Friday, May 30, 2014

Trainspotting in London

Truthfully I was less interested in the trains than the signs for the trains. All told I think I've got around 70 different station signs from around the greater London area--but I'm getting ahead of myself. I know I said no more travelogues but I've got nothing better to do (now that I've answered all my mail) as I sit in Toronto awaiting the final leg of my journey home--and nobody to edit the content of VFTD except me.

Tuesday morning Ainsley kindly drove me to the train station in Stafford. (I still haven't gotten used to not being the driver sitting in the left hand front seat. It takes great self-control not to try and shift, brake and steer the car but fortunately I'm constantly being distracted by everyone driving on the wrong side of the road and traffic signs an Egyptologist couldn't decipher with the Rosetta Stone. What is it with the crooked white lines that look like they've been in an accident?)
Back to London's Euston Station. I arrived a bit before 1pm. I've planned my route via underground to the station I think is closest to my hotel. The cost is more than half what a day pass would be so I buy a day pass. The weather is chilly and getting colder and the sometime drizzle periodically turns into lazy sprinkles that occasionally work themselves into raindrops. By the time I get to my hotel there won't be a lot of time left for sight-seeing or sights to be seen through the blanket of gray the city is shrouded in. But I want to do something and the day pass has given me an idea. After checking in I'm gonna go ride the tube and take pictures of every station sign I see. (Hey, it seemed like fun at the time.) And it started out brilliantly. I had a station map and organized a rough plan and figured to spend maybe four hours or so and see how many stations I could pass through. First ninety minutes worked out as planned and I've been through maybe 25 or 30 tube stations but in the next half hour the trains went from half full to standing room only packed like sardines in a can. I try switching lines to ones I think might be less heavily traveled for rush hour. I head into the city. I hop off packed trains and wait for later ones and before too long it becomes apparent this unremitting tide of humanity in a hurry isn't going to stop anytime soon. Of course by that time I was one of the sardines being dragged along by the waves of sweaty blank-faced people and by the time I finally reached Paddington Station I'd past through twice as many stops as I'd managed to take pictures of. So maybe it wasn't such a good idea and as it turns out most of the signs look pretty much alike.
But that didn't stop me. The next two days every chance I got I took a picture of underground signs and stations all over the city—in the course of doing other things, hence the 70 or so I've ended up with.

When isn't the first floor the first floor. When you're in a European hotel. I wasn't going to get into this but it's madness I say, madness. My hotel in the Midlands was, once upon a time, the mews of some obscure landed country gentry and they couldn't even keep the first floor on the same floor. (Maybe not but it could have been.) My room, ostensibly 121, was down a short hall and past a fire door (an ordinary swinging door but they were keen to call it a fire door) and then down another short stretch of hall to a door that opened onto a landing. (Another fire door.) Down the stairs, turn right and through another fire door, a short stretch of hall, another fire door and some more hall was stall 17, er, room 121. On the whole however it was a large comfortable room with the exception of limited hot anything including water.
In London the room was about half the size—as was the bed—and the TV was coin operated and had a distinctly institutional feel. (Okay the TV wasn't actually coin-operated but they required a deposit to use a remote control which says something for the sort of clientele they cater to I suppose.) And my room, 226 was also on the first floor but required I take the lift up one floor to get there even though the other rooms on the first floor were in fact on the first floor. (There's a ground floor in there somewhere too but frankly I didn't care. Still don't.)
I also figured out why every room has a prominently displayed hair dryer. It's not because the Euros are obsessed with their coifs it's because those dryers are the only things that generate any heat. And of course they keep them out of the bathrooms to avoid accidental suicides when some pitifully shivering patron drops one into a tepid bathtub.
American hotel rooms may be generic but at least they're big, come with cable TV, wifi, hot & cold running water, air-conditioning and heating depending on the season—although if you want to put on the air-conditioner in the winter then by God you can!--and they change the linens and the towels every damn day instead of pretending to be environmentally sensitive and leaving you to go days with dirty towels and used sheets.
Some of the best European hotels I've stayed--for a reasonable rate of course--are members of a global U.S. chain--as you're far more likely to get something similar to what you're used to. (There's a Best Western affiliate in Florence--I know!--that's just terrific. Brilliant even. Who'da thought?)  

Missed the damned canal boats campground, missed the picture opportunity that is, I saw it just fine at about 50 miles an hour and then I blinked but now I want to vacay on a canal boat and just float at my leisure along the canals of England. Of course I'll need wifi. (This won't make any sense at all if you haven't been keeping up both here and on Facebook.)

Unlike Mikey I won't eat anything but I am willing to try the occasional local cuisine sparingly. This time I had an excellent meal of pork belly braised in cider with roasted new potatoes and red cabbage—though the cabbage would have been equally at home on a dinner plate in Bavaria. (More on that in a second.) The first course was a tomato and spinach bisque that was very good and dessert was an almond tart with fresh raspberries and cream but apparently they were out of raspberries and so it came with strawberries instead. Either way the fruit was fine, the tart okay and I'll never understand what the English see in cream. On another evening out with Ainsley and Twizz I had the carvery which was nicely done and again, red cabbage on the side. This time however it was limp and bland so I'm not sure which was the real English cabbage (but at a guess I'd go for the boring one. Sorry.) While in the city I had fish & chips from a hole in the wall joint that seemed authentic to me if that's possible with two Indians and a black guy cooking. Whatever, I liked it. (They wrapped it up in paper and everything.) And I had a steak pie with mash drowned in parsley gravy which I was assured was the way locals prefer it--and have since at least the time of Alfred the Great. It wasn't bad but it was kinda bland and a wee bit thin on the steak part or meat of any sort for that matter. The same applied to the cherries in the cherry pie but it was still pretty good--without any cream.

Would it hurt anyone's feelings if I said I liked Paris better? And the language hardly matters as I can't understand what passes for English from most of the locals the first time around. Might as well be French. Perhaps it's because the city is undergoing such expansive changes and when I was here before it seemed like a city steeped in its own history and traditions and now, with all the massive modern construction--much of it of questionable design and taste--the city seems to be losing it's uniqueness. Or it could just be me. I hate change. 


Anonymous said...

I tend to agree Paris is better than London in someways, but I'm a little more familiar with it. Once you're underground it's all kind of the same to me, except for the fact that London seems quite a bit dirtier.

European street signs are the worst in general. I think it stems from their complex bureaucracy that thinks the solution to every problem is another rule, rather than just accepting that life sometimes has unavoidable problems. I've driven on plenty a road where you couldn't possibly take in the shear number of signs they throw at you all clumped together. But then again, it might also be a way they can "get you" for something if you're not following the rules (didn't you see that sign hidden back there? No? it was the 3rd sign back on the second row from the middle)

But I think perhaps a different philosophical approach that I'm sure can be debated (If just one life can be spared by adding this sign! vs, Information overload causes people to tune out more signs the more you add). Less is more. The work of a great sculptor is not adding material but removing it.

The best signs though are Germany, where aside from signs telling you to watch out for giant frogs, they have speed limit signs to tell you that the prior speed limit is expired, but provide no signage to tell you what the new speed limit is. They just assume you should naturally know what the new speed limit is, by telling you with certainty what it isn't. Rather than of course, just telling you the new speed limit for certainty, which would also certainly render the old speed limit expired.

The food to get in London is of course any kind of meat pie or cornish pasty. Fish and chips can be amazing in the right place, or basically just so-so tourist food in 99% of the places, even (especially?) if the place "looks" authentic.

Have fun in US customs!

Anonymous said...

Here's a an average example of sign overload, but probably not the worst.

Missed Q said...

you decided it might be fun to see how many tube-signs you could take pictures of?
That's the best you could come up with, in arguably the most historical, interesting and cultural city in the World? No wonder you were less than impressed. How about the Tate, Natural History Museum, Tower et al? I still go there when I'm in town and I still think they're awesome every time. Did you go?

And they took you to a Carvery? This guarantee's you crap food my friend. It's like hoping to get a culinary delight at Denny's, just doesn't happen. There are umpteen gastro-pubs that would have delivered much better fare.

And you came to Toronto?

Nick Brockdorff said...

First anon:

When there is no sign for the new speed limit in Germany, it's because there is no speed limit :D

Germany has stretches of freeway without speed limit... at least they used to.

That's when you get to do 150 Mph, if you have the car for it :P

Germans are uptight and over regulated about a great deal of things... but NOT their cars :)

Anonymous said...

If you're ever in Germany and see a line that says 60 with a line through it, please don't take that to mean unlimited. Apparently you don't understand their signs either and live just next door.

They have a sign with no numbers and a line through it which removes all speed limit and a sign with a number on it which removes that particular speed limit but the general speed limit still applies. Why they don't just post the general speed limit, no one knows.

Baca Loco said...

Hate traveling thru Toronto just because of US Customs. Still do but it's faster now as the whole thing is automated. Soon they'll have a machine that gropes you and the TSA drones will be out of a job.

You plainly missed the Facebook updates. :p
And I will be the first to admit I do not have a sophisticated palate if that requires I pretend to like tiny portions of weird crap at exorbitant prices.

Fullbore said... I kinda feel you'd enjoy this more than crap british pub food and antiquated ideas of hotel facilities 1/2hr free wifi in 24, wtf is that all about? Having said that, I've stayed in some pretty shabby joints in the US, like it's not a complete package without stained bed linen, carpets, cockroaches and the sheriff turns out to at least one fight in the parking lot per night!

Baca Loco said...

Excellent! Why am I not surprised? :)
Re: U.S. hotels. True, but as a general rule it's about location location location. Even Red Roof Inn and most Motel 6s are decent if nothing to write home about.
In Euroland I never stay any place that doesn't have at least 3 stars and the quality varies dramatically from the very good to barely tolerable.

Fullbore said...

I think a lot of the issue with the ratings of Euro hotels are the various bodies that award the stars, all have a differing agenda. I don't mind basic but I do want clean and comfortable and prefer a quiet location for a decent sleep, combating strange bed syndrome! Shame you didn't get the shot of the canal basin you were looking for, but I like the fact you invented your own game for the London Tube, we really should have warned you about rush hour. I'm sure you enjoyed the trip and got to see the things you wanted to on your down time. As for red cabbage, it's a delicacy the Brits are only just getting to the grip of really, the traditional fare of overcooked watery and tasteless veg still abounds in many establishments that really should know better.