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.