Leaving London

I awoke with the alarm at 6:45 a.m., and packed the rest of my belongings as Holly did the same.  We checked out of the hotel, and made our way via the tube to Victoria Station, where we bought tickets to Gatwick airport.  There's an express train to Gatwick, but you pay about three times as much for a ticket as you do on the non-express line, and we weren't in that much of a hurry.

On the train, I found myself getting a little motion sick, as I hadn't eaten any breakfast yet, and was faced opposite to the motion of the train, so I begged a motion sickness pill from Holly, which I swallowed with no water, but just a piece of chocolate and one of our few remaining granola bars from the US.

We eventually arrived at Gatwick, and checked in with Northwest before heading to an extremely crowded security checkpoint.  Despite the massive crowd of people, they moved us through pretty quickly, and we were on the other side of the gate in about 15 minutes, where we found a cafe to buy some breakfast.  We still had almost three hours left until the time of our departure, though there were several duty-free and tax-free shops to browse through while we waited.

The flights home were uneventful, and we arrived in Waterloo at about 6:15, where my co-worker Chris picked us up at the airport, and then dropped us off at home, where we promptly greeted our cats, then crashed into bed.

London: Day Five

Today is the last of our sight-seeing days in London, and Katrine offered to come along and help us make the most of it.  It's also the best weather we've seen in London, sunny and mild.  We met her at the Westminster tube stop at 10:00, then set out for Greenwich via the tube and the Dockyards Light Rail line.

Greenwich is on the outskirts of the London metropolitan area, and it's beautiful.  We walked through the Royal Naval College, which has beautiful old buildings, such as the chapel and the painted hall.  We visited both before climbing the hill to the Royal Naval Observatory, which is the location of the Prime Meridian, and is the timekeeping center of the world.

If you're really into naval navigation, astronomy, or timekeeping, then you'd find Greenwich fascinating.  I'm not quite that nerdy, so I found it merely interesting, though the breath of fresh air we got being out in the massive park surrounding the observatory was worth the trip alone.  Entrance into the observatory is free, which is the best price for attractions after you've been traveling for almost two weeks.  The only downside of the visit is that you have to walk up the rather steep hill that holds the Observatory.

On the way back down, Katrine got some nuts from an eccentric older woman who was feeding the squirrels in the park, and she attempted to do the same, with mixed results.  There was one squirrel who was very aggressive in his begging, and followed Holly for quite a distance before finding someone else to beg for food.

We then wandered until we found an Internet cafe, as I wanted to check in for our flights on the next day, it now being within the 24-hour period where you can do that.  I paid 50 pence for 20 minutes on the computer, and another 60 pence to get the 4 pages of boarding passes printed out.  Checking in early is key to getting the best seats on the flight, as I was able to move us into an exit row on the short Minneapolis to Waterloo flight, and into a 2-seat section on the trans-Atlantic flight, which is preferable to setting in the middle 4 seats of the plane where we were originally booked.

After accomplishing this minor mission, we went to a French cafe nearby that Katrine enjoys a great deal.  I had a French cider, and a small bite of the Creme Brulee that Holly ordered to go with her Coke.  Katrine suggested that we return to London to see the John Soane museum, which was quite interesting (and also free).

Soane was an amateur architect and a bit of an eccentric art collector, and his house is a maze that's absolutely filled to bursting with paintings and sculptures.  Many of the walls are actually doors, and can be opened up to reveal secondary layers of paintings underneath the outer layer.  It's very strange and wonderful at the same time.  I strongly suggest seeing it if you're in the area.

We then drug Katrine along on some souvenir shopping, as we hadn't done much along the way, and wanted to find a few things to take back for family at home.  There are numerous shops filled with everything you can imagine stamped "London", but most of it is crap, so finding something decent amongst all the junk is a bit of a challenge.

Katrine had to go pick up her friend Kira, who was arriving at Liverpool station from Denmark, but we made plans to meet for drinks at a pub later in the evening.  Holly and I returned to our hotel to rest a bit, then set out for the neighborhood we were going to meet Katrine in later to find something to eat.  We took the tube to the Sherlock Holmes-themed Baker Street Station, then wandered around for half an hour trying to find a pub that wasn't absolutely bursting with noisy football fans. 

We eventually succeeded in finding a pub called the Duke of York, which had an upstairs bar that was almost deserted, without even any music playing. I sent the location to Katrine via a test message on my phone, after Holly discovered that they weren't going to open the kitchen until 9:00 p.m.  I nursed a cider until Katrine and Kira showed up, followed soon by another Dane named Leon, though I'm probably spelling that wrong.  They hadn't eaten yet either, so when the kitchen opened at 9, we all ordered.  Leon and Kira had lasagna, Katrine and I each had an angus hamburger, and Holly had fish & chips.  I didn't try her fish, but the chips we had were probably the best I've eaten since leaving the US, nice and crispy.

We chatted over dinner, and had a very good time discussing differences between the US and Europe, as well as convincing Katrine to come visit us at some point.  I eventually drained another two pints of cider before we all said our goodbyes, and my sober wife helped me stumble my way back to the hotel via the tube, where I showered as she packed the bulk of our things, and then I quickly fell asleep.  

London: Day Four

Today was the day that Holly booked tickets for the Tower of London, only to discover afterwards that they were actually vouchers for vouchers for tickets.  So, we took the toob down to Victoria Station to find the Golden Tours office so that we could redeem our vouchers for another voucher that would let us in the Tower.

Going to Victoria station was useful though, as we have to catch the train to Gatwick airport there on Saturday morning.  We scouted out the ticket booths for our Saturday train, then headed to the tours office.

We were third in line, but it took us about 20 minutes to talk to the staff at Golden Tours, there were two couples ahead of us attempting to book tours with incomplete information.  Note to people standing in front of me in line: Decide how many of you are going to go on a tour before getting in line, or, be able to make that decision in under 5 minutes.

We eventually got our vouchers, and then walked north to Buckingham Palace in time to see the changing of the guard.  This is very touristy, and there are literally thousands of other tourists crowding the place attempting to see the same thing, so we just stayed clear of the crowds and watched from afar.

We then walked north through Green Park, and caught the tube to Oxford Circus, as we'd been invited to Katrine's flat for lunch.  We were a bit early, so we milled around in the Oxford Circus Niketown for a bit, then walked to her place, still arriving a half-hour early.

We waited on the steps outside her building, and she turned up in a few minutes, with her arms full of the groceries she was going to turn into lunch for us.  She made us some excellent pitas, with many options for filling them.  Chicken, tuna, corn, lettuce, peppers, cheese, and a choice of dressings were all available, and Holly and I each stuffed ourselves on two pitas, then topped it off with a piece of carrot cake.

We also met Katrine's flatmate Robin, who quickly left to take an exam in his developmental psychology course.

After giving our food a bit of time to digest, Holly and I left Katrine's flat and set out for the Tower of London.  The Tower is rather expensive to visit, but we felt that it was worth the expense, but just barely.  It's rather touristy, but we arrived at the end of the day, so most of the crowd had dispersed.  Plan on needing 2-3 hours to see the whole Tower, especially if you want to take one of the tours from the Yeoman Warders (also known as Beefeaters).  We admired the ravens that are kept on the Tower grounds, then hiked up and down through the medieval towers, viewing various places people were imprisoned or beheadded, as well as the Crown Jewels of England.  The jewels were impressive, and the size of some of them is staggering.

We finished touring everything just as the tower closed for the evening, and we decided to take a boat west on the Thames, as we hadn't yet cruised this river, and it was only a little over 2 pounds each to do so.

As Holly was getting out my Nikon digital camera to take my picture in front of Tower Bridge, it dropped from her hand onto the cobblestones, which evoked a muffled cry from me.  She's been using my old 3.2 megapixel Canon digicam for the last 2 years, and the 5.1 megapixel Nikon has been "mine".  The Canon started having issues in France, so I let Holly use the Nikon, while I used my camcorder for everything.

Holly quickly picked up the Nikon, and it powered on and worked fine, though the corner of the case bears a nasty dent that has caused the metal case to pop outwards from the camera.  The case appears to unscrew, however, so I think I'll be able to bend it enough back that it will be flush again, and it'll just have a battle scar from our European trip.  Breaking both of our cameras in one trip would have been very disappointing, and replacing a camera in Britain would have been pretty painful with the current exchange rate.

Satisfied that the Nikon remained fully functional, we then boarded a boat east to the Savoy pier, though we didn't see as much along the river as we did in Paris, as this wasn't a dedicated sight-seeing boat like the other one.

After catching the tube back to our hotel, we rested for a bit, while Holly tried to find the nearest Pizza Hut, as we were both hungry for some good pan pizza.  She eventually located one a few blocks west of us in the arab neighborhood, and we walked down there to get a pizza to bring back to our hotel.

While eating, we watched a program called "Embarassing Illnesses" which was rather funny, though disgusting at times.  Holly didn't really enjoy the full-frame shot of one patients hemorrhoids, or another man's impressive athlete's foot infection.  They can show quite a bit more nudity on TV in the UK than they can in the US, though in this case, most of what you saw were things you would rather do without.  Holly noticed that the show was narrated by Ashley Jensen, an actress who we both enjoy quite a bit, along with Ricky Gervais, in the BBC/HBO show Extras.

London: Day Three

Still full from our late dinner the night before, we skipped breakfast, and caught the tube to Westminster.  We strolled around gawking at Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey.  Admission to the Abbey was 10 pounds per person, and we decided that we didn't feel like spending $40 to see the inside of another church.  Parliament and Big Ben are even more ornate than they appear to be in any picture or TV shot you've seen of them, but gothic architecture isn't really our thing.

We walked along the Thames for a bit, and decided that it has to be about the filthiest river we've ever seen, as there was a lot of floating debris and even an oil slick visible from the shore.

There was a lot of media around Parliament, as there were discussions going on there about the missing British toddler in Portugal, and I think some of the girl's family members were there to appeal to Parliament for help.  It has been two weeks since the girl went missing, but it's still on the front page of the tabloids here every day, and is practically all the news is covering each night, not that there's anything to actually report, but that doesn't stop them from wasting hours not-reporting it.

We decided to walk to Trafalgar square, where we stopped in for lunch at Little Frankie's, which is sort of a 1940's-themed American Italian restauraunt.  I had their two-course lunch special, with some really good Neapolitan garlic bread, and an angus cheeseburger & fries.  Holly had Lasagna.  The garlic bread was interesting, it sort of had smears of tomato paste on it to give it the stripes of color, so it was half-way to a pizza.

We then sat for a while in Trafalgar square, and people-watched, then explored a little more in the general direction of Picadilly Circus.  Picadilly is a total tourist trap, very crowded, and tons of people hawking souvenirs and discount theatre tickets.  Even with the discount, the theatre tickets were outside what we wanted to spend, thanks to the weak dollar, though we did think about attempting to see Spiderman 3 again at the theatre there, as the weather was becoming a bit wet.

A quick glance at the prices told me that we'd wait to see the movie when we got home.  The cheapest movie ticket was twelve and a half pounds.  For the two of us to watch the movie would have been $50!  I think I'll catch the matinee in Iowa on Sunday for $5.50 per person instead.  We'd planned on going to Hyde Park, but the rain convinced us to just return to our hotel and relax for the afternoon, which we did.  Going on vacation can get tiring.

I went down to the lobby for a bit to post some blog entries that I'd accumulated over the past few days, as that's where they have wireless internet.  Then we set off in search of something to eat.  Our hotel is in an Arab neighborhood, so it was very interesting to walk a few blocks to find dinner.  There are many stores serving arab food, but we passed all of those, as Holly was intent on finding a Subway store she'd seen a few days before.  We got a couple sandwiches, then stopped by a Baskin Robbins on the way back to the hotel for a cup of ice cream.

Baskin Robbins is something we actually can't get at home, as they closed the store in the Cedar Falls mall a few years ago, and put in a crappy frozen yogurt shop instead.  We ate our ice cream while walking back to the hotel, but the scents of incense and hookah smoke coming from the arab shops added interesting flavors to our dessert.

London: Day Two

Having gotten to bed somewhat late the night before, we had to drag ourselves out of bed in time to catch the tube down near the Thames in order to make our apointment with the London Eye.  Holly pre-ordered our tickets from the US before we left, so all we had to do was walk up to the machines for pre-paid tickets and swipe the same credit card in order for the tickets to print.  Pre-paying everything you can in the U.S. will let you pay with dollars instead of pounds, and you can avoid the fees that your credit card company may charge for currency conversion.

The London Eye is a giant ferris wheel that never stops, and each car is big enough to hold about 20 people.  It takes about half an hour to complete a revolution of the wheel, and while it's not a thrilling ride, it does give you a nice view of the city, and helps you establish the layout in your mind before setting off to visit the rest of London.

After the Eye, we caught the Tube to the British Museum, which was the only other thing on our Tuesday agenda.  We ducked into a Starbucks near the museum to grab a quick breakfast, and discovered that the pre-paid Starbucks cards we'd been given for Christmas in the US also worked in Britain. 

In the museum, we opted to rent a couple of the audio tour headsets, which were well worth the few pounds they cost, as they provided much more insight into the 60 exhibits they covered, and told you a great many things that weren't on the placards.

The first thing we saw was the Rosetta Stone, followed by the rest of the Egyptian, then Greek, Roman, Assyrian, and other ancient artifacts.  After about three hours of touring, we stopped by the cafeteria to split a croissant and some cheesecake for lunch. Most of the east wing of the museum was closed, but after five hours of wandering the rest of it, Holly's hip, and my feet had seen more than enough.

The quality of the artifacts at the British Museum blows everything else away, as the sheer size of their exhibits dwarfs everything else we've ever seen.  Many places have pieces of Egyptian artifacts, but most of them aren't of near the size or quality of the ones you'll find here.

Around 5, our tired feet drug us back to the tube, and we stopped in the Mark & Spencer store across from our hotel to grab some sandwiches to eat in our hotel room for supper.

London: Day One

After reaching the main part of the station, we headed for the ticket office to pick up our passes for the London Underground.  Holly had pre-paid for our passes before we left the US, and she had vouchers to turn in here to get the passes.  Just as we reached the front of the ticket queue, I noticed a screen that said that pre-paid tickets were to be collected in the next office over, so we went over there, but that turned out not to include our pre-paid tickets, which were back in the original room, so Holly went to stand in line again while I got left to watch the luggage.

After she returned with our passes, we set about finding some lunch.  The station had only fast food so opted for some Burger King, then used the Waterloo "loo" which cost us 20 pence each. 

We then navigated to Paddington station via the Bakerloo line, where we changed to the Circle line to take us to the Edware Road stop right by our hotel, the Hilton London Metropole.

The hotel is very large, and the lobby is like the UN, with people from every crner of the earth working and lounging there.  We checked in, having pre-paid for our room via Hotwire.com, where I saved a small fortune versus using a conventional site.

We finally got a hotel room with a King-sized bed, and though it has a not-so-lovely view of the antennas and air conditioners on the next building over, I can't complain for the price we paid.

We dropped our bags down, then set off for Herrod's, via the Underground.  The store was jam-packed with other tourists, and a glance at the prices told us we wouldn't be buying much.  The exchange rate has rendered us rather poor here, as it's over 2 dollars to the pound at the time I write this.  Most food-stuffs in London are priced as they wouuld be in dollars, so effectively, everything is at least twice the price as it would be in the U.S.  For instance, at Burger King, my whopper meal was 5.5 pounds, or 11 dollars.  Needless to say, we won't be dining out at any fancy restaurants while we're here.

Herrod's is filled with all sorts of things you've never seen, or considered buying, like a $600 Burberry scarf, or a pair of identical siamese kittens for $3000.  At least the 2:1 exchange rate makes it easy to calculate how bad you're being ripped off for everything you buy.

We spent about 2 hours walking through the massive store, which is the fanciest store I've ever been in, by far.  If Wal-Mart stores were appointed that nicely, I might actually shop in them too.  All we bought were some cat treats, and a chocolate bar, both of which were reasonably priced.  The owner, Mohammed Al-Fayed, passed by us with his passal of security people, as we were walking through the food hall.

We caught the tube back to our hotel in time to meet Katrine, the Danish girl that I met in St. Petersburg, Russia two and a half years ago.  She's getting a graduate degree here in London now. Holly and I walked to a pub near Oxford Circus with her, and after a pint of cider for me, and a Coke for Holly, we found an Italian restaurant for dinner.  I started with some bruschetta, which had an absurd amount of tomatoes on it, and followed it with a ham and pepper foccacia sandwich.  Holly had some ravioli in butter sauce, which she said was good, though a bit too much butter.  After a few hours of chit-chat, we said goodbye to Katrine, and caught the tube back to our hotel, where we fell asleep immediately.

Normandy: Day Two

As it was raining rather hard, we slept in late, and didn't check out of our hotel until almost noon.  With the weather, we decided to spend the day seeing indoor sights, so we return to Caen via Chez McDonald's for lunch.

We then stopped into the Caen Memorial to World Peace, which is an expensive, but extremely interesting museum.  It has one of the best exhibits regarding World War II that I'd ever seen, all presented in French, English, and German.  One interesting exhibit was an audio recording that the Germans had made of the calls made by the Generals who signed the French armistice after the fall of Paris.  They didn't know the Germans were recording the call, and hearing the call was sort of like being a fly on the wall of history, as the two French generals decided how to handle the rather unusual situation.

We spent about 3 hours in the WWII portion of the museum, then another hour in the Cold War section, and a few minutes in the modern section, which contains beams from the World Trade Center.  We then nabbed a few post cards from the gift shop, and departed for Paris.

The drive back to Paris was uneventful, we stopped for fuel a bit outside the city, and I accidentally put about 3 litres of the wrong diesel fuel (the car used regular diesel, which is "Gasole" and I accidentally grabbed "Gasole sans soufre") into the car before I realized my mistake.  Fortunately, that wasn't enough to do any apparent harm, and I put in another 30+ litres of the proper fuel, at a cost of about 45 Euros.  I haven't worked out exactly what the cost is in dollars per gallon, but it was 1.15 Euros per Litre at that station, though the one next to the rental car return was only 1.07.

Holly successfully guided me through the busy streets of Paris to the rental car return station, which was only two blocks from our hotel, the Mercure Terminus Est, directly across the street from the train station.

We checked in to find a small, yet cozy and well-appointed room, and the cost for wireless was actually reasonable, unlike all the other hotels on the trip, and I had no bandwidth cap, so I used it to download a few episodes of the Daily Show to watch when I get a chance.

For dinner, we ate at a fast food place called "Quick" on the corner.  I had a "Supreme Cheese" and Holly had a "Long Chicken" which came with the dreaded mayonaisse on it, despite assurances from the teenager who took our order that it wouuld not.  Quick fries are much better than McDonald's fries, at least the French versions of them.  My burger was pretty tasty, with a strong black pepper flavor to it.  Holly scraped the mayo off her chicken, which she said was tasty as well.

We then returned to our hotel room where Holly crashed for the evening, while I tried to catch up on some blogging and web-reading.

Paris: Day Six

We awoke around 7:30 a.m. and set about showering, getting ready for the day, and packing up our hotel room.  Once everything was packed, I left Holly in charge of checking out of the hotel and getting the bags to the curb, while I set out after our rental car.

I had originally planned to take the Metro, but it involved a transfer to another line, and given the distance involved, probably wasn't much faster than walking.  It was a cool morning, and about 15 minutes later I arrived at the Avis counter to pick up my car.

I wound up with a Renault Clio with a diesel engine, which was a slight upgrade from the Citroen C3 I had originally booked.  The rental agent showed me how to work the lights, and made sure I was capable of driving a manual transmission before setting me loose upon the streets of Paris.

Driving in Paris is rather difficult at first, as they've opted to make their street lights a bit more subtle than we're used to.  Also, like any large old city, there are numerous one-way streets, bus lanes, bicyclists, and pedestrians to complicate things.  Streets often change names after only a few blocks, for no obvious reason.  Staying near a landmark like the Eiffel Tower makes navigation easy, even when you don't know which street to take, so getting to the hotel was mainly an exercise in figuring out the traffic pattern that'd take me there.

I pulled up to the hotel to find Holly waiting by the curb, she threw our bags in the back, and we set off for Normandy.

I had printed directions from Google Maps before leaving the US, but after a few blocks, we didn't need them as the A13 highway was well marked, and I just followed the signs to it, and ignored Google's instructions, and soon we were out of Paris.

Paris: Day Five

Our fifth day in Paris started out slowly, we had some croissants for breakfast, then set off south from our hotel with the ambition of finding the Avis location for our rental car pickup on Saturday.  In the process, we discovered a laundromat that we vowed to take advantage of later, and a McDonald's, where we had lunch, though I couldn't get their wi-fi to work.

The Avis location was on a streed called Rue Bixio, which was rather difficult to find, as it wasn't on our city map, and turned out to be only one block long, but after an hour of wandering around the neighborhood, we found it.

We then noticed that we were right next to Les Invalides, and we used our museum pass to get inside.  We toured the museum of the army, which had thousands of pieces of armor and swords and other melee weapons.  Then we found the stairs that lead to the WWI and WWII exhibits which were even better.  They had an excellent section on the French resistance during WWII. 

After a couple hours in this museum, we visited Napoleon's tomb for about 10 minutes.  There's not really much to see there, it's just a big tomb inside the dome of Les Invalides, but at least the audio guides are free.

We then caught the metro to the museum of asian art, which was very good, but the information on our museum pass regarding the hours was wrong, so we wound up with only 45 minutes to see it all, instead of the 90 minutes we expected.  Holly enjoyed it a great deal, and vowed to visit it again if she ever returned to Paris.

We zipped back to our hotel for a quick rest, then talked to the concierge about the laundromat we saw earlier, and he suggested a closer one that was open later.  So, we hauled our dirty laundry to it in my suitcase, and Holly watched the laundry while doing some quiliting, as I attempted to find somewhere to eat dinner.  I didn't find much (other than McDonald's) in the neighborhood that was still open, as it was now after 8:00 p.m., so after spending about 20 euros to do our laundry, we stopped at the same Italian cafe that we'd eaten at the day before, and ordered a pizza to go.

The pizza was a four cheese (quatre frommage) affair, with a white sauce.  It was very good, after I picked off the large chunks of bleu cheese on my pieces.  It was quite different from anything I've had in the US, probably closer to a cheesebread than any pizza.

We then turned in for the night, after watching the Eiffel Tower sparkle from our hotel room for the last time.