Roam abroad in the world, and take thy fill of its enjoyments before the day shall come when thou must quit it for good.
Or so it seemed; and handy enough for me, because customs was a hustle-through, no harassment and hardly any questions, everybody far too overloaded to bother with a single aging American. I found myself in a large and noisy outer room where lots of people were holding up signs. One of them said WILLIAM SANDERS. It was held by a well-dressed man about my size; I told him I was me and he led the way out to the car. My daughter, bless her, tends to do things in style.
The driver and I had a long conversation about various things on the way into London, while he pointed out various structures of interest. Traffic was dense on the motorway. A thin drizzle, what the Navajos call "female rain", was falling.
(A note, here, of possible interest: I was experimenting with an idea to combat jet lag. Over the last few months, I had been gradually adjusting my sleep-and-wake schedule at home, getting up and going to bed earlier and earlier, until by mid-April I was rising at 2 am and turning in at 6 - in effect I was already on London time before I left home. This played hell with my social life but I figured it would be worth it if it worked, and it did. I didn't have any jet lag problems at all. Not over there; coming home was another matter, but that comes under the inevitable piper's bill.)
I told her I was fine. A little while later, somewhat apologetically, she left for work. I stood for a few minutes looking out the window and then said the hell with it and got into my jacket and pulled my plastic poncho over my head and went out to have a look at London.
By the time I got there the rain had let up, though the air was chilly and damp. I admit to staring in amazement. I hadn't realized the Palace was such a dingy-looking old dump. I mean, it may be splendid on the inside, but from out front...all I could think was that if I were a reigning monarch I'd damn well find myself better-looking quarters. This looked like some sort of federal building, the IRS headquarters maybe, in some boring Midwestern city. Except for the fancy railings; I have to admit that added a touch of class.
I wandered on past the flower gardens - which really were fine-looking, and the rain had made them fairly glow - and up by St. James Park. That's something I wasn't ready for, all the parks and flower gardens, all the open green spaces - you don't get that in the movies; I'd always had an impression of London as a gray, industrial sort of town. Had no idea there was so much green....
After a bit of aimless drifting I found myself in front of a much more interesting palace: St. James Palace, built by, or rather for, Henry the Eighth himself.
The rain had stopped by now and the sentry in front of St. James was in full redcoated glory.
(What doesn't show in these photos, though, is that just a few paces off to one side - standing silently and unobtrusively in the shadow of Henry's tower - is a very tough-looking Sikh with a Glock on his belt. Tradition and ceremony are all very well, but there's no substitute for professional firepower.)
Some Australian in a travel newsgroup said, "London is just like finding yourself on a bloody huge Monopoly board - you haven't a bloody clue where you are or what's happening but at least the street signs look familiar." Yes. The thing about London, it doesn't feel like a foreign country. Not to me, at any rate. Too many British movies, too many British TV shows - it feels familiar even if you've never been there before.
Which is very misleading, and sometimes dangerous. For one thing London traffic is heavy and hell-for-leather fast, and it's all going the wrong way - all your lifelong reflexes for crossing the street are dead wrong; you look and you don't see anything coming and you start to step out and a black cab or a motorcycle delivery rider nearly smacks you and you realize Jesus, that's right, they drive on the other side...but a couple of blocks later you do it again. What it would be like learning to drive here, I can't imagine.
Anyway this is the British one, and from all I've heard about Lord Nelson, he deserves to be on top of the National Boner. I wonder what Lady Hamilton would say? Probably, "Yes, that's about the size of it...."
Eventually I ambled back to Belgravia, finding the mews without much difficulty and rather pleased with myself.... My feet and legs hurt, even though I'd been doing a lot of walking and working out in training for the trip; the wet weather didn't help. I figured that was a temporary problem; my extremities would toughen up and quit complaining over the next few days. Little did I know that my core enduring memory of Europe would be sore feet and aching legs - but that's getting ahead.
Next: England, Part 2
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