The Week Before
General freaking out. Seriously, the most unrelenting bout of freaking out I’ve ever experienced.
At the Airport
S dropped me off at Sea-Tac and I finally started to calm down, because really, there’s nothing else to be done.
Except get Â£20. I know the exchange rates at the airport are terrible, but I’d rather take the hit at Sea-Tac than go hunting for an ATM at Heathrow. I want the cash for tipping, or, as J pointed out, in case I get off the plane and really really want a latte.
I gotta say, for a nine-hour flight it wasn’t bad, especially since I slept uninterrupted through four of them.
I had the window seat in a row of two, and my rowmate was a quiet but congenial woman about my age, maybe a little older.
The only really awkward moment came with the flight attendant early on…I spilled a bit of water on my tray table — nothing a few beverage napkins couldn’t handle. That wasn’t the problem — he was quick to give me the extra napkins, and nice about it, too. But then he came by with more water and joked about whether he could trust me with it. And I said, “Oh yes, it’s important that I get right back on that horse.” He smiled vaguely at my weirdness, poured the water, and said, “Well, cheers,” and for the first time I thought about the relationship between “idiom” and “idiot”.
I arrived at Heathrow around 12:30 p.m. and almost immediately spent a half hour standing in line at passport control. The plus side is that by the time I was through I only had to wait another few minutes for my luggage.
I took my luggage to the Hertz car rental counter, where I was supposed to meet the driver who’d take me to the hotel. On my way I passed a gauntlet of drivers, each holding up a sign — some printed out, some scrawled out on paper or white boards, some in neat block capital letters. There were at least thirty drivers trying to snag their emerging passengers, and I was briefly concerned that mine could be one of them because it would be hard to pick my name among all the chaos. Then I saw a couple of guys with signs standing outside the melee…by the Hertz counter. Hooray for specificity.
Like my BA rowmate, the driver was congenial but quiet. We talked a bit, then listened to the news through most of the long drive (I’d guess forty minutes, maybe even an hour — I didn’t check the time when we left). I was happy staring out the window, although the location didn’t really hit me until I saw St. Paul’s on the skyline. St. Paul’s. Holy kippers on a cracker, I’m in London.
I’m staying in a part of London called Canary Wharf, which I’ll describe in detail later, but here’s the shorthand for anyone who knows the D.C. area: it’s Crystal City, only bigger, shinier, and closer to the nifty parts of the city once you hop on the train. For everyone else, think high-rise industrial park + corporate housing + mall, all new new new. Lest I make it sound too dire, I do take a footbridge over the Thames to get to work.
Where was I? Ah yes, I’ve arrived at the hotel.
I took quick stock of my room, sent a few e-mails, then went back out because I realized if I stopped moving I’d be down for the day and there were two things I wanted before I reported to work the next morning: more cash, and a Brit-plug curling iron.
I found a train station across the street from the hotel, and it was the DLR only, not the Tube. It’s the South Quay station, and the Canary Wharf station is two north. When I couldn’t get the ticket machine to accept any of my cards, I figured I’d walk and call it exploring. This was just as well…the Canary Wharf station (Tube and DLR both) is five minutes away over the aforementioned foot bridge.
The mall was easy to find, as malls tend to be (“Shops and Restaurants” the giant sign says). Transactions during my first visit:
1) I bought the curling iron at a Rite-Aid/CVS analog called Boots. I was actually on my way to an ATM (aka Cashpoint Machine) I found on a map, but wasn’t having any luck spotting it so I went into the store. I paid with my Amex card, and asked the clerk where the ATM was, quickly correcting to “Cashpoint Machine” at her blank look.
2) Successful withdrawal from a Cashpoint Machine. Now I have a wad of Queen-faced currency.
3) I spent some of the wad on a prepackaged salad at Marks and Spencer. At this point I can already imagine subsisting on these. I will become the Jared of Marks and Spencer: “I ate nothing but Marks and Spencer’s salads for six months and lost 2 stone!”
4) I spent more of the wad at a shop called Books, Etc. I went in to case the science fiction section, then decided it would be keen and nifty to have my very own British edition of Geoff Ryman’s Air. So now I do.
I went back to the hotel room, ate my salad, and fell asleep around 8:00 p.m..
I woke up at 4:30 a.m.. I did my usual work out, showered, then wrote until I reported for work at 8:00 a.m. — not bad, since it turned out I was expected at 9:00. I made it through a newbie office day, leaving at 3:00 p.m. when PDT caught up with me and there really isn’t anything for me to do. Yet.
Back at the hotel and asleep by 4:30 p.m.. I didn’t even bother to get dinner.
I woke up at midnight and wrote until 3:00 a.m., when I went back to sleep. Then I woke up at 4:00 a.m., 5:00 a.m., and 6:00 a.m., going back to sleep each time except the last. I read, wrote, drank tea, and worked out, more or less in that order, except for the tea-drinking, which was ongoing. At 8:30 I had breakfast in the hotel. At 10:00 I hopped on the Tube.
I took the Jubliee line as far as Westminster, then switched to the Circle line and went one stop east to the Embankment. My ostensible mission was to walk along the Thames just past Black Friars, then take the Millennium Bridge to the Tate Modern. My real mission was to wander around London, so when I looked up realized I was heading the wrong way and back toward Westminster (it’s hard to miss) instead of on toward Black Friars, I just kept going.
I should note at this point that I didn’t have a street map or addresses for any specific sites…I just had my faith in chance. I figured whenever I was ready to go home from wherever I ended up all I had to do was find a Tube station and I could make my way back to Canary Wharf.
I wandered around Westminster for a bit, got my look at Big Ben and Parliament and the Abbey, and when I’d had it with the tourist mob there I headed back toward the Embankment station. Then I saw a sign for Trafalgar Square and I thought, “Why not? It’s been ages since I had a good look at Nelson’s Column.”
On the way I noticed a bronze monument in the middle of the street commemorating the Women of World War II. There were no actual women shown on monument…just clothing and gear hanging on hooks, more a monument to couture de guerre than the women who served. Dual response here: growl, and at least there’s a monument. Mostly growl, though.
The first recognizable locale after Trafalgar: Leicester Square. Two things stood out: a big ol’ Burger King sign (sigh) and the gigantic likeness of Clive Owen over the Odeon. The second was an ad for Children of Men. I heard a snippet about it on the drive to the hotel, but all I knew was that Julianne Moore was in it (keen), Alfonso CuarÃ³n directed it (yay) and it was set in 2027 (professional interest). Good enough reasons to see it, but not just then. I kept moving.
Next recognizable locale: Piccadilly Circus. I wandered around, randomly absorbing things, and realized a little too late that I needed to eat. I was tired, hungry, and in danger of resorting to Pizza Hut, which would have been all kinds of unacceptable. I finally found a pub with a kitchen, only to discover the kitchen was closed. The bartender kindly directed me toward a patch of restaurants, but I must have taken a wrong turn, because I found a patch of bookshops instead. Normally a patch of bookshops would have been super duper cool, but I really needed to eat. One of them — Foyles — had a cafÃ©, so I went there and had a Greek salad that was at least half feta, which is exactly what I needed — sustaining protein to follow the quick sugar hit of tomatoes.
After I ate I wandered through the shop, ending up, of course, at the science fiction section. I bought China MiÃ©ville’s story collection Looking for Jake, because I didn’t have a book on me, and I was starting to form if not a plan then at least an intention.
I set off again meaning to double back to the Odeon to check movie times, and before you decide it’s silly to spend even part of my first free day in London at a movie, allow me to tell you about the quest for Slither:
When I was staying with Eugene in New York we decided to go see Slither (Slither, by the way, is to alien body snatcher movies what Shaun of the Dead is to zombie movies, only Slither is creepier. Also, I can only name three people who saw it, including myself). We ended up crisscrossing Manhattan twice trying to get to a showing on time, and I saw more of the city than I would have without the quest. So experience tells me that trying to see a movie is not incompatible with exploring a city.
Now, back to London.
I didn’t know where I was exactly and I couldn’t remember where the Clive-crested Odeon was, anyway, but I thought maybe it was in Piccadilly. I figured I’d find the nearest Tube station and orient myself from there. A fine theory, except when I did find a Tube station it was Piccadilly. So now I’m thinking Leicester Square. Which I remembered was close to Piccadilly. Maybe, uh…that way…
So I roamed around, following, variously, density, familiarity, and my fancy. This method took me through Soho, Covent Garden, Pall Mall, and to the edge of St. James’s Park, not necessarily in that order.
I was starting to get a little footsore, but also a little stubborn. I could hop on any train and go home, but now I didn’t want to go home. The harder it was to find the movie, the more I wanted to see it. But not enough to ask directions, yet — where’s the challenge in that?
Just when my sense of fun and adventure was receding I saw a beacon up ahead, a beacon in the form of a shop marker bearing a rocket ship.
Completely by accident I stumbled on Forbidden Planet, London. Chance will provide.
The first thing I did was grab the latest copy of Interzone so I wasn’t cruising the shop empty-handed. Then I went downstairs and roamed through the book section, checking, as I do in all bookstores, where my books would happen to land relative to eye level (yes, this is silly — it’s just something I do).
Downstairs I found Brian Lumley signing books. In three days, I noted, Neil Gaiman will be there. Maybe I’ll go back and gawp at the goths.
I bought the magazine and headed out, more energized now that chance was demonstrably on my side. I almost immediately ran into the Convent Garden station. I recalled this being close to Leicester Square. I picked a random direction, and — after at least one wrong turn that took me past the Camper store (ha, I don’t just get excited about geeky things: behold, a reference to a shoe store!) — I found Leicester Square, then the Odeon.
The movie times were listed as 3:10 and 6:00. Now, the problem: I had no idea what time it was, even after checking my useless cellphone, which told me it was 5:33 a.m.. Math said it was 1:33 p.m.. I didn’t believe math. It couldn’t possibly be 1:33. I’d been wandering around forever. It must be 3:33, and I’ve just missed the movie. Dammit.
It occurred to me to check my receipt from Forbidden Planet. 13:17, it said. Huh.
I was still unconvinced when I noticed that a line had formed at the Odeon, which meant I could eavesdrop on other people’s movie times.
Okay, it really was 1:33, and an hour and change was the perfect amount of time to spend at a cafÃ© with a glass of wine, maybe two. Two, I know, because I drafted this at the cafÃ©.