January 2015

Making a quick cursory glance around my place I exit and descend the stairs as John and Dustin are waiting for me. "Here's your pay for the week, I'll get a receipt later." We say our goodbyes and I go back inside. We came back early from the Kilt Tour and fortunately our last gig in Murphy, North Carolina was just 120 or so miles away, a mere stone's throw by CDG's standard of measurement, but these were 'slow miles' - meaning most were backroads and not Interstate. So I ascend back to my place and start to make a more thorough accounting of my accoutrements I shall require for my trip to London, England for some R&R. A true vacation I'm taking and I've got my dear friend Arabella who lives there to be my guide and companion for my travels. My flight leaves in the early evening and arrives in the early morning there (being 5 hours ahead in London). I start to tell myself to try and stay up as long as I can so that I can set my sleep patterns right the first night there. I get to the somewhat-new International terminal at the Atlanta Airport, which incidentally I like because it's way less crowded and it still retains a bit of its 'shiny new' look to it. We board the flight and lamentably the plane is of an older age, my screen is a bit cracked so its response to my fingertouch is a bit off. I'm lucky I have a tiny screen in front of me at all, rather than the archaic and slightly draconian overhead screens that are still employed on some flights. Really?!, we're 15 years into the 21st century and the airlines have been maximizing their profits with negotiated terms with labor unions to hold firm on wages, lessen the number of flights to fill more seats, oversell the seating capacity, reduce the meals (at least they still have meals), and charge for baggage which has been a huge windfall for the industry. Even when fuel costs fluctuate downward at times, the prices go up and never down. But hey, I've still got a screen so quit yer' cryin'! And there's always my trusty book that I brought along.

My plane arrives and Immigration and Customs is easy and the mellifluous sound of the British accent flows into my ears. Lovely. Arabella is there outside to greet me and we depart Heathrow. She mercifully brought her car so that the trip she's making to drop me off at my hotel in the Kennsington area will be most convenient. There's just the heroic London traffic to navigate now. A few years back, I came here with Tomomi (London is her favorite town by the way) and Celeste for a vacation and took up driving duties because we were planning on seeing not just Stonehenge and the Magna Carta's place of residence, but also Scotland as well. Train travel would've been sufficient but we decided to retain a bit of our American culture and shell out the big bucks for an automobile. So I do know a bit about the traffic scene in England and yes, I did make a number of directional mistakes - sorry, old chap! After expertly weaving, waiting and crawling through the morning rush hour traffic we arrive at my hotel. A Best Western with a 4-star rating so I was a bit intrigued. I had called earlier before embarking on my trip to arrange for an early check-in due to my exhausted state of overnight travel time in an airplane and happily the hotel accommodated me. The lobby was nice but economically sized complete with tables and chairs to act as the breakfast room no doubt, and surprisingly I was offered the option of choosing my room. The first shown to me had modern décor inside but reminded me of a hotel in Japan. Although the bed was Queen size (how befitting), the room was basically a square configuration with approximately two feet of space around three sides of an exposed bed. A bit comfy, but like the contestants do on Let's Make A Deal, I opted to see what the second choice had in store. The second room was basically the same but there was an entrance hall with the door to the 'loo' (the left) and the same aforementioned square arrangement but with a charming little work area and a diminutive closet apparatus. "I'll take this one", I said and opted for the second showcase. By this time I was starting to fade, so much for staying up as late as I could. I needed a respite to regain my cheery self so I could start to enjoy the sights and sounds that this grand setting had to offer. As Arabella was parking the car at a rather large shopping mall a few miles away, because the parking rates were cheap, I decided to lay down for a quick nap while she worked her way back here. I needed this rest because we were to start off soon and the game was afoot!

Traveling on the road so much and being in hotels all the time, I have developed a few needs I look for in my temporary homes. I'm a simple fellow who desires but a few things to make my stay comfortable:

1. Nice pillows - Feather preferably so long as they're not tired, old, flat things that have long outlasted their usefulness. At least two; one for my head and the other to prop up my arm as I sleep on my side (what can I say, I'm getting on in my years).

2. An air conditioner that has a fan option that stays on. Some units will stop after reaching a set temperature and come on intermittently, thus you've got the fan sound or 'white noise' coming on then shutting off, coming on then shutting off. Some do it in excruciating random patterns that annoy me while lying in bed in a noiseless room. Others will only stay on if you put it on a fan setting that's below freezing so you have to hunker down in the blankets and hope you don't see your breath when you wake! Due to the 'rock n' roll' level that I perform at, I always go to bed with a slight case of tinnitus, so to offset the 'ring' in my ear I require the fan's 'white noise' to cancel it out so I can sleep more soundly (an odd choice of words, I know).

3. A good showerhead. This is such an asset for a hotel I believe. You need to have good pressure, too. The hotel I had in London by far had one of the best showerheads I've ever experienced. As I got into its modern layout with glass doors and big, neutral earthtone tiles, I noticed at first that there was a 'wand' or hand-held showerhead. I refer to these as 'Euro-showers' due to the ubiquitous nature of them placed in hotels of all levels.

So I step in and start to man the controls, adjust my water temperature and water starts shooting out the wand's end. I do notice this third dial on top of the 'hot and cold' handles, so I turn it and 'Whoosh!' - a sudden downpour is hitting me directly on the crown of my head. It is unbelievably consistent in both density and warmth. This is AWESOME!!! I had failed to notice the round 'Sunflower'-like showerhead placed right in the middle of the small rectangular space that is the shower in the room. Then I notice the temp-governor dial and I turn for more heat and it responds! I'm starting to consider turning this vacation in London to a 'stay-cation' in my London hotel! Plus the mirror in the 'loo' is one of those heated ones so when you get out of your shower there's a clear no-fog square in the middle. I'm starting to see the reasoning behind the 4-star rating. Totally legit in my book. Soap dishes are always a welcome ditty as well (so I'll file that as 3a under things I want in hotel rooms).

Now on to the trip. Today my hostess is providing me a ride in her car up to the little hamlet of Stratford-Upon-the-Avon. It's a quiet little tourist town with a quaint little river bisecting its small center and charming canalboats that float down it. I'm interested in this locale because it's also the birthplace of William Shakespeare. Born here and dying here, his shadow is long and far reaching. It's Shakespeare's insight into our humanity that intrigues me most as well as his command and cadence with the English language. On this gloomy day of overcast clouds and a bit of biting wind adding to the chill, we wander about Stratford windowshopping and gazing at the 'touristy' trinkets and such being sold in the name of Shakespeare and his legacy. We stroll down to the area where the canalboats dock and see a few waterfowl languishing in and around the pond. There's a butterfly house that we venture in, a bit of an escape from the 'All-things-Bill' in the town and we find it lovely inside; what with the frigid temps outside and the tropical moistness for the butterflies, we're pleasantly amused by the extremes. We then come upon this tree that stands in a park that people have knitted together patches and have set about sewing them together around and on the tree. With its trunk covered and most of the lower branches wrapped, the tree gives off this colorful painted appearance when seen from afar. It's only up close you notice it's not paint but fabric adorning it - really cool I have to admit. I can't exactly remember the cause or organization that's behind this wonderful undertaking but I like it. I've just been informed the cause is called 'A Remembrance Tree' (funny I couldn't remember that). It's getting close to traditional 'Tea Time' in England, 4 p.m., so my hostess tells me we're going to do a 'Cream Tea' today. Sounds yummy. Cream Tea is a pot of tea, duh, and two scones along with a portion of cream along with some jam. Strawberry is given at this establishment. I choose the tea, Earl Grey, and after they present us our tray with everything on it, we ascend to a charming room upstairs. It's a lovely time and we kind of review what we've seen today and start to talk about departure time to head back into the city. We both realize we haven't seen much of anything 'Shakespeare-like' except for his birthplace and home and we comment wryly on how 'touristy' the town is but we both agree it'd be more interesting here when more activities towards the favorite son would be in full swing; namely the summertime. For now we drink the last of the Earl Grey and with it being so close to 5 p.m. the sun has gone and it's growing darker and darker. We make our way back by bus to the parking lot her vehicle is parked at and start our drive back to Londontown. On the way back she puts in a Natalie Merchant cd. I've always liked her, even back in the early years when she was with 10,000 Maniacs, but I haven't heard much of her solo stuff other than her radio hits. They are pleasant and perfect songs to listen to while riding on a dark, lazy, rainy night. We get into town on the heels of rush hour and she drops me off at my hotel and I ascend the stairs and go to bed. Wow, today I was standing in front of Shakespeare's house. Wow!

As the rosy fingers of dawn stretched across the sky outside my window, I start to stir underneath my covers and think about my itinerary for this day. My hostess up until this time has been gracious with her time in accompanying me and showing me the 'lay-of-the-land', driving me here and there and 'holding-my-hand' through the tricky navigations of the Underground and those charming double-decker buses. Today though I will be on my own for the first part as the real world has snatched her back and she must go to work today. I believe, with the aforementioned 'tutelage' I was given the preceding days, I can strike out on my own with a certain amount of confidence. I was headed to that stately dome known around the world as 'St. Paul's Cathedral'. It's pretty amazing how the dome of St. Paul's looks like our own Capitol dome in D.C. I stop to take a few pics of the outside of this grand structure and admire its form and construction completed back in 1711. All this time the church has withstood the bombings of WWII and financial hard times. It's an Anglican Church also serving as the home to the Bishop of London. Many ceremonious events have been held here; the diamond jubilees of both Queen Victoria and Elizabeth II, the funerals of Nelson and Churchill and the wedding of Charles & Diana to name a few. So with those reverent thoughts I venture inside. I snap a photo in the front and of the entrance way as I enter, but after paying the rather stiff admission, 17 pounds (around $28 or so), I ask respectfully if photo-taking is allowed inside. I'm informed politely 'No'. Oh bugger. I shall have to rely on subtlety and subterfuge to snap a few, but I must keep it on the down-low. I see many 'hall monitors' walking and standing about on patrol and I would not invite being caught and receiving a possible expulsion and forfeiture of my 'princely' admission charge - but not before what I would believe to be a thorough 'dressing down' by one of the monitors - made all the more humiliating given to me in terse, condescending, proper English. Oh possible the indignity! So, with my 'official' one photo of the entrance to the magnificent building, I venture inside. I've been in a few churches around the world and some of repute, too. The Duomo in Milan, Notre Dame in Paris, St. Vitus in Prague, St. Basil in Red Square and even church #1 for me, being brought up Catholic, commonly known as the St. Peter's Basilica. Can't forget Our Lady of Guadalupe Basilica in Mexico City, both of them; New and Old, and some of the many fine ones in the states and more I haven't mentioned from around the world cuz' I'm starting to realize I've been to a lot. I'm humbled to add St. Paul's from London to this list. The wide nave, ubiquitous to this kind of church, with its great columns standing and its high, arched ceilings, is breathtaking. I go straight towards the area beneath its great dome and take a seat in the chairs set up for viewing and reflection. But not before I genuflect. Old habits die hard. I sat there a good 10 to 15 minutes just taking it all in and looking up every now and then. I did notice other people taking pictures with their cellphones, some being a bit obvious about it, but I still preferred the more subtle manner of snapping one. I did manage one pointing up at the dome, but not at the beautiful walls and adornments around me. Having just completed a multi-million pound renovation not too long ago, it showed. The golds gleamed and the colors were rich. I went up the stairs towards the 'Whispering Gallery'. From there I can look down to where I was sitting. I snapped some shots here, too. After some more reverent ruminating, I wanted to see London from the 'Stone Gallery'. This is the space outside the dome and here you can see all of London in a 360-degree view around the circumference of the dome. Here I was free to 'snap-away' with my phone and I did. London, with all its history and desire to preserve as much of it as they can, is a mash-up of old and new architecture that I think works quite well. It's on good display from where I'm standing and it's no wonder this city is a major attraction for tourists. I descend to roam around the other parts of the nave, but can't go into the Apse or choir area cuz' it's restricted, but I do take a gander at the various statues and monuments to Heroes and statesmen of England's past and read their plaques. I didn't go down in the crypts where Lord Nelson is buried, I should've gotten my money's worth and done it, but I felt satisfied by what the structure and the main interior had to offer. Pretty grand I'd have to say. Beauty like this is food for the soul. I exit the cathedral and take a few more photos of the exterior from street level. I've spent the better part of almost 2 hours here and I figure it's time to be going. I walk down to the Thames and sit on a bench along the riverwalk and have a quick snack while looking at the bridge. I watch the runners jog by and it made me kind of want to join 'em but I was not outfitted for it. I sat and serenely ate and observed. Lovely. With the Tower Bridge to my left and Big Ben to my right, although I couldn't see it, I started off for Tower Bridge by way of the river walk. The Tower of London is to my left as I continue towards Tower Bridge to rendezvous with my hostess after she gets off work. Ah, the history this castle evokes. From its origins coming from William the Conqueror after the battle of Hastings in 1066, the castle was William's effort to solidify his holdings and defensive posture in his newly acquired territory. Serving also as an official residence for some Kings of England, a prison with the notorious reputation as the last place you'd want to be sent to and now home to the Crown Jewels. I lamentably could only gaze at it while I passed because this was not on my itinerary of places to visit. Besides the small fortune you pay to get into this storied complex, I was a bit short on time for my meet-up so I opted for a few snaps of pics as I assiduously walked by. The crowds are getting a bit thick in this area due to the close proximity of the Tower Bridge, another popular destination for many. With construction starting in 1886 and completion and opening for traffic in mid-1894, (Brooklyn Bridge in Manhattan is actually older and much bigger in span but not a drawbridge), it draws its name not just from the two towers that act as a support structure, but mainly for its proximity to the Tower of London. I remember hearing about this bridge in school and imagined it as a grand span both in length and width, but when I first toured England in 1995 our touring 'lorry' traversed this storied span in a matter of seconds. 'Was that it?' I must admit I equated the bridge's haughty reputation and legend with actual physical size and in my naïve notions was a bit unsatisfied. A modest if not barely adequate 2-lane affair handling approximately a mixture of tens of thousands of people crossing over the river Thames in cars, trucks and by foot but, not to be forgotten, it still serves as a functioning drawbridge with nautical traffic passing between raised bascules on a fairly routine basis. Today was not one of them but so much the better for me as I am running a bit behind. With my trusty iPhone to help guide me through the antiquated layout that is the London backstreets, I reach my destination in time and my hostess and I set out for the Globe Theatre. Not the original mind you, that structure was built in 1599 and destroyed by fire in 1613 and rebuilt on the same site in 1614 but closed in 1642. The current structure was built in 1997 and stands very near the original location from the 17th century. Since we're here on a weekday and the admission to tour the inside is again a bit of a sum, we forgo the tour and opt to peruse the gift shop for things Shakespearean. There were some productions being held there closer to the weekend but they were not Shakespeare plays and for me to lay down the 'big quid' it would have to be one of those plays. But it's all good, the gifts and trinkets from the shop will suffice. From there we start to walk towards Big Ben, Parliament & the Westminster area. Staying parallel with the Thames, we stop in a city-sponsored Children's Science and Activity Center. My hostess had taken her young son here on occasion and we ducked in to get warmth from the biting chill and wind. At one point we were looking down over a rail onto a lower floor and watching a couple practicing a dance routine. They had a small boom box playing a song and they were going over the moves they had planned out. I didn't expect to see this on my trip but it was pleasant to watch as we warmed up. With the sun going down over London we left the Center and continued our way towards Big Ben and past the huge Ferriswheel nearby. The cold has put a damper on this tourist's desire to ride up there since it was one of those typical gray, cloudy days the month of January brings this time of year. I snap a few more pics in this area and pass on the temptations of the Big Ben area because of declining visibility. We instead head for a train station and start our way out towards my hotel. My hostess has offered to cook me a meal and so we detour and go out to her flat to grab a bite. This detour will require us switching to another line. We get off at a station and start to head for the exit, but my host moans a bit and informs me that this is an old station and we're on one of the most underground of lines, so the next platform we need is way up on the first level. There's a lift we can ride up on but due to the age of this platform there's only one big lift to accommodate the commuters. Mind you we're right in the rush hour period. As we walk towards the lift it's obvious from the congregating of people waiting in this undulating mass that this might take a while. She informs me that there are stairs but 'it's a bit of a huff'. Pfft!, please, while on tour if my hotel room is below 10 stories I always take the stairs. Go for the calorie burn is what I say. Even with all my stuff on my back, I still make the trek. Being without my instruments and clothes and hygiene needs how hard can this be? "I'm taking the stairs", "Meet you up top" she says and I head for the stairs. Hmm, not many people choosing the stairs. I notice there's just a few, and I mean a 'few' people traveling my direction and it's in the complete opposite direction to the lift. 'What's keeping these people away?' I think to myself. At the base of the spiral stairs a sign informs the pedestrian that it will be 197 steps to the top. 'Oh, this is why', as I answer my earlier query. The stairs are wide and able to accommodate many people plus they're not that steep and of modest height, about 9" or so. Just set a pace and start, Chris. My practicing to a metronome has given me a natural intrinsic tempo I can default to. I set mine for this purpose, which happens to be around 150 - 160 bpm and start my ascension. There's another young couple that started the trek a little before me and as I pass them fairly early over the next minute or so. They start to fall behind and the sound of their footsteps becomes more distant. They're French and I can hear them talking to one another, and although I can't follow French very well, I can tell by the tone and cadence they've bitten off more than they can chew and before they've realized it, they're past the point of turning around and must endure the climb. We had all crossed the Rubicon, but I was faring much better as I strived to keep up my pace and they fell more and more behind. Signs were still posted reporting your progress or diminishing your strength depending on how you looked at it; 'Oh good I'm halfway there', or 'WTF!? I'm only halfway there!' I'll admit around step number 150 or so I was starting to call up the reserves but I stayed pretty steady. Upon reaching the top I quickly made my way to the disembarking area for the lift and I had beaten my hostess to the top. I stood there in a winded pose with my arms akimbo on my hips looking for a bit of commendation for my athletic undertaking. 'You OK?' I didn't think I looked out of breath. I answer with a nod of my head, ok maybe a little. 'Right. Let's go' I trailed behind trying to catch up as she briskly walked towards the exit turnstiles. When we arrive at her flat she informs me that she needs some items to prepare the meal so I'm called on to go to the corner store to pick up a few items. She asks me to pick up a few Ales to drink later. I ask her what kind and she says 'whatever, you decide.' I tell her I am the last person you'd want trying to pick Ale or any kind of beer when it comes to taste. Since I have never been a drinker of beer or ales, I can only use the quality/cost formula; Expensive = good taste. She smiles and says I trust you. OK, another adventure. Most of my fans know that I don't drink and that I've never been a big drinker, especially when it comes to beer. Just never liked it, or I should say I've never acquired the palate or taste to discern one from another. It all pretty much tastes the same to me. I had some, so I was told, really good beer while in Belgium a long time ago, but I couldn't tell the difference. Just not my bag, baby. So I defer to my next standard of choosing; interesting name. So I see 'Spitfire', ooh, the plane that turned back the invading German Luftwaffe and helped win the Battle for Britain in WWII, which sounds good. Aw look, the 'Fuzzy Ferret', a bit on the rodent side but rats and bawdy times go with pubs and drinking don't they? Sounds good, so I grab those two and at the checkout counter the clerk informs me that ales are 3 for 5 quid, would I want another? Sure why not, let's see…..Old Red Hen is appealing enough for me. The clerk looks amused as do some of the other people in line cuz' I'm making my choosing out to be this semi-celebratory like event. I'm announcing my choice in a typical loud American tourist voice as I stride back to the counter holding the ale out in front of me and elevated a bit as if I found some kind of valuable artifact. All the other customers in line are waiting for me to return because I've held up the check-out process for this 3rd choice. They exhibit proper British courtesy to me and tolerate my obvious delight in turning a quotidian errand into something fun. I make the short walk back and proudly present my purchases to my hostess and she can't help but smile at me cuz' I'm feeling a bit 'puffed up' by the whole experience. 'You can be such a tart sometimes, Chris.'
We eat this delicious vegetarian dish she prepared and I head back to the hotel. One more day tomorrow and I've still got to finish seeing the paintings at the National Gallery and another famous 'fab' spot that's on my list. The night folds in and I go to sleep.

- Chris Duarte