Monday, November 10, 2008

London Whirlwind

So, now that we had started to learn some German it was time to visit an English speaking country. CF's good friend and former coworker, Mr. PB, was in London for two weeks and we had decided to go see him for the weekend in the middle. We booked plane tickets for Saturday morning and Sunday evening. That's right, an overnight trip to one of the most famous cities in the world, and I had never been there before.

It was my first experience flying out of Zürich airport, last year we left on the train. And the public transportation here had another chance to shine in my eyes. It was 2 or 3 minutes on the tram down to HB, trains to the airport run about every 10 to 15 minutes, and the ride to the airport is only about 10 minutes. We're talking come up the stairs and you're in the airport and ready to go through security. It's so sweet. Our arrival in London was not. We flew with EasyJet, and that meant landing way out at Luton airport. We had to fill out landing cards, one per household. I noted our visit was a whopping one day. "What can you do with one day then?" we were asked at passport control. I was wondering the very same thing. "Just a little weekend getaway, come to spend your money?" CF joked with him that their economy was doing about as well as ours. "We'll all go down together!" we were assured. I had consulted with JLF on the best way to get into the city center, but even if the express train hadn't been delayed it still would have taken a while. We arrived in Central London with just over 24 hours to explore.

The first order of business? A stop at Leicester Square and a visit to something rather familiar, the TKTS booth. I couldn't let my only night here go by without seeing a show, the boys would be happier without me tagging along anyway. Unfortunately the timing wasn't so good, the shows I'd wanted to see had closed, or were closed as they moved from the equivalent of "Off-Broadway" to the West End. I considered seeing a "classic," I haven't seen Les Miz or Phantom in years, it would be interesting to see them where they started. I thought about taking the opportunity to finally see Michael Ball perform, I used to think he was so dreamy and wore out my Aspects of Love soundtrack on cassette tape listening to him. Then I realized I'd just cry the whole time because he's playing Edna, the mother, in Hairspray, I couldn't bring myself to it. I was having a hard time deciding, I've seen many of the shows playing, I'm so spoiled/lucky. In my pre-trip research I somehow started reading about a brand new show, one with classically trained Flamenco dancers (Love!), sword fighting (Have I mentioned I am a huge sucker for swashbucklers?), and music by the Gipsy Kings (Really? Cool!). And even though I knew I'd be embarrassed every time I had to tell someone what I had chosen to see, I ended up buying a ticket for Zorro, the Musical. Go ahead and laugh, it's all right, I'll wait.

So after collecting a half-price day-of ticket I was feeling right at home in this city and we proceeded to our hotel. We were staying on a great street, just far enough away from the noise and chaos of Picadilly Circus. PDP stays here on business trips so we had a good recommendation, and I liked knowing we'd be so central since it was just one night! We got checked in, freshened up a bit, and we were finally ready to go track down PB for lunch. Poor guy had been waiting and waiting while we wasted the day away in transit. He informed us we were benefiting from some unusually nice weather and it was true, this was not the dark, gray London I had expected. The sun was shining, the people were speaking English and I had a ticket to the theater in my purse. Lovely! I had a nice lunch with them but then excused myself to go explore a bit.

I often say that everything I know about geography I learned from musicals. This is especially true of London. Most of the places I hoped to see were in song lyrics from one source or another. It's a quick mention but Harrods does come up in a song from Evita, a song which gets stuck in my head every time I hear something about that store. My interest was piqued, I took the Underground there. I found "the tube" to be muggy and slightly claustrophobic, but the goober in me was sold once the little voice said, "Mind the gap!" at one of the stops. Hee!

Harrods was overwhelming and mesmerizing. I wandered through the fancy clothes (I have to say, on my short visit I saw a number of men dressed in a way that can only be described as "dapper," loved it) and designer gowns a bit. I found the Aveda counter (I had learned in Dublin that they sell it at department stores in the UK) and considered buying a body spray I was regretting not purchasing before but then I realized it was more than 3 ounces so it wasn't coming home with me on the plane. I got a bit lost trying to find my way to the famous food halls and ended up in the basement looking at their branded merchandise. I bought myself a little makeup bag with a peacock feather pattern and the store logo centered on the front. The clerk who rung me up sure seemed to be sincere in all the nice things he said, and then he asked if I needed directions to my next department. At least they know how confusing their store is! I lied and told him I was fine, I'm so stubborn, I know. But I quickly found the food halls anyway, and enjoyed wandering there for a while. I did a double-take when I walked past the Galler Belgian chocolate counter, this was where I got Ms. LT the famous cognac filled dark chocolate bar in Brugges, the one that she tried to send me back for! The night before we left for London I had the funny feeling there was something I had hoped to purchase at this store and it was killing me that I couldn't figure out what it was. Mystery solved! I had looked up the chocolate brand a year ago when my beloved trainer had teased me about needing more. I was finally able to meet her demands! And I didn't even have to spend my own money, she was smart enough to send me off with a envelope full of euros she had from spending time with her family in Lucca (Italy), marked "Chocolate Fund." I hadn't expected to convert those to Great Britain pounds for her, and I also hadn't expect to be able to come home at Thanksgiving with exactly what she was hoping for. Very cool. My third and final purchase at Harrods was something that Ms. ShoppingsMyCardio had sent me after. She is a former London resident and happened to know that they had opened a Ladureé in the food halls, this is the most famous maker of macarons in Paris, and most likely the world. She had passed along some great advice on her old city and had requested I eat a salted caramel macaron in her honor. I did better than that, I had 4! The only thing I could see that I didn't like at Harrods was Krispy Kreme donuts, yes, they let them into the food halls too! And even worse, they appear to be doing good business, with people carrying large boxes of dozens away even as the business all but completely dies off in the US.

I wandered the neighborhood a little bit and then caught the tube back towards the hotel. Another tip from SMC was stocking up at Boots Pharmacy, and I was craving some skin care products! I don't quite know what's going on with my skin here but I know it's not happy. However I remembered that I was still limited in what I could get back to Zürich on the plane, stupid liquids limit! I got a few things and decided to get changed, since I had bothered to bring a nice shirt to wear to the theater. I checked in with CF via text message, they were drinking beers in a pub somewhere and having a fine time. And with that it was time to hurry over to the West End. The day was going too quickly!

My seat, as so many great TKTS seats have been before it, was up close and way off to the side. Not the best seat in the house, but quite an experience. The show was very good, a bit silly at times, but the dancing and music was seriously amazing. The swashbuckling was great too but it scared me to pieces, I was so incredibly close up I feared I'd end up a part of the action if Zorro ever lost hold of his sword. I saw sparks from metal hitting metal, it was crazy! At two different times and from two different directions Zorro swings in over the audience, and landed about three feet from where I was sitting. I ducked and was sure I was about to be kicked in the head both times. The fun part was eye contact from the flirty male dancers... some things never change. I know it was an odd choice but I thought it was fun to see something that will probably never transfer across the pond to Broadway. The show is getting great reviews and the cast is extremely talented. Given the lack of English language theater available in Zürich, I really revelled in this night. After the show I sent a text message to CF to see where he was and what was the plan. I waited for a reply and got one: he said they were almost done and just to meet him at the hotel. As I standing around communicating via iPhone I noticed members of the orchestra were departing from the stage door, and then cast members, and then, oh my god, Zorro himself. Hilarious, the actor was leaving on a motorcycle! A group of girls who were standing around wondering what to do after the show noticed him, I can't help but assume that he made sure of it. They screamed and begged for photos and autographs. I was highly amused. A crowd formed, even the drunken college students at the bar next to the theater were getting in on it, "Hey, come 'er guys! It's Zorro!" they called out. Eventually, when I'm sure his ego had been quite stroked, he put on his helmet and rode away from the crowd. What a scene! He was very good in the show, I have to say. And it turns out he recently played Che in the big Evita revival, making sure Evita stayed stuck in my head for days, and he also played the lead in a revival of Aspects of Love, the role originated by none other than Michael Ball. What are the chances?

I was very hungry at this point and decided to look for some takeout. Aha! Wagamama, an Asian-fusion place we had tried in Dublin. Ms. KZ is a big, big fan as they are very British. I ordered one dish to go and walked back to the hotel. I changed into my little nightgown I had packed to save space in my backpack and switched on the telly (it's in England so that's what it's called!). Red Dwarf reruns! It was even the episode with a guest appearance by Jane Horrocks (Bubbles from AbFab)! I sat in my comfy bed eating delicious noodles with chopsticks and decided I was having the perfect evening. And then CF came home. I don't mean to imply that it wasn't as good once he was around but he was jealous of my Wagamama meal, which meant getting dressed again and bye-bye Red Dwarf. We wandered around a bit and I showed off how I had learned to navigate the neighborhood pretty darn well in a matter of hours. Big Ben looked lovely in the distance, lit up against the dark sky. However by the time we made it past Wagamama they had just closed, so CF had to settle for scoop-and-serve Chinese food. As we walked back to the hotel he asked, "Are we going the right way?" And I knew it was a day of sitting in pubs speaking but I laughed as I answered, "Ummm, we're on our street!"

We slept a bit later than I had meant to, I was hoping to skimp a bit on sleep in order to pack more into our 24 hours in London. But the bed was oh-so comfortable! So oh well. We visited the breakfast buffet and served up a little bit of eggs and bacon along with a pastry. I noticed our plates were quite skimpy compared to the hearty appetites at the tables around us! We packed up what little we had brought with us and decided that with only a few hours before we had to start our trek back to Luton we should carry our backpacks instead of having to come back for them. We headed out with about four hours to explore.

We started with a walk through Green Park, it was another beautiful day! Then we saw a crowd at Buckingham Palace. Oh great, there was a marathon crossing our path! We walked along the runners for a ways, wondered if we could wait it out, and then followed the example set by plenty of others and ran through a break in the participants. We laughed the whole way across as our backpacks were jostled around and I hung onto my camera. Just what I'm sure those poor runners needed, American tourists tripping and falling in their way! But we managed to make it across and joked how we could now tell people we had run in a marathon. Onwards! We walked through part of St. James Park (I think I have my park names right, correct me if you know better), and then approached Westminster Abbey, the House of Parliament and Big Ben. We crossed the Thames on Westminster bridge, I believe it was pedestrian only because it was Sunday. Once we crossed we walked along the water for quite some distance. We saw the London Eye above us, St. Paul's back on the other side of the water (no time to visit up close, next time!), and bridge after bridge. We walked past the Tate Modern and the Globe theater but I couldn't see a darn thing from the outside. I had considered seeing the show playing there the night before but it wasn't even a Shakespeare play! Eventually we made our way all the way to the Tower Bridge. We sent PB a text message and asked if he wanted to meet up with us for a little while before we had to leave. We crossed the bridge and walked past the Tower of London. We got a couple sandwiches for lunch and joined the majority of people out and about that day in having a soft serve ice cream cone. PB met up with us just in time to wander around the waterfront a little longer before we jumped on the Underground one last time and headed towards Luton. There was a Boots at the airport after security so I got a little fix after all! However they didn't have the specific things I had wanted to buy, but it was still a nice little bonus. I liked London very much and will go back whenever I get the opportunity/reason. It was strange to be back in an English speaking country, but I think about half of what I overheard on the street wasn't English and a good deal of the English I heard had American accents! London is truly an international city. Perhaps even more so that expat and banker filled Zürich. Which is where we were a couple of hours later, shocked that we had only left the morning before.


Leslie said...

I'm really enjoying playing along at home!

Leanne said...

You and me someday, we can see Shakespeare at the Globe and climb St. Paul's and you can take fabulous pictures...