Monthly Archives: December 2011
Starbucks. It seems every civilized place on the planet has at least one.
On any continent they are all exactly alike. The only difference is the décor on the mugs. I consider them collectibles. I have no more room on the shelves in my kitchen for them, but I still buy one wherever I go. In fact, I am a bit annoyed if the city I am in (Nairobi, Kathmandu) does not have a Starbucks. Before I travel, I Google the location of the Starbucks in the destination city. Not only do I want to add to my collection, I want to be able to get a good cup of coffee.
The same people who stood in line in front of me in Macau or London stand in line in front of me everywhere else. They all order just about the same thing. The session goes something like this.
“I’ll have a half latte, half mocha, half cappuccino with half cream and make it only half hot please.”
The barista is usually a college educated person who majored in something like Ancient Sri Lankan philosophy. They dutifully perform the chemistry experiment needed to serve the person in front of me. Meanwhile I select my souvenir mug. Then the overly picky customer sends back the coffee because it is too hot, I chat her up.
“Hey, didn’t we meet at Starbucks in Macau?”
“Oh yes we did! I remember the mocha there was very bitter.”
She shuffles away, happy with her lukewarm creation, and I step up to the counter.
Here is how my order goes.
“I’ll have a small black coffee”
“Will that be mocha or a cappuccino?
“Fresh cream from Sumatran sacred goats in that sir?”
“Black, a small black coffee”
“A grande then”
“No. Didn’t you learn anything at Harvard? Grande means big, large, and bigger than small. I want, again, now listen hard, A SMALL BLACK COFEE”
“Do you want Columbian, Kenyan, Costa Rican or our house blend?”
“If it is black, hot and you don’t ask another question, I don’t care.”
A brief roll of the eyes that say “I should have gone to grad school” is followed by “Yes sir, that will be (Insert too high a price in any currency here).”
But this is just my problem. I’m glad I did not graduate into this economy, so I still tip them.
The coffee they serve is always good, even without milk from sacred yaks. When I was in Bali, I asked for Kopi Luwak, which is made from beans that have passed through the digestive track of a type of cat, then shat, cleaned and roasted. This is the best coffee I have ever had, and a product of Bali, but not available at Starbucks in Bali.
Kenyan coffee is excellent, and Starbucks sells it all over the world, but there is no Starbucks in Kenya. Maybe milk from the sacred Zebra is not available.
Starbucks cafes are a great place to blog from. Usually the wifi is free, not always. They have comfy seats. People can spend hours in one. I know, I have.
So fellow travelers, if you ever want to meet up with me in some foreign country, I’ll met you at Starbucks!
We took off for London the day after Thanksgiving. Mary Ann had two motivating factors for this trip. The first was to finally match my “gold tier” level in Qatar airlines frequent flyer program, and the second was to use up some of the vacation time she has accrued. It seems that the more we go on vacation, the more vacation days she has! Nice problem!
My motivator was history. London is plumb full of it. In all those Asian countries, guides try to tell us that a child who came back to life with the head of an elephant is somehow history. In London, there is no religious fantasy, just real history.
We arrived at Heathrow airport about noon. TWO HOURS later we were finally through immigration. Terminal4 at Heathrow is where most of the truly foreign carriers arrive. BA and US carriers land at the other terminals. Heathrow terminal 4 is not a friendly nor an attractive place. Long walks without any people movers. Missing ceiling panels expose crude neon lighting. Poor signage which even in English left you wondering if the last 1/4 mile hike had been in the wrong direction. Then, we got to the immigration line. There were 35 booths available for use. Two or three were occupied. The officials would show up, process two or three people, then go away. Another might show up a few minutes later, then one of them would go back to their break room and presumably have tea and crumpets. I have been in immigration lines all over the world now and this truly was the rudest experience I have ever had. They profile everyone with questions starting with “Why are you here?
“I am beginning to wonder that myself.”
“How long will you be here?”
“I have already spent half my holiday in this fookin line.”
“Where are you going after you leave?”
“Someplace that respects tourists.”
I am not kidding, this was almost verbatim what went down with me in my session at the desk. When I had the stamp in my passport I told the guy;
“I don’t see how you expect to handle the Olympics. People are going to be pole vaulting your booths in protest.”
He didn’t much like that and said “It takes 2 1/2 hours for me to get through JFK immigration.”
I mumbled something about payback being a bitch and walked away.
Coincidentally, as I write this on the 30th of November, England is experiencing a general strike against pension reforms imposed on workers in the public sector. That includes the immigration people. The tabloids in London were predicting 12 hour queues at the immigration lines. However, I have been watchng Sky News out of London. The government has called out the army to man the desks, and to quote one airport manager “the lines are moving faster than normal.” Not a very high bar to pass, but ironic none the less.
Things started to look up after that. The London Underground, or the tube, serves Heathrow. With one easy line switch we were at Victoria station within an hour, and rather inexpensively. The tube cost us about US$12, where as a Taxi would have been about $85, and take longer. It was a comfortable ride with a view of the suburbs.
Our hotel was a block from Victoria Station. It was an excellent hotel with excellent service.
Our first night there we went on a walking tour by a company that calls itself London Walks.
I highly recommend this company. We took the pub crawl tour at night. Unfortunately I did not bring a camera. The tour, led by a young woman was excellent. She has done a lot of research of London history, and yes, pubs. We saw many interesting places, had more than a few Ales (all of them cold, and only one “bitters”), and I learned what a Cockney really is. A true Cockney is born within the sound of Bow Bells. Both this church and the much older and prettier St Mary le Bow church in The City claim to be the centre of this folk legend. I also learned a lot about the Thames river, including the proper Cockney pronunciation…Taimes, with a slight deference to the letter I. She showed us where John Harvard was baptized in a church that makes anything in Boston look like urban renewal. I had to teach her the proper pronunciation of Harvard…Hahvahd. It took three tries to get her to drop the Rs!
We only had three days left to see all there is to see in London,so we knew we would not see all there was to see in London.
We bought something called the London Pass.
This little credit card sized gizmo gets you into anything interesting in London for free and allows you to hop the queues. If you pay a little more you get free tube passage as well.
We also bought a 48 hour pass on
This service bills itself as the ORIGINAL hop-on- hop-off bus tour, copied in many cities all over the world. We have done this in Dubai and Singapore, so why not go with the original? They use double decked busses (with no driver on the top) and have multiple lines that go all over greater London. If you pay attention to where each line goes you can see just about anything. The commentary explains where you are at any given time. You get off where you want to explore something, then hop on again to get to the next tourist attraction.
The combination of the hop-on-hop-off bus and the tube let us zip all around town, and boy did we zip.
One our first visits was The Curchill war rooms.
WWII is virtually yesterday in London. We had a lot more to see. We whipped out our tube cards and tourist maps and started exploring.
Standing on a street corner, I saw this kid who looked somehow familiar. I spoke with thim and he claimed to be the illegitimate son of “some rocker”.
We were just off Whitehall, which is sort of the center of the British government bureaucracy. Whitehall intersects with Downing street. This is as close as we could get to #10 downing street.
Just off whitehall is a building I could not leave London without seeing.
Just a block away at the top of Whitehall is Trafalgar Square. The square is dedicated to the battle of Trafalger where the British navy, under Nelson, defeated a much larger combined fleet of Spanish and French naval forces. Nelson died in this battle.
One of our next stops was St.Paul’s Cathedral.
Today, this is the site of OCCUPY LONDON. The reason for the choice of this is that the London Stock exchange is directly behind it, and the courtyard is the only space big enough for the tent city.
After I had a few words of encouragement with the occupiers and made a financial contribution, we moved on.
Because of our limited time and London’s unlimited tourist options, we did not go to any of the huge gardens. London has more green space than any other city in almost the entire world. We also did not tour any of the magnificent museums which populate the London streets. They have museums to display everything from booty looted from around the old empire, to toys, fans, and probably shoelaces. Maybe next time.
I must say that I have always heard that the food in London was akin to boiled cardboard. I also thought all the beer would be warm and bitter. Not so. We had really good meals wherever we went, and the beer was always cold. You could get “bitter” if you wanted, but…
The next spot to talk about is the Tower of London. There is an awful lot of history there, and I suggest that you read up on it before you go. I will give you a quick glance at what took us 4 hours to see.
Now to the most amazing building in all of London, Westminster Abbey!
If you ever go to London, do the Abbey. Even if you are just there for a day, do the Abbey. Photos are not allowed inside here either, but most of you have probably seen pictures of the recent Royal Wedding. I’ll nab a couple more from Google for you, just because I am a good guy…oh forget about that. I tried. But no camera, no photographer can capture the whole scene inside, let alone the grandeur, the history, the splendor. One word of warning, if you have a phobia about walking on graves, do not go to the Abbey. There are over 3000 people buried in this building and every time you look down you are standing on somebody’s tomb.
For more info, possibly including a list of all the Royals, prime ministers, scientists and poets buried here go to http://www.westminster-abbey.org/
We were smart to take what they call the Verge Tour. A verge is kind of like an usher for services and official events in the Abbey. Our verge was very obviously proud to work in the abbey. He possessed an encyclopedic knowledge of the hundreds of years of Abbey history. He had a great sense of humor as well. He kindly laughed at my irreverent questions. For instance when he showed us the places where the Royals sit for services, I asked
“Does the queen carry a purse to a service?
“Of course” he said “her highness always carries a purse.”
“So maybe you can solve a mystery for me…what in the world does she carry in it?”
“Probably her tube pass.”
For further proof that these men with a very serious job are well rounded enough to have a very light sense of humor, go here
OK. Now for probably my personal most favorite thing we did in London. On Sunday morning we hopped the tube and found our way to St. John’s Wood. This is a bit out of central London. Beautiful homes with actual gardens.
One more thing everyone who goes to London ought to do just because…
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