Sunday, July 30, 2017

First Day in London

I see London, I see France....I see Nana's, underpants!!! lol

Since yesterday did not go quite as planned, and we spent the day in the airport in Rome, instead of out exploring London, I felt as though we had a bit of making up to do!

I had purchased a 6 day "London Pass", as it was only $20 more than the three day pass, and we WERE going to have a full six days to use it, but since we lost a day, I had to get over the fact that we now only had five days to explore all of the options in the book; which was quickly turning into four, as I was slow moving, getting out of the apartment.

I was very glad that we had walked to the market the night before, so we were able to have a bite to eat and a cup of coffee before hitting the streets of London. I found that our "host" had graciously left the makings for tea and coffee, and a few CD's so that we could enjoy a little music as we were getting ready for our day.

Since clothes dryers are not something they seem to use in Europe, we threw a load of clothes in the washer, so that we could hang them to dry, while we were gone. This made for a relaxing morning/early afternoon, and gave us time to peruse through the London pass booklet, to see how we might structure our day.

The nice thing about these passes is that you have, at your finger tips, just about all of the options that are available to you, in that particular city. And since you have paid one flat rate, you don't mind stopping in here and there, for short periods of time; enjoying many sites, without feeling as though you need to spend hours, to "get your money's worth."

After leafing through the booklet, getting dressed, and hanging up our laundry, we left the apartment, with the idea of going to Westminster Abby. The first thing that I noticed when I stepped outside was that it was actually quite cool; with a breeze blowing. For this girl, after all of the hot places we had been, this was a very welcome surprise! I actually had to go back upstairs for my sweater.

The neighborhood was even busier than the night before, with people walking everywhere; I could not keep my eyes from wandering over to all of the hookah bars, and I hoped that my sunglasses hid my staring eyes! I just could not get over the size and ornate beauty of the hookah pipes, and marveled at the fact that these Muslim men just sat around and smoked hookah all day; AND all night! lol I am sure that they were not the same people there for hours and hours, but what I can tell you is that there was never an empty seat.

We were keeping our eyes open for a bakery of some sort, to hopefully get something more substantial to eat, before heading out on our adventure, and much to our delight, we found exactly what we were looking for; a typical European Bakery. This one was called "Paul", and it became our go-to for breakfast, and our to-go lunch, while we were in London.

It is interesting as they have an eat in, and a "take away price". To eat in, it cost just a bit more. This morning we actually did "eat in", we had a quiche, a pastry and a cup of coffee; everything was delicious! We also grabbed our beloved baguette sandwich for our lunch on the go, and hit the road.
Marble Arch tube station was just a bit down the road from the bakery, so we were well on our way. We had purchased a seven day tube pass the night before (33 pounds) and since we had become so used to mass transit, we had no problem figuring out how to get where we wanted to go.

Of course, in typical "Michele Fashion", that plan quickly changed! lol As we were on our way to Westminster Abby, we arrived at the Buckingham Palace stop, first. That was all it took! I said to Joe, "We are getting off here!" And off we went; our day of discovery was about to begin!

Upon exiting the tube station, we came upon Green Park. There was a lovely fountain with a person and a greyhound, that made me think of my friend Peggy, so the picture taking had begun! The park was lovely, with sling-back chairs set up all over the grass; there were people walking, and children playing. The trees were HUGE and arched over the walkways. It was an amazing park that we took time to stroll through, and enjoy.

Eventually, we made our way to Buckingham Palace. I must admit that I was underwhelmed by the palace itself, and was surprised at how close the palace gates actually were to the palace. There were throngs of people looking in through the gates, and what I noticed first, was that there was a unicorn and two lions, on the emblem on the gate, and I thought that that was cool!

Then I noticed the palace guards, and watched them standing still, and then start their "march", back and forth in front of the castle. All pomp and circumstance, I suppose.  I think that the lanterns and flags impressed me more.

On the upside,  there was a HUGE fountain in front of the palace. People were sitting and standing all around the fountain, and I was a bit surprised that they were actually climbing all over the statues. I get the sitting on the walls around the fountain, but the climbing on the statues, disturbed me a bit.

Doesn't look too friendly, huh?

As we continued to work our way around the fountain, the most magical thing happened; out of the park where we had just strolled, the group of people that we saw, in uniform, with instruments, started playing music, right in  front of Buckingham Palace! A group of people quickly formed around the band, and it didn't take me long to inch my way up to the front of the circle to enjoy this impromptu concert. The musicians were talented and entertaining!

I was so grateful for the impulsive stop at Buckingham Palace, as if we had gone straight to Westminster Abby, we would have missed this bit of magic! What a wonderful welcome to London. The group played everything from Oh, Canada, as it was "Canada Day" to the Beetles, and it was fabulous! I had tears in my eyes, from the joy in my heart.

Eventually, someone from the palace came down and told them to "wrap it up", as they were concerned with the group that was forming, in such close proximity to the palace. I thought that it was great that they were able to play for as long as they did (30 minutes), and I was so happy that I was there to hear it. Talking to the band members afterwards, I thanked them for their performance, and told them how much we enjoyed it. They said that the pleasure was theirs' and that they enjoyed making others happy, while earning a little bit of $$!

All of this walking and excitement created a great hunger, so we decided to walk back over to the park, to sit on one of the benches and enjoy our lunch. A gal that had moved to London, from Russia, seven years ago,  asked if she could join us. She explained that the park was her happy place and she appreciated all of the oxygen that she received from the many trees. After being in all of the big concrete cities, with little vegetation, we understood her craving for the trees, the grass and the birds that were singing, all around.

She had an interesting view on life, and it was another enjoyable encounter which we were fortunate enough to experience, throughout our time in Europe; we were appreciative for a glimpse into how other people live, and how they accept and navigate their surroundings.

After our visit and our lunch,  our adventure continued. We decided to walk through St. James Park, to reach Westminster Abbey. It was another beautiful park, full of flowers, ducks and swans; of course, I had to stop and take many photos! It was interesting how peaceful the atmosphere was, despite the throngs of people.

Once we left the park, the scenery changed; we were now enjoying a different type of beauty ;  old buildings, telephone booths,  lanterns, and street cafes.We even ran into the place where the palace kept their horses and standing right there, were two palace guards.

I walked over to one of them, and commented that he must be very hot, in that uniform. I was a bit surprised when he answered, that "Yes, I am very, very hot!" I asked him if it was alright to talk to him, and he said yes. He was a nineteen year old, young man, and had been on the job about four months. He said that the most difficult part of the job was standing still, with the extremely heavy "hat" on his head. He said that he lived on the premises and hoped that he would not have to be a guard for the rest of his life. He also said that there were several times that he almost passed out, from the heat and exhaustion of just standing there.

It did not look like a fun job to me, and I asked him if it would be alright to take a photo with him, as I did not wish to be disrespectful. He said it would be fine, and thanked me for taking the time to talk to him; of course, I thank him for sharing with me.

We continued on our journey, and I believe that I was truly shocked, seeing "Big Ben", in real life, for the first time!

I, like all of you, have seen Big Ben in photos and movies for as long as I can remember, but seeing in with my own eyes, right across the street was amazing! It is SO much "bigger", and "golder", and "greener" than I ever envisioned,and we were lucky enough to arrive, right in front of it at the top of the hour. The sound of it ringing out the time was enchanting. We loved hearing the bell, which is actually "Big Ben" ring,  and loved seeing its' face. I don't think I would ever tire of that site.

                                               Gotta wait for the Dongs! Last second is the best!

Not far from Big Ben, sits Westminster Abbey; another place that I have seen, in so many capacities; coronations, weddings and burials. Of course, we were too late to go inside, but knew that we would be back, another day. Just seeing the outside was incredible, and I was so in awe with everything that I was seeing, that not being able to enter the Abbey today, was alright by me.

We walked around a bit more, across the Westminster Bridge and over to the eye, enjoying the architecture, sights and sounds of London, until we got hungry, and had to use the bathroom. Toilets are not an easy thing to find in Europe, and you often just have to find a pub and take your chances. Since we were actually hungry, this was not as difficult as it usually is, and we quickly settled on a pub that offered fish and chips.

It was a quaint little place that was packed to the gills with people, both inside and out. The bathroom was down bunches of stairs and had a huge line; I am sure it consisted of patrons, and tourists from the street, as well. By the time I got in and out, Joe had already ordered our food, and had a beer sitting on the table.

The fish and chips are served with peas in almost every establishment, which I find interesting, and the fish is always one huge piece of white fish, which I find delicious. I can honestly say that it was the best fish and chips I had ever eaten, and that is saying a lot, since I rarely eat fried food, and am very picky about it; the batter was light and fluffy, and just the right amount. It was perfect! A great topper, to a great day.

At this point I was hobbling and moving quite slowly, so we headed back to the apartment, stopping along the way for breakfast, for the morning, and Epsom salts for the tub, tonight.

I was going to sleep well that night; dreaming about what we were going to do tomorrow!

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Our Quick Hop to London; Was Not Quick

Our flight to London was scheduled to leave from Ciampino Airport at  11:15 am; perfect time for us, if we had been in Ciampino! But as travel planning went a bit awry, when booking this portion of our travel plans, we were staying in Fiumicino, twenty miles away.

This was no huge deal, as we were able to get a taxi to take us to the other airport, with no major inconvenience. We ordered the taxi to pick us up at our hotel at 8:30 am, giving us more than ample time to allow for traffic. We made it to Ciampino in record time and were two hours early for our flight.

Fortunately, I had pre-ordered a wheelchair, which allowed us to skip the extremely long line at the Ryan Air ticket counter, which was also the place you had to go to check your baggage. I asked the gal at the ticket counter to print my boarding pass, and she refused; I did have it on my iPad, but it was not super convenient to use.

The wheelchair and driver arrived shortly after we gave her our bags, and we continued to security; when we got there, they tried to scan the boarding pass on my iPad and it did not work; they insisted on having a printed boarding pass, which I was previously refused. I told the security gal that the ticket gal would not print one, so she sent my husband and the wheelchair driver, back to the ticket counter to obtain one; stating she HAD to print it.

This should have been an omen of what was to come!

Once the wheelchair dude and Joe arrived back at security, we passed through to the conveyor belt; my wheelchair guy was insistent that I stay put and that he would put all of my "things" on the belt and "Not to worry", so I sat. Eventually, after several bags were hand-checked, we were on our way to the gate; grateful for the ride, as it was quite a distance.

The attendant pushed me towards the area where we would be loading the plane and told us he would be back when the time came to load us on the aircraft; which was currently delayed an hour; our first delay on our extended trip; not too bad.

As boarding time quickly approached, I noticed another lady in a wheelchair, right behind us; the attendants came and loaded us onto this "lift truck", which was very interesting. They drove us out onto the runway, and just as they were getting ready to put us on the plane, their radio beeped and told them to turn around; there was apparently something wrong with the plane, and we would not be boarding, just yet.

What a production! They lowered us back down, and then drove us back to the terminal; wheeled us out and said, "We will be back, when they are ready to load the plane." Which was now delayed ANOTHER hour!

I quickly said that that was ok, as I did not wish to be on a plane that had issues and I was glad that they found these issues, before we boarded and most definitely before we took off. By this time I was utterly and completely fatigued and literally fell asleep, sitting in the wheelchair,  while Joe stood in the boarding line, for hours! The departing time eventually went to 5:30, and then just went blank.
All of the people on our flight watched plane after plane take off; all to London, as we sat in Rome.

Eventually, a Ryan Air representative came out and told everyone that they were sorry for the delay, and that they were offering a sandwich and drink from a vendor, just outside of the security area, and that because there were not any flights coming or going for a few hours, that the secure area would have to be vacated and that we would have to go back through gate security, after we ate; fortunately this was just a passport check, and not the whole carry-on x-ray, conveyor belt scene.

Joe got in the sandwich line and I found a seat at a table, with other passengers; the other woman in the wheelchair managed to make her way over to me and we started chatting. She was a delightful woman who was on her way to London, for Canada Day. It seems that she is a Canadian, who married an Italian, and lived part time in Rome, and part time in Canada.

She was actually part of the musical program, in London, for Canada Day,  and had much work to do, before the performances, the next day. I am guessing that she is quite a force to be reckoned with and has been standing up for the rights of musicians, her entire life; she told me so many stories about her life and how she had to fight every step of the way, as a woman, in an industry full of men.

She said that now is the best time of her life because she just says everything and anything that she chooses, and no one dares to cross her because she is that "crazy, old lady"! I enjoyed her immensely and was so impressed that at her age, she was still all about get up and go, and she didn't let anything stop her.

I mean think about it, an 80 plus year old, travelling from country to country, all alone; fighting for rights of musicians and setting up performances on a huge scale; I was impressed!

While we were  sitting there talking, the people at the table next to us chimed in and we started to talk about the delay; they told us that any delay, over three hours, required the airline to pay compensation to its' travelers. This perked up my ears, and I asked them for more info; they told me to ask for a pamphlet from the airline and to apply online, for the compensation. Which I did, as soon as I got home.

After several hours, we made our way back through the passport check and saw that our new departure time was 7:30; they had a new plane, and were waiting for pilots and crew. Joe and I were in contact with the gentleman, whose apartment we were renting, to keep him informed of our delay.
Then, all of a sudden, things started to happen! The wheelchair guys showed up, loaded us onto the wheelchair lift, and we headed out to the plane on the runway; this time we actually boarded the plane, and once I was settled in my seat, I was out! The flight was finally underway and we were finally headed to London; as I slept.

Once we arrived at Stanstead, another wheelchair angel showed up. This was MORE than a blessing, as the custom lines were long, and the baggage claim was mile away. I found that having a personal guide to take you through customs and to baggage was more than I ever could have hooped for,  and it saved me many, many agonizing steps, and standing in long, long lines; I am remembering to take these small things in stride and to stop beating myself up for using these services.

The gal pushing my chair was the most amazing travel angel we had met thus far, and that is saying a lot, as they have mostly all been pretty awesome. She started giving us tips on London after profusely welcoming us into her country. She asked where we were staying and how we were getting there.

I told her I had purchased a National Express Bus ticket, to take us into the city, but that was for a bus that left hours and hours ago. She said not to worry, that they would likely credit the amount that we paid, and just charge us an additional fee to change the ticket; this was a relief.

So this travel angel, not  only took us to baggage claim, waited for us to get our luggage and then took us all of the way out to the bus station, she continued to give us tips and suggestions, all along the way. As she suspected, the bus company did honor our previously purchased tickets, and only charged us about $12 to "refresh" those tickets, which I had only paid $8.60 for (for two tickets) so we were thrilled; the next bus left in about 20 minutes, so our travel angel left us, and the wheelchair, and told us not to worry about it, as someone would pick it up, after we got on the bus. She was the BEST and I told her so; she made our long, long day brighter.

Since we had twenty minutes, and were starving, we were lucky there was a West Cornwall Pasty kiosk, right there!! Our first meal in London, and it was delicious! We had a Beef and Ale and some sort of Thai pasty, and we ate and enjoyed, the WHOLE thing.

Getting on the bus, heading to London, was a small victory. We still had to get to Liverpool Street Station,  then on the tube to Marble Arch, and then walk to our apartment; at this point, we figured that it would be near midnight when we finally arrived at out "London home."

There was no point in crying over the fact that we had lost an entire day of sight seeing, or the fact that we literally had no idea where we were actually going, so we just enjoyed the bus trip. After about an hour, we got off the bus and headed to the tube. It was easy to purchase a seven day tube pass and we easily figured out which platform to take, to get to Marble Arch.

Pushing suitcases, through a train terminal is never much fun, but I did marvel at the fact that their were so many people, on the move, at 11 pm, with and without suitcases, that it didn't bother me one bit. I was so relieved to finally be close to our destination, that I pushed and pulled with a smile on my face.

We managed to get on the correct train, and headed a few stops to Marble Arch; once we exited the station, we realized why it was called Marble Arch! It was because right there, right in front of us was THE Marble Arch, which reminded me of the arches in Paris and Rome.

Once out on the street, we were amazed at the level of activity; people EVERYWHERE! And what we also noticed was that we were very much the minority; the flavor of people on the street was Muslim. Men, women and children. You would have sworn it was noon, not midnight.

Once we figured out our direction, we headed towards the apartment; dodging people left and right. I asked several people along our way, to make sure we were on the right track, and continued our trek. Eventually, after about fifteen minutes, we found our street and our apartment.

After pushing the buzzer on what we thought to be our apartment, with no answer, I started pushing ALL of the buzzers, giving no care to the fact that it was midnight; it had been a REALLY LONG day, and I was DONE!

Eventually, someone answered a buzzer; they spoke little to no English, and I apologized for buzzing them. At that point, I realized that the "main" door was cracked open, so I pushed open the door and looked for apartment numbers, hoping to find a note or a key, and found nothing!

We decided to get our suitcases off of the street and I quickly made the decision to walk over to the Marriott and ask someone, anyone, to call "Jerry", the gentleman's apartment that we were renting. Of course their first question was, "Are you a guest here?" and of course I had to tell them no.

The conceirge reluctantly called the number I had, and we reached Jerry; he said that he had just left, and had waited for us for ten hours and got hungry; apparently he did not decipher our updates properly. He said he would be right back, and to meet him at the apartment.

He quickly arrived and let us in; the apartment was perfect! Clean, good sized and with a great cross breeze. We apologized profusely for being so late, and he was great natured and so sorry for our long travel day. He told us where we could find a market open at this hour, and said that he was available, if we needed anything.

It seemed as though our REALLY LONG day had finally ended. We walked a few blocks and grabbed a few staples for the morning, as I knew I would not be moving very quickly, and would want a slow and gentle start.

We had finally arrived in London, safe and sound; I figured it was God's way of slowing me down and keeping me from hitting the streets, as soon as we were supposed to arrive in London. While the day was not the way we had intended it to be, it did give us a down day, that hopefully will  preface a great stay in London.

We met remarkable people, and were reminded that the kindness and willingness to share in other's lives are what really matter. Our travel, wheelchair angel took an extremely stressful day and turned it into one that made everything right with the world, at that moment; she had only been on the job for  four days, and made a difference in my life.

As did that dear, sweet lady full of spit and vinegar, yet full of grace; she inspired me and gave me hope, and I pray that everything worked out for her, for her event.

And to top all of that off; Ryan Air paid us $560 American dollars, for the inconvenience!!! We only had paid $160 for our tickets, so that was a $400 pit stop, for the win!

Guess we have nothing to complain about; Look out London, here we come!

Bricks for the Brave!!