Tag Archives: London

A Hole in History

I walked around Canary Wharf after my meeting.  Every single person appeared to be under 40 and was dressed like this.

Yes, there were women too and they were also attired in blue.  Blue was The Colour.

I still felt schlumpy but what did I care?  Now I was a tourist and I intended to wear down my heels even more.  I would take the rest of the day off and wander around.  A sign directed me to the Museum of London Docklands.  The Docklands was, I thought, exactly where I had stayed 30 years before.  The area was unrecognizable, with market vendors’ stalls replaced by food trucks selling “gourmet” macaroni and cheese.  Just as in the US, there was a queue 50 people deep waiting for the privilege of paying £8 for what you could make at home for £1.

I passed a sign pointing to Poplar, an area popularized (that was unavoidable) in the popular (sorry!) TV show Call the Midwife.  The street signage was good and I found the museum easily.  It was free, which was a bonus.

If I had been in the mood to learn about the sugar and slave trades, I could have spent all day there.  Instead, I focused on three exhibits and breezed through the rest of it.  The first exhibit was a recreation of a seedy dockside from maybe the 18th Century, complete with pirates in pubs, houses of ill repute, and the obligatory dental surgery with giant pliers prominently displayed.  This area was undoubtedly for kids, but it was my favorite so what does that say about me?

The second section I perused was about World War II specific to the Docklands, featuring bomb shelters for families and singles or couples.

This is the damage the German bombs wreaked:

Imagine, coming across one of these while hoeing potatoes in your garden, five years after the war.

I’m fascinated that people were expected to discern German from British bombers. Can you imagine teaching your kid, “Now Jimmy, study this carefully.  The ones on the left are the bad planes.  When we see them we run for the bomb shelter so we don’t get blown to smithereens like the Evans family.”

I don’t know about you, but I could study this poster all day—even have it in my hands while looking up at the sky—and I would never be able to tell the difference between the good guys and the bad guys.  In the dark, under stress?  No way. I imagine all this well-intentioned poster did was make people more anxious.

They had their version of the American icon Rosie the Riveter; recruitment campaigns to bring women into the workforce to take the place of the men who were off to war:

Of course as soon as the war ended, the women were told to go back home and have babies, which set the stage for women’s lib.

There was a bonus exhibit at the end that displayed items found in the construction of Crossrail, the new Elizabeth train line being built in London.  Imagine, tunneling 26 miles under London, with all the other tube lines down there.  It being London, they had to stop every five feet to make sure they weren’t grinding up a significant archaeological site.  Here’s my favorite artifact, a chamber pot:

There were skeletons recovered from plague cemeteries.  People died in such numbers they had to be dumped into mass graves—before the grave diggers caught the Black Death and followed their customers into the ground.

I had my eye out for something about the story of how Pakistanis came to work the docks in the 50s and 60s after Indian independence and partition.  It was hoped they would work for cheap, then go home.  But they stayed and brought their families.  This had been the whole learning topic during my Volunteers for Peace week long “work camp” in the east end in 1988.  Now Sadiq Khan, a British Pakistani, is Mayor of London.

There was nothing.  Nothing!  I just went to the museum website and searched for “Pakistani” and found nothing either.  Did I imagine this big historical story, or get it wrong?

London Heels

Once I knew I was going in the right direction, settled back and enjoyed the lovely landscapes along the route.  The word “sweet” comes to mind when I gaze out over the English countryside.  That may sound patronizing but it’s not meant to be.

If you like rugby you will probably want to put Twickenham on your bucket list.  I made a mental note to avoid it on game days.

As we rolled into London there were some great views.  For once I have an excuse for my poor quality photos—taken from a moving train.

Waterloo would be my toilet stop every time I came into London.  This sign was still in place a month later, so “as quickly as possible” really meant, “someday, maybe.”

The sign made it clear that your 30p got you one visit to the toilet.  I wondered if someone had sued them, insisted they had bought a lifetime pass.

Then I was on the underground, which whisked me under the Thames toward Canary Wharf, where I would exit and try to find my meeting.  I was anxious about finding the building.  What if I took the wrong exit out of the tube station?  What if I got turned around?  They had sent me a map, which was even more out of focus than my photos and really just a jumble of unhelpfulness.

It showed a picture of the building, but how would I find it among all the other buildings?

The first time I came to England, 30 years ago next year, I had stayed somewhere in the vicinity of Canary Wharf.  Then, it was all gritty warehouses, Pakistani immigrants and elderly Holocaust survivors and native English speakers whose English I could not understand; street stalls selling tiny apples and pet goldfish suspended in plastic bags and possibly dodgy cassette tapes by Billie Ocean, Bananarama, and New Order.

Now it looks like this, according to a local news site:

I stepped out of the tube station and saw this:

Of course it didn’t have a giant black squiggle on it but you get the idea.  When will I ever learn to stop worrying and trust that I’ll be able to find things, especially when I have a map and a photo of the building?

I had dressed and accessorized carefully, making the best of what I had.  I had bought a really cute top in Cornwall that was suitable for a country holiday and I thought I could make it work paired with dress pants, my good jewellery, and an up do.  I felt professional when I left the house.  When I entered the building I immediately felt like a schlumpy schlimazel, which is just what it sounds like.

I waited in the gleaming lobby furnished with sleek Danish modern furniture.  I was sure the water glass the attendant handed me cost more than my entire outfit.  The reading selection on the table included The Financial Times, Economist, Wall Street Journal, and International Business Times.  All the headlines were about rich people making deals that would make them richer.

I noticed my heels were a bit worn.  Note to self: Buy new shoes before next work meeting.

One of the people I was meeting with arrived.  She was 30 years younger and 30 pounds thinner than me, blonde, and dressed in stilettos and a killer designer outfit. Mercifully, it was all over in 30 minutes.

I have been to meetings with foundations and corporations.  I’ve been to Ford and Open Societies Foundations in New York.  At Chiron Corporation in Silicon Valley.  And so on.  I normally carry myself well in these meetings and I had come carefully prepared.

But then I spilled my water and as we were wiping it up, my nose started running like a garden hose and I had to ask them for a tissue and blow my nose in front of them. These people were lawyers and I don’t know if they were on the clock but they were clearly impatient and possibly appalled by me.  I managed to maintain my dignity, make my points and ask my questions, but I was relieved when the revolving door swung closed behind me.

Kaukokaipuu

I don’t normally promote travel services, hotels, etc., but I would like to make a plug for a travel agency I used to book my flight to the UK.

You are probably thinking, “A travel agent?  Didn’t they go out with video tapes and big hair bands?”  That’s what I thought, too.  Everything is online, right?  Expedia, Orbitz, Kayak; there’s no need to pay someone to find your cheap flight.

But a coworker told me how an agent had saved him about $500 on a flight to Japan.  The agent and I went back and forth.  This was London, not Japan, so the savings were only about $50, but still—that’s $50 more I’ll have to pay for fun stuff.  If you’ve got an upcoming trip, feel free to contact Caroline at caroline.b@airconcierge.com and tell her Anne sent you.

I’m renewing my passport.  I always find it difficult to put the old one in the mail.  What if it gets lost?

I once worked in the HR department of a certain international organization, so I know how precarious it can get.  I would have to get a transit visa, for instance, for a Canadian public health nurse who was coming to the UK for orientation before traveling on to work in Kenya, via Dubai. She would mail her passport and extra photos.  I would fill out the paperwork, stuff everything in an envelope, courier it to London, and hope for the best.  If all went well, the courier would return with a transit visa and I would mail everything back to the new employee in Canada well in advance of her travels.  There were a few close calls, but the Home Office always came through.

Sometimes when we had leftover passport photos, we would talk about who we thought would make good-looking couples.  Coworkers who had been there a long time accumulated drawers full of photos, so we strung them together and used them to festoon our cubes.  This is probably not something we should have done, so shhhh….don’t tell anyone.

I went to Walmart to get new passport photos.  I hate Walmart, but you can’t beat their price of $7.50.  I was relieved when I compared my pics from 10 years ago to today; I didn’t think my face hadn’t aged more than 10 years.  I accept that I’m aging, but I don’t want to look older than I am.

I reminisced over the places I’d been in 10 years: multiple times to the UK.  Jordan, Israel, and the Occupied Palestinian Territories.  Kenya, Dubai.  Guatemala, Belize. France, Germany, Italy, Malta, Spain.

I talked to my sister and told her I was thinking of summering in the UK.

Our mother and her husband were planning a move to a senior apartment building in April.

“I feel like it’s a good time to do something like this,” I told Connie. “Mom and Jim will be safely ensconced where they’ll have transportation and help if they need it.  Vince is out of prison.  You’re in the clear.”  Connie almost died of colon cancer two years ago.  She had just had her semi-annual battery of tests and been told she was cancer free.

“Yeah,” she replied, “By the way, I was over there today and they’re now saying they’ll wait to move until June.  They want to enjoy one more spring in their house.”

“What!?” I asked, “Do they realize they’ve signed a lease and they’ll have to pay rent for an empty apartment for month?”  Yes, she said, they knew that.

“I guess I can stick around through June, to make sure they’re all settled,” I said. “My remote work request isn’t official yet.”

No,” Connie replied, “Go—you should go.  If it’s one thing I learned from thinking I was going to die within days, it’s that you have to live now.  So go.”

A friend who is an artist gave me a handmade birthday card that said Kaukokaipuu on the cover.  It’s a Finnish word which means “craving for a distant land.”

I’ve always craved distant lands, but since Connie’s illness, Angus’ death, my mother’s frailty, and my son’s stint in prison, I’m feeling Kaukokaipuu on steroids.

Windsor Bound

I’m at a writing crossroads, having written 65 posts about my trip to Italy, Spain, and Malta.  Next up, Belize and Guatemala.  But first, some exciting news. I’m going to spend the summer in the UK.  Yes, the whole of June, July, and August!

It all sprouted, as many trips do, from something completely unrelated.

I learned that the guy I dated when I lived in the UK 10 years ago had died of cancer.  I’ll call him Angus.  He was only 55.  He was a Yorkshire man, so he had a great accent, and he was a maths teacher at the Jewish Free School in London, the largest Jewish high school outside of Israel.  He and my friend Sam were friends, and Sam introduced us.  We hadn’t been in touch for years; our relationship had been fun but not serious and we knew we’d never be able to live on the same continent due to visa issues.  He was such a crusty but sweet guy, if you can imagine those two characteristics in one person.

I was exchanging emails about Angus with Sam, who is originally from Bemidji, Minnesota.  And then he mailed and asked if I would like to house sit for him while he and his family are back in Minnesota for the month of July.  Sam teaches at Eton, the posh boarding school for boys founded in 1440 by Henry VI.  Sam lives in nearby Windsor, just west of London.

Of course I had to think about it—not.

I said yes, then got to thinking … why not take Lynn up on her invitation to let me to stay with her and Richard in Scotland?  August is a good month for weather up there.  And as long as I’m over there, why not try to get permission to work remotely, cut down to 80% time, stay the whole summer, and travel around on my time off? I could get to Croatia or Munich for a long weekend on cheap Ryanair flights.

I started making lists.  I could rent out my condo. What about my plants?  Could I invite a friend to visit me in Windsor?  Ask Sam.  Where would I stay in June—could I rent a canal boat on the Thames?  How close is Windsor to Highcleer Castle, where Downton Abbey was filmed?  Forward mail to Vince.  Cancel newspaper.  Would I store my car?  Put in remote work request.

Late Friday afternoon, I impulsively went on Craig’s List and contacted the first advertiser I found.  A couple from Minneapolis who retired to Florida wanted to be in the Twin Cities for the summer to visit their children and grandchildren.  I killed myself cleaning and arranging things on Saturday so I could take alluring photos of the condo.  We exchanged a lot of emails, and one of their daughters came by on Sunday to see the place.  They wanted in, and my condo association management company would manage the rental so I wouldn’t have to deal with an overflowing toilet from Scotland. With a renter I wouldn’t make a profit, but I wouldn’t lose money.  Everything was perfect!

Except, I didn’t yet have permission to work remotely.  That’s when the What Ifs set in.  We have lots of people who work remotely. But what if I was the first person my employer said no to?   Would I file a grievance?  That would be awful.  I could ask for an unpaid leave for the summer—would they grant it?  Could I afford that?  What if they said no to that?  Would I quit?  I can’t afford to quit!  I would have to tell the renters the deal was off.  And around and around my mind raced.

In the back of my mind, I think I knew all would be well.  Looking at the facts, there was no reason my employer would allow other people to work remotely—from North Carolina, South Africa, Los Angeles, Arizona, Italy, Colorado.  But the mind wants to be in charge.  My mind wanted to have answers, to have certainty, even if that meant a no.

My request was granted–no drama!–so away I go.

Do Gooder Abroad

The first overseas trip I took was to London. It was 1987, and Vince and I had become obsessed with Dr. Who and spoke to each other in terrible English accents. I read that the guy who played the Doctor, Tom Baker, was going to be in a play in London. Like so many trips I’ve taken since, it was that slim thread of a reason that got me started.

But I had also gone to a lecture by Arthur Frommer, the travel guru, on how to travel cheap. He mentioned volunteering with places like Volunteers for Peace. I paid my $400 for the one-week “experience”, bought a plane ticket, and away I went.

Looking back, I can hardly believe I did it. The only other country I’d ever visited was Canada, where in those days you could flash your driver’s license as you drove over the border. I don’t remember what I did there; probably fed potato chips to black bears out of the car window.

My mom was more than happy to keep Vince, who was nine. He was happy to be spoiled.

I went a week before the program started and from dawn to dusk saw all the sights. With my map in hand, searching hopefully for a street sign and stopping people to ask directions, I must have reminded them of Crocodile Dundee in the scene where he says “G’day, mate,” to every passerby on the sidewalks of New York. As I was informed in due course by my fellow volunteers, I was a “typical American” because I wore jeans and what we used to call tennis shoes and I complained that there was no Diet Coke or ice or ketchup.

I was dazzled by the Crown Jewels. I saw Tom Baker on stage in “An Inspector Calls.” I went to Friday services at a synagogue and saw a woman with numbers tattooed on her arm. I got lost over and over which led me to the Dickens Museum, which turned out to be my favorite museum. I was propositioned by a creep in Hampstead. I stayed in a “hotel room” the size of a cracker box with a cold water bathtub down the hall lighted by a dim, bare bulb. I got the exchange rate backwards and paid way too much for a sweatshirt at the Hard Rock Café. I stole some toilet paper from a public toilet that had “Council Property” printed on every square.

You know, the usual London stuff. I took a lot of pictures of cars; I’m not sure why.

UKCars

My VFP group included 20 20-somethings from Poland, West Germany, Holland, India, Sweden, Italy, Spain, and Mauritius, a country I’d never heard of.

We were there for a “work camp”—a terrible name but basically VFP housed us in flats in London’s East End and we babysat immigrant kids during a school holiday so their parents wouldn’t have to take time off work. The flats had peeling wallpaper, cold water, and mattresses on the floor. The smell of rotting garbage was constant.

I was bewildered that my fellow volunteers weren’t hooking up or drinking. I would have expected that from an American group, but these kids were so serious.

Bengalis

At night we were lectured to about how the Bengalis and Pakistanis and Indians came to work in the East End basically as indentured servants, and how now the National Front was outraged they “these people” were bringing their families over.

NF Boys

The kids were adorable and they knew an opportunity when they saw it. Another volunteer and I tried to take a dozen kids to Epping Forest, but before we got there they scrambled over the wall of a private garden and stripped all the apples off the trees. The homeowner ran out, screaming. I think if we hadn’t been foreign volunteers, she would have called the police.

This was when I thought, “What am I doing here, babysitting other people’s kids while mine is 4,000 miles away!?” It was my first extended time away from Vince and I couldn’t wait to get home.

And as soon as I got home I couldn’t wait to go on another trip.