Second time around

09-Jul-2011 12:50, Canon Canon PowerShot G12, 4.0, 15.673mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 80
 
London Eye
Another trip to London sounded exciting after my first visit three months back had been outstanding. I had to make several changes to my reservation as our new reservation system and limitations gave me limited options to stay near our office in Trafalgar Square. I headed out Friday evening. The start was rather late. I had to change my flight at Newark initially. However, a thunderstorm put things out of order at the Philly airport and my flight to Newark got delayed. These airlines never can tell or will never give you the true picture if a flight is going to be cancelled. They try to keep the options open as much as possible and so I just came to know of a delay. My travelling instincts warned me the flight will be cancelled and luckily I asked the staff at the counter if I had still time to make it on the delayed flight to the outbound flight from Newark to London. Being an international flight, I needed to be there at least two hours earlier and that wouldn’t cut it. So she asked me to head out to the US airways reservations desk. There was a long line and I called the 800 number for reservations while in line. A wait of 10 minutes and I couldn’t get hold of anyone. I hung up and called our company after hours travel desk. No one either – a Friday evening is a bad time even for paid after hours service, I realized. A US airways staff was going around passing another number and I dialed and immediately got hold of this nice woman. She figured I can take the direct flight from Philly at 10 PM instead and that sounded great. It meant that I just had to stay a few hours longer at Philly. But that wasn’t going to be simple. She couldn’t issue a ticket though she could book me on the flight. Believe it or not, I was on the phone for 90 minutes before she got things settled. The problem was she saw my return journey was cancelled and I don’t know how that could have happened as I still had my itinerary in hand showing confirmation. In fact I had checked the flight status earlier in the day and I was still confirmed to come back. I didn’t want to argue with her as it didn’t matter as long as she got me a ticket out and back to home. All this time I had my laptop powered up to check my flight numbers and confirmation and also had hooked up my cell phone to the laptop so I didn’t run out of battery. I was probably looking like the ultimate techie at the airport with the wires and all. Also, my new Sprint mobile hot spot was handy all the time getting me connected to the Internet.
10-Jul-2011 07:01, Canon Canon PowerShot G12, 4.5, 24.978mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 125
 
Headless Robot near St. Paul’s

I arrived in London the next morning and this time around I had a bit of an idea how to get along better. Immigration was cool – just a couple of casual questions and out I went to the information center and ticket booth to get a ticket. Apparently there was some maintenance going on that Saturday morning and I was to first take a bus to Fulsham (?) and then catch the train to Picadilly. I got a full day pass, all worth 8 pounds – these passes are great as you can hop onto a bus or a train as long as the area is within marked zones. After a 15 minute ride on the bus, the train to Picadilly was an easy one too.

The London trains are such an interesting experience if one is used to getting around in cars like back home where I stay. There is this conglomeration of people of all ethnicities – Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Middle eastern, Indian, Pakistanis (though I couldn’t tell between the two easily unless you hear them speak the language!) – you name it and you have it. People young and old, joyful and solemn, stylish and casual, thoughtful and thoughtless. On the average, there are always more younger commuters – or that is what I saw over the next few days. Many of them glued to their music players – the eponymous white wires running up the being to the ear canals. Some were rocking along while some deeply engrossed in it, always avoiding each other eyes directly unless of course one is with another friend or a family member. I did the same. I listened to ‘A Journey’ by Pt. Shivkumar Sharma most of the time while taking in the surroundings with infrequent glances.

10-Jul-2011 07:11, Canon Canon PowerShot G12, 4.0, 9.784mm, 0.001 sec, ISO 250
 
The Shakespeare Globe Theater

Lugging along my carry-on and my super heavy laptop bag was a challenge and I got off Charing Cross around 1:30 PM local time. It was about 20 hours since I had left home. I checked into the Strand, had a shower and fell asleep. When I woke up it was about 5 PM. The first evening, I thought I will go and ride the London Eye in time for some photographs during the evening. The Regents park was crowded and there was probably an hour and a half worth of wait to get on the Eye. I said no way and just walked around the area. The Parliament building was lighting up in the evening sun. There was a barge going around on River Thames cleaning up the rubbish. After a bit more of a stroll, I took the bus back to Aldwich and walked to Sagar, my favorite south Indian restaurant on Catherine street and finished dinner. By the time I got back to the room, it was still 4 PM East Coast time and after all the walking, I was still awake. I decided to finish up writing our Yellowstone vacation from the past week and upload the photos online.

Day 2 – The next day, I had to check out at 11 meaning I had to get up early, catch the nice Strand breakfast and stow away my luggage in the luggage room. I took the bus to St. Paul’s Church and strolled around the area. The Millennium bridge is a nice place to walk on and around. The Shakespeare Globe Theater is close by and that Sunday morning the streets were filled with people. Streets were also filled with entertainers – the Robot-man, the jugglers and what not – all entertaining. You could see tourist guides galore speaking at the top of their voice to the group huddled around them. After a long stroll on the banks of the Thames, I had lunch at this fantastic burger place – appropriately called The Great Burger Place (GBP). The puy lentil sandwich was one of the best I have eaten and it was still the same on my second visit three months later.
10-Jul-2011 10:46, Canon Canon PowerShot G12, 4.0, 6.1mm, 0.005 sec, ISO 160
 
Inside the St. Pancras International

After lunch, I took the bus and got off near the hotel, picked up my luggage and took the bus again from Charing Cross to St. Pancras International to catch the EuroStar to Lille, France. If you have time in London, take the bus often – you get to see more of the streets than the enclosed underground will permit. St. Pancras International railway station is a huge place with lots of shops and restaurants inside. Much like an international flight, you have to go through immigration, but it was at the origin than at the final destination. The train was packed for a Sunday afternoon and I arrived at Lille around 7:30 PM. Second time around, I had no issues finding the taxi station. An Algerian driver (France should be full of Algerian drivers) started talking and wanted to get business. He quickly found out I was staying for two days and had to go to work at quite a distance. He offered to come pick me up the next morning. The 10 minute ride to Novotel, Grand Lille center should have been five Euros, but he quoted six and a half, I don’t know why or asked him why. I tipped him an additional Euro and a half and he must have thought I was full of cash.

10-Jul-2011 13:43, Canon Canon PowerShot G12, 4.0, 6.1mm, 0.006 sec, ISO 200
 
Grand Place, Lille

The hotel is located very close to the Grand Center in Lille city. Lille (pronounced Lil’ as in the word little, but without the tee in between), is a smaller city about an hour from Paris on the Eurostar. The city has some really grand, late 19th century stone buildings. The Grand Opera house and the Lille Grand Center itself (the railway station) are just two of them in the area. There are many water fountains and the open place in front of the opera house is a great place to just sit and spend the evening. There are numerous restaurants on the streets adjacent to the center. Side walks and even smaller roads are all cobble stone and gives you the typical European, middle-aged small city atmosphere. As is very French, you see a lot of the sidewalks in front of the restaurants laid out with tables and all filled with people, happily dining and eating and talking away the evening.

10-Jul-2011 13:45, Canon Canon PowerShot G12, 4.0, 9.784mm, 0.008 sec, ISO 200
 
Lille Opera
I couldn’t find any real vegetarian place nor did I expect to after my last visit back in March. As I walked I glanced at a Subway and knew it was my backup. There was this eatery Exta, which announced all natural ingredients with a Carrot as its logo and while it sounded very appealing, the shop was closed. I managed to walk around through the dinner crowd and couldn’t find anyplace I wanted to. When you walk in a French city it is hard not to stand out when you are an Asian! I probably was the only Indian within a 5 mile radius and in my causal sort of business clothes (dockers and T-shirt) I stood out from those dressed for the evening.
I walked back to the Subway only to find out they had run out of bread. The woman at the counter was telling me so and of course, i didn’t understand a thing and I kept saying a Vegetarian sub will do. A young chap in the line told me about the bread and there were only wraps. I was okay with it. I took the food to go and it was a five minute walk back to the hotel.
The Novotel is pretty stylistic on the inside though on the outside, it sits sandwiched between many adjacent buildings all close together on a small street lined with parked cars. The decor is outstanding and catches the eye very easily. The staff at the front desk were very cordial, but I remember I had to make two trips from the room on the second floor to the desk to get my room card correctly programmed – rather dumb thing to happen for a tired traveller.
11-Jul-2011 14:27, Canon Canon PowerShot G12, 2.8, 7.407mm, 0.013 sec, ISO 1600
 
Hotel Novotel lounge

Day three and four: The next two days, my work was at the B’Twin village which I had written about – it is this humongous building that can house a 100 Costcos all in one!! While language is a very certain barrier in France, in a IT department, it isn’t so luckily. After work, this time I walked out and found Exta at another location. The food was mostly already made and packaged, though natural and very vegetarian friendly. I settled for the tomato soup which was pretty sour and a cup of salad with bread. Not great for a dinner, especially when all of it isn’t hot, but the thought of Subway for dinner again was very entertaining.
 

10-Jul-2011 14:10, Canon Canon PowerShot G12, 4.0, 7.407mm, 0.02 sec, ISO 250
 
Two days in Lille and I was back to London. The British Immigration officials were more probing this time and asked me a lot more questions. If you want to get on the Eurostar, then you better plan to get at the station an hour early. The lines are long and immigration and customs can be slow. Weekend travellers and families returning from vacations are more casual about time than the Mon-Thu business traveller hell bent on getting in and out as efficiently as possible. I recalled in some book I read to follow the Japanese businessmen in an airport security line. They have minimal items – a briefcase and a carry one maybe – and they get things in and out as fast as possible. Compare this to a family with children – with the strollers and the medicine to be taken out and the shoes and the head wear. Just a tip – no complaints! I know there were no security lines when my son was young, so I take this advice with a grain of salt too, but effective advice if you are in a hurry.



13-Jul-2011 14:05, Canon Canon PowerShot G12, 4.0, 12.074mm, 0.003 sec, ISO 640
 
An Evening oper air Opera at Trafalgar Square



Days Five, Six: Work in London second time around was more interesting. And to make it even more, I chose to stay at the Renaissance near the Heathrow airport. The price fit our new company policy and surprisingly very reasonable at about 110 pounds per night. The commute from the hotel to work everyday was to take the free bus (105 and 111) from the bus stop opposite the hotel. The hotel is so huge that you need to walk two minutes to get to the bus stop though it is right in front of the hotel. The bus drops you off at the Heathrow Bus Stand. I then purchase a day pass at the station. One of the days, I could buy it easy at a vending machine, the next day however these machines wouldn’t accept any of my credit cards and I had to stand in the peak hour line for half an hour. At the Strand, I could purchase the day pass at the concierge but at the Renaissance, I couldn’t. I would then have to take the Picadilly line to Piccadilly circus, change trains to take the Bakerloo line to Charing Cross and then it was a five minute walk to office!! All this sounds a rather long trek, but I could finish the commute in less than an hour even with all the racing to catch the trains. In the underground, you get off a train and to get off the station, you might as well be prepared for another furious 2-3 minute walk, a minute up the deep escalators and flight or two of steps. By the time you get out of the station, you could be panting depending on how late you are to work. The train crowd getting in and out of the platforms all move along hurriedly which makes another fascinating study of people in a rush. People hurriedly moving along minding their own and in their own thoughts, not having time to listen to some great underground singing or strumming. Life passes by and before you know it, you are out of work and in for another furious commute on the trains. The trains themselves are outstanding examples of public infrastructure and service. You have trains literally every few minutes during peak hours to get you where you need to go. It takes time to get savvy with the trains. You need to know if you are going east or west or south or north for your destination – in London terms. A newcomer to London will be utterly clueless and can easily take the wrong train only to realize later and to add further to the confusion, he or she can’t just get off the train wherever to retrace the journey back if the realization is late and one is out of town. One might very well have to take another train to a totally different place first before catching a connection.
14-Jul-2011 12:15, Canon Canon PowerShot G12, 4.0, 6.1mm, 0.02 sec, ISO 80
 
Harrod’s
Once inside the trains, peak hours offer you little space. You sometimes are practically in a vertical six-by-foot-square and someone else peering down or nudging you. Still, people are mindful of their spaces, catching onto their music and trying to find their own in the limited space. Having a tube map is handy, but most of the trains display which station is coming up and the maps on the inside walls clearly show the route and the stops. There is such diversity but there is no time to study but to get along to your destination. By the time I left London eight days later, this time around I was very comfortable getting to places and making the hops. There is a site – The art of the London underground – in fact, that is very useful to read for the first-timers.
Each of the two remaining evenings I had, I spent in exploring London making full use of the day passes. The passes get expensive at fifteen pounds if you need to cover the peak hours, but it is the BEST way to get around London. Taxis are more expensive and take more time navigating the crowded and small roads.
One thing about London (and France) is that most of the people on the streets are dressed up rather well. Unlike on a New York sub, you find people dressed very well. The affinity to fashion is much more prevalent in Europe than in the US, at least on the streets. I could easily go along on New York streets in shorts and a freedom T-shirt in late spring and summer, but even on a hot, humid day in London, I found very little of the shorts. So much so, I was feeling out of place in my dockers and polos, I had to go coat shopping. I stepped during lunch hour Wednesday, thinking I could buy one easily. I found out Regents street connecting Piccadilly circus to Oxford Circus was full of shops. But these shops were all fashionable and up-scale. My dream of getting a 75 pound coat didn’t materialize during lunch. Instead I ended up in a Ferrari store staring at a formula-one showpiece and buying for my son! I got back in time for work but had to skip lunch. I still wasn’t used to the local time so I didn’t go hungry. But the streets were amazing, full of shops and extraordinary building facades. The circular shape that the building facades made up must have been for a reason, making it easy for people to congregate maybe. The lunch-time road was full of people and shoppers, teeming with them. I decided to come back later in the evening. That’s exactly what I did after work. It was to be a five hour exploration of the area. Later, I took the train back to Charing Cross in hunt for food. There was a music opera going on at the Trafalgar square and it was great evening entertainment – all free. The whole square was pecked with people. I guess it is the culture of Londoners of patronizing the music and arts as a crowd. It reminded me of the week long festive, public celebrations of Ram Navami and Lord Ganesh back in the city of Bangalore when I was growing up – thousands of people everyday out in the open listening to music or watching public shows. I headed back to Covent Garden for Sagar. By the time I was in the room near the airport, it was 11:15!
14-Jul-2011 12:50, Canon Canon PowerShot G12, 4.0, 6.1mm, 0.033 sec, ISO 160
 
Food stalls at Harrod’s
The next day, I took it easy getting up and that is when I had to spend more time at the station buying the day pass in a line. That evening, I decided to visit South Kensington – this is where the famous Harrod’s store is. This store is an attraction by itself. Spanning several blocks and four storeys, you can sense this is where the rich come to shop, not necessarily the famous. I got the impression, this is where the rich Arabs come to shop. The shop was so full of them. The shop itself is unbelievable – all with the highest of high-end shops and the decor meant fittingly only for the wealthy. Some of the decor is outrageous and reminded me of the fancier hotels. I was asked not to pull my rolling briefcase on the floor, thus I had to carry this 10 pound weight bearing my arm-sockets down all the one hour or so I was inside. Harrods is not a place you can find a bargain I think; it is definitely not meant to be the Amazon.com for the rich. Those who have no inhibitions about money, but, can find the best things money can buy here. It includes gold (not just jewelry, but BULLION!!, yes), real estate, vacations, etc. I can’t imagine how a store as large as this can be profitable at the prices they sell for. The bottom floor is for the bakery, food stalls, groceries (I guess some rich people buy groceries here), and ethnic food. I found an Indian stall, but most of the food was cold, so I just opted to get a samosa warmed up instead of having dinner at Harrods. For me, food needs to be warm or hot – I believe it is healthier this way and an effective way to kill bacteria during cooking. Also, hot food is easy on the stomach as well than hardened, cold food. Even salads, should be at room temperature not cold. No wonder, main ingredients of salads – lettuce, tomato, spinach, etc all are prime targets of ecoli or other bacteria. I got a real fancy, Harrod’s receipt for my samosa and that was the real souvenir for me from the world’s best known department store. Recently, the state of Qatar bought the shop for nearly 2 billion pounds from the late princess Diana’s boyfriend’s father as he said in no uncertain terms that he couldn’t take out the profits because some f!@$#ing board members didn’t approve of him taking out his own money to enjoy.
11-Jul-2011 14:27, Canon Canon PowerShot G12, 2.8, 7.407mm, 0.013 sec, ISO 1600
 
I strolled around the area in search of dinner but couldn’t surprisingly find something for my taste. I thought I will go back to Covent Garden to visit Masala Zone which was a fabulous hunt last March. I finally decided to take the train after waiting for about 5 minutes for a bus. There was no direct bus or at least I didn’t explore enough. The South Kensington station had a direct line to Covent Garden (the Picadilly line of course). While I knew Masala Zone was around Sagar, I didn’t exactly remember the location. All this time, I had my rolling laptop bag along and it took me 30 tiring minutes to find it. This time around, my cell phone didn’t have internet/data connection and I was wary of not using Google maps as the bill from my last visit had run over half a grand! The Masala Zone is a fabulous place and if you don’t time it, you might have to wait over 45 minutes to get a seat. Once I got in, I saw the line build up to the footpath. The Masala Coke was a novel concoction and excellent. The papdi chat was excellent, but the main entree wasn’t too much to my liking. Moreover, I was full with the chat itself. After dinner, I quickly found my way to the Covent Gardens station. To get to the underground here, you need to take a flight of 195 steps!! Luckily there are lifts (or elevators as the yankees call them) that make the travel down a breeze in less than a minute. The train ride was quiet, again with a lot of younger evening theater goers, maybe. I saw one particularly young girl showing open affection to a much older man in a pin-striped suit, the two sounded like they were having an affair, with she sitting on his lap for a brief time on the train! There were a few eyes rolling up after the two left. The girl was certainly abusive about someone else and spared no words and would have made a violent rap song sound easy on the ears.
Day seven: London, second time around, was getting to a close. Friday morning I worked from the hotel. The Heathrow is so huge, it takes a 20 minute walk to get from Security to the gate. I guess profiling at the airport is even stronger than in the US. Even after scanning my luggage, I was whisked (body-tapped!) at the gate. United airlines didn’t get my nod to continue loyally in the future. These Star Alliance airlines give you preferred status after you fly with them a certain number of times. It goes like Silver, Gold and Chairman level, etc. They collect all information about you enough to know that they can give you an automatic upgrade if available. But they don’t use the same information for easy security scans, why not? With preferred status, you get priority boarding, but in all airports outside of some in the US, I find the staff totally ignoring and letting people board regardless once pre-boarding is complete. Totally ridiculous for some loyalty. To heck with Star Alliance soon and I will shop try out another airline soon.
London is fascinating for many, many visits. Once you are in the city and know the system, there is no city like it. As I looked back on one of my evening strolls, I thought this was a place where a lot of history was created – the medieval ages, the industrial revolution, the sciences and mathematics, the leadership of the world wars. Now, London is a fashion and tourism center mainly. The Googles, Twitters, Internet, Facebooks, Amazons, etc are all being created elsewhere though. It might suffice to say that the concept of freedom and fairness that shaped America has origins around here. There is future of course, you can’t tell.

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