Friday, September 28, 2007

One quite mad day in London town...

Well, I made it! I'm in the Netherlands now, but had a crazy 24 hours in London first. After a quick flight I landed at Heathrow and the Express train took me into London in no time. But right away my luck started to change. It's cold there, not that I mind so much, but the locals said it was warm up until just yesterday! And (of course) most of the Underground subway lines were down due to the usual strike, so I had to find a cab from the station to my hotel. Unfortunately everyone else had the same idea-- there was a HUGE line waiting for cabs. So I started to walk, and (not knowing I was walking in the wrong direction) I happened on a special private cab company guy who took me there; but he wanted me to call his company first to ask if he could take me! Strange, I know, but that's Europe for you: they do things a bit differently here.
Anyway, my hotel was right near the London Eye, that huge ferris wheel-on-the-Thames. I had only gotten maybe an hour of sleep but, as usual on my first day back in Europe, I was too excited to sleep and hit the ground running. I had 3 goals: to do the Eye, which I did, meeting some nice Swedes who were so interesting we almost forgot to look around while up there), finally tour Parliament, which I also did, although footsore by now and sleepy-- and what a grand old building it is! It puts the Capitol to shame. I was standing right where I saw Tony Blair debating in the House of Commons.
My last mission was to tasted some great old English beers and most especially, to find some scrumpy, an almost impossible task. You see, scrumpy is a rough farmhouse fermented cider that is normally only found way out in a very few country inns up in the English countryside. And there's not too many farms near Waterloo station in London. But I started asking bartenders, stopping in several pubs near the hotel (and feeling obligated and not forgetting my other mission, trying a beer or two at each place). I met a real cockney bloke who looked kinda like brother-in-law Wayne but sounded just like Alfred P. Doolittle, Liza's father in My Fair Lady. We had an interesting chat about how most Americans dislike George Bush (and most Europeans too).
Nobody knew of anywhere in London I could find the cider, but I found a reference in a Rick Steves book to a "Cider tavern near Victoria Station". I jotted down the address, jumped in the Tube and went there, thinking someone there would know. Well, I asked everybody, including a guy who said he'd worked right there at the pub across the street for 15 years, and even a cabbie (they have to pass a 3-year course on studying the London streets) and they both had never heard of the place OR even the street!
Now here's the strange thing: after studying a little map of London, I finally found it myself, and guess what? It's not four blocks from Victoria station! Does that tell you how maze-like this city is?
Anyway, I have to report that I failed in my mission, because although they had many ciders, including one actually called "scrumpy", it really wasn't (although it was quite good nonetheless).
And while doggedly sacrificing my sobriety in tasting many of them (for the cause of research) I had a fascinating conversation with a man in his 70's who, if he was from My Fair Lady, would have to be Henry Higgins. He was very posh and well-spoken, but was drinking with me (and keeping up) and had some great stories to tell, especially about his childhood during the war.
So the evening wasn't a total loss, although I did have a bit of trouble getting back to my hotel: what had seemed effortless while relatively sober, was now a confusing, blurry jumble of train stations and mischievous trains that cleverly took me to anywhere but my destination!
I kept getting off at the same wrong station, and after the attendant saw me return for the third time and wearily ask directions again, patiently drew me a map and wrote down the different trains I needed to take. You see, at some stations, they have four different train lines all intersecting. This means there can be up to ten tunnels to choose from (two for each direction and two exits), and they're not level, oh no, they go up and down and sideways and slantways and more ways than Willie's Wonkavator. And try it barely able to walk or see. (That cider was stronger than I thought). Go on, I dare you!
Anyway, I finally did make it back, and had to get up in 5 hours to catch my Chunnel train to Amsterdam. While the EuroStar trains are sweet-- quiet, fast, and even serving a better breakfast than any airline, it was another train journey destined to be fraught with disaster. I didn't realize that mainland Europe time is one hour ahead of the Brit's; in Brussels I missed a connection, then another one because of some faulty info an attendant gave me. Tired and shamefully hung over, I spent WAY too much time at that station. I never want to see it again. But I finally got to Amsterdam and then to Haarlem, a cute little nearby town, where the Rick Steves tour is meeting tomorrow. (The Dutch liked this town so much they named a certain settlement in America after it that you may have heard of.)
After a shower to wake me up I zipped back to Amsterdam to explore, getting an opportunity to talk about Bush again with some Dutch locals. They seem amazingly well-informed about U.S. politics (more than some Americans I could mention); when I remarked so they replied that what the U.S. does affects the rest of the world. Funny how you don't really think about that until you come here.
Anyway, to get back to Amsterdam; well, you've probably heard about how "relaxed"the city is. Let's just put it this way: What happens in Amsterdam stays in Amsterdam; it's pretty crazy there, at least at night. But our group will go there day after the morrow, so I'll get to see it in the daytime. Meanwhile I'll stay here in quaint little Haarlem tomorrow and continue my convalescence from The Great Scrumpy Hunt. Maybe I'll be ready to try some Heineken tomorrow-- after all, this is where it's made. This is Dave the Voyager signing off for now. Tune in soon for more juicy tales from the Old Country!

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