Thursday, August 31, 2006

A sad end to summer

I was going to post about how sad it is that it's the end of August and summer.

But today, I received a shock and a real reason for a sombre mood.

My friend's father - who was admitted to hospital almost two weeks ago becuase of difficulties breathing - passed away yesterday. She is part of a tight-knit family, so this is understandably an unbearably difficult time for them.

My deepest sympathies go out to her and her family at this time.

I will also be out of town this Labour Day weekend - which is also threatening to be miserable - so hopefully I'll have things to post about when I return.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006



Sorry I haven't been as loquacious as usual.

I'm suffering from a combination of writer's block - or "blogstipation", according to this "official" glossary - and laziness.

While I hit my head against the wall to clear out the gunk ...

Check it. Courtesy of British duo Nizlopi. Soooo cute!

(I'd paste the video here, but You Tube isn't agreeing with me. Boo-urns.)

Sound Off: Office Slobbiness

    On my last day as fill-in for another job in our office, the people I was working for this week had this yearly meeting to plan their vision for the fall.

    I was entrusted with the job of overseeing the set-up of the lounge in which they were having this meeting -- making sure they had their flipcharts on easels with markers, a portable CD player should they need it, and enough tables, chairs, food, whatever.

    Fine. That went smoothly enough.

    At day's end, I had to go upstairs to retrieve a few things and lay down a tablecloth as a favour to someone else, whose show was having a similar meeting the following day.

    I get up there, open the door to the lounge and round the corner.

    Good. GOD. WHAT a sty!

    There was leftover fruit from an earlier spread, stuck to the table. Coffee rings. Discarded water, juice bottles, pens. I even found an empty Starbucks cup (I'm guessing it was the "grande" size - I dunno, I don't drink Starbucks or coffee, period) under one of the armchairs! It's not like there wasn't a trash can - it was in the middle of the room. And NOT even full!

    Believe me, I'm far from being the cleanest person in the world. I know things can get a bit messy at all-day meetings. I even know that yes, in our office building, we have cleaners that come in to tidy up after us.

    But just lemme hop up on the old soapbox for a second.

    On my favourite TV show, there's a character - a villain, if you will - who's had his hand hacked off with an axe, by another character.

    In the space of three episodes, he's somehow managed to:

  • wake up from the shock that's knocked him out
  • wrap his stumpy, bleeding arm and leave the woodshed in which he was amputated
  • stagger through the woods
  • find himself a cooler in which to place - and chill - his severed hand
  • lope off with said cooler for medical help, and had to settled for a veterinarian
  • threatened aforementioned vet by screwdriver to sew on the hand, without anaesthetic
  • did NOT pass out, but vomit after his hand was re-attached
  • kill the veterinarian by lethal injection and take his clothes
  • dye his hair with peroxide
  • take the dead vet's SUV and is currently driving to Utah

... all with the use of ONE. HAND.

So tell me this: if a fictional criminal can do all that, with all that loss of blood, and LIVE, how is it that, in a room full of grown adults -- university-educated professionals -- there's NO ONE that could pick up just a tiny bit after themselves?

Just sayin'.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Pluto, 1930 - 2006. Kinda.

Pluto, we hardly knew ye!

The little wannabe astrono-nerd in me couldn't help but blink and choke up a little when I read this this afternoon. (Well, maybe just clear my throat a bit.)

Talk about undoing some 20 years of learning and memorization!

But, for real. Despite the runty, ice-cold exterior and wobbly, weird orbit, you must've known it was only a matter of time before us big eggheads punted you over to the dwarf planet table.

Imagine - if you didn't have all those other particles floatin' around, you might've had, what, another five, 10 years or so?

Kinda sucks for your discoverer's widow, too.

It was a good run, though. Have fun with the other dwarf planets. And remember - in this big interplanetary space park, you're the big dog now. Play nice! Hugs.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Ah, Edinburgh!

Hey kids,

So, after being about four days behind, here I am in Edinburgh, during the International Festival, Fringe Festival, and every other festival known to man right now.

I got here in one piece (and unwittingly managed to buy first-class tickets for the train rides up - like that'll ever happen again), and have been staying with my friend Cindy and her cool flatmates, Brad and Lindsay, at their place just off Leith Walk.

For you film-saavy folks, Leith is the same strip that features prominently in the movie Trainspotting (says Cindy). In real life, Leith is apparently dodgy enough that any friend of Cindy or Lindsay's (well, maybe just a few) who find out they might be walking home after a night on the town immediately orders them into a cab, rather than walk. We were out last night, and (touch wood) we were just fine.

It's been a pretty lazy stay in Edinburgh so far. I spent the first couple of days just sleeping in, loafing, and then only really doing one tourist attraction a day. On Monday, it was Edinburgh Castle. Tuesday, I dragged Lindsay and Cindy on a tour of the new Scottish Parliament.

Tuesday night, we went club-hopping. Cindy - who never drinks - had a couple and it was, well, interesting. We made three stops. The first was to this place called Opal Lounge, where apparently Princes William and Harry have frequented when they are in town. Second stop was the biggest, tackiest meat market in town, (almost aptly) called Espionage, which could give Joker here in Toronto a run for its money. The last - and briefest - visit was at this place called Frankenstein Pub, which was almost dead, save for about 25 people in the place. It was thoroughly cheesy, but fun nonetheless.

Today was slightly better. Cindy and I went to the Writers' Museum, where I took in exhibits on Robert Louis Stevenson (didn't know he was Scottish!), Sir Walter Scott, who has tonnes of books and poetry to his credit, and a huge hulking monument built to him in downtown Edinburgh (near the train station), and the man whose birthday I share (which is celebrated by Scots here and around the world), Robert Burns. It was good.

Then I went over to the Royal Museum. Meh. I spent way too much time among the stuffed animals in the BioDome, and not enough time in the upper levels. And I ran out of time, so I couldn't go to the adjoining Museum of Scotland. I might try doing that tomorrow.

This evening, I managed to go on the Real Mary King's Close tour (yay!), which showed what life was like before part of the old town got demolished and built over. This, I recommend. Partly cheesy, but very infomative.

It's getting late here, so I should go to bed if I'm going to cram stuff in on my last day in town. I'm not sure when I'll write next, but it'll most likely be when I'm back in Toronto. Oh, God. I am SO not looking forward to Friday.

Tuesday, August 15, 2006

The Midlands: The Abridged Tour

My short weekend in the Midlands was drastically different (and way more quiet) than my previous days in London. And green. I mean, there are green, lush areas in Ontario, and I'm sure in other parts of Canada. But I don't know if they really hold a candle to the lush, rolling hills of the English countryside. It's a bit surreal, really.

I also must say, Sabrina and her parents were so good to me - too good, actually. They more than made me feel at home and spoiled me more than I should have been. I owe them big time and hope I can find some way to repay them for the kindness and hospitality they showed me over the two days.

But here we go:

Saturday: After a good night's sleep, Sabrina and I set out for Stratford-upon-Avon. It's certainly pretty and picturesque, but lemme tell ya, the Bard's Country ain't exactly cheap, either. We went to the tourist information centre to try and find a map, only to find out there were only two types: the ones for 80p, and the ones for 1.25 GBP. Who knew trying not to get lost was so expensive?

We skipped the maps and decided instead to do one of those hop-on, hop-off bus tours. Not bad. We had one of those plug-in guides, so we were trying to follow along as the bus made its way along those narrow streets. First stop: Anne Hathaway's Cottage. How pretty. The garden was enormous and filled with all sorts of plants. They also had staff who gave a brief talk about the history of the cottage in Anne's day and throughout the ages when her relatives took care of it.

We then hopped back on the bus, where we had an actual live tour guide explain things about life in Tudor times as we whizzed past some countryside scenery (and leaned to the right to avoid being whacked in the heads by wayward branches).

Back in town, I went over to Shakespeare's birthplace, which actually had an adjoining museum about his life. That was informative, but it was kind of disappointing, only because the room where Shakespeare was apparently born was one of the last rooms I saw before I left the building. I have to say though, Anne Hathaway's cottage was relatively more interesting.

Sunday: Sabrina took me to her old elementary school, which looked a bit like something out of Harry Potter. She then took me into "downtown" Leek, where we walked around and she showed me her mother's shop (which is named after her older sister, Sophie). It's the cutest town, but I'm sure a lot of towns in this part of the country all look picture-pretty.

We then drove to Buxton, an ancient spa town founded in Roman times. On the way we passed Flash, which Sabrina told me was the highest point in the U.K. (I've read it's the highest village. If someone can verify that for me, please do). In any case, the scenery on the drive up was breathtaking.

A half-hour later we were in Buxton. Apart from the lovely Victorian architecture and beautiful gardens, another big draw is St. Ann's Well, which has natural spring water flowing from its small fountain. I took a couple swigs, and it's (a) unbelievably refreshing, but (b) also quite warm. Turns out the water is - and has always been - a balmy 27.5 degrees Celsius. Buxton also profits from this, as it also has its own mineral water company which distributes worldwide.

We could only spend a couple of hours here, as I left later on in the afternoon for Edinburgh. But we managed to have some tea and scones at a small tea room in town, which capped off a nice weekend.

But it was off to Edinburgh, and trying to cram in as much as possible during the last four days of vacation ...

Stoke-on-Trent, Concluded.

When you last read this blog, I (your twit of a heroine) was waiting for my friend and her parents to come collect me from Macclesfield train station, after missing my actual stop.

I just realized I didn't have my wallet. A frantic search of my hand bag and person a few moments later confirmed it. Nice.

The last place I remembered having it was the phone booth, so I went back out there and checked. Not in sight. I suddenly knew what it felt like to be one of those people in those credit card commercials who go on vacation and lose everything.

I thought I was going to start shitting bricks (pardon the expression). I was looking around, in front of me and behind me, trying to find anyone who looked suspicious enough to swipe a wallet with money and credit cards. I saw this young guy in a gray hooded sweatshirt with a load of grocery bags and immediately my mind started jumping to conclusions. I was like, Oh my God, some yob probably swiped my wallet to buy food and will probably run up my credit card. I'm screwed!

I did snap out of it, went to the ticket wicket and asked them if they had gotten a wallet and daybook turned in. They said to go to the customer service office. I got there, to find an older man just chatting away with the men inside the office. When he finally moved enough for me to pop my head around his shoulder, there they were. My daybook and wallet. Thank. God.

I thanked the man at the office desk profusely for his help, and apologized for being such a twit. I also found out that he thought I'd gotten on the train back to Stoke-on-Trent and put out an announcement for me back there. Hoo, boy.

Things were sorted out in the end. My friend's parents -- bless them, they're the best! -- elected to come and pick me up from the station, since it would take an hour for my friend to drive from Stoke all the way to where I was, and they took me back to their place, where I did eventually see my friend.

The mini-nightmare was finally over. It also made me kind of paranoid, as I vowed I wouldn't let the same thing happen to me when I finally headed up to Edinburgh on Sunday.

Aimed for Stoke-on-Trent. Kinda missed.

So my trek northwards began Friday afternoon ... managed to lug my suitcase onto the tube and up to Euston train station, one of a number of railway hubs in the city.

Got my ticket printed, chilled for a few minutes, and then boarded the right train at the right time. So far, success.

It was at my stop that the trouble began. I noticed the train start to slow down and seeing the signs for Stoke-on-Trent, so I jumped up and began the slightly arduous task of trying to wrestle my suitcase from its hold behind my seat. By the time I got it upright and was making my way to my seat to get my backpack, the train had stopped and passengers were getting on.

It was a nightmare. I couldn't budge, so I had to stand at my seat, blocked in by my suitcase, while other people passed. Finally, the coast was clear, and as I started lugging my stuff down the tiny, tiny aisle, I got my first lesson about Virgin Trains.

Seasoned travellers, please skip this part, because you all know far better than me. But for anyone ever planning on coming to the U.K. and making part of your trip overland: Virgin Trains is NOT like VIA Rail. The train doesn't stop and wait to make sure everyone has boarded or gotten off, that has to. Virgin's Pendolino trains run on a tight schedule, so tight that sometimes, some of its scheduled trains may actually stop longer than expected because they're ahead of schedule.

I found this out the hard way. The train probably stopped for a total of maybe three or four minutes, tops. As soon as I finally made my way towards the doors to exit, the train slowly started pulling out of the station.

"No!" I said to myself as I saw the train moving out. "No! No! Shit! No! Shit! SHIT!"

It was too late though. My friend Sabrina, who was waiting for me on the other side, would have seen people get off, and then would watch as yet another train pulled in a short time later, with no me in sight.

In the meantime, panicked and upset, I first went to find the station manager to explain what had happened to me and which stop I could get off at next to get back on track (so to speak). Went up and down the entire train (I had stashed my stuff on a non-reserved seat in my car). No manager in site. I returned to my "new" seat near the door, very frustrated.

I asked a nearby passenger if she'd seen the manager, and if she knew which station was coming up next. She said no to neither. But bless her heart, she lent me her mobile to try and call and text my friend. No luck, but it was the gesture that counted.

Turns out the next station was Macclesfield, which was about 15 minutes away from Stoke-on-Trent. I stood in the little area between cars with all my gear, and as soon as the train stopped, I was off there like a hobo off a freight car. I went up to the first train staff member I found and explained my predicament. He told me that there was another train going back to Stoke-on-Trent in about 20 minutes and that I had to go to the opposite platform across from us, via elevator.

Great. So I went up and over. On the other side, I looked for a payphone. No phones. Because they were on the way out. On the other side of the platform from which I came. Twit.

So back up and over I went, through the ticket/waiting area, outside where cars waited to pick up people. The phones were on the other side. I made a call to Sabrina, but I got a message saying her phone was off. I called her house and talked to her mom, who told me to stay put.

THEN my that's when my second scatter-brained nightmare of the day took place. After making my calls, I went back into the waiting area and sat down, trying to chill out for a few minutes. After what seemed like 10 or 15 minutes later, I jumped up with a start.

My wallet!

Sunday, August 13, 2006

A Wee Update

Hey kiddies,

Sorry for the lack of correspondence over the last couple days.

The abridged version: after a weekend in the Midlands (which began with me trapped on a train), I'm now up in Edinburgh, somewhat alert, and trying not to step in either dog crap or vomit (my friend Cindy's advice to me!).

Will try and write more soon (including a more thorough explanation of the last few days in chronological order).

Thursday, August 10, 2006

High Tea? Check.

Seating for one at Harrod's Georgian Restaurant for tea, complete with finger sandwiches, scones, desserts and huge tea pot of green mint tea: 19.95 GBP.

Tip for service: 5.05 GBP.

Taking in the ambience while savouring the gooey, sticky sweet goodness: Priceless.

That's right. I finally made it to Harrod's in Knightsbridge. I went. I ate. I bought tea. I have a plastic shopping bag. I am a Harrod's virgin no more.

(I was going to title this post, "Tea at Harrod's, Bitches!" but considering there are probably friends and acquaintances who got there long before I did -- and probably actually shopped there -- they'd probably think I was an immature loser who just happened to do what thousands and thousands of people do all the ... Oh, hell. Who am I kidding? I had tea at Harrod's, bitches!)

I think I was there for about an hour and 20 minutes, but I didn't care. It was great. I did manage to eventually peel myself off of the chair to look around. I barely got a look at the place in the short time I was there, but what I saw was surreal. The Egyptian Room. A chocolate bar. (No, not like the candy. An actual bar. With big churning vats of chocolate instead of hard liquor along the back counter.)

I didn't want to get near anything, for fear I'd in some way damage it and have to pay for it. Costly pots ... pans ... hats ... Fendi and Jimmy Choo bags ... If I was a shopaholic with a penchant for expensive things, this place would be my Waterloo. It was certainly something else.

Earlier, I'd (finally!) gone to the Tate Modern, which I missed on my last trip to London. Of all the stuff I attempted to digest in the two hours I was there, I must say that this was my favourite (next to Picasso, of course). Don't ask me why, but I remember spending more time looking at it than most. Oh yeah, this was pretty good, too.

This, however, annoyed the snot out of me. Don't be fooled by the still picture. I wish I could find a video version of this to properly convey what I mean. Take my word, though - It was almost the audio-visual equivalent of being shot at with a pellet gun.

Of course, me merely mentioning it probably means the artist has achieved what he set out to do. But if you ever go to Tate Modern and stand in front of this thing, leave within two minutes. 'Cause if you're not afraid of clowns before you approach this work, I can see the possibility that you just might be when you leave it.

But on a slightly serious note, I can't believe 10 days have come and gone already! Luckily there's still more to come. If I'm not held up at the train station by long lineups and luggage searches, that is.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

The East London Experience

As circumstance (and laziness) would have it, I ended up spending my entire afternoon in evening in East London.

I originally went down there to retrieve my loaned mobile from a friend of a friend, who was kind enough to drive me home last Saturday after missing the subway back. In my exhausted daze, I'd taken it out and threw it on the backseat, and forgot about it until I'd gotten back to my friend's place - about 2 minutes after he'd driven off.

He also had promised to show me around when I was in the area this week, but it wasn't meant to be. He did suggest spending some time at Old Spitalfields Market. I did come through here the last time I was in London, so I wasn't really in the mood to buy anything. But I figured I'd at least have lunch here for old time's sake.

(If any of you get to come here, go to Cafe Mediterraneo - it's where I had probably one of the best chicken salads and hummus ever. I thought I'd be done in 20 minutes. No, ladies and gents. The motto on their bill reads, "SLOW FOOD IS GOOD FOOD", and they're not lying. That thing took the better part of an hour to finish. It was like time slowed down when I ate that salad. I was this close to going home and taking a nap.)

After that, it was down to the Museum in Docklands - quite interesting if you're into the history of London through its ports, docks and mercantile industry. It's actually bigger than I thought it would be - I spent 2 hours in there and only got as far as the abolition of the slave trade. There's way more beyond that, and it's not a bad little place to visit. And for 5 GBP, you can get a ticket that's good for a year. (If anyone plans on going to London between now and Aug 9, 2007, lemme know I'll be quite happy to let you have my ticket.)

By the time I caught the Docklands Light Railway (their version of the Scarborough RT, except things smell, well, slightly river-y instead of like sulphur at Midland Station - yeggs!) back to Tower Hill Station, and tried to grab some dinner, it was time for the main event - the Jack the Ripper walking tour I'd been waiting to take for days.

Funnily enough, the tour guide (really informative) took us back through the part of East London where I'd been earlier (dang) and showed approximately where the murders took place. I didn't know part of that area of town is actually now Banglatown, which is apparently reputed to have the best curry. (Too bad I already ate!). But it was neat.

And here I am, with one full day left before I have to pack up and travel out of the city by train. Sniff. I can't believe it's almost over! Well, time to get some shut-eye and make the best of what I've got left.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Surrounded by clocks. And STILL tardy.

Today, I took a river boat cruise along the Thames. But, as usual, time wasn't on my side.

I bought my ticket and, thinking I had plenty of time to make the boat, went wandering off along South Bank, where a lot of the cultural stuff is located.

By the time I figured out it was time to turn around, and hustled over to the pier, the catamaran had taken off. I had to wait until 3:00 p.m. to catch the next one.

I managed to snap a few pictures, and got off at Greenwich, way on the other side of the Thames. Very picturesque. It's home to the famous Cutty Sark (which brought tea leaves to London), the Maritime Museum, Greenwich University and the Royal Naval College. But I zipped past all of this for what I thought might be the real treasure: the Royal Observatory.

I originally went because of (a) my growing admiration of Sir Christopher Wren's architectural work, and (b) my fleeting interest in astronomy as a child, so I thought, telescopes and great views - sweet. Turns out I was also visiting the symbolic birthplace of modern time and home of the Prime Meridian (a.k.a. The Reason I Have To Do Time Zone Math at Work Every Day).

I also didn't anticipate the fact it was up on a hill. Pretty when you get up there. Not-so-pretty as you huff and puff up there. As much as I admired Christopher Wren just 30 minutes earlier, I was silently cursing his name as I climbed upwards in my wedges. (I bet 20 bucks he didn't hike up there in his pointy shoes. Hot air balloon is my educated guess.)

The view of London from here is really impressive, though. There's also a free tour through the building - the living quarters of the first Astronomer Royal, a Camera Obscura outside, the Octagon Room where they'd peer through their telescopes ....

And all the timekeepers, clocks, and pocketwatches you can shake a stick at. It was definitely something I was taken by. Speaking of time, I was definitely operating on DST (D Slow-ass Time). By the time I got to the section with clocks and watches, I realized I was late for the boat leaving Greenwich for Embankment Pier (where I was supposed to jump off and meet a friend for dinner). Typical.

So I stayed a bit longer, looked around, and then lined up for the famous picture-taking spot where the Eastern and Western Hemispheres are separated by a single, imaginary, dividing line. It took about 20 minutes, but I got my small moment with time snapped (with slightly annoying kids jumping around in the background).

Then I hightailed it out of there (or as much as you can in heeled sandals) back down to the pier. The boat I'd hoped to make it on was full, so I was put on another boat, which turned out to be The Slowest Boat Ever. I was sitting at Greenwich Pier for at least a good half-hour while three other boats docked, picked up other passengers, and zipped away.

I finally had had it and jumped off at Tower Bridge, because I probably could meet my friend faster if I took the tube. I did finally manage to find her, apologize profusely (she was really really good about it) and we had a nice dinner.

But it was definitely a bit of an unpredictable afternoon. And a further reminder of why I need to invest in a wristwatch.

Monday, August 07, 2006

Torture and Jewels at the Tower of London

So after The Day Of Neverending Travel, I slept in and didn't venture out until well after 2 p.m. My plan: to see the Tower of London.

I took the District Line down to Tower Hill. Unlike the other lines I've been on, it's definitely an older one. The tube cars are old and clunky, and the term "Mind the Gap" definitely applies at each stop - it looked like there were about three to four inches (at least) between the cars and the platform. You could definitely jam a leg down there. Well, it looked that way to me, anyhow.

The Tower is definitely worth it. When you surface from the Underground, you can see a piece of the original wall that fenced in ancient London. And the actual Tower of London (a series of towers) is gigantic.

I can honestly say the best part of the Tower is the tour given by the guards there (called Yeoman Warders, or Beefeaters). The one I got was quite lively and very funny. Definitely entertaining if you're a kid. I think the tour lasts about a half-hour, and then they let you loose to see the other towers. We got a glance at where the prisoners for execution were brought in, heard a few of the stories of folks who were imprisoned, even where a couple of Henry VIII's wives were (privately) executed. Fascinating stuff.

Most guide books will say you need to give yourself at least a couple hours. I think - if you want to be thorough - you need to give yourself several hours. Because I went so late, I didn't get to see all of the towers. I spent the most time in the White Tower, but that was because there were so many people. There's a lot of armour, and a lot of weaponry in there, so if that's your thing, you would probably appreciate it. (I must say, if you go to the armoury area, check out the suit of armour for Henry VIII. He was pretty, ahem, generous with the codpiece.)

I then had to scoot over to see the Crown Jewels. This is a must. Yeah, the blinged-out crowns and sceptres are sparkly and impressive. But there's this golden punch bowl ... holy crap.

I wanted to get into the Bloody Tower, but only made it in to see the torture implements in the lower levels (nothing says "pain and suffering" like a device named The Scavenger's Daughter), and then the place closed down.

I definitely would pay to see this again, if only to hit the rest of the towers and Tower Bridge which, even from a distance, is pretty impressive. Alas, another time, another trip.

Birmingham, Scarborough Style

Yesterday, I decided to go visit my cousin Shauna in Birmingham. It was a last-minute decision, as I only found out she was there, the day before I left Toronto. And man, what a voyage that was.

Left the house reasonably early and got myself down to London Euston relatively ahead of time.

After plunking down 35 GBP, along with a few more quid for a cookie, some water and crisps, I waited for an hour and boarded the train (luckily, the right one) on time.

Two and a half hours later, I arrived at Birmingham New Street Station. I called my cousin, who I thought would come and meet me. I ended up having to take a cab to her flat (cost: about 10 GBP).

Didn't do much. Met her boyfriend, caught up with her a bit, ate dinner and watched TV and bootlegged DVDs. (Like the really bad ones where the DVD skips and you could see people's silhouettes when they left their seats, and where the screen was partly obscured when someone got up in front of the camera or the bootlegger's jacket got in the way). But it was very nice to see her again, nonetheless.

I stayed a little later than expected, leaving sometime after 8 p.m. Shauna's boyfriend was more than kind enough to give me a lift back to the station.

I ended up just missing a train back into London and dropped another 35 GBP for a return ticket on the last train to Euston.

That trip itself went well. It was when I finally returned to the station that things got a bit difficult.

I thought - if the train pulled in a couple minutes early - I could dash down to the Underground and try and make my way as far westward as possible. I was doing brilliantly until I skidded to a stop in front of partially closed gates and a whiteboard which read, "UNDERGROUND CLOSED. SERVICE RESUMES AT 5:20 A.M."

What. The. Fuh.

My friends over in Ealing were probably already asleep, and there was no way I was going to wake them and make them come down for me. I already was staying in their home and pretty much eating their food. How inconsiderate and humiliating would THAT be? It would be like New Year's Eve 2000, all over again.

That left me with only one alternative, which people back home know I'm notorious for doing after a late night downtown - I was cabbing it home.

I went out to the main street beyond the station and tried flagging down a cab. Lousy luck. And silly me. It seemed everytime I tried walking farther down the street, someone would get a cab near the spot I just stood. After about 10 minutes of this (and panicked visions of spending the night sleeping on a park bench and potentially getting mugged or worse), I strode back into the station, asked the night staff about taxis, and got directed to a taxi park on the other side of the station.

About 40 minutes and almost 30 GBP later, I was back in Ealing. And soon I was out like a light.

Sunday, August 06, 2006

Portobello ... and uh-oh ...

On Saturday, my friend's fiance John and I went down to Portobello Market. It wasn't too bad, if a bit crowded. I've been told it's in one of the more expensive parts of town, being in Notting Hill. But we mainly stuck to the long stretch of road with vendors and antique shops.

Of course, with it being a location flooded by tourists on a regular basis, no doubt things were a bit pricey, depending on where you went. I didn't really see anything that caught my fancy, save for a necklace I ended up purchasing (10 GBP - not the best price, but it was okay).

We then hightailed it out of there, and John took me to this historic old tavern, the Cheshire Cheese. Built after the Great Fire of 1666, it's pretty much remained standing ever since. I had a pint of cider (not Strongbow, but actually quite nice). Unfortunately, most of the bar had been either closed off or reserved for private functions, so I really didn't see a whole lot past the front drinking room, which was really small. Come to think of it, most of the bar (and the staircase down to the toilets) was pretty small. People must've been tiny back in the 17th century. Like Shetland Pony-tiny.

Later in the evening, I met up with my friend Shenaz (who lives in Canary Wharf) and her friend for a play over in the west end, at Hammersmith. It was a political play about the Iranian constitutional revolution of 1906. Interesting stuff.

After, we drove downtown to Covent Garden. I must say - from the back of a car, London at night looks awesome. I tried to take a couple pictures, but they didn't turn out as well as I thought they would. We went to this place called Pizza Express (where they eat their pizza with a knife and fork - !!!) and chilled and joked around for a bit.

It was a great end to a good day ... except for one thing.

Unlike the subway in Toronto, the London Underground - as great as it is - has this annoying habit of shutting down completely after about 12 a.m. So by the time we figured this out, Shenaz's friend - who's from East London - had to drive me all the way BACK to West London. And we had to stop a few times along the way to figure out which way we were going. I eventually got dropped off at about 2:15, 2:30 a.m. or so. I offered to pay for gas, but he refused.

I felt awful. I was also vowing to myself not to let that happen again. Famous last words.

Out of The Hole ...

I haven't had the chance to write for a couple days, and that's mainly 'cause I've been a bit worn out by all the things I've been trying to cram in. I just got home not too long ago from Birmingham, so while I'm up, I'll fill you in.

On Friday, my friend Mandy and I went to St. Paul's Cathedral. I'd been there the last time I was in London, but never got to go above the ground floor due to renovation/restoration. But it certainly felt like I was going in again for the first time (especially when I found out I had to pay 9 GBP. I definitely do NOT remember that part). Being the Baroque style of architecture, the craftsmanship is phenomenal and elaborate. The artwork is unbelievable. The whole place is ridiculous, but in a good way. It just boggles my mind whenever I see stuff like that, to think human beings are capable of such massive works of architectural art. And that's the old stuff.

A couple things I learned about myself (or at least admitted once again):

(a) I am an out-of-shape loser. There are 530 little, tiny steps going up into the upper areas of the cathedral, and I got winded after about the halfway point. Meanwhile my friend - the runner - didn't even break a sweat. Note to self: Resume cardio when I return to Toronto.

(b) The older I get, the more uneasy I am of heights. I'm not scared, per se. Otherwise I never would've said, "Let's go up to the top!" The sections outside the actual building were fine. However, when we got to the Whispering Gallery up in the Dome and I looked waay up to all the artwork above, my stomach and my brain both said, "Oh, hell, no!" in unison, and I held on to that metal bar with at least one hand (and clutching my stuffed MEC bag with the other). Of course, Mandy - being the fearless runner friend she is, ducked in between the railing. Show-off.

Climbing the spiralling metal staircase to get up to the Golden Gallery, the uneasiness continued. I didn't dare look down, and I didn't even attempt to look up. Just straight ahead - or at least at Mandy's feet as she ascended the steps ahead of me.

Once I was outside at the top, I was pretty much fine. I snapped a couple of pictures, took in the skyline, which is quite the sight. But I felt the slight vertigo return on the way down. And I specifically remember getting back down to the ground floor of St. Paul's and feeling a slight wobble in my legs. That can't be a good sign.

We also spent part of the afternoon in the Museum of London. Nope, not the British Museum. There's an actual museum dedicated to the history of London, from prehistoric times onward. I can't speak for my friend, but St. Paul's tuckered me out, so we never made it past Roman times. Luckily the Museum was free.

Then we met up with Mandy's friend from work and we had dinner at or near Kew Gardens. It was a cute little pub called the Rose and Crown. Definitely good food, and the building - like most in London - had a history behind it.

More a bit later ...

Thursday, August 03, 2006

A Tale of Two Houses

So two out of three ain't bad.

I wanted - more than anything - to visit the British Library (a.k.a. Wordgeeks' Paradise), but I just stopped short of actually heading inside the premises before having to turn around and head down to Canary Wharf to meet a friend.

(That's what you get when your friends give you a phone you can receive calls on, but can't make because you have no phone minutes and your phone hasn't been topped up. Problem later resolved, though.)

However, I did hit the Dickens House Museum over on Doughty Street (after getting lost on foot - surprised?) first. It's an interesting, if slightly cheesy, place. First I caught a 30-minute video on Dickens' life. (Well, most of it. This was the cheesy part. And I think I was caught nodding off by this 11-year-old blond girl sitting right next to me. I didn't look right at her - who needs dirty looks from a tween, anyway?)

Then I took a bit of a self-guided, brochure-free (one pound fifty pence EXTRA for the freakin' brochure!) tour. Not bad. Saw some objects that inspired his works. Did you know he and his family spent time in debtor's prison 'cause of his dad? Totally sucks, if not character-building for his literary works. He also apparently had quite the gaggle of lady-friends throughout his life. I even got a photo of the last desk he worked on before his death in 1870 (which I'll post later).

Compared to Dickens' residence, Sir John Soane's Museum may look like a typical nondescript historical home on the outside (it's actually three adjoining houses), but the inside is another kettle of fish. I went in blind, not knowing who the guy was (one of Britain's leading architects in the 19th century; responsible for designing the Bank of England), and was actually impressed.

Dude was eccentric. For serious. Mirrors. Tinted yellow glass in the roof. Crazy, beautifully designed domed skylights and ceilings. Artifacts up the yin-yang. Folding walls of paintings with stories. (Oh yes. Folding walls). And oh yeah - there's a sarcophagus in the basement.

Of course, like most museums, I couldn't photograph any of the wicked mirrors or skylights, so all I could really get is this lousy picture from outside (above). But that place seriously makes for good photography. If anyone finds a way to sneak a camera in and snap one of those convex mirrors, I'll be your BFF. Well, maybe not - I'd just think you're really cool for, like, a week.

Update: Responding to my comment about my friends' loaner phone. I was being sarcastic and was explaining a brief moment of frustration, which quickly passed.

In all seriousness, I am indebted to them for letting me stay with them during this trip and tricking me out with a phone and other things at my disposal while I've been here. It's leaps and bounds more than most people travelling do get. I'm very lucky and I know it.

Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Take Two ...

Much better today.

I actually got my carcass out of bed before noon, got to the right tube station this time, and hightailed it down to St. Martin-in-the-Fields church. Not bad - and surprisingly shorter than I thought it would be.

Also managed to have a muffin and tea down in the Crypt Cafe. My table was actually sitting on someone's tombstone.

After that, I went to buy my ticket for the Houses of Parliament tour. To kill time until the tour started, I went to a place called The Jewel Tower. It's a good primer on how British government essentially works, and a good history. It was also a rip-off, at 2.30 GBP. It should have been free.

I then snuck over to Westminster Abbey. Okay. Didn't expect it to take THAT long. SO many crypts and memorial plaques. And people. (Don't go if you don't like large crowds.) But still, it was all right. Got to touch Geoffrey Chaucer's tomb over at Poet's Corner and see one of the smaller gardens in the back.

Finally, I went on a tour of the Houses of Parliament. Worth every pound, I think. The only thing that would've made it a bit better was if the House was sitting ... but then again, we probably wouldn't have seen as much as we had. And I always thought the actual House of Commons was bigger.

After a late lunch, took a long walk up Charing Cross Road ... took in the sights, had my first Hare Krishna sighting, went through Soho (kinda, briefly), and up along Tottenham Court Road.

I pretty much tired myself out enough to catch a snooze on the tube back (and not miss my stop).

We'll see what's next.

Tuesday, August 01, 2006

South Ealing Christening (or, A Little Poo on the Shoe)

A bit of a slow start on Day 1 of my fabulous vacation.

I eventually did leave the house after about 3:00 in the afternoon. I tried, in my sleepy-but-fairly-rested haze, to remember my friend's directions to the Northfields tube station. Two rights, then a left, then a left. No problem.

So imagine my surprise when I turned up in front of South Ealing station instead. A check of my guidebook showed I'd actually walked up to the next one up on the Piccadilly line. No worries.

Next step was trying to trying to figure out what kind of ticket I should buy. Which meant getting change.

As I paced back and forth, I was trying to figure out (a) where I needed to go, and (b) who I should ask for change, and (c) who I should ask about tickets. I wasn't sure what to do next. And the station kinda smelled like ass. I wasn't sure why, so I tried to ignore it, since I figured I wasn't going to be there very long.

As I was standing over at the map for the upteenth time, I noticed the floor was kinda slippery, 'specially under my left foot. I couldn't figure out why ... until I looked down.

Crap. Literally.

Someone's dog had shat a bunch of fresh, reddish brown ones on the place where I'd been standing, and I managed to grind the mushy mess into the treads of my left loafer. Classy. I hobbled outside, sidestepped more poop to find some newsprint, something to wipe the mess off. It helped a tiny bit, but not that much.

So, trying to do my best impression of the British stiff upper lip, I ignored the dung, broke a twenty at the guys who (I guess) handle cab service, got some help from a really nice guy at the wicket, and managed to catch the tube to Leicester Square (sitting, with my right leg firmly crossed over my left the whole time).

I managed to get to the National Portrait Gallery (where I later washed my hands and tried to diminish the poop on my shoe before washing my hands again). Not bad, but I think I spent too much time trying to take in all the pictures from the Tudor and Elizabethan eras. Meh.

I couldn't really see much else, since everything pretty much closes between 5:30 and 6 p.m., so I took a stroll down to Trafalgar Square and snapped a couple pictures of the fountain and the monstrous Nelson's Column.

I walked past the Old Scotland Yard, went through Victoria Embankment Garden, and then decided to go home. (Which was interesting in itself, since I managed to get on the wrong line and changed trains probably 3 times before I got back to my friend's place. I honestly don't remember getting lost on the tube once when I was here the last time.)

I did manage to have a nice dinner at an Indian restaurant with my friend, with free Tia Maria shots to boot.

It ended well. But there's always tomorrow.

What's Latin for "seize the sleep"?

Hey kiddies,

Am officially in London - and officially disoriented. My body knows it's almost 1 p.m. here ... but my brain still is on Toronto time (which, by my watch, means it's barely 8 a.m. there).

Uhh, this jet-lag is gonna suck.

As soon as I get my bearings and get my behind down to the Tube, I'll start this vacation - and the pictures - I swear!

Also, a Happy Birthday today to my brother, stuBlog. He'd probably hate it if he found out I linked him, but hey - he's family. And you can't forget about family.