Tuesday, May 25, 2010

London Diary -- Part 1

These are my journal entries, quoted verbatim (and supplemented with some pictures), for London so far.

1. On board the flight, sometime between 10:20 pm, Saturday, May 22, 2010 and 2:30 am, Sunday, May 23, 2010.

I’m on the plane now. Got out of Princeton without much difficulty, though there were a few last-minute hiccups in packing. But surprise surprise, I managed to either pack or stow everything, so I’m all good. This is a short entry written while on the plane. The plane in question, Delta Flight 3 from New York JFK to Heathrow, had the worst food I have ever eaten in my life. My co-passenger is a wonderful person to talk to – a Pakistani American who struck up a long conversation with me about life, the socio-cultural differences between the East and the West, and academics. The lights are out in the plane. The shutters are open, and through the window I see immeasurable darkness. Somewhere far away, it is now 8 o’clock in the pale Calcutta morning. People are waking up to the smell of the summer heat, not aware of the possibility that someone somewhere in a plane misses that heat. Wonder what London has in store. We will see.


2. Room 410, City YMCA, 12:15 am, Monday, May 24, 2010

On my bed now. Strange day – worst imaginable start to it though. The plane landed on time, but then I stood for two hours in the worst line I have ever seen in my life, including some at Eden Gardens. After that excruciating wait, a friendly Visa Officer waved me through, where I collected my huge suitcase, and tried unsuccessfully to make a number of calls I had been supposed to make. Following this I lugged my baggage to the Underground station at Heathrow, where I bought an Oystercard with a week-long City-ticket after several expressive gestures at a man who refused to understand my impeccable accent. Shortly after, I took the Piccadilly line in a long, tiring journey to King’s Cross, where I changed to Hammersmith & City for Barbican. Both these stations, King’s Cross and Barbican, were entirely devoid of escalators or elevators this Sunday. Add to that the fact that British people are extraordinarily unhelpful, and you get the picture: I dragged my suitcases up the stairs, a sweat-drenched bedraggled piece of luggage myself by the time I reached the City YMCA, a building in the middle of nowhere.

Here I kept my luggage in the storage when I learned that I wouldn’t be able to check in until 2 – which was three hours later. I took my computer out and started skyping, and an hour later the receptionist (a very stupid Indian lady who was being affectionately called “bitch” by the fellow receptionists) walked up to me to inform me that my booking was, in fact, from the 26th – three days from today. So I woke my dad up, and he (looking impeccably professional in his vest and his early-morning thicket moustache) shouted professionally at us for a bit, so that was ok. It was a mistake on their part: I was to have a room after all, and interestingly, it was a twin room without another occupant. I would have this room to myself. This was good news. I went up to this room at around 2, looked around with some satisfaction, went to the shared bathroom, took a shower, set my alarm and instantly fell asleep.

At 5, my impossibly loud alarm rang and woke me up along with this half of London. I stomped downstairs to have a reasonably bad dinner with something that was precisely halfway between a bad strip of bacon and a nice piece of ham. Also, the worst potatoes I have ever eaten. Along with “juice”, which was basically powdery red things floating around in water.

With some asperity, then, I decided to go out and take the Jack the Ripper walk today, out of sheer vengeance. So I took the Underground to Aldgate East, changed lines, and got off at Tower Hill. This was the best part of my day: the Tower of London was glorious in the dying sunlight, and I took a walk around it, ending up beside the Thames, where I made a Bengali family (“ei desh-tar kono sense of srinkhola nei”) take my picture next to the Tower Bridge. Having made enemies out of several Japanese tourists, whose perfect pictures I ruined by standing precisely between them and a beautiful shot of the Thames, I strolled back to the Underground station at Tower Hill, where I saw a crowd already gathered around a very academic-looking man and his harassed wife.

Turned out this was the famous Donald Rumbelow, Ripper historian, author, former curator of the Scotland Yard museum, sensationalist. They were collecting money for tickets from the crowds gathered all around, and also selling his books. I proved that I was a student using my Princeton ID (this makes the ticket £6 instead of £8 – the alternative being to pose as a “Super Adult”, ages 65 and up. I thought I could play a student marginally better). So I paid, and then Rumbelow took us on a long walking trip across London. He started out at the Tower of London (“admittedly, this is the least significant part of Ripper history”), but grew rapidly more interesting as he walked and stopped at ambient places and talked about how the Ripper came to be the global phenomenon he is.

In that hour and a half, I learned more about late 19th century East End prostitutes than I have learned mathematics in 20 years. I knew that these prostitutes were of three varieties – 3-penny prostitutes, 2-penny prostitutes, and the ones in exchange for a stale loaf of bread. In contrast, 4 and a half pennies got you a slice of cheese, just to give you an idea. I saw the places where Annie Chapman, Catherine Eddowes, and Polly-Ann Nichols were murdered, and also Ghoulton Street, where the Ripper graffiti “The Juwes are not the men that shall be blamed for nothing” was found. I saw the invisible line between the City Police and the Metropolitan Police in the topology of London. It was a great walk, only I was stunned when he seemed to be stumped by my question about the Ripper’s signature difference on the day of the double event – his use of a short knife for Liz Stride and a long one for Catherine Eddowes. Other than that, everything was fine. I even illegally audio-taped about 80% of the entire tour, which I intend to put up somewhere soon.

After the tour, we walked to Liverpool St. Station, and I was feeling hungry. Luckily, I happened to see a KFC opposite the station, and promptly bought myself a 5-piece chicken life-saver. I took this back to the hotel with me – scary train ride at 10 to Barbican, deserted walk to YMCA, but inside the YMCA there was a lot of life. There were people skyping everywhere, and a lot of activity and bustle, so I enjoyed that for a while, till now. Now I’m just writing down what happened to me today. Strange day. Very strange. Let’s see what happens tomorrow. Until then, adieu.


3. Lobby, City YMCA, 11:21 pm, Monday, May 24, 2010.

Good stuff happened to me today. Woke up really early in the morning, and got a lot of mostly unnecessary advice from dad about what to pack for the National Archives. Subsequently, of course, he called back to tell me that the National Archives are, in fact, closed today. So much for plans. As a result, I got something of a day off, and therefore decided to make good use of it. Again, dad came to the rescue and sketched out a reasonably decent itinerary for today, and I decided to follow it as closely as possible. This necessitated a hurried but heavy breakfast, which – surprisingly enough – was actually not bad at all: three huge pieces of the same unidentified entity somewhere between ham and bacon, an omelet, three most delightful hash brown patties, two slices of toasted white bread, with strawberry jam, two paper cups filled to the brim with the same watery juice as yesterday. All in all, satisfying enough – what more can I ask for, after all, this is YMCA.

So then, at around 9:30 am, I packed my backpack with my camera and a bottle of water and several thousand maps of the same thing (the London Underground), and went to Barbican station to catch the Circle Line to Embankment. It went smoothly enough, and I decided to walk outside for 100 meters rather than take another train from Embankment to Charing Cross, and the weather was beautiful. So I took a brisk walk to Trafalgar Square, finding myself at the foot of the Nelson Column, in the same spot where I used to feed pigeons decades ago. Trafalgar Square was a whirl of colors, with two nice fountains and a view of the Big Ben in the distance (note to self: need to go to Westminster in the next two days). Anyway, it was a piece of cake identifying the building I was looking for, and so, twenty seconds later, I was climbing the marble staircase that led up to the National Gallery. Inside, I spent about three hours exploring – and genuinely found something had changed about me; I have always hated art museums before. My ridiculous snobbishness and cultured outlook notwithstanding, I couldn’t ever stand too much of art, and so even in places like the Louvre, I have always started yawning and stretching and generally creating a nuisance after the first three hours exploring. This was different: somewhere I think I had grown up a bit, because I actually loved what I was seeing. Not just the famous ones, but the nameless pieces of art tucked away in their own corners – having said that, the famous ones of course were especially wonderful. I saw van Gogh’s The Sunflowers, Monet’s original Water Lilies, Constable’s The Hay Wain, Caravaggio’s Boy Bitten by a Lizard (a very creepy one, if I may add), and da Vinci’s Virgin of the Rocks, whose sister painting I had seen in the Louvre five years ago. It was a great experience, and I walked out at 12:45 feeling very educated and artsy.

Following this, I visited the nearby church, St Martin in the Fields, famous for its large association with music, and especially its lunchtime concerts on weekdays. I attended one of these concerts for about forty five minutes (two talented young men, one a baritone-tenor, one a classical guitarist), and then decided to pay a visit to the Museum of Science to wrap up my day.

So I took the Bakerloo Line from Charing Cross to Embankment, and the District Line from Embankment to South Kensington, where I met a nice British young man who made the following immortal comment to me: “Hey, you walk really ridiculously fast, are you American?”, and then took the underground tunnel from the station that branched out periodically towards the different museums. After passing the branches for the Natural History Museum (note to self: go to this later this week) and the Victoria & Albert Museum, I finally took the final branch towards the Museum of Science, which had – among its many positive qualities – free admission. I took a map inside and toured the museum for over a couple of hours. Honestly speaking, I have seen much better stuff before (in my opinion, any of the Smithsonian museums beats this hands down), but it was still a nice way to spend two hours. It eventually gave me two insights: the less profound one being that I had made the right choice for me by studying mathematics rather than any of the sciences, and the more profound one being that the British are extremely boring people, who cannot even make a children’s museum interesting beyond a certain point. I had a nice snack break in the middle of my tour of the Museum, with a slice of cake and a cappuccino (here called – completely wrongly – an Americano; it tasted nothing like Americano coffee, though in its defense, I’ve also had better cappuccino pretty much everywhere) I truly enjoyed the 0.3% of the museum’s floor space that was devoted to mathematics (elementary math, but good, real math – some topology thrown in as well), and had a thorough laugh at some of the other BS (astrophysics was a particular letdown – I can’t believe I had once considered a major in astrophysics, Jesus Christ), including the “award winning” simulation of how the internet sounds, an extraordinary gimmick that, funnily enough, had nothing to do with how the internet sounds.

After the Museum of Science (note to self: important, don’t miss the British Museum), there was nowhere left to go, so I decided to take a stroll down to the Royal College of Music, which had taken all my piano exams for years and years, after all. So I walked to the Royal College, passing the Imperial College of London on the left, took a turn, and found myself staring at one of the most impressive buildings I have ever seen. No, I learned to my disappointment, this wasn’t the Royal College of Music, but the Royal Albert Hall, and the building opposite was the Royal College; it was also an impressive castle of a building, but dwarfed by the magnificence of Albert Hall completely. I took a few pictures, and went into a quaintly old telephone booth to call mom; I was informed subsequently that this telephone was refusing to make calls anywhere other than Greenwich. So much for British telecommunications.

To cut a long story short, then, I came back to Barbican by the other Circle Line route, thereby passing the Baker Street Underground Station with its mosaic tiling with a Sherlock Holmes motif. Back at the hotel, I had a heavy dinner with two pieces of chicken, a truly monumental object that was masquerading as a jacket potato, a bean-lentil kind of thing, and juice. I took the rest of the evening off – will go to Kew Gardens for the National Archives early tomorrow. Will write more soon, see y’all around. Or not. Whatever.