am, got up for a few hours then back to bed, finally got up and dressed 10:30am. Went to farmers’ market, where God told us to make ratatouille. Okay, we are really home now.

And now… the last photos from the trip

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There was a painting of Mary Robinette Kowal in the sitting room of our London hotel

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The room was not large

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Typical view of the mummies room in the British Museum

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Is this the first of the Muffler Men?

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Reconstruction of the famous Sutton Hoo helmet

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This fabulous umbrella shop (est’d. 1830) was right near our hotel

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Londoners will carry damn near anything on a bicycle

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View of Big Ben and the lions of Nelson’s Column from Trafalgar Square. Not shown: giant blue chicken.

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Vicent van Gogh with bandaged ear at the Courtauld Gallery

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Riot shields in the form of books, from the Disobedient Objects exhibit at the V&A

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For some reason this sculpture at the V&A caught my fancy

FINAL THOUGHTS ON THE TRIP: The theme of this trip has been spending time with friends; only the week in Paris was by ourselves. I am pleased and honored to be able to hang out with the many excellent people whose company I shared in Normandy, Belgium, and London. Food was a highlight, with some of the best meals being very simple, classic French dishes — like steak frites, crepes, and grilled duck breast — done perfectly (but, with all the walking, I gained only two pounds in four weeks). I will probably never forget the startled eyes of the skinned rabbit at the farm market in St. Hilaire, though I wish I could. It was delicous, though. Though we did hit the Louvre and the British Museum briefly, we spent more time in secondary museums, notably the Carnavalet in Paris and Courtauld Gallery, which were very memorable. Here at the end of the trip, I am so jet-lagged and bone-weary that I feel a bit sick, or perhaps stoned, but I’d do it all again — though if we could arrange it so that the Worldcon wasn’t at the end of the trip that might have been better. I’m already thinking about where we’ll go next.