Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Logbook: London - Chingford

Londonchingford1Sunday morning I got up and went out for one last coffee and croissant in Paris, then grabbed my gear, checked out and made my way to the station to catch the EuroStar train to London. As part of the boarding process, my passport -- which hadn’t even been asked for by anyone since I got stamped into the EU in the Canary Islands! -- was stamped out of the EU by a French immigration officer who I don’t believe even looked at it beyond finding a blank space to put his stamp. Thus, I can report that the EU is sincere about “open movement” between member countries! I next presented my passport to an immigration official from the UK who -- while looking at it in great detail -- asked me what I planned to do in the UK. “Travel around,” I replied, to which he said “It looks like you get around. How did you like the Malvinas?” Knowing how the Brits feel about their beloved Falkland Islands, I was a bit thrown off by his use of the much despised Argentine name for that fought-for and historic British Dependency. Thinking it might be some kind of trick, I said, “I enjoyed my visit to the Falklands very much.” He grinned slightly, added his stamp to my passport, handed it back to me and said “Enjoy your visit.” With that little moment behind me, I boarded the train, settled into my seat and waited only a few minutes before we set off.

The EuroStar isn’t especially fancy, but it is very fast. It seemed much faster, in fact, than the French TGV hi-speed trains based on the rate at which we passed cars on the nearby AutoRoute. Within an hour I heard an announcement that we were about to enter the Channel Tunnel and the familiar French countryside soon disappeared. I’m not sure, but it felt like we picked up even more speed and it seemed like only a few minutes before I could see out the window again. The first thing I noticed was a very different landscape, much greener and wetter than I had been in. England! The second thing I noticed was that I could read all of the passing billboards, store signs. English! About an hour later we arrived in London’s Waterloo station where I got off the train and made my way toward the Underground. I stopped at an ATM to get some Pounds, used a machine to by a ticket and dragged my gear onto the Jubilee line then changed to the Victoria line. Everything was going very smoothly until the train stopped three stations short of my destination and the PA announced that maintenance work would require us to switch to buses to complete our journey. As you know, I have become very familiar with this kind of “incident” along my way so it wasn’t really a big deal to me. What made it practically a non-event was that I could understand every word of the announcement! I didn’t need the kindness of any strange passer-by to translate for me, and that actually made it kind of fun! As the realization that I was no longer a deaf-mute started to fully sink in, I got almost giddy. In fact, I couldn’t help myself from asking a passing stranger “Excuse me, do you speak English?” She replied, “Yes, I do.” and I said -- you won’t believe this -- “That is so cool!” I broke out laughing, and it must have been contagious because she and a couple of other folks within earshot did too. I briefly explained that it had been nine months since I’d been in an English speaking country and that seemed to explain my behavior to everyone’s satisfaction.

The bus ride was crowded but uneventful and upon arrival at my destination I grabbed a cab for a short ride to the Holiday Inn Express in nearby Chingford. You may be wondering why I made arrangements to stay in a Holiday Inn Express way out in the suburbs of London, but the answer is simple: I got to use some accumulated “points” for a “free” stay instead of spending at least $300 a night in downtown London. Besides, I’ve “done” London before, I’ve just finished up a long stay in a big city and I wanted to check out a bit of how the “rest” of Greater-London-Area folks live. The nice girls at the desk welcomed me and happily played along as I engaged them in an extended version of the “Do you speak English?” game before I went to my room, dumped my gear and stood at the window reading every sign I could see. I’m honestly not exaggerating the language thing, it was great! In fact, the only thing I did Sunday night was cross the parking lot to a big supermarket, wander around the aisles for about an hour reading labels and comparing ingredients then buying a simple deli meal to have for dinner. What a relief! I spent most of Monday on my Mac, wrapping up iLife from France, backing up old data, etc., and Skyping lots of folks to confirm plans going forward and catch up with friends around the world. I also made several happy trips to the grocery store for food and beverages plus a fairy lengthy walk around the neighborhood just to check it out.

Londonchingford2Yesterday, I took a long walk into the center of town, got a new UK chip for my phone, had a real “pub lunch” and generally explored the area. Chingford is pretty much a “blue collar” kind of town, unpretentious and friendly, and I enjoyed my day very much. In the evening I went to the local dog racing track and had a blast. Admission was 5 Pounds -- including program -- and I proceeded to the betting counter where I explained that I was familiar with horse racing and wondered if dogs were similar. I was given an affirmative response, so I used my scientific method to place some bets: “I’d like one Pound on the number 5 dog to win in each of the first five races.” I received my tickets and proceeded to the stands, entering a charming milieu that looks just like a mini horse racing track. With stands, a tote board, a starting gate and everything, it all looks very familiar. With only a 1/4 mile track, however, it is only the size of a typical school field. Wandering around track side, I met bookies and serious gamblers as well as ordinary folks just out for some fun. It was a friendly, lively crowd and the energy was very positive. I had some concern about the dogs themselves, so I was both relieved and a bit charmed by the delightful way in which they proudly paraded in front of the stands before each race, then happily entered the starting gates. With a few excited yips and yaps, they waited for the gates to open then took off at amazing speed to chase the bright red whatever-it’s-called around the track. Upon completion of the race, they would frolic over to their handlers, get their pats and smooches then clear the track for the next race. Obviously, I don’t know the whole story of these dogs and their lives, but what I saw were happy, healthy dogs having a great time doing what they love to do -- run like the wind! -- and being very well treated in the process. (Note: I shot a bunch of media that I will try to make into a Report which may be able to tell the story better.) When I cashed in my 5 Pounds worth of bets, I got a whopping 5.90 back, so I came out ahead! (Not including the 5 Pounds admission, 2 Pound beer and 50 pence peanuts, of course!) Anyway, it was a really nice, well-rounded day in Chingford -- speaking English the entire time! -- that I enjoyed very much. This morning I took the Underground into downtown London where I met my friend Jean who you may recall was my “table-mate” for the first week of my cruise on MV Discovery between Limon, Costa Rica and the Galapagos Islands. We had a nice walk along the Thames while we chatted and caught up on the past six months, then had lunch and took a “flight” on the London Eye. It was kinda “touristy” but it was really fun and provided some great views of the city. We took an indirect path back to the Underground and enjoyed a few sights then said our good-byes and went our separate ways. Jean is a delightful, warm and witty woman who is a pleasure to be with, and I am very glad we could renew our connection during my brief time in London! In many ways -- new experiences, old friends and familiar language! -- it has been another fabulous four days on The Voyage of Macgellan!

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