Thursday, May 24, 2012

May 24, 2012: What a Day it's been!

My day began at 4:45 a.m. in Malta. I had four wake-up "alarms", just to make sure I didn't oversleep: two alarm clocks, a television alarm, and a wake-up call from the hotel: a real person! It was easier than I might have thought to get up, perhaps because I have been going to sleep so early in Malta and perhaps because I was excited about the thought of getting to London.

I got in line to check out of the Grand Hotel Excelsior about 6:15 and before 6:30 I was in the hotel transport on the way to the airport. The check-in line there was open for multiple flights so I got in "the queue," checked my duffle and got a boarding pass. Then I went through security and upstairs to the boarding area. I wanted to talk to the immigration police as soon as possible and get my passport squared away. The two officers I found outside passport control said that yes, indeed, I'd have to go through the paperwork again, but it would need to wait until 7:30 or so when a gate was assigned to my flight. Then I could report to passport control and get things going. They said it would only take about 10 minutes to do the paperwork this time. So I went and had a croissant and cup of tea to supplement my very early oatmeal, corn flakes (without milk) and tea at the hotel. As soon as the gate was assigned I joined the short line there and handed my passport and boarding pass over as soon as my turn came. And--? And nothing happened. The officer punched some buttons on his computer and seemed to be looking at things, then stamped my passport and sent me through! So I had about an hour to take it easy, read the newspaper and wait.

We began boarding about 8:15. In Malta it's old-style. You get on a big bus which wheels you out to the plane, and then you climb the roll-up staircase onto the plane. Today's plane was specially painted with a skyline of Valletta along the sides and the caption "Candidate City--European Capital of Culture 2018." So I guess this is a title awarded (annually? biennially?) and competed for among the cities of Europe. I also noticed as we were in the boarding line a television screen that included among its rotating images the information that Malta International Airport was 2011's and 2010's "best airport in Europe" according to the Airport Councils or something like that. Kind of cool. It is a nice, compact place, but still with cafes and shops to keep you busy while you wait.

The jet was one of the smaller ones with a central aisle and three seats on each side. I had a window seat, a woman had the aisle seat, and the seat between us was empty, so that was nice. Even so we spent a good deal of the flight talking. She is of Caribbean ancestry but was born in London and now lives in Dorset. Her husband is Dutch. She obviously loves to travel. In fact, she said she would be back in Malta in a couple of weeks, then go to Vienna from there, then back to Malta and back to England. She showed me pictures of her trip to Rumania--especially Vlad the Impaler's castle and a historical village that recreates the way the people used to live, in thatched cottages built partway into the ground. The photos were on her smartphone, and the way she breezed through them, and the sharpness of the images, sort of made me want a smartphone, if only to use it as a camera and photo receptacle. She said in fact that she needed to learn how to download them to the computer because she had almost filled up her phone's memory.

After we landed, she helped me zip forward toward the passport control area, until she split off to the restrooms. I hurried on to passport control. Good thing! It jammed up really fast, especially with non-EU passengers who have to go through a different line. I was in line for 20-30 minutes, I'd guess, behind a young Amazon! She must have been 5'9" or 5'10" and I noticed that she had really long feet, of which surprisingly little were toes!

Then on to baggage claim. And believe it or not, by 11:30 (London time--an hour behind Malta) I had exchanged my remaining euros and a Gibraltar five-pound note for English pounds, and was at the train ticket counter, buying my ticket from the airport to Victoria Station and an all-day pass for the subway to use from there. But I needed food first. I went to Marks & Spencer's Simply Foods there at the terminal and got good quality sliced ham (for the first time since leaving the states!), chips, an apple and a cup of tea. Then I went off into a corner near a window and stood next to my baggage and ate. It was grand, if a little messy. Then off to find my train. Here's where my first booboo of the day occurred, and it wasn't just my goofiness, because others made the same mistake.

I got on the Victoria Express instead of the other train which makes 3 stops, the one I'd bought the ticket for. According to another man who did the same thing, the sign board was wrong when we boarded because the express was delayed and didn't leave on time. So the "local" should have been there, but wasn't. Anyway, at Victoria Station I had to pay 5 pounds 70 pence more for the error. Next I needed to find the subway line to get me to the neighborhood of my hotel. A subway official told me the line I needed wasn't working normally because of repairs or something, so he recommended an alternate route involving getting on one line for a couple of stops, then getting off and getting on another. It worked like a charm, and it helped that I didn't mind playing the hapless tourist who needed advice, and people were nice enough to help me out.

When I got to the hotel, however, I had another surprise. You can all help me remember to tell the travel agent why the rate we were getting for this hotel seemed so good--it's because they don't include the VAT (value-added tax, I think that means) to the quoted price, and that adds 20% a day to the cost. Plus, unlike most English accommodations, breakfast is not included, and that would add another 11 pounds 95 to the daily bill. So I'm paying just under 95 pounds a night and not having breakfast. Still, it's a very reasonable rate for London, as long as it's quiet. The room is much nicer than I have had before in England. I imagine this is an old building (and in fact the floor in the hallway goes up and down), but clearly there has been extensive remodeling. The television is new, but that's easy. Less easy is the new toilet and sink in the bathroom. The bathroom has two shower spigots--I can choose the big round overhead spigot that lets water just sort of drop all over you (like in the Grand in Malta) or a hand-held shower head similar to what I have in my RV. Either is good, but what sort of unnerves  me is that there is lip or rim to the shower-stall part of the bathroom floor: it's just sloped down toward the drain. And the shower curtain doesn't go all the way to floor either, so water sort of splashes out over most of the bathroom floor. I put the mat (just a heavy towel, actually) near the door so water would ease its way out into the carpet of the bedroom. It seems to me to be an example of a very "cool" looking design, that's not really practical. But apparently this is a "boutique" hotel, so they are going for cool and not functional! The room is very small, with virtually no closet space and only the very shallowest of drawers, so I guess boutiquers like to live out of their suitcases. But things are new, the AC is very good and it's brightly lit. (As for breakfast, I bought a just-add-water cup of "porridge" at Marks & Spencer, and I will just add water from the tea pot in the morning.)

So I got checked in, changed into shorts out of jeans, settled things in the room a bit, and then headed out. Guess what? It's warm! It was about 80 this afternoon, I'd guess, and I imagine that's 8 or 10 degrees warmer than Malta got today. I walked around all afternoon without my windbreaker! Can you believe it? If this is not the warmest day since I left Florida, then it's equalled only by May 11 in Pisa and maybe May 12 in Malta. I hope it lasts!

Since I had a day-pass for the subway, and since I wanted to go a few miles away, I went ahead and go on "the Tube" instead of walking all the way. Where was I headed my first afternoon in London? To the London Review Bookstore! It's near the British Museum, about 3 miles from my hotel. I only discovered in by chance in 2010 and didn't have much time to look. It's a more literary bookstore than the chains usually are, so I hoped to find some cool stuff there.

And I did. I bought two books, and could easily have bought more. I looked for quite a while getting ideas about what I might buy, and could have easily looked longer. Finally I came away with a slender book of poetry, A Sleepwalk on the Severn by Alice Oswald (on my last trip I bought her book Dart), and a memoir/biography, Under a Canvas Sky: Living Outside Gormenghast by Clare Peake. If you've been reading the blog the past several days, you will remember my mention of Mervyn Peake, Maeve Gilmore, and Titus Awakes. Clare is Mervyn and Maeve's daughter, and this book is her recounting of her parents' life together and of her own childhood. There were other very tempting books, but I decided these were two which were not going to be easily available in the US.

After shopping there I went over to Pret a Manger and had a cup of tea and another croissant, because lunch had worn off. Then I went to the British Museum (again!), just for a while, since I was in the neighborhood. Finally some photos for you.

Here are the feet of a Roman caryatid--if I keep my facts straight, a caryatid is a statue which serves as a pillar on a building. Aren't these great feet? Maybe I'll try to draw them at some point.

The statue is on the landing of one of the big staircases. And here's a photo of a case that held a poster from the 1948 Olympics in London and some medals from earlier Olympics and some other games, the names of which I can't remember. The poster is pretty cool, no?

I went to the ancient Mesopotamia section of course, and visited Gudea again, and saw the 'ram in the thicket' and Hammurabi and such things. But you probably saw too many photos of that stuff when I was here before, so I'll spare you. This is the remains of a great statue from Cyprus. It's not necessarily the best statue in the world, but it's very fine, and the light was good on it!

And I thought this was a nice little touch: a modern "head" studying the ancient heads, or maybe it's the other way around. I'm pretty sure this guy had no idea I was taking his photo. This was in the Roman section, I think.

I went to the real Marks & Spencer after the museum and got cooked, sliced chicken and a Marks & Spencer cola from the grocery section, then took them to the cafe section and got some "chunky chips"--what we would call steak fries--to go along with them. Then I sat at one of their little tables and had my supper. This is also when I picked up the porridge "tub" for tomorrow morning.

Then I spent some time in HMV music store, and was tempted by several things, but decided not to buy anything (yet?) One cool thing they have is a little collection of Warren Zevon's five records from '76 to '82, with the 5 fairly short albums each on its own CD in a little LP sleeve. Only 16 pounds, about 26 dollars, for 5 CDs. Not bad at all. They also have quite a number of old CDs on sale at 2 CDs for 10 pounds. There are several Tyrannosaurus Rex CDs on offer, as well as CDs by Love and other bands that I like. I have a lot of this music on my iPod, but it would be nice to have the CDs again to play in the truck. So I'll ponder whether I want to buy some music or not, since the price is so good.

Finally after browsing music, it was time to head "home". I walked all the way back. Here's something I passed on the way. I don't remember what was at this location in 2007--something older, I suppose. In 2010, this was an empty space where construction was beginning. Now it's this, with construction still going on. What is it? I don't know. I saw the name Park House on it. A huge hotel? Condos? I don't know. But yes, in case you're wondering, the sides are indeed curved: it's not a photo trick.

Now I've got the television on BBC1 and there's a show about Westminster Abbey and the Queen's 60th Jubilee, and I know my friend Nancy would be watching it with eyes peeled if she were here. I'm thinking and typing and not paying a great deal of attention, unfortunately. I need to get to bed soon. It's been a very long day. By now it's 10:30 in Malta, and I've been up almost 18 hours, and walked four or five miles, I suppose.

Tomorrow? Maybe Kew Gardens, if the weather is warm and bright again. I think at this very moment Debbie is still flying across the Atlantic from Madrid to DFW, after beginning her day in Venice. It will be a 31-hour day for her. Next Tuesday will be a 30-hour day for me.

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