Saturday, January 6, 2007

In Which Rowan is Wanded and I am Suspected

Day Three -- Dundee to Edinburgh to London

We get up early – I can hear the kids moving around in the next rooms. I slept funny, despite being exhausted. I think it is jet-lag. I have some Ambien, but I was scared to take it and be groggy in the morning and miss the train or something. It is still dark when I wake up, despite the fact that it is seven thirty or so. That is one thing that I have a hard time adjusting to – that it is still dark at seven in the morning and gray at eight. I keep thinking that I am up early, and I am not.

I stagger out and am greeted by Rowan, who has made coffee. She asked me if I drank instant coffee before I came out, and I had to be honest and say that I did not. She has provided real coffee for me, which was very kind. I notice her electric kettle. She asks if I have one, and I say that I do not. She is somewhat disbelieving. To her, it is like not having a fridge or a hot-water heater. She asks how I heat water. I tell her that I use a microwave or a tea-kettle on the stove. She is still surprised, and I can tell that she thinks that I am an aberration. I assure her that of all of the people’s homes that I have been in, I have never seen an electric kettle. We have toast for breakfast, settle the kids, and go into town. We are going to take the train from Dundee to Edinburgh and then fly to Heathrow.

So, what do I notice about the house? It is small, but very cute. Her house dates back to the 1950’s, but feels like a house built in the forties. The floors are hardwood. The stove (or cooker as it is properly called) is also small, and you can turn it off by using a light switch. In fact, there is a whole row of plugs with switches on the wall in the kitchen. It takes me a minute to figure that out – you plug stuff in and then can turn it on or off by flipping the switch.

In the bathroom, there are two faucets, one for hot water and one for cold. This is true for the bathtub and for the sink. It reminds me of when I visited a friend’s grandmother’s house. I attribute the faucet arrangement to the age of the house, but I find later that almost everywhere we go there are two faucets, even in fairly modern buildings. This means that your hands dry out very quickly, because you are wetting one hand in very hot water and one hand in very cold water. The alternative is to use the convenient plug and stop up the sink, and use the warm water to wash your hands, but this seems time-consuming and not very hygienic. I mean not hygienic when you are in, say, the train station, not in Rowan’s house.

We take a taxi into town, as Rowan is not too keen on managing the luggage on the bus. We haul our cases into the station and Rowan purchases our tickets. We walk out to the platform and almost immediately catch the train. We settle in for the hour-long train trip. I force Rowan to identify all of the accents that I hear. “Aberdeen”, “Somewhere near Glasgow, I think…” One woman, sitting next to us, has an almost unintelligible accent and I ask what it is. With a sidelong glance, Rowan murmurs “Learning Disabled”, which is the correct UK term for a person with mental retardation or a developmental disability. I don’t ask any more questions about accents for the rest of the train ride.

Here, we are crossing the Tay River Bridge.

Here is a video of us on a train, crossing the Tay River. I like the clickety-clack of the train.

Here is a picture from the train window. Not the best quality, to be sure. I liked this because this is the typical house that one sees. Square and without ornamentation.

There are actual fields of actual sheep. I try to get a good picture of one, with no success. This is just before we come into Waverly Station. I liked the color of the building.

We get off of the train and check our luggage. We have a couple of hours before we have to get to the airport and decide to wander around for a bit. It is cold, but not freezing. It is beautiful – bright and sunny. This is a picture as you walk up the ramp out of the station. The first thing that strikes me is this view.

There is a piper playing as we exit the station.

According to Rowan, the piper is playing "A Scottish Soldier". She notes that the Ferris Wheel turning behind him, adds a muted disco beat to the old rousing military air. One department store, Jenners, has particularly beautiful architecture.

I will show you some pictures of the beautiful skyline of Edinburgh on another day.

We walk across the street and look in the shops. There are a number of street bands playing – I like a Russian brass quartet who are playing Christmas Carols with gusto. There is a small Christmas Fair going on, and we look at the goods. I ponder the merits of a jesters cap made to look like the flag of Scotland for one son and a Loch Ness monster hat for another. I decide to wait on both. Rowan is very helpful – she discusses the quality of souvenirs with the weight it deserves. She is a good native guide, humming along with the piper, discussing the merits of a Pictish cross versus a Celtic cross. We cross the street and see a Christmas market, and her eyes light up. Apparently, these are very popular in Europe, and she had not expected to see one here. There are booths with all sorts of Christmas (and not so Christmas) crafty things.
Rowan and I decide not to celebrate the birth of Christ with a shiny silver pentacle or a dream catcher. We leave without getting in touch with our inner Wiccan.

It smells a lot like beer.

And sausages.

We scarper back to the train station and grab a quick bite to eat at the Burger King. Rowan pronounces it grim and I am amused. I notice that there are neatly folded bags of refuse on the tables and I wonder why people are leaving their trash around. I worry that the Scots are slobs or something. I soon discover that there are no trash cans in sight. This is a recurring theme. Rowan has what she calls a chicken burger and I, for some reason, find this very funny. They don’t give us napkins with our meal, and this also is a recurring theme. Scots don’t seem to use napkins. I watch Rowan closely to see if she is just a tidy eater. I think that she might be. I go ask for napkins. I know that I should ask for a serviette, but I feel horribly self-conscious. I can't stutter out the word.

We get on the Express Bus to the Edinburgh Airport with no problems. They make us take our shoes off, and I feel bad for not alerting Rowan to wear shoes that are easy to remove. She struggles to get her boots off, but then walks through the metal detector clutching her wallet and sets off the alarms. She looks mortified. I am a horrible person, because I find it funny. She gets wanded and turns to me with a look on her face that is equal parts horror, exasperation, and resignation. I find this even funnier.

We board our flight with no problems and the motion soon has me lapsing into a coma. The seats behind us are empty and I promptly fall asleep. Rowan busily takes pictures of the flight.

Here are some of Rowan's thoughts. Please note the very Scots attitude toward London and Londoners. They aren't that bad, after all! : ) I am Bob, by the way, in case you haven't guessed.

Rowan writes:

Off we head on the airport bus, staffed by two deeply unhelpful and surly gents, who are the fount of all knowledge about the six-mile airport route - a knowledge they will never share. It must give them a sense of power to ignore people who ask if it is truly the airport bus, and to leave them with a little squirt of adrenalin, as the road seems to double back into town, as soon as the air-traffic control tower hoves into view. Grrrr to them.

The airport is cheerful, though fairly quiet. I am nervous when it comes to putting coat, bag and shoes into the tray, as I have not flown for 26 years. I walk through the doorway and a loud bleep ensues. My heart stops, as I am herded back to the tray-queue in a worriesomely professional manner by two airport officials. They pat me all over and run the metal detector wand over my clothes. I look down, and see I am still clutching my old-lady wallet with the big butterfly clasp to my bosom.

We walk into the plane down a be-carpeted and slightly wobbly tunnel. The sense of claustrophobia is just enough to prickle the neck-hairs. I feel like I am descending into a giant tin-can, which will soon be launching into the rarified atmosphere above the Firth of Forth (more rarified than Jenners, even!) Egad. I look around at the other passengers, to see if any reflect signs of incipient terrorism. I spot a passenger who is sporting a moustache much favoured down the years by military dictators. I am less than re-assured, therefore, by this fellows boxy and luxuriant upper-lip wear. I wonder how much semtex can be stuffed up each nostril and still allow for respiration.

If he sneezes, we are done for.

I sit, and fasten my seat belt, worrying over how to switch off my mobile phone, which for some reason will not comply. Bob calmly switches off the wifi and tells me it is all crap anyway, that it has been scientifically proven that mobile signals don't crash planes. I feel better now, about it not being switched to "flight mode", and someone looking like Steve Martin coming to rest it from my grasp and flushing it out into the carpet of cloud below.

Bob is cool about traveling by air, and stretches out for a sleep on the empty seats behind. I am watching the moustache-bomber ask for a drink from the trolley, and wonder about the custody battle that would ensue, if the plane were to crash. I want Holly Hunter to play me, before the fatal descent, but they have cast Melissa Gilbert.

We land, and Bob asks a helpful official about negotiating the underground. We manage to get on the right line without much trouble, and are soon bowling along. The London underground is very cool - edgy, with a hint of Victorian darkness, borne of endless seventies horror movies, where women with extra-loud heartbeats dashed through the tiled maze of corridors ahead of merciless axe-wielding assailants. The underground is magically cool. It runs like clockwork, with a mesmeric rhythm that I cannot match. I trip people. I stand in the wrong place. Bob points out that everyone stands to the right on the escalators, so that the people in a hurry can run up the left side. How does she know? I am slightly resentful.

Bob notes: She is right. Shoshana is a very fun traveling companion, but I perfected the art of twitching her into place. And I found her trapped at almost every Underground turnstile, looking at the machine in mute misery. I don't know what it is about her. but the machines ate her ticket almost every time, but would not let her pass. Early on, I walked away -- for quite a distance, unfortunately, realized that she was not with me and had to go back.

The lights of London beckon at the top of the escalator, and a kindly official lets me through, even though the machine has not given me back my ticket, and barred my way. I have Underground turnstile planning difficulties. The lights are welcoming, the streets are not too crowded, the vibe is warm and fun. There are no armies of gloomy pickpockets waiting in the shadows to rob unwary visitors. People give directions with a smile, when they actually speak English. London is FAB!

We emerge into a fairly mild night for the end of November. Holborn Station is busy ... there seem to be quite a high percentage of travelers who speak very little English. There is a mix of dress codes: smart commuters and trendy students, and the non-students, trendy in a different sort of way. People seem to have more of a sense of individual style here, compared to the passengers on the public transport at home. There are few "Ali G" type tracksuits and obvious bling. I do not see the thong/low-rise jean faux-pas, prevalent at home. Everyone has nice coats here, and there is much confidence displayed in the variety of colours they come in. There are few anoraks.

People seem self-possessed, and mildly curious, though in a polite and surreptitious way. Our luggage was noted, and our guide-books, as we filled the hour's Tube journey scanning pages for possible places to eat and points of interest.

We dodge through the early evening pedestrians hurrying home after work. There is less frantic bustle that I expected - London is supposed to epitomise ill-humour and the pedestrian equivalent of road rage - pavement rage, one supposes. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a nicely appointed fruit and flower stall at the mouth of the underground station, which is doing a brisk trade. It is in a slightly quirky position in respect of interfering with the ebb and flow of humanity, but no one seems to mind, and it is incorporated into the crowd, as a boulder in a fast-flowing rapid.

Holborn Street is well-lit, and several shops glow with welcoming lights as we trundle our luggage along at a fast pace, in search of the hotel. It isn't far, but the streets are unfamiliar, and Bob nips into a shop to ask directions. We find our way to Southampton Row.

The room is pleasant and clean, and we dump our stuff. We are tired, we have come a long way, and dinner beckons. The hotel has two restaurants, one a posh dining-room and the other a still fairly posh bar-diner - it still has starched white tablecloths. I am not used to eating in places with starched tablecloths! Bob suggests hitting the streets of London in search of a meal, and stops at the exit door to question the middle-aged doorman and his young sidekick, as to where they would eat if they were going out.

The two guys have very little English, and what they do have has an Italian inflection. Not surprising, then, that they recommend the Italian place a couple of door down. We peek in the window, and it looks nice enough, but I am not sure ... we move on, keen to discover what the locality has to offer in terms of eateries, for ourselves. We pass a pizza place, then check out a pub, busy with black-suited commuters joggling to be served. It has a board displayed outside, which boasts of a Thai restaurant upstairs. We decide to check it out.

The restaurant is very quiet, and it is nicely furnished. A Foo dog in olive wood with cheerful red tassels sits on the bar, and the floor is nicely polished dark floorboards. The tables are small and very clean, and there is a pretty view out through the large windows into the street below. Streetlamps illuminate the dark pavements in gentle amber pools of light. There are mainly offices across the street, but one or two shops, warmly lit up and cheerful. The tables have candles, and the ambience of the place is nice. It is a good choice, and the prices are very reasonable.

The menu is a bit baffling to me, as someone whose knowledge of Thai food amounts to sampling "Heinz Mean Beans,Thai flavour". I am glad to say that the strange orange tinned- beany concoction in no way matches the delicious items on offer in the menu. I order a very nice thing with strips of chicken in a very spicy sauce, with jasmine rice, because I like the sound of it, and jasmine flowers remind me of my childhood - one of the few things which flowered in a Highland winter. The thin, friendly waitress nods approvingly when I order it, either because she thinks I am in the know about what I am ordering, or because she is just a nice person and wants to reassure me on my choice. Bob knows what she is doing and chooses a fab thing with thick strips of noodle. I am jellis, but she kindly leaves me some. To my chagrin, the waitress comes and wheechs it away.

Bob says:

After eating, we head back to the hotel. Earlier, we found a Tesco Express. Tesco is a large food chain that is a lot like a Target from what I can ascertain. We decide to pop in and get tea, milk and cookies. Cookies are important. And we drank all of the tea in the room -- all two cups of it when we deposited our baggage. I assure Shoshana that we can request more, but she is unconvinced. We go in, and it is small and cramped. I knock over a display of gift cards and start to pick them up. The clerk tries to shoulder me out of the way to pick them up, but I ignored him. We continue to discuss the merits of cream biscuits versus digestive biscuits and make our selection. We get a nice, fragrant Earl Grey and a tiny jug of milk. The grocery clerk is still hovering. When we leave, Rowan said that he had watched me very carefully as we shopped. He seemed to think that I was a dodgy character – I am chagrined. Had I known that he thought that I was a possible shoplifter, I would have stood around a lot longer, and I would have removed a large number of items from the shelves in a considering manner and put them back in a shifty sort of way. I mourn the loss of that opportunity for increasing international goodwill.

Tomorrow, we will explore London. We are very excited.

No comments: