This is a rather lengthy documentary of the 12 or so days I spent in the UK and France from March 19-31 of 2004. Reading back over it after some years of distance, I realize what a disaster it was: I injured my toe, we missed our plane home and I had to buy a new ticket back to the States for around $1,000. But my worst error was going on a trip with an attractive female friend when I was only a few months into a new relationship. I lost the best girlfriend in the world due in part to this trip. I should have taken her with me. I should have called her every day. I should have constantly reassured her that I loved her and was thinking about her.
That being the biggest lesson to take away from the experience, I’ve sprinkled a few more educational opportunities throughout this page on How Not to Travel Abroad.
Day 1: Friday, March 19th
I set out for Dallas around 4 AM, having gone to bed the previous night at 7. I was hoping to take a nice sunrise picture, but the clouds gave me nothing. I did, however, take a picture at a gas station at Hope, where I found someone’s bill from a collection agency asking them to pay the $400-something dollars they owed to a Memphis clinic. Looking at the bill you can just make out the words "Drug Abuse 2" and "HIV antibody screen." The drive down was otherwise uneventful, but I did listen to the Samples’ "Long Walk Home," which begins with the line "It’s 5 AM and I’m still awake," and when I looked at the clock it was precisely 5 AM.
I stopped off at a pawn shop in Dallas and bought another guitar, a black Ibanez RG 7. Why? Because it was only $150. It had to be done. Nevermind that I have to get on a plane, it’s a bargain we’re talking about here, people. I later discovered that it is completely identical to my other RG 7 in that the neck is stamped RG 7621, and the body is stamped RG 7421. Neat, although I realize this is only interesting to guitar trainspotters.
I met up with Tara at Guitar Center (the one place we can always find), and we went and had lunch with her friend Erica. Erica’s mom drove us to the airport (thanks, Mrs. Rowntree!) and we set off.
Day 2: Saturday, March 20th
British Airways is a great airline. Not only do they give you your own TV screen, they give you a choice of 10 or so movie channels and even more audio. AND, they give you a kit that includes socks, sleeping blinders, and a portable toothbrush with tiny toothpaste tube:
We landed at Gatwick around 8 AM, and Tara’s friend Benedicte met us at the airport and absconded with Tara back to her people’s place in the south. I went on to Victoria station to meet my friend Susan, with whom we were staying. By mind-boggling coincidence, we ran into her husband John at the station on his way to work. Susan and John Mumford are old friends from Hendrix College who live in the south of London. John works at the London Science Museum, and Susan works in an art gallery. Susan and I then went to Chez Mumford in Streatham, where I dropped off my luggage. Susan went on to work and I took a nap.
Later on, I went out into the town on my own, to go do the muzo/guitar wanker things like troll around Denmark Street and Charing Cross, where all the guitar stores and book stores are. Then over to Berwick street where all the cheap CDs are to be found. After all that, I headed over to the Tate Modern gallery to meet John and Susan. Walking across the very windy Millennium Bridge, I took these nice pictures of the sunset over London:
The Tate Modern is a converted power plant built in the 30′s that has a real nice deco style to it. I got there early and sat outside. Susan had said to meet at the benches, but I was unaware that there were more benches inside the gallery. Which is where Susan was, so…d’oh! I did spend some time in the gallery’s bookshop where I almost bought a $10 book comprised entirely photographic portraits of people from Heber Springs, Arkansas.
Susan and I went inside, where we saw this:
The picture above is me taking a picture of the ceiling, which is covered in reflective material. As you can almost see in the pictures below, the ceiling is made entirely of mirrored plastic material, which creates the illusion of a full, circular sun, as well as a complete reflection of the floor below.
After wandering through the museum, looking at Picassos and Rodins, we had dinner at the restaurant atop the building. This is John having some coffee:
How Not To Travel Tip #1: Don’t Take Pictures of Your Friends in Fine Dining Establishments, Particularly in the Evening.
After dinner we walked back over the bridge where I saw the unique road cone pictured below. Behind it is St. Paul’s Cathedral.
Yes, I take a lot of pictures that probably amuse only myself. Here are several:
Humped zebra crossings I’ve seen, but pelicans?
This is from Streatham, on the street where the Mumfords live. Note the word "Infants" carved in stone above the doorway.
Day 3: Sunday, March 21st
We picked up Tara at the Streatham Common station, after she had some measure of difficulty in traveling (Sundays are train maintenance days). We dropped her luggage off at the Mumford flat, and by then we didn’t have much time to do anything. Nevertheless Tara and I tried to get up to Camden Market, but we only had less than an hour to walk around because we had to meet John and Susan at South Kensington station at 6:00 or so. We met up with them and proceeded to dinner and a show at the Troubadour, one of London’s oldest music venues. Bob Dylan and Jimi Hendrix used to play there, and that night we were there to see the great Michael Manring. The openers were two other bass players, John Lester and Steve Lawson. Lester sang original tunes accompanied only by his upright bass – he was smooth, and had a great sense of melody to his lyrics. Lawson was a six-string bassist who augmented his tunes with loop devices and general spacey weirdness. Manring is a God. He opened with a Beatles medley before heading into his mind-bending solo bass compositions. At the end of the show they all played together amazingly well – three bassists all balancing out, everyone taking a different approach. They did Mile Davis’s "All Blues" and Lester held down the groove while Lawson comped the chords and Manring played melody and texture. They all took good solos, trading off the rhythm duties as well. Magical stuff, even for non-bassists. Sadly I didn’t take any pictures that day.
Day 4: Monday, March 22nd
For lunch we met another college chum, Angel (better known as the Offensive Mango), at Liecester Square. We ate Thai food and had coffee before beginning our quest to find an American Express office where Tara and I could cash in our Traveler’s Checks. This took forever, sadly, which brings us to…
How Not To Travel Tip #2: For God’s Sake, Man, Find Your American Express Location Before Dragging Your Friends Across Bloomsbury for an Hour.
But eventually we found one at Russell Square, and then got on to proper sight-seeing at the London Eye, on the south bank of the Thames:
The London Eye is basically an enormous Ferris Wheel with dozens of egg-shaped cars that fit a dozen people or so. Inside it, you can get a 360 degree view for miles around.
With that done, we tried to get to Portobello Road market before it closed up, but we were too late. So we moved on toward King’s Cross station on our way to the home of Jan Cyrka. Jan is a fabulous guitarist and musician for whom I operate a website. He’s not known in the States, but he has 3 albums of melodic and eccentric guitar whizbang that put him in league with Joe Satriani and Steve Vai (in fact he’s quite chummy with Satriani). These days he focuses mainly on commercial production music – in fact you’ve heard his work many many times, you just don’t know it. His stuff can be found under TV commercials, radio spots, an incidental music. Even on soundtracks to movies like High Fidelity. Anyway, at King’s Cross (or King’s X as you might see it on a map) we stopped off at the platform to Hogwart’s, #9 3/4.
Jan took us out for a feast of Indian food, and back to his place for tea and general goofing-off. We also played with his cat, who is actually much more friendly than the pictures would have you believe.
And because I’m a big guitar geek, I took pictures of his Kramer Nightswans, which he painted himself back in his guitar god days.
Day 5: Tuesday, March 23rd
As Monday was all about my chums Angel and Jan, Tuesday was whatever Tara wanted to do. We started at Trafalgar Square, where we attempted to find a particular Bus Tour that drives by places of importance to the history of rock. Evidence for such a tour was not forthcoming. We did however see all the beautiful plumage of Trafalgar. The picture below was taken just after an enormous flock of birds flew over my head. So pretend that’s what’s in the picture and maybe it will seem less boring. After the massive pigeon flyover, I spotted a falcon and attempted to photograph it before it also flew over my head. It soon landed at its master’s hand (the picture of which somehow mangled itself after being uploaded and I lost the backup). Such was my first foray into ornithological photography.
Giving up on the Magic Bus rock tour, we hopped the first double-decker to the northwest. Destination: the certifiably hallowed ground of Abbey Road.
We then took the tube to Baker Street, and had a fish and chips lunch at a pub on Baker Street. We wandered our way down to St. James’s Park where we met a variety of interesting fowl.
For the evening, we wandered back to Soho/Covent Garden and shopped for CDs at Fopp. I bought a nifty folio version of James Lavelle’s Romania #026 as well as some Roots Manuva, and Monty Python. We also stopped into Forbidden Planet before they closed. It was a brief journey into Star Wars figure heaven:
Sadly they were all 8 quid a pop ($16). After that we wanted to find some suitable musical entertainment. After wandering Soho/Charing Cross for a bit, I remembered the 12 Bar Club just off Denmark Street. Indeed they were just the folky venue we were looking for. The evening’s lineup included Elisabeth Yndestad, Chris Ford (below)and Me & Bobby (further below).
The 12 Bar Club is insanely small. I can only imagine that, given the high rents in downtown London, and the relative low profit margin for music venues, that many clubs are forced to be these small caves tucked away down alleyways and in backrooms. Each act was remarkably good. Chris Ford had a sort of Neil Finn/Glen Tilbrook vibe to his tunes (I’m certainly a fan of both Crowded House and Squeeze respectively), while the "Me & Bobby" group resembled Ani DiFranco on Prozac. Singer Nan Espeseth’s vocals could move from delicate to powerful with ease. A fine evening all around, and a great way to end the day.
Day 6: Wednesday, March 24th
Tuesday morning, Susan ran some errands before we headed off to the airport for Paris. We had initially assumed that rail would be the less expensive mode of travel, but this was not the case. We also would have paid much less for our plane tickets had we thought ahead by a few weeks.
How Not To Travel Tip #3: Always Buy Tickets in Advance. Which Means You Do Have to Plan Ahead.
Among other things, Susan got my backpack sewed up for just a quid. Good as new. Evidently I was so excited by this that I tripped down the steps at her flat, putting all my weight onto my right big toe in the process. I lay on the floor laughing and crying simultaneously. Eventually we got ourselves together and headed for Gatwick. My toe was throbbing a bit, but I didn’t notice the bruise until we got to our hotel:
Nevertheless, I limped my way around Paris. Given the astounding frequency with which we passed "pharmacies," I figured that attaining a cane would be easy. However, these pharmacies with their blue-green neon crosses are much less pharmaceutical in nature than they are cosmetic. Their stock consists almost entirely of makeup and women’s paraphernalia. Undeterred, we climbed the hill of Montmartre and found supper at a fine cafe that featured the jazz stylings of two guitarists whose names I never knew. They kicked serious ass, though. And their guitars were vintage and pretty:
Following dinner, we wandered down to Au Lapin Agile cabaret. For about two hours we sat and enjoyed the music and poetry of some of Paris’s finest talent. The pianists were particularly spectacular. Then we raced to the nearest Metro station to make it in before the trains stopped. We made it halfway before the station we got off at shut down. We eventually found a cab driver willing to take 4 people. He took us back to our hotel, the delightful Hotel Muguet.
If you’re looking for a nice, out of the way hotel in Paris, I highly recommend it.
Day 7: Thursday, March 25th
We checked out of the hotel, and went over to Notre Dame. Then we took a boat tour up and down the Seine. We had been told that the boat would dock near the Eiffel Tower, but it did not. So we only saw it in passing.
How Not To Travel Tip #4: Never Trust the French to Understand a Word You’re Saying.
Back to the dock, we set out to find lunch in St. Germain and found our way to the Café de Flore. Only after lunch did I notice a plaque outside the establishment describing its significance as the "Café of the Existentialists." Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir were frequent patrons.
Following that we proceeded over to the Louvre. We didn’t go in, for lack of time and a fear that it would swallow us whole. We walked up the Champs Elysees to the Arc de Triumph. I stopped into the Virgin Megastore while the others went on to the Arc, as one of my main reasons to come to Paris was the Virgin Megastore – it is like no other in the world. A small palace, really, with incredibly acute and minute categorizations for musical genres: not just metal, but metal fusion, progressive, grindcore, as well as guitar instrumental sections, and an electronica section divided into its myriad subgenres of jungle, house, drum n’ bass, ambient, trip-hop, etc. I found genres and artists I’d never heard of before. It is truly a music lover’s dream. I bought all my gifts there. I bought all French music, plus a DJ Shadow/Cut Chemist CD of one continuous mix of nothing but 45′s.
And that was it; that was all we had time for. We went back to Charles de Gaulle Airport, which has a train station reminiscent of the Death Star:
Day 8: Friday, March 26th
Tired from all the running around, we decided to stay in London another day rather than head north to Oxford and Crewe. My intentions of relaxing were only partially fulfilled: although I did sleep well, I slept late, and awoke at 11:25 when I had agreed to meet Tara at noon at South Kensington. I was 15 minutes late. She was 15 minutes late after me, so all was well. We had more Indian food for lunch, then found our way to the London Science Museum, where John works. Among other things, I saw Charles Babbage’s Difference Engines, which were the world’s first computers – designed in the 1830′s but never built until recently.
We shopped at Fortnum & Mason for gift items. Well, Tara did – I had loaded up on French music, but I was tempted to stock up on tea and cookies there. We met up with John and Susan at Notting Hill. Once again we tried to make it in time for Portobello Road, but were only slightly less late this time. Tara did find a bitchin’ Penny Lane coat with fur lining for 15 quid, though. We all ate dinner at Sausage & Mash (S&M), a restaurant specializing in sausage and mashed potatoes. Their vegetarian sausage was particularly delicious. John and Susan were pleased:
After that, we tried to catch a movie, but the Portobello cinema was booked. So we went back to Streatham to rent a movie. Blockbuster wouldn’t let Susan get a membership without proof of address, but they relented I guess and tried to charge her card but none of her cards worked. We retired to the flat, but Susan, dedicated to the cause, took the bus back to Blockbuster where they duly informed her that they can’t take new memberships after 10:30 PM.
Day 9: Friday, March 27th
Tara and I got up early to take the train from Paddington Station to Oxford. We learned an important lesson here, in that train tickets should be purchased a few weeks in advance to save money. Rail travel prices are cut in half if you do so. Our trip to Oxford was 16 quid, to Crewe 30 quid, and back to London 40 quid. Had I thought ahead and procured these a few weeks in advance they would have cost far far less (see How Not To Travel Tip #3).
Arriving at Oxford, we found our way through town to the college and saw the sights. More importantly, though, we had lunch at the Eagle and Child pub where J.R.R. Tolkein and C.S. Lewis convened their writing group, the Inklings. We sat in the very spot where they read to each other their works and drank to each other’s health. Below is a handwritten charter of their group.
This particular pub is an unassuming shrine for Tolkein fans. As we sat there eating our lunch, people from all over the world came by to take pictures. Two girls from Russia, and an older woman from the States, in addition to Tara, had all come thousands of miles to see Tolkein’s quiet corner of the world.
Tolkein’s house, a mile or so north of town. We walked quite some distance to see this house with its improbably small blue notification of significance.
An ocean of bikes near the Oxford train station. Would that more of the world were like this. We hopped back on the train to Crewe to see my friends Shannon and Ian Deakin, as well as their new addition, Isaac.
Oh pants! (as Shannon would say) I got pictures of the cats, but I didn’t get a picture of Isaac. Bloody hell! OK, he’s blond, adorable and looks somewhat like Winston Churchill. Which I guess a lot of babies do, so that’s not much help really.
How Not To Travel Tip #5: Always Take Pictures of Your Host’s Adorable Children.
Day 10: Sunday, March 28th
We made it back to London around 7 PM, not yet ready to retire for the day. So we went back to the 12 Bar Club. That night the lineup was Chris Mills, Matt Hill, and the Havenots. The Havenots were a male/female duo, the guy was a funny, unkempt vaguely Elliott Smith/Damien Rice type, and the girl was a pretty Edie Brickell-esque brunette. Matt Hill was an alt-country cat with a lap steel player backing him up. Chris Mills was the headliner. He had a powerful voice with smart lyrics. He played solo with acoustic guitar, but still rocked hard. This time we sat up top, looking down on the stage:
Day 11: Monday, March 29th
All four of us – John, Susan, Tara and myself, all had to fly out this morning. John and Susan from Heathrow, Tara and I from Gatwick. They went north from Streatham Common station, we went south. We left the platform around 8 AM, and with a 10:30 flight we figured we’d have plenty of time to get to the airport, right? Nope. Delays on the South Central line held us up for 30 minutes or so and we got the airport check-in at 9:45, where we were informed that all international flights close an hour before takeoff. Close. As in, "if you’re not here at 9:30 you are fucked." So we were told we could come back at 7 AM and try to fly standby.
How Not To Travel Tip #6: Never Trust a Train to Get You Anywhere On Time, And Always Get to an International Flight Two Hours Ahead of Time.
We left the airport and found a guesthouse not far away, the Gatwick House, operated by Tony and Linda Field. Linda picked us up at the airport and took us in. She even drove us back to the airport train station so we could go back to town to goof off for another day’s vacation. Very nice people – if you’re ever stranded at Gatwick, I highly recommend them.
So on the train back to London, Tara says, "does London have any castles?" Boy howdy they do – so we went to the Tower of London.
We walked along the Thames after that, back to the Millennium Bridge.
It was getting late already, so Shakespeare’s reconstituted Globe theatre was closed, and the Tate Modern didn’t seem like it was even open on Mondays.
The gate at the Globe was ornately decorated with a variety of animals. Look close. Since we were in the neighborhood, I recommended we visit St. Dunstan’s, one of my favorite places in London (as featured in the first installment of my European adventures). This time I had a lot more room in the camera:
Day 12: Tuesday, March 30th
So we get to the airport check-in at 7 AM and at 9:30 they announce the available spots on the 10:30 flight to Dallas. One seat is free. It would be ungallant to take it, so Tara goes. Hurriedly I scribble down Erica’s address and cell number so that I can get to my car whenever I make it back to Dallas. I see Tara off, and I’m left alone. I call Linda at the Gatwick House, but she’s booked up, so she calls down the street to Frank Austin at the Glenalmond Guest House. Frank picks me up and takes me to his place. After a quick nap, I walk down to the Horley station to find something to do by myself in London.
I didn’t take any pictures that day, so here are some leftovers:
Tag line says "We give expert advice ad make blinds…." Typos happen I guess.
I actually like to look for mice on the Tube. Look closely at the top of the white bag and you’ll see one. They’re camouflaged quite well.
First thing I did Tuesday was head over to Jan’s to have some tea and pick up Tara’s scarf that she had left at the Indian restaurant. Afterward I went to Camden Market to look for clothes since all mine were dirty and I didn’t want to spend the day doing laundry in Horley. I bought a couple cool t-shirts – one of a Technics turntable and another that says "Moog Synthesizers." Rock on. I tried to resist blowing more cash on CDs. Nevertheless I went to the CD Exchanges in Notting Hill and bought a stack of 1 and 2 quid CDs. Mostly singles. Since Camden wasn’t forthcoming with necessities like socks and underwear, I remembered a closeout sale on Oxford Street, so I went there for cheap socks and underwear (aren’t you glad you know all this??)
I made my way back to Horley, and walked into town to make lonesome phone calls and get a beer.
Day 13: Wednesday, March 31st
I take a cab to Gatwick, but no spots this morning. The airline people say the odds only get worse toward the weekend, and there all the flights are booked. Worse, many of the flights were overbooked as Easter break was approaching for all the British kids. So any standby seats would go to the poor souls who got bumped off their flights. The airline had an obligation to them, whereas they just had a courtesy to me. So I’m the low man on the totem pole. I checked with Delta and most of their fares were in the £1200 range. The British Airways people did have a £500 flight to Houston, so I took it. $1000. It left at 1:30.
Glad to be on a plane. Here’s a picture out my window, somewhere over Timmins, Canada, according to the flight plan on my TV. I watched Love Actually and Dog Day Afternoon on the flight. Love Actually was pretty clichéd stuff, so it bothered me that I enjoyed it – so many great actors in a movie that rushes them around with no sense of development or believability. Yet it still got to me. Bah. Dog Day Afternoon wore me out.
I landed in Houston around 4 PM and found my way to the Continental ticket desk, where I got a $97 flight to Dallas (the British Airways people offered to set me up with a Houston-Dallas flight for an extra £200 – NO THANKS). I landed in Dallas around 8 PM, and tried in vain to find Erica. I figured her mom would be home, so I had a cab take me to their house. The cab driver and I had a devil of a time finding the place – I navigated while he drove. Bloody Dallas and its labyrinth of cul-de-sacs. We got there and no one was home. The cab driver, David Boon, was really helpful, and stayed with me for a half hour to help me figure out what to do. He let me use his phone to call Tara and Erica since my phone was dead. If you ever need a cab in Dallas, call David at 972-768-6629. He’s great:
Eventually I heard from Tara that the Rowntrees were out with friends and would be home eventually, so David left and I sat for awhile with my stuff on the curb. The Rowntrees’ cat Oscar kept me company.
How Not To Travel Tip #7: Always Get the Full Names and Phone Numbers of the People Who Have Your Car.
Oscar was really hard to photograph.
He’s, how should I say, dynamic?
I swear I’m not hurting him – I’m just rubbing his neck. He was really friendly and we had a good time. Eventually Mrs. Rowntree came home and she offered me dinner and a place to sleep, so it was a happy ending. She also made me breakfast. She’s originally from England and she and Erica are going there for a few weeks soon. Here’s hoping they don’t miss any flights!
So that’s it. Thanks for reading.