European Tour – London (July 1990)

Getting the Band Back Together

A little surprised but much more relieved, I awoke the next day not beaten to a pulp by riled and inebriated Irish sports fans.

The first homestay was at an end, and as per instructions, the mother dropped me off at the rally point. She quickly said goodbye (I assumed the son was sleeping off a hangover with visions of football jersey-wearing Bolsheviks dancing in his head) and promptly drove off. Even today, I still wonder if her son ever outgrew his revolutionary mien and became a contributing member of society (i.e., an accountant, bus driver, one of the less offensive band members of Oasis, etc.).

We boarded a ferry heading for the United Kingdom. As my fellow explorers settled in the main cabin for the relatively short voyage (my best guess is our destination port was in Wales or Liverpool), we swapped “wild and crazy” homestay tales. Most were a mixed bag of mildly similar (i.e., “Hey, my homestay’s kids were commies, too!”) or somewhat contrasting (i.e., “We drank tea in the salon, discussed recent affairs, then played snooker and darts.”) variations of my experience. Final group consensus was that the homestays were far less traumatic than anticipated – a mixed spectrum ranging from “fun and not so bad” to “well, that happened.”

IMG00003Our last view of Ireland.

The comfort of familiarity returned as newborn cliques that emerged in Killarney reasserted themselves with a vengeance predictable ease. Our group segregated into several cliques – the most identifiable were the “geeks/nerds/artists” (i.e., “us”) and “hip/cool kids” (i.e., “them”). In general, the entire travel group was pretty chummy without too much high school antagonism, but kids being kids and anytime we wandered out on our own or sat down for meals, I noticed a definite gravitation toward our tenderfoot social circles. My particular throng incorporated a few guys hailing from similar straights as myself and a handful of girls – one of whom was a theater arts type, and another an artist who was always armed with a sketchpad and compared her drawings with mine.(1) Also around this time, the initial signs (e.g., mild cuddling, hand holding) of a few quasi-romantic couples sparked up, despite earlier advice to avoid trip-born romances (the well-founded and understandably practical reasons for this advice is a discussion for another time and place).

At the railway station we boarded a train headed for London. Spread out across several cars, we rotated around each encampment swapping stories, playing card games and/or finding more secluded spots for a nap. I eventually caught a few winks and enjoyed some people watching, including my fascination with a lean, pale (possibly albino, if memory serves) man across the aisle from me who was very intently reading a book, and disappeared by the time I awoke from my siesta. The train arrived at London and we disembarked for our hotel. Given some careful Googles on the interwebs research based on my photos (see below), I believe we stayed at the Kensington Palace Hotel (near and/or possibly now the Royal Garden Hotel at Hyde Park). Once settled in our rooms and gathered for our itinerary debrief, it was dinner time then crashing in our rooms, utterly wiped out from a long day.

IMG00011     IMG00012
The view from the hotel’s roof terrace.

A Little Song, A Little Dance

smokingSomeone once asked Arthur C. Clarke why he relocated to Sri Lanka from his native England, and he infamously responded “Because of 42 British summers.” Since arriving in June, it wasn’t lost on me that the European weather was a bit moodier more grey, wet and cooler than expected. Ireland and now London were no exception, and we were toting jackets and sweaters everywhere. Our first full day in the city began with an early wake up call blaring fire alarm. As dawn broke, we marched downstairs and outside, meeting throngs of robed or blanket-wrapped guests as the fire brigade calmly walked inside. Being typical teenagers, we quickly commenced the usual rounds of baseless and ever-escalating gossip – “Smoke coming out of one of the windows!”, “I heard one floor is engulfed in flames!”, “It was started by drunk socialist Irish college students!” Not even an hour later, the firemen gave permission to re-enter the hotel. Safe from flames, smoke and adolescent Irish revolutionaries, the alarm was thanks to a guest smoking in a stairwell despite every surface of the hotel brandishing a NO SMOKING sign.

IMG00007     IMG00008

Big BenAfter breakfast and the excitement worn off, we bounded out. The tour wound through the heart of the city and stopped at St. Paul’s Cathedral, escorted by an older tour guide who specialized in pointing out all of the little details, which either fascinated or bored the Hell out of teenagers (we were no exception). We visited the Tower of London, saw the Crown Jewels and met the ravens (including “Ronald Raven” – a favorite presidential pun among the Yeoman Warders).

IMG00023     IMG00024IMG00029     IMG00031IMG00036     London 01Tower 01     Tower 02
TOP ROW: Inside St. Paul’s Cathedral. SECOND ROW: Out and around town.
BOTTOM ROWS: The Tower of London.

When we first arrived in London, the teacher leaders said we would experience the local theater scene as part of our tour. Being a long-term resident (even then) of the Washington, DC area, the major theater scene tends to lean heavily on touring productions of whatever is trendy from Broadway (by this time, my only theater experiences were Cats and Les Misérables).(2) All gathered in the hotel lobby, the teacher leaders apologized – the original plan was for one of the bigger-named shows, but instead we were seeing the not-as-well-known Song and Dance. They padded the news with it being an Andrew Lloyd Weber production, but since most of us didn’t know who he was, we were more excited for checking out the London Underground.

IMG00006With tokens in hand and multiple reminders on our West End stop in Piccadilly Circus, we wound our way down countless, claustrophobia-inducing, twisting stairways and ramps toward the subway platforms. Up until now, I was accustomed to Washington, DC’s Metro System, which at the time was the almost literal shining example of a modern subway experience.(3) As we progressed down, I wondered if we’d eventually hit bedrock and I was already fighting my deep desire for another shower since every surface was covered in a grimy glaze. Eventually we found our platform in time for the cacophonous blast of hot, sooty air heralding our train’s arrival.


Being a more or less unrefined, geeky teenager whose appreciation of the arts revolved around mostly sci fi movies and hair bands (I freely admit to my horrendous taste in music…I like to think my choices in movies are better, but that’s also a debate for another time and place), I was less than impressed with the show. Maybe because I’m not the biggest musicals fan or couldn’t easily relate to a single British woman living in New York City, but it made for a lackluster theater experience. From what I saw of the other faces in my group, I wasn’t the only one.

Today’s Special – Black Plague with a Side of Torture

Our free day in London began with orders to be packed and ready to leave that evening. We congregated in our customary cliques and spread out. At some point, we heard of The London Dungeon and checked it out. Given the disenchantment of our previous night’s entertainment, a museum dedicated to the nastiest and most barbaric acts in history was much more up our alley…and it didn’t disappoint us. The museum includes some of the most notorious stories of the Middle Ages in all their gory glory. One of its centerpieces is a walk through a fake Great Fire of London, complete with narration by the legendary Tom Baker – a big treat for me given my long-time Doctor Who fandom.

London Dungeon
The London Dungeon today. Pictures weren’t allowed inside.

We spent the rest of the afternoon aimlessly wandering around town until gathering at the hotel, where we collected our things and met in the lobby, as ordered. A quick bus ride later, we were boarding a ferry for crossing the English Channel.


(1) As a teenager, my sketchpads and assorted pencils were almost always with me where ever I went, and I insisted on taking pad and pencils with me on this trip. I kick myself today for not saving at least some of those pads or some of the “greatest hits” frofloppy-disk-savem them, though I’d probably cringe at what could optimistically be branded as “developing skill” (with marginal improvement via my college minor in Studio Art). However, I’m thankful for the rare occasions that I encounter any of my surviving antecedent sketches. I feel similarly about my college papers and Master thesis, which are irrevocably lost because I didn’t save them on anything more permanent than floppy disks (please tell me you know what these are). On the other hand, comparing my current writing to previous professional and personal work from even a few years ago can be a painful and humbling experience.
(2) You’d think I’d be a bigger theater fan given my appreciation for the arts and just a few credits shy of a college minor in Theater, but I can almost count the number of musicals I’ve seen on one hand.
(3) Given the Metro system’s ups and downs over the years, it really is a shame that it isn’t aging more gracefully.

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