Saturday, March 19, 2011

Chapter 8:You Don't Know What You're DO-ing!

Our last day of vacation was the one I was most looking forward to, the Premier League match. We were able to get up at a reasonable time, have breakfast, and make our way to the Underground to make our way to Euston Station for the Virgin train to Birmingham.

We arrived without incident, although the trip did allow me to see more of the English countryside than our Eurostar trip to Paris. Birmingham is definitely a more industrial city than London, at least the parts of London we saw, and you could tell the difference in the landscape. What we saw of Birmingham was definitely grittier than London.

We made our way to Villa Park, Aston Villa's home ground. We had to ask directions as to where we picked up our tickets that I ordered online. Unfortunately, we got three different answers from three different people, and we ended up making about two or three laps around the stadium before we could get the tickets and get inside. Keep in mind, it's not a tiny little yard, and this is day eight of a pretty ambitious trip. Mary Beth was quite a trooper.

Even more so when we were taking pictures, and an official from the team came up to us. They were from the marketing department, and wanted pictures of fans taking pictures outside Villa Park. Sounds simple, right? Nah. They wanted something a little more involved, and we ended up getting moved around and posed for about five minutes. Remember, this is AFTER the wild goose chases we were sent on to get the tickets in the first place. Mary Beth was QUITE a trooper. Is my ego big enough to think it was all worth it to have my picture in some marketing brochure I'll never see? Well, I'll let you come up with your own conclusion.

(Hint. The answer is yes.)

We ultimately did get our tickets and get inside the ground. The steward inspecting our bags was incredibly kind. Apparently, SLR cameras of any kind aren't allowed in the ground. Of course, I had a ginormous bag with one inside. He just smiled, and said "you're not going to be using this in here, right, mate?" He checked with his boss, and they let us in. He also made sure we knew that we couldn't take pictures of any kind during the game, so we wouldn't get into trouble later on. Thank God we must just look like dumb, harmless Americans.

Of course, he also recommended the cheeseburgers. More on that later.

We went up to order lunch, and discovered they are cash-only, and there are no money machines in Villa Park (!). Mary Beth and I pooled our coins, and ended up buying two cheeseburgers and a water. We got to our seats, which were just phenomenal, and settled in and ate our lunch.

Worst. Cheeseburgers. Ever.

Seriously, I don't think a cheeseburger is supposed to crunch when you bite into it. I thought about going "authentic" and getting a steak and kidney pie, but thought I'd play it safe with the cheeseburger. Bad plan.

We sat and soaked up the atmosphere before the match kicked off (well, in all fairness, I stood in the main area watching the Tottenham-West Ham match until the TVs in the stadium cut away to the internal TV). We were about an hour early, so we had plenty of time to get ready and enjoy the sights before the kickoff.

I've seen Premier League matches on television all the time. But seeing it in person, less than 20 feet from the pitch, is a completely different animal. The speed, the skill, and the strength of both teams in playing the game was just amazing. And hearing the hum of the crowd, the songs of the home and away fans during the game, was incredible.

A word has to be said about the crowd. Villa Park holds less than 40,000 people, less than half the size of Memorial Stadium in Lincoln. But the stadium is basically a box, and most of it is made of metal. It is LOUD. It is intimidating, to see the wall of people all around you, singing songs and chanting chants. And because the clock runs for the whole half, the game feels like a single, organic beast as opposed to a series of individual plays. It's just different, and I was hooked.

And, keep in mind, this was for a game that was, objectively, an awful game to watch. Aston Villa only had one shot on target in the first half, Wolves took a 1-0 lead towards the end of the first half, and that ended up to be the final score. Still, Villa had a few good chances, including Darren Bent bouncing a shot off the crossbar that could have made things interesting.

At halftime, we struck up a conversation with an older gentleman sitting in front of us. He turned around, smiled, and said "you're not English, are you?" We smiled, and said we were American. Mary Beth made the mistake of saying we were at our first soccer game, which made him recoil like we had stepped on his hand. She caught herself and said "football, not soccer," which made him smile. He was awfully sweet, telling us about his grandkids getting to see a game down close for the first time, how much he loved living in Birmingham, and how he was pleased to have visitors at his beloved Villa Park.

It was interesting to see the Aston Villa crowd turn on their manager, Gerard Houllier. Villa is having a very disappointing season, and most of the fans are starting to think that Houllier isn't the right guy for the job. In the second half, Houllier took off fan favorite Marc Albrighton, who was one of the few players having a good game. The crowd went mental, the loudest they were the entire game, singing "you don't know what you're doing" to Houllier. Once that starts happening, it's usually the kiss of death for a manager.

Phil Down (the referee) blew the final whistle, and Wolverhampton's fans were drowned out by the furious boos of the Villa supporters. Mary Beth and I went down a row to get a picture of ourselves, which was apparently a bad idea. Two or three fans were rushing down to get as close to the pitch as possible were screaming and swearing at their own team as they left the pitch.

I mean, seriously, red-faced screaming. I've been at a bunch of contentious games. I have never seen craziness like that. And that was just after the stewards stopped another kid from rushing onto the stadium.

It made some of the other things make more sense. There are "home" and "away" tickets sold, meaning that the fans are completely segregated by the teams they support. The area where the Wolves fans sat was ringed by easily 100 police officers. And even after that, when the crowd was leaving and they mingled, there were two or three fights that just about broke out. One guy was on his phone and, at the top of his lungs, told his mate that the game was a "f***ing w**k, total s**t." Mary Beth, thankfully, hid her face in her scarf to conceal the unabashed giggling that provoked from her.

Keep in mind, Wolverhampton is not far from Birmingham, where Aston Villa is located. A game between teams that are close to each other is called a derby (pronounced darby), and usually the fans of those teams don't care much for each other. That explains a lot of the venom we saw during and after the game. In the photo album is a video with the Wolves fans turning the screw on the Villa fans after the game. You get an idea of why there could be some hard feelings.

We got back to the train, and had lunch at the station. We were in line trying to get information about what platform to use, and another fight almost broke out when a kid of Middle Eastern descent stepped out of line to look at a toteboard. A larger-statured (OK, fat) Englishman behind me started going after this guy for cutting in line, then talking about how this was HIS country, and how dare this guy try to get something over on him in HIS country. Apparently that attitude wasn't something that we left behind in the United States.

I made up for my cheeseburger by having a sausage and mash pasty (basically a calzone). Apparently between the pasty and the Villa kit, I passed for English enough that I had people coming up to me and asking how the match went -- at least until I opened my mouth and answered them. Still, that was fun.

On the train ride home, I listened to a Villa fan, an Arsenal fan, and a West Brom fan talk football all the way home. I have to admit, I was a little jealous. Getting a chance to talk football for an hour with anyone, much less life-long fans like that, would have been a lot of fun. But it was interesting just to eavesdrop and listen in.

We headed back to the hotel and packed up the bags, as we've got to get up at 3:45 a.m. to catch the coach for Heathrow tomorrow. I'm going to turn in listening to Match of the Day and the Football League Show on the BBC to complete my authentic London experience. I'll have a summary of the trip tomorrow, once we get home.

Photos of the football adventure can be found here.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Chapter 7:The Alpha Geek

Don't worry, my moment of high geekery will come soon enough. If you can't wait, skim down and look for the ***GEEK ALERT*** later in the 'blog post.

We slept in this morning, recovering from our late night return from Paris. After breakfast, we went back to the room and Mary Beth decided she needed to lie down for a little while. I had some time to myself, and (based on a suggestion from a friend, thanks Adam) decided to take an excursion on my own to see a football stadium.

A little background. I've been a soccer fan for a while, but I've never really found a Premier League team to get behind. Right now, all I do is pull for teams that have American players on them. That's kinda fun, but nowhere near as fun as having a team to pull for.

My friend Adam is a massive Arsenal fan (called a "supporter" over here), and I told him that I would give it a try this year. So, basically, Arsenal and I have been dating this year, to see how it goes. Arsenal is located in north London, so I thought I would take the opportunity to head over and at least see the grounds. I stopped off to pick up a 20p tabloid and a Union Jack umbrella to fight off the rain.

It was a different experience riding the Underground on my own, without Mary Beth around. In all honesty, it was kinda fun, much easier to imagine myself as a Londoner on his way to a match before going back to work on Monday.

I arrived at the proper station (cleverly named "Arsenal") and made my way to Emirates Stadium. It was a quick walk through a nice little neighborhood, and I crossed a bridge and took a walk around the stadium. It's a gorgeous structure, although it's weird to see a huge (70,000+ seat) stadium nestled in a residential neighborhood. It felt more like a baseball stadium than a football one.

I went through the two gift shops, one of the very few people shopping on a rainy Friday afternoon. Amazingly enough, none of the employees said a word to me as I shopped. It was work to get someone to break away from talking with each other to take my money for the postcard I bought. Maybe that's a British thing, but it was definitely noticeable. It's definitely odd to have been treated better by the people in Paris than the people from Arsenal. If Arsenal and I are dating, then meeting Arsenal's family certainly didn't do the relationship any favors.

It's not like the performance of the team has been helpful. Arsenal is known as a team that plays amazingly skilled, technically proficient football but never quite get around to, you know, winning anything. They're second in the Premier League, and have been eliminated from the Champions League and the two domestic competitions they were in this year.

(Translation for American readers. Most professional soccer teams (known as "clubs") play in their domestic league, and also in a separate tournament with other teams in their countries. England has two of those tournaments, the FA Cup and the Carling Cup, which no one cares about unless your team loses, at which point supporters get upset at their team. In addition to the league and the domestic competitions, there is the UEFA Champions League which pits the best clubs from around Europe in a tournament to crown the best club in Europe. The Champions League is the real big deal, at least as big if not bigger than the Premier League. Got it?)

So it's fair to say the relationship between Arsenal and I isn't going well. Still, I've been following them all year, and being on the grounds, I have to admit a sense of connection with the club. Maybe there is something there, we'll see.


(No, the soccer stuff wasn't the geeky part. That's how bad it is.)

I got back to the hotel room, Mary Beth and I cleaned up, and we headed back to the Underground for the one planned activity we had for the evening.

The Doctor Who Experience.

For those of you not familiar, Doctor Who is a British science fiction show about a time-traveling adventurer that saves space and time from monsters. It started in 1964, and it still going strong after a ten-year hiatus. I got hooked on it in junior high, when a friend of mine introduced it to me on a sleepover. I loved the campy action, the threadbare storylines, and the sheer British-ness of it. When I was sick and lost my hair as a kid, my folks bought me a curly-hair wig so I could look like Tom Baker, the Fourth Doctor. The long scarf I have on my topcoat to this day is an homage to the Doctor.

Quite honestly, Doctor Who (along with Monty Python and the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy) was a fixture of my childhood, and ultimately one of the reasons I wanted to come to London in the first place.

I wasn't disappointed. The "experience" itself was very similar to the dearly-departed Star Trek Experience at the Las Vegas Hilton. You go through an interactive "story" where the Doctor takes you on an adventure. We got to see a fully-working replica of the TARDIS control panel (don't ask, it'll take too long to explain), be threatened by Daleks (ditto), and generally save all of space and time.

I'm not embarrassed to say I ate it up. God bless Mary Beth for going through the whole thing with me without laughing or rolling her eyes one. Or filing for divorce. She's truly an amazing woman.

After the Experience, we went through a display showing props and costumes from the show, interactive displays about some of the effects (so THAT'S how they got that Dalek voice!) and told some of the stories about how the show was made. And then, of course, there was the obligatory gift shop that I had to peruse.

Once we left the hall, we went and had lunch at Pizza Express, a far more upscale place than the name indicated. We came back to Bayswater, shopped a little, and came back to the hotel to relax. We watched TV for a while, including the Red Nose Day telethon, which is analogous to the Jerry Lewis Telethon, except that it's not just for one charity. And, of course, Jerry Lewis isn't there. But, heck, they even had a mini-Doctor Who episode on it. Winning!

We then went out for dinner at Bella Italia, which apparently is the European version of Olive Garden, as we saw one just about everywhere we went. The food certainly would suggest that, as it was adequate Italian food, but nowhere near as good as the place we ate in last night. We did a little more shopping on the walk back, then went back to the room to turn in for the night.

Tomorrow, we head to Birmingham for the Aston Villa-Wolverhampton Premier League soccer game. Settle down, Arsenal and I aren't yet at the stage where we're exclusive, so there shouldn't be any heartbreak involved with little Aston Villa tryst.

The London photo album has been updated, you can see it in it's full geeky glory here.

Chapter 6:How Do You Say "Exhausted" In French?

Apologies for how long it took to get this installment out. As you read on, you'll understand why.

Thursday we woke up at 4:30 a.m. (!) to get ready and over to the Underground. We opened up the Bayswater station so we could get to the international rail station and catch the Eurostar train to Paris. We were able to buy a day-pass for the Metro, the Paris subway, and get a map of the Metro at the Eurostar station. That turned out to be very helpful.

The train was a pretty slick way to travel, although getting on the international trip was a lot like boarding a plane in terms of the security. Going through the chunnel was kind of a non-event, as I fell asleep pretty quickly after sitting down in the coach.

Once we arrived in Paris, we had to make our way to the Metro, which meant finding our way through a train station without speaking the language. With some help from one of the security guards, we got at least to the platform.

The Metro, in some ways, is very different from the Underground, besides the obvious "everything's in French" bit. It's nowhere near as clean, and the trains as they arrive don't have any indication of what line they are or where they are going. Still, subways all have the same basic components -- colored lines, circles indicating stops, and final destinations. It didn't take us too long to get our bearings.

Our first stop was Notre Dame. The original one, not the one in Indiana, although the football stadium in South Bend is way cooler than the one in Paris. We got out of the Metro and had to take a bridge across the Siene River to get to the church, and it was walking across that bridge that the reality of being in Paris really struck me. Even more than in London, the feeling of being a foreign visitor really hit home.

We perused the grounds, including standing on the marker that signified the "center of Paris" before heading in. Notre Dame is really stunning, not only for the artwork inside (particularly the Rose Window and Michaelangelo's Pieta at the back of the sanctuary), but for the sheer age and presence of the building. Everything in the building is spectacular. We lit candles for the loved ones we've lost recently, and explored for a while.

It was back to the Metro and off to the Eiffel Tower next. We found the proper station (after one mis-step of getting on the wrong train and having to backtrack) and headed over, with a detour to utilize (or attempt to utilize) the somewhat space-age self-cleaning restroom on the streets. The grey sky didn't really do the tower justice, in terms of both its' size and its' beauty.

The natural inclination when you go to see a monument is to go TO the monument. That's not the way to handle the Eiffel Tower. We had to walk back almost two blocks, across the Siene, to really get an ability to see the Tower in its' glory.

We then walked a good distance along the Siene towards the next Metro station and for our next stop, the Arc de Triomphe and the Champs-Elysees. The Arc is really impressive, sitting in the middle of a huge roundabout in the middle of an incredibly busy street. Underneath the Arc, with all kinds of names and monuments facing it, is an eternal flame with flowers ringing it.

The French roundabouts are as crazy as you hear, five cars wide with no real lanes to speak of. There are six or seven different streets that spill into this roundabout, and people dart from one to the next with no real rhyme or reason that I could tell. All of a sudden, the Metro's problems didn't seem so bad.

We stopped for an incredible lunch at a sidewalk sandwich shop, did a little souvenir shopping, then headed back to the Metro to see the Louvre.

From the Metro, you come into the Louvre from underneath, which is a little surreal. But the sight of the inverted pyramid is really impressive (even if you hadn't seen "The DaVinci Code") and a great way to start the trip.

(As an aside, there's a number of shops underneath the Louvre we walked by. There's an Apple store right in the entrance, in which you can see the reflection of the inverted pyramid in the store's facade. Is it possible to make an Apple store MORE pretentious? Sure! Put it in the entryway of the Louvre!)

Getting into the main lobby, the Louvre presents some wonderful decisions to make in terms of what to see. We didn't have a lot of time or energy left, so we budgeted both with our plans. We did see Winged Victory, the Venus de Milo, and the Mona Lisa, as well as hundreds of other masterpieces.

The Louvre is an overwhelming place. The building itself is so beautiful that you catch yourself marveling at the building rather than the artwork the building is intended to house. Nowhere is that distraction more stark than in the room holding the Mona Lisa. Of course, there is a huge crush of people trying to get close enough to get a picture of the famous smile. But the walls of the entire room (and it's not a small room) are jam-packed with stunning masterpieces as well. In some ways, I feel sorry for those pieces of art. They're reduced to the artistic version of background singers behind the spotlight-grabbing Mona Lisa.

We sent some postcards, bought some souveniers, and headed back to the train station for our return to London. During my trip to paris, I have to admit I was waiting to be treated by the famous Parisian contempt for foreigners. Nothing could have been further from the truth. During our entire trip to date, the two biggest acts of kindness we've received were from Parisians.

First, one of the shopkeepers on the Champs-Elysess put the credit card I left behind (winning!) under his desk and returned it to me without incident or snark when I returned, red-faced, for it. Second, an elderly woman walking with a cane could see that Mary Beth and I were struggling to find our way back to the train station. Even though she did not speak a word of English, she figured out where we were going and walked along with us, making sure that we took the right staircase to get to our train. Good thing she did, too, as we would have certainly taken the wrong train had she not shown us the way. She and Mary Beth hugged and kissed as we thanked her profusely as we parted. Sometimes angels walk slowly and speak French. I'm glad we had the presence of mind to slow down and let her help us.

We slept most of the way back to London, although I did break down and buy a cheeseburger. The travel back to the Phoenix Hotel was uneventful, although we had both forgotten it was St. Patrick's Day. There were some revelers out and about, and although I would ever hesitate to refer to the English as "amateurs" when it comes to drinking alcohol, it did appear that St. Patrick's Day is "Amateur Night" in the UK as well. It was amusing to see a Japanese tourist taking a picture of a man in a arge Guinnes St. Patrick's Day hat sitting on a bench in the train station, either drunk or otherwise affected such that he had no idea what was going on.

Today's a rest day, although we do have a few activites planned. I will tell you more later, but suffice it to say that any questions about my Alpha Geek status will be put to rest tonight.

Photos from Paris can be found here.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Chapter 5:Kilts and Klingons

This morning was another sleep-in morning, which was good given that we stayed our one night in the George with its' king-size bed and Sky Sports on the television. We did have some problems with the computer, requiring Martin (and his kilt) to come up to the room to get things working. He was a little put off by my Alienware keyboard, asking if the keys were in Klingon. You haven't lived until you've had a man in a kilt and a thick Scottish accent say the word "Klingon" to you.

We went downstairs to have breakfast, and I was able to have my first "proper" British hot breakfast. In this case, "proper" means "complimentary," as we're hemmoraging cash as it is. Poached eggs on toast, bacon (which, in the UK, is way more Canadian bacon than Hormel), tomatoes, baked beans, pork sausage, and porridge. For the most part, it was good to have once, but I will stick with my Weetabix.

We got some help from Vanessa, quite possibly the friendliest person I've ever encountered, and made some plans for the day. We walked a few blocks (and past about eight statues or monuments -- stuff like that happens in a city that's 1300 years old) to St. James Center. No culture or history here, we just shopped for souvenirs and gifts. The best part of the trip was going into the official club store for the Hearts of Midlothian Football Club, a Scottish soccer team that isn't Celtic or Rangers, so even fewer people have heard of them. Of course, now they're my adopted SPL side, particularly after listening to the clerk and a patron attempt to explain the difference between a "kit" and a "uniform." I'm still not sure I understand, and I knew before they started talking.

Once we got done at St. James Center, we did more shopping along Princes Street, including me looking in some of the other sports stores (JJB Sports and JD Sports) for more gear. We stopped in one of the tourist shops, bought a few knick-knacks and learned about Greyfriars Bobbie, and looked around for a while, ultimately going upstairs to their tea room for lunch. (Hey, you can't turn down free tea with any purchase -- very Scottish of us!)

It was a small room, filled with grey-haired ladies wearing cashmere sweaters of every color. Evidently it was the place to be seen for the over-60 Scottish women crowd. We ordered tea, Mary Beth had a scone, and I had shortbread. Both were incredibly good, and held us the rest of the day.

After lunch, we meandered through Edinburgh back to the hotel to get our luggage and send postcards. We left the George and headed to the bus station. At least we thought we were heading to the bus station, until the bus we needed to take us to the airport sped right by. We stopped someone who looked local, who informed us we were heading in the wrong direction and put us right.

Thankfully, we left plenty of goof-up time, and still made the bus (including a stop to enjoy a busking bagpiper) comfortably. We got back to Edinburgh Airport, got through security without quite the drama we had arriving (although we both did get the "TSA treatment" this time). We ended up getting on an earlier flight and got back to London over an hour ahead of schedule.

We took the Underground back to the Phoenix, made a quick stop at Boots Pharmacy for athletes foot ointment for yours truly (that could be a developing situation) and got our new room. After the large and luxurious George, the convenient but closet-like rooms at the Phoenix were put in starker relief. I mean, for heaven's sake, our new room even has a tube television instead of a flat screen. Savages!

We spruced up a little and went for dinner at the inauspiciously-named Ristorante Italiano. The simplicity of the name belied the quality of the meal. I had an incredible pasta carbonara, and Mary Beth had an exquisite chicken and asparagus dish. Throw in the fact that Mary Beth was convinced one of the waiters was my Italian doppelganger, and the evening was both delicious and a little peculiar.

We got back to the room and hit the sack. Tomorrow we get up at 4:30 a.m. to catch the chunnel to Paris. If you'd care to help us get ready for the trip, please feel free to be condescending and arrogant in your comments.

More photos from Edinburgh can be found here.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Chapter 4:No, THAT'S The Castle

I don’t care what continent you’re in, 4:30 in the morning is early. That’s what time we had to get up to catch our transport to the airport for our trip to Edinburgh, Scotland. We made it (with time to spare) and took the short flight, enjoying a few of the British tabloids along the way.

Getting on the flight, though, was another story. I was wearing slacks with a second “hidden” pocket to keep my passport, which seemed like a great idea when traveling. Unfortunately, even the minute amount of metal in the zipper was throwing off the security checks. I went through one check. Then another. Then the full-body x-ray. I’m pretty sure I was one step away from a “turn your head and cough” security check, but thankfully they passed me through before I had to take off my Oscar Goldman pants.

Once we arrived, we took the bus to the George Hotel in the City Centre (no, spell check, here that’s correct) and checked in. We could tell very quickly we were in a nicer hotel than the Phoenix in London. A bath. A king-sized bed. Washcloths. A television with an all-sports channel. Life is truly good in Scotland.

We had lunch first, quesadillas at a Cuban restaurant (because, really, what’s more authentically Scottish than a chorizo quesadilla? At least it was two-for-one). We then decided to walk over to Edinburg Castle, the main attraction in the city. We walked out of the hotel and looked over Princes Street Gardens, trying to get our bearings. Mary Beth pointed out one of the bigger and more ostentatious buildings in the green, asking if that was the castle.

“No, I think that’s the castle,” I said, pointing to the right and seeing the huge – well, castle, on top of the large hill.

Without missing a beat, Mary Beth turned around.

“We’re taking a cab,” she said, hailing one before I had much input in the matter.

If Nebraska means “flat water,” then it’s pretty clear Edinburg translates into “steep and hilly with slick cobblestones when it rains.” It’s very nice, and the people are incredibly friendly, but you’re going to get a workout walking around the place.

We took the cab into the castle, paid our way in, and began exploring. It was a chilly, misty day, which seemed very authentically Scottish as we explored the royal home. We saw the cannons that guarded the castle, the spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, and the very impressive war memorial built after the Great War with the 1920’s architecture and spectacular statue of the archangel Michael to match. We even got to see the Scottish Crown Jewels and the Stone of Destiny on display. Scotland’s Crown Jewels weren’t quite as amazing as England’s, but they were impressive nonetheless.

As we left the castle, the rain had turned from a quaintly-authentic drizzle to a just-plain-cold-and-miserable rain, so we headed back to the hotel. On the way back, we reflected that Scotland really had a lot in common with Native American tribes back home. Both Scottish people and Native Americans have their own, unique culture outside of the dominant culture in which they live, both were occupied and conquered by a larger nation, and both continue to have one foot in both worlds.

We recouped at the hotel, then went back out for dinner and for me to watch the Champions League match between Manchester United and Marseilles. That’s football, which we in America call soccer, for those of you unaware. On the recommendation of the concierge, we went to a “proper pub” on Hanover Street called Milnes, and the atmosphere was everything you would expect in a Scottish pub.

Except, of course, they weren’t showing the game. Although coming from a sports bar culture like America it was hard to fathom, the barkeep said that football games “cause too much trouble” and there’s only one in the area that shows the games. So, after I finished my pies (yes, I had a steak and kidney pie, but I drew the line at haggas), we went down Rose Street (a cool little alley filled with shops and restaurants) to a place called Elements.

When we got there, it’s clear it wasn’t a sports bar. The furniture and clientele were far from sports bar, with plush gold couches to sit in and raspberry pavlova to eat. The game was on an HDTV, which was inside a gold picture frame. The sound of the game wasn’t on, so instead of hearing the commentary, we listened to what can only be described as a folk cover of “Disturbia.”

Surreal doesn’t even begin to describe it.

We watched the first half and headed back to the hotel, to prepare for our last day in Edinburgh. I’m not sure what exactly we’re going to do, but it likely won’t be as weird as tonight.

Pictures from today are in a new album here.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Chapter 3:Big Clocks, Big Wheels, and Front Doors

The last of the late mornings, as we woke up, had our continental breakfast (God bless Weetabix and Nutella), and got ready for the day. We bought a Big Bus Tour day pass, allowing us to ride a tour bus wherever we wanted, and get a chance to get a guided tour of the city.

And avoid Underground construction. That was a plus, too.

The London Eye was mission one, and between a long walk to the nearest bus stop and the glacial speed of a tour bus, it took some time before we arrived. But arrive we did, and the wait was worth it. Just before you disembark, you go by the House of Parlaiment, Big Ben, and Westminster Abbey. Turning the corner and seeing Big Ben (well, technically the clock in which Big Ben, the bell in the clock, is housed) is a sight rivaled only by Liberty Island when you first see the Statue of Liberty in New York.

We got in the queue (got it right the first time!) for the Eye, which is basically a giant ferris wheel built for the millennium. Before you get into the Eye, you go through a 4D London Eye experience. What is 4D, you ask? It's a 3D show, adding in little smoke clouds from the floor when you go through the clouds, drops of water on your head when there is rain, and other "you are there" moments. Not entirely sure what the point of the show was, but it wasn't optional.

We got in the Eye and took the ride, about 30 minutes, which did provide some spectacular views of the city. We managed to get there in the two-hour window of sunny weather we've had since we arrived, so we got some pretty spectacular views. We also got a pretty spectacularly hot capsule full of people from all around the globe with all different types of ideas about how frequently you should shower.

Once the Eye was done, we decided to walk over and see Big Ben, Parliament, and Westminster Abbey up close. Nothing short of amazing, particularly as we went from one seat of government (the Tower of London) to another. In the course of 24 hours, we covered about nine hundred years of British power. You don't get that kind of efficiency many other places.

Buckingham Palace was next, but we were both tired and hungry, so on the recommendations of a local police officer we went to a little cafe underneath the Methodist Church across the street from Westminster Abbey. It is refreshing to learn that church basements are pretty much the same around the world, although the marble tables and groovy chairs did make for a nice escape from the tourist throng.

Refreshed, we headed out and were greeted by a serenade from the Westminster belltower. Seriously, this was loud and prolonged. Apparently, it was Commonwealth Day today, and the Queen had just arrived at Westminster Abbey. It felt, though, like the bells were welcoming us back to the London streets after lunch. I'm going with the latter.

We walked along the edge of St. James's Park to Buckingham Palace, which wasn't quite as close as the friendly Bobbies told us it would be. But got there we did, and it was worth the hike. Holy cats, talk about the best front door in the world. We walked along the front gate, marveling at the intricate designs in gold along the black wrought-iron bars. There's no question you're at the ultimate gated community. It's still a little surreal to think about being in front of an actual palace, where actual kings and queens have lived for hundreds of years.

Once we were done at the palace, we got back on the bus with the intent of taking a "Ghosts of London" walking tour. The tour involved walking along, hearing stories of haunted placed around London (usually involving people being beheaded or hung, which is way more prevalent in London than just about anyplace else I've ever been. Even San Diego). Unfortunately for the "walking tour" part, the temperature had dropped to about 40 degrees, and there was a gaggle of high-school kids that were tagging along the tour. We lasted for one pub stop (the Sherlock Holmes, where a Diet Coke and a bag of cream cheese and bacon crisps hit the spot) and two ghost stories (one about Ben Franklin, and one about Jane Grey and Anne Boleyn just before their execution) before we punted and ate at a delightful Mexican restaurant called Lupita. Fried cheese rocks. There's only so much English food one can tolerate.

We were close to Trafalgar Square, and the city was unveiling their countdown clock to the 2012 Olympics. We stayed to watch a little of the ceremony, just long enough to see one of the bizarre and oddly creepy mascots. We both decided another 30 minutes of "aren't we wonderful in London" shilling wasn't for us, so we hopped on the Underground and headed back home.

Early night tonight, as we have to catch a BMI plane tomorrow morning for Edinburgh. Hopefully the Scottish hotel will cooperate with a daily update tomorrow.

The photo album has been updated, and can be found here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Chapter 2:Orf Wif Der 'Eads!

Before I get to the day's activities, I have to make an amendment to an observation from last night. With my sleep cycles still off, I stayed up and watched a LOT of television. I have to retract at least some of my previous observations about the state of British TV. While there is still an episode of Friends on all ... the ... time ... there are also shows like Celebrity Naked Ambition. If you're wondering what it's about, you don't have to wonder too hard. Let's just say it's not a show you'd see in the USA.

We got up this morning, had the English version of a continental breakfast (juice, toast, and cereal -- and let me tell you, the English don't believe in skim milk) and made our plans to see the Tower of London. With the Underground station being out, and us not yet being comfortable with the bus routes, we decided to walk to the nearest Underground terminal.

And walk. And walk. And walk. Cardio exercise for the day (the week?) accomplished.

Once we got there (and walked some more, including some amazingly-steep stairs) we were on our way to the Tower. We got in, and were smart enough to get the tickets from a shop ahead of time to avoid the line (sorry, the queue) and get right in.

We went along on a guided tour with Steve, the Yeoman Warden, who was quite the showman. Steve showed us where the queens and other prisoners were beheaded, where they came in to the tower to be beheaded, where they walked to be beheaded, where their heads were put on the end of pikes after they were beheaded, and where the bodies were buried after they were beheaded.

Sensing a theme here?

After the tour, we walked around the grounds for a little while, including walking through the White Tower, the center of the grounds and where the center of the government (and, for quite a while, the center of the Western World) was seated. Being American, you really don't get a feel for history any place you go. When you stand in a room that was built in the fifteenth century, and in front of a wall that was constructed in the tenth century, you realize how hard it is to have a historical perspective. Churches and other buildings in Nebraska that were built in the nineteenth century have Federal protection as historic landmarks in the US. In Europe, they're considered "the new wing."

We stopped for scones and jelly babies at the Tower's cafe, checked out the Tower Bridge, then headed back for the Underground. We went to Harrod's, an amazing cathedral of consumerism. Harrod's is what Von Maur wants to be when it grows up. We briefly went through the four stories of stores, marveling at the goods (and the prices -- there was a small round end-table that went for over 1,200 pounds. I was afraid to look at it). We also saw the Egyptian-themed escalator leading to the basement with the memorial for Princess Diana.

We took the bus from Harrod's back to Bayswater, and (hopefully not jinxing myself) I think we've got the bus/Underground transit system somewhat under control. I was asked twice -- including once by a lady in a British accent -- for help in navigating the system. I'll work on keeping my head from getting too swollen.

We went back to the Bayswater Arms for chips and fizzy pop (I tried calling it soda and got a blank, "oh, great, another bloody Yank" look from the barmaid), shopped a little, then came back to the hotel. We may grab some dinner at one of the local restaurants, or just call it a night.

Tomorrow, the London Eye. Hopefully the sun and the Underground construction will cooperate.

More photos added to the online album, which can be found here.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Chapter 1a:So THAT'S What Jet Lag Feels Like

I neglected earlier to mention that we're staying at the Phoenix Hotel, a very nice (if not entirely spacious) hotel across the street from Kensington Gardens. When arriving, one of the real attractions to the hotel was that it is very close to an Underground station, meaning we could hop on the tube and get just about anywhere we want to go.

Which is a great plan. Except for the part about the Underground station nearest the hotel being "under service" for the weekend.

So, we were a little limited in what we were able to do. Because neither of our smartphones are global, we've both (and by we, I really mean me) realized how dependent on smartphones we've become to get around. Actually having to read a map to figure out how to get around? How quaint! How's that work again?

We ended up just exploring the neighborhood around the hotel, called Bayswater. It's a little touristy, but seeing that we're tourists, it seemed to work out well. We had fish and chips for our first meal at the Bayswater Arms, which really was better there than anyplace I've had it back home. We did a little shopping, involving Mary Beth diving into gift-purchasing and me buying a new wallet that will actually hold British currency. I think I was in high school the last time I had a nylon wallet with a velcro closure, but at least it was cheap. And it has an Arsenal logo on it.

We got back to the hotel room with great plans to walk through Kensington Gardens, and maybe over to Harrod's. That's when the jet lag kicked in. Mary Beth pretty quickly fell asleep after a "quick lie down," and I wasn't far behind. I did watch the first half of the FA Cup semi-final between Manchester United and Arsenal, but fell asleep after Manchester United went up 2-0.

(Insert your own joke about soccer putting you to sleep even without jet lag here)

We pretty much spent the rest of the evening in the hotel room, watching British television, which is spectacularly awful in a completely different way than American television is awful. The plan for the evening was to make plans for tomorrow, which didn't happen. So, tomorrow's chapter will be a surprise!

Your first batch of pictures are here, you lucky people. I'll update this album as we accumulate pictures and videos. You're welcome.

Chapter 1: The Eagles Have Landed!

Well, we're here. Just a few quick observations.

Flying coach, even on an international flight, ain't the Ritz. It doesn't help, when, after your flight, you walk through business class and see their seats which recline into beds and their quilted blankets. And that's only business class. I can't image what first class is like, but I expect it includes some form of massage.

Heathrow is a very old airport, and very much had a feel like Laguardia in New York. Getting through customs was a breeze (stamp one on the new passport!) and we eventually made our way to the Underground. Before that, though, we stopped for snacks and to get British pounds from the ATM. Apparently I'm going to need a new wallet for this trip, as the pound notes are a tad fatter than dollars.

The Underground was slick, although of course the line that went to our hotel was out of service. We had to wander around for a bit, before punting and taking a taxi to the hotel. For the first time, we had a cabbie who refused to talk, apart from getting directions and taking our money. Welcome to London.

We're making our plans for the rest of the day, although with our Underground stop being out of commission, our plans might be a little complicated.

More to come, including pictures. Thanks for joining us on the adventure!

Tuesday, March 08, 2011

European Vacation (sans Chevy Chase)

For those of you not aware, Mary Beth and I are heading "over the pond" to England, Scotland, and France. We leave March 11, and get back on March 20.

I will be attempting to post a daily "travel-blog" of our adventures, including pictures. You can follow along here, which will make the tedious "let's see your travel slides" get-together once we get back much shorter.

Any advice on our trip is welcome, although I would ask you to refrain from the "can't you guys just stay over there?" gags. You're better than that.

For those of you who would like a preview to whet your appetite, or if you're the type who just reads a book synopsis off the dust jacket and pretends to your friends that you've read the whole book, here's the places we will be going and the things we will be seeing:

FRIDAY, 03/11
Leave Omaha for Chicago. Wait three hours in O'Hare. Have positive, humane interactions with thoughtful TSA workers. Fly from O'Hare to Heathrow. Watch "Jersey Shore" marathon on flight to ensure the maximum ugly-American-ness when arriving on foreign soil.

Unstructured day in London. Enjoy wonderful British cuisine. Alternatively, view British cuisine as the best weight loss plan we've seen in months.

SUNDAY, 03/13
Check out the London Eye, Tower of London, Big Ben, and other stereotypical touristy things. Complain loudly that the BBC isn't running a three-hour analysis of the March Madness brackets.

MONDAY, 03/14
Spend most of the day in the hotel room filling out brackets. Alternatively, explore one of the great cities on Earth. But probably spend most of the day filling out brackets.

TUESDAY, 03/15
Fly from London to Edinburgh to experience first-hand my Scottish heritage.

Fly from Edinburgh to London, with a full understanding of why my ancestors left Scotland.

Finish up seeing all the sights in London, because, really, there can't be that much to see there, right?

FRIDAY, 03/18
Ride a train under the English Channel (which is only slightly more insane than riding a metal tube thousands of feet over the ocean) to Paris, go to the Louvre, risk getting arrested by trying to re-enact scenes from "The Da Vinci Code." Return to London, and be pleasantly reminded how nice it is to deal with people who do not treat you with open contempt.

Take a train from London to Birmingham for Premier League soccer game between Aston Villa and Wolverhampton. Prepare for indignant fans, after hearing my accent, to insist that I refer to the game as football instead of "sah-ker." Avoid urge to get into a fight, as British football fans have WAY more experience with fighting than I do.

SUNDAY, 03/20
Return to Omaha, assuming the looming Federal government shutdown doesn't strand us in London and force us to extend our vacation. Guys, if you want to take a few extra days to make sure you get the whole budget thing right, we're cool with that.