June 15th, 2005

the only earth?

london - day 1

When we arrive, it's morning and despite the crew's best efforts to keep us all awake by bringing food and drinks throughout the night I think that I slept (or pretended to sleep) for at least a few hours of the flight. Upon deplaning, we're herded along with the other hordes of Americans to passport control where we look longingly at the short lines for people with European Union passports. The funny part of the queue was when Americans entering the room were called to by a helper who directed them to the long wait. They seemed to think that they were in for something special, but it turned out to be not so great.

At least one of our fellow line waiters found the situation "very disappointing." It's not clear what he expected. There were a whole lot of people wearing tour badges with handwritten names and I wondered if they would wear them for their entire trip. Later, we saw one of them ("Cindy Baker") and I can't remember if we recognized her by her appearance or by her badge. The other fun part about the passport control is that it seemed like they had experienced some recent problems with verbal (and/or physical assaults) at the checkpoints. Numerous signs warned us that any sort of unpleasantness would be rewarded with jail time or stiff fines.

Once we convinced the passport checkers that we were no threat to national security, we went to take a train to London. This was also my first chance to encounter the very sad dollar-pound conversion ratio.

Arriving in Victoria Station we wandered around trying to figure out what sort of Underground pass to buy. Eventually, we found a little office that existed to provide advice. When we told the attendant that we were going to be in town for little under a week, he advised us to buy a weekly pass. Which, I guess we knew, but going to the desk seemed more reassuring.

Soon, we were on the Tube to our temporary home: the residence halls at the University of Westminster, Marylebone. Even though we were a few minutes early, they allowed us to check in to the small rooms with comically uncomfortable beds. Every day at Marylebone was sort of an adventure because the guards seemed to change the entry and exit security procedures on an hourly basis. Some days we'd need to show keys to get in. Some days a gate would be open. Others required them to allow us through the turnstiles. Some floors required keys to access common areas, others didn't. Such an adventure!

After dropping our things off upstairs, Rhiannon and I reconvened in one of the few public spaces at the hall accessible to both of us -- a small table and bench outside the reception area -- and faced the reality that we didn't have anything resembling a plan. Thankfully, she brought several travel guides to boss us around. It was just the sort of tough love that we needed to get us going.

On the advice of our soon-to-be good pal Frommer, we boarded a sequence of trains to take us out to Greenwich. There, we saw the Cutty Sark, which used to be the fastest sailboat ever (or something). Now, however, it isn't going anywhere. It's stuck in a little pool of water near the Thames.

Having taken a look at the boat and decided that it wasn't worth paying to look inside, we began our tradition of seeking out free entertainment. Passing through the Visitor's Guide, we were tempted to go to the fan museum, but instead we walked over to the Maritime History Museum. This was a museum that seemed to collect all sorts of things superficially related to boating. The highlight was definitely the case with Admiral Nelson's last outfit: complete with bloody socks and preserved ponytail.

Once we'd overdosed on the sea, we walked across the park, past people playing fetch with gigantic dogs to see the place where time begins. That's right, the Royal Observatory is situated on a hillside in Greenwich. We could tell that we were in for something really exciting because the wind was swirling through the trees as we approached the hill. It was as if time was angrily rolling away from the Prime Meridian to take the world by storm. At the top of the steep hill, we found a little museum to time. Like the Maritime Museum, it required free tickets for entry. Inside, we saw lots and lots of clocks, telescopes, a large room designed by Christopher Wren, and one of the craziest timekeeping ideas of all time.

At some point in the past, timekeepers believed that they could help ships to synchronize their watches by cutting dogs with a special knife. When the knife was plunged into the magic powder, it would cause them to re-experience their pain. Thus, a fleet of dogs was cut and sent to sea. Back at home, the master timekeeper would plunge the knife into the special powder at exactly 12:00 GMT, which would cause the seafaring canines to yelp. I really wondered whether they had ever tested this hypothesis when the dogs were in the same town, because it seems just so ridiculous. To illustrate, they had an animated diorama, complete with regular dog barks.

At the entrance to the Observatory was the big attraction: a big silver sculpture marking the zero-degree longitude. Inside, there was even a laser beam to prove the point of its official importance. People from across the world line up to have their picture taken as they straddle the Meridian and make humorous faces and gestures. After all of this excitement, we took in the view from the top of the hill. There, I was assaulted by a very friendly squirrel who was somewhat disappointed that my food supply was limited to Clif bars.

When we returned to the train station after this full first day of museumgoing, it seemed like a good idea to walk under the Thames through an old-looking pedestrian tunnel system. It turns out that the tunnel is frequented mostly by people cycling at high speed or running with backpacks.

Having survived the tunnel crossing, we took the Underground back to the city and stopped at London Bridge. Here, we made one of our fastest food decisions. Walking toward the river again (skipping the London Dungeon), we stopped to eat at the Elusive Camel, where the upstairs was reserved for some sort of sortware-related motivation. We found a table downstairs, ordered, and tried to get caught up in the televised rugby. Since the match was between Australia and New Zealand, no one there (including us) had any natural affinity for either of the contestants; so catching rugby fever was difficult at best.

Following dinner, we walked to get a view of the bridges and were nearly overwhelmed by a pack of schoolgirls. Supervised by only a few adults, they scurried to the river bank, promptly assembled for picture taking, and then departed on command. We stayed a little bit longer and looked at a photography exhibit surrounding the very curvy city hall. For the record, City Hall is very enthusiastic about hosting the Olympics in 2012. If you agree, there is a number for you to text your support. How this will have an effect on the decision is not known, but text early and often!

Once we'd gotten a good look at the Tower and London Bridge, as well as the HMS Belfast, it was time to return to home sweet home. Given our difficulty at staying awake on the trains, we decided to call it a very early night. I think I managed to stay awake until 9.
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