Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Vacation 15: Final Thoughts

Winston Makes His Play.

This was really a fabulous way to spend three summer weeks, pleasurable in itself and also something to provide food for thought afterward. Now safely back on home soil, I find myself replaying experiences in daydream mode and bouncing them off the world I've lived in all my life.

High points for me: the organ stuff in Paris will always trump everything else. Even with my antipathy toward the church, the connection with this music overcomes all. I've asked myself for years what in this music draws me so strongly, but to ask this is to push the question back further to ask why I love music generally, and thence to the even broader question of sound as a source of pleasure and of communication. Each question just pushes the unknown a bit further down. I guess that's just not a subject I can get very far with, though the pull of the music is undeniable for me. I also especially loved the London Eye and our theatrical experience at the Globe. Both of those things take us so far out of our normal life, but immerse us deeply in something else, something rich and fertile and semi-familiar, like meeting for the first time a much-heralded relative of whom you've heard for your whole life. And while either of these attractions might be found in, say, Detroit, they're instead burned into our minds as hallmarks of this great city. (Actually, Shakespeare did spend a fair amount of time in Detroit-upon-Erie. You know, between gigs.)

I love that people are making a living with shops down these little alleys.

Though I saw quite a bit in Paris I had not seen before (my favorite new thing being the fabulous Pere Lachaise cemetery), my overall impression was a distinct confirmation of everything I had remembered from my last visit. It's a place of great beauty and atmosphere, where the past and the present merge naturally and flatteringly. It has the amenities of every big city--food and restaurants and good transport--but it also has so many things that are distinctly Paris. Amsterdam and London were new for me, and offered a lot to digest. Amsterdam was simply delightful. I was, as my posts attest, especially taken with the bicycle culture and with the canals with their houseboats. These things made the place seem wonderfully foreign, and yet it's a really friendly and manageable place to be a tourist. I think one of my fondest non-musical memories of the whole trip is of us sitting outside at a cafe beneath a huge canopy in a light rain playing cards next to a canal. Amsterdam was Susan's favorite place, though she liked Paris as well (and Versailles especially). There's something in the canals and the narrow streets and in the town's overall size that just makes it less intimidating than the other two larger cities.

London was a mixture for me. I left feeling that my experience was characterized more by what I missed than by what I saw--it was just so big and varied that I didn't really feel I got a handle on it. The list of things to do and see in London are almost endless, and though we were fairly active for our six days we really only saw the littlest part of it. What we did see was fascinating, but we both felt it grabbed us by the heart a bit less than Paris or Amsterdam. I don't know if this has to do with something intrinsic to London's character, or if it's just a function of size, or something else (actually, according to Wikipedia, London and Paris are almost identical in size). I have a suspicion that we would be more enthusiastic if our visit had not followed two weeks in other, unfamiliar cities. Our batteries were maybe a bit low by the time we had arrived.

Regent Street.

For all that, we still had a really good time, and I'm glad we got to see the place. The weekly magazine Time Out, with its listing of cultural events, was a real eye-opener for me. The list of top-shelf classical music going on in the city in a week's time is very impressive. I know you can find this kind of thing in New York also, but it's interesting that everyone LIVES here in London. My overall impression is that London is an absolute nexus of Western culture, like New York and maybe even moreso. In the end, I certainly feel I could profitably return (and I'm sure I will), but the pull to return to Paris remains stronger for me.

The ass of a Routemaster.

General stuff. I've written plenty on the transportation universes of Paris and Amsterdam, a bit less about London (trains notwithstanding). We never did manage a ride on one of London's signature double-decker buses. The old ones, the Routemasters, are being phased out since they require a crew of two--a driver and a conductor--in favor of newer buses where the driver (as in buses everywhere else) takes care of fare duties at the boarding station. That's more efficient, of course, but something is definitely lost with the new buses. They're sleek and new and quiet, but they lack the bulldog personality of the Routemasters, which you still see around town in ever-diminishing numbers. That's one regret, that I didn't get to ride on a Routemaster (and our Oyster card worked on the buses as well as the tube. It's just that more study was needed to verify where a given route went than seemed warranted; traffic could be so slow that it was as fast to just walk).

Or, as in New York, you could take a taxi. The little black cabs are ubiquitous, and they seem almost always clean and in good running order (we read that driving a damaged cab is against the law). Maybe it's always been this way in London, but the cabs are purpose-built and you only see these kinds of cars in cab service (kind of like the old Checker cabs in New York). They're all diesels, and there are several generations of them on the road, and by a couple different manufacturers. But they all follow the same general plan, which maximizes interior space (you must take your luggage inside with you, as there is no trunk). But the taxis suffer, as the buses do, with the trials of all surface traffic in London. Our lone cab ride from the train station was not a straightforward ride, even at 8:pm; the cabbie did his best--and drove like a maniac--but the four or five mile distance (as the crow flies) still cost us 20 Pounds--$40!

Maybe it's because I was by then getting used to the feel of the European car world, but London seemed a step closer to America in its cars. Most cars were a bit bigger than in the other two places, and one began to see more automatic transmissions here. More of the foreign brands one sees in the US are in London, and fewer of the cars one sees on the continent (though still not many American cars). Their work and delivery trucks begin to match the sizes of those found in America, which is not the case in Paris or Amsterdam. London still has a preponderance of diesels, but that's to be expected at these gas prices (and diesel is cheaper fuel here as well, which is not always the case in the US).

So much for the Smart ForTwo being the smallest!

As we rode in our hired diesel VW van to Heathrow for our trip home, I noticed a gas station with a sign that said 0.97 for unleaded. My first thought was: 0.97 X 3.8 liters for a gallon, and you get +/- $3.75 a gallon; not so much more than we pay! Then I realized that 0.97 is just shy of a pound, not a dollar. It currently takes at least two dollars to buy a pound, so they're paying about $7.50 US for a gallon of gas. I know it is this price that drives the efficiency of everybody's cars (and the widespread use of public transportation), and not some inherent virtue which Europeans possess and which Americans lack. And yet to come back here and see a single person driving around in a Ford Expedition or a Chevy Suburban, as I did a hundred times on my drive today down to Kentucky, it makes us seem ignorant and wantonly wasteful (and gives some sense of why the world was so incensed that we thumbed our nose at the Kyoto protocol--we, the country who most needed to make a change). Families all over Europe make do with Toyota RAV-4 size vehicles, which here we deem too small for our needs. We think two kids means you need a Suburban, or, if you're really frugal, a minivan. Minivans are mass people haulers in Europe, not personal transportation. It's just a mindset, I know, and one that comes naturally with $7 a gallon gasoline. Nobody but nobody drives a Hummer there (I don't know if you can even buy them--we didn't see a single one); if you want to show off you drive a Ferrari. There is a big public awareness campaign going on in London now about setting thermostats and turning off and unplugging equipment not in use, all with the awareness of the hydrocarbons being put in the atmosphere. Meanwhile, at home we get news coverage of Al Gore's global warming sentiments being scoffed at by conservatives. Maybe that's going on in Europe too, but I never saw it. And the coverage by our media of global warming as somehow controversial makes us seem like neither our media nor our educational systems are working.

A plug-in electric: the G-Wiz.

But lest it seem like I'm not happy to be home, there are a few things I especially welcome. I've lived my whole life in a car culture, and so I miss driving when I don't get to do it. And all the motorcycles made me especially eager to get back and go riding. For mass transit, the trains make sense in Europe, where centers of population are tightly spaced across the continent. But that wouldn't work in our huge and sparsely-populated country, and so airplanes are a sensible thing for us. And it's nice to see that the Europeans don't do the flying thing any better than we do. Their security is as sucky as ours (and even more stringent--our bags were searched two or three times in Heathrow, plus separate scans for body metal and for our shoes, and we then had at least two separate passport checks). Heathrow seems a very nice airport (and, like London itself, it was packed to the rafters with 100 different nationalities), but not nicer than, say, the United terminal at O'Hare. Charles de Gaulle seemed tired and beat up, much like some American airports I've seen.

A churchyard market just down the street from Picadilly.

I was thrilled to get back to the land of Real Diet Coke, with ice and in glutton-man sizes. And actually, though we had good food everywhere abroad, it's nice for restaurants and markets not to be an adventure. Virtually every meal in Europe involved a degree of mystery; even when you were ordering something familiar, you didn't quite know what variance to expect. e.g., One place we ate "specialized in American-style hamburgers" ...but they still served them with a fried egg on top. I think that was partially why we defaulted to things we knew--Pringles, for example: there was just so much unknown the rest of the time. (I'm sure that's the reason I had Peanut M&Ms every day.)

I was not especially taken with either of the two monetary systems we dealt with. The Euro I liked least of all, though it's certainly convenient not to have 15 different currencies as you travel about Europe. I don't care much for the different bill denominations being different sizes, and the paper feels cheap. Keeping several bills in a money clip in my pocket seemed to beat the hell out of them in a way that's never a problem at home. England did not adopt the Euro, so after using Euros in Paris and Amsterdam, we had to get Pounds when we got off the train at Waterloo station. The English bills are more attractive than the Euros (though still differentially-sized), and the British coins are cool. The One Pound coin is especially cool, small and fat with printing on its edge. Both currencies use coins rather than bills for small whole denominations (one and two Pounds / Euros). In the US, dollar coins have traditionally failed to take off. I have to wonder why there would be a difference. Both the paper Euros and the Pounds seem like play money in their heft and coloration, and it was nice to get back to a US cash machine and get real money. Maybe it's nothing more than familiarity (and, to see how the exchange rates worked out with our cash card, I should be careful in calling English Pounds "not real money," as it sure took a bunch of "real" American money to purchase them). I just think the American money seems more official and dignified. But it's probably just me: Susan loved the foreign money.

I noticed that cell phone stores are all over the place in all three cities, and everybody has a phone as in America. But they seem to use them a bit differently than we do, and overall they seem maybe a step behind us technologically. I did not expect this. People seem to talk less on their phones in public places (in a problematic way) than one sees at home, and kids texting seems not to have taken off nearly so much as in the States. On our recent trip to New York, we saw whole groups of kids sitting together texting (rather than interacting with each other, to my wife's eternal exasperation), but offhand I don't remember seeing anyone send a text message from their phone during three weeks in Europe.

In the end, I guess I'm left feeling that I'm really not well-traveled. My job means I'm constantly on the go (which is traveling for some people), and I certainly have some exposure to different parts (mostly urban ones) of America. But the differences between America and these most Western cities are maybe more striking to me because I've not seen much else. I imagine rural China or Russia to be a considerable step further from the comfort zone. There's great value in seeing how other people in the world live, in seeing that there are millions of people whose exact concerns in the world hardly mix water with your own, that we can easily lose track of what's really important. And if these three cities are not particularly adventurous, they still represent some of Europe's must-see places. And there are quite few more places on that list. I'd still love to see Germany and Austria and Switzerland. Susan is dying to see Greece.

But this was a fabulous start.



Dzesika said...

So glad you finally got to the Globe! And I had to laugh that you got the photo of the bloke with the Golf Sale sign. He's almost as the Underground roundel.

And what train station cost you twenty quid to get out of? I'm just curious ...

And that little jewellery/etc (is it still mainly jewellery?) market in the churchyard ...love that place. Glad you found it. :)

PS - re Sisters - that one wasn't a comp, just a warmup, though comp footage is probably forthcoming!

wunelle said...

Yeah, we paid 20 to go from Waterloo station to the NW corner of Hyde Park, near the Bayswater tube stop. It's one of those things where taking public transport would be fine, but only after learning the lay of the land a bit. We did the same thing in Amsterdam, taking an exorbitant taxi from the train station to our hotel, and the tram back to the station a week later.

The churchyard market was jewelery and clothing and a few odds & ends. Very quaint!

So do you miss the place?

Dzesika said...

Miss it like nothing else.

Except those overpriced taxi rides ...!