22 June 2010

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.