22 July 2010

Blog has moved to WordPress

I have decided to close this blog and migrate it to WordPress.

Because of increasing spam from Chinese-speaking commenters, who are somehow managing to carry on discussion threads even though I had had their comments completely rejected (via moderation) and themselves banned from following this blog, I can no longer trust Blogger to be free from hacks. WordPress gives me more control over my blog - including the ability to automatically screen out spam commenters. And to sweeten the pot, WordPress even allowed me to import every single post I had ever made to this Blogger blog.

I will no longer be updating this blog; all future posts will be over at WordPress. I am also disabling all interactive functionality of this blog as well, including the ability to comment.

Thank you for your interest in following this blog - see you over at WordPress.

New blog (hosted by WordPress)

18 July 2010

Tucson, March 2010

Here is a recap of my visit to Tucson on the first weekend of March 2010, which I had meant to upload right away but put off for months.

Tucson had been my poverty-era home, from January to September 2001, though I absolutely hated being there, between lack of economic opportunities and a very different mentality. Sure, the natural scenery was top-notch and the University of Arizona brought badly needed groove into town, but the fact remained that it was a Third World economy located in a far right tyranny state - and that is still the case in 2010, made even worse with the racist Governor Jan Brewer (though, honestly, I fully support profiling of socially conservative immigrants).

I had arrived after an overnight drive, checking into a Hampton Inn on Grant and I-10 early in the morning. Now that I am awake, I am heading for my first sight - Sabino Canyon, Tucson's best kept secret and a good place to go hiking.

As it is early March, Tucson was warm rather than hot. And by being in Tucson, 460 miles east of home, I am also ducking the consecutive weekends of rain that had been plaguing Los Angeles. Low 70s, low humidity, and partly cloudy day - perfect for hiking.

Arizona is famous for its saguaro cactus - and the saguaros tend to grow the best in the Tucson area, where it's comparatively higher, cooler and wetter than the rest of the desert portions of Arizona. Sabino Canyon is covered with saguaros as far as eyes can see. Quite a sight!

The word "sabino" in Spanish means rust. And while nobody remembers why the canyon got the name, a good guess is that it came from the color of the water; the water gets the rusty hue from the roots of oak trees that line the creek.

The immediate creek area gets plants that require lots of water, like oaks. Otherwise, this is all desert with severe conditions - extreme heat and thunderstorms in summer, and snow in winter. Yes, plenty of snow, as Mt. Lemmon, where the stream originates, stands quite high and is cold enough to host the southernmost ski resort in the US.

Sabino Canyon has a road that runs a few miles into the canyon. Built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the Great Depression, the one-lane road crosses the creek several times before dead-ending; it had originally been meant to go all the way up to Mt. Lemmon, but the wider Catalina Highway fulfills that role instead. The road is served by visitor shuttles with driver narrations.

A look at Sabino Canyon. I have walked a bit from the dead-end of the road, and am facing the Mt. Lemmon direction. Quite a sight!

After Sabino Canyon, I had lunch, then drove west along Speedway Boulevard, the main east-west axis, toward the University of Arizona. I remembered driving the same stretch in a wrecked Ford Contour, unable to even buy gasoline, back in the day; now, I actually had some money in my purse, and my luxury Hyundai land yacht was all paid off, and it felt quite strange to drive the same streets of Tucson under much better circumstances. Though I do have to say, the run-down buildings and evidence of cut-rate economy remained very depressing in my mind, and those Eegee's fast food outlets, unique to Tucson, were as mysterious as ever.

I am now on Fourth Avenue just west of University of Arizona campus.

Antigone Books is the place to be if I want to buy feminist, or any other progressive/subversive, books. I can also buy related items, including bumper stickers and pendants. This would indeed be the place to buy a double-female symbol necklace, which I always wear.

When I called Tucson home, this was one of the few places I liked to hang out at.

Thanks to its location next to the University, Fourth Avenue is the progressive/hippie/groovy part of Tucson, delivering a dose of personality to a city that badly needs it. I have to love that iron plate replica of the Easter Island statues.

Yes, that Hyundai Genesis is mine.

The three high-rise buildings in the back are in downtown, across the railroad tracks (Amtrak's Sunset Limited between Los Angeles and New Orleans uses those tracks), and are the only real highrises in Tucson. While Tucson does have over half a million people, it doesn't feel like it (and I don't mean this in a good way).

As seen in this photo, Fourth Avenue has a streetcar track, and Tucson does have a small fleet of vintage streetcars from foreign cities, similar to San Francisco's vintage fleet. They only run on special occasions, however.

Tucson does have an art museum in downtown, though it's not all that big. I'm cooling off there during the early afternoon hours before heading off for more hiking.

Due to proximity to Mexico's west coast, and the heavy Spanish influence in the local culture/population, the matron saint of choice in Tucson would most likely be Lady Guadalupe. But fortunately, the museum is hosting a limited-time exhibition of Chinese art, and here is a lacquer head of my transgender matron saint, Kwan Yin, dating from the Ming Dynasty, though the exhibition is centered around the much older Han.

The museum is close to Old Town with its super-narrow streets and adobe buildings resembling those of an old Mexican village. Also nearby is a hotel that used to be a Ramada Inn, where I used to attend weekly Mary Kay sales group meetings; the hotel is now a no-name independent property, and I'm so glad that I am no longer selling the Christian theocratic cosmetics. My entry into Mary Kay sales was itself a desperation measure due to extreme poverty.

My next destination: Sentinel Hill, located just west of downtown across I-10. On its downtown-facing (eastern) slope, there is a large white letter A, standing for the University of Arizona, so the hill is also known as the A Mountain.

It's a good place to get bird's-eye views of Tucson, as well as the four out-of-this-world mountain ranges surrounding the city: Santa Catalina Mountains to the north (pictured to the left), Rincon Mountains to the east (snow-capped at this time), Santa Rita Mountains to the south, and Tucson Mountains to the west.

The human sprawl, compared to the stunning natural beauty, is very homely however. Though I could make out Davis-Monthan Air Force Base and its "Boneyard" that hosts retired military aircraft, as well as Tucson's only freeway interchange, where I-19 branches off from I-10 and heads south to connect to Mexican Highway 15.

I returned to Speedway Boulevard, then headed further west. Speedway Boulevard becomes Gates Pass Road, and goes over the Tucson Mountains into the wide expanse of Avra Valley. Avra Valley is home to Old Tucson Studios, Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum (excellent zoo/botanical garden I had visited twice before), and the western portion of Saguaro National Park. Both Gates Pass and Avra Valley are lined with saguaros and other desert plants - it's quite a sight.

Now I have arrived at the park visitor center, to pay admissions and get acquainted.

While the park also has an eastern portion on the slopes of the Rincons, I won't have time to get out there this time.

I am now driving the dirt loop inside the park, with great views of the surrounding landscape.

At the end of one pedestrian trail, I am looking due north. Those two peaks on the left are Picacho Peak, a major landmark for travelers between California and Texas. In fact, Tucson joined the US as part of the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, because the logical travel path between California and Texas, both new US territories as of 1848, came through here, still part of Mexico then. Railroads, and now I-10, go through Picacho Peak.

I continue to see saguaros as far as my eyes can see. Quite a sight! It's also notable that the scenery is much greener than I used to remember; that is due to record levels of precipitation during the winter. In fact, I would meet some heavy downpours on my drive back to California the next day.

Although this photo looks as if there is no human presence out there, there is actually quite a bit. There are some random shacks that belong to the town of Marana, which is now the northern bedroom community for Tucson. In addition, Pinal Airpark, a huge airfield that takes in and dismantles old airliners, is somewhere out there too - the dry desert climate is conducive to aircraft storage, the same reason why military aircraft are stored and dismantled in Tucson.

Here are some petroglyphs, left behind by the Hohokam, or the "Forgotten People." Not much is known about them; they are as mysterious as the Anasazi, who also left petroglyphs and disappeared.

The Tohono O'odham (Desert People) tribe, whose reservation takes up much of Avra Valley, are probable descendants of the Hohokam.

I wound down for the evening, by heading up Oracle Road from downtown. Oracle and Miracle Mile is only a block away from my apartment in those poverty days - and a very familiar area for me still. I drove up further on Oracle, until hitting Tucson Mall at the northwestern edge of the city, where I had dinner and did some window shopping. I wrapped up by stopping at the nearby Borders Bookstore, which was my "home" big box chain bookstore during my Tucson days, and reading some magazines and current event books.

All in all, this trip was a good reminder of all the things I used to like, and hate, about Tucson. And I am so glad to be out of that economic dead-end.

13 July 2010

Found on YouTube...

I saw this on YouTube a few weeks back. This is Haydn's Emperor Hymn, which also is the German national anthem, with a slideshow of various sights of Germany to accompany it. A lovely reminder of a lovely country where I had a great time last year. Again, there is nothing like listening to this composition while driving a Mercedes-Benz, speeding away through the German countryside on an Autobahn.

I even rooted for the German squad during the FIFA World Cup that just ended - Germany has always been my favorite European soccer squad anyway. The Germans did a well-deserved third place.

23 June 2010

Europe 2003 recap, Days 7-8: Bath, Tate Modern, and the End

These photos showcase the end of my 2003 European stint - covering Saturday through Sunday, November 8-9th.

Saturday the 8th was set aside as a day trip to the town of Bath, situated on the Avon River near Bristol. In the UK, day trips are a very economical way to travel, due to the railroads offering a "Cheap Day Return" fare that is little more than a single (one-way) fare; given how high British rail fares are otherwise, it is important to take advantage of offers like this. Ideally I would've preferred to head for Bath smack in the middle of my British stint on Friday, but I had to settle for Saturday, the last full day, as Cheap Day Return is not valid on Fridays. For the run from London Paddington to Bath Spa, I paid £33.

Here is a look at Melia White House, my hotel.

During my stay, a Spanish culinary festival was taking place within the hotel, though due to sky-high menu prices, I did not even bother to take a look. But the hotel impressed me in other ways. I was noting that every power outlet came in sets of threes - one British outlet, one Continental outlet, and one North American outlet, with the North American outlet being supplied at 110 volts. Made recharging my electronics (especially the digital camera) a bit easier, since I needed to rely less on plug adapters. Also the lift system was very interesting; I selected my floor on a central touch screen, which would in turn tell me which lift (from a bank of A through D) would take me to my floor. Once inside the lift car, OPEN was the only button available. The touch screen could be changed to a number of different languages - including American English, which simply changes the word "lift" to "elevator."

I have now arrived at Bath. Travel time on a mainline fast diesel train was just under an hour and a half.

At the town's main square, the Bath Abbey stands as the imposing structure. This is a good place to start, since there is a tourist information office, which gave me a town map for £1.

As the name implies, the town is best known for a geothermal bath. The bath was originally developed during the Roman colonial era, when the town was known as Aquae Sulis, or the Waters of Sulis. (Sulis was a Celtic goddess the Romans associated with their own Minerva.) After the collapse of the Roman Empire, the bath was forgotten - until being rediscovered around 1800. Contemporary structures were built over the Roman baths, and Victorian-era visitors came for the therapeutic quality of the waters.

And that is the Roman bath pool. I am not allowed to dip into the water today, however. I took the photo from the Victorian-era tea room above, where I also bought the admissions ticket.

Hot water is emerging via a Roman-era arch.

The pool-level area is in the form of a museum, featuring various Roman artifacts and ruins, though there are some additional indoor baths in the exhibits area, from the Roman era of course, that could easily be put back into active use right away. Amazing plumbing.

While Bath is best known for the Roman bath, it also hosts a number of other sights. My bath ticket also allows me to visit the Museum of Costume, chronicling the development of fashion through the centuries. I could see the uncomfortable Victorian-era corsets, as well as more modern dresses making up the annual Dress of the Year collection from the 1960s on. Of course, my favorite was the infamous open-front sheer Versace 2000 dress, worn by Jennifer Lopez.

Bath was also the home of astronomer William Herschel, and the planet Uranus was discovered here. But his home, now a museum, is one sight I cannot visit due to time limitations.

I am instead focusing on the Royal Crescent and its series of townhouses, to look at the life of the English well-to-do in the 18th Century.

The No. 1 house is open to the public. I entered, and at every room, costumed elderly guides told me the purpose of each object in the room, and what the occupants would've been like. No photos to show for the troubles as photos were not allowed inside. But I do remember one memorable sight - a kitchen that featured a dog-powered mill.

And outside, the Royal Crescent itself is a pleasant space, with an open expanse of grass and some good views of the surroundings.

I wrapped up by walking down Bath's own pedestrian shopping street, Milsom Street, with British chain stores as good as any in London and other larger cities. Though I have to say, I was walking around the streets of Bath while unknowingly flashing the whole town, thanks to my mini being halfway up my derriere. Sure, I had tights on, and there was little to flash, but it was still an embarrassing moment. I refer to this moment as my "Calista Flockhart moment" - because I remembered Calista Flockhart, the original Ally McLesbian (and the reason for my own penchant for miniskirt suits), recalling at a Late Show with David Letterman appearance, one day while she was transiting through Heathrow Airport in a minidress and a backpack, and was stopped by a passer-by - because thanks to the backpack, her dress was halfway up her derriere!

I returned to London's Paddington Station after sunset, retired to my hotel, and shortly afterwards, set back out, for the final sight of the trip - Tate Modern on the Southbank, accessed via the new Jubilee Line Extension of the Tube.

Tate Modern was once a power plant, and this room used to be the turbine room. Now, that dim sphere (actually the "top half" of the sphere is simply a reflection seen on the mirrored ceiling) is part of an art installation.

I am not exactly a fan of modern art, so I didn't enjoy this place too much, but as far as modern art museums go, this is one of the most comprehensive. It also gave me a place to spend some time on a Saturday night, with its late night hours. And more importantly, I had an excuse to come out to the Southbank and look at its new, millennial developments. Unfortunately, I do have to say that some parts of the neighborhood were still beat-up, and Jamaican thugs taunted me in a reprise of the Muslim thugs of Amsterdam in 1999.

Sunday the 9th was dedicated to returning to Los Angeles. My objective of "proving" that I could once again return to Europe and enjoy myself having been achieved, but not still quite 100% at home with Europe just yet, I reluctantly made my way home, using the Tube's direct Piccadilly Line service to reach Heathrow Airport.

My return to Los Angeles will be a nonstop, leaving late morning and arriving in Los Angeles mid-afternoon. Having checked in at Terminal 3 and gone through the Harrods duty-free shopping, I am now making my way to my flight. That trusty United 777, operating as Flight 935, is it. Time to hum Rhapsody in Blue, I guess.

At 11 AM, shortly before boarding, a moment of silence was observed, since it was Remembrance Day. It also explained why so many people in and around London were wearing red poppies on their clothes for the past few days - the red poppies are used to commemorate the fallen British soldiers. Indeed, quite a few fellow passengers were wearing those poppies all the way to America.

At this time, and for a long time, Terminal 3 was the primary international terminal at Heathrow, and United and American (and Pan Am and TWA before them) were its biggest tenants. But in 2008, after Terminal 5 opened, all Heathrow airlines went through terminal re-assignments by global alliances. American stayed at Terminal 3 along with other foreign oneworld airlines, while United moved to Terminal 1 to join BMI and other Star Alliance airlines.

A few hours out of London, I am clearing the southwest coast of Greenland. Absolutely no green and all ice down there - as they say, Greenland is icy and Iceland is green.

Local time is about noon, but because of my extremely northern latitude, the sun is quite low, and it's quite dim outside. It will be pitch dark in just a few more hours.

This was a good flight, even though thanks to the bankruptcy reorganization, United's cost-cutting measures were very evident, especially with meal services.

Flight 935 continued over Hudson Bay and entered the US over Montana, entering the State of California over the Bishop area, before shooting out over Ventura County and coming back east over Santa Monica to land at Los Angeles.

After this trip, I looked forward to generating more income to allow myself to return to Europe more often. While the income did materialize, I also ended up taking on more work responsibilities to match, and it was difficult getting time off to travel. Moreover, most of my travels were taking me instead to Asia. It would not be until late 2009 that I finally found myself back in Europe, finally putting myself at ease with Europe for the first time in ten long years.

22 June 2010

Europe recap 2003, Day 6: New experiences in London

It's already Friday, November 7th, 2003, with my European week pretty much gone, and the return home looming toward the end of the weekend. All the more reason to push myself ahead farther into the great sights scattered throughout London.

My starting point is the Kew Gardens, best known for its greenhouses. It is a bit out there, located in Zone 3 of the Tube system, requiring me to buy a slightly pricier 1-day TravelCard that would cover up to Zone 4. The green District Line splits into several branches as it heads westward from Central London, and I needed to take the Richmond Branch that sees a mix of National Rail and Tube trains.

Kew Gardens, officially named the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew, had a somewhat steep admissions charge around £12. I did find that there were tons of cheaper concessionary categories - including a registered unemployed person, who would verify his/her status with an Unemployment Benefits 40 card. Yes, the UB-40, which a famous reggae band named itself after. The British welfare state considers unemployment to be a downtime where the person in question needs to concentrate on finding new work - but also continue enjoying public culture to better be prepared for the eventual return to work, via these concessions; it's a certainly very different mentality from the American model, where such a concession would never fly because it would be a "reward for laziness."

I am inside one of the tropical greenhouses with a sizable collection of palms.

While I am used to palms thanks to living in California, palms are certainly unexpected in chilly England. Granted, some west-facing beaches of the British Isles are freeze-free relatively, and that does allow palms to grow there according to what I've heard, but I am pretty sure none of them would be this magnificent.

Another greenhouse which emphasizes prehistory and evolution. This is a shrunken-scale model of a forest that may have existed hundreds of millions of years ago. The dragonfly in the photo is much larger than modern-day counterparts; some dragonflies then had wingspans wider than the height of a modern-day human being.

The Kew is a great place to walk amongst the peacocks. In Los Angeles, I can head for the Los Angeles Arboretum located in Arcadia - or simply visit some Arcadia residential streets neighboring the Arboretum - to mingle with peacocks. Over here in Britain, the Kew is the place to do the same.

The Kew also boasts a sizable Japanese garden with plants native to East Asia. It is maintained with funding from Japanese corporations, and comes complete with a haiku written in Japanese and English.

That multistory pagoda is part of the garden, though I have to say it looks more Chinese to me.

I am now entering a California sequoia forest. Sequoias grow only in the high elevations of California's Sierra Nevada mountains, so it is a bit of a surprise for me to find them here. But if I really think about it, the cool, moist air of England is actually quite suitable for sequoias. Of course, I shouldn't expect sequoias in London to grow to the same lofty heights I expect in the Sierras.

And it is indeed quite chilly. Temperatures in the low 50s Fahrenheit at best.

And I see another peacock.

Wide open spaces punctuated by small palaces. This is how I like it. I may be in Europe's largest city, but I can find some peace here, forgetting about all the hustle and bustle of the City or Westminster. Though the roar of jet engines from airplanes, taking off from Heathrow Airport not too far away, does shatter the peace quite a bit.

It was a very nice 2-3 hours strolling around the Garden and its greenhouses - even one that had desert plants familiar from Arizona. I wrapped up at the gift shop, and took a look at some seeds. I ended up buying none, however, as much as I wanted to grow them in my own garden; whether I could bring them through US Customs was questionable at best, so I decided not to risk it.

My sightseeing continues in South Kensington, now involving the last of the three museums found there: Natural History Museum. This lobby with a skeleton of Diplodocus, an early gigantic plant-eating dinosaur, is one of the key features of the museum. Nearby are other early dinosaurs like Coelophysis, the first major carnivore dinosaur.

The museum has many interesting exhibits, including a hallway full of stuffed animal specimen, some of which were faded; the captions noted that as capturing new animals for display are against the goals of preserving them, faded specimens will not be replaced. Other exhibits included a huge room full of gemstones and a cross section of a 1,500-year-old California sequoia. This museum is easily on par with New York's American Museum of Natural History, one of my favorite museums anywhere.

My favorite extinct animal would have to be the ichthyosaur. It was a dolphin-shaped reptile that lived during much of the dinosaur era. In its heyday, Britain was a warm, shallow sea, and Oxford boasted large populations, which were preserved and fossilized in clay. The above are some of the Oxford ichthyosaur examples.

Though I am noting that the Oxford ichthyosaurs are not particularly large. Back in 2000, I had driven out 3 hours from Reno, Nevada, to reach the ghost town of Berlin, literally located in the middle of nowhere, and Berlin's claim to fame was its own ichthyosaur fossil collection. The Berlin ones are up to 9 feet long, whereas these British ones are at most 6 feet. Like Britain, Nevada was a shallow sea then, and plate tectonics had pushed those ichthyosaur fossils up to the 7,000 feet elevation they are found at today.

My last sight for the day is Covent Garden and its traditional markets. Traditional markets are one aspect of London that I had skimped on previously, and still am skimping on during this trip. This will have to be remedied in a future London visit.

At least I can enjoy a live string band.

My evening was spent taking in a musical - something I had had zero interest in until that point. Before leaving home, I had ordered a ticket for Mamma Mia! via TicketMaster's UK site, and I arrived at Prince Edward Theatre and took the front-row seat to take it all in. I loved being able to watch the live orchestra playing ABBA medleys below the stage; and yes, I loved the musical, and it almost seemed like ABBA had written its hits back in the day with a future musical and storyline in mind! I thoroughly enjoyed the storyline, and sang along to ABBA the best I could. Also noted the immediate neighborhood's fairly gay character.

Though I have to say that after the end of the show, and a fast food dinner immediately afterwards, I was scrambling to get back to the hotel before the last Tube train of the night - while London does run a network of night owl buses, I did not know how the routes were laid out at night, so I simply hurried my way.

The next recap post will be the final one, covering a day trip to the town of Bath as well as a night visit to Tate Modern, plus the logistics of flying back to Los Angeles.

Europe recap 2003, Day 5: Reintroduction to London

Thursday, November 6th, 2003 - this was my first full day in London for this particular trip. Time to get reacquainted with an old favorite city.

The hotel, Melia White House, is within walking distance of three different Tube stations, with access to five different lines in total. Very convenient. Just as convenient were Harts the Grocer and Prêt à Manger located very close by, so that I can grab munchies quite easily. I found myself utilizing them while waiting for 9:30 AM, when I could start using the discount 1-Day TravelCard; at £4.10 at the time for unlimited rides in Zones 1 and 2, it was an excellent value, since a single Zone 1 ride was already a stiff £1.60. (Almost all of London's sights are in Zone 1 anyway - but some are out there, like Kew Gardens at Zone 3, and Heathrow Airport at 6.) A morning rush hour TravelCard was £5.10 for Zones 1 and 2, but for the same price, I could buy a discount TravelCard after 9:30 AM that would allow me to go all the way out to Zone 6.

I am starting at a crossroads of sorts - Piccadilly Circle, where several thoroughfares and Tube lines converge.

London's international character is evident here, both from the Gap location and from the multinational companies' signs. Also, standing here is a good way to remind myself that yes, I am in London again, a few years after financial ruin had left me feeling that I'd never come back.

I decided to backtrack to an old favorite of mine - Madame Tussaud's wax museum. I had visited it in 1996, but this time, I came back hoping to find a likeness of my idol Jennifer Aniston, which had been chosen as one of the museum's visitor favorites.

A Sherlock Holmes statue is standing just outside. His address, 21 Baker Street, is just around the corner.

After paying a rather steep £19.95 admissions - in a town where most of the greatest museums are completely free, at that - I entered Madame Tussaud's. This touristy wax museum chain calls London its main branch, and at this time in 2003, operated four other branches around the world, with Amsterdam being the only one I had visited (and not all that much to my liking). I'd eventually visit other branches - New York, Las Vegas, and Hong Kong - later, as well as a new branch in Los Angeles.

The previous month had seen the State of California recall the hugely unpopular and incompetent governor, Gray Davis, in a special election. With a free-for-all field of hundreds of replacement candidates, the star power of action hero Arnold Schwarzenegger proved decisive.

I am now looking at his likeness, with only one more day remaining until he takes over from Gray Davis as the Governor of California. Both men had been busy working together late in October, as wildfires flared up all over Southern California. (In fact, a week and 5,500 miles later, I am still coughing up the ashes from those wildfires.)

Schwarzenegger, a social liberal who would NOT have survived a standard-issue California Republican primary, went on using his power of incumbency to be re-elected in 2006, though term limits prevent him from another term in 2010, which now will be a duel between billionaire Meg Whitman and former governor/current Attorney General Jerry Brown.

England is the birthplace of proper football, the most popular sport in the world outside the US. And England's most popular footballer is David Beckham, whose likeness is portrayed here. His popularity increased even more thanks to his marriage to Victoria Adams, better known as the Posh Spice during her stint at the Spice Girls in the 1990s.

No luck seeing the Spice Girls here today. And no luck seeing Jennifer Aniston either - the only Jennifer I could find was Jennifer Lopez, who was designed to blush when a visitor touched her world-famous derriere.

Another pop culture phenomenon of the early '00s: reality TV. Pop Idol was one of the more popular, turning no-name vocalists into pop superstars overnight. Simon Cowell was the caustic judge - and his likeness is to the left. Pop Idol was also exported to America as American Idol, and Simon Cowell was a judge there too.

Another British reality TV show that was exported to America at the time was The Weakest Link, part quiz show and part bullying, and led by the same host on both sides of the Atlantic. I hated the American version due to the commercial breaks, but the British version, which I would end up watching later this day in the hotel, was much smoother thanks to the lack of those commercial breaks. Also noted that the five-question final round between the two last surviving players was run in a format much like a football penalty shootout.

Moving on to more worthwhile sights, being disappointed between the high admissions charge and the lack of Jennifer Aniston over at Madame Tussaud's.

I am now at Sir Christopher Wren's masterpiece, St. Paul's Cathedral, in the old City. That domed architecture is certainly unusual for London, though it would be right at home in an American city. I didn't enjoy the cathedral too much, even though I did note that Wren himself was buried inside. But having never checked this sight off before, I had to check it off now - if only to remember the photos of it defiantly standing during World War II, when German blitzkrieg had destroyed most neighboring structures.

A straight shot west on the Central Line of the Tube brought me over to Oxford Street, where I am now doing some window shopping. There is no way I'll actually shop here, thanks to the lack of room in my luggage, as well as a rather limited budget. What a shame - since Londoners are very fashion forward, and I am already running into some funky hosiery trends that I would not find back home in Los Angeles until 2-3 years later.

The narrow streets of Central London feel very stifling, compared to the Haussmann-designed wide boulevards of Paris. And they are so stifling that now there is a £5 congestion charge per day in order to drive in Central London. I know about the stifling part too well - I had driven in Central London myself in 1998 (before those charges). Not exactly the best place to practice shifting a manual transmission, but that's how I did it.

Actually I ended up doing shopping. The flagship Virgin Megastore, where I had picked up a Sir Elton John compilation in 1996 before its US release, drew my attention again. This time, I walked away with another Londoner - Dido, with her second album Life for Rent. This album was same as the US version, only with a higher price tag, but given Dido's London roots, I wanted to buy her CD in London.

I wrapped up for the evening with late nights admissions at the British Museum. I had found it so intriguing back in 1996 that I went there twice during my week in London then - so a return visit was more than well deserved.

This is one of the star exhibits - the Rosetta Stone, which allowed archaeologists to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphics. Unlike back in 1996 when it had been in the open air, I now see it encased in a protective glass box.

The British Museum's collections often come either from loots of former colonies, or from artifacts acquired by near force from weaker countries. The Elgin Marbles from Greece are an example of the latter.

As I love cats, my favorite collection would have to be those of cat mummies. As Egypt considered cats to be the real-life manifestation of Goddess Bastet, cats enjoyed a sacred status. Many British traders a few centuries ago used numerous cat mummies for fertilizers and other purposes, so many cat mummies were forever lost.

And here is a Bastet statue, another star attraction of the British Museum.

I would leave the museum with two miniature plastic statues - one Bastet and one cat mummy. I also ended up buying a men's necktie with Bastet statue icons all over.

The British Museum also publishes a book on cat art and history, but I had already bought it in 1996 and it hadn't been updated, so I skipped it this time.

Though sometimes the best museum experience doesn't involve dead relics, but live performances. Two volunteers are showcasing some old English and European songs in an upper story corridor area.

Time to turn in. I spent the rest of the evening listening to the new Dido CD, as well as watching The Weakest Link of course.

The next day would see me cover new territory, starting with the Royal Gardens at Kew, moving on to the Natural History Museum and Covent Garden, before finishing up with a West End musical for the evening. London had won my heart twice before, and November 2003 is seeing it win my heart a third time just as surely.

06 June 2010

Europe recap 2003, Day 4: Back to London

Wednesday, November 5th - already halfway through my weeklong trip. The agenda on this particular day was to return to London, then do some late sightseeing, targeting sights that had special extended Wednesday hours.

I have returned to Gare du Nord. Here are a pair of Thalys trainsets - a flashback to 1998. Thalys is a privatized railway that uses TGV bullet trainsets to run a monopoly high-speed service between Paris and Brussels, with continuation service to Amsterdam and Cologne. I had used Thalys in 1998 to wrap up my Brussels visit and come into Paris. Due to Europe's open borders, Thalys trains board in normal platforms right alongside domestic trains.

And here are a pair of Eurostar trainsets - and I will take the right train to London. The UK is not a signatory to the Schengen Agreement that provides Europe's open borders, so Eurostar trains must use a dedicated sealed-off section of the station. This is also the reason for requiring check-in 20 minutes prior to departure - so that I can clear the French departure check and British preliminary immigration check. The British preliminary immigration desk also gave me a British Landing Card, so that I can have it filled out on the train and submit to the full immigration desk upon arrival in London.

The run back to Waterloo Station was uneventful and timely. Between a partially completed high-speed track on the British side (that had not existed in 1998 - and in 2007, the full track was completed, and Eurostar trains switched from Waterloo to St. Pancras) and a gain of one hour due to time zone change, it was just past noon by the time I cleared British immigrations and re-emerged onto the streets of London.

I soon proceeded to the hotel where I would spend the rest of my trip - the White House, near Regent's Park. It was a property belonging to Spain's Sol Melia group under the Melia brand, and is a very nice 1930s luxury apartment building turned into a hotel. Thanks to a Priceline reservation, I could stay at the prepaid price I had named - USD $85 per night plus tax, rather than more typical available rates around USD $200 per night. My long, narrow single room was not equipped with Internet access (rare in 2003 anyway) but had all other types of luxury amenities I could imagine. Certainly the most posh property I had ever stayed in to date.

I am back on my foot, after a quick shower and change. At least I am getting fewer stares in the London Tube than back in Paris Metro with its machismo - and that's a good thing.

I am now at Leicester Square, the focal center of London's nightlife and theatre district. This area is quite familiar from my initial London visit in 1996, and I am glad to be back on familiar grounds. In addition to theatres, I can also find various types of restaurants - American style fast food, touristy overpriced steak joints, and more. I would end up learning during this trip that when at an American style fast food joint, instead of saying "for here" or "to go," I have to say "eat in" or "takeout" in order to be understood. Though I am not eating at a McDonald's this time.

The tkts booth is the place to go for same-day half-priced musical tickets. While there are other half-priced ticket booths in the vicinity, tkts is the only "official" distributor.

For my lunch, I am going Japanese. Wagamama has been a hot trend in London for years, so a noodle at one of its communal wooden tables will do - and the original Wagamama location is just off Leicester Square. Eating at Wagamama is NOT cheap - a lowly noodle dish can easily shoot up near £10 - but I did enjoy the experience, thanks to a waiter who liked my hair, and eventually decided to treat me with a complimentary dessert (saving me £4 or so). Sometimes being female has its benefits (even though this hardcore lesbian doesn't have much of a use for men hitting on me).

My previous London visits had not done justice to some of the city's outstanding museums, so I am filling in the gaps during this visit. As Victoria & Albert Museum in South Kensington is offering late hours on Wednesdays, I am starting in South Kensington, and my first museum on the agenda is V&A's neighbor Science Museum.

This exhibit is the command module from Apollo 10, named Charlie Brown. It, and its lunar lander Snoopy, traveled to the Moon in early 1969 to do final practice for manned lunar landing, which would actually happen with the next Apollo. To my knowledge, this is the only Apollo spaceship to end up outside the US.

This contraption from the 19th Century is a Charles Babbage adding machine, one of the first calculators ever made.

The Science Museum is one of the most outstanding museums of its kind I've ever seen - easily on par with New York's American Museum of Natural History, or Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry. One of my favorite features was its newer section, the Wellcome Wing, which deals primarily with human biology. It explores, in excruciating detail but also in a very child-friendly way, each and every aspect of what makes each human being unique, from genetics to physiology to the environment. I especially liked the fact that the question "what makes me a boy or a girl?" was answered very nicely, complete with information on transgender issues including transpeople's diaries, while still keeping everything easy enough for a child to understand. Try that in the US, where theocratic protests would make such exhibits impossible.

This section dealing with material science has this interesting exhibit: a dress made of steel.

Nearby, there is an exhibit that showcases recycling, by using a video that, in accelerated time, completely dismantles a junk automobile to reuse its components. It was augmented with a yellow Ford Mondeo, hanging from the ceiling upside down, highlighting various components that can be reused for various purposes.

Now I have moved on to V&A.

Its claim to fame is the dress collection - with an exhaustive collection of 19th Century and 20th Century dresses. I can only see about half of it this particular evening - as the other half was sectioned off and inaccessible due to a temporary exhibition.

These dresses are from the mid-20th Century. The second from the left is a minidress that can also be worn as a tunic blouse. It is a favorite look of mine - revived around 1990, and again now. I love the way certain fashion trends continue to recycle themselves after several years of disappearance - though a retro trend usually returns in style with a few minor changes. The 1980s leggings trend is another I had loved - and while it was completely gone at this time in 2003, it was back, with help from lesbian fashionista Lindsay Lohan, just three years later, and continues unabated today.

V&A has all sorts of artwork. This room is full of plaster casts of famous structures' facades from around the UK and elsewhere. This way, art students can study the details right in London rather than having to visit the structure in person.

V&A's collection of East Asian art is also pretty good, and it is even known for a Fakes and Forgeries department!

This upper floor hallway is filled with decorative ironwork, used in the UK and Europe.

And this room is full of musical instruments.

I am wrapping up for the evening. There is yet another museum in the immediate vicinity - the Natural History Museum - which I will cover later during this stay. And as I continue to visit London's other outstanding museums (including repeat visits to some), I noted that all of them had free admissions at all times. Of course, the museums loved voluntary donations - suggested amounts were £3, €5, or USD $5 (or the equivalent amount in other currencies - I could see donations made in Japanese yen and South Korean won). It's not just merely the existence of a huge amount of art and history, but its easy accessibility, that makes London truly stand out in my mind.

I still have three full days in England ahead of me, and they would end up taking me to some very interesting sights and letting me really bond with the Greater London area.