UK Trip 2009

I’ve lived in New York for a year and a half now and still haven’t really taken advantage of the fact that I live near three major airports. I’ve had to play catch-up on finances, so I haven’t really been able to afford much in the way of vacationing. But that finally changed, sort of, and since it’s been more than 5 years since I was last in the UK, I figured that needed addressing. So I booked a flight with little to no planning beyond the purchase of tickets.

In addition to the many important lessons learned on my last voyage, this trip gave me still more opportunity for informative error. The first was booking a flight out of Newark at 8:00 a.m. I had debated taking the subway to Penn to Newark Liberty, but rail travel so early in the day is fraught with unknowns. So I took a car service. This was fortuitous because, while I had dutifully set my phone’s alarm for 4 a.m., I had neglected to remember that my alarm is set only to go off on weekdays. My wake-up call was the car service at 5 a.m. Fortunately for me, in the wisdom that only comes as one drifts off into sleep, I had decided I should take a shower in the evening rather than the morning. I was up and out the door in five minutes.

I have to admit that watching the sunrise over Manhattan from Newark Liberty was a pleasant exchange for the lack of sleep. The flight took off without a hitch. My seatmate was an older lady of African extraction who spoke little English and who, by all indications, had never flown before. The first tip off for me was the breakfast sandwich. The flight attendants handed us our egg and ham biscuit snacks, and the lady (whose name I can’t recall), inspected it quizzically before peeling off the Jimmy Dean sticker logo and licking the package directly. Only by glancing at my progress did she realize she was dealing with a wrapper. Next, the headphones were delivered. She apparently decided that these were ear muffs and put them on without ever plugging them in. My third clue to her airline virginity (we were flying, appropriately, on Virgin Atlantic airlines) was the seatbelt. Upon our landing, she was flummoxed as to how to remove it. I had to demonstrate.

And so we landed. The line to immigration was long. The less said of it, the better. I was able to consume several pages of Nabokov, though. Anyway, I took the Tube to Victoria station and met up with Mr. John Mumford. We proceeded to the Mumford flat in Streatham via Southern rail. I had neglected to eat dinner so we went to the supermarket. They wouldn’t take my debit card because all credit and debit cards in the UK have smart chips. None of mine did. ATM machines are about the only place I could get my debit card to work in the UK. Steps ahead, those Brits.

Sunday. John and I wandered Soho aimlessly before rendezvousing with his wife, Susan. We checked out Carnaby Street, Berwick Street (yes, Oasis fans, that’s the street), a giant plug and what few stores were open on a Sunday; fortunately this included much of Denmark Street. We met up with Susan at Ray’s Jazz Café at Foyle’s bookshop for lunch. Susan had to work (she runs a small rooftop art gallery), so John and I went up to Camden Town to goof off and do some shopping. I bought t-shirts, toys and a rare bootleg DVD of 1930’s King of Jazz – one of the most exquisite and opulent color films not yet released on DVD. We reconvened with Susan downtown at Hungerford Bridge and took in some drinks by the Thames before feasting at Wagamama.

Monday. Off on my own, my first destination was one of my favorite places in the world, St. Dunstan-in-the-East. Originally built in 1100, it’s a church that was bombed out in WWII and rebuilt as a public garden. It’s a quiet place amid the hustle and bustle of London’s financial district. I read the latest copy of The Believer and drank coffee. Back to Soho and Charing Cross after that, to dig through bookstore basements and take pictures of architecture. I also ran up to Bloomsbury to see the neighborhood where I spent a term of my junior year studying at the University of London. On the way home, I stopped at the Westminster tube station to take pictures of its decidedly Death Star-esque design. For dinner I reveled in the longstanding British tradition of cheap takeaway food.

Tuesday. I decided to hop off the train at Battersea Park to get up close and personal with the Battersea Power Station (you may recall it from Pink Floyd’s “Animals” album cover). After that I took a bus through Kensington up to Notting Hill to dig through the used-record shops and bookstores before a lunch of bangers and mash on Portobello Road. I bused my way back to Soho to attend a wine and chocolate tasting event at Susan’s gallery. Afterward, a fine Italian meal.

Wednesday. I went up to Enfield in north London to meet up with the great Jan Cyrka. He’s a British guitar hero for whom I built a website in the early days of the Internet. To be able to hang out at his place and jam on his guitars is still a thrilling experience. He may not be as famous as some other big-name guitar players, but his talents are nevertheless on that level. And he’s a class act of a chap. Afterward I met up with John at his workplace, the London Science Museum. John actually built several of the interactive exhibits there, so I got to go behind the scenes to see the AV department. He had to go to class after work, so we parted ways and I headed over to Covent Garden to find some dinner at Neal’s Yard, where apparently Monty Python lived. Actually, John Cleese lived there for some time, and Neal’s Yard Dairy was the inspiration for the Cheese Shop sketch. By complete blind luck, I stopped by nerd superstore Forbidden Planet beforehand to find that none other than Amanda Palmer was doing a book signing. What a pleasant surprise. With the remains of the day I stopped back by Foyle’s for coffee and browsing, before taking the bus back to Victoria. Along the way, I took some obligatory photos of Big Ben and Westminster Abbey.

Thursday. Time’s up. I took the expensive express train from Paddington Station to Heathrow. On the plane I watched The Boat that Rocked, which was a pleasantly British film (made by the cheesemakers who brought you Love, Actually) about pirate DJs in the 60’s. I also watched Star Trek and most of I Love You, Man before landing at JFK. I got home discover that my shampoo had exploded all over the interior of my shaving kit. Oops.