Tuesday, August 1, 2006

I arrive at Heathrow Airport at just past nine in the morning after a fitful night of would-be sleep on an overnight flight from Philadelphia. Adrenalin, however, rules the day when I open my eyes to patchy blue skies over the UK and a growing sense of excitement. London, baby! I have never ventured abroad before and certainly not alone, as I am doing here, so I follow the crowds of more savvy travelers through baggage claim and immigration and in the blink of an eye find myself and my luggage stowed comfortably aboard the Heathrow Express to Paddington Station. For fifteen peaceful minutes I congratulate myself on my decision to splurge here on the most expensive train ride per mile I have ever taken. I would not have wanted to struggle with my bags on the tube. Watching others do it later, over and over again, only confirms the sentiment.

After a short taxi ride from Paddington, I arrive at the doorstep of my home for the next eight days, the Millennium Bailey’s Hotel on Gloucester Road. Still amazed at my success in fooling my body into thinking it is mid-morning rather than the crack of dawn, I gawk about the lovely lobby, check my luggage in with the bellman, and set off into the “Streets of London” humming that old Ralph McTell song as I walk. First stop, Tesco’s for a quick sandwich. Next, the Underground station across the street where I ask confidently for an Oyster card with a 7-day travel card fare for zones 1-2. I notice that the attendant seems genuinely relieved that he does not have to explain fare options to yet another foreign-born tourist, and I can hardly blame him given the growing length of the queue.

I hop on a westbound Circle line train for a quick trip to High Street Kensington and purchase an inexpensive pay-as-you-go phone from the Virgin Megastore there. I stop briefly in the square in front of Saint Mary Abbots church to call my family in the states and tell them, in my best faux British accent, that they can “ring me on my mobile.”

With a ticket for the Big Bus Company I printed online in my pocket (£2 saved) and a camera at my side, I start searching for the nearest tour stop, boarding at last in front of the Royal Albert Hall. Like everyone else, I sit on the upper deck and find the recorded commentary on the “Blue” line to be surprisingly good. I hop off at Piccadilly Circus to pick up brochures at the tourist information bureau and then switch to a “Red” line bus with live commentary, only to find the guide’s timid voice drowned out by the sound of traffic in the street. Not caring enough to switch buses again, I catch my first glimpse of Trafalgar Square, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey, and the Tower of London. I spend most of the afternoon grinning like a child on Christmas morning.

When I return to my hotel late in the day I am shocked at how big my room is. It is a Club room, so I expected something a little better than average, but this is very, very nice—European-style linens, two comfy armchairs, robust air conditioning, and a deep soaking tub! What more could I ask for?

I decide to eat an early dinner at the Taste of India restaurant right up the street. The chicken tikka masala is good but not great, and the sticker shock of a lousy exchange rate is starting to sink in. Afterward, I take a long, slow walk through Kensington Gardens. I knew Londoners had suffered through successive heat waves in July, but somehow I am surprised by the look and feel of the parched grass that crunches beneath my feet. I enjoy the Flower Walk and Italian Gardens and begin to suspect that while Brits may be willing to sacrifice their lawns in times of drought, they seem to find a way to save their flowers! I walk further and find the Peter Pan Statue and the Princess Diana memorial fountain. I wonder how much the royal family must have hated Diana to allow such an odd and unimpressive thing to be built in her honor.

Back to the hotel, and a night of blissful sleep.

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