A note about the London Underground (the Tube): it is amazing. You can get almost anywhere in town in about 30 minutes, from wherever you are standing. Trains run about every four to eight minutes, are fast, and are easy to negotiate. It costs more than an equivalent American system to get around, but 1) you get there quick, 2) you get there at all, 3) you can get anywhere. This is as opposed to a car, which in London seems to mostly be a way of killing off particularly stupid American tourists.
The system demonstrates clearly what public transport is supposed to be about, and blows away the theory we hold to so dearly in the US, that we need our cars. It’s so good, in fact, that the American government has been getting quite pissed off at the Brits about it and is applying diplomatic pressure to have it privatized or something, anything to bring it more in line with, say, Seattle, and therefore stop giving people ideas.
The British are understandably offended, and the situation was not made better when the Dutch Minister of Health chuckled and said “Yeah, I inhale.”
In any case, the Belfast is Europe’s last remaining big-gun warship, dating from WWII and in service until 1971. She weighs 13,000 tons, carries 12 six-inch guns, and is about 500 feet long. It was cool meandering all over and taking pictures, and much of the ship was open to the public. I was able to get a picture from the fantail, of the Tower of London in the background and one of the gun turrets in the foreground. Interesting contrast. These people have been here awhile.
By the time I was done getting my phallic symbol fix, it was around 6 pm and all the museums were closed. So I walked across the Tower Bridge and around the outside of the Tower of London for about 45 minutes. The Tower is a castle, with (from what I saw) two walls and multiple towers. It is situated in the middle of the city, surrounded by a small park, and looks totally anachronistic. Very cool though. I got pictures of the walls, a Beefeater, the Tower Cat (some random black cat running around in the walls) and The Tower Garbage Heap.
Afterwards I decided to wander through downtown and then down the Thames to Buckingham Palace. I went through downtown first, with its mix of old and brand new, then headed for the river and followed it until I’d passed the Houses of Parliament. It was a pretty day, and most of the Thames is fronted by parks and walking paths. I took it slow and easy, spending about 33 hours getting to Parliament. I was hoping to stop at one of the many English Pubs with names like “The Cask ‘n’ Hangover,” but I didn’t find any that suited my tastes. Honestly, the pubs in London have been a disappointment, featuring roughly one option from each type of drink (one Gin, one Whiskey, one Vodka) and a lot of Miller Light. But the walk was fine, because I did indeed have a lot on my mind.
This trip has been fantastic in most ways, but there have been some serious problems of late. Mostly it’s money related. There have been some serious glitches with my finances as checks have been clearing a week or more late, leaving me more than once down to my last $40 or so. This is stressful as hell when you have little control over fixing the problem due to distance. While I don’t fear actually starving on the street or anything, I do worry that I won’t be able to finish the trip and will have to cut it short after sleeping in a field somewhere for a couple days.
So, ways to stabilize the finances were high on my priority list, as were issues of where and when I work, where and when I go next. London was costing me close to 40 pounds a day, which is about $55 dollars a day or so. Since having to replace the bike, and with the checks getting delayed, I knew I couldn’t sustai n that for long.
Going down to Belgium and bicycling through the countryside had been the original plan, but with money so weird I was getting increasingly uncomfortable with doing that, hoping I didn’t end up broke in some farming town in the south of Holland. I would be spending less in the countryside, but would also have fewer options if things went badly. So I was struggling with ways to make sure I could continue the trip without running out of money.
At the same time there was the question of work, here or in the US. Been over this before, but it was coming up again. I wasn’t thrilled with London so far, and was waffling on submitting my resume. What I was trying to work out in my head was why. (E.g.: was I hesitant because of London, because of stress with money, because I was homesick, just a remarkably different environment skewing my perspective … ?)
Those of you thinking, “Dude, loosen up!” with all due respect,
And I tell you: contemplating one’s life, heart, and soul while wandering the banks of the Thames river in London is not a bad way to spend time.
As I made my way past Parliament I noticed more differences. In the US, you will see statues of major public figures bronzed scattered in square and street corner, as you do in England. However, our public figures are usually dressed in 18th or 19th century cloaks or more modern dress, holding books or random accoutrements of office.
In England, the public figures in question are men like Cromwell, who is swinging a sword over his head and wearing chain mail armor. Our public figures say to us things like, “I was a great statesman/politician/marketing weasel/lawyer, and I Helped The People.”
Their bronze statues say things like, “I smashed the other bugger in the head with this axe! Long live the King/Queen/Me!” or, “Damn the Germans/French/Marketing Weasels!”
And the architecture is damned impressive. Even the stuff not specifically designed to keep out people with axes or Germans is massively built and imposing. In the US, we model our older government buildings on Greco-Roman architecture in order to reinforce the image of the great Republic, and our newer government buildings on prisons in order to reinforce some message that I’ve never puzzled out, having something to do with function over form (which is clearly incorrect in this context, since one would expect a -huge- boost in function for the bloody sacrifice of such form).
The Brits basically say, “The state is Big. Really Big. Bloody huge in fact, and wise beyond measure. If you snicker, we’ll hit you with an axe.”
So I wandered past Parliament (and a clergyman with what must have been one hell of a case of piles) and was suitably awed at both the building and the history it represents.
It’s still cool to think that the Magna Carta was conceived here (or somewhere) within sight of the IBM building and the gigantic Ferris wheel from Star Wars.
From there I spent some time getting lost, and eventually found myself near Buckingham palace. Of course, I couldn’t see it, because it’s surrounded by a wall with barbed wire, so I started walking left around the wall. About 63 miles later the wall turned into a park, and I realized that the palace grounds were rather large in case the Queen decided to go riding around in a 4x4 or something. Walking through Green Park I came to the front of Buckingham Palace and got to watch some of the soldiers in Funny Hats make their rounds. At seemingly random intervals one of these guys would, after apparently being rewound!, start marching around in circles until the spring had released enough tension, at which point he would stop and stand completely motionless ignoring the tourists who were clapping. As it was getting dark and I’d been walking for about 5 hours at that point, I started heading for a tube station, along the nearby lake complete with the Royal Ducks, and through a triumphal arch that celebrated some event in which the British smashed the Bad Guys with an axe.
I didn’t get back until about midnight. It was a really good day.
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