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.
Note to self: USE A FREAKIN’ CALCULATOR! THERE’S EVEN ONE IN YOUR PHONE!
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.
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.
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.