Wednesday, March 9, 2011

3-9-11 London (and Canterbury)

Ok, the title of this particular blog started out as 3-5-11 London. . . then became 3-6-11, then 3-7-11, and on the fourth day of tinkering and editing 3-8-11 London was obliterated yesterday and I stared at the screen for five minutes in disbelief before x-ing everything out and walking out of the room to scream. It has been a rough week. Heck, a rough year so far. So taking some time to reminisce and post pictures in a central place where I can come back and enjoy them has been a really nice hobby. I still rail against the ridiculous limits placed on video sizes and poor interface for photo importing, but until yesterday I had never considered just scrapping the whole thing, shutting it down, and not looking back. Something about losing all that work, in this week, at that time, was devastating to me. So yesterday, when I felt like the whole world was against me, I couldn't face the idea of starting over.

But, you know, sometimes you just have to take a day to feel sorry for yourself and then move on and start over, even when you still don't quite feel like it.

So, herewith, is 3-9-11 London:

The backstory. . . . 

I am a junior in high school with dreams of becoming a doctor. More specifically, an ER trauma doctor. Perhaps it was too many years of watching M*A*S*H, but somehow the idea of working in a high octane life and death setting, saving lives, was very appealing. Let's ignore the fact that I flew through novels and long research papers with 100s without batting an eye but barely passed chemistry the previous year, somehow I was determined to become an ER doc and the first step to this was by joining HOSA: Health Occupations Students of America. We had a class during school and were encouraged to volunteer at the new hospital opening up just that semester, Houston Memorial Hospital Southeast, just a few miles down the road from the high school. I was highly discouraged to be told there would no candy stripers assigned to the ER. Well then, what good was that? 

So the teacher who ran the program at Dobie was an RN, Mrs. Henderson. She was friends and colleagues with an RN who ran the same program at Clear Creek High School, Mrs. Janet Hayes. Mrs. Hayes let Mrs. Henderson know in the fall of 1986 that she was putting a group together to go on a European tour the following summer in June of 1987, if Mrs. H had any students who might be interested in going.

The tour was going through CHA (Cultural Heritage Alliance, who are still going strong) which typically includes the cost of the chaperone's trip, provided they get enough students signed up. Mrs. Hayes was partnering with two teachers from Deer Park, Mrs. Charlene Pool and Mrs. Juanita Cook, who, if memory serves, taught history at the high school and junior high respectively. Mrs. Pool and Cook were old hands at this and each of them  ended up taking about a dozen Deer Park students each. 

Mrs. Hayes ended up recruiting two girls from Clear Creek, two from Deer Park. . . . and me. Yes, somehow the idea of going overseas on a trip with almost 30 complete strangers did not seem the least bit daunting to me when I was sixteen. Come to think about it, I don't guess it's daunting to me at forty, either. You get an opportunity, you take it, and you worry about making friends along the way.

In January of 1987 the first meeting was held at Mrs. Poole's house, which was largely informational and a bunch of kids showed up who didn't end up going. In March,  I applied for my passport. Look at that young thing.

In May, we had one planning meeting at Mrs. Hayes house for just her group, which Susan could not attend. So to set the scene, here are Diana, Michelle, Tori (with the Hayes cat, naturally), and April, in all our 80s splendor.

On June 11, when we arrived at the airport, these were the only faces I would know, and upon boarding the plane, I discovered we'd been scattered throughout the large cabin and I wasn't even sitting within sight of another student. One of the ways they keep the cost of trips like these so low is taking the leftover middle seats, etc, and booking really cheap lodgings (more on that in a moment). 

So I settled into a middle seat, which to be fair, was one of many, since there were two rows with three seats on each outside aisle, and then a center row of four seats. I was in the left center of the four and on my right, in the right center middle seat, was a very nice lady by the name of Lynn Frady. Lynn and I passed quite a few hours talking, in between reading and listening to music on my very cool cassette tape walkman. I snapped this picture of her towards the end of the flight and promised to write, which I think I may have done once. . .

Lynn, wherever you are, and I am thinking it's still San Luis Obispo and Cuesta College, if google is to be believed, please know there is a middle-aged woman out there who remains very grateful for the kindness and conversation you engaged her in on that long, long flight in the middle of so many strangers.

When we deplaned, there was the requisite hurry up and wait of a group of 30+ with baggage and bussing. I was able to finally meet up with the fifth girl of the group, Susan, who would be my roommate in London and Paris. You can also see Michelle and Diana behind us, who I would room with in Switzerland, Austria, and Germany. 

Once everything was sorted and we were on the bus from Gatwick to our hotel, it was June 12 in England and everyone was running on whatever sleep they were able to grab on the plane. Our lodgings were centrally located at The Majestic Hotel, which might as well adopt the name "Delusions of Grandeur" because other than having prime real estate in the center of the city, it was a DUMP. Threadbare carpets with holes, peeling paint, lights out or flickering. You could have had a great location shoot for Ghost Hunters here. The elevators were either out of service or in between being out of service and no one wanted to get stuck on "the lift" such that it was, so we found ourselves hoisting luggage packed for two weeks and five countries up and up stairs to our rooms. Out of curiosity, I looked up reviews through Trip Advisor on the place this week. Of my favorite review titles, "When Hell is Preferable" seemed the most honest. They now appear to be suffering from bedbugs in addition to the deplorable and shabby state of affairs. Then, as now, there were signs posted to NOT DRINK THE WATER. No, really. In England, they would not vouch for the safety of their water supply. It made you nervous just brushing your teeth.

The view from our room looked down on Cromwell Street, which stayed perpetually busy night and day. We know this because the heater would not turn off and the tiny space was a sauna without keeping the window wide open (with no screens) so the traffic noise hummed loudly each night we were there.

Turning around from being seated in the window, with my feet on Susan's bed, I snapped a picture of the entirety of our room:

There was just enough space to step between the two twin beds and about as much room at the ends to get to the door. Clearly, as spoiled American teenagers, we were in for a rude awakening. 

So once we'd had a chance to freshen up and stow our luggage in our rooms (barely) we had the rest of the afternoon to explore. And of all the things you could do in London, what does the group elect to do?

Yes, stand on line 100 people deep just to get up to the window where we could each buy a Hard Rock t-shirt. To be fair, this was the original and in 1987 they hadn't franchised themselves into oblivion, with only five in the world at the time. 

I still had trouble thinking in terms of exchange rates and the £5.95 shirt sounded like such a bargain, as did the £1 pins. The same went for our trip after this to another London landmark, Tower Records (it's 30 teenagers, what do you want?).

Long before the days of computerized inventory, my receipt shows I bought "Pop" for £5.49 and it still felt like I was getting a fantastic bargain. (It was Steve Winwood's "Back in the High Life"). 

By that time, jet-lag was killing us and we collapsed on our creaky thin mattresses and didn't care a bit.

June 13: It's the second Saturday of June. Our itinerary reads, "This morning features the major hallmarks of London: Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Trafalgar Square, Houses of Parliament, and the Charnging of the Guard (time permitting.)" But as any good Londoner will tell you, there won't be a Changing of the Guard on the second Saturday of June. Why?

Because exactly once a year, on the second Saturday in June, it is the Queen's Official Birthday. Now, Elizabeth II's real birthday is April 21, but when you're the monarch, you go with tradition, which holds that the second Sat. of June will be your party. The different regiments take turns each year decking out and marching in the parade in the Queen's honor from Buckingham Palace through the Mall. 

Our tour guide, Will, was bristling with excitement that we would get a chance to see it. As foreigners, we had to take his word that this was exponentially better than any old Changing of the Guard, which might explain the rather bored looks on everyone's faces at this moment.

So that morning bright and early we set off for the Earl's Court Station nearby to travel the underground and make our way over to the Trooping of the Colour. 

Getting around anywhere was a pretty slow process unless the charter bus was scheduled to pick us up. So this took a good part of the morning after breakfast: partial line, as we each had to buy our tube tickets separately:

More of the line, with Mrs. Poole and Mrs. Cook  below. I did not envy Mrs. Cook, as her group were all middle schoolers that were given a lot more supervision than the high schoolers. There were plenty of instances where we were left to our own devices and miraculously across five foreign countries, only one of which you could be sure of being able to read the street signs and maps, no one got lost or killed.

As I'd never actually ridden on a subway before, this was all pretty cool. But my question is this: why is the driver of the London subway train on the left side? 

As you make your way back up to the top, depending on your stop, you can also catch local musicians at work for tuppence.

I kept angling to ride in one of the ubiquitous double deckers and never got the chance. My grandmother had traveled to England when I was younger and brought me back a toy double decker, so I'd always associated London with the big red buses. Maybe some day. . . 

Ok, so after half a morning of travel, we finally arrived to catch the Trooping of the Colour. Here's just a sampling of the roughly five million pictures I shot (and remember, it's the days of real film, pull out the next little black canister, swap it out, never know what you're going to get once they're developed. . . )

This parade traces its roots back to the 16th century and has been linked with the sovereign's birthday since 1748. 

It includes 1400 soldiers, 200 horses, and 400 musicians (some on horseback) from 10 different bands who play together on this day. 

The police watch with the spectators.

Now, as a horse lover, I was most keen on the beauty of these stallions.

I really had no idea who the people on their backs were. . . 

And as such, I almost entirely missed the carriage of the Queen Mother, Princess Diana, and Princes William and Harry, ages 5 and not quite 3. I only just got William in the far left of this shot.

When Pat left his pictures and years later I found and returned them, I made sure to scan his version of the royals before sending them off, since he wasn't obsessed with the horses and actually did capture Diana and the Queen Mum.

And for the first time in her life, in 1987 the Queen did not ride side-saddle dressed in the year's Troop's uniform, but elected to begin riding in a carriage. If I was this year's troop, I'd feel a little gipped. Compare this rather boring ride to the previous year's and you'll see what I mean.

After all this excitement, the charter bus was waiting to take us to all those other landmarks mentioned. However, because a large part of the day was consumed by getting to and attending the parade, most of the "seeing" was done from the windows of a bus. This was disappointing. 

Buckingham Palace from cross the gardens:

The Wellington Arch

The Albert Memorial

Westminster Cathedral:

St. Pauls, where I longed to sit on the steps and throw crumbs to the pigeons, ala Mary Poppin's Feed the Birds.

The Tower of London

Big Ben

Houses of Parliament

London Bridge:

And this building, which I am at a complete loss to name. I've looked all over trying to compare this picture with statues and architecture and museums and I'm beginning to suspect that it's gotten shuffled into the wrong place. If anyone can tell me what this building is, I will be eternally grateful.

In between the landmarks, the beginnings of an Abbey Road cover:

And the places for rent looked fabulous -- imagine have your own little shop below and your flat above with all that gray London light streaming in.

Other things that fascinated us in London: Bobbies


and the antiquated London cabs and the "wrong side of the road."

Day 4: London - Canterbury - Dover- Ferry to Calais-Paris . . . which is a nice way of saying, you'll be traveling all day.

At Canterbury:

The Cloisters, a burial ground not accepting any newcomers as of 1855 unless you were a "privileged person."

Inside the cathedral, near the murder place of Beckett, I caught one of the choir boys more interested in the tourists than in paying attention to practice.

The nave, looking toward the choir

One thing I had neglected to pack was a jacket, and it was cloudy and cold for most of the trip. By the time we'd left London, I was the proud new owner of a black acid washed denim jacket. And a Union Jack hat.

Mister BYRITE? Anyway, my jacket set me back almost £30 but after a couple of days in the rainy cold of London, it was more than worth it.

One last group picture before leaving British soil and taking off for much more foreign climes.

The white cliffs of dover from the ferry, on our way to Calais and then Paris.

But that's another story . . . .


A year later, our itinerary had us finishing out our two week trip and flying home from London. So from the Calais ferry, I found myself back at Canterbury a year later and this time we were able to poke about more than the cathedral. 

Ah, my favorite, mint chocolate chip! On my right is Mindy, one of my buddies from Trip #2, and on the left is our tour guide.

And then on to London, where I had to snap my bus station this time around.

And my street . . .

Michael Jackson was on tour that summer in Europe, and UB40, though not, I think, together.

 And the beloved London jacket made the trip again, too. All the patches from the countries we'd visited in 1987 now adorned both the jacket and my jeans.

This time, we did see the changing of the guard. And after the Trooping of the Colour, it was a real letdown.

One band? That's all? Hphf.

And once again, I only saw Westminster from the bus (during a rare hour of sunshine).

Another London Bridge.

oh, here it is again . . .  someday I am going to find out what this building is called.

And someday, I'm getting back there to actually tour these places I only saw in passing. And I'm going to do it ridin in the double decker. Bucket list. In 1988 the exchange rate was even worse, £1 for $1.90, so now that €1.40 Euro exchange doesn't look all that bad.

and even if it's free, I won't be staying at the Majestic.


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