Monday, February 21, 2011

Pip pip cheerio, London!

Salut from Luhnduhn. It’s terribly nice here. I’m having just a spendid time!*

*Sorry, British friends, for my attempt at a Bri-ish accent

Rebecca and I left Paris for London on Thursday, 17 Feb. Here’s our itinerary:
  • Thursday: Took train from Paris to London. Went to Victoria and Albert Museum. Walked around. Saw Totem (Cirque du Soleil show)
  • Friday: Tower of London. Church service @ Westminster Abbey. Ate dinner in the crypt of a church (more on that later)
  • Saturday: Changing of the guards @ Buckingham. Walked around. Went to a pub. Went to British museum. Met interesting people on the street.

The British Museum is a great place to ponder and think....

I’m going to write mainly about the people I met and the interesting observations I had. A quick overview of all the standard tourist stuff will come at the end.

How we got here...

By high speed rail! You can see how fast it goes on this video, by comparing with the cars on the highway:

On the other hand, the Chunnel wasn’t anything special. Just 20min of blackness outside.
London St. Pancras Station
A secret I learned 2 years ago while traveling Amtrak: go to the food carriage to meet interesting people!

A friendly banker

I did get a chance to talk to a French banker (specifically, analyst at HSBC) traveling to London, financial capital of Europe, for his monthly meetings. Some interesting things we talked about:
  • Why finance plays such a big role in society: his answer: “Actually, I think 75% of financial services doesn’t add value to society. it’s for show”. For the record, he works in standard banking, not all the derivatives et truc comme ca
  • Friendly banker: “The French Dream: be equal across society, retire early.” “The American dream is good, but unfortunately leaves many 75 year olds still working to make a living”
  • Friendly banker: “When HSBC announces $25m profits, the people in Hong Kong are proud and cheer. Meanwhille, the Europeans ask: ‘who did you cheat to make $25m?’”
  • Me: “I see commericals advertising commerical services all the time. But I can’t tell the differences between them!” Friendly banker: “It’s about brand image. The big banks are basically a commodity.

I don’t know enough about banking to form a strong opinion on how much banking is good/bad, but what the banker told me surprised me!

I’m thinking in French!

For the first 2 days in London, I found myself saying to strangers: “Pardon, monsieur....”. Halfway thru monsieur I realize I’m in England and correct myself. So I end up saying something like “Pardon m-- excuse me sir”. And with especially thick British accents, and even Spanish (there are lot a Spanish speakers here), I find myself hearing French for the first couple of seconds before I realize it’s not.

An Indian author

Rebecca and I were walking around Hyde Park (London’s Central Park), looking for food, when we walked into a friendly Indian man.

He asked us if he could ask us some questions about our backgrounds, since he was writing a book about Hyde Park. As we talked, we found that the friendly man’s name was Jamshed Mirza. He came to England many years ago to avoid religious persecution in India since he was Muslim.

Mirza worked in the restaurant business, and was quite successful. However, his business suffered under competition because he didn’t have the large family apparently necessary for Asian business to be successful (i.e., many East or Southeast Indian restaurants are run by large families, which makes things cheaper).

He became unemployed, worked in the British Library, and started meeting some famous poets and 
authors in his work. That’s how he was inspired to write The People of Hyde Park, and The Visitors of Hyde Park, along with several other books. He says he doesn’t make that much money (he breaks even with his self-published books), but he’s the happiest man on earth!

Now he sits in the Hyde Park cafe and talks and interviews visitors there. One time Mirza was speaking to a young woman at the cafe. Another young man asked him later “sir, here you are, a 50-year old man, talking to an attractive woman, and she’s very happily speaking back to you. I can never do it. What’s your secret?”. Mirza responded, “You have to establish trust. Most people are dying to talk or express themselves to someone. You just have to make them trust you first”.
Mirza and I met up one day later in Speaker's Corner (more on that next blog post)

This story was very touching, because during the whole time, deep inside, I was a bit afraid that Mirza would ask for money or something at the end. But no such thing happened. Mirza was just a very genuine man. We need more genuine people in the world.  We need to trust strangers more. They’re people too.

Cirque du Soleil

While visiting Royal Albert Hall, Rebecca and I applied an important travel lesson* (#1): Always check to see if the box office has tickets. It was the last night of Cirque du Soleil’s newest show, and the ushers said the tickets were all sold out. But... there were some tickets left!

Another lesson (#2). Don’t plan too much. We decided spur of the moment to go see the show.

*Many of these lessons are from Rick Steve’s guide books.  I love his “Europe through the back door philosophy. Check it out if you’re visiting Europe and don’t want to be just another camera wielding tourist!”

Giant turtle in Royal Albert Hall!

The artistry, choreography, and show was amazing. After asking my circus-aspiring French friend, I found out that many of the circus members were probably former Olympic gymnasts past their prime. Imagine how commited they must be to perfect one thing really well to achieve 100% success rate every time!

Tower of London: a juxtaposition of new and old

Rebecca and I also visited the Tower of London.  It’s really interesting to see the juxtaposition of new and old.

The 1000-year old Tower of London on the left. Skyscrapers right next  to it to the right.

We took a tour with the famous beefeaters.

According to them, the 7 well-fed ravens that live in the Tower of London (a popular legend: "If the Tower of London ravens are lost or fly away, the Crown will fall and Britain with it”) are the real  royalty in the Tower of London nowadays. Here’s one of them:

Tourists apparently thought Merlin (the raven) was more interesting than our beefeater tour guide

Victoria and Albert Museum

This museum was quite interesting.  I saw these pictures and I thought I’d seen them before....

Turns out they’re replicas of pieces from the Musée de Louvre!

British Museum

I won’t bore you with all the standard tourist things at the British Museum. I will say that the British museum is one of the best museums I’ve been to. Audio tours (again from Rick Steves) are really useful.

For example, do you know why this Assyrian winged lion has 5 legs?

To be complete from all angles!

And  this sad picture of lion hunting  (again, ancient Assyria) shows the lioness coughing up blood.

A side note on tourism

The British museum was almost as crowded as a pub! Certainly more crowded than the Louvre (which is not free like the British museum).
I couldn't see the Rosetta stone because so many people were around it. How Rebecca has better queuing skills than me...

I was somewhat frustrated  with many of my fellow tourists. They seemed only interested in snapping pictures with each artifact then moving on. OK maybe that’s their personal preference, but they shouldn’t be touching 3000-year old sculptures just to take a low-quality picture with their cameraphone.

Maybe they’re just bored and need an audiotour. Travel lesson #3: don’t be like these tourists.  Get a free audiotour from
here and listen to it on your mp3 player while traveling.

I made a resolution only to take a limited number of pictures (in this museum and beyond). The point of taking pictures is to:
  1. Display them
  2. Use them to bring up memories.
There’s only so many pictures you can display, and taking too many pictures will “dilute” the strength of the other picture pictures in jogging memories.  Besides, travel is about remembering the important things, not necessarily everything. I’ve found when I take too many pictures, I don’t take the time to look through all 1000 pictures (go figure!) and really think back to all the memories.

What do you think? Does my camera philosophy make sense?

Blogging competition, part 2

Interesting thing from Singapore...

Giant carrots? From here 

Interesting thing from England...

Something else you will only see in a country where hundred year-old traditions are executed everyday...

The mounted police was constantly turning around and telling the cars behind to slow down! Apparently the soldiers take up 2 lanes!


  1. **cool comment from Colin I found interesting**

    Regarding the lion-hunting picture...

    "As featured in Colin's Stuff of History project. Cool you saw the real thing, I only saw books."

  2. Enjoying your posts! I think your camera philosophy makes a great deal of sense. I am especially cautious about taking multiple pictures of the same scenery. It's just not the same as being there, no matter from how many angles you take a photo!

  3. A weird time in which we are alive. We can travel anywhere we want, even to other planets. And for what? To sit day after day, declining in morale and hope. Cheap Flights to Perth

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