Saturday, September 05, 2009

London, Day Two

If you know me, you probably know that I’m a big fan of breakfast. In particular, I love orange juice. I love it so much, I think I might actually be physically addicted to it. I’m also completely useless early in the day without some kind of sustenance, so it’s pretty important to me to have something decent to eat in the morning.

So waking up to the news that our hotel offered free breakfast was about the best possible way I could have started my day. This was particularly true since big breakfasts aren’t usually a part of the European hotel experience, even in Britain (where it should be said that they do love their breakfasts).

And when we got down there, we found it wasn’t just breakfast: oh, no, it was nearly a full English breakfast buffet, including eggs, sausages, mushrooms, tomatoes, hash browns, black pudding (don’t ask me to explain that just yet) and those weird ham/bacon slices that I’ve never seen anywhere else. The only thing missing was the baked beans, but I was determined to find an English breakfast with those eventually. It’s enough to keep you going for almost an entire day, or perhaps kill you on the spot if you have a heart condition.

This isn't our photo (note the baked beans), but it's a good example of a typical English breakfast:

Not only that, but there was also fruit, cheeses, and an array of juices including, yes, orange juice. I would have free orange juice every morning for the first week of our trip. I believe the phrase I used upon this discovery was “sweet nectar of the gods!” though I’m not sure any of my tired companions really understood why I was so excited, except perhaps for Val. Anyway, I was again ecstatic about our hotel in London, though I was beginning to worry that the Paris place might be something of a let-down after this.

After our phenomenal breakfast we took a walk over to Westminster Bridge, known as the best place for pictures of that big clock everyone likes to talk about (Big Ben), the Parliament buildings, and the London Eye, a massive Ferris wheel overlooking the south bank of the Thames. I’m not a big fan of the Eye, possibly because it doesn’t seem fit in with the rest of the architecture and feel of London, but more likely just because it wasn’t there when I first visited England in 1994 and doesn’t mesh with those memories. It’s also quite expensive – about 17 pounds per ride, or the equivalent of around $27, so it doesn’t endear itself that way either. At any rate, I refused to take a picture of it today, but I'm sure I'll capitulate eventually. But I couldn't help but take another picture of Big Ben, which is as photogenic as ever.

From the bridge, we attempted to walk directly across to Waterloo Station, where we hoped to take a train out to the suburb of Twickenham for a rugby double-header that day. Unfortunately, there are apparently only a few ways to approach Waterloo Station, and we chose none of those as our routes, leading to about half an hour of walking around wondering whether people were intended to actually enter the station at all. Once we made it in and got our tickets, we had some time to spare, so we wandered down the South Bank a bit to see if there was anything of interest.

And oh, there was. We ended up in the nearby Southbank Centre, which was holding something called a “Pestival,” or what we soon found was a celebration of all things insect. There was a giant architectural rendering of a termite mound…

a London taxi dressed up as a bee…

and a variety of other bug-related foods and activities.

Not really knowing what to make of all this, we moved on to a neat little footbridge called the Hungerford Bridge. When I saw it, I realized it was one I'd crossed before with my friends Peter and Larry way back in 2003. Funnily enough, it was because I'd gotten lost and we happened to stumble upon it - this seems to be a trend of sorts when I travel. But it certainly brought back memories of that brief stint in London in what already seems like ancient history.

Here we also happened to catch the middle of the “Great River Race,” in which hundreds of competitors rowed a variety of different open boats, including (according to the website), “Chinese dragon boats, Hawaiian war canoes, and Viking longboats.” Most of them were flying flags of various sorts, including a Swedish flag, a large dragon flag, and a even a pirate flag. They were pretty entertaining, though I'm sure they were exhausted; the trip as a whole was a grueling 22 miles along the Thames.

We watched for a while, but realized that time was running a bit short for our big event that day, so we walked back to Waterloo (now knowing the magic path required for entry) and caught our train to Twickenham. We were all excited about our rugby double-header, but we really had no idea what we were in for.

Twickenham would have been a quaint, pretty little suburban town just west of London had it not been for the thousands upon thousands of drunken rugby fans which converge upon it every weekend for the games. It was not out of the ordinary to find a row of little gray brick townhomes with flowerpots hanging from their porches and a young rugby fan who was urinating on the lawn just in front of them. Interestingly, as I found out later, in comparison with the hooligans who frequent football matches, rugby fans are supposed to be positively genteel. At any rate, I found the contrast pretty amusing; these seem to be two aspects of the British psyche which are opposed but inseparable, like quarreling siblings.

But those fans really are a breed of their own. Here’s Diane with one of our favorite people in line:

Once we got settled in our seats (which were quite good!) I was introduced again to the friendliness of the Brits. The man sitting next to me, surely noting my befuddled expression as the game began, offered to explain a bit about the sport as it went along. It turned out he was a business writer for a well-known newspaper (well, at least in Britain), though I admit I’ve already forgotten which one it was. He was attending the games with his son, an avid rugby player at a “public” (read: private and exclusive) high school south of London.

I’d read a bit about the game, and he explained the basics, which include the “try” or setting the ball down past the goal line (5 points) and the subsequent conversion kick through the goal posts (2 points), and the penalty kick (3 points). Aside from that, the idea was apparently to brutally injure anyone carrying the ball, an area in which nearly all the players seemed to have real talent. Interestingly, my friend gave me a bit more context for its place in British culture: rugby is actually known as the game for upper and middle class fans, at least compared to soccer. An old saying goes: “Football is a gentlemen’s game played by ruffians; rugby is a ruffian’s game played by gentlemen.” (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

Yet after all our conversation, neither he nor I still haven’t the faintest idea what constitutes a penalty in rugby, even though that’s apparently where the majority of points were scored in the matches we watched. I assume it has something to do with the position of the ball during a tackle, as opposed to whether or not you stomped your cleat into someone’s face and caused permanent brain damage. To get an idea, this is a typical "scrum," in which the biggest players from each team attack each other for the ball:

How, I ask, can you enforce rules in that thing?

Aside from rugby, we also got an update on British politics, which can be summed up thusly: everyone hates Gordon Brown and loves Obama. I’ve always loved British politics, by the way, even though I only have a loose grasp on how things work – watch a session of Parliament sometime if you’ve never had the pleasure of watching a hundred grown, intelligent men scream at one another with abandon. Someone also once told me that the queen technically has the power to abolish Parliament and take full control of the army herself…should she so choose. She’s just gracious (and wise) enough not to.

When the game was over, we said goodbye to our friends and wandered down to buy a London Wasps scarf, and then find our way back to the station. On that score, we utterly failed, first by trying to follow the crowd back to a car park, and then by having absolutely no idea where we’d ended up. After some fruitless wandering through empty suburban streets (and a few encounters with drunken fans clearly as lost as we were) we found our way back into the gigantic herd heading for the station, and then spent about an hour waiting in line for a train. Given that it seemed like half of the stadium’s 82,000 capacity were trying to get back to London, it might have been worse, but there’s another very appropriate saying about the British: they really know how to queue.

Once home, we didn’t have much left in us, though the jet lag had miraculously almost worn off already. We also knew we had to get up early for our Sunday trip to Hampton Court Palace, so we called it an early night and collapsed in our comfy beds. I fell asleep thinking of all the things we would see the next day… and, if I’m honest, of the orange juice I’d have at breakfast.


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