Monday, June 18, 2018

Towers, Tiaras and Tribulations

After trying to get to The Monument (The Monument to commemorate the Great Fire of London) and getting a bit lost - because who hasn't misplaced a 202 foot tall monument? we saw directional signs and headed toward the Tower of London.

I was sad to have missed the Monument, and more, felt a bit naked without my tiara. But perhaps there would be a tiara for sale, er, on offer, at one of the Tower gift shops...?

History was just about reaching out and clubbing us over the heads.  All Hallows wasn't open when we passed it, but I figured, maybe we'd get a peek inside on the way back.

In the USA, our oldest buildings date back to the 1600's, not the 600's.

Another view of All Hallows Church. London is full of historical building cheek by jowl with modern ones.

And there it was, the Tower, right there being all ancient and shit.

First, a potty stop at the public restrooms before entering.

Only, that loo required MONEY. We hadn't yet picked up any British money, having used our passes for the trains and buses to travel to our Airbnb, and a credit card at the pub on our first night.

Luckily, I'd spotted an ATM after we passed All Hallows. Pounds secured.

Only, the loos required COINS, not bills. Eventually, change was obtained, and the business was completed. (Pay toilets usually cost anywhere from 10p to 10p.)

Confession time: I had seen many photos of the White Tower, one of the oldest buildings in the Tower complex. I thought that "White Tower" was singular, that one of the Towers was THE White Tower, and the other three towers that were part of the building were, I don't know, towers-in-waiting or something. I didn't realize that the whole building was "The White Tower."

Saw this on the way in,  on the Western side, but my map and book offer no clues. Little help?

You gotta love merry olde England. The extravagant and eye-catching clothes, the big wild hair...

Okay, that was the 1980's. Let's go back even further...

Waterloo Barracks, where the Crown Jewels are on display.

Waterloo Barracks, Beefeater Guards
So, Plan A had been that I was going to bring my tiara - the one that won the poll - for a match-up with the Crown Jewels. And then in the flurry of catching my Lyft I left it behind.

Also, we discovered that there was absolutely no photography allowed inside the building. So even if I'd been wearing my tiara, there would've been no opportunity for a matchup.

The tiara I MEANT to bring, vs. St. Edward's Crown of 1661
Okay, Elizabeth's crown has more bling to it.
Everything was old, or seemed old.

Even the posts reek of history
Exit side of the White Tower. Yes, it was under construction/reconstruction. This was to become a
familiar sight in London, wraps like these to contain dust from projects.

Luckily there were some modern conveniences within the Tower buildings, like benches.

This was hugely important because my gimpy feet (Morton's neuroma + plantar fasciitis) were killing me, and I needed to sit, frequently. (There were also free toilets once inside the complex, if also longish lines for them.)

Inside the Tower.

So knights are supposed to slay dragons... But this one was pretty cute. If you zoom in, you can see that he is entirely made up of weapons and armor, and he's perched on what I sincerely hope are fake barrels of gunpowder.

View of Tower Bridge and the Thames from inside the Tower.

Of course, I had to visit the (approximate) spot where Anne Boleyn, and two other queens (Jane Grey, the Nine-Day Queen, and Katherine Howard) were beheaded, along with other members of the nobility, and some other people. Not all at the same time.
Execution site memorial
Yes, that's a glass faux pillow
Historically, wooden execution blocks were not furnished with pillows
The poem on the base:

Gentle visitor pause awhile
where you stand death cut away the light of many days
here jewelled names were broken from the vivid thread of life
may they rest in peace while we walk the generations around their strife and courage
under these restless skies

The whole idea of death by beheading both fascinates me and creeps me out. Like, some theories say you can still think for a few seconds, after they separate your head from your body. How do you greet your death with equanimity, being alive one moment, and knowing you will be dead in another? They say Katherine Howard asked for a block in her chamber, so she could practice putting her head on it. Anne Boleyn made a joke in black humor, "I have heard the executioner is very good. And I have a little neck."

We all meet death, but few of us have to meet death via execution, these days.

There were several exhibits of torture instruments and stories that are not for the squeamish.

Then there's the two Princes, Edward V and Richard, Duke of York, who went into the Tower in 1483, following the death of their father, Edward IV, at the direction of their uncle, Richard Duke of Gloucester. Richard would subsequently claim the throne, claiming that Edward's marriage to the boys' mother was invalid, and the boys (then about twelve and nine years old) were illegitimate.

After the coronation of Richard III, the boys disappeared. Some stories say they were murdered by a henchman of Richard's and temporarily buried under a staircase - perhaps THIS staircase, below, where the bodies of two children were found. Other stories suggest one or both boys might have been moved elsewhere for safekeeping, and then... murdered? Grew up elsewhere? Several men claiming to be one of the Princes turned up during the reign of Henry VII. We may never know for sure...

We don't know if the bones discovered here were of Edward and Richard.
We do know that so many of the staircases in these old castles were super narrow and winding like this one.

A peek at the inside of "Traitors Gate," where many of the Tower's prisoners, including Anne Boleyn, were brought inside via boat. [Insert spooky narrator voice: Never to leave alive, bwahahaha!]

Traitors' Gate entrance, from the inside.
Even now, it is chilling and creepy AF.

So, our plan was to leave the Tower and head up to The Natural Kitchen to meet my friend Taron. Only about a 15 minute walk.

But, I had been unable to contact her to confirm after leaving the flat. The WiFi I had counted on finding at the Tower, wasn't there.

And then our road was entirely blocked. I thought the word passed from the crowd (I took this photo on my tippytoes) was that the soldiers were there to shoot swans for the sovereign. Poor swans!

We did get word (it was now 12:45) that the road would be closed until 1:30. This was not going to work for a 1:00 lunch rendez-vous; we'd be almost an hour late.

I later found that they were there not to shoot swans, but to fire a 62 gun salute, in honor of the Queen's birthday, at 1:00 pm. Three volleys of 21 guns, I believe.

So we began limping walking around the Tower complex, the long way. Taking breaks. Skirting the fences and roadblocks materials that were being put up for the London marathon, which was the next day. Listening to them firing off the guns, and seeing the smoke rise in the air. Me fretting that we were keeping my blogger friend, Taron, waiting.

But eventually we arrived, only about 15 minutes late, had a delicious lunch (my leftovers became my dinner that evening) and enjoyed a great visit with my longtime friend.

The gift shop at the place that hosts the Crown Jewels did not have any facsimiles or tiaras on offer, but they did have this sparkly T-shirt, and the great little book I picked up. I haven't yet gone out wearing my tiara and T-shirt, but I will.

There are more Tower stories, other photos, and yes, ravens were present (mind you don't sit in the raven scat) and squawking, but I don't want to turn this post into a book.

Have you been to the Tower of London?

What tips or tricks can you share for a visit like this?

Tuesday, May 29, 2018

No Flytipping, and Other Communication Fails

Welcome to London. We expected that this part of the trip would be easy, because Brits speak English, and Americans speak English, right?

[insert evil laugh here]

The problem wasn't the vocabulary we knew we had to learn, like "loo" or "water closet" for bathroom/toilet. It was the words we didn't know we had to learn.

First night in London, we're in a pub, I'm taking anti-inflammatories for my aching parts, and I'm feeling like I want to play safe and stick to a white soda, like a Sprite, 7Up, etc, rather than drink something with alcohol.

"You mean a lemonade?"

In America, THIS is a lemonade. Made with lemons, sugar, and water, super tart and flavorful.

"No, I'm not really feeling a lemonade. I want a white soda.  Something fizzy and sweet, but not too sweet."

Like this.

Yep, if you want one of these, you order a lemonade. Hopefully figuring it out before you die of thirst.

I imagine Brits coming to the USA face the same dilemma, in reverse.

I did know that the yummy cookies our Airbnb hostess put out for us in our room are called biscuits in the UK.  (Coming in the other direction, my British friends, biscuits are something we either give to our dogs, or pour gravy all over. Because we pour gravy on everything.)

We were lucky to get our biscuits.

Because, in my ignorance, believing "Oh, there's Wi-Fi available just about everywhere," upon arrival at Gatwick, I was unable to communicate with our hostess as to our ETA, and she had an afternoon appointment. We just got to the flat shortly before she had to leave. (See my post here on getting an Orange vacation SIM card.)  Of course, once in the flat and connected to her Wi-Fi, all the messages I'd sent her, and those she'd sent me (Where are you?), went through promptly.

And when you're in the Underground, or the Tube, you won't find "Exit" signs.

These are fairly self-explanatory, even to a clueless American tourist.

These? Not so much.

Okay. So a "zebra crossing," has white and black stripes, "humped" means there's a hump in the road (don't go there, naughty thoughts!), and the pedestrian has the right of way.

Whereas a humped pelican crossing is a normal pedestrian crossing. With a hump.

Something I found quite interesting was the traffic lights for drivers. As they do in the USA, there's three vertical lights: green, amber, and red. But after a red light, the amber lights again for a moment, before the green lights up.

This is very helpful for pedestrians, whether they are pelicans or zebras.

Americans and Brits all wear pants. But when explaining to our hostess that we needed use of the washer, since we'd spilled gravy on our pants on the airplane, we discovered another linguistic discrepancy.

In the USA, pants = trousers, slacks, jeans.
In the UK, they're your "unmentionables:" thongs, panties, underwear.

So it struck our hostess as hilarious we'd somehow managed to get gravy on our UNDERWEAR on the plane.

Also, fanny packs? Nope. In the UK, you can wear a bumbag. But a fanny is the naughty bits covered by your pants. Positive or otherwise.

This sign, in the woods of Kent, left me bewildered. In the USA, there's a shitty thing teens do, in farm country, which is cow-tipping. They go up to a cow peacefully minding her own business, sleeping upright, (as cows often do), and push her over. 

I was pretty sure that flytipping was not a similar kind of prank, because that would be even trickier than spilling gravy on one's pants in an airplane seat, and I was right.

It means no DUMPING TRASH. I guess nice, stinky garbage would be something of a tip to a fly...?

More travel stories and photos in the coming weeks.

Do you have any interesting UK English vs. American English stories?

P.S. My memoir is FREE on Netgalley through May 31. Go grab a copy while you can!

Monday, May 21, 2018

Pack This, Not That

Baggalini purse - awesome.
Secret silk neck purse - never used.
Having planned carefully (so I thought) I found some things I packed for my three week trip to Europe turned out to be super-helpful - and other things, much less so. Learn now from my mistakes, kids.

The Baggalini purse on the left was awesome, with pockets for EVERYTHING. Comfortable, lightweight, adjustable strap... I would marry this purse if I could.

Pro-tip: If you're like me, and rarely change your purse, switch to your "travel purse" a week or two before the trip, so you can get used to it.

I thought the little silk, under-the-clothes purse would be handy, but I never used it. It was just a little too small to fit in all the things I needed, and the neck string was irritating.

This set of credit card and passport sleeves - I don't know whether they actually protected me from having my information lifted, or were an unnecessary precaution. But there were no issues and made me feel more secure, so I'll go with, worth the investment (under $10 for the set).

Small(ish) suitcase with an EXPANSION ZIPPER and wheels that go in ALL the directions. OMG, yes! Provided you are not too close to pushing the baggage weight limit, it will provide just enough room for souvenirs (if you don't go too overboard on them), for the return leg.

Which brings us to: small hand-held baggage scale. I got this (along with my suitcase) at TJ Maxx. It will weigh a suitcase in both kilograms and pounds, necessary for an American flying both domestic and internationally.

Rather than a standard carry-on, I bought this Victorinox travel backpack (again, with the zillion pockets!!) It even had a padded pocket that is perfect for a small laptop or a Kindle.

The amount of things it could hold and still fit under an airline seat or into the overhead bin was truly remarkable.

This was both a good thing, and a bad thing, as I discovered the first day I loaded it up to go touristing. The sucker got progressively heavier and heaver as the day went on, even WITHOUT adding significant souvenir weight.

I swear, I think there were gremlins adding invisible bricks to it.

Converter kits - I bought this one, which had plugs and attachments for both the UK and France. Heavy, but worth it, as we had not only cellphones and Kindles to charge, but standard "plug" units for our camera batteries.

Even though our AirBnB hosts had some converters, this power converter was still something we used every day.

Do: put extra electrical cords, earbuds, and charging plugs in a ziploc bag for ease of getting to them. Do NOT forget to bring a charging cord with you everywhere you go. DO bring earplugs (but maybe not a whole box of them).

If you are not 100% certain you can use your phone in Europe, DO buy an "Orange Holiday" SIM card at the earliest opportunity.

I missed out on meeting a wonderful friend in London, and almost lost my mind when my niece and  I got separated at the Louvre and we couldn't communicate, due to lack of the European SIM card in my phone. Also due to my phone running out of juice because I was carrying these recharging batteries but did not have a cord with me. *heavy sigh*

These portable batteries, on the left, one of the best trip purchases I made. Inexpensive, (relatively) lightweight, and powerful, I used them every day we were out and about. By buying different colors, it also helped me track which one was all tapped out, which one still had juice.

All the travel-sized things... Pack them! If nothing else, they help create a great feeling of accomplishment, as you finish each travel size bottle or tube. Especially since I've been working on my travel toothpaste stash for something like ten years.

Optimistic Me: And now that I've gotten rid of .3 fluid ounces of contact lens solution, I will have room for three pounds of souvenirs in its place.

DO bring a calendar with lots of room for taking notes for what you did each day. I also brought a journal, because I was going to journal, every night, about that day and evening's experiences.

Bwahahahaha! Three weeks, and ONE day's journaling.

Also, the extra notebooks I brought, in case I was seized with the creative inspiration and time to work on one of my fictional stories? See bwahaha, above. Extra. Dead. Weight.

My Kindle Fire: Pack this, if you have one. I used mine to read a little, to play music, including soothe you to sleep stuff when I was having problems falling asleep, and to access social media. Several nights I streamed movies for the two of us to watch.

Note: there were a lot of documentaries and travelogues I wanted to watch and show my niece, about the places we were visiting, that were not available to stream, while we were across the Pond. So if there is something of the sort you really WANT to watch, download it while in America.

Selfie Stick - don't bother. My niece brought hers, and we NEVER used it.

Many of the places we were visiting do NOT allow selfie sticks or tripods in the place, at all. Something about not wanting clumsy tourists to leave a gash across the Mona Lisa's face or something.

Mostly you can get good selfies at arms' length, or trade with other tourists to take their pictures, and then they'll take yours.

Some kind of facial cleansing, makeup remover wipes - oh, yes!! Used every day. And the premoistened wipes aren't considered liquid, so they can go in the carry on.

Bring hair scrunchies, and whatever else you "do" your hair with. If you use a curling iron, like my niece does, make sure you have the kind of power converter that will work with it. Ours worked okay in Paris, but not in London.

Wet wipes - a Yes, but. They came in handy on several occasions, but MOST places had access to running water and paper hand towels. Bringing a half dozen packets, rather than an entire box of 24, would have been plenty.

Travel neck pillows - ditch the old style ones, filled with memory foam, and get one of the inflatable ones. Try not to lose the carrying bag for it on the very first leg of the trip (but still, even if you do, it's not a tragedy).

Sunscreen: the large can of sunscreen was packed in my outgoing checked luggage, as a sealed virgin container - and came home as a sealed virgin container. Most cities DO sell sunscreen, as needed, and we really didn't need it.

However, if you have sensitive skin and a particular brand of sunscreen specifically for the face works for you, do bring that.

Other suggestions: If you have a small, compact rainjacket, bring it. I used mine on several days. My niece also brought a down jacket that could be compressed into a small bag when not worn - and then the bag used as a small-of-the-back support pillow.

And now, my brilliant idea... My books and bookmarks.  Because they were going on tour, too. I had plans taking pictures of the books everywhere. Me, my tiara, and my book right up next to the Crown Jewels. And in all the places we visited.

My therapist suggested that instead of bringing my actual books, I get mock-ups made of the covers, and use those, to save on weight.

But how heavy could a couple of books be? I was running short of time, and besides, I wanted them to look AUTHENTIC.

My books were ridiculously heavy, especially as the day wore on. And many of the historic places, like the room with the Crown Jewels, didn't allow photos anyway. If I were to do it again, I would bring half the bookmarks, and cover facsimiles, only. By the end of the trip, I was NOT lugging around one gum wrapper more than I had to. Sorry, Versailles, Marie Antoinette and company will just have to accept being photoshopped in, in future work.

And of course, I forgot my tiara in my mad dash out the door to meet my Lyft. Which I had somehow ordered to pick me up at my work address rather than home address, but the driver was nice enough not to cancel on me despite that.

I did acquire a new tiara from Westminster Abbey, so I only had to spend a few days tiara-less.

There are dozens more stories and photos coming, but I wanted to start you - and your travel adventures, should you be planning any - off on the right foot.

Your thoughts?

Things you forgot you wish you'd packed? Or vice-versa?