Monday, December 12, 2011

A Tale of Two Cities -- My Week In London & Paris (Part I)

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

Actually, except for waiting in a line--er, queue--for 3 hours to see the Da Vinci exhibit at the National Gallery in London and then being turned away, it really wasn't ever the worst of times, and even that's being rather hyperbolic. But though I wore myself down to the point of pain, as I typically do in exploring foreign locales--even those in America--I had a rather splendid time in two of the world's greatest cities on a quick sojourn a couple weeks ago.

Having just completed a contract work assignment without another having one lined up--always a double-edged sword--the chance to go to London sans airfare (due to having a reservoir of frequent flier miles) or lodging costs (thanks to my friend Paolo being put up in a corporate apartment with a couch calling my name) was too opportune to pass up.

Of course, I tacked on a couple days in Paris and a number of spectator events, but the trip was still rather inexpensive for what it was. And although it was very exciting and while I almost exclusively did "touristy" things, because it came with little advance planning and took me to cities I've previously visited, it was, relatively speaking, a rather low key European vacation.

This was my 7th time in London, where I've often stopped at the end of other trips in recent years, so I certainly didn't deem it vital to get to everything I wrote about in this travel guide. And though it had been 11 years since I'd  last been in Paris, two prior visits made this one more quick & focused than all-encompassing.

But here's what I did.


After flying into Heathrow and taking the tube (officially known as the London Underground), switching lines and getting off at Borough station, then shlepping my (luckily, rolling) suitcase down a street called Long Lane, I arrived at Paolo's building. Fortunately, he was there.

After a bit of a nap since I didn't really sleep on the plane, we went out to attend the Chelsea football (soccer) game against Wolverhampton at Stamford Bridge Stadium.

We didn't have tickets, but upon exiting the tube station, we found a somewhat shady "tout" with tickets, and even more to be had from his friend with the souvenir stand.

Tickets weren't cheap, even in the nosebleed seats, but only a few quid more than we would have paid for them had we been able to buy them through the Chelsea website.

I'm admittedly somewhat of a world soccer dilettante; appreciating the sport's legacy, lore and cultural impact almost everywhere but the U.S., but often being bored with the game itself. I've been to a handful (and maybe a footful) of games in Chicago, including when Real Madrid, Chelsea and most recently this summer, Manchester United, have come to town for exhibition matches. But I had never been to an English Premier League (the "major leagues" of British soccer) game, so I was glad to have the opportunity to do so.

Though all three of their goals seemed be scored in quick, almost fluke fashion, Chelsea pretty much dominated the whole game. It was fun to see, as well as to get a bit of a flavor of an English soccer crowd. There was one drunk guy who caused a bit of a ruckus, but otherwise the crowd was rather low-key, with a number of fathers and sons reminiscent of a baseball game back home.

Although Stamford Bridge is an old stadium, it was--according to Wikipedia--renovated in the '90s, so I was surprised that it seats "just" 42,000 people and seemingly lacks corporate skyboxes.

Leaving the stadium and returning to the tube station was not so unlike what I've encountered at Cubs, Sox and major events everywhere--I was reminded of my trip to Yankee Stadium in August--but that made it fun in theory, not in sardine can reality.

Also in theory, I should have wanted to catch a West End theatrical performance on Saturday evening. But having flown in that morning, I was pretty much running on fumes after the football game. Even if we had been able to get to the TKTS booth in Leicester Square and snag a seat for something worthwhile that evening, I likely would have been asleep early in Act I. So with Paolo passionate about getting duck with noodles in Chinatown, that's where we went.

And wound up at a place quite originally called London Chinatown. Paolo was like a duck in water over his duck with noodles, but thinking I should get something more original than my typical sweet & sour pork, I ordered pork with noodles. It was fine, but I should've got the sweet & sour. 


The couch in the flat Paolo had was a 2-seater, not 3. So sleeping on it meant that my feet overhung the end. Though I wouldn't have cared too much regardless, given the dramatic cost savings, I was worried about how I would sleep. I envisioned being up at 6am, so I was somewhat surprised when I woke (as Paolo left the flat for a workout nearby) at 9:14am on Sunday.

The night before I was imagining we might try getting in line for the Da Vinci exhibit early Sunday morning, but based on what would happen on Monday, I'm glad we didn't bother.

After getting out of the flat in mid-morning, we headed to the TKTS booth. Not much plays on Sunday in London, but one of the shows that does is Thriller Live, a tribute to Michael and the Jacksons that was created prior to MJ's death. Paolo had seen it before and praised it, and though I'm not the world's biggest Jackson fan, I appreciated Michael's talent. So we grabbed a pair of half-price tickets for the 3pm show.

Also at Paolo's recommendation, we then went to have a Pub Roast lunch, winding up at a place called the Porcupine. I had lamb with potatoes and Yorkshire pudding; it was quite good. I believe Paolo went with the chicken selection and enjoyed it as well.

We then did a good bit of walking, in one of the world's great cities to do so. Through Trafalgar Square, down Whitehall to Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament, then across the Thames to the London Eye (which we didn't board), and back across the Thames via the Millennium bridge, then through Leicester Square up to the theater on Shaftsbury Avenue.

This might just sound like killing some time before a matinee, but to me, simply meandering is one of the best things one can do in London. The city--as most European cities are--is akin to an outdoor museum, with so much much of beauty to see and photograph. With the rapid-fire setting on my point 'n shoot, I took literally thousands of snapshots.

Here's one down the Thames; Big Ben and Parliament are the other way, but the sun was too bright.

Theater Review:
Thriller Live
Lyric Theatre, London

I knew going in that this was just a revue, just musical numbers without a storyline or even much in the way of biography. There were many excellent performers onstage, with at least 4 men, one woman and one male child taking turns singing the lead on songs by the Jackson 5 and Michael Jackson.

I enjoyed it for what it was, and have no problem recommending it to those with a hankering to relive some of the most exciting pop songs ever created. But as theater I can't say that it was phenomenal, nor even enriched my regard for Michael.

Not that I really wanted it to have a storyline, but it felt more like something one should see in a Las Vegas showroom than in a prestigious West End theater. Parts of it--as one might expect, Billie Jean, late in the show--really were thrilling, but as a whole it was quite good, but not quite fantastic.

Though I had had a good night's sleep, by 6pm on Sunday--when it was already long dark in London--I was still rather weary. I knew the Bears were playing at 3:15pm in Chicago, but any thoughts of trying to find somewhere showing the game at 9:15pm in London soon became unimportant.

After doing some damage at a souvenir shop near Picadilly Circus called Cool Britannia, where I got this mini-Union Jack guitar, Paolo and I went back to Borough and wound up in a pub called the Trinity, where I got what passes for a good British cheeseburger and a pint of a beer I do not recall.


Paolo works (mostly in Chicago) for a London-based company, which is why he was in London and availed of a flat, which I was graciously able to share. So during business hours on Monday and Tuesday, I was on my own.

Which, having been in London and elsewhere numerous times by myself, was no problem. Except that he hopefully would have talked me out of waiting in line for the da Vinci exhibit, which would prove to be an exhausting and infuriating waste of time.

Now, I love great art, of which the few extant works of Leonardo certainly qualify, but when I first noticed that the National Gallery was hosting an exhibition, it already too late to buy advance tickets for timed entry (even if I were to be in London through February). But as attested to by this post, the National Gallery has one of my favorite collections in the world, and with free entry, I figured another non-exhibition visit there would quite suffice.

But then I read somewhere, I though in TIME, but I can't find it, something calling the da Vinci the "best art exhibit ever." So per this statement on the exhibit website--A limited number of tickets will be available to purchase in person on each day of the exhibition. However these are subject to availability and likely to sell out quickly--I figured I should get in line prior to the museum opening at 10am on Monday morning and see if I couldn't get a ticket.

When I got to the back of the queue at 9:45am, unaware of just how far it snaked around, a member of the museum's security staff forthrightly told me, "You're not assured of getting in, and if you do, it will be for entry at 4:30pm." She also suggested the wait just to reach the ticket desk was at least 2 hours.

Admittedly, I was stupid for not walking away just then and finding something else to do in London. But though I wasn't expecting to walk right into the exhibit, I had planned to give some time to it, so I asked the guard, "Will you let us know when it's definite that we won't get tickets?" (meaning me and those near me). To which I was told, "Yes."

Soon thereafter, they stopped letting people join the back of the line, so I thought I might have a good chance. Two hours went by with nary a word, so again, I assumed the best, even venturing to turn on my iPhone--with international roaming rates--to try calling Paolo to ask if he'd be able to join me at 4:30. Fortunately, he didn't answer.

Two hours in, the security lady told a woman about 10 people ahead of me that she would likely be the last to get in. Word of this just grapevined through the line, but nothing was said to the rest of us. So I asked another guard if I was out of luck and should just leave. He said, "You're that close, I'd stick it out."

So I did--and not to kvetch too much, but standing for prolonged periods gets rather painful for my legs and back--for what amounted to another hour. At which point, I was two people from being let into the museum. But that would've only been to be a bit warmer while waiting for the ticket desk. That was when we were told we wouldn't get in.

I was rather upset about the time I wasted, my physical discomfort and a sense that the security guards could have been more candid. I mentioned that the one guard had told me to invest the third hour of waiting and he went off about how "he could never win."

Now certainly, there are infinite worse things in the world. But what still pisses me off is that 1) The woman who was told she would be the last to get tickets wound up not being able to. That's goofy. 2) Supposedly they had 500 tickets to sell for the day; likely 50 or so slotted for each half hour. What the heck took 3 hours? Print the tickets, take people's cash, hand out the tickets. Not so hard. Two days later I got into an even longer line to go to the top of the Eiffel Tower; I reached the cashier windows in a half-hour. 3) What would be the harm in letting the last people in line--the ones allowed to queue up, but ultimately shut out--purchase tickets for the next day? Call me crazy, but that would just seem fair.

So while I blame myself for the fiasco, I don't think I'm wrong for feeling something was badly mishandled.

Anyway, after all this, I did go into the National Gallery and saw some of my favorite paintings, such as this one by Raphael and this one by Seurat, but my heart wasn't into it.

Which still only brings us to about 1pm on Monday, but with a book I want to read, I think I'll pause here and bring you Part II (and Part III) as soon as I can.

No comments: