Saturday, July 16, 2011



It's not quite 6 in the morning London time and we've arrived 47 minutes early. The appeal of taking an overnight flight to Europe is to get there early, having slept the entire way and arriving refreshed without missing a thing. I haven't slept at all though, and Rich maybe for an hour, but I did manage to figure out how to re-set my watch to the proper time. It's sunny out and after walking through many long corridors to get to Customs at Heathrow airport and checking through, we find a BMI (British Midland)ticket counter to see about getting a flight to Edinburgh sooner than 15 hours from now. Did I mention that we're heading to Edinburgh first? While there are no direct flights to Edinburgh from Boston, Rich and I had been feeling quite chuffed about getting a seat sale to London when we booked back in early March. We then found flights to Edinburgh at 9 am for just a hundred dollars a piece, which only added to our pleasure.

That was 36 hours ago.

When I was set to print out our daily "suggested" itinerary (which my mother says resembles a novel and keeps emailing me to be "flexible" about things if the daily plan can't be followed through), I discovered what I can now call a "glitch," but 36 hours ago reacted to it much differently.
"What time in the morning do we arrive in Scotland?" I hollered over to Rich in his office. "We're leaving at 9 am, right?"
I didn't get a response for what seemed like a very long time, and then Rich came out of his office ashen-faced, holding the reservations behind his back. "I've made a grave mistake," he said, "between PM & AM."
I screamed. "You'll just have to change it, then," I told him. But the BMI flight co-shared with Luftansa and their reps in Russia kept putting Rich on hold, then told him it would cost about 1,000 dollars per ticket to make a change and that the only flight available was at 8 pm.

I didn't say much for a very long time. Then Rich reminded me that he would be a lot nicer about the whole thing if the situation had been reversed and I'd made the mistake, which could be entirely possible now that I need reading glasses and all, and he wasn't wearing his when he made the reservations, so we both split an ice cream sandwich and decided it was an opportunity to see London a day early.

Rich has managed to get a 7 o'clock flight to Edinburgh at no extra charge!! So we put our bags in storage and head for the London underground.

We each get ourselves an Oyster card, which allows for unlimited travel on trains, tubes and buses at discounted rates in all zones. We put 20 pounds on each card, knowing we'll get the 5 pound deposit back when we turn them in by the end of our trip. "Can you tell me how to get to Leicester Square?" I ask the ticket taker. "Les-ter Square," he says, then tells us to take the Piccadilly line. The tube is packed, but it only takes 45 minutes to get to Trafalgar Square via the Leicester Square station. Along the way we pass through the English countryside I suppose, or what might be called the English suburbs, seeing lots of communal garden plots as we zoom past and make stops at stations with great names like Boston Manor, Hounslow Central, South Ealing and Barons Court. I could just sit on the tube and listen to the lovely lady calling out the stations. A few young commuters are reading on Kindles, but most are engrossed in the DAILY MIRROR, which looks as tabloid-like as the NEW YORK POST, and we see there's just been a teacher's strike and that Kate and William are in Canada, while we're over here.

As we head up the stairs to outside, we're blinded by sunlight and trees, red double-decker buses and corner pubs with etched glass and pink petunia flower baskets above them. We follow the cobbled roads along with Londoners heading to work, and make our way to the Crypt. The plan is to get something to eat since it's not even 9 AM and the National Gallery doesn't open till 10 AM. (I'm getting very good at AM and PM).

All are around Trafalgar Square and the Crypt, across from the National Gallery, is a cafe in Saint Martin-in-the-Fields Church-- a wonderful-sounding ecclesiastical church I'd read about with a famous choir and a parish that feeds thousands of homeless Londoners each year and helps garner funding for that through its cafe.

It's an 18th century crypt-turned restaurant below the church where English gentry are buried beneath your feet while you nosh on rock cake, fish and chips on Fridays, or scones with clotted cream.

All proceeds from your food go toward helping the poor. They also have Jazz nights on Wednesdays and concerts Fridays at lunch, but even though it's Friday, we're here for breakfast only, and while we're the only ones in the restaurant when we arrive, we're greeted by an enthusiastic chef serving the cafeteria-style food.

"You look very hungry," he says to Rich. Rich nods and gets the full English breakfast (minus the blood sausage.) The server gives him a double order of ham instead and plenty of beans on toast. I get a delicious buttery croissant fresh out-of-the-oven and a brewed decaf cup of coffee that is perfectly strong and hot.

"Can you believe we're here?" I ask Rich. "Let me eat first and then I'll tell you how happy I am to be here," he whispers.

I'm starting to feel tired, having lost a night's sleep, but the coffee lifts me up and I follow the gravestones around the crypt imagining what it would have been like to be some of these Dukes and Viscounts or Mr. Button-man, his likeness standing behind an archway.

"Happy Canada Day," Rich says to me, holding my hand as we walk up the steps and to Trafalgar Square. "Happy Canada Day," it says on the jumbotron in the Square.

There are Mounties and lots of red and white flags and T-shirts and I'm feeling very patriotic, celebrating my country's big day while I'm in London. "You can get a cup of Tim Horton's coffee but you'll have to pay for it," somebody says to me. "Who wants some pemmican? Or beaver tails?" But it's not even 10 in the morning and I settle for a picture with a Mountie from Winnipeg as Rich stares at the beer garden that will be serving Sleemans at noon.

We lean against Lord Nelson's lions but I try not to get too comfortable or I know I'll fall asleep. There are signs about pickpockets being active in the area and I know I'd be easy prey.

"You tired?" I ask Rich. "On Canada Day?" he smiles. "Let's go to the Gallery."

What's incredible about London is that all galleries and museums (the large scale ones, anyhow) are free. This also includes guided tours, lectures and late night events on Friday nights complete with DJ's and concerts.

While we wait for the guided tour, we work our way through the many rooms in the massive National Gallery, the building itself worth seeing. Housing the most important collection of Western European paintings from 1250-1900, the Gallery reminds me of a giant-sized version of the home in the movie, NARNIA, with endless rooms to open doors into.

I'd printed out the 30 must-see paintings and we were blown away by the self-portrait of Rembrandt, but the big surprise was that my favorite wasn't Van Gogh's SUNFLOWERS or Georges Seurats' THE BATHERS, but George Stubbs' WHISTLEJACKET.

It's a life-size portrait of a racehorse that literally seems to jump out when you see it. Whistlejacket is rearing up on his hind legs in the painting, his chestnut coat glossy and his front legs groping at the gold-colored air. The horse seems to follow you as you leave the room and can be seen through the glass doors of several rooms before you get up close to the painting. Done in 1762 by Stubbs for the horse's owner, the 2nd Marquess of Rockingham, the pictures of it on the Gallery's website do not do this painting justice, and I had to go back a few times just to look at this magnificent horse rearing above me to appreciate the texture, color and scale of this painting. It's so life-like, you have to keep looking, wondering if Whistlejacket will gallop past you as you turn your back on him.

We assemble for the one hour tour, and are greeted by a gregarious young art historian who will focus on three paintings or "pictures" as he calls them and we all jostle behind him to the first painting. But then the jet lag or lack of sleep hits me and I have to sit down -- on the floor of the National Gallery. What can I do? All the benches are taken by school children. I close my eyes and get lulled to sleep by the voice of this magnificent curator-- or is it the magnificent voice of this curator? I want to have the strength to open my eyes and actually see the sacred painting he's talking about and I know he's mentioned St. Francis, but I keep thinking about St-Martin-in-the-Fields, and WHISTLEJACKET galloping past in the crypt. Rich give me a nudge and then joins me on the floor. We sit cross-legged together, listening to our guide. "How are you doing?" I ask Rich. "Working on 30 percent capacity," he says. "Maybe we should get some fresh air."

As much as I hated to leave the gallery and our beautiful-sounding tour guide, we walk along the streets past China Town, heading for Wardour Street and the Thai restaurant I'd picked out for after the tour. We hope they're open by 11:30 and luckily, they are. I'm told that BUSABA EATHAI is similar to the Wagamama chains in London (though I've never been to one) serving their food along communal tables with benches of fours or sixes. I'm so hungry I see a German tourist eating pad thai and immediately order that, staring at the lit candles suspended in the windows atop iron lanterns. It keeps me from toppling over and going to sleep right on the bench. Rich orders a curry soup bowl and we sip on papaya juice while we wait for our food. It's so good to be sitting down.

The food is as delicious as I'd hoped and at under 8 pounds a plate, I'm revived by the satisfaction of finding a great place that serves inexpensive food. Rich is so tired he heads into the ladies room by mistake as we leave. (The stick people sign didn't have a skirt, both just had bodies that were either curved--which meant it was a woman, Rich discovered, or straight, which lead to the men's toilets). And I've always wondered how a society possessing accents sounding so dignified could call restrooms, "toilets."

We head back to the tube and pass China Town and hop into a bakery, getting a coconut bun and a custard bun. I love my custard bun, but it does have a sort of unusual papery taste to it. "How's yours?" I ask Rich. "It's good, but it's hard to get the paper off the bottom of it since it's still warm." That when I realize I've eaten the entire piece of paper under mine, right along with the custard, accounting for the wooden taste and I wonder if I'll be sick on the tube.

"They account for that," Rich tells me. "I'm sure it's edible rice paper." We gawk at the roasted ducks hanging in the shop windows, their juices dripping down onto more paper which probably is inedible, too.

"Dim sum?" A woman smiles at us and hands Rich a menu. "That's what I want to have next time we get back here," he says.

We get on the tube and pass South Ealing and Hammersmith, gently rocked into slumber by the motion of the train and the lovely lady's voice coaxing commuters to, "mind the gap." The train isn't nearly as busy.

When we get to Heathrow, we eat crisps out of the vending machine and wait for our flight to Edinburgh. We've got loads of time. "Happy Canada Day," Rich says to me, handing me a red candy. In five hours we'll be in Edinburgh.


  1. Even though I am English and live in Cambridge, just outside London, I am really enjoying your posts about your trip to London and Edinborough! I just accidentally stumbled upon your blog and am glad I did!
    Funny you should mention the 'toilets'. Even though a lot of signs are printed with 'toilets' most people actually call them 'loos', we don't like saying the word 'toilet', it is quite vulgar, we usually call it a loo, lav or bathroom. Funny language that it is!

  2. So glad to hear that you're enjoying my posts about London and Edinborough. This trip was an incredible experience and I think I see and write differently, somehow, because of it. Glad to hear about the "loo" reference. I'm Canadian, and still refer to bathrooms as "the Loo," which my American husband finds amusing. But then, he takes out 'the trash' (not the rubbish or the garbage,) so yes, language can be a funny thing.

  3. I loved the experience and Sergio was an excellent instructor and a lovely guy to fly with.
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