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2. John Malkovich was on my flight to London, flying by himself. I read later that he’s the new Hercule Poirot for the latest BBC adaptation so I presume he was going over for a press tour. Malkovich did not sit in the same section of the plane as me. That was probably for the best as I don’t do celebrity encounters very well. I always feel like I’m bothering them or invading their privacy, even if they’re willingly putting themselves out there at a public event. I don’t collect autographs and, on those rare occasions when I do meet a celebrity, I can’t think of anything to say that doesn’t seem patronizing or bothersome. If I had approached Malkovich, though, it probably would’ve gone something like this.
3. We did the overnight flight and, after customs and the train from Heathrow and stuff, we got to our hotel at around 2pm. Neither of us slept well on the plane so we took a nap. I slept for 46 minutes and woke up fully alert. Allison slept like the dead, so I went for a walk to find the apartment building they use as as the exterior for 221B Baker Street in “Sherlock,” which is one of my favorite shows. I don’t stalk celebrities, but I’ll occasionally stalk buildings. And yes, I went in to Speedy’s. I got tea and a pastry. That place has to make a fortune on “Sherlock” gawkers.
4. That same walk had me finding my first real ale on the trip. I don’t drink as much beer as I used to because beer does not agree with my digestive system or my waistline nearly as well as it agreed with me when I was younger, but real English cask ales agree with me just fine. I appreciate American IPAs and whatever the craft beer intelligentsia is into at any moment, but I find myself enjoying it less and less as I get older. Too chewy and filling. Smooth porters and ales, though, are my jam and it’s cool that they’re all over the place over there.
5. Pubs are all over the place too, of course. A huge number of them, though, are owned by big corporate chains and, more and more, highly carbonated and watered down mass market lagers and pilsners are taking up tap space and market share in the U.K. To each their own — a lot of younger people in the U.K. love Budweiser and Stella — but if that’s not your speed, I highly recommend you learn about CAMRA, the Campaign for Real Ale. CAMRA is a non-profit consumer group dedicated to promoting and preserving pub culture and good beer. Their app, which will direct you to the nearest pub serving real ale, is indispensable and did not steer me wrong on my trip. In many cases it steered me to places I likely never would’ve found. Hint: most of the good pubs do not look like Ye Olde England barfed itself into the form of a Ye Olde pub on a charming Ye Olde street. Indeed, the best one I went to on the entire trip was nothing like that at all.
7. My trouble with cash wasn’t that big a deal, though, because it’s fairly easy to get around that by using credit and debit cards all the time, which is what we mostly did. The issue there, however, is that U.S. banks and point-of-sale systems are woefully behind the state-of-the-art and didn’t like to play well with English card readers. Every transaction, no matter how small, even when using a debit card, even when using a chip reader, required a signature, which was annoying as hell. Every time the little portable card readers every server carries around with them began to spit out paper, I felt like I was being judged. Which I was. Whatever the case, I can’t decide if the United States’ relatively antiquated credit/debit card infrastructure is what it is in spite of our status as the world’s financial hegemon (i.e. it’s amazing we’re not better at this) or because of our status as the world’s financial hegemon (i.e. we don’t have to do better than this. Who’s gonna make us be?).
8. I have been on about eight or nine intra-city subway/rail systems and The London Underground is the best one by a considerable margin. I’m sure daily users have their fair share of complaints as no system is perfect, but it’s faster and more efficient and more pleasant and covers a greater potion of the metropolitan area than any other subway system with which I have experience. We never waited more than a minute or two for a train. It’s pretty intuitive and, in those moments when it may not be, it does the thinking for you, as with the “way out” signs telling you which direction to exit the platform and what have you.
9. An Underground bonus: in one station they were doing escalator renovations. An official sign put up by the Underground said something to the effect of “This work may be temporarily inconvenient, but the investment of our money in these repairs will eventually provide us all with better service.” The “our money” clearly referred to the people’s money, collectively. It’s sad how surprised I was to see a public entity openly acknowledging the fact that public works require public investment in the form of tax dollars in order to deliver goods people want and need rather than apologizing for it, fetishizing private investment “partnerships” or sponsorships or otherwise acting like it’s a bad thing for people, through governmental authority, to build things via collective action. We do that a lot in the United States. We treat the government as the enemy as opposed to an instrument of the people, by the people and for the people. We proceed as if taxes are evil rather than the price we pay for a civilized society. We fetishize the private sector despite the fact that it is utterly unwilling and usually unable to provide large scale services for people and which only even attempts to do so if there is a profit motive. It almost makes me think there’s a reason the London Underground works better than any of ours.
The vast majority of these items have, and will continue, I presume, to highlight the stuff I loved about the U.K., because (a) I’m something of an Anglophile, so I’m in the bag for the place; (b) I loved almost everything about my trip and I’m still enjoying the afterglow of it; and (c) while every trip features problems and petty annoyances, no one wants to hear someone complain about petty annoyances.
I’ll make an exception for three things, though: street signs, coffee and laundry detergent. To wit:
10. The Tube is great, but the roads are kind of a mess, at least insofar as naming and identifying them go. Streets change names roughly every two blocks and the existence of street signs seems optional. There’s nothing like trying to get from point A to point B in a strange city when a five block walk in which you never make a turn carries you over three distinct streets. Those poor, poor taxi drivers.
England just doesn’t get coffee. Oh, they try, but really, England just taunts you with the promise of coffee while never really delivering. It’d be better if, as a nation, England said “screw coffee,” but there are multiple cafes on every block over there, and there have been multiple articles written about England’s booming coffee culture. It’s just a tease, though, because it’s all basically espresso, even in the Starbucks and McDonald’s. If you want a “black coffee” you’re getting an Americano, which is espresso cut with hot water and those are generally gross. You can find brewed coffee in England — chains Costa and Pret A Manger have it, usually called “filter” coffee — but it’s (a) stupidly expensive for a single cup; and (b) they use boiling water to make it, like it’s tea or something, burning the grounds. I managed to find a couple of good coffee places in London — one in a Victorian-era underground toilet — but, while nice, they were mostly pour-over places, which is not what you’re looking for in a grab-and-go situation. On those occasions when I did find real coffee — the old hotel we stayed in up in Halifax had an old school percolator in its restaurant, for example — I wanted to hug whoever brought it to me. For the most part, though, it was a coffee wasteland.
12. The first time I went to England, back in 2001, a friend from America was living there and he asked me to bring him some U.S. laundry soap. I did it, lugging a jug of All with me in my carry-on (oh, pre-9/11 flying!). At the time I thought he was a bit crazy, but I now understand. In the middle of my trip I did some laundry, using some random laundry pods I found at the store. I have to wash those clothes again because whatever soap it was I bought smells so terribly synthetic that I want to die. I’m legitimately concerned that my t-shirts and underwear will still smell like this after another wash. The Cool Breeze Tide I use at home is just as synthetic as whatever this stuff was, but at least it’s familiarly synthetic.
OK, I think that’s all of the complaining. Back to being an Anglophile.
13. Our first wedding anniversary was May 19. That also happened to be the day of the royal wedding between Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. Anyone we talked to in England over, say, the age of 50 asked us, with a straight face, if we planned our trip to coincide with the royal wedding. Anyone we talked to under the age of 50 sort of apologized to us for all the hoopla about the royal wedding. Allison and I are pretty far to the left and don’t take royal crap particularly seriously, but we’re strangely fascinated with it. That fascination began and ended, though, with us trying to find the tackiest royal wedding souvenirs. We may or may not have left England with a commemorative plate on a stand for a friend of ours and a spoon rest for ourselves. Gonna use the hell out of that spoon rest.
14. We were, at first anyway, in London for only a day or so, as our itinerary took us to several towns up north for the purpose of following our favorite band, James, to a tour of some small halls, around which the trip was planned. We used Manchester as a base for this section of the trip, taking a pretty speedy Virgin train up there from London and using multiple inter-city rail services to bounce between towns and, eventually back down to London. Those of you who have been reading me a while know that I’m a big fan of trains, but I’m realistic about them in the United States. The U.S. is a really big, really empty country for the most part, so I’m pretty skeptical of rail enthusiasts’ fantasies about transforming the United States with high speed rail service even if we could and should do much, much better with localized rail service in and around urban centers. It’s fantastic in a smaller, more densely-populated place like the U.K., though. Our trip, as constructed, would’ve been unthinkable without it. And that’d be the case even if the toilet in one of the trains didn’t make pleasant conversation.
16. Manchester has loads to offer. It’s walkable, it’s interesting, it’s historic and it has a bunch of great neighborhoods, but my favorite thing was the People’s History Museum, which is dedicated to chronicling the advancement of worker’s rights, women’s rights, voting rights and social and political justice in the United Kingdom over the past 200 years. Many people — most Americans, I presume — would call the museum’s mission “radical” or “socialist” but the Museum refers to itself as “the national museum of democracy,” which seems far more apt, given that any society which does not grant workers, women, minorities and the marginalized an equal voice is not truly a democracy. The museum was fantastic in both content and presentation. As with those subway signs I mentioned earlier, however, it’s shameful and telling about the state of current American politics that so much of my time there was spent marveling at the museum’s very existence and thinking about how impossible it is to picture such a place in the United States.
17. Salford Lads’ Club, just outside of Manchester, is a club for young people — traditionally boys, but girls now too — offering all kinds of sports and recreational opportunities. It was founded in 1904 by the same man — Robert Baden-Powell — who founded the Boy Scouts. The original idea behind the club was to keep boys off the streets and to set them on the straight and narrow (read: keep working class youth busy so they don’t become Bolsheviks and overthrow the government or whatever). The club still operates out of its beautiful historic building with old school gymnasiums, boxing rings, meeting rooms and the like. The club is famous outside of Greater Manchester, however, because The Smiths used it as the backdrop for artwork for the “The Queen is Dead” album:
Originally the club was rather cranky about this because (a) none of The Smiths were ever members; and (b) the album contained all kinds of lyrics and themes that are, needless to say, not in keeping with the club’s ethos and there was concern that such sentiments would be attributed to the club. Eventually, however, they realized that the photo was more a blessing than a curse, as Smiths fans began making pilgrimages to the place. I’m not the only one who stalks celebrity buildings.
The Salford Lad’s Club set up a room — a former weight room — as “The Smiths Room” with memorabilia and photos of visitors both famous and common. As the building began to fall apart in the 1990s and early 2000s, a successful fundraising campaign was kicked off to repair the place, helped along by contributions from Morrissey and folks who knew nothing of the club outside of its appearance on “The Queen is Dead.” Today the club’s adult volunteers and some of its young members happily give tours of the place, combining a lesson of the club’s primary history with its tangential relationship to pop culture. Among the non-Smiths parts of that: Graham Nash was a member when he formed the Hollies. They played their first gig there. The more you know.
The tour guides sell Lads Club merch (we bought four shirts and some pins) and offer light refreshments for minimal cost, with all money going to support the club. Oh, and of course, they offer to take your photo at the end:
A couple of days after I tweeted that photo out, along with my assessment of their “Maggie Mae” cover, their Twitter account followed me, called me a “daft twat” and then angrily demanded that I follow them back, if I had the guts. When I did, they sent me a direct message warmly and genuinely thanking me for the publicity and making sure I wasn’t upset at them for calling me a “daft twat.” I kinda like these guys.
19. The James shows were in Warrington, Blackburn and Halifax. We took trains in and out of Warrington and Blackburn before and after, staying only long enough for dinner and the shows, sleeping one night in Manchester, one night in Preston and one night in Halifax. People who heard we were going there warned us that those towns didn’t have much to offer. Yes and no, was my finding.
Warrington seemed pleasant enough, if a little dull. We found a tapas place that was fine, hit the show and then went back to Manchester on the last train. Blackburn — of “4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire” fame from the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life” — reminded me a lot of those West Virginia or Western Pennsylvania towns that time has sort of forgotten. It was also a pretty drunken mess, as the Man U.-Chelsea F.A. Cup final was going on when we got there. The pubs were spitting out angry drunk people as we walked around and, for those who could not afford to drink in pubs but had enough for cans of beer in sacks, they were showing the match on a large video screen in the center of town. Man U. lost 1-0 and people were less-than-pleased. That vibe carried over to the crowd at the concert, sadly. In between we managed to find a pretty lovely Indian restaurant which seemed like an oasis of calm in the middle of this less-than-calm town. After the show the last train to Preston was cancelled so we had to take a fairly expensive cab ride back to our hotel.
20. Stupid things I think about: the farthest north, south, east and west I’ve ever been. South has long been the “90 miles to Cuba” sign in Key West, Florida. West is the cliff overlooking the ocean in Mendocino, California. East is my ex-sister-in-law’s house in Pordenone, Italy. Now I have a new north: the corner of the A-59 and the A-6 during that cab ride back to Preston. If you don’t count being in a moving vehicle — which you probably shouldn’t, because then I’d have to count the northernmost part of the transatlantic flight — it’s the Aldi grocery store in Preston. It’s just like the Aldi grocery store here.
21. The last night before heading back down to London was spent in Halifax. I really, really dug Halifax. In addition to finding that pub I loved so much, and in addition to finding the best real coffee of my trip, I found it to be simply a lovely town, nestled in some lovely, hilly terrain:
22. After the last James show, we walked back to our hotel in Halifax. It was midnight. Sitting outside the place was the James tour bus. We walked in, got a drink and sat in the small lobby as we watched frontman Tim Booth, the rest of the band and various manager types walk in to check in for the night. The night manager, working by himself as desk clerk, bartender and bellhop, was German and had absolutely no idea who these people were. He seemed rather unimpressed as the band’s road manager tried to explain to him that all the rooms were already reserved and paid for, the parking for the guitarist’s car, which he drove separately, already sorted and all of that. With a lot of bands I imagine that would lead to a “This is Spinal Tap” moment with some anger or even diva-like behavior displayed, but they all seemed to take the temporary hassle in stride. The guitarist simply paid for his parking again, the rooms were sorted, the band members all carried their own bags upstairs and then all of them except for Booth returned to the lobby for drinks of their own. Apart from a brief “nice show tonight” when we were next to one of them in line to get another drink from the night manager, we didn’t say anything to them, figuring that they get enough fan attention as it is when they’re on duty. We did, however, sit a few feet away in the lobby and listened to them talk about band business and share old touring stories. It was an absolute treat.
23. The next morning we took a train back to London, checked in to our Airbnb in Fitzrovia and began the more touristy part of our trip. Since each of us had been there before, Allison several times, we mostly avoided the major touristy things in favor of exploring neighborhoods, shopping and just sort of trying to be in London, whatever that means. In addition to the places you can’t easily avoid like Piccadilly, Oxford Square and the areas around the train stations, we spent some time in Camden Town, Islington, Shoreditch, Bayswater, Soho and in various parks and stuff over the course of three days. There were many highlights — lots of good shopping finds, lots of good beer and several good meals — but a highlight of that touring was simply climbing to the top of Primrose Hill, laying down in the grass and falling asleep.
It would’ve been even better if, after my short nap, I hadn’t left my glasses in the grass without realizing it until I was in Camden Town. I made the mile+ round trip walk to retrieve them, after which I rewarded myself with another couple of ales.
24. I took the photo at the top of this post while walking down Regent Street because I wanted a record of it the next time someone says America is too conspicuously patriotic. That being said, that stretch of road has looked MUCH worse. Here’s how it looks on Google Street View right now, taken last fall:
I’ll take over-the-top British patriotism over invading NFL crap seven days a week.
25. Most travelogues talk a lot about food. Our traveling is a bit less food-centric than most people’s, though, because Allison has celiac disease. As a result, it’s a lot more important for us to simply find food that she can eat and which can fuel us than it is to have this, that or the other specific culinary experience. Sometimes, in tight situations, that means she just survives on protein bars, peanut butter smeared on a gluten-free pita or a risky request for a non-gluten-free place to simply grill a chicken breast and steam some vegetables while hoping to God there is no cross-contamination. It’s much easier in major cities, however, and we managed to find lots of places in London that were both celiac-friendly and great in and of themselves. Of note:
- Beyond Bread, a 100% gluten-free bakery/cafe in Fitzrovia that was perfect for breakfast and lunch, with tasty egg dishes and sandwiches that traveled well;
- Niche, a gluten free restaurant in Islington which did sausage and mash, meat pies and all kinds of far-heartier-than-you’d expect gluten-free dishes;
- Indigo, a restaurant in a hotel in Covent Garden that was a bit more upscale but again 100% gluten free; and
- Leggero, an Italian place in Soho
Bonus: we even found a fish and chips place that had a dedicated gluten free deep fryer. No different than the real McCoy. Actually, better than the real McCoy because you know damn well the oil was fresher. Outside of London we did well with some pizza and a neat breakfast place in Manchester and that Indian place I mentioned in Blackburn.
Allison got glutened once. We suspect it was either the neat breakfast place or the tapas place in Warrington I mentioned before, but all-in-all it was less stressful finding places to eat on this trip than it has been on some others.
My general take on traveling with celiac in the UK: there may not be quite as many options as you hope there would be, but the staff at the places which make the effort to be celiac-friendly are a bit better educated about it and on top of it than most places in America. If you haven’t dealt with celiac dining it’s hard to explain exactly why that is, but if you have, you know EXACTLY that feeling you get when a server either answers a question about food prep or ingredients directly or else says they’ll check with the chef vs. kinda bullshitting their way through an answer. Either knowing 100% or not knowing at all is way better than the “yeah, I’m pretty sure that’s safe for you to order” jazz you often get.
26. Just because Allison is gluten-free doesn’t mean that I am. When dining together we make a point to find places she can eat, and if it’s a place where there are many dishes she might like, I’ll try to order gluten-free too, so we can share and she can have multiple things. When I’m on my own, however, I get what I want. Like, when she slept in the morning after the last James show and I got myself a full English breakfast in the hotel restaurant, complete with that percolator coffee AND with blood sausage underneath that tomato:
27. Perhaps the most unconventional thing we did in London was ride horses. Right in Hyde Park. And I’m not talking about a carriage ride like you’d take through Central Park. We saddled up:
Allison owns a horse and rides competitively, so this was no trick for her. I know my way around horses, but I have never ridden, so this presented a bit of a challenge, but thankfully the stables we chose to go with accommodates folks of all skill levels. I had my own guide who took me on a lead line from her horse that, while keeping me from getting in trouble, also gave me enough freedom to trot and stuff. Allison and her guide walked with us some, but took off in different directions at times to canter and gallop a bit. It was a great way to get a tour of Hyde Park and, not gonna lie, to feel kind of like a badass.
28. Riding horses is a pretty snooty little pursuit, but that paled in snootiness to what we did on our last full day in London:
Formal afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason is . . . definitely something. Politically speaking, I’m the kind of guy who wants to put the bourgeoisie up against the wall. I still want to do that, but as I do it, I’ll compliment the bourgeoisie on their lovely tea service — thanking them for making gluten-free finger sandwiches and scones — before I give the order to fire. After that, of course, I’ll go up against the wall myself, for the crime of riding horses in Hyde Park and indulging in formal tea service at a super posh place that calls food “provisions” and the like. We all die sometime, I suppose.
After that we went to Harrods to gawk at stuff we can’t afford. That place makes Fortnum & Mason look like the snack bar at a socialist rally. The rich are very different from you and me.
29. We flew home last Thursday morning and were back in our beds in Ohio that night, the unpacking done just before going to sleep.
I think any of us, after a nice vacation, imagine what it might be like to live where we just visited. Most of the time that’s just fantasy stuff. No one lives on a cruise ship or in a theme park and not many folks live in some tropical or mountain resort. As such, those feelings usually fade soon after the unpacking is done and probably should’ve been gone when I woke up on Friday morning. Unlike those other trips, though, those I’d-like-to-live there feelings are lingering a bit longer than usual with me. I’ve been trying to figure out why.
Part of it may be because it was in the upper 60s and lower 70s for most of our time in England and people were apologizing for the “heat,” complete with warnings about avoiding overexertion on the Underground intercom. I’m a pasty, thick-blooded guy whose genetic stock goes back to that island, so I was fully prepared for, and even a tad upset at the absence of cold, gray and damp weather. If I had the choice of living with typical English weather vs. balmy and sunny weather, I’d take the former every time. I realize I’m in a distinct minority with this.
More significantly, I made a couple of friends on the trip and went to a lot of places where tourists don’t often go. That made England seem more manageable, sustainable and human-scaled than one’s typical vacation to a place like that usually is. I can’t afford London — who can? — but I could afford Manchester or West Yorkshire, right? Hmm . . .
Mostly though, is that I just liked the place. Unlike every other trip I’ve ever taken, even the best ones, there was never a time when I thought “it’s time to be home.” Never did I really feel like I was a stranger in a strange land. This is not, mind you, because of the language or any of that. I get those “time to be home” feelings when I go to Florida or California or Chicago or New York. I never really did in England. I felt like I could just walk down a street and — my hilariously conspicuous American habits aside — just sort of melt into the place. Maybe that was the product of a very well-planned trip (planned almost completely by Allison), devoid of the stress that usually accompanies traveling and thus makes one want one’s travels to end. But I can’t help but think part of it is some cosmic phenomenon trying to tell me that this was a place I was meant to spend more time.
Absent an out-0f-the-blue job offer to, I dunno, become the BBC’s baseball correspondent, that’s not in the cards for me any time soon. But maybe it’s not some time later.
Now, to look at some real estate . . .