London School of Economics (Lessons Learned from London)

 Great Britain, Photography, Technology, Travel  Comments Off on London School of Economics (Lessons Learned from London)
Jul 202011

Whenever I travel, I learn some new lessons about what works, and what doesn’t. Here’s my list for the London trip.

Now watch me totally over-analyze everything I packed.

The Best Camera Bag That Isn’t a Camera Bag

Camera Non-Bag: The Mountainsmith Kit Cube is very clever, and very useful. But, it comes with a couple of caveats. First, you must pad the bottom of the cube with something.

My backpack fell on the stone floor at Parliament when I was going through security, and it messed up my Zoom lens because the bottom just doesn’t have enough padding. It’s also not very rigid, which is both a blessing and curse. Rigidity would give it some more strength, but it would also lose its flexibility, which is its strong point.

So while it’s a great carrying alternative, keep in mind that it needs extra padding. I’ll probably go get some 1-inch upholstery foam or something.

There’s also an annoying leather bit that covers the adjustable cord that I immediately cut off. I have no idea why it’s there, as all it does is make it difficult to adjust the cinch for the cover.

With those caveats, the Kit Cube is awesome, because it’s compact and stealthy. It is the anti-camera bag, everything I’ve ever wanted. It fits into whatever bag you want to stuff it into, and it does so quickly and efficiently.

If you do any kind of photography, I highly recommend it… with those caveats.

Storing and Moving Money

The Eagle Creek Silk Neck Travel Pouch is really comfortable, but for the love of all that’s good, hand wash it in a sink, or put it in a mesh bag if you’re going to put it in a washing machine.

I just dumped mine in the washer, set it on hand wash, and the cord wrapped around the agitator and got ripped out. So I had to buy another one, because it happened the day before I left.


After all of that, I only used the Neck Pouch when I was flying.

It’s too much of a pain to use for everyday stuff. It is small enough that I’ll probably use it again when I go overseas, because it was great for use on the plane.

Money Belt: Left it at home again. It’s a pain to rub my belly every time I want to buy something. Maybe I’ll get rid of it one of these days.

I used a chain wallet instead that I bought for my big Japan trip 4 years ago. It works really easily. Just loop the chain around a belt loop, and stop worrying so much. It’s big enough to handle even the most ridiculous currencies. It also looks kind of cool.

One huge mistake that I made was carrying traveler’s checks. I got ripped off on the exchange rate, and generally they’re an anachronism.

My credit union now has a special debit card that you can put a fixed amount of money on just for travel. The idea is that if it gets lost, someone can’t clear out your entire account. Sounds like an interesting idea, but I don’t know how practical it really is.

The best deal I got on currency exchange was from my credit union before I left.

The next best deal was using my debit card at an ATM. There are a ton of FOREX shops all over the place, but keep in mind that you are the source of their profits.

Protecting Electronics

I love the sleeves for laptops from Waterfield Designs. I have one for my Vaio laptop, and I picked one up for my Xoom tablet as well. I use a leather case from for my Xoom, and I used the measurements from that to get a custom sleeve to fit the Xoom from Waterfield Designs.

It’s a bit on the overkill side to use a case and a sleeve for the Xoom, but I don’t want to break it.

Another great pickup from Waterfield was the sleeve case for my aging Nexus One. It has an extra pouch on the back, where I stuck an extra battery when I was flying, and my Oyster Card when I was in London. Very handy.

Dealing With Liquids

GoToobs from Humangear are awesome. They come in 3 oz (88ml) and 1.25 oz (37ml) sizes, which run for ~$8 and $5 each, or come in 3-packs.

They are a little expensive, but they are silicone, so they can take a lot of abuse, and they don’t leak. The tops have a good strong lock, too, and you can remove the tops to reveal a wide mouth that makes them easy to fill with whatever liquids you need to fill them with.

The opening they squirt through is covered by a thin layer of silicone with a + shape cut in it, to minimize leaking even further. Seriously, these guys thought this stuff through. I found them at a local luggage store, and at the Container Store.

I have used the cheaper containers before, and there’s just no comparison. You get what you pay for. Really.

The Container Store also carries legal and letter sized reinforced plastic pouches for ~$4 each that are an absolute steal. They’re waterproof enough and will hold a lot of clothes, or in my case, books, and are a heck of a lot cheaper than the Eagle Creek packing cubes.

They’re in the office supplies section of the Container Store.

I wanted those bags because I wanted to protect my books, etc. from anything that happened to rupture in my suitcase, but I can easily see using them for clothing. They won’t hold quite as much as the Eagle Creek pouches, but they’re cheap.

The Container Store also has some heavy plastic carrying bags for carrying liquids, which I used to transport my liquids, like energy drinks, GoToobs, Woolite, soaps, sunscreens, hair gels, and the like. I wanted to make sure that stuff didn’t leak out of the plastic bags they were in and get all over my books, which were in the legal sized reinforced plastic pouches.

Sounds anal? Well, yeah. But none of my stuff leaked.

Power Converters, Travel Adapters, and Charging Electronics

This was a major headache for me, because I stressed out about it a lot before I left. I really wanted to reduce the amount of crap I was carrying. I loathe carrying a bunch of adapters for my electronics.  Also, since I was going to the UK, which has funky power plugs, I needed a solution for that as well.

Brookstone makes a very good universal travel adapter that comes with two USB ports. It’s almost perfect for traveling anywhere.

I say almost, because it has this hinged cover over the US input side, and my laptop wouldn’t plug in, because the blades hit the hinged cover right at the hinge. Bad design on that part. Everything else I own plugged in just fine, but everything else I own is 2-pronged, so I have no idea if it supports 3-pronged cords. The glowing bit from the USB ports was kind of annoying at night, but I got used to it.

For my laptop, I got a plug adapter at Radio Shack. Worked just fine, but cost $20.

I bought and returned a power converter. I didn’t need 120 volt power, and the weight on those things is just nuts. Even the good ones break constantly.

Look at your electronics. If they can’t take 240 volts, just leave them at home. Most decent electronics can handle 240V, but read the label.

A $15 CyberPower retractable USB cable set from Wal-Mart was a great buy. It came with adapters that would fit micro-USB 5-pin, 8-pin, 5-pin mini B USB, and USB B– the square USB end that connects to printers and scanners. The cord got a little bit twisted over two weeks of heavy use, but it was $15. It still retracts enough for my needs, and it still works as a recharging cable.

With the USB cable, I could recharge my Nexus One without carrying the power plug for it. The plug that was Motorola-sized, however, would not charge my Motorola Razr (my backup emergency phone), because that requires 12 Volts.

Motorola is the bane of my travel existence.

My Xoom also won’t recharge over USB. It will only charge over a skinny pin plug that uses 12 volts as well. So that was 2 chargers I had to carry, plus one for my GeekPod as well. Someday I shall overcome this by replacing this stuff with stuff that uses USB to charge.

For $8, I found a USB cable with a plug on the end that allows you to plug in all kinds of phone and USB connectors to charge all kinds of phones. It doesn’t have a brand name. I got it at Intrex Computers, a local chain. I didn’t use this much, but what was great was that this gave me the microUSB plug I needed to fit into my old BatteryGeek GeekPod cable, so now I can charge my Nexus One with my GeekPod, if I need to. I can also use the Nintendo DS tip I have from the GeekPod to plug it into the USB cable so I can charge the DS with my laptop, so there you go.

All of that fits in a tiny bag, doesn’t weigh much at all, and that’s what matters the most.

Clothes, or OMG Cotton is SO Evil!

I learned some valuable clothing lessons from my long Japan trip in 2007, the most important of which is: COTTON IS EVIL. I love the feel of cotton, but it is the Devil’s work to have in my travel bag.

If I wash it in the sink and hang it up, it will not dry in one day. It may not even dry in two or three.

It does not breathe.

And Cotton shows sweat. It really shows sweat, so it makes me look gross when I’m exerting myself.

Cotton’s only saving grace is that it feels really good. Until I start hiking, carrying a load of any kind, and start sweating, of course.

And that’s what I do when I’m in travel and tourist modes.

So that’s not good enough.

For this trip, I vowed to make all of my clothing lightweight, synthetic stuff that breathes, dries quickly, doesn’t show sweat, and washes easily.

Socks: Balega. A joint North Carolina/South African operation. The socks are made of Coolmax, so they breathe, are easy to wash, and dry fast.

Boxers: Ex Officio. Best boxers ever. I bought 5 pair, because I don’t want to wash underwear every night. I washed 2 pair at a time. 1 packet of Woolite would do 2 boxers, and they dried overnight fabulously. I wear these even when I don’t travel. They’re really comfortable.

Shirts: I went with a variety from The North Face and Scott E-Vest. All were some kind of breathable nylon/Coolmax material. Some were long-sleeved for sun protection, some were short-sleeved for knocking around the room. Golf shirts from Scott E-Vest were great for looking dapper. All washed up fast, and dried overnight.

Pants: I used to use the Scott E-Vest travel cargo pants, which were linen, but they don’t make those anymore. It’s just as well, because linen pants don’t hold up to my kind of travel abuse.

I replaced them with The North Face Paramount Peak pants in 3 colors: a light khaki color, a mustard-brown color, and a dark green. All have zip-off legs for conversion into shorts, all have built-in nylon belts, so they don’t set off security scanners, and all come with one zippered side pocket, for storing those small things that like to fall out of pockets.

They also have a pair of Velcro cargo pockets, which are useful as well. The top pockets are a little too shallow for my taste, so things can fall out of them. But I’ve only ever lost one thing from them, and I found it rather quickly. I like the older version better. It has much deeper pockets.

All in all, they’re great pants. They shed stains, but not rain. If you’re caught in the rain, they will protect you for about a minute or so, then they’ll get soaked. But they dry in a hurry, so it’s not a big deal.

Jackets: I didn’t need my Polartec vest. I used my old L.L. Bean Gore-Tex jacket the most, but it’s showing its age. Newer rain jackets really are rubbish. They all feel like I’m wearing a trash bag, and for $100, that’s a rip-off. You don’t even get Gore-Tex for that. I wore my Scott E-Vest micro-suede jacket on the flight to keep warm and to carry extra stuff, but it’s not really rain gear.

I bought a $5 poncho at Dick’s Sporting Goods just in case. I never used it. It was just wasted space. I’m sure it’s useful for something, but I don’t know what.

I’ve already documented my problems in finding a decent umbrella that will also cover me properly. The drugstore umbrella is always a bad idea, although I suppose it beats being rained on, but not by much. The £15 Marks & Spencer’s umbrella was better, but it was bulky, unwieldy, and a royal pain in the butt to carry around.

I want to find a small umbrella that unfolds to a huge size. Surely someone makes such a thing.

Misc. Clothes Stuff: I wholeheartedly endorse clothespins with hanger hooks. They’re easier to carry than clothes hangers. I carry ~8 of them. Makes hanging wet clothes a breeze.

Also, it’s a lot cheaper/easier to just pour Woolite into some GoToobs than to carry around the little pouches.


Cameras: I dithered at first about taking my Canon Rebel with me, but I’m glad I did. It took great pictures.

The main lens I use is a 17-55 F2.8 EF-S lens by Canon, which is perfect for shooting with an APS-sized sensor digital Canon SLR. The Rebel has a field of view cutoff that leads to a magnification factor of about 1.6, so that gives me a 24-80mm equivalent lens. It’s not one of Canon’s L lenses, so it has a plastic body instead of a metal body, but if you take care of your gear, it shouldn’t be an issue.

The 80-200 F2.8L is monstrously heavy, and turns into a 120-320mm lens. It’s marginally useful, especially if you drop it. It weighs 5 pounds, which doesn’t sound like much until you have to carry it all over the place.

Next time I would make sure to bring a lens brush, to remove all of the glass bits right away. Would I take the big zoom again? Depends on where I’m going, and for how long.

Computers: Lighter laptops are always better. My Sony Vaio Z is old, but it weighs less than 3 pounds, which is great for carrying. Of course, buying a spare battery kind of ruins the whole purpose of getting a lighter computer, but since there weren’t any power ports on the flight, I didn’t have a choice in the matter. Just finding a Sony battery for a computer that old was a pain.

The Motorola Xoom got used a lot, because of free hotel WiFi. Irritatingly enough, even though I have accounts with my Kindle and Google Books, I could access neither from the UK. So even if I wanted something new to read, I was out of luck.

Seriously, what’s the point of having these services for travelers if they don’t follow us where we go? It’s bad engineering from where I’m sitting. I suppose we should blame the lawyers for making deals that hurt consumers.

Getting a SIM card for the Nexus One was relatively simple, and I never used up all of my data. Vodafone was cheap. Much less hassle than trying to do it in Japan.

Bose Noise-Canceling Headphones: Bought these 4 years ago. Best $300 I ever spent. Wish they were smaller.

Google Maps. Don’t Leave Home Without It.

Having Google Maps on my phone was a real lifesaver. That’s something that I’d highly recommend for any future travel– a smartphone with a good data plan and Google Maps. Android over iPhone, because the iPhone version of Google Maps pales in comparison.

I would star the places I wanted to see in the morning on my Xoom, then find them on my Nexus One as I wandered about during the day. I used the navigation feature to figure out how to get there by train.

It’s really easy.

Amazingly, stupidly easy.

I could get a walking route, a driving route, or a mass transit route to wherever I wanted to go. The mass transit routes sometimes had good timetable info, too.

Odds and Ends

Oyster Card: Order yours six weeks before you leave for London, because the mail there is slow. It’s highly useful, and will save you a bunch of money.

Heathrow Express: It’s a lot faster and easier than using the Piccadilly Line to go to Heathrow. It costs £18 if you buy the ticket at Paddington/Heathrow, but if you buy online, it’s only £16. It’s £23 if you buy a ticket on the train. (So at least buy it at the station if you can!)

It’s a nice ride, and on top of that it’s an express, so you don’t have to stop at a bazillion stations along the way. You also have a place to put your bags, and you get a seat to sit in, plus WiFi. Those are all things you don’t usually get on the Piccadilly Line.

Food is Expensive in London. Everything is Expensive in London.

London is ungodly expensive. Pounds aren’t dollars, so if you’re not careful, you can get lulled into thinking, “Oh, it’s only £10 for dinner.” That’s $17.50, buddy. Those “cheap” £10 meals can drain your wallet in a hurry. That’s why I liked Base2Stay, because I could buy grocery store food and cheap food and stick it in the fridge. I saved a few dollars that way.

Marks and Spencer’s, the Cooperative, Gregg’s, Pret-a-Manger: all have lots of sandwiches and other food for cheaper than you’ll pay in restaurants. The Cooperative has better deals than M&S, and often has deals on soft drinks. I saved 20p on Fanta Lemon Ice there, and by eating some sandwiches instead of eating at restaurants all the time, I saved some money.

I loved the porridge in a cup from Gregg’s and M&S. Just add boiling water, stir and eat. I preferred the Golden Syrup flavor. £1 per cup. Not cheap, when you consider that I can get 4 weeks’ worth of oatmeal for $6 in the US, but that was my morning luxury.

I Still Hate Audio Guides

I began to loathe audio guides in London. All they did was get in my way and gum up my gear– especially my camera. The worst offender for entangling my gear was the multimedia guide at the British Museum, which had a little plastic pen that swayed around and clattered into things constantly. I really wanted to pitch it.

The most obnoxious use of audio guides was at Westminster Abbey, where if you didn’t get one, you didn’t learn a thing. Even the map had information removed so that you had to use the audio guide. I refused to rent one out of anger. At that point, I had had it.

More Miscellany

Clear expandable file: It’s really handy for those receipts.

Mead 5-Star collapsible 3-ring notebook: It was really handy. I removed the reinforced college-ruled paper, and replaced it with plain 3-hole copier paper. It took up very little space. The rings are on the outside of the notebook to keep the form factor small, and since you can use whatever paper you want, and however much you want, it’s very flexible. I used a lot of it for JLPT studying.

Inflatable Neck Pillow: I didn’t use it. I probably should have. My neck hurt like a sore tooth on the flight back.

Royal Mail: OMGEXPENSIVE. Even postcards are outrageous to send back. I’m never using that again, and I don’t recommend it. It’s cheaper to just buy another suitcase and deal with the airlines. No, really, I’m serious. I had to send some books back, and while the people at the Royal Mail are very nice, the prices are outright robbery.

In the end, I wound up carrying more stuff than I’d like, but it wasn’t as bad as the 2007 Japan trip. Still, I had a full pack on my back, and a full bag, but a lot of it was books for studying for the JLPT.

One day, I want to be able to carry one little bag as I travel, but since I love my technology and photography, I think that day is still far off.

Good Line Karma

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Jul 122011

Well, I’m finally back home. Long day today. I got up at 5:15 a.m. after a 2 hour nap, got the last bits of packing done, had breakfast, and got out the door at 7 a.m. Base2Stay was a lovely hotel, and I thoroughly recommend it. Check-out was a breeze.

Off to Earl’s Court, then to Paddington, and grabbed the Heathrow Express to Heathrow.

Everything was going smoothly.

That is, until I got to the American Airlines terminal.

There were two people doing security checks, and a line was starting to build. The line kept building and building, and we were all waiting and waiting… and one of the security people just up and left. The other person stared at her as she walked off, and everyone in line sighed in the way that air travelers sigh when they realize that something simple has just become something difficult. Fortunately, someone else eventually stepped up and got things moving, but by then the line was ridiculously long.

I was glad I had gotten there early and made it to the front of the line. I had good line karma today. Even so, 30 minutes’ wait just to check my passport? Can’t the people at the desk do that when they take my bags?

I was also somewhat fortunate that my bag was under 50 pounds in weight, so no extra charges.

Then it was off to the security screening, which was a lot friendlier than the TSA. There was a person there in front offering plastic baggies for people with liquids. That’s a brilliant idea. And there was a place to dispose of things that would not be allowed in security. Also nice.

There was no silly shoe dance. I got to keep my shoes on, and there was no loss of dignity, either. Just a simple bag search.

I think the TSA could learn a lot from our British friends on how to conduct a search. All of the incidents and complaints swirling around the TSA come from some crazy policies that center on a basic fallacy– that humans, who are fallible creatures, can create a perfectly secure environment. It’s just not possible. Might as well do the best we can, and put more air marshals on the planes, instead of making flying a harrowing experience. It’s bad for business.

I headed to the Admiral’s Club and relaxed for a bit, then at what I thought was the right time, headed to the gate. Unfortunately, they hadn’t fueled the plane yet, so we had to wait 20 minutes to board the plane. Argh! I could’ve stayed in the club and enjoyed its calming atmosphere, but no such luck for me.

Even after I got on the plane, we had to wait to take off. Naturally.

The flight was long, and tedious. I listened to podcasts and dozed and stared at my watch.

Getting into RDU was interesting. I got off the plane quickly, and had good line karma at the US border, so I didn’t have to wait too long, and customs was just a matter of handing in my card. I guess they don’t search your bags anymore, huh?

So that was pretty much it for my London trip. Lots of fun on the whole. I saw a lot of former US presidents, oddly enough. The JLPT didn’t go as well as I planned, but I came away with some knowledge that I hope will propel my Japanese studies forward.

London is deceptively expensive, and can lull you into spending a hell of a lot of money. Those pounds can just fly out of your wallet if you’re not careful.

As a cultural center, it’s definitely worth a visit, although some places are more interesting than others. I suppose that’s a matter of personal preference. Going in summer is a bit of a mixed bag, because you have to deal with thousands of other tourists, but the days are really long, and the weather is generally good. (Low 70s, with a little rain here and there, but nothing too bad.)

Contrary to American stereotypes (which are usually wrong anyway), the food in London is excellent. Use a service like Google Maps to check out restaurants before going to avoid bad restaurants, and be ready to just try stuff out.

Hotels are expensive in London. I think of it as opportunity cost. If I have a decent hotel that costs a few pounds more, and has an excellent location, then I can save money/time in other areas.

I’ll put my London wrap-up in another post.

You Don’t Know Where That Stick Has Been

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Jul 112011

Today I managed to fit in Westminster Abbey, a visit to Grosvenor Square, a trip to Foyle’s, and dinner at Nando’s one last time.

My throat was still sort of sore. I think it’s all the air conditioning when I really don’t need it. Who needs air conditioning when it’s 70F?

The other major annoying thing today– tourists. If I had a major city, I would never let tourists in. They can be the most rude and obnoxious people sometimes.

Case in point number one. I’m standing in line at Westminster Abbey. I look up for 2 seconds, the line moves 2 feet, and 4 people cut in front of me. I’m tired at the time, so I decide not to make a scene. I mean, really, if it looks like there’s a line, and people are standing in it, even if there’s a bit of a break in it, don’t you usually ask, “Hey, are you standing in line here?” just to make sure you’re not cutting? Because cutting is just one of the lowest forms of line behavior I can think of.

But that’s not the bit that really annoyed me. What really bugged me was when nine people walked up to one of the cutters and start babbling in Dutch about how glad they were he saved them a spot in line.

Seriously? Is it me, or is that rude? I think it’s beyond rude. If you want to stand in line, then get in the back like everyone else. Don’t make your kid hold a place for you.

In this case, a father made his son stand in line for him, then brought the rest of the extended family along later, while they brought food with them. Must be nice.


Westminster Abbey. No Matter What I Say, You’re Still Going to Go There, Aren’t You?

Welcome to Westminster Abbey, where you can see all of the famous dead people in England, all piled in one place, and walk on top of their tombs.

It’s kind of a creepy place. I suppose it’s because the whole idea of walking over other peoples’ graves doesn’t sit well with me. The architecture is beautiful, but I can only see so many dead people before my eyes start to glaze over.

Poet’s Corner was kind of nice, in that it was a Norton Anthology of English Literature, all dead and piled in one corner. (Or I suppose the Dead Poets’ Society is more apropos?)

What I did not like was the abusive use of audio guides. If you didn’t give them £5, you weren’t going to find out anything about anything, unless you were up for some exhaustive tomb-reading.

The map’s sole purpose was to show you what buttons to press on your audio guide, and provided scant information otherwise. They already shook me down for £18 just to get in the building, so the least they could do is cough up some info about the place. It was the same feeling I got visiting any other major tourist trap.

It was a pretty building, and it was somewhat impressive, but I did not like the shakedown game.

Oh, and forget about taking any photos there.

One cool thing: they have the practice crown jewels in the museum. They look just like the real things, so you can avoid the huge line at the Tower of London and just look at the fakes. Unless you’re a jeweler, you’re not going to be able to tell the difference.

OMG. Where Is He Putting That Stick???

Here’s my gross Westminster Abbey story (skip it if you’re about to eat lunch): Before you can go into the admission office to cough up your £18, a security guard has to search your bag. He was using some sort of a drumstick or something to poke through everyone’s bags.

At the security point, there’s also a place where you’re supposed to throw out your gum. Well, security guy sees that disgusting tourists have been being disgusting tourists, and using the gum trap to throw away half-eaten sandwiches. So what does he do? He uses the stick to wad up a bunch of gum and half-eaten sandwiches and tosses them out in another trash can.

Yikes. Then he goes back to poking that same stick in everyone else’s backpacks. Double yikes. Fortunately, he had already gone through mine, but God only knows where that stick had already been.

If I can, I’m going to boil my backpack.

Westminster Abbey in a nutshell: pretty building. Lots of famous dead people, lots of obnoxious tourists, and a place that will try to shake every pound off of you.

But you’ll probably go anyway, because every guidebook says you have to, and it’s part of the “London Experience,” whatever that is.

Just tell the guy not to put that nasty stick in your bag.


After that, it was off to Grosvenor Square to see the new statue of Ronald Reagan, because I promised a childhood friend who is a huge Reagan fan that I’d snap a few photos for him. To find Ronnie, I got off the Tube at Bond Street, which has a neat shopping center attached to it.

From there, I went to Grosvenor Square Park, where I found a statue of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, and a monument dedicated to 9/11, but no Ronnie. I headed across the street to the US Embassy, and found Dwight Eisenhower in his General’s uniform on one corner of the embassy, and when I went to the other corner, I found president number 40, 10 feet tall and bronze.

I took my photos and headed back to the station and did a little cold-prevention shopping, just in case. Then it was off to Tottenham Court Road and Foyle’s.


I’ve been wanting to go to Foyle’s for a very long time. It’s one of the great bookstores in the world. They have a huge selection of books. I spent some time just wandering around, looking at books. It was a lot of fun.

I went to their Japanese section, and to my surprise, I found books in Japanese. I wound up buying a copy of “The Little Prince” in Japanese, as well as a book on Japanese Linguistics. I headed downstairs, and bought some postcards and a couple of Whitelines notebooks.

I’m keen to give the Whitelines products a try, because I usually just use copy paper, but copy paper can make for messy work. What would be ideal would be Whitelines products made for Japanese, or at least just graph paper pages with bigger boxes.

Then it was time to head back to Earls Court. I stopped by Gregg’s one last time for tomorrow morning’s porridge, cleaned up, then headed out to Nando’s for a last dinner on the high street. I’m going to miss that delicious chicken.

On the way to Nando’s I stopped by an internet cafe and printed up my boarding pass.

Group 2. Yatta!

Greenwich Down Time

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Jul 102011

I woke up today feeling like the bottom of someone’s shoe. My throat was sore (probably from a combination of snoring and the A/C in the room), I had a raging headache, and my right ankle was sore, too.

So Greenwich was out.

As I get older, I realize more and more that I have to listen to my body, and when it says, “Going to Greenwich is a stupid idea today,” then I will listen to it.

So today I shut things down, slept in a bit, and rested up some. I needed to have a nice, relaxed “slow day,” where I goofed around a bit and didn’t do anything too demanding, because there’s just no way I was up for anything demanding.

My main fear is that this sore throat is a precursor to a cold. I really don’t want to fly home with a cold.

Dinner was an excellent katsudon again at Tokyo Spicy. The service is good, except when it comes to getting the check. They won’t bring it unless you ask for it. Part of me wonders if they want it to look like there are more people in there, so it attracts more customers.

Really, the food there is excellent. Don’t be turned off by the empty tables. That katsudon revived me in ways I had no idea a katsudon could.

Towering Over London

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Jul 092011

Today was a really busy day. I saw the Tower of London and Tower Bridge, then went to Piccadilly Circus yet again to pick up some tea at Fortnum and Mason.

After that, I had some noodles and karaage, and picked up some Japanese confections at Minamoto Kitchoan. On the way I came across the Whittard shop, but didn’t buy, and found out that Uniqlo moved.

After all that, I went back to the hotel, cleaned up, and set off for the Tate Modern, saw the Miro exhibit, saw a bunch of other cool stuff there, then walked across the Millennium Bridge to the Underground and went home.

I’m totally exhausted, but I love traveling.

See the Jewels and Kiss Your Day Goodbye

I dragged myself out of bed reasonably early to get to the Tower of London today. Going there on a Saturday is a really bad idea, by the way. It’s totally jammed with tourists, and there’s no way to get out of there in under three hours unless you just want to stand in the middle of it, look around, and just leave.

If you want to see the crown jewels, you can kiss the whole afternoon goodbye. The line was monstrously long. I skipped it.

I took Rick Steves’ advice, and bought my ticket from a gift shop outside of the tube station called Traders’ Gate.

As you leave the station, go down the stairs, and it’ll be on your right. They’ll give you a piece of paper with a pink/yellow/white copy, and you take that to the main entry gate. It works exactly like a ticket, and you avoid the huge lines for tickets. Brilliant.

Well, they still get you for £18, but at least you don’t have to line up for it.

So That’s Why My Ancestors Left

I walked in just as one of the Beefeaters’ tours was starting, so I joined it right away. The tours last 55 minutes, and are entertaining, if a bit grisly. We saw the Bloody Tower, Traitor’s Gate, the White Tower, the courtyard, and the chapel.

Then I headed for a bench and took a break. My trusty hiking shoes have been breaking down, and my feet are paying for it. The shoes themselves are fine, it’s just that the soles are no good anymore, and there’s no amount of insert trickery I can use to avoid that. So when I walk for more than a couple of hours, my feet hurt like hell. Pacing becomes vital.

I wandered around the courtyard a bit and took some pictures, then wandered to the walls, and wound up in the tower that houses the old crowns, minus the jewels. That was somewhat interesting, if a bit sad-looking to see crowns without jewels (not even fake ones) in them.

I got some good photos of downtown London (also known as The City) from the walls, headed back to the courtyard, and on to the White Tower, which is full of armor, including the Rude Armor of Henry VIII.

I love a nice armor collection, so I enjoyed the White Tower a lot. My favorite weapon was a combination mace/gun. If you run out of bullets, just bludgeon your enemies, I guess. It looked painful either way.

There was also a dragon made out of bits of armor. It was very cool.

The path through the White Tower leads you to the basement, which used to be a torture chamber, and is now a gift shop. So I guess it’s a modern-day equivalent: you squeeze into a room with a hundred tourists, all shuffling around trying to find tchochkes to commemorate their visit to the Tower. I shuffled for a few minutes, about went crazy from it all, and got the hell out. There’s not much worth buying there that you can’t buy at the main gift shop, and the main gift shop has less of an apres-torture chamber feel to it.

After that, it was on to the Bloody Tower, to see where Sir Walter Raleigh and his wife were cooped up for 13 years, and where the two princes were murdered. Such a cheerful building.

But you don’t go to the Tower of London for warm fuzzies, you go to get a good dose of history. And history here is full of people doing really nasty things to other people.

Back in the courtyard I caught the changing of the guard, and then I was pretty much done with the Tower as a whole.

Escaping from the Tower

I headed out towards the Tower Bridge, took some photos, bought some stuff at the gift shop, and headed to Piccadilly Circus for some shopping and a late lunch.

First it was off to Fortnum and Mason, famous purveyor of teas, jellies, and other things. Tea and shopping bag purchased, my mission there was over. That shopping bag will surely spark envy in the U.S. Mom will love it.

After that, I went across the road to a wagashiya, which is a place that sells Japanese confectioneries, called Minamoto Kitchoan. It was a neat place, with all kinds of authentic Japanese confectioneries, with authentic Japanese prices. I picked up an anmitsu bun (which is a bun filled with red bean paste), and some youkan, which is a kind of sweet red bean paste in a block. It goes well with green tea.

I also bought a small jellied peach-like thing. I forget what it was called, but it was delicious.

Lunch was at a place called Wasabi, which had a deal where you can get 2 items for around £5. I got karaage (Japanese fried chicken) and yakisoba (noodles in sauce that are sauteed). I wish I could have gotten more than two pieces of karaage, but that was the combo deal. The food was very good, but the floor was a bit dirty, so I wasn’t too thrilled about putting my bags down.

Then it was back on the streets, wandering around Picadilly Circus and sightseeing. I was going to stop by the UniQlo in Piccadilly, but it was closed until later this year, and I didn’t feel like going to SoHo, because it’s a pain to go to Tottenham Court Road from just about anywhere.

I decided to head home for a shower and break.

Follow the Orange Poles to the Tate… Uh, Where’d They Go?

After cleaning up, it was off to Southwark to the Tate Modern, to look at the Joan Miro exhibition, as well as some other great pieces of modern art. When you exit from Southwark Tube station, just follow the orange street lights to the Tate… well, until you run out of orange street lights, which I did at one point.

Fortunately, I had my Nexus One and Google Maps, and could figure it out. But there weren’t any signs or anything after the quaint orange light poles ran out, which is really very annoying.

The Miro exhibition was fascinating. Modern art changes so much, and to watch a modern artist change so much over his lifetime was something I haven’t had the chance to see. It was a really well-curated exhibit.

I also got a chance to look at some of the other galleries there as well. Rodin’s “The Kiss” was impressive, and I did see a couple of works by Jackson Pollock— he’s one of my favorite artists. I also saw a lot of photo montages by John Heartfield, which were fascinating. And of course a few Dalis. Dali is always fun.

There was also a photography exhibit on Afghanistan then and now, with images from the 19th century British expedition and from 2010-2011. I would not call it photojournalism, but it is an artistic expression. I don’t know. It felt forced. I’m not going to get into the politics of Afghanistan. The images were vivid, but it’s the photographer’s statement about what he feels about Afghanistan, not necessarily a reflection of reality. That’s how photography is.

I don’t know that photography ever really accurately represents reality. It just represents our perceptions of reality, since the person behind the camera frames the image, and chooses what to put in the frame, and what to leave out of the frame. So as an art exhibition, it was interesting, and I’ll just leave it at that, because I can’t judge it as a representation of reality. I’m not on the ground there, so I can’t make any statements either way.

After all of that, I headed out of the Tate, since they closed the gift shop before I could buy anything, and headed to the Millennium Bridge to cross the Thames. It was around 10 p.m., so the sun was just starting to go down.

London in summer is pretty interesting, with sunset so late in the day. I would imagine that winter is brutal, though. Sunset at 4 p.m. or so, I would guess.

I got some lovely shots of the bridge, the river, the skyline, and St. Paul’s, then it was back to the hotel to call it a night.

That was a great day, but I’m exhausted.

Jul 082011

I had an ambitious plan today, and got whooped by the National Gallery. That’s one tough museum to get through, even on roller skates.

I started out early enough, but made my first error when I headed out the door and down the street, having forgotten to brush my teeth.

I hate it when I do that. I doubled back, lost 15 minutes, and restarted.

On to Charing Cross, and Trafalgar Square. I took about 40 minutes to take a bunch of photos of Nelson’s Column and the other various Things to See there.

None of the photos are unique in any way, shape or form, but it’s the sort of thing I felt compelled to do anyway. After 9/11, and more recently the disasters of 3/11, I have learned to take lots of pictures of every place I visit, because you just never know.

Saying “It will always be there” is foolish. It’s obviously not true.

It’s really difficult to get a decent shot off in Trafalgar Square, because to get a decent angle, you have to move across the street, and that means waiting for the pink plumbing van to move from the stopped traffic in front of that nice looking church, or the giant double-decker bus with an ad that says “GET STUFFED!” to unblock your view (and to classy-up the photo a bit with its removal.)

I suppose if I had a tripod and a stack of neutral density filters, I could do a 10-20 minute long exposure, and make it look like everyone had disappeared, or something similarly creepy.

Then there were the times when I was trying to take a picture of something like the Olympic countdown clock, and I was patiently waiting my turn, and people just kept rudely jumping in front of me to photograph each other standing in front of it.

Honestly, I have no idea why they’d want to pose in front of it, but nevertheless it was still annoying that they kept jumping in front of me.

Photography is sometimes fraught with peril, and sometimes it’s just flat out irritating.

Art, Inconveniently Housed.

On to the National Gallery, which is full of family pictures of Jesus.

It’s a pretty building, but the layout of the place is kind of annoying. I lost 20 minutes just trying to put my bag away.

I went up the giant steps on the Trafalgar Square side, then went down 2 flights of steps to one cloakroom, only to be told there was no more room. So I had to go back up 2 flights, across the whole building, then down 2 more flights to another cloakroom to drop off my bags. Then back up 2 flights, halfway across the museum again to the Central Hall, just so I could start the tour I wanted to do in the proper order.


I picked up one of those audio guides again… am I the only person who gets grossed out when he thinks about using the same headphones that thousands of other people have used? It makes me shudder to even consider it.

So I yanked them out and put my own ear buds in, listened to a few descriptions, then promptly stopped using it. It just bogged me down. I really need to stop using those things.

Paintings by the Numbers

The collection at the National Gallery is really good. It’s not top three, but it’s definitely top ten. Only one Hieronymus Bosch, though. (“Christ Mocked,” if you want to know which painting.)

One of these days, I want to see a bunch of Bosch’s paintings. For someone who painted in the 15th century, his work has a great surrealistic feel to it. It reminds me of Dali’s work. Or maybe Dali reminds me of Bosch?

Note to self: Go to Madrid one of these days to see “The Garden of Earthly Delights” in the Prado.

Van Eyck’s “The Arnolfini Portrait” is a classic medieval painting at the National Gallery. It was great to see a major painting like that up close.

I also got to see Botticelli’s “Venus and Mars,” which I think is an excellent painting. I love the pensive (or maybe bemused?) look on Venus’ face.

I enjoyed the El Grecos that they had there as well. I think he could have painted a children’s birthday party and it would still have had a haunting quality to it.

That Ain’t Lemonade.

About halfway through my gallery run, I decided to have lunch. Once again, I was at the mercy of the floor plan of this building. I was in the Sainsbury Wing, which is where all of the 13th-15th century paintings are. On the 1st floor, there’s a dining hall, so I went down there to eat. I looked at the menu, and it was a sit-down, fancy food kind of place. (Oysters, meat dishes and pies sort of thing.) Definitely something that would consume many pounds and much more time than I could afford.

My only other choice was to go up a flight of stairs, go all the way across the museum, then go back down two flights of stairs to the Getty Entrance and eat at the cafe there. It was a sandwich shop kind of place. The drinks were a miss, though. The “Victorian Lemonade” was gross.

Important lesson learned: ALWAYS read labels before you buy things here. Just because it says “Lemonade” doesn’t mean it’s going to TASTE like lemonade. It was some sort of lemons mixed with ginger and sugar and “aromatic herbs,” all carbonated, served lukewarm.


The BLT was okay, although it was a bit weird, and the chocolate chip/hazelnut cookie wasn’t bad. The important thing was that I had calories to keep going.

Art, Part Two

Back to the art grind. My feet were killing me towards the end. It’s probably time to get new shoes.

I really liked Boilly’s “A Girl at a Window.” I think it’s a print of a lost original, but I love the expression on her face and the composition. I also liked the “Portrait of Susanna Lunden” by Rubens. And of course the “Self Portrait at the Age of 64” by Rembrandt was great. I love his expression in that painting.

I loved Renoir’s “The Umbrellas,” and saw a bunch of Van Goghs, including “Sunflowers,” which is fine, but I’m not too keen on the dark yellows. I like Van Gogh’s other stuff just fine, though. Of all on display, I like his “Wheatfield with Cypress” the most.

I was really more into the 19th and 20th century paintings, but alas, that was when I had realized that I had already spent FOUR HOURS there. All of the medieval and renaissance stuff just bogged me down.

The Monets, Manets, and Seurats were all good. It’s easy to remember that Seurat was into pointilism– “Seurat knew a lot about dots.”

There was a special exhibit on Italian altarpieces, which was interesting, but looking at religious artwork is like visiting shrines in Japan. I can only see so much of it before my eyes glaze over. Since I had already seen all of the 13th-15th century paintings, the altarpieces just kind of blended into the rest of them.

Sadly, I am that shallow at times.

You can get a “60 minute tour” list of what the museum considers to be the most important pieces if you just want to hit the highlights. You can use the audio guide with it… but I wonder if you can actually do it all in 60 minutes.

Anyway, it’s useful as a reference for what the curators think is important, because there are a lot of pieces by artists most people have never heard of that clutter up the place. Not that their work isn’t important, or isn’t worth preserving, it’s just that there’s an awful lot of it, and while it’s good art, it’s not great art.

There are a few pieces on the “greats” list that I didn’t agree with. I didn’t particularly care for Constable’s, “The Hay Wain,” to be honest. It’s a pretty piece, but it didn’t particularly move me. I’ve already mentioned a few others above, like “Sunflowers.”

At 4 p.m., it was time for a mad dash to the gift shop, where I bought a bunch of very tasteful blank cards and postcards. Now I can send people cards and impose my aesthetic sense on them at the same time.

How convenient!

Back to SoHo

Then it was time to leave the National Gallery and head to SoHo to pick up my zoom lens, which was almost destroyed at Westminster the other day. I can still see the bits of glass dust trapped in there, so it’s going to have to be stripped down when I get home, but it’s good enough for now.

Tottenham Court Road station is a royal pain to get to these days, because it’s not served by the Northern Line. You can only get to it via the Central line, and that means lots of transfers. Ugh.

Anyway, after I got the lens back, I stopped by a crepe shop called Crepeaffaire and had a delicious dark Belgian chocolate crepe with whipped cream on the side. But it wasn’t cheap– that plus a cup of milk was almost £7.

Yikes. In dollars, that’s a whole meal plus dessert.

He Never Used a Meerschaum Pipe!

Then it was off to Baker Street, to see a certain Consulting Detective, or rather a certain Consulting Detective’s Gift Shop. There was no way I was going to see the Sherlock Holmes Museum, because every tour guide says that it’s a ripoff, and I refuse to pay for another ripoff museum.

But I wanted to get some Sherlockiana, because it makes for great souvenirs.

The annoying bit? Even I, who is just a casual Holmes fan, got annoyed by the constant use of a Meerschaum pipe in all of the Holmes shadow portraits. He never used a Meerschaum pipe… yet there he is in every trinket, Meerschaum in hand, or hanging out of his mouth.

So annoying.

I bought some less-annoying trinkets for the people back home, and then I finally staggered back to Earls Court. That was it for me today.

London Loves the BL.

 Food, Great Britain, Travel  Comments Off on London Loves the BL.
Jul 072011

It’s Thursday, and I had to move out of my double room today.

Before I did that, I started to check over my camera from my trip to Westminster yesterday, and what do I find, but the UV filter on my 80-200mm lens is smashed to bits, and it’s bent into place.

I forced out the broken glass with a pencil, and tried to shake out the bits, but only so much would come out.

I knew I had to get it to a camera repair shop stat.

Note to self: don’t forget the lens brush next time, dummy. Also, add a layer of padding to the drop-in camera case.

Getting Fixed

So it was off to Calumet in SoHo in a frog-strangler of a downpour with my crappy umbrella. They pointed me down the alley to Sangean, who told me they could fix it by tomorrow for £76.

That includes a new UV filter. While I was at Sangean, I asked them where to get a decent umbrella, because the one I got at Boots was just junk.

Here’s a tip: if you need an umbrella, NEVER buy one at a chemist’s/drugstore. It will always be a disappointment. The ones in コンビニ (conbini, Japanese for convenience store) aren’t much good, either.

The advice I got lined up with common sense: buy one at a department store at the very least.

I stopped by Calumet again and got a UV filter for the other lens. I realized that I could use one for the main lens, because I’ve been shooting with nothing on it. (I left the UV filter at home. D’oh.)

England, Land of the Umbrella

After that, it was off to Marks & Spencer’s for a decent umbrella, because it was still raining like rain Armageddon, if there was such an event. (It would make a great Hollywood movie.)

Ignoring the Hare Krishna who was trying to give me some sort of book, I headed into the store and made a beeline for the men’s department. I found a good umbrella, but it’s annoyingly big.

It’s not a cane style umbrella, but it’s at least a foot and a half long. Maybe longer. It keeps me dry, but it doesn’t really fit in my backpack. So it’s maybe 2 feet long? When I get back to the States, I’ll have to hunt down a good, compact umbrella that also expands to something BIG.

All of that fiddling around aside, I needed to do something. What to do, what to do, I’m in London, time’s a-wasting. It’s raining like hell, so it had better be indoor stuff. I know, let’s go look at the document that started it all, the Magna Carta!

“My First BL Experience”

So it was off to the British Library, up by King’s Cross. (What did you think I meant?)

It’s a neat place, but it’s a bit of a pain. I had to put everything in a locker, and to use the locker, I needed a £1 coin handy. I would get the coin back when I’m done, but troublesome things are still troublesome.

I didn’t have a coin handy, and the smallest bill on me was a £20, so I had to withdraw £10 from the ATM, then bust that into 10 £1 coins, just to use the locker.

15 minutes lost.

Bring a £1 coin with you if you’re going to the British Library!

Then it was off to look at some historical books and documents. I saw some quartos by Shakespeare, and notes from other famous authors like Milton, as well as compositions by Bach, Mozart and Beethoven, and the original score for Handel’s Messiah. It was all very cool. There were also famous religious texts, including the Lindisfarne Bible, the Gutenberg Bible, and the King James Bible.

And, of course, a few copies of the Magna Carta.

What? You didn’t know? There isn’t just one copy of it. In fact, as many as 35 copies of it were made, and nobody knows which is the “original,” or if there ever really was an original, but if you go to the British Library, you can see two of them.

It’s pretty cool, if you’re into that sort of thing. You can also see the Papal bull that invalidates the original Magna Carta soon afterwards, because kings are chosen by God, and a bunch of scruffy nobles cannot put limits on God’s chosen kings.

A somewhat-watered-down version was put back in force later on.

There was also an interesting exhibit on science fiction, and even a version of the TARDIS to look at, as well as an exhibit of Mervyn Peake‘s works.

The gift shop was… a gift shop. I don’t remember buying anything there.

I Said Lunch, Not Launch!

After that, it was back to Piccadilly Circus, and the Japan Centre for lunch. It was time for pork ramen and some fried chicken, Japanese-style.

Good food, although the ambiance left a bit to be desired. There are only a couple of big picnic-table-style benches in the store, and a couple of tables outside. I probably should have eaten outside, but I didn’t have sunscreen on. (The sun was back by then, and I have two settings– pasty white and sunburned. I think someone forgot to give me some melanin when I was born.)

The ramen was served in a plastic bowl with a plastic Chinese-style spoon. Eating out of a plastic bowl only does so much for me. But like I said, the food was good, and in the end, that’s all that really matters.

Another thing– when you order noodles there, you get a LOT of choices, down to 4-5 kinds of soup to put them in.

The Museum of Vague Dissatisfaction

Then it was off to Covent Garden, and the London Transport Museum, because by this point, I am completely fresh out of ideas, and I like transportation stuff.

I’m not a full-on train nerd, but I like interesting public transport in interesting places. It’s probably because the public transport where I live is dull, and because I’ve traveled a lot, so I’ve had a chance to see all the different ways people have approached the same problem. It’s interesting.

The Underground has an antique feel to it… New York’s Subway is pretty old, too, but the Underground has that crazy architecture that flaunts its age. I really get that feeling when I pull into Earls Court, with its big glass roof. It feels like someone with muttonchops and a top hat will accost me at any moment with a “Sirrah!”

I won’t say I’m a railroad/transportation nerd… I just have an appreciation for it, and I enjoy a nice train ride… and subways fascinate me as part of the underside of cities.

Okay, I’m a bit of a nerd in that regard.

So with that in mind, it looked like the London Transport Museum would hit my strike zone.

The London Transportation Museum has a really good gift shop. You can get all kinds of cool Underground-branded stuff there.

Oh, the museum? Well, my £13 got me in to see some exhibits on… err… okay, there are some cool things there, but not £13 worth. You can look at a few 19th-century mockups of Underground carriages which were interesting, and there are a few double-decker buses through the ages that you can sit in, and even the front end of one you can pretend to drive, and all of this is probably great fun.

If you’re 11 years old, that is.

There’s also a bit of London Underground memorabilia… which was somewhat interesting. I was hoping for more, really, but they only had a few cases’ worth.

And that was pretty much it.

The main problem was that there just wasn’t a whole lot there, past the vehicles. It was okay, but not worth the outlay of funds. £13 is more than $20. Yikes.

The gift shop was pretty good. I bought lots of souvenirs for friends and family.

Would I recommend it? If you have kids and money to burn, yeah, maybe? Or if you can get free admission on one of those museum deal cards. Only on those conditions. Otherwise, skip it. (But the Underground logo ice cube tray will make an awesome gift for one of my friends…)

Covent Garden itself is a really nice part of town, with street performers and food vendors all over the place, and lots of shopping, if you’re into that sort of thing. Frankly, I wish I had spent more time wandering around Covent Garden, and skipped the museum.

There’s a lot you can learn from museums, but there’s also a lot you can learn from interacting with people.

After the museum, I had pretty much hit the wall, so I limped back to the hotel, ate some sandwiches, and called it a night.

The new room is 302. It’s a single, and much bigger than 114. (It’s hard for any room not to be bigger than 114.) The bed isn’t as good as 114, but I like having enough room for my bags. Also, the TV has a kind of weird red cast to it, but since I don’t watch much TV, it’s not a big deal.

The showers still don’t do hot water properly. I haven’t had a room yet that does hot water properly. It usually goes from too hot to too cold to lukewarm, to generally unpleasant.

I haven’t had a really good shower the whole time I’ve been here.

But I didn’t really come here for the bathing.


 Food, Great Britain, Travel  Comments Off on Pounded
Jul 062011

It’s Wednesday, and I’ve crested the hill of my trip to London. Today I had to move out of room 114, a nice little room, so I spent some time throwing everything into bags.

I had also decided to send two boxes full of unneeded books home.

Using the mail turned out to be a dumb idea.

In fact, it turned out to be an expensive, horrible idea.

You would think that sending things home by mail would save a lot of money. You might even think that sending books would entitle you to a book rate.

You would be very, very wrong.

The difference between sending 9 kilos of books home by surface mail (which takes 8 weeks), and by air mail (which takes 5 days) is £80 vs £100.

Either way sucks. I need the books sooner than 8 weeks from now, and I really didn’t have the luggage room to spare anymore, so I had to take the full £100 hit. That’s $160 for the folks back home.

Thanks for nothing, Royal Mail. I heart you too.

To be fair, the lady at the Post Office was very nice, and found a way to save me a few pounds. Still, using US Mail, this would have cost about $58… okay, maybe $58 per package. I might still have gotten screwed on the deal, but I’d have money left over for a meal or two.

Traveler’s Checks Are Great, If You’re Traveling to 1986.

After that,  I learned another important lesson: traveler’s checks aren’t worth the trouble.

I went to cash in my checks at Lloyd’s TSB Bank, and took an absolute beating on the exchange rate. Sure, the current rate is in the $1.60 range, but when I got my money, I discovered that the rate I got was $1.75 per pound. And that was from one of the only banks that would take the stupid things.

The fees were hidden in the exchange rate.

I’m never doing that again. I’ll carry an ATM card and cash. I’ll use plastic. I’ll even sell some plasma.

But I will never carry traveler’s checks again.

When I used the ATM, I got hit with a 1% fee and a fixed $0.75 fee, but I got the market exchange rate. So $5.75 on $500, vs. $26.79 from the crap exchange rates using traveler’s checks.

Lesson learned.


Speaking of credit cards, good luck using them in England. I pretty much gave up on them, outside of hotels.

Of course, both of my credit cards will smack me in the head with a 3% foreign transaction fee anyway, but it’s cheaper than the $26.79 I lost on the traveler’s checks. ($15 on a theoretical $500 purchase.)

And that’s why nobody uses traveler’s checks anymore.

After handing over large sums of cash to people behind bullet-proof glass (now I know why it was bullet-proof, even at the post office), it was time to head over to another place where people generally take large sums of money from people and spend it unwisely.

Yes, Parliament.

Dropping in on Parliament

I arrived at Westminster, and joined the crush of tourists wobbling around the Palace of Westminster, looking for the visitors’ entrance. I asked a guard how to get in to see Parliament. He told me to come back in 2 hours, and I could see a session.

So I went over to the Churchill War Rooms at the Imperial War Museum, and the Winston Churchill Museum, both of which were very interesting.

There was a lot of shuffling around in the dark and listening to Winston Churchill.

I learned a lot. He liked painting, whiskey, and gambling. He was a liberal, then a conservative, a POW who escaped from South Africa, and the second honorary US Citizen since Lafayette. I even saw his US passport. He was also grouchy.

I highly recommend visiting it if you have any kind of interest in World War II, or Winston Churchill. The latter obviously helps. It’s very interesting to see how they lived while trying to run a war under constant threat of German bombing raids. It’s also interesting to get a peek into the mind of Churchill, who was a fascinating man.

Bench Press

After that, I headed back to Westminster Palace, where I began an complex ritual that consisted of varied intervals of standing in line and sitting on benches. First, I stood in line to go through security. They take your picture, print it on a paper badge, and that’s your pass. Then they scan your bags, and let you in. Then you can wander around a bit. (Just a bit, mind you.)

Of course, I also managed to drop my camera bag, when one of the straps of my backpack came undone. That was brilliant. There’s nothing like the sound of an SLR hitting flagstones. But everything looked okay. (By everything, I mean the camera body and the 17-55mm lens attached to it.)

Silly badge around my neck, I went off to Westminster Hall, which is big. Very big.

It’s also very old.

It was completed in 1099, and survived a fire in 1834. The woodwork in the ceiling is gorgeous, and well, it’s just impressive.

Enough looking around, it’s time to go stand in line to go up to the public gallery for the House of Commons!

As the line moved ever so slowly, I eventually made it to a big wooden bench, where we sat for about 15 minutes, then got whisked off upstairs to St. Stephen’s Hall, where we sat on another bench.

While we sat on the benches there, we could look at big frescoes of scenes of Famous English People doing Famous Important Things. And we repeated the process of moving from one bench to another and then another. Four benches in St. Stephen’s Hall, and then we could finally go up to the Central Lobby.

At least we got to sit, rather than standing in line.

The Central Lobby is the place where people can, well, lobby their MPs.

Yes, that’s where the term comes from.

From there, we went up the stairs to another security room, where we had to drop off our bags and cell phones.

Then it was off to the gallery, where I got to watch the emergency debate over the News of the World phone hacking scandal. Very historic, or so I’ve been told by every BBC commentator on TV in the past 48 hours.

It was interesting to see the debates… although you can’t really call it a debate when politicians all get up and say that criminal activities are bad. When journalists or anyone for that matter engages in hacking that destroys evidence, well, that’s wrong.

The sun is also hot, ice is also cold, and Jerome Bettis is still from Detroit.

On the way out, I realized that I had lost my Oyster card, with £25 still on it.


So I ran back up to the security station at the public gallery, and sure enough, they had already found it for me. That was awesome.

Back to Earls Court

Then it was time to buy a few souvenirs, shuffle back to the hotel, and check out the new room, number 117. It’s nice, although the mattress isn’t as nice as the one in old room. It’s a bit thin and kind of worn-out, as though it has seen a few too many chunky Americans who have worn the stuffing out of it.

But I can deal with it for one night.

On the upside, the room is nice and big, and otherwise comfortable, although, oddly enough, the smaller room had a nicer bathroom with a bigger shower and a bit nicer view. The window over the bathroom sink is a bit weird, but I’m good at adapting.

Dinner was the local Wagamama on the high street around Earls Court. Wagamama is a chain of Japanese restaurants in London. Everything on the menu comes with chicken of some sort, it seems. No pork in sight. Kind of a bummer there.

The yakisoba was good: lots of vegetables in it, plus shrimp and, of course, chicken in it, as well as some delicious crunchy fried onion bits. It was nice to sit at right in front of the second-floor window and just stare at the crowds walking by the high street.

I can understand why it’s not popular with Japanese people. Wagamama means “selfish” in Japanese, not a trait that any culture is particularly fond of. Also, the lack of pork didn’t do a lot for me, either. I like my Japanese food with some pig in it. Not a lot, but just enough to make things taste good.

After that, a trip to the Sainsbury’s for a few supplies, and back to the hotel.

I took the chance to do some laundry in the sink, and used the heated towel rack to speed up the drying.

My “No Cotton” rule has saved my bacon on this trip. It makes washing shirts, underwear, and socks in the sink a breeze. They all dry out relatively quickly, too.

Wandering Around Piccadilly Circus

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Jul 052011

My first stop today was Piccadilly Circus, where there’s a neat used Japanese book store called Adanami. It’s in an old dry cleaner’s, and when I got there, I could still see the old dry cleaner’s sign.

I got there just a little too early, because they were still closed. They open at noon, and it was still 11:45.

So I headed down the street to kill some time, and found the Vintage Magazine Store, and looked around in there. I checked out their vintage magazines in the basement. They have a nice collection, but it’s all on the expensive side. I was scouting it out for my brother-in-law, who often uses old magazines as references for his graphic design work.

Upstairs, they had an interesting selection of post cards and birthday cards, as well as movie-related novelties. I got some funny birthday cards, so it was a success.

Then I went back to Adanami to search for used Japanese books. The prices there were pretty good for the most part, but I didn’t have a whole lot of luck finding the books that I wanted. I was interested in finding some books on 国語 (sort of like Language Arts for Japanese), but didn’t find anything that struck my fancy. I did find a copy of Harry Potter. It was a bit pricey for a used copy, but it’s getting harder to find it in Japanese.

FYI– no credit card accepted there. Bring cash. They also have a karaoke box in the back, if that’s your thing.


After that, I headed to a Korean restaurant in the neighborhood called Soju, and had a really good bulgogi lunch set meal. Bulgogi is a Korean dish of marinated beef that’s been grilled. I got some kimchi along with it, as well as some pickled mung bean sprouts and rice.

Considering how paranoid everyone is about bean sprouts and other salad ingredients in Europe these days, I ate them without really considering it. Oops.

The only downside was that the chopsticks were metal and kind of thin, so it was hard getting them to work. I’m much better at using wooden chopsticks than plastic or metal. A spoon came with the chopsticks, but there was no way I was going to wimp out and use the spoon.

Mitsukoshi and Japan Centre… Again!

After lunch, I headed back towards the station, and then towards Mitsukoshi‘s basement, where the books are. I wanted to have a good look over them before I headed out, because I can’t look over them at home. They have a really good selection on Japanese learning, even though they’re all pretty expensive. If nothing else, you can check them out and then buy online from someplace like BK1 Honto. I found a really good book on business Japanese that I haven’t seen anywhere else, so I decided to take the hit and buy it. ( £36. Ouch!)

Then it was over to Japan Centre again to look at their books and to see if they had anything else interesting, but nothing really jumped out at me.

They didn’t even have Men’s Pocky.

I headed back to the hotel to rest for a bit and to pack my books to send home tomorrow. Box wrestling, commence!

Showers? More Like a Fire Hose!

Packages packed, this evening was my first encounter with the rain in England. And rain it did, violently hard.

My Gore-Tex jacket was barely able to keep me dry, and my nylon hiking pants were getting soaked fast. So I dashed into Boots‘, and stared at umbrellas for about 15 minutes. I figured that it wouldn’t really matter which one I picked, because they would all kind of suck, so I got the most compact one for 10 pounds, and sure enough, it sucked. It barely covered my head and made sure I got completely soaked.

Then it was off to Tokyo Spicy, for a katsudon. They make an awesome katsudon.

Caution: 175 Steps.

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Jul 042011

The test’s over. My brain still resembles Jell-O, but it’s time to be a tourist.

So let’s start off big. How about the British Museum? Is that big enough for you?

It’s big enough for me.

I headed off to the Russell Square tube station, and encountered a sort of tube station that I haven’t encountered before. There are no escalators, just 3 giant elevators, and a spiral staircase with 175 steps and a warning that was no joke.

When my train pulled in, the access to the lifts elevators was jam-packed. It looked like it would take a while, so like a dummy, I thought, “Well, it’s only 175 steps. How bad can it be?”


Very bad.

Remember how I said I’ve seen people make luggage mistakes before? I saw someone make a luggage mistake that looked like it could very well have been fatal– she was trying to lug a giant suitcase up these stairs.

That’s nuts.

I was having a hard time just trying to get my chunky American frame up the stairs. 175 steps… that has to be what? 12 stories? I stopped more and more frequently as I got near the top, because I was starting to see bright lights and hear the voices of what could be long-dead ancestors beckoning.

Turns out it was just the main station.

The downside of my stupid escapade on the stairs was that it took a lot out of me. That was energy and strength that I would need for my assault on the British Museum, which is no less of a monster than the stairs at Russell Square Station.

Getting There is Half the Fun

To get to the museum from the station, I cut straight across Russell Square Park, which is a lovely green area, then dodged the crazy traffic in the circle, walked down a street, turned a corner, and bam! There it was.

It’s huge.

The British Museum is not to be trifled with.

It’s free to get in (you ought to make a donation), but things like maps, guides, and audio guides all cost money. If you want an audio guide, be prepared to leave some sort of photo ID, like a driver’s license or a passport behind.

The museum is camera-friendly. Take pictures of whatever you want. Seriously, go for it. They don’t care one bit. I had fun, because most American and Japanese museums would wig out at that idea.

Here’s the rub– if you take the audio guide and you carry a camera around your neck, you are in for some suffering. I had both, and both annoyed the hell out of me. I wound up never using the guide, anyway, as everything in the museum is well-labeled.

Skip the audio guide, unless you can’t read.

The Treasures of the World–Now the Treasures of Great Britain!

First off I took a look at the treasures of Ancient Greece. They had lots of neat stuff, none of which I can remember the names of. I am a terrible and uncultured person. But it was all very impressive, and I took lots of pictures.

The bits they took from the Acropolis were very moving, as were the sculptures of the heads of the four major philosophers, and the sculpture of Alexander the Great.

Then it was off to Egypt. I was more interested in the sculptures than the mummies, to be honest. I always thought that the obsession with the display of old dead bodies to be kind of gruesome, yet that was the part of the museum that was the most jam-packed. Figures.

I think there should be a rule that any archaeologist that displays a body in a museum also has to be displayed in a museum when they die so hordes of sweaty future tourists can gawk at them.

It’s only fair.

After those two sections, my legs were starting to die off, because this museum is HUGE, and my hiking shoes are 4 years old, and on their way out. I knew I only had one more section left in me, and then I’d have to turn tail and run back.

I decided to head to the Japan section. (Hey, that’s my main interest.) It was a nice display that carries you from the Joumon period all the way to modern Japan.

By then I was totally beat, so it was time to shuffle back to Earls Court.

I went to the office supply store on the high street on the way back to the hotel to buy boxes, packing tape, and a magic marker, because I need to get rid of these books I don’t need. I don’t want to have to carry them back with me on the plane, and I want to have more room for souvenirs.

At least that’s the logic.

Not sure about dinner tonight. Nando’s again? Or maybe just more sandwiches?

JLPTeed Off

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Jul 032011

Well, today was the big test. The one I traveled 3,940 miles and paid a few thousand dollars for. I honestly don’t think I did any better than I did when I took it in December.

So very frustrating.

I know my Japanese is better. I know I can speak better, and listen better, and even read better. But that test is like a game show designed to prove to contestants that “You don’t know Jack about Japanese.”

At least that’s what it felt like.

Oh, but before that, there was needless lining up outside, and waiting while each person’s ID was checked before we could even enter the building.

Then we were sent on to the appropriate testing room.

Why not just open up the building and check IDs in the rooms? I thought Americans were paranoid. They have nothing on our British cousins.

So of course the test started late. The line outside the building was huge, and moved really slowly, and as a result, people were panicked when they finally got to the room, through no fault of their own.

As for the test itself, it was awful.

The JLPT is a bad test to begin with, and now they’ve just gone and made it worse.

The grammar and reading section is horrible. You get 105 minutes, which is never enough, to do 55 grammar problems which start from easy and rapidly go to “Huh?”

Then with whatever time is left, you have to finish 20 reading questions, which is almost always impossible, unless you are the Japanese Evelyn Wood, in which case, why are you even bothering with this test? You don’t need this.

I spent a lot of time before the test working on my reading, and I never could get to the speed they want for this thing. I just can’t do it. My reading speed isn’t terrible, it’s just not at the level where I can read an editorial in 3 minutes, then answer 4 questions in another minute.

My Plan to Nail the Reading Section… or at Least Finish It in Time

My strategy was to jump straight to the reading section, and use whatever time was left on the grammar section… sort of. I skipped all of the single-question reading problems, and went straight to the one passage, 3-question problems, to maximize my chances of passing the section.

But I don’t know if it worked.

While I could understand the passages, for some reason, the words just bounced off of my brain and would not compute. And the questions just didn’t not make any sense at all. It was bad. I managed to limp through the section and finish it, but I’m not excited.

I breezed through the grammar section. It didn’t seem as bad as last time, except for the ★ problems, which this time seemed to be particularly nasty. The compound grammar problems were mean as usual. It’s hard to prepare for them, because nobody can put out a good book full of practice problems for some reason.

The compound grammar problems have answers that combine two grammar points in each answer like A&B, A&C, D&B and D&C. Pick one. Go on, hurry up. Time’s a-wastin’!

I’ve spent countless hours in my car and in my house, listening to all kinds of stuff in Japanese, and when it came to the listening section of the exam, they had managed to find two fast-talkers to play the game of “Hide the Football.”

Here’s how it works. Get the guy who always reads the fine print at the end of a radio commercial, then get the lady who also does it. Now get them to have a conversation about what they’re going to do about something. Something really vague. Now have them dither about what they’re going to do first. Are they going to walk the dog? Water the plants? Feed the bird? Or set the house on fire? Hmm… what should we do… Hey, let’s go eat pasta, then feed the bird to the dog, and set the house plants on fire! Wait, that’s not an answer, dammit!

Now give us, the test taker, about 15 seconds to figure out what one of them is going to do next. Hurry up! No, you can’t hear it again, even if in reality, when you can’t catch what someone just said, you simply ask them to repeat it, but not in JLPT-land. Nope.

Words may only be uttered once in JLPT-land! You may not ask someone to repeat what they just said, even if it’s common sense to do so, and happens a number of times every day!

For the most part, the listening section was easy… or so I think. But the way the test is designed, I’m almost positive that I didn’t score as highly as I think I did. There are 5 “problems,” each with a number of questions attached.

The hide the football questions make up one problem. Another problem is the “rapid response” section, where in 11 questions, you’ll hear someone say something, then you get 3 choices. Quick, pick the best one! You only hear them once, so hurry up!

The last problem is usually a massively long question, and it usually turns on something you hear briefly in the very beginning, and if you miss it, you are royally screwed, because it all hinges on that first bit. Might as well just fill in 4 random dots.

There’s a set up of some sort of system, like “The pet shop has 4 dogs for sale: one is big and hairy, one smells, one is little and shakes, and one sleeps all day.” Then two people will talk about how much they love coffee, and hey, if you got a dog, which one would you get? “I want a pink one.” “Really? I want an orange one.” Now, which of the 4 dogs for sale would person A buy? Which would person B buy?

Something like that.

The added sucky bit is that we don’t get results until mid-September, which is really too late to do anything about the December test, unless I take it somewhere not in the U.S., because of the time it will take for the results to get to me from the UK…

I’ll think of something. Who knows? Maybe I passed… yeah, I’m not going to go there.

I have to seriously think about my study approach. My environment is only carrying me so far, it seems, regardless of the stupidity of the test, if I was better at the language, I wouldn’t be kvetching about it.

OMG Muffins @_@

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Jul 022011

I finally discovered Gregg’s, which has awesome sandwiches, and these evil chocolate chip muffins, filled with PUDDING. Or maybe it’s some sort of chocolate pastry creme?

Either way, good God y’all, if you sold these in America, my fellow countrymen would start randomly exploding.

The sandwiches at Gregg’s remind me a bit of some of the sandwiches in Japan. They have that big, giant fluffy sweet bread you get at the Japanese bakeries. It’s good stuff. It’s not the most healthy stuff in the world, but it’s good. Add in a lemon ice Fanta (my latest obsession, which reminds me of my misspent youth in Germany), and one of those muffins, and I’m good to go.

Other than gorging myself on sandwiches, Fanta, and muffins, I pretty much stayed in the room all day and studied.

Test is tomorrow. Blech.

Crossed Up at King’s Cross

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Jul 012011

I met up with Michele (pronounced the men’s way, not the women’s way) from Italy today. He’s someone who also posts on the RTK forums, and is really good at Japanese. He’s in town to take the JLPT N1. We had a bit of a mess at first trying to meet up.

We agreed to meet at Kings Cross/Saint Pancras, since that’s the neighborhood where the test is going to take place on Sunday. What neither one of us realized was that there are two national railway stations there: one is called King’s Cross, and one is called Saint Pancras. (Hence the “/” in the name.)

So when I asked him where he was, he said he was in front of the Starbuck’s in the station. That’s odd, I didn’t see a Starbuck’s. But I did see a Burger King. Well, he didn’t see a Burger King at all. So I moved to the wicket in front of platform 2, and he agreed to move in that general direction, thinking that maybe we were just on different floors. We even tried waving. After 10 minutes or so, we finally broke down and started asking around for ideas. Then we found out why we couldn’t see each other.

No, we weren’t in parallel universes, although that would have been far more interesting.

He was in Saint Pancras railway station, and I was in King’s Cross railway station. One is right next to the other.

See? Parallel universes would have been more interesting!

Mitsukoshi and Japan Centre

After finally meeting up, we headed over to the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) campus of the University of London at Vernon Rise, where Sunday’s test will be. It wasn’t too hard to find.

Then it was off to Piccadilly Circus and Mitsukoshi for lunch. Yes, that’s the same Mitsukoshi that’s a famous department store chain in Japan.

Mitsukoshi has a nice restaurant. The food presentation is very attractive, and very standard Japanese. I get the feeling that the intention is to make Japanese tourists feel like they’re “home,” more than it is to bring a taste of Japan to London.

I had the steamed vegetable and sashimi set meal for £14, and that was one of the cheaper ones. It was very good, but not cheap.

After lunch, we did some browsing around Mitsukoshi’s book shop. What’s interesting about Mitsukoshi is that they don’t really sell a lot of “Japanese stuff,” instead they sell a ton of English souvenirs to Japanese tourists.

Again, it’s the whole, “Hey, if you’re Japanese, then this is a store that caters to you” vibe. It was kind of disappointing, really. They had a good book store, but the prices were hideous. It was yet another case of, “Don’t you mean dollars instead of pounds?” A lot of cheap books, 1800 yen books, were going for £35.


After being scared away by the expensive books, we headed over to the Japan Centre, to look at their smaller selection of books. Japan Centre is neat, because they actually have Japanese products.

The downside, again, are some crazy high prices. Also, their book selection is much smaller than Mitsukoshi’s, and the prices aren’t much better.

The upside of Japan Centre is that it has a lot of Japanese products, like food and other things. It also has a restaurant that I’ll have to try later.

We looked around a bit more, and then headed back to the Piccadilly Circus tube station, and called it a day.

I headed back to the room, crashed for a bit, studied some, then headed off to Nando’s, a Portugese-style chicken chain. That’s some good chicken. The store is a little chaotic, but the chicken is tasty. It’s in some kind of sauce, but it’s delicious. The downside is that it’s not too cheap. £9 ($14?) for a meal.

Welcome to London. Empty your wallets, please.

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