European Adventure - London Town
I realize that many if not most of my readers have never had the pleasure of visiting a European train station. Let me try to describe it for you. First, imagine any lower-class truck stop you’ve ever seen. Make sure that the truck stop you are imagining sells pornographic videos, and has a few ladies of indeterminate age, some missing teeth, and a tendency to place their hands on the arms of similarly dentated overweight truckers while asking if they are lonely and want company.
Insure in your imagination that you add a lot of diesel engine exhaust fumes and the resulting greasy film that coats everything the fumes contact. Add a public address system that always rings a bell before a string of incomprehensible syllables issue forth. The language itself is not always recognizable, even in England, due to the distortion. Think of it as a Jack in the Box drive-through order speaker, but with loud speakers increasing both the volume and the distortion.
Add a constant rumble, hum, and buzz from the crowds and arriving or departing trains, as well as a few news stands as you would expect to see in a New York subway station. Further add a few stairways going up or down to the platforms that access the tracks, and arrival/departure boards such as you would see at a relatively large airport in the 1970’s (the mechanical, flipping letter type that reminds one of an episode of “Wheel of Fortune” playing in permanent fast-forward, without a pretty girl there to distract you from its lack of content or entertainment).
That is what a European train station looks like.
We went to our platform, to catch our train and make our way to the English Channel. The Channel Tunnel, or “Chunnel,” between England and France had not yet been built, so we were going to ride a ferry across the channel. This ended up being much like any other European train ride. The accommodations inside the train cars themselves are fairly clean and comfortable, especially after one has been exposed to the train stations themselves.
We made it to the Ferry terminal on the coast of France, and I got to ride on a hovercraft for the first time in my life. The accommodations inside this state-of-the-art, water-borne conveyance were first rate, but we had to pay a few dollars as a premium, since our Interrail passes didn’t allow for this conveyance by themselves.
Mark and I found ourselves in a cabin with two sisters. We immediately ascertained that they spoke English. In fact, their father was English, and their mother was French, so they were truly bilingual. They were 16 years old and traveling back to England to visit their father. They were twins, you see, and cute.
Now, let me repaint the scenario in more direct terms: There were two 18 year old American guys, on their own, trapped for a few hours in a small cabin sitting across from two cute twins. Yes, this was the kind of European travel we had fantasized about. Unfortunately, fantasy was all we ended up having, although we continued to engage the girls in conversation, displaying our wittiness and verbal prowess at every opportunity in our quest to impress the friendly girls enough to get them to become friendlier, if you catch my meaning.
They did offer one sage piece of advice that I pass on to you, now, having found for myself that they were 100% correct. English cooking is even worse than its reputation. If you don’t eat bacon & eggs, or fish & chips, you are going to starve in England. “Bacon” is more what we would call “Canadian Bacon,” rather than the little brown and fatty strips that are fried to a crisp, like we have in the US, but it beats the heck out of spotted dick, bubble & squeak, or any of their other dishes. At least they make the names as unappetizing as the food itself, so you are forewarned.
We made it to the English shores, having crossed the English Channel at night. I can’t tell you if the Cliffs of Dover are white, as conventional wisdom says, but I can say that they aren’t luminous, as I couldn’t see them, and have no idea when we passed them, if we passed them at all. My attention was concentrated on cute girls, and therefore my brain was not absorbing details that I might have otherwise noted.
Early the next morning, we arrived in England, and found our way from the hovercraft to the train station, which, not so coincidentally was the hovercraft terminal itself. I don’t even remember transferring, so we may have stayed on board the train, but we were girlless in the cabin after crossing the Channel, so there must have been an opportunity to leave the train, or, at the least, they had a chance to leave our cabin.
We continued on the train to London, and found, yet again, another cheap hotel with hallway-accessible sanitary facilities. Soon after we were settled in to our room, we made our way out into town and did the traditional tourist things like visiting the Tower Bridge and the London Tower, as well as Trafalgar square. One thing I have that is now a collector’s item is a picture of the statue of Admiral Nelson with a Concorde SST passing in the sky behind it. It was one of the few decent pictures I got.
We also visited Big Ben. Big Ben is actually the bell inside the tower, but we Americans don’t care, and call the tower itself Big Ben, anyway. There was a large park-like field across from Big Ben, where we rested for a bit before deciding what to do next. While there, I grabbed a few more photos. I am not sure what happened, because the day was a dull gray color such as one normally associates with foggy London, but one of the photographs I took had a brilliant blue sky, and the tower looked gilded and golden. In person, though, I never noticed this. This and the previously mentioned up-the-side Eiffel Tower picture, and the Admiral Nelson/SST photos were the three that came out the best of the several rolls I shot.
After the normal tourist visits, we went to a British Pub. I don’t remember the name of it. We drank warm beer, or ale, or stout. To this day, I have no idea why any of those names apply to what is pretty much the same liquid, in my eyes. Warm, though, I do know about. The beer was warm. Apparently the English DNA has mutated to the point that there are no longer taste buds in the English mouth. Nothing is more vile than warm beer, with the exception of English food. I also noticed something else while in the pub; English women come in two varieties: disgustingly ugly and ravishingly beautiful. There is no middle ground where English beauty, or lack thereof, is concerned.
Back in the hotel, I struck up a conversation with the male receptionist. He was, like the predatory American-French translator, in his mid-twenties. He had the intermediate length hair that in the 1970’s denoted him as a guy who wanted to grow long hair to impress the girls, but had to get a real job to eat without any real skills, hence, his place as a scruffy hotel receptionist. It is up to the reader to determine if “scruffy” applies to the hotel, the receptionist, or both.
I asked Mr. Scruffy if there was anything interesting to do in town that weekend. I’m not sure what day of the week it was, but the weekend was upcoming. He grabbed the local “weekend entertainment” variety of newspaper and skimmed it rapidly. Almost immediately, he announced that the Sex Pistols were in town. I have never been a fan of Punk Rock, and the Sex Pistols were synonymous with the genre, but this was an opportunity not to be missed. I asked him where one could get tickets to the concert, and he grabbed a handset. Within a few minutes, I had arranged for a ticket and transportation to the ticket-buying location. I was on a tight budget, but this was one expense that was going to be allowed to bite into the remaining funds.
Well, the concert venue was not the glass-fronted megaliths that present today’s concerts. It was more like a big concrete building designed to hold as many people as can be crammed into the space. I don’t remember where my seat was, but that was academic, as almost no one was sitting down. Reflecting back on the moment, I don’t even remember if there were seats. I learned a few things at the concert: bright flashing lights don’t really add to the entertainment if you aren’t zonked out of your skull, “louder” is not synonymous with “better,” and punk rock was worse than it was cracked up to be, even though I would not have considered that possible before attending the concert.
I hate to say it, but I left before anyone in the crowd got urinated or spat upon. I don’t think I stayed through 10 songs. This is not to say I was disappointed. It was everything I expected, and less. Punk Rock was definitely a style of music that was invented just to prove to our parents that heavy metal wasn’t so bad after all. Later, Rap Music took up this role, in regards to Disco.
Upon leaving the concert, I wandered in the general direction of the hotel. London is a very big city, with a lot to do. What I did was to make my way to a rather crowded up beat British Pub, once again, and ordered a beer. It was cold, as well, to my surprise. Once again, I learned something. “Up beat” and “up scale” both mean “costs more than you think for a beer.” I paid for my one beer, which was all I was ever going to have at that pub, and sat drinking in the atmosphere as well as the over priced refreshment. There were mostly post-college preppies in there. This is the breed that was later labeled “yuppie,” the post-baccalaureate preppie. I didn’t like them after college any more than I liked them pre-college or during college. There is just something about their fraudulent plasticity, false laughter, and constant one-upmanship that rubs me the wrong way. Maybe I’m just strange.
Anyway, it was obvious that an 18 year old American in jeans and a t-shirt was not going to be able to impress one of the “birds” in the pub, especially given the one-beer-only handicap I had already imposed on myself. I left shortly after arriving.
Now, it may seem that I’m painting a picture of how much I hated London, but this is not the case in the least. I enjoyed almost every minute that I was there, including loud concerts and preppie/yuppie pubs. It was just that I was a fish out of water in London. London is for people with money, people trying to get money from the people with money, and people who are never going to have money but are going to be treated as if they are invisible by the other two groups. I fit into none of these groups, so was more of an observer during my time in England than a participant.
We spent several days in London, and continued to do any tourist things we could do, the type where you didn’t have to pay money to do it being preferred. I got to see some punk rockers walking in one of the many London parks. They had the fluorescent panty hose, spiky hair, and generally “look at me, I’m strange” attire that had come to be associated with punk rockers and other people in society who are training themselves for failure and ostracization that they are certain to achieve for themselves. Goths, potheads, and others who intentionally handicap themselves with numerous piercings and tattoos that cannot be covered without gloves and turtleneck sweaters fall into this category as well.
The four of us continued doing tourist stuff, until we felt we should leave England, having gotten our additional value out of the slightly higher priced Interrail passes, as compared to the non-British Isles Eurail passes. We went to the train station, which was like almost any other European train station, and did our typing-stamping-writing best to avoid paying for a ticket. We ended up crossing back to the mainland in a more conventional ferry, and ended up in Belgium.
I had never even heard of Belgium as anything other than a small European country. Since this trip, though, I have found that Belgium is a great country. It looks like it is in the corner of Europe, but in reality is in the heart of Europe. Had I to do this trip over again, I would have spent more time in Belgium. I will relate more about Belgium in future posts, but at the time of this trip, we just continued through the country into Holland, which is really called “The Netherlands,” but nobody but the Dutch call it that. Note, also that “Dutch” has nothing to do with either “Holland” or “Netherlands,” which shows just how strange this country is.
Continued in “The Lowlands.”