Saturday, May 11, 2013

London for Cheapskates -- Part 2 - Thrifty Lodgings, Food and Outerwear

To be alone among the confusion is perhaps the single most piercing emotion of any stranger in the city.” – Peter Ackroyd, London: A Biography
I stepped outside the dry cleaners into the cold London morning, accompanied by a small plume of starchy-smelling steam. A few yards in front of me, rush-hour traffic moved slowly down the wrong side of the street in Battersea Park, a suburb south of Chelsea across the River Thames, over which I had just comfortably and affordably glided in a huge red double-decker bus, accidentally getting off two stops too early. I consulted my small black moleskine notebook, which contained detailed scribbled notes and directions for my self-suggested three-day itinerary for London. Out of the dry cleaners, I had instructed myself to turn right, then right, then right onto Prince of Wales Drive. My destination: a ridiculously inexpensive $66-a-night Airbnb flat located inside the opulent-sounding Albert Palace Mansions in Lurline Gardens.
I found it easily: a red brick-faced building, four stories high, embedded in a stolid bank of similar buildings fronting a narrow one-way lane lined with cars, with inset courtyard entrances spilling over with shrubbery and overwintered flowers. It is an apartment complex today, but like everything in London, Albert Palace Mansions started life as something else, and, like everything in London, has an interesting history. These buildings, I later learned, were once part of a massive late nineteenth century indoor/outdoor amusement complex, the centerpiece of which was the famous Albert Palace, a magnificent iron-and-glass structure originally built to house the Dublin International Exhibition of 1865, and then dismantled, shipped to London and rebuilt on the edge of the gardens next to Battersea Park (which actually is a giant, municipal park). The central part of the palace comprised a 473-foot nave for a permanent orchestra, with a giant organ and concert hall at one end and a tea room at the other. Indoor attractions included exhibition booths, an aquarium, picture galleries and bars, as well as an “Indian village” featuring silk spinners, a sitar maker, singers and snake-charmers; there also were cat, bird and flower shows, and the Viennese Ladies Orchestra had a standing gig. Eventually though the enterprise went under and the land and buildings were sold to developers; over a century later, this vestige of Victorian recreation is filled with middle-class Londoners living in two- and three-bedroom flats, such as the one I now trudged up four flights of spiraling stairs to temporarily occupy.
To my relief, the apartment was just as advertised: clean, neat and bright, high-ceilinged with large windows and transoms over thick wooden doors. There was a tiny but functional modern kitchen, a tidy tiled bathroom, a light-filled living room occupied by a piano, comfy couch and a large TV, with some handsome antiques scattered about. My bedroom was cozy with comfortable goose-down bedding and a large armoire, carpeted and quiet. That’ll do, pig, I thought to myself. Hmm yes, for three days in London, that’ll do quite nicely.
It was only 9 a.m. and though I had just traveled 24 mostly sleepless hours from East Africa, taken a long train ride from Heathrow and then a bus to find a dry cleaners and lodgings, my adrenalin was pumping. London. London! Rapidly, I unpacked my backpack, containing just enough clean clothes for three days (I had previously checked my big suitcase at the Britishly-named “Left Baggage” concession at Heathrow) plus my laptop, iPad and toiletries. After a shower and change of clothes, I was back outside, having consulted my moleskine, along with a detailed London map left for me in absentia by my thoughtful Airbnb hosts, both of whom were at work. There were no Tube stops close by, but an overland rail station, accessible to me with my Day Pass, was just up the street and would get me to Victoria Station just one stop away, from which I could access the Underground. First though: food.
Just across the entrance to the rail station, a whiff of fried sausage drew my attention to a stream of fluorescent green and orange-jacketed police and workmen heading in and out of a tiny diner tucked under a dingy brown trestle. Busting out my Sherlock, I made a deduction: police and workmen = always hungry + usually in a hurry + budget-minded = high probability of cheap and tasty food, fast. By Jove, I was not disappointed. For under five British pounds, I soon found myself scuppering a lake of English breakfast food that made the Grand Slam at Denny’s seem like a foul bunt. Twenty minutes later, after a few baked bean burps washed down with the last sips of an OK cafĂ©-au-lait, I was on my way, re-provisioned and ready.
Above: a working man's breakfast at Bridge the Gap, Battersea Park. Below, the always-bustling Victoria Station. 

First stop: the British Red Cross Thrift Store. With my sub-Saharan wardrobe of tee-shirts, thin cotton dress shirts and summer-weight trousers, I was ill prepared for London in late winter. Research revealed a number of highly-touted second-hand clothing shops in the vicinity of Victoria Station. I lucked out at the Red Cross store, where, after trying out a Rod Stewarty full-length black leather trench, I found a thick, down-filled parka with enormous snapping pockets and plenty of room to secret an iPad Mini, moleskine and ballpoint pen, sunglasses, wallet, fat London street map and a digital camera, in just the right size. Yes, it smelled a bit like another man, but not in a bad way, and it only cost me 40 pounds, or about $61 USD – a little more than I’d wanted to spend but hey, this is London and proceeds would theoretically go to a good cause. And on Saturday, I was scheduled to be sitting and/or standing outside for hours, exposed to the natural elements and potentially, showers of soda launched by hooligans in the crowd at the Chelsea match disappointed in the performance of one squad or the other, and I was sure I’d be glad then of my 40-pound purchase.
I stopped next at a touristy knick-knack shop and picked up a cheap knit hat and pair of fleece gloves, unaware until that evening when I emptied my pockets that the cheeky storekeeper, who cleverly pegged me for a dumb American, returned my change in Mexican pesos. At the time, though, I felt extremely satisfied with myself for successfully locating the dry cleaners, checking into my Airbnb flat, finding a good local breakfast dive and obtaining inexpensive winter wear, all before lunchtime on my first day in London. Congratulating myself on my adroitness as a traveler on the cheap, I jingled pesos in my coat pocket as I walked to the Tube station in advance of my next adventure: a behind-the-scenes tour of the clandestine conservation laboratory at the world-famous British Library in St Pancras. I was about to meet the global rock stars of book conservation in their seldom-seen command centre, and it wouldn’t cost me a peso.

Above: The BL's Centre for Conservation: the Langley of the secret world of book and manuscript preservation and restoration

Saturday, May 4, 2013

London for Cheapskates - Part 1 - The Importance of Hazle Dry Cleaners

By video, I tried to justify tacking a three-night solo romp through London onto the end of a nine-week rotation at the close of my contract in South Sudan to my wife back home, who was selflessly taking care of our two little bottomless pits of need, though I would be freshly unemployed while touring one of the most expensive cities in the world at a time when money would matter more than ever.
Me on Skype:  Did you know there are now SIX Premiere League teams all based in London, and one of them (Tottenham) has TWO Americans? Did you know football (I can’t bring myself to say soccer anymore, I am too worldly now) was INVENTED in England?’’
Tahra on Skype:  (No direct response, busy mediating dispute between the girls.)
Me on Skype: “Did I tell you that my good friend Henry Chu, London bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times, is there? Yeah, he’s a great guy. We can hang out.’’ (In fact Henry and I hadn’t spoken directly since 1995.)
Tahra on Skype: (No response – video screen shaking violently, moving fast, as in The Blair Witch Project, unintelligible girls snarling, something related to a fairy doll, Tahra trying to negotiate a trade involving millet crackers.)
Me in South Sudan: “Tahra? Tahra? Hey. You ok? My plan is to write a travel piece called London On the Cheap -- I bet no one else has thought of this – and then I can offset my trip expenses by selling it freelance. Yeah. I still have some really good newspaper connections. I could probably make fifty bucks.
Tahra in Massachusetts: “Sorry. I’m back. Of course you should do it, you may never get another good chance to see a soccer game in London. We can all wait another three days.''
My husband antennae, often tuned to the wrong frequencies, detected some wifely encouragement - was it real? I wasn’t sure until she went online and somehow bought me one of the last remaining tickets to see Chelsea, the reigning champions of Europe, winners of last year’s Champions League and one of the most elite football teams in the world, playing at their famed Stamford Bridge home stadium on the weekend I had penciled in for my London stopover. What a wife! Until that point, I wasn’t really thoroughly committed to going, and was a bit anxious about the implications, repercussions, funding and what have you. But now, with my bodacious soulmate’s blessing, having somehow finagled me one of the hottest tickets in town for a certain weekend in one of the oldest and most famous cities in the world, it would be unconscionable NOT to go – who could waste such a perfectly excellent (and non-refundable) opportunity, even if I am actually a Man U fan? Well then, it’s settled.
First up: plane tickets. The company would pay for my trip home to the States from Juba, per terms of the contract. Usually they send me Juba-Nairobi-Amsterdam-Detroit-Albany. But this time, I boldly asked if they could arrange a multi-city return ticket with a three-day stopover in London during the weekend of the Chelsea game, and a red-eye out of Nairobi so I wouldn’t have to pay for an extra night of lodging. Miraculously, the company obliged me, and I further arranged to depart Juba and get to Nairobi in the morning on a Wednesday, leaving me with enough time to cruise around Kenya’s capital before the late night flight out. Upon arrival in NBO, my plan was to hire a driver, buy some handmade beer cap toys (the girls, especially Ursula, really like them) and something nice for Tahra at a Masaai market off the Mombasa road, grab lunch with my soon-to-be former colleagues Phylis and Judy in Westlands, and make it back to the airport with plenty of time before my 11:30 pm flight to London. (Author’s Note: Kenyans can make just about anything out of discarded metal beer caps and scavenged wire. But is a lunch box made out of beer caps inappropriate for a kindergartner? I guess we’ll find out.)
Another, more pressing question: where to stay in London? I tried looking online for inexpensive inns, something small and preferably luxurious, English breakfast included, in the center of the action maybe in Soho or Chelsea, say for under $100? Or a quaint cob cottage with a thatched roof, something hobbitty, serving greens from their organic English garden aside the bangers and mash? But no such thing existed, and I wasn’t quite prepared to go hosteling. (Eleven years ago on my first night in Key West, I had to throw wasabi soy nuts at the face of a big snoring drunk across from me on a lower bunk. Packed into a warm room with five other off-gassing, respiring cheapskates. Worrying about my valuables.) My London friend, Henry, electronically laughed when I asked if he knew of any nice but cheap places to stay, and quickly snuffed out any notion I might have had about crashing with him. Ordinarily, he emailed, he’d love to have me, but he was moving to a new place in Clapham that weekend and it wasn’t a good time, but we should certainly meet for a drink at least; send a text. I decided that even if he was fibbing, I couldn’t blame him, as I hadn’t been in touch with him regularly for 18 years; possibly I had developed poor hygiene in the interval, or become an acolyte of Tony Robbins with big plans, or a Republican. But I didn’t think it was a fib. As I told Tahra during my London pitch, Henry is a great guy.
Then I remembered a website called AirBnB. It enables ordinary humans to post short-term rooms to let, with good rates, pretty much everywhere in the world, a sharing-economy kind of thing for travelers looking for something different, on a budget. I was staggered by the number and variety of places available in London, many at prices around $100-$150 per night or lower. I narrowed down my search to an area not too far from Henry’s new pad in Clapham, and not too far from upscale Chelsea (which is where J.R.R. Tolkien once lived, FYI). I found a clean-looking and tastefully decorated flat offering a one-bedroom, bathroom and kitchen shared, owned by a young married couple in Battersea Park, south of the Thames, close to Battersea Park rail station, straight shot to Victoria Station, easy access to buses and the Tube. Sixty-six dollars a night, uniformly excellent reviews from previous lodgers. It was available the nights I needed, and when I informed my hosts that I’d be getting into Heathrow very early, could they accommodate a morning check-in, they said sure no problem, they both had to go work early and would be gone when I arrived, but would leave the keys for me, a complete stranger posing as a writer working on a piece about London On the Cheap, at Hazle Dry Cleaners, around the corner from their flat. And so they did.
Hazle Dry Cleaners, Battersea Park, London. An unlikely point of entry, but when traveling on the cheap, one must allow for the unexpected.
I took a bus to Hazle Dry Cleaners, I think it was the 452 from Knightsbridge, after taking the Tube from Heathrow. Bought a Day Pass, allowed me to travel around very cheaply.
One of the first things I learned about Londoners: they only allow humps inside specific zones, in contrast to the No Humping policy on Amtrak trains back home.