through the Chunnel - SaturdayJanuary262002
setting: Paris, France
Today we rode the Metro up to Gare du Nord and then took the high-speed Eurostar train to London. The fare turned out to be more expensive than anticipated, costing 107 euros (about 80 dollars) one way. But the train did go fast, some 170 miles per hour. Overall the French countryside was a fairly monotonous mix of vast green agricultural fields and small villages. Superficially, the rolling terrain wasn't much different from, say, east-central Ohio. I didn't see any relics of either of the World Wars, though as we neared Calais in northern France there were a few picturesque 16th-Century-Dutch-style windmills and a series of inexplicable steep-walled (and presumably artificial) hills rising above the flatland, each of them big enough to host a reasonably satisfactory ski resort.
Fields meet a village in Northern France.
I noted a striking difference between French land use patterns and those familiar from rural America. In France, villages tended to be compact high-density settlements built around a solitary church spire, sometimes with a small factory or two thrown in. These villages ended abruptly at their limits and were surrounded by huge agricultural fields. At this time of year, it was impossible to say what had been raised in those fields. But the fact that they were devoid of any human habitation seemed to indicate the importance of their agricultural value. By contrast, towns and villages in the United States have no sharp boundaries with adjacent nearby agricultural lands. Population density gradually falls as one leaves a town's center, but (at least in the East) it rarely falls to less than one house per quarter mile of road even between towns. In America, the highest use of agricultural land is rural development, usually resulting in single-family homes on five-acre lots that are "used" mainly as lawn. The principle crop of such "fields" is white people. Obviously, with its population density and food logistics issues, Europe doesn't have the luxury of growing lawn on its agricultural fields. The Eurostar crosses to Britain via the tunnel beneath the English Channel. The Chunnel might be a big step for Europe, but for travelers, it's just 20 minutes of darkness outside the window accompanied by a persistent whirring sound. Then suddenly it's light outside (but not as light as in France) and rain spatters the windows. Welcome to England. Once we were in the Chunnel, I felt comfortable going to the dining car and ordering food in my native language. It's a little strange to travel all this way and suddenly find signs posted in English again. It must have given the British considerable pride (and linguistic security) back when the sun never set on their empire. London's Waterloo station is just south of the Thames River, rather near Big Ben, the Parliament building, and other targets of the relentless photographic firing squad of tourists. Since the United Kingdom has opted out of monetary union with the rest of the European Union, we were forced to draw out a fat wad of queen-and-hologram-slathered British pounds. In this age of globally-networked bank machines, it's easy to forget how complex travel money issues used to be only a few short years ago. If you're American, I suppose the best way to get a taste of the way it used to be would be to vacation in Cuba.
Some things are this way and others are not, but when it comes to architecture (and architectural collapse), you really have to be there to get a real sense of it. Notre Dame is this way, the Eiffel Tower is perhaps less so, but nothing really prepares you for the British Parliament and Big Ben. They look like they were made of gingerbread and the details of their façades are repetitive-yet-complicated that they seem almost to have been grown instead of built. As for Big Ben, the way it gets bigger around the clock gives it the appearance of gravitational instability, as though it might topple at any moment with the spectacular crash of a concert grand piano airdropped onto a remote Afghan village. Unlike in Paris, I actually have a network of people whom I know in London. Some of those people are readers, and others are former colleagues, a legacy of the ill-fated Launch UK (launch.co.uk) project, for which I served as "Development Lead" during the fall of 2000 and winter of 2001. As usual, though, I hadn't really done my homework. I'd contacted Sian, the former Launch UK CEO, who had repeatedly offered me a place to stay back in the day, but she turned out to be "on holiday." Then there was Frank, the former Launch UK Producer, but these days he lives in Leeds, and the best he could do was offer to meet me in London this weekend. I hadn't thought to contact anyone else. When I called Frank from one of those cherry red London phone booths, we developed a basic plan that involved a rendezvous at a Spanish wine bar near the Southwark tube stop. Unfortunately, he couldn't offer us a place to stay, since he and his various mates were already over-crashing an apartment in Central London. So Gretchen and I went into a book store on Trafalgar Square and researched a variety of travel guides for hotel suggestions. Things seemed bleak; every one of the guides gave the impression that it's nearly impossible to find a place to stay in London, especially given such short notice. Perhaps we'd be sleeping on park benches tonight. If it hadn't been raining, this wouldn't have been a completely miserable option. Gretchen is a whiz with logistics, even in a town as unfamiliar as London. Through asking a series of questions, she determined that the best way to find a hotel was through visitor information booths, the kind located within tube stations. The guy at the first tube station referred us to a lodging brokerage at another station, leading us to take our first ride in the London Underground, one in which we seemed to travel further by escalator than we did by rail. The broker set us up with a room at the Grange Rochester Hotel for sixty five pounds (90 dollars). When we actually walked down to the Grange Rochester, we were amazed by how fancy it was. This was a real hotel, complete with concierge, room service, insulated sound-proof walls, and La Brea tar beds a'plenty. Then we saw that the normal price of a room: something like 190 pounds. Evidently there's an advantage to showing up late in the day and booking a room in London, so long as its done in the miserable month of January. Our room was small but sweet, and our bathroom was entirely walled in marble. There was a television with complete cable, and the programmes were all in English. Gretchen was so delighted that she called room service and ordered us two glasses of port. Later we had dinner at a nearby Indian restaurant. Lacking a respectable indigenous cuisine, England seems to have happily adopted the cuisine of its largest former-colony. The fact that it has traditionally been so willing to assimilate the best elements of the cultures of its conquests is perhaps one of the greatest benefits of England's imperialist proclivities. As usual, the food was wonderful. Like Italian food (but unlike Chinese food), it's impossible to weary of Indian food. After dinner, Gretchen and I walked across the Thames to the Southwark station to meet up with Frank and his mates. In London, many of the traffic circles feature a pedestrian subway system allowing pedestrians an easy way to avoid the hazards of surface traffic. In one such graffiti-enhanced tunnel that looked like part of the set for A Clockwork Orange, we came upon a young man and his friend who had just shot up some heroin. I'd told Gretchen a few stories about Frank, assuring her that she'd like him. But she wasn't really sure, what with the tales of profligate pill-popping, quasi-suicidal alcohol consumption, and other instances of normal contemporary English dissolution. She generally steers toward a more mature crowd than the one I prefer. But once she met up with Frank and his mates, it was clear she liked them immediately, particularly Frank's girlfriend Lisa. Lisa oozes with precisely the flavor of weirdness that Gretchen finds particularly delightful. She's also unusually warm and outgoing, and (like Frank) she has a hearty uninhibited laugh, and who doesn't like that? There were now about six or eight in our contingent, and we commandeered a large part of the Spanish wine bar. Someone ordered olives and when Gretchen had one, she declared them the best olives she'd ever eaten. While Gretchen and Lisa discussed Lisa's inflatable plastic cones (one showing of which was scheduled to happen at the World Trade Center back in October, alas), Frank and I discussed work life and geek things. He told me that he's hoping to be laid off by his floundering employer soon. Failing that, though, he might have to quit. As for the British dole, it doesn't add up to that much: $100 per week or so, about one quarter of what I get for unemployment. Eventually we relocated to a nearby pub where we graduated from wine to beer (in this case, London Pride). They may not understand food, but the English know their beer. Unfortunately, I didn't know what I was doing when I went to the bar and ordered two "glasses" of beer. The pubkeeper gave me two "halves" - half pints. When I handed one to Frank, he burst out into his usual all-consuming laughter, as did Lisa. She'd never before seen Frank with such a tiny beer, and she had to take a picture. Ashamed of myself, I made amends by returning to the bar and fetching two genuine pints. I was going to leave a tip until the gentleman to my right said "You don't have to tip." I can understand why he told me; us naïve free-spending Americans make the British look like cheapskates. Next on our schedule (pronounced "shedyual") was one of those all-night dance parties whose imported American incarnation is causing such concern amongst the parents of the youth of today. This entailed a complicated ride on various lines of the London Underground. Our adventure featured the sort of running around, giggling, and posing for pictures that's familiar to anyone who has ever suffered through a boy band rockumentary. The actual dance party took place in the Brick Lane neighborhood of London's East End. The price for admission was commensurate with similar parties that happen in the United States, 10 pounds each. Happily for Gretchen, the music didn't have an excessively electronic character but instead consisted mostly of manipulated samples of soulful organic music (organic music is music that is played with actual physical instruments). We were smoking cigarettes and drinking beers, but no one in our contingent was on any hard drugs. Gretchen and I were soon seen dancing like teenagers in love at a sock hop. When we'd had enough of that, we went out onto the street and hailed a cab. In London, all cabs have the shape and size of older-model Rolls Royces and they're usually driven by the same sort of older white gentlemen one finds working as bartenders or butlers in British comedies. Twenty five British pounds later, we were back at our hotel. I remembered not to tip.
View a gallery of pictures from this adventure.