Saturday, July 02, 2005

Last Saturday

My Saturday began with a delightful stroll to the Post Office Central Sorting Building to pick up a recorded delivery envelope that was delivered on Friday when there was nobody home to record it. Inside that envelope was my passport with its newly-printed UK Resident Permit. So, I’m now legal for the next three years.

After that, I headed to the train station for a short trip into London. (Brighton had been on the plan but it was cool and cloudy – not exactly the best conditions for a day at the beach.) I walked along the Portobello Road market. I’d been there once before but I got there in late afternoon when things were closing up. I didn’t buy any antiques, but I did buy two used books (an old guidebook called ‘Out and Around London – South’ and a Survival Guide to wartime Sarajevo), some AA batteries, and 100g of roasted and salted almonds. I did not buy the extra-large backpack for trekking about Europe, not the ancient Chinese suit of armour, nor the magic mushrooms.

Leaving Portobello Road, I decided to head towards the London Eye. However, since I was at the Ladbroke Grove tube station, that was not so simple a task. You see, Ladbroke Grove is on the Hammersmith and City line (motto: ‘We duplicate part of the District Line and parallel part of the Metropolitan Line and Circle Line and then just trail off into nowhere’). So, in a feat of poor planning, I took the Hammersmith and City Line north to Baker Street where I caught the Bakerloo Line which I rode south.

The southern terminus of the Bakerloo Line is Elephant and Castle. (Only in England could that sentence make sense.) Having always wondered (well, not always, but you get the idea) about Elephant and Castle, I decided to lean back, kick up my feet, and ride the train to the end of the line. And, after getting out at Elephant and Castle, I discovered I should have just stayed on the train and headed back north.

First, to simply get out of the Elephant and Castle tube station requires caving maps, miner’s lanterns and a trail of breadcrumbs. No, that’s not true. It also required a small yellow canary in a wire cage. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

After following steps up, passages winding around and back, steps down and then back up, crossing another platform, and riding a lift, I reached ground level and a depressingly sad shopping centre. The best feature of the shopping centre was the large red elephant with a chess piece on its back (the elephant and the castle…get it?). A sign on the entrance read ‘hoodie sweatshirts banned’ – a trend that seems to be catching on across the country. (On reading Sunday’s paper, it seems I missed Saturday’s minor protest march regarding just this topic at the Elephant and Castle. And what a shame really…it would have made my whole trek worthwhile.)

Feeling rather let down by the whole elephant and castle ordeal, I once again saddled up the canary, switched on the miner’s lantern and frantically crumbed some bread. Thusly prepared, I once more descended the depths of the Elephant and Castle tube station to make my blessedly hasty retreat back two stops north.

Finally, wondrously, I now found myself at Waterloo Station. Leaving the station, I headed towards the London Eye ticket counter. Now, in case you were picturing a giant eyeball complete with a blinking lid and gigantic lashes, I’m afraid you are terribly, horribly, miserably (yet oddly intriguingly) wrong. The London Eye is a giant (135 metres) observation wheel located on the Thames just near Parliament. Just to be totally correct (and to satisfy those pesky lawyers), the London Eye is an observation wheel rather than a Ferris wheel. In a Ferris wheel, the seats are inside the circular frame. On the London Eye, the observation pods are attached to the outside of the frame. And, since I’m being totally correct, it’s really called the British Airways London Eye (previously known as the Millennium Wheel).

Alright, fine print aside, I went to pick up my ticket. I had booked a flight on the Eye (each ride is called a flight) the day before by going to the London Eye’s web site. Not only is it super convenient to pre-book, you avoid the big line to get your ticket and there’s a discount. I also bought the guidebook – it was less than £5 and worth it. It’s a decent-sized, full-colour book filled with pictures, facts, figures, and a key to the sights. If you go, you should get the book. Really. And heck, even if you don’t actually cotton to taking a 30-minute ride on a 135-metre wheel, you might still like the guidebook. (There are also some very clean, FREE bathrooms at the London Eye ticket place.)

Okay, so my flight was at 7:00 and boarding was at 6:30. (I’m not making this up…every word of that is true and is phrased that way by the London Eye people.) Since it was only about 4:30, I had some time to spare. I walked along the South Bank and saw some street performers (the kind that look like statues until you put a coin in the bucket and then they come to life) and a really cool spray paint artist who makes these awesome London skylines using…get this…spray paint. I also dodged a flying biker at the skate park while walking to the South Bank Book Sale, a regular South Bank fixture. I had walked along part of this area before, but not in the summer. It was amazing to see so many diverse activities taking place along this stretch of the Thames. It’s really a nice, happy place to be.

Earlier, I had been handed a flyer for a new Mediterranean restaurant just near the London Eye. It’s called Troia and it was very good and reasonably priced. I had the Mixed Meze which consisted of humus, tabule, kisir, manca, imam bayildi, borek, and falafel. Having only heard of three of those seven things, I was quite pleased to read the descriptions on the menu. And the nice thing about the mixed meze is that I got to try small bits of lots of things. They also brought me a dish of olives, a basket of bread, and a small bowl of bread-dipping-stuff (hey, gimme a break…I know it has a name, I just don’t know what it is).

Having sated my hunger in a very Mediterranean way, I was now ready to board my flight. I queued up, waited a bit (probably 15 minutes or so) and arrived at security. After a very rapid and through wanding (no walk-through metal detectors, just some chaps with handheld wands asking, ‘anything sharp, mate?’ as they grope anyplace the wand bleeps), I was nearly ready to board. The boarding area consists of several chutes behind which people queue before boarding the still-moving observation pods.

Yes, that’s right. The thing is still moving as you board. Imagine trying to step into a phone booth while your mate is dragging it down the road. Oh, and one more thing…there’s nothing below the observation pod except for the Thames.

Anyway, once you’ve taken a flying leap into this glass bubble, the doors are latched and you begin your flight. The pods are actually quite roomy (for the one of you who knows, it’s about the size of my room). Despite what it seemed like when I was boarding, the wheel doesn’t move that quickly so there’s no sense of ‘holy cow, this thing is spinnin’ fast!’ Instead, you are treated to a rather calm, ever-changing view of London. There’s no time to get bored since the view keeps changing and bringing new things into view. (I figured I hadn’t used the word ‘view’ enough.)

Before you know it, you’re at that critical point. That’s right, the part where they take the souvenir photos. You’re warned over the pod speaker so you can huddle against the windows and have your picture taken so that you can buy prints on the way out. Anyway, between the picture-taking and the picture-buying, you have to actually leave the pod by leaping from the pod to the deck (sure, you could just step off of the pod, but it’s not nearly as dramatic).

This being London at night, chances are, things are closing (except for bars and things like that). Fortunately, though, you’re on the South Bank. (Motto: Where there’s more to do than drink yourself silly!) A nice stroll up the river leads you to the Tate Modern, an art gallery open until 10:00 on Fridays and Saturdays. Last summer, my group stayed across the street from the Tate Modern but I didn’t get a chance to visit. This weekend, though, I finally did. The Tate Modern is housed in the former Bankside Power Station. Since they used to have huge generators and turbines and things, the building is huge. Walking in the main entrance, you see a vast space before you. And by vast, I mean about five stories high and quite long (maybe a city block or so…a short city block, but still pretty long). And since you descend a ramp to get in, it feels like the building actually gets larger the further in you walk.

Another nice thing about the Tate Modern is that it’s free. There are currently two exhibits you have to pay to see, but the vast majority of the collection is available to the public free of charge. So, I spent a rather nice hour or so seeing art by Van Gogh (some water lilies), Calder (a small mobile), Pollack (some interesting paint splatters), and others. There was a rather interesting German bit of art that involved a Volkswagen bus and an array of wooden sledges, each with a torch, some fabric, and some lard. Really.

After the Tate Modern, I wandered back towards the London Eye. About midway between is the National Theatre. In the summertime, the National Theatre offers over 150 free outdoor events. As it happens, I wandered by on the first day of the events, which run until September. At 10:30, Mirando Al Cielo was due to begin. According to the (free) information booklet, that means ‘Looking at the Sky’ and consisted of some contemporary dance pieces. Sounds fun, huh. Oh yeah, and the dances were performed above the audience. That’s right. Those of us who queued up early got to sit under the glass stage and look up through the floor to watch the performance.
So, after an eventful day of antique-non-buying, Mediterranean-food-eating, pod-catching, modern-art-looking, and glass-floor-dance-spectating, I decided to call it a day and head back to Stevenage. (Actually, I was ready for more, but since I had to catch a train, I couldn’t stay out too much longer.) I caught a train back to Stevenage via the really, really long route and fell into bed.


Blogger graycie said...

Matthew, you're back! What's your email? Sent you something a while back -- don't know if it reached you. While working on curriculum last week for our new (ADD-abstract-random) Engish supervisor, I met Jill Haynes -- your ex-teaching partner. We realized the mutual acquaintance, and swapped Matthew stories, which greatly amused (or maybe irritated) everyone else.

Did you know Peter Wonson? he was principal at Madison for a year -- probably the best year we ever had. Were you there then? (If yes, I'll tell you about what's been happening. If no, I may still tell you, but it will involve ranting and raving and some background info and other Rke-City-inspired outraged pyrotechnics.)

Comments re "Last Staurday":

Needed caving maps? What fun! Let me know in advance about your next adventure underground!

Even I knew about the hoodie-ban protest! It made the Roanoke paper.Howzabout that?

In the 1960s, the elevator in the Southern Germany Headqwuarters of EUSAREUR (sp?) in Munich was a linked series of continuously moving open boxes (with two doorways on each floor -- one for up and one for down) that you hopped onto while they were moving. It was a big deal to ride the box all the way around, up and over th top and down and around under. (This was not a big deal for the generals and those of equal dignity, power, and rank, but for us high school kids, it was great.) the Eye sounds even better -- your ride wasn't in the dark.

Here in Roanoke last summer, the Roanoke Ballet performed on a vertical wall -- about twenty feet up. They were on belay ropes ropes controlled from the roof. It sounds like we are just as up-to-date and culturual as London. Hoo boy.

11:49 PM  

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