October 28, 2003

(I finally got around to posting the Trip Report:)

The Kerns Travel to London, October 1-7, 2003


London Fun Fact #1: London's major infrastructure has not changed in over 200 years. It's very humbling to visit restaurant toilets in London that are older than most "Historic" buildings in America. We found it amazing that people complain about the Tube so much. Compared to American Public Transportation, the London Underground was probably the most kept-up, clearly mapped and safe subway I've seen. But figuring that most of them have to rely on it to get everywhere, complaints are inevitable, just like complaining about traffic jams if you have a car.

That led into London Fun Fact #2: The city of London is not as spread out as you might think. People talked about traveling six tube stops as if it were some great distance, and then we find that there's only about 45 seconds between stops. Even so, we though it covered a good distance underground, but after walking the city we found that it was surprisingly fast to get around the city proper. We started off our Saturday with the tour of the Tower of London, where we stayed until after noon, then headed across Tower Bridge, passing magician David Blaine, hanging in his Plexiglas box. (We just don't get why he roused the people there so much. Yeah, it's kind of weird having a guy starving himself for 45 days hanging in a box, but why people got so worked up over it, I'll never know.)

We'd only planned on seeing a few things that day, but ended up walking halfway across the city, taking in the rebuilt Shakespeare's Globe Theater and the remnants of The Rose, and we thought we'd end the day in one of the parks. After walking through the pristine green space, we took a left towards the tube station to get us back to our hotel in South Kensington. Then the street opens up and we're looking at Buckingham Palace! We'd planned on leaving it off the itinerary because by the map, it looked like this was a good distance out, and here we run into such a major landmark quite by accident. The palace and the statues across from it were truly amazing to see.

I snapped a few pictures, and then we crossed the street into Green Park, which was another lovely, well-kept green space. At the end of Green Park, we crossed a few streets to the Hyde Park Corner tube station. We were amazed that we'd nearly walked the length of the inner city (Zone 1 on the tube maps), and decided to press our luck and walk the rest of the way back via Hyde Park and Knightsbridge. It ends up that Hyde Park's map was not drawn to the same forgiving scale as the city maps. Melissa and I were looking beleaguered and lost enough that a passer-by noticed and asked if we needed directions.

London Fun Fact #3: People in London are as friendly and helpful as they come. They are more than happy to impart any knowledge or directions to anyone who appears to need it, even if those people are too shy to ask. And unlike New York City residents, with their certain "You're a tourist? You suck! Wanna buy a T-shirt? You're a moron for buying my T-shirt!" charm, Londoners still seem flattered that you decided to visit, and generally treat tourists with a level of courtesy that American usually reserve for houseguests.

Before hitting the sack, we had dinner at a nice Italian joint down the street from the hotel. The food in London is excellent and there are countless beautiful pubs and little French bakeries everywhere you go. London Fun Fact #4: Tax in the UK (called “VAT” or “Value Added Tax”) is comparatively a bit high at 17%, but on the upside, Brits actually had the bright idea to INCLUDE the tax in the listed price of items. So if you buy a CD for 12.99, you pay 12.99 at the
register. We were in our beds watching television at 8 PM, absolutely exhausted and amazed at what we’d accomplished in just our first day.

This routine of getting up early, taking the tube and walking around the city for 9 hours and collapsing into our "Lucy & Ricky Ricardo Suite" separate beds continued for the rest of the trip. Miraculously, even though the city is fairly compact to American standards, we hardly ever saw two places in the city more than once. I'll spare the day-by-day details, but we saw all the major sights, like St. Paul's Cathedral, The London Eye, Trafalgar Square, the National Portrait Gallery, the Tate Modern Gallery, Piccadilly Circus (London's answer to Times Square), Carnaby Street in SoHo, Big Ben & the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and countless "minor" points of interest that were each older than our country. We saw so much more than we expected, we cancelled a guided walking tour that we'd scheduled because we had unintentionally seen most of the covered sights already, and the last thing we wanted to do was walk some more after 8:00 PM.

The notable exception to the routine was Sunday, when we were to travel to a small city called Milton Keynes where an event called "CollectorM@nia 4" was going on. It was a Sci-Fi fan fest where stars from shows and movies would come to sign autographs. This year, the organizers surprised everyone by scheduling seven actors from the "Lord of the Rings" movies, most notably Hobbits Sean Astin ("Sam"), Dominic Monaghan ("Merry") and Elijah Wood ("Frodo"). Melissa, whose level of obsession with the “Lord of the Rings” rivals Chicago’s obsession with the Cubs, ASSURES me that it was “sheer coincidence” that the date of this event overlapped our planned dates to visit London.

We rose at 4:00 AM to catch the train to Milton Keynes, and hailed a Taxi at 4:45. London Fun Fact #5: London taxis cleaner than most American limousines and the drivers are likely the most personable, talkative people you’ll ever hire. Halfway to the train station, the man asked us when we were leaving for the airport. We told him probably around 10:00 and he frowned. “That’s a shame, I’ll be off shift then. If it were a bit earlier, I’d have come and picked you up,” he said. Not only are they quite friendly, their grasp of the city layout is impeccable.

CollectorM@nia 4 was a story in itself. We met Sean Astin and Dominic Monaghan, and ended up meeting Elijah Wood, even though we didn’t expect to. Melissa brought them each a thoughtful gift and she got autographs and hugs in return. Needless to say, this made Melissa’s year. I got some good pictures of the exchange, and I’ve spent the remainder of the past month recounting the play-by-play to her.

We made some friends while waiting in line and on the way to and from the event. While speaking with these individuals, I discovered London Fun Fact #6: The British accent is very easy to pick up, and it’s difficult not to slip into it. As far as I can tell, the British language is more about intonation, pacing and ending your sentences in questions than it is about different words. The latter of these lends itself to the famous, dry British wit. The American stereotype that all Brits speak Cockney is about as accurate as the European stereotype that all Americans are cowboys.

The trip ended all too soon and we flew out of London-Gatwick that Tuesday. We returned to Atlanta with the following souvenir inventory:

  • 1 well-worn London Underground map with South Kensington station circled
  • 1 notepad with the addresses of some great people we met at CollectorM@nia
  • 1 “Royal Bowling Set” (Six plush, vaguely royal pins and a foam ball), purchased at the Tower of London for Matthew.
  • 1 key chain and 1 magnet, each bearing a picture of us on the London Eye overlooking the Thames River for Melissa and me
  • 1 small raven figurine from the Tower of London for Brenda.
  • Programs from each art gallery we visited for Jay
  • 1 Official “David Blaine-in-a-Box”™ playset by Mattel
  • 1 “Ministry of Sound: The Chillout Session – Summer 2003” CD compilation from the Piccadilly Circus Tower Records store for me
  • 2 autographed Hobbit Pictures (Sam & Merry) for Melissa
  • 1 autographed Hobbit Picture (Sam) for Heather
  • 2 Cadbury chocolate bars for Craig
  • 1 Cuban Cigar for Justin from a Duty Free shop
  • 176 digital pictures of architecture, Mini Coopers, pubs, monuments, cityscapes, parks and Hobbits


PS: I’m only kidding about the “David Blaine-in-a-Box.” It’s actually made by Hasbro.

October 22, 2003

I've spent countless hours toiling in the back rooms of libraries around the greater Atlanta area, searching for the truth that I knew was out there...
Fellow Blogger Dave Barry reports on The Link between Episcopalianism and hating the NY Yankees.

October 08, 2003

Back from London last night. Had a great time, will fill in details soon. Returned to work today to find that a new 19" monitor had been ordered for me. Since I doubt my department would have the foresight to attempt lulling me into a false sense of security, I'll take this as a vote of confidence in my employment status.