Tuesday, May 25, 2010

England Swings

A LONG day today. I got up at 5 a.m. and had a quick shower before going down for an early breakfast. By 6:15 I was rolling my 40-pound suitcase up and down Valletta's hilly streets to the bus terminus to catch the 6:30 to the airport. There was an elderly Irish couple waiting there already, and a Scotchman joined us soon, and then the young couple who had come down to breakfast at the guesthouse. The bus got us to the airport by 7 and, since there were two flights leaving before 9, the checkin gate was open. After checking in, I sat down for a cup of tea at the little cafe (Malta's airport isn't terribly large, you understand), and then around 8 or so went toward the departure gates. Came through that all right, then wandered around inside the security area a bit, since I didn't see any sense in rushing to sit on the plane, and THEN, when I went to passport control to board the plane, they wanted to know why my passport didn't have an entry stamp. I explained that I had flown in from Rome, that there was no one waiting to stamp passports when I arrived in Malta, and that I had checked with "customer care" to see if I needed a stamp and was told no. The man explained that I should have been stamped in Rome, at the airport. So he took me into the small police office there at the airport, and they asked me when I had arrived, and if I could show proof of when I arrived, and so forth. They took a photo of my passport and of my paperwork from Red Bird travel: I couldn't find the stub of my boarding pass from that flight, but I still had the ticket purchase receipt Donna gave me weeks and weeks ago. Then they filled out a form, reporting that Rome had not registered me when I entered, and made me sign that, then gave me that original form and kept a copy of it for themselves. It was a little spooky, especially as it was getting close to time for the flight to leave.

When they let me go, and I approached the gate, I had the distinct impression the Air Malta folks were waiting on me, even though it wasn't quite 8:40, departure time. There were no other passengers waiting to board, and the guy sort of waved me toward the door, then said, "No, wait for the shuttle." At Malta International, you still walk out of the terminal, get onto a bus, ride the bus to the aircraft, then climb the stairs to enter it. So a bus came up to the curb, let me in--no one else there but me!--and took me to the jet. I was the last to board!

Well, after that, the flight was fortunately uneventful. And fortunately it was a bright sunny day--and even felt fairly warm, though that might have been because I was wearing jeans, a t-shirt and a long-sleeved shirt. I read a bit, dozed a bit, ate a bit, looked out the window a bit, on the flight. I saw the "white cliffs of Dover" as we neared the end of the flight, and was pleased to see that there was sunlight in England as well.

It was about 10:40 when we touched down, and disembarking went fairly quickly. Then we had a long walk to baggage claim and passport control, and then I had to find out about getting a train ticket to Victoria Station. I wasn't exactly sure what to do, but the gentlemen at the ticket counter was very helpful and told me I could get a day pass for the Tube (the London subway, also called the Underground) for only 1 pound 40 pence more than the train ticket, so I bought that, since I would need to take the Underground to Paddington Station (this will mean something to those of you who teach or taught elementary school, I think), which is quite near the hotel I'm staying in.

Now here's something I don't get: there's a train called the Gatwick Express, that brags about running every 15 minutes and getting you to Victoria Station in 30 minutes. I didn't check to see what it costs because I knew already that it costs quite a bit more than the regular train ride, which I had taken last time and which makes only two stops between Gatwick and Victoria. What I don't get is this: the regular train took less than 40 minutes to get to Victoria, so why pay extra to save 7 or 8 minutes? I suppose the train may not run as often--I don't know about that--because I only had to wait about 5 minutes for it. I also exchanged euros for pounds at the station: my 36 or 37 euros were worth just a pinch over 28 pounds, minus the 1 pound 50 handling charge. With about 6 pounds I still had from 2007, that got me a little money in my pocket without immediately hitting an ATM.

When I got to Victoria, I stopped in a little food shop and got a Coke and a bag of crisps (potato chips) to go with my packet of tuna I've been holding onto ever since America. Then I sat on a bench and part one of lunch. Then I found a helpful Underground employee to remind me what to do to get to Paddington. By the time I left Paddington Station (after getting more info from another helpful employee about how to get to Heathrow next week) and tugged that heavy suitcase to the hotel and got checked in, it was only about 1 p.m. London time (2 p.m. in Malta) so I had been up for 9 hours already, and it was only barely after lunch time. Sigh. I unloaded some stuff in the room, rearranged the backpack, changed into shorts and took off the long-sleeved shirt since it was fairly warm and sunny outside, and then I headed off. Even though my day pass was still good for more Tube riding, I walked and reacquainted myself with the streets I had seen so much of in 2007.

When I got past Hyde Park and over to Oxford Street, where the serious shopping starts, I went into Sainsbury's grocery store, which I remembered from before. It was time to supplement my tuna and chips. Inside Sainsbury's, I got an apple, a croissant and a bottle of water, then went over to the south side of Oxford Street to Marble Arch park for lunch part two. There I took a photo of this enormous horse head sculpture, which I do not remember from 2007.

There are also two brightly painted elephant sculptures in the park, and later I ran across some more of them in Berkeley Square (where I was having my lightish supper). A placard at Marble Arch explained that the elephants are part of "elephant walk," but there was no information I could find on the horse's head.

Lou Ann will want to conk me on the head when I tell you that my afternoon's goal, besides just enjoying being in London, was visiting some bookstores. It seemed better to wait till tomorrow to start museum-going and so forth, so I thought I'd check out some used book stores on Charing Cross Road. Now that's a fairly long walk from Hyde Park, but remember that so far today had mostly been riding--on a bus, on a jet, on a train, on a subway. So here are a few shots of swinging London. I think I took all of these as I was returning from Charing Cross Road, rather than on the way.

London seems to be under construction. I don't know if there is some big overhaul going on for a specific purpose, or if things are just happening. Behind the blue wall in this photo is empty space, though it may look like those buildings back there are inside the blue. This looked to be pretty much a full city block. I don't remember what was here 3 years ago, but I'm sure it wasn't empty. This is prime retail property on a major shopping route.

I also passed, entirely by chance, Carnaby Street, so famous in the '60s as the place where all the hippest shops were located. It seems to have sort of turned into a theme park now!

This young man was sitting off to the side in front of a store "playing" the traffic cone. One of the songs I recognized was "When the Saints Go Marchin' In". I donated 50 pence to the little pile of coins accumulating on his backpack.

And here is a bit of history making a comeback. I suppose most of us remember vaguely the British East India Company from our studies of the Age of Exploration in school. I passed this long temporary wall, blocking off the front of the building while the renovation is going on, advertising the East India Company's return. The photo's not very good. There's a lot of sunlight shining off of it.

And this quite tiny car is a model I have already seen 3 or 4 of. Apparently it's called the G-Wiz and is an electric car. It makes the MiniCooper look large!

Well, did I buy any books at the used stores? No, though I saw some I might ponder going back for. I did however buy a new book, at Blackwell's on Charing Cross: "All Our Worldly Goods" by Irene Nemirovsky. I've been quite taken with her work over the past several months. You may remember when "Suite Francaise" appeared a few years ago. Nemirovsky died in Auschwitz in 1942, and "Suite Francaise", unfinished, lay unknown in a suitcase in her daughter's possession for about 60 years. "All Our Worldly Goods" is one I haven't seen on the shelves in the US, though a story collection called "Dimanche" was published in the US just before I left. (I look forward to reading it when I get back.) "Suite Francaise" is really good, if you're looking for something to read. It was intended to be a suite of 5 short novels, only 2 of which were finished. Both of them are quite good, set in France right as World War II is beginning and the Germans are invading and then settling in as occupiers. "Fire in the Blood," another book Nemirovsky didn't live to complete, is also quite good, and it's a satisfying work, even though it's unfinished.

Another job for this afternoon I have saved for last because I think it may bore most (all?) of you witless. I wanted to check in with Vodafone and see if my Maltese "internet key" (mobile modem) was going to work here in London. There's good news and bad news about this: the bad news is that, yes, my Maltese internet key will work in the UK, but at the cost of 5 euros per MB of usage. (Because I would be "roaming"--not in my "home" zone.) Normally in Malta I was using 30-35 MB per night, so you can figure out pretty quickly that I could be running up charges of 150 euros a night to use the Maltese key! Not my idea of fun. So I asked them if I could get a UK SIM card for the modem and then just buy UK usage. The easy answer to that question is No. But the good news is how cheap the internet keys are in the UK. For 25 pounds, I was able to buy the UK internet key with 3 GB of usage already loaded into it. So basically I will be paying about 2.5 pounds a day for usage for the next ten days. Of course if I was staying longer, the price per day would average out less because the 3 GB don't expire for 30 days, and in 30 days I would probably not use more than 1.5 GB anyway. What is amazing to me about this price is that I thought the Maltese price was low, in comparison to what pay-as-you-go Mobile Broadband costs in the US, but the UK is even cheaper. The "key" plus 3 GB of usage in Malta cost 82 euros, somewhere between $105-110, but in the US it costs $129, plus tax, just to buy the key/modem from Verizon, which is a subsidiary of Vodafone. And then when you buy your pay-as-you-go usage, you get only 500 MB, which costs another $50. In 2007 I paid 40 pounds (when the pound was worth a lot more than it is now) for wifi usage, but I had to be either in Starbucks or TMobile for the wifi to work.

Well, now, the Internet Key won't connect. I've tried several times. And I realize now that I wasn't given a SIM card with my purchase. Is that the problem or is this supposed to work without one? I will have to go back tomorrow and find out what is going on. And that means I can't post this on the 25th or communicate with any of you right now. Rats.

Hey, I uninstalled the Malta key installation, and then did a new install with the UK key, and now it works. Cool.


DrTee said...

London is gearing up for the Olympics! And probably a royal wedding in 2011.

But it is always under construction to some extent.

I won't conk you for going to bookstores. That's all I do in London now, bookstores and plays. And pubs.

Cooper Renner said...

It seems like a whole lot of construction to me. I don't remember stuff like this all over the place last time. St Martin's in the Fields was closed for renovation, but that's not like this. I think they may be changing or adding a subway or rail line?

DrTee said...

They are going to have some serious reconstruction to do in terms of accessibility before 2012. The Olympics Committee is very, very strict about it (in part because the Paralympics will follow the Olympics).

I remember seeing some higher-than-normal activity a couple of years before Charles married (the first time), and we thought something was in the works.

Sheila Ryan said...

You beat me to it, perfesser. I was going to offer a few sly hints.

Cooper Renner said...

Well, the Olympics would explain everything, I reckon. I do wonder what's going to go in where that entire city block is missing. Maybe a SuperMcDonalds.