Saturday, February 23, 2008

Euro Day 7: Jolly Holiday

Today, July 14, 2007, would be our first official tour day with Disney. We started off with (yet another) Full English Breakfast - only this time surrounded by the 1 million fresh-water pearls that decorate The Pearl restaurant at Chancery Court. By 8:30am we were in the lobby awaiting our final boarding call for the 1960's vintage Routemaster double-decker bus that Disney was providing for a tour of London. Soon enough, the 4 four of us had claimed topside seats to listen to our amazing local (Blue Badge) guide, Stephen, narrate our route to Westminster Abbey.

The Routemaster

Once at the Abbey, we all listened raptly to Stephen as he took us through a few hundred years of history in just 90 short minutes. The lectures were sometimes punctuated by the sounds of the Abbey's boys choir as they rehearsed in a nearby school. The overall vibe just made me feel glad and content to be in-the-moment. Dee was even kind of enough to shuffle the kids off to the gift shop to allow me a few minutes to wander the Abbey on my own, where I was able to locate the grave markers of many of its famous residents. I was even able to poke my head inside The Pyx, where visions from Neal Stephenson's 3-volume Baroque Cycle finally crystallized.

Big Ben and Westminster Abbey

From the Abbey, we strolled through St. James's park over to Buckingham Palace. The Park was green under a warm July sun, and full of people enjoying themselves. This just reinforced my observation that the English really do make use of their parks to an extent we don't don't often see in North America. By 11:45am, Alex and Andrew (the Double-A's) - with Stephen's help - had positioned The Gang at a spot near Buckingham's soldiers barracks. This seemingly out-of-way corner gate was apparently a prime position to view the procession after the Changing of the Guards. And boy were they right! As the guards marched by, we literally had to back up a step or two to avoid being mowed down by the procession.

Procession after Changing of the Guards

Afterwards, we made our way to the Palace to find that the crowd had dispersed. This was a great time for photos. My only disappointment was to find that there no longer a guestbook at the Palace gate. 20-odd years ago I signed that guest book - although the Queen has yet to send me a 'thank-you' note. I'm blaming the mail, but a phone call would have been nice, too.

Buckingham Palace

By this time our Routemaster was waiting for us near the palace, and we were whisked off to Harrod's to partake in tea and luncheon at the 4th-floor Georgian Room. Now when I think of 'luncheon', I think of fussy little sandwiches made from rolls of coloured bread filled with something that has the vague consistency of cat food. Not true! We were served salad, finger sandwiches (containing actual meat!), scones, jams, desserts, and - of course - tea. The atmosphere only enhanced the sense of occasion: white linen, fine china, 3-tiered serving dishes, and white-jacketed serving staff. There seemed to no end to the food and we all came away feeling quite stuffed.

With lunch out of the way, we had a few hours of free time until the evening events. We chose to wander a bit through Harrod's and take note of all the items we could not afford. You just know you're in the wrong place when, instead of a store directory, there are actual live human beings on each floor whose job it is to answer any and all questions. Some highlights of note: the pet department with it's 1000GBP cats, the oh-so-tacky 'Dodi and Diana' memorial, watching an Arab fellow - in full flowing garments - jumping on a bed to test it's comfort, and overhearing a well-dressed lady telling someone at the other of end of a cellphone that she'd only spent 10,000GBP so far.

We eventually found our way out of Harrod's - easier said than done - and took a stroll over to Kensington Gardens (Hyde Park) with the goal of seeing Kensington Palace (Diana's home at one time). The park was certainly idyllic on this Summer day. People were lounging about in chairs, trying to turn their pasty white skin to something approaching 'tanned'. Others were playing frisbee, paddling the Serpentine, even riding horses. The park was much larger than we anticipated, and the long walk left a mere 30 minutes in which to tour the Palace. We opted to just make our way back to Chancery Court by way of the Tube.

Navigating the pricing system for the London Underground requires mathematical understanding beyond my capability. In the end I simply thrust a wad of cash at a man behind some thick glass, and he returned all but 10GBP and some some single-use tickets for the 4 of us. All of that to ride a mere 6 stops back to the hotel. And the ride - crushingly crowded and lacking air conditioning. It was not one of the kids' more cherished experiences, but certainly a memorable one. Once back at the hotel, it was showers and dress-up time. Tonight was to be a fancy outing.

The evening started with a great meal at the members-only Soho Club in London's West End. We stuffed ourselves on roast beef, prawns, gourmet hamburgers, finger desserts, and on and on. Dinner was only a prelude to the evening's entertainment, however. We had prime seats to see Mary Poppins - the smash hit musical playing in London at the Prince Edward Theater. The theater was beautiful - very reminiscent of Toronto's Pantages (now Canon) theater. It was darn warm in the theater, however, and I was glad to have worn light clothes. As for the play itself, it was simply one of the best musical theater experiences I had ever had (and we've seen our fair share of theater)!

After the play, we were instructed to remain in the theater until the audience had left. And with that, the Stage Director appeared to give us a backstage tour! Being a very technical play, there were a lot of sets and props under computer control - and it was fascinating to see how everything worked. While we were not allowed to takes photos, our guides did get a group photo of all the kids lined up on the main set - a real keepsake!

After 40 minutes or so of poking around backstage, we were led out the back into the wilds of a West End evening. Music, shouting, and madness is all I can remember as we made our way back to the bus through the streets overflowing with theater patrons and clubbers. Soon enough, we were back at Chancery Court - ready for sleep, ready for day two.

The West End after the plays let out

Friday, February 15, 2008

Euro Day 6: Call Me A Cab!

It's July 13th - Friday, July 13th and, yes, this is just lazy foreshadowing.

At 8:30am we took our leave of Eagle House, Bathford under overcast skies with warm breezes to kiss us good-bye. Today would be D-Day - short for Disney Day - where we would be joining up with our Adventures by Disney Cities of Knights and Lights tour of London and Paris. Our first task was to drive 2 hours back to Heathrow airport so that we could return Blue Passat and meet our Disney Driver for a lift into London.

The trip was pretty uneventful, and I remarked how unfortunate it was that the whole driving thing was coming to an end just as I was learning how not to dig my fingernails into the steering wheel. One side note on this trip: we discovered the joy of gas prices in the UK by paying 31GBP for half a tank of diesel! We pulled into Avis Heathrow a little after 11am - slightly ahead of schedule. Our first taste of triskaidekaphobia kicked in when the good people at Avis discovered the damaged tyre (quite by accident, actually) and assessed a 78GBP charge. No problem. Let it go. Stay calm.

We pulled our caravan of wheeled suitcases onto the Avis shuttle and, soon enough, we were at the appointed Disney pickup spot (Terminal 3 Arrivals) with 30 minutes to spare. The plan was coming together. We'd made it from Bath on time and intact. Come Noontime, we'd be traveling in luxury into the heart of London. But no Disney Driver was to be found. I paced the Arrivals area peering at the many, many drivers holding up signs for their charges. No one was looking for me, however, and by 12:30pm, Dee elected to call the Disney 'emergency' number - long-distance to the US (why not a local number?). After a few calls back and forth, Disney acknowledged there had been a screw-up and that we should take a cab into London. Someone from Disney would be waiting for us at the hotel and would pay the fare. No problem. Let it go. Stay calm.

Tip: Make sure your cell-phone will work in England and France. Your cell-phone provider can tell you what frequencies/protocols your phone must support and what the per-minute charges will be. Carry along the ABD 'concierge' phone number as well.

The UK's heightened Counter Terrorist warning came to be a blessing where finding a taxi was concerned. As we walked to the taxi stand - looking annoyed and bewildered I'm sure - 2 uniformed officials quizzed us for a destination and immediately waved a cab to pick us up. The cab ride was unusual in the sense that the vehicle did not seem designed for the likes of us. The luggage rode shotgun with the driver and BandGeek was obliged to use a fold-down seat facing the rear of the cab. But 40 minutes and 60GBP later, we were standing in front of the amazing Chancery Court Hotel being greeted by Alexandra (Alex) - one of our guides for the next week.

Check-in was a breeze as Alex took care of everything, all the while apologizing for the Disney Driver screwup (apparently a miscommunication between Office Staff and Field Staff). We were even given an upgrade room for our troubles. The hotel - once home to The Pearl Insurance Company - was (and probably still is) as upscale as I'd ever encountered (pictures below). Alex was obviously in control of all details. All in all, fears of Friday the 13th melted from my brow.

Chancery Court

The Lobby

The ABD tour would officially kick-off at a group dinner scheduled for 5:30pm at the hotel. So after some quick freshening up and unpacking, we decided to kill the afternoon by visiting the British Museum since it's only about a 10-minute walk from Chancery Court. We had only limited time to tour the vast spaces of the Museum, so we elected to focus on seeing the Rosetta Stone and the Egyptian wing (especially the mummies). I had hoped to visit the Reading Room, but it was closed in preparation for a new exhibit that would not open for a few months. A small disappointment, but we had a great time nonetheless.

The British Museum

BandGeek ponders the Egyptians

Tip: The British Museum has free admission and is very close to the Chancery Court. As you're walking there - and if you're a Doctor Who fan - you might spot a shop that is full of figurines and models (Daleks, Tardis's, etc.). It's well worth a look.

At the appointed time, we met the rest of the tour group (aka The Gang) for the Welcome Reception. There were drinks (pop, wine, etc.) and snacks set out as we found a place at one of the tables. This was a chance to meet our fellow travelers. Alex and Andrew (our second ABD guide) handed out pieces of paper and instructed each of us to find out 10 interesting facts about other members of The Gang. I'm a fairly social guy when the need arises, but introducing myself to strangers and probing them for their secrets is a little out of my comfort zone. But this was actually a fun exercise since everyone had the same goal and motivation. Sure enough, we met a lot of people and found out some pretty neat facts. Examples: we were the only Canadians in The Gang, one mother/daughter couple were hopscotching their way from California to DisneyWorld, Ireland, ABD London/Paris, Disneyland Paris, and then ABD Italy (whew!), and one lady won the trip in a contest at her place of work - to name but a few. At 35 strong, The Gang was starting to bond.

After Alex and Andrew's overview of the week ahead, we retired to another room for dinner. The theme was basically 'all things British'. The buffet was a sampling of British fare (cue the jokes about British cuisine). The tables were decorated with British-inspired centerpieces. There was even a stand in the corner serving chips in newspaper cones. For those Gentle Readers who are thinking about taking this tour, I won't spoil any more of the surprises. Suffice to say that dinner was very enjoyable and the excitement in the room about the week ahead was palpable.

By 8pm, The Gang was drifting off to their rooms, and we followed suit. Tomorrow would be a busy day including a double-decker bus tour, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace, tea at Harrod's..... And that's only part of the day's plans - which I'll talk about in the next post.

Bedtime Snack

Tip: While Disney does run the show, don't expect to be inundated with Mickey Mouse and the like. This is, indeed, a vacation tour. From the get-go it will be obvious that Disney is employing their exceptional strengths in customer service, 'themeing', and ability to 'tell stories'.

Saturday, February 09, 2008

Euro Day 5: Splish Splash

Eagle House's garden entrance

July 12, 2007. It's Thursday, so it must be time for a Bath. One full day of sightseeing and one last day on our own before the good people at Disney start running the show. After a quiet breakfast at Eagle House, we pointed Blue Passat towards Bath. Dee was slightly annoyed that our morning dawdling might mean we'd be late for the 10am walking tour of Bath. The tour was free - hosted at the local Tourist Information (TI) office in Bath. Based on the great experiences thus far with free tours, Dee was not about to miss out.

Blue Passat knew the way back to the Cricket Grounds and we were at the TI with 10 minutes to spare (and lash marks across our backs!). In reality, the tour did not start until 10:30am, and we were obliged to cool our heels in the small square outside the TI. We passed the time watching dodgy-looking street folk try to keep the pigeons at bay. Good times. Soon enough we met our guide Myra - an elderly native of Bath with an encyclopedic knowledge of local history and architecture. For the next 2 hours Myra led us through back alleys and across broad boulevards and kept us rapt with her stories. The kids were generally engaged, although JediBoy did wane towards the 90-minute mark. We all agreed that Bath - with its Roman/Victorian stonework, lush green spaces, and the River Avon - was among the most beautiful cities we'd seen so far.

Bath phone booth
Bath counil flats - i.e. public housing

After a quick lunch - a Yorkshire pudding bowl filled with beef in ale, all designed to hide those hideous peas - we decided to dive into the algae-tinged waters from which Bath got its name. Actually, we decided to stroll casually beside the waters, in the Roman baths. As luck would have it, we fell into yet another free tour as we passed the turnstile. I think we got far more out of the tour than had we wandered about the ruins on our own simply reading the posters and signboards. The baths are an interesting combination of Roman engineering with a thick layer of Victorian dramatis on top. The waters begin some 4 kilometers below ground from where the hot water literally bubbles to the surface. The sickly green tinge is a result of hot water meeting sunlight. Back in the day, the now-open-air baths where sheltered by a wooden roof, and the waters would have been clear and inviting. As well, the baths were once part a larger complex available to the average Roman to cater to their more 'sensual' needs. I think our modern-day spas probably pale in comparison.

Main bath complex
View of Bath Abbey from the main bath complex

As a fitting end to our tour of the Roman baths, we adjourned to the famous Pump Room - a Victorian tea room that overlooks the baths. Included in the bath admission price is the opportunity to sample a glass of (filtered) bath water from a pump located in the aforementioned tea room. The theory: drinking the heavy mineralized water has curative properties. The reality: the water is a rather acquired taste. I found it not too bad, but with a vile aftertaste. I await The Cure, however.

We banished the taste of bath water with a quick ice cream snack out on the square. As the minerals washed from our tongues, we listened to the variety of street performers that earn coins from the tourists. My favourite was a dreadlocked Jamaican fellow who only knew 2 songs - and only 2 or 3 lines from each song - which he simply repeated over and over as he mugged for the tourists. What he lacked in talent he made up for in bravado.

Also skirting the square is the Bath Abbey. It's quite ornate for an Abbey and proved all the more interesting by the fact that Myra (leader of the morning tour) had educated us a bit on the symbolism in the Abbey's stone carvings. As luck would have it, the Bath Philharmonic was holding a public rehearsal - which afforded us a lovely concert as we sat in one of the rear pews.

Bath Abbey tower
Inside Bath Abbey

It was nearing mid-afternoon at this point, and we had decided to have dinner in Bath rather than driving back to Bathford. As we strolled over near the River Avon we noticed there were a number of small, 2-deck tour boats sitting idle. This would be a perfect way to kill some time before dinner and relax a bit. Long story short, the Avon cruises are relaxing for sure (and the on-board beverage service didn't hurt either). However, these tours have little in the way of historical narrative. These are really just 60-minute scenic trips, and that was just fine for us.

A fellow Avon River tourboat
Boat rentals on the Avon River

Refreshed from bobbing up and down the Avon, we strolled the narrow alleys of Bath a bit - looking for someplace to grab a bite to eat. We settled on a light dinner of sandwiches at Bath's (in)famous Sally Lunn's - known for it's signature "Sally Lunn's buns" - small round loaves of bread. This local eatery has a history stretching back 300 years, and the atmosphere doesn't disappoint. The food did not disappoint either and we found ourselves purchasing some buns to go.

With our stomachs full, it was time to say good-bye to Bath and head back to Eagle House. We would cap off our wonderful day with a walking tour of Bathford. There has been a community on the town site since Roman times, with the local church - St. Swithun's - in existance since the 1300's. The village looks like what a small English village ought to look - if it were haunted. Stone walls bordering narrow lanes, an ancient church with an adjacent graveyard, stone buildings surrounded by stone walls, greenery overgrowing everything, and no human activity other than a couple of fellow tourists walking the same circuit as us. The village is beautiful and yet so foreign to us North Americans. But I couldn't shake the whole Children of the Damned vibe.

Bathford near dusk
The family walking in lonely Bathford

And at that, we retired back to Eagle House to pack our vagabound belongings and prepare for another travel day ahead. Tomorrow, we would head back to Heathrow and turn ourselves over to the good people at Adventures by Disney.

Saturday, February 02, 2008

Avoiding the Bedroom

There was a time not so long ago when Highway 400 was exactly what's it's called - a highway. In those days, people would drive upwards of 100 km/h (or more!) to travel between Barrie - a medium-sized city - and Toronto* - a very big city.

*GTA is a more accurate name, but does anybody outside the GTA really know where Vaughn begins and ends? I thought not.

Nowadays, Barrie lives within the economic event-horizon of the GTA (see, I can do it!) and the 400 is just another commuter lane. For all intents and purposes, Barrie is now a bedroom community of Toronto - like Mississauga, Etobicoke, York, and the rest of the GTA gang. It's just another checkpoint in the mad rush to flee Toronto's environs. It's a chance to barter an extra-long commute and much less family time for affordable housing and a patch of green near the back door.

The results have been predictable, of course. Housing is no longer affordable. The population of Barrie falls and swells to the workaday rhythms of those glass-skirted skyscrapers to the south. And the 400, it's just another parking lot. For those wretched souls sitting inside their cars or their GO trains, madly mashing their thumbs into their Blackberries to send their assurances they'll make the second half of Junior's soccer game, this cannot be a life fully imagined.

So why do I care?

I care because London - our all-mixed-up, little-town-in-big-britches London - is slowly and almost inexorably headed for Toronto's bedroom. It's true that we have a little more geography between Us and Them, but it's mattering less.

Our own economic giants of yesterday are gone or disappearing. The examples - they're easy to find. Canada Trust is being held hostage somewhere near the Skydome while London Life is tethered to a post at Portage and Main. These institutions once gave us the economic clout to stand on our own and thrive. The echoes of what's left tell another story. While the buildings still stand, they are but branch plants serving masters beyond the farms and hills that have always provided a sort of common sense to the city as a whole. We all know there are other examples. The London Free Press, McCormick's, O-Pee-Chee - no longer master's of their own domains.

So where am I going with this?

It's all part of of an unhealthy trend - these worrisome clues:

City Hall, the Chamber of Commerce, and LHBA chant the mantra that 'Growth is good' - all the while having no real vision what we're supposed to be when we 'grow up'. Mississauga is offered as a model. Being small-townish is now provincial and to be avoided. Success is to be measured by size - big homes, big geography, big box.

Housing prices in London have risen sharply, and no one can really explain why. Housing starts are at all-time highs while our jobless rate stubbornly sticks to 6% year after year.

The city has spawned unimaginative tentacles of bland subdivisions into the countryside, using more bland big-box stores to serve as battlements against being a Livable City. In it's wake the core crumbles. And the final irony - big boxes abandon their boxes for bigger boxes a little closer to the edge of town. And we follow along.

Our local economy lurches toward the Scylla and Charybdis of a weak economic base - Call Centers and Auto Manufacturing. As both industries siphon themselves to places where the sun is warmer and wages are lower, we in London continue to celebrate and embrace them.

More and more, private sector, high-incomes earners live in London and work (at least part-time) somewhere else. Check the Via station or airport on a weekday morning, and you'll find Londoners (unhappily) doing their regular commute to Somewhere Else (Toronto and Winnipeg are regularly destinations). Some forward-thinking companies are even running their own daily bus shuttle between London and the GTA. London has become cheap office space, but we don't run our own show, it seems. Is this a life fully imagined?

In short, we are becoming our own Mississauga. No real focus or identity or personality of our own. No real control over our own lives. No longer author's of our own stories. A home-grown service industry susceptible to the economic whims of grey suits in other places.

This is not a screed against Toronto or growth or economic success. This is simply my small wake-up cry that we're no longer calling our own shots. And I fear it will get worse.

I have no answers, really. We need to keep focused on our strengths - medicine, education, a still-reasonable standard of living, culture, etc. But we need economic decision-makers in London. We need to be masters of our own domain once more. We need to support the notion of 'being local'.

So how about it you Londoners, you LEDCers, you City Hallers, you Ambassadors - how do we stay out of the bedroom?