The U.K. Travel Guide:
London – Day One

Cardigan Road, in the Bow neighborhood on the East side of London, about a quarter mile from my flat.

The LowDown:
I meet the William Beveridge House, Roman Road, the Boost button, the game show “Wild Things,” and earn the new nickname, “Bub.”


PLAYLIST (for the plane)

U2 – Achtung Baby
D’Angelo and the Vanguard – Black Messiah
Jason Falkner – Can You Still Feel?
Frank Sinatra and Antonio Carlos Jobim – The Complete Reprise Recordings
Stevie Wonder – Innervisions
Madonna – Ray of Light
Jason Derulo – Everything is 4

I’m always a happy boy when the plane is about to take off. Look at me! I’m wearing my dope shirt and a big, dumb adventurous smile. You’ll note there is no companion picture from when we landed eleven and a half hours later at Heathrow Airport. I didn’t catch a single wink the entire flight.

One of the benefits of planning a trip to London during a period of unemployment is the ability to book whatever flights have the most comfortable seating available, regardless of date. Let’s give it up for Virgin Atlantic Flight 008, Premium Economy Seat 21C!

Check out SeatGuru.com before you book your seat.  Find out the flight number and airline you’re considering booking, and enter it into SeatGuru’s site.  It will bring up the layout of the plane and tell you which seats to grab, and which to avoid.  This is a must for long-hour flights.

For Virgin Atlantic to London, my row is situated right next to the emergency exit, and with no rows directly in front of you, you have a solid three feet of legroom. The seats are slightly more narrow in this row because the remotes for your in-flight screen are located in your armrest (the screens themselves lift up from below since you have no seat backs ahead of you). Also, you have no space under your seat for storing a bag, but the flight attendant told me I could keep my computer bag in the overhead during takeoff, and once we reached cruising altitude, I was free to set it down in the space in front of me. This made it easy for me to fish out whatever I needed from it through the entire trip, which was great because it was packed to seam-bursting levels, with, aside from my 15 inch Mac laptop…

  • iPad
  • Sleeping Mask
  • Plastic Ziploc bag with mini toothbrush, mini toothpaste, mini comb, mini deodorant, Advil, Tylenol PM, dental floss, Burt’s Beeswax Lip Balm, face lotion and Kleenex
  • Two paperback books (The Catcher in the Rye and The Best American Short Stories, 2012)
  • Canan EOS Rebel digital camera
  • Travel journal
  • Noise-canceling headphones
  • Back-up ear buds
  • Back-up batteries
  • Back-up travel journal
  • Back-up Burt’s Beeswax Lip Balm
  • 10 back up pens
  • Assorted maps
  • Passport
  • Wallet and iPhone

Here’s an important tip about using your phone overseas if you’re a newbie traveler. Data roaming is astonishingly expensive once you hit international air space. Unless you plan on buying an international data plan (I did not), put your phone into Airplane Mode and leave it there for the entire trip. Then, manually turn on Wifi (putting the phone into Airplane mode will normally turn this setting off automatically), and that will give you access to any local wireless networks when they’re available. You can use these no problem. Every Starbucks and most local coffee chains have wireless for free. Make sure you have your data roaming option off as well. If you’re not sure how to do this for your particular phone, you can find plenty of articles on line, or just call your service provider before you leave for your trip, and have them talk you through it. There are plenty of horror stories out there about people who didn’t put their phone into airplane mode and wound up with bills that led them to contemplate homicide. Here’s one about a guy who ran up a $4400 bill just by leaving his phone in the safe on his cruise ship. This is for real people. Best to just leave your phone off completely.

There is absolutely nothing easier about London than learning to use the tube. Being from Los Angeles, I’m highly suspicious of all things mass transit, but London has it down. If you’re going to be in the city for any length of time, you’ll want to get yourself an Oyster Card. You load it up with money and tap it against sensors to get in and out of the different tube stations. The card keeps track of your taps and deducts from the card accordingly.  You can also use the card on busses, and it’s a flat charge for those (1 pound, fifty pence) no matter how far you ride.

Oyster cards can be purchased and “topped up” at self-serve kiosks at Heathrow and nearly all tube stations. You can use most American credit cards for the purchase of both the card and the total fare amount you put onto it. And at the end of your trip you can use the same kiosks to refund any unused money you have left on the card.

The tube lines are all differentiated by color, with stops and intersections clearly marked at all platforms and in most of the individual tube cars. From Heathrow, there are different tube stops depending on which terminal you’re at: one for Terminals One, Two and Tree, a second for Terminal Four, and one for Terminal Five. They’re all on the Piccadilly Line, which will take you directly to Covent Garden, through to Manor House, and all the way to Cockfosters (I was too tired to laugh.  No sleep on the plane, people!). The ride into London from the airport is about an hour, and be prepared for the car to be stuffed with locals by the time you arrive. There are numerous stops before you reach the heart of the city.  Click on the image above for a larger version.

I had to get to my AirBnB flat at 60 Vernon Road in the Bow neighborhood on the east side of the city, and meet my niece Lauren along the way. As I quickly found out, Google Maps is not the end-all-know-all of travel. Yes, I can drag my suitcase the 0.7 miles from Mile End to the William Beveridge House where I’m staying, but I can also jump from the Central Line (Red) to the District Line (Green) at the Mile End station, and take it one more stop to Bow Road, and save myself about half a mile.  I found Google Maps to be a nice back-up, but quickly stopped relying on it.  That’s how easy the Tube is in London.

And if you happen to stay at the William Beveridge House, don’t be fooled by the photo that comes up when you Google the address. There’s a new, safe and secure high rise in place of the Safeway that was standing there when this picture was taken in 2008. Although, I was sad I couldn’t take a photo with my niece in front of one of the highly-regarded British portable toilets out front. They look a little like transporters from 1970’s sci-fi TV, don’t they?

Though William Beveridge House is shiny, safe and new, the best that can be said for the surrounding neighborhood came from my niece: “Definitely in transition.” There were tattered, compact living spaces lined up multiple stories high all around and jammed with inhabitants. Behind my building sits Roman Road, a street lined with marked-down clothing stores, Turkish food marts, laundromats, hair salons, low-end pubs and, according to TripAdvisor, all the pick pockets an exhausted traveler could hope for!

As Lauren and I walked down Roman Road to explore, the #1 question we kept asking each other was, “When does it get dark again?” Finally, we ducked into the world-renowned Best Food Center for some first-night groceries.

Here’s what a reviewer had to say about the Best Food Centre on Roman Road, in its first (and only) Yelp review:

Open LATE. As long as you’re not already smashed, they’ll sell you booze after hours too! 4 stars just for that! Otherwise a pretty average corner shop, except it’s not on a corner.

And here’s the review at FoodHygieneRating.me.uk

“The food hygiene rating for Best Food Centre is ‘4’ (out of a possible 5). This means they have a high standard of compliance to statutory obligations and industry codes of practice and have only minor contraventions.”

You heard it all here first, peeps!  And the Best Food Centre will always be special to me because it was the first place where I had to navigate the exchange of foreign currency, which made me very anxious. It also marked the first disagreement Lauren and I had after we walked out of the store with the produce, chocolate and boxed pasta.

Me: “He told me it cost ten bob. What’s a bob?”
Lauren: “There’s no such thing. He didn’t say that.”
Me: “Yes he did. He said it was ten bob.”
Lauren: “You heard him wrong. Maybe he thought your name was Bob.”
Me: “Why would he think my name was Bob? I didn’t open my mouth when I paid him.  ‘Bob’ is slang for pound.”
Lauren: “No. It isn’t. He must have been giving you a nick name. You know, like, ‘That’s ten… bub!’”

I was too exhausted to keep up the fight, and I knew there was more complicated money-exchanging to come on this trip, so I let Lauren win.  And to be fair, no one else asked me to pay them using “Bob” the entire two weeks I was in England, so she was probably right. But I’m pretty sure if I had asked someone, “Hey, how much bob do I have to give you for that muffin?” it would have led to a story I’d still be telling years from now.

Back at the flat, we had a nice time trying to figure out how the English electric stove works. There were two rows of pressure sensitive buttons on the stove top, and then two buttons that just said “BOOST.” It turns out, you hit one of the buttons to turn the whole cooktop on, then locate the burner you want and push the button for it repeatedly until it reaches the heat level you need. And if that’s not high enough, then you hit BOOST and it kicks the heat up even further. Why don’t they just make the highest setting on each burner the same level as it would be if you hit BOOST, and not include BOOST at all?  For the same reason the amps go to eleven in Spinal Tap, I suppose.

As I continued to slump forward on the couch with fatigue, Lauren, worried about my transition to London time, continually shook me saying, “No! You’ve got to stay up!” Then she made me watch a British game show called Wild Things, and I’m sure the British television industry will never forgive her for making this my introduction to their programming.

The show involves players dressing up in giant furry woodland creature costumes that prevent them from seeing clearly, while having to navigate forest mazes, leap over logs and boulders, and perform a number of other humiliating tasks.  Who will win the ten thousand pounds? The duck? The stag? The mole? The fox? Should I continue to make fun of this show? After all, I work at Let’s Make a Deal. We give away cars to people dressed up like pineapples.

A very educational first day in London. And isn’t that what any vacation’s first day is all about? Familiarizing yourself with the surroundings, determining where you might get mugged, raped or murdered, focusing a good thirty to forty minutes on how to boil water and watching giant furry ducks throw pails of muck on their cherished loved ones? After Lauren left for her dorm back at Queen Mary College, I put the chain on the door, piled two chairs in front of it and collapsed onto the bed. I slept for an entire three hours, and started getting ready for the adventure of Day #2 at four in the morning, Oyster card in hand, phone in Airplane Mode, and a big wad of Bob in my pocket!

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