The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once quipped, “You never step in the same river twice.” The same is true for traveling. Whether you or the path or both, the return journey always differs. Largely, when you have reached the turning point, when the vector of your journey points home, you’re more prone to think about the comforts of a familiar bed and the exuberant welcome of your pets.
Our turn point started on the Lochalsh to Inverness line. What was once exciting. What was exciting as hurtled northwest toward Skye was shrouded in rain and travel stress on the return. Inverness itself was cold and rainy. We tried to make a go of exploring, but we were so spent that when we entered a giant book store in the shell of a 16th century church, Nic came over to me and said, “I can’t even…I’m so overwhelmed.” Yes. You read that right. Nic turned down a two-story book store.
We were happy to find that the Caldonia Sleeper, the overnight train from Inverness to London, had a complimentary lounge where Nic entertained the Scottish host by regailing her with descriptions of Moon Pies. We crossed the street to have dinner at the Ash Hotel. Back in the lounge, we availed ourselves to the free beer and tea, rested, and waited for departure.
Several sites I read claimed the sleeper train, which left Inverness at 8:48 and arrived in London at 7:15 the next morning, was the way to go. Let me add my support to this notion. We saved an entire day of travel, though we certainly learned a new meaning of “close quarters.” Our suitcases took up half the available floor room, but it was a relief to get out of our boots and clothes that we had been wearing since we’d been soaked at Elgog, damply clinging to us all day. Newly shod, we settled into the lounge car for a drink–she a cider, me a Glenlivet—and quiet reading. A British couple next to us kept trying to name the station, while Nic briefly chatted the girl at our table about her book. Her cider finished, she headed back to her bunk while I finished my whisky.
That done, I order a Bailey’s and Hot Chocolate. Train sleeping, I assume, will be like camping sleeping: wear yourself out and add a stiff drink or two and you can sleep through damn near anything. My nightcap combo intrigued my British neighbor, who has been talking to a Scottish man at the table behind me about the stops. He joins my table and I find out why. They rented a car in Dalwhinnie (a whisky destination to drive to Inverness only to have the train drive back through Dalwhinnie–there and back and there again. We all share the tales of our travel, and the Scottish fellow starts spinning a yarn of his friend who “hunts Nessie”‘and charters boat tours on Loch Ness: they haven’t had a sighting in a decade, and–according to his friend–they could use one soon to keep the Yen rolling in. I laugh, and they move into local references that are lost to me. I finish my night cap and his them a good night. I climbed into the top bunk, donned my complimentary mask and ear plugs, and slept through pretty much everything, including the switching of locomotives in Edinburgh.
By 6:30, we awoke. Our breakfast arrived. I’m eating smoked salmon and eggs sitting in my bunk: for the third straight Friday, we’re waking up in London. Off the train at Euston Station, we are walking into the teeth of London morning rush hour. After our Scottish excursion, we feel a bit out of place. While we are still dressed for Scottish wind and rain, people in London are clean, perfumed, wearing shirts and skirts. We, by comparison, are crunchy. I haven’t wanted a shower this bad in some time, and we still have to get on the sardine-packed Central line back to Ealing before we can be clean.
By 11, we are back out. We meet Gary for lunch and head to the Tate Modern. We still had a weekend in London, and even with all the time we’ve had, it’s impossible to see it all. Today was going to be an Art day. The Tate sits on the banks of the Thames, a former power station with several floors of both rotating and free exhibitions. We had passed it on the way to the Globe last week, its festivity adding to our walk. Today, we entering the festivity, contributing to the huge crowd by entering.
Here, dear reader, it would be easy to slide into a “what is art?” discussion. And with a wide array of art–abstract shapes to portraits to political statements; paintings, sculptures, audio and video installations; traditional, trippy, and bizarre, such as a giant room filled with what looks like overgrown potato sacks–this could be an appropriate discussion
Perhaps another time. Perhaps what was just as interesting was the hordes of people and how they interacted in the space. Photography was allowed, but not flash, which meant some people still used flash. Every time people spied a Dali, Matisse, or Picasso, they leapt to have their pic snapped or take an exuberant selfie, regardless of the mod of the actual work. Not trying to be judgy: I grabbed a few pics myself. There was a girl who went old school–plopping beside the pond of abyss of her journal in the middle of the floor, penning a reflection on Dali’s Metamorphisis of Narcissus. Parents wrangled their kids to get just the right shot. Perhaps most entertaining were the girls taking goofy-faces selfies in front of photographs of genocide and torture. Funzies!!!
Ashley joined us at the Tate, and we enjoyed a leisurely cup on the terrace. Friday afternoon turned into 5 o’clock here. The crowds grew. The pubs swelled. The walk beside the Thames grew busy as the after-work crowd met the tourist crowd. We passed trees petitioned to stand, a skate park, a statue of Olivier, then cut left between Jubilee Gardens and the eye for a different type of artistic experience.
Leak Street Tunnel has Has been closed off from the main road for seemingly some time, so it has become a de facto museum of street art. A little-known underbelly of London but to photographers and street artists and a handful of innovate tour guides, much art is every bit as worth as the Tate without the ropes, security, or reverence. Paint a beautiful mural and see it replaced with the mundane. The tunnel has all the feel of entering into a seedy underworld, but after the madness of the Tate, the quiet, dank tunnel was something of a welcome relief. We saw a couple of artists in action, one who traveled from Greece and was making his way around Europe tagging in major cities, but his tag bled into the hundreds of artists who have painted and re-painted these hallowed halls beneath the city. As we exited the tunnel, a taxi exited a blind garage like it just got a GTA paint job fix up. Three streams of city-bike tours flew past us, one lady precariously driving with her selfie stick in hand. “Five bucks says she eats it in the next mile.”
Back in the sunlight, we cross the bridge in front of Parliament, always slammed with tourists, entering the Underground at Westminster, always graced with street buskers. A long tunnel from Kennsington turns directly ito the Victorian Albert Museum, open late and free on a Friday night–12.5 acres of exhibits. We caught the Renaissance European Artifacts–desks, instruments, guns, swords, wood panels, paintings, etc.–in the basement before making our way to the Asian artifacts collection, or as one visitor quipped, “Where we can see what they stole from everyone else.” In both religious ideas and design, however, the line of appropriate is a bit less clear. As we move through the Middle East with heavy influence on geometry (including an ancient rug lit only twice an hour to preserve its colour–British spelling, sorry) to India to Southeast Asia, we see cultures both distinct and continuous.
There really is too much to see and ponder in this city. As Gary said, “If you’re bored with this City, you’re bored of life.” We noticed that there was an underwear exhibit (Note: pants= underwear and trousers=pants), but we were too tired to dig into our trouser pockets and go that close to the bare naked human experience. After such a whirlwind 36 hours–from Elgog through rush-hour London and back out in the city–we had logged over nine miles walking for the day, exhausted to the core.
We made our way back to Ealing, our familiar path home every night in London, to grab some dinner at Gary and Ashley’s local pub–The Drayton House. We arrived about 9:55 and mulled over the menu for about seven minutes before Gary went to the bar to order and have them tell him the kitchen closes exactly at 10. The hangry anxiety began to set in. We went to a fish and chips/Chinese joint that was still open, but they were cash only. Again fail. Rotisserie Chicken and egg rolls had sounded mighty tasty. Gary said he thought we could find one more place and he led us onward.
There, for the first time, we found Roti, a Trinidadian dish that is about twice the size of your average burrito, rolled in dough, cooked, filled, and cooked again. Julian–who had also lived in California, Colorado and Massachusetts–was about to close shop, but he saw us roll up in despair and agreed to stay open long enough to feed us. As we were the only patrons, he was giving with his time and knowledge. The spice palette was uniquely Carribean, and Julian swears this is pared down to have more mass appeal. The slaw, the chickpeas each had their own specific heat, as did the mango chutney and the pepper jelly. Gary broke out in a sweat and I gulped my bottle of water halfway through the Roti. Nic and Ashely swore of the hotter additions. But we were all satisfied and grateful, a new twist, a new stop on our path home, one that Gary and Ash agreed to visit again. As we left, Julian wished us safe travels back to the states.
The turn around travel from Skye to London was probably the most frenetic day on our tripBy the time midnight came ’round, we literally fell into sleep and agreed to take it easy the next day.