26 May 2010

Europe 2003 recap, Day 1: London

As the Korean tension gets out of hand (though I do think an all-out war is unlikely, and my Seoul plans look safe), I am looking back to a happier time in November 2003, when I made my fourth European visit. Having been clobbered by the Amsterdam thugs in my previous European visit, my decision was to be sure I would feel cozy with the parts of Europe I was already familiar with - England and France, my stomping grounds from 1996 and 1998. Also this was my first Europe return after the difficult days of 2000 and 2001 had put a stop to my overseas travels.

More importantly, this was my first trip that involved the use of a digital camera. I used a 3-megapixel Kodak example, state-of-the-art for the time, and it was certainly a huge improvement over using film-based cameras.

Saturday, November 1st, 2003. My starting point is my home, Los Angeles. My previous trips had departed from New York or San Francisco, so I am finally glad to be able to launch a Europe trip from my real home.

This is the world-famous Theme Tower which is a symbol of Los Angeles International Airport.

To really stick to the "old familiar cozy" theme (and to save money), I am flying my usual favorite airline, United. The trip to Heathrow will involve a change of planes at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York City. Both the Los Angeles - New York and the New York - London services are familiar to me from my 1990s college days.

Now I am airborne. United 6, having taken off to the west over the Santa Monica Bay, now has turned around back toward the airport, to overfly it and head northeast toward New York.

This is my first flight on United in over three years - due to my financial difficulties, I had stopped flying altogether. Thanks to various non-travel schemes to keep earning frequent flier miles however, my frequent flier account at United did not lapse despite three years of no flight activity.

The throwback to my college days will indeed be the key during this 4 1/2 hour flight. I am watching Friends reruns (featuring, of course, my favorite Greek Goddess, Jennifer Aniston), while listening to my mid-1990s idol Mariah Carey.

It's late afternoon, and I have landed at JFK a bit early. This is my first time back in New York since finishing college. So nice to see the Manhattan skyline again during the final approach, but so sad to see the World Trade Center missing.

This is the plane that brought me in from Los Angeles. Now it's about to shoot back to Los Angeles. It is named City of Chicago, registered N606UA, and had been the very first Boeing 767 to carry paying passengers back in September 1982. Despite the age, it was quite clean. Old 767s like this, in a 3-class configuration, served United's premium service between Los Angeles and New York, both back in my college days and in 2003. One of those 767s, registered N612UA, was a regular on this route as well, but sadly that was the very plane involved in the World Trade Center crash on September 11th, 2001.

United retired these 767s, and replaced them with dedicated 3-class Boeing 757s, in 2004 and 2005, and branded the premium service as simply p.s. In any case, this ended up being my last time on this service, once the mainstay of my air travel experience.

A Boeing 777, operating as Flight 956, took over from here for the continuation flight to London's Heathrow Airport. I landed there around 7 in the morning the next day (Sunday, November 2nd), and used the cheapest way to get into town - Piccadilly Line of the Underground, taking me directly from Heathrow to King's Cross Station.

My itinerary called for overnighting in London in the neighborhood of Islington, a short walk away from King's Cross Station, before proceeding to Paris for two nights.

In J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series of books, Harry and the other aspiring wizards travel from London to Hogwarts School of Wizardry on a train leaving from King's Cross Station. And the departure point is Platform 9 3/4 - not accessible to "muggles" (non-wizards) but accessible to wizards after walking through a wall. And sure enough, I do see Platform 9 3/4 at King's Cross!

The street layout in this area is confusing, so it took me a few minutes to get proper bearings and get to my hotel - a part of Thistle chain (a pricey, often beat-up British luxury chain) that had offered me a single for one night, for under £40 (USD $64) - a steal by London standards, even if it were a budget hotel with a shared toilet down the hall. The good part was that I found the hotel alright. The bad part was that there was no way I was going to check in until 2PM - and it was still before 9AM. All I could do was to store my bags and walk back out.

I got back on the Tube to head out to Kensington Park. It is a cloudy, cool, dreary day, stereotypical English weather. Between the weather, the fact that I am not dressed warmly (I had left my jacket in my bag at the hotel), and my jet lag (I had gotten zero sleep on the flights), I was feeling quite groggy. At least I was chugging along somewhat, thanks to a breakfast I had had at a nearby Pret à Manger, a sandwich chain that had been started up by McDonald's for the UK market.

At least the swans, and the kids feeding them, are a lovely sight.

And a nice sight of a squirrel too, making the park its home and eating off of a trash bin.

I will spend some time touring Kensington Palace, the official home of the Princess of Wales. That title belonged to the late Princess Diana, so some of the palace involved dresses that had been worn by Diana during her days as a princess. Unfortunately, a strict no-photos policy was in effect.

Still feeling groggy, but I am pushing ahead. This gilded memorial is Prince Albert Memorial, commemorating the husband of the long-reigning, and draconian, Queen Victoria.

I had heard of this key London landmark for ages, but never gotten a chance to see it up close until this time.

And just across the street to the south is this building. This is Royal Albert Hall, also honoring Prince Albert, and one of the key music performance venues (classical and popular) for London.

The jet lag is still too much, so I immediately shot back to the hotel, where it was still just before noon. The front desk was determined to not let me check in early. I took a much-needed nap to pass the time, then finally managed to check in at 2PM. At least my single, though tiny, was quite well-appointed, complete with a multimedia television set and a luxurious private bathroom.

After some more nap, I changed into a miniskirt suit, and headed back out, as the sun started to set on this cloudy day.

I wanted to get some of that millennium frenzy that had swept through London after my previous visit. That included the Millennium Dome toward the east (closed), as well as the British Airways London Eye, seen here. It's a quick walk from Waterloo Station, which I wanted to scope anyway for the next day's departure to Paris, and where I had a fast food dinner.

And I am grateful that thanks to having a digital camera, I can actually take a night photo without having to change to a more sensitive film. However, I am also finding that due to the low light conditions, the exposure times are longer, and blurs are a major issue.

The view from above is absolutely lovely. I can see the Houses of Parliament (seen here), St. Paul's Cathedral toward the old City, a number of other landmarks, and all the busy train action right below at Waterloo and Charing Cross stations.

I was so relieved to know that I had made it back to one of my favorite cities in the world at last, and that thanks to my work at my family business, I could actually afford this trip. (Even though the financial difficulties had clobbered my credit, and my credit cards' limits were too low to allow me to comfortably make all my reservations.)

Day 2 (November 3rd) would find me taking a late morning Eurostar train to Paris, where I would return to my previous stomping grounds of the Montmartre district and spend two nights.