Archive for June, 2010

London Calling

June 27, 2010

I flew out of Dulles at 11:30pm DC time and landed in London at around 10am London time. As usual I couldn’t sleep a wink on the plane.

I spent my first day battling jetlag, walking around, and getting some great Indian food from what I think was a chain restaurant. I slept terribly—the bed was small and the room was hot, indifferent to my changing the thermostat. After waking up at 5am and reading for an hour I decided it wasn’t worth it to attempt to go back to bed.

First impression: London is a deceptively large city. My map made it all look quite walkable, but only because it didn’t bother to label each and every side street, of which there are many. Most of the streets are little more than alleyways, and I doubt one would even be able to print a thoroughly labeled but easily foldable tourist map that included them all. As a result, I often found myself walking down street X expecting to see street Y after the next intersection, as it appeared on the map. Instead, there would be 2-3 smaller streets on the way: a Lexham Gardens, a Cambridge Mews, a Brick Road, and so on. This made even simple excursions feel much longer than they looked to be on paper.

I spent the next day walking from my hotel near the Earl’s Court tube station along Cromwell road to Harrod’s, Picadilly Circus, and the high-end shops along Bond Street. There was a wonderful street near the Charring Cross station with nothing but used book and print stores—I could easily have spent two days there. I rounded out the day by getting dinner at a Korean place in Soho and walking all the way back to the hotel along Cromwell road. I probably should have saved my legs and taken the tube, especially since my exhaustion didn’t even make sleep any easier. I was, however, able to eventually get back to sleep after waking up at 4am this time.

On the next day I made my way over to the British Museum. It’s a massive place, filled with the spoils of the former British Empire. I also finally got some legit fish and chips, which took a surprisingly long time to acquire since the pub that my uncle recommended to me turned out to be out of business. That night my attempt to get an uninterrupted 8 hours of sleep was again foiled when I woke up at 2am due to a malfunctioning fire alarm, forcing me to hang out in the lobby with the other irritated guests.

I had time before my flight on the last day to tour the Cabinet War rooms, the basement nerve center where Churchill and his aides spent most of the war. I never would have known about this had it not been for a friend’s recommendation, and it’s certainly one of the highlights of the trip. I also used my remaining few hours to do the touristy things that I should have done on the first day—seeing Trafalgar Square, St. James Park, Parliament, Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, and the art museum. Just as the weather was getting warmer and I started to get my bearings around the city, it was time to leave and fly off to Amsterdam.

My flight came into the Netherlands late. I amused myself by looking through the aisles and trying to figure out which passengers would surely get in a cab to the nearest coffee shop upon landing (my money was on the dreadlocked white guy wearing an MF Doom t-shirt). Too tired to figure out how to navigate the trams, I took a cab to my hotel (which was much nicer than the place in London) located near the art museums.

I enjoyed Amsterdam, it really is just as quaint as it looks. The public transportation was uniformly efficient and, as an added convenience, everyone spoke excellent English; from the waiter at the Indonesian restaurant to the guy that operated the tram. I suppose that they have a much greater incentive to learn English than most other people have to learn Dutch. The Dutch language, I found, sounds quite like gibberish English. Hearing people speak it, I felt like I should be able to know what they’re talking about. I was also able to get an uninterrupted 8 hours of sleep for the first time in 4 nights, which was a welcomed change.

Drugs aside, nightlife in Amsterdam is fantastic. Bars are open until 4am 7 nights a week, though the nightlife seemed mostly contained within the city center/red light district. The red light district wasn’t nearly as seedy as I expected it to be. Sure, there are coffees hops and prostitutes, but both just become part of the local flavor after 20 minutes.

My experience with pot was, to but it mildly, terribly underwhelming.

I got some Indonesian food, which reminded me of very light Indian food crossed with Thai. My meal consisted of many small plates (a drumstick, some spicy veggies, a hard boiled egg and a type of curry) served with white rice. I don’t think it has the variety of Thai or Indian, but I would need to try it some more to say for sure. I also saw the Heineken Brewery and walked past the Anne Frank home, which had a shockingly long line given that she wasn’t even home *rimshot*.

*cough*. Anyway.

I’m normally not a big fan of the “tall, blonde, all-American” type look but I did come to appreciate all of the leggy blonde dames in Amsterdam. Also, everyone dresses much better than in the states. Not necessarily dressier, but fewer t-shirts and jeans, and more casual sport coats. I think we can do worse than to emulate that aspect.

I think that there are higher levels of social trust and cohesion in the Netherlands. On the trams, for example, it would be incredibly easy to use them every day without buying a ticket, as the operator doesn’t check that each passenger scans his card. I didn’t pay for my first trip, and was surprised to see that the driver didn’t seem to care. I saw something similar in the train station, which had a bank of turnstiles that one could simply walk around instead of going through. I really can’t see people abiding by this in the states to the extent that they do in the Netherlands.

I also made it to Brussels for the day to visit an old friend that I interned with a few years ago. A few observations:

1.) The Grand Place (below) is covered in gold. It seemed like Belgium’s way of saying “Sure we’re small, but damn it if we ain’t rich.”

2.) I had white beer, a waffle, mussels with fries, and chocolate. All were unremarkable except for the mussels, which were fatter and juicier than what I was used to. The beer was great, but not very different from the other Belgian whites I’ve had.

3.) The capital of Europe does a much better job of hiding its poor people than the capital of the US. The Brussels train station was in a neighborhood that my friend described as “dodgy” and which seemed to be mostly populated by recent Middle Eastern immigrants. It certainly didn’t feel as dodgy as some comparable DC neighborhoods, and I don’t recall seeing any homeless people and beggars near the EU parliament building, as one sees regularly near the Capitol and the White House.

After Belgium I had a bit more time in Amsterdam before flying back to Dulles via London. A fantastic trip all in all, I only wish I was able to sleep better in London.