Not as angry, however, as the screamy American woman who was yelling at the shuttlebus desk clerk, complaining that although she booked a pair of shuttlebus passes for her and her daughter for transport from Heathrow Terminal 3, the fact that she had come in at Terminal 3 and her daughter was coming in at Terminal 1 should mean that the shuttlebus company needed to fix the problem immediately! The clerk was more polite and calm with her than I would have been, I tell ya. After the yelly woman left, I said to the clerk "I hope you don't think all Americans are that rude!" She said of course she didn't and that I was a very polite little stuffed bull and anyway, she had thought I was Canadian. You see, it's because I'm so polite.
Check-in to the hotel was swift and efficient and I whooshed up to my lovely, spacious room quickly and dropped off my many economically-packed but still startin'-to-get-heavy bags. Tradition kind of takes over at this point, because what I usually do when I arrive in the daytime after a night flight from America is head up the little garden path that runs behind Wrights Lane ("The Sneaky Way") to the High Street Kensington Tube Station, which also hosts a lot of lovely little shops. My goal was Boots the Chemist and/or Pret a Manger, to get sandwiches, crisps, the delicious pineapple-grapefruit soda called Lilt (seriously, the best soft drink ever), and then head back to the hotel for a quick brisk lunch followed by a catch-up nap. But my eagerness and excitement at being in London led me instead straight through the shopping centre to the High Street, where I burst into an ear-to-ear grin and a swelling in my heart as I whispered to myself "I'm in London." And I couldn't help it; the need for a nap was forgotten as I strolled out across the zebra crossing onto the Christmas-decorated High Street Kensington. First stop: the area W. H. Smith, where I picked up this week's Radio Times (featuring a free Doctor Who audio CD, whoo hoo! I love how many free prizes you get with British magazines!) and Time Out London. Both were special year-end double-issues which were very good value for money: not only because of the free CD but also because both cover all the time I'm going to be in London in single big fat holiday issues. I'm sure I will find many more exciting things to do and watch in their glossy pages. Down to the basement of W. H. Smith to peer at the books and Christmas games and toys (including the still-intriguing-to-me Ant or Dec's Saturday Night Takeaway Board Game). Pity so many of the cool games are DVD-oriented: UK DVDs don't run on US players. I really must get an all-regions DVD player; I'm going to especially feel that need if I walk into the BBC store this trip and see all the wonderful DVDs that haven't yet been released in the US.
Out of W. H. Smith, but not before I hear a cranky and possibly bonkers British woman complain to the salesclerk about something going on outside that the police must stop. The clerk, like I, am baffled by the fact that she never explains what it is, just that the police need to be called. I peer out cautiously as I exit W. H. Smith. Aside from a woman wearing white shoes at the bus stop to Chelsea, there's no signs of criminal activity.
Back across the street I pop into Japanese design store Muji to see if they have a new or different version of last year's favorite London gift item, "London in a Bag". Sadly, they don't, so it's a wander down the busy Christmas-shopping street to Waterstone's, one of my fave London chain bookstores. I can usually spend hours in a bookstore but now the weariness and jet lag is running smack-dab over the adrenaline and excitement, and I start to feel tired and detached, so I wander slowly back to Boots, where I buy a lunch of Lilt (as I said, the best soft drink ever), an All-Day-Breakfast sandwich (the best sandwich ever!) and some amusingly flavoured crisps (no, Bully fans, I don't get the roast ox flavour!) Plus, no meal is complete in London without a sweet, so it's a delicious, crumply Cadbury Flake bar, the light alternative to a heavy chocolate bar but with all the taste. I fall asleep on my hotel bed in an all-day-breakfast haze, and nap for a couple hours dreaming of London.
It's dark and cold outside when I wake up and head out for dinner. It's definitely colder this year that it was at this point here last year, and I'm glad I brought my snug cap and warm gloves to keep my horns and hooves from getting frosty. (The driver on the shuttle bus told me earlier that last year's weather was the exception at this time of year.) I stroll back down High Street Kensington, now filled with post-work shoppers, listening to London playlists on my iPod, and turn left down Earl's Court Road, heading for my traditional first-night dinner: Pizza Express. Sure, they're a chain, but I love 'em: utterly predictable but slightly upscale gourmet pizza and Italian food that just always hits the spot perfectly, plus they're well within a little stuffed bull's budget. More to the point, I've been making a Pizza Express meal my first-night-in-London tradition on the past six trips I've had here, and who am I to break a tradition? Not me!
After a spicy saucy Diavolo pizza (hot peppers and spicy sausage), a creamy Caesar salad (hooray, a place that actually puts anchovies on their Caesar!) and a glass of hearty Shiraz (yes, we're in Europe, so a little stuffed bull is allowed to have a little wine), the walk home seems much less cold than before, and I do a little more window-shopping on the way home, stopping and wandering through the Waitrose grocery store at the corner of High Street and Earl's Court (and wishing I had a microwave in my otherwise lovely hotel room so I could buy the make-it-yourself sticky toffee pudding), and then a return visit to Waterstone's, where I still don't buy anything. In the words of Blackie, you'd be a mug to buy before Christmas if you don't need to get presents: so many things in Waterstone's and other British shops go on sale for half price or less on Boxing Day after Christmas. I especially have my eye on some of the British pop and comic annuals; last year they had 'em at 99p the day after Christmas. And while I would dearly love that big new Spike Milligan book, at £18.99, it's nearly forty bucks in American money and even if it is marked down after Christmas, it'll probably still be cheaper to order it from Amazon.co.uk when I'm back home. Yet another triumph of the internet over the High Street.
So I wander back to the hotel, enjoying the night streets. There are some many different times of day that I dearly love in London, and although twilight/dusk is my favorite (and I'll probably talk about it at some point this week, the wonderfully warm feeling the first onset of twilight brings me), London at night is a close second. Even though so much closes early by comparison with America, it's definitely a town that has a thriving nightlife, yes, but that's not the attraction of it to me: I am not a wine bar or clubbing kind of bull. No, I love to walk the side streets after dark and see the lights (especially if there are Christmas trees) behind the gauze curtains of those big old flats, and see people heading for home, their breathes frosty on the night air, with parcels and bags of Christmas presents. I like the quiet and the stillness of London by night, where you can stand in a side street or mews for many minutes and not hear a sound, so well insulated they are from the main street's traffic. I like the sound of a tube train pulling into Kensington High Street Underground station as I walk back along the pathway to the hotel. I like the low but warm glow of the lights of the city on the horizon: not as orange and sharp as Manhattan, but vibrant and romantic. One of my favorite CDs, not only in London but all the time, is John Williams's (not the Star Wars composer, but a classical guitarist by the same name) album Echoes of London. Again, that CD is probably something I'll talk about a bit later this week, because I want to devote a piece or two to favorite soundtrack moments on my iPod for London, but for now I'll mention that one of my favorite tracks is a slow and gentle instrumental melody called...you guessed it..."London by Night," a song composed by Noel Coward. Hearing it, whether I'm here right now or away in America most of them time, transports me immediately to the quiet gentle grace of London after dark that I so love. I've listened to it so many, many times in the John Williams version that I never knew considered their were lyrics to it (makes sense if you consider Noel Coward wrote it!) One of the famous covers is by Mister Frank Sinatra, and I guess I'll have to get that track on my iPod at some point, although it probably will never make me feel the same way the guitar version does. A quick glance at the useful, handy internet provides the lyrics, and gosh-darn if a song that I never knew had words actually does have lyrics that are absolutely pitch-perfect with the way I feel in my heart about London:
London by night is a wonderful sightBack in the hotel, I blog to you, my faithful Bully-backers, while watching a nature documentary on Channel Four about a whale that beached itself in the Thames near Albert Bridge earlier this year. Like the tale of Togo the Penguin last year, it's not a story that has a happy ending, and there's actually quiet a lot of gruesome shots of whale autopsy as they determine how the whale went so far off target in its migration to wind up dying in the center of London. It's a sad cautionary tale about how our pollution of the ocean, both chemical and sound, led to the whale's death. It's fascinating but in the end a bit of a downer, so I switch over to LondonTV and learn about many interesting touristy things to do, including a punk rock karaoke bar in Islington. It sounds like a lot of fun, but a quick look at the web tells me the club is currently closed. Way to be up to date, London TV!
There is magic abroad in the air
I'm often told that the streets turn to gold
When the moon shines on Circus and Square.
I said i was going to keep this short. Well, so much for that idea: get me started on London and I'll talk and talk and talk s'more until you all wish I'd just come back home and talk about comic books, I bet! But the end for today is near; I'm all blogged out. So instead I'll relax a wee bit and then, and so to bed, as my mate Samuel Pepys would say (he pronounced it "Peeps," by the way, but no relation to the delicious, delicious yellow sponge marshmallow treat). I will look out the window at the foggy night sky and hum Noel Coward's "London by Night" to myself, and climb into my soft hotel bed and dream of all the exciting adventures I'll have tomorrow. Cheers then!