After many many months of planning and scheming, our three-month sojourn in Europe begins. I fly to London for three days while Gregg flies to Amsterdam. We’ll meet in Paris!
My flight is smooth and uneventful and after a seamlessly quick arrival at Heathrow, I board the train for London. First impressions from the train – grey, wet, dreary, dispirited, ugly—a blighted place of broken windows, drab brown apartment buildings that must be so depressing to call home, mud and dead grass, rusted old tracks, sidings weeping with angry graffiti. But the good news is that the Heathrow Express is sleek and very fast so the awful views don’t last long!
At the cab stand outside Paddington station, a tall British guy shoves in front of me.
“Are you waiting?”
What does he think I’m doing at the front of the cab queue with all my luggage—admiring the scenery? The next free cab is four cabs down the queue. So yes, I’m waiting for it to pull up next to me. Why run down to it? I don’t spit out an answer quickly enough. He sighs in exasperation at the stupid tourist and pushes me out of the way to stride down the length of the platform to the waiting cab. The man behind me catches my eye. I shrug, he smiles.
“Impatient,” I say.
“He budged in front of me coming off the train.”
“I guess his time is more important.”
“More important than ours, obviously.” He grins.
“I think there’s something more important than saving time,” he says.
I raise my eyebrows.
“Manners!” he says with endearing British understatement.I laugh as the next free taxi pulls up. “I agree!”And with that, a lovely moment in Canadian-British relations is cemented. I’m just a tiny bit disappointed that the taxi I get because I wouldn’t walk to the end of the platform isn’t a real London cab. It’s more of a jeep but once inside, it looks the same. The driver never budges to help me as I heave my very heavy suitcase up into the cab and wrestle it out of the way to make room for me. But as the cab weaves through the streets of South Kensington to my hotel, I see the London of dreams – jumbles of quaint shops, most selling antiques in this upscale neighborhood, pubs and restaurants, hordes of cabs, many traditional black, some multi-colored or painted like the Union Jack.The Parkcity Hotel in South Kensington is as glorious as I remember—modern, well-appointed without being flashy, and located in a lovely little side street lined with white colonnaded Georgian style row houses. My room is perfectly lovely and includes a bathroom up a short carpeted staircase. I could fit three of my bathrooms into it.
I make myself a nice cup of tea—noting with pleasure that little containers of milk are in the fridge. Slowly the roar of the plane seeps away leaving senses hyper alert to new surroundings. I am alone in a city of twenty million (or is it more now?) and yet within moments I’m emailing my mother and deleting junk mail delivered while I flew across the Atlantic in a metal tube.
After a rest, I venture out for my first dinner in London. I intend to find a British pub where I can drink lager and smell old cigarettes. But alas – I couldn’t find one. Instead, I end up sitting at a blond wood table in a tasteful airy restaurant with papered columns made to look like old marble, a display of large glass vases filled with green olive oil and various vegetative matter on the wall facing me, small candles flickering on the tables, and a menu that is heavy on pizzas and pastas with surprisingly reasonable prices. The waiters speak something eastern European—maybe Polish. The couple next to me is speaking Russians, a man at the door with two little girls was friendly and American, a table of six Americans is seated across the way. All very comfortable, very chic, and as far from the London I remember from the 1970s as it’s possible to get.
The glass of red wine arrives—Italian and huge! For £4.05 (about $6.00), it’s a bargain. It must be at least eight ounces. I order ravioli and salad. Both come very quickly. OK – I’m in London and I shouldn’t complain about the food, but I have to say that the actual food does not measure up to the attractive surroundings. The ravioli sauce is a bit on the thick and slightly cool side—obviously microwaved. It was a dish that should have been amazing and…wasn’t. But I’m so hungry that I inhale it. At least the ambiance and price are great. Total bill is around £20 (about $32) for wine, a bottle of sparkling water, a salad and a huge bowl of mediocre but certainly edible ravioli. I couldn’t do better at home.