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Main | rewind 2012 - final edition »
Monday
Jun032013

My Trip to London/Paris

I was very lucky this year when I was asked by work to go to London to participate in a project.  I wasn't sure what to expect and I sure didn't know what the heck I was doing.  I was nervous since I had never traveled to Europe and I wasn't sure I was going to know how to get around.  I also hadn't traveled anywhere with my passport since Jamaica almost 10 years ago.   

I was excited to go and work kept me very busy.  I did try to look into what I would want to do and where I would want to go while I was there.  But this trip came out of the blue.  I was asked by my boss in March and within a few weeks I had tickets.  I went at the end of April.  It was kind of a whirlwind.  I went to AAA and asked a lot of questions of a lot of folks that I know had done any traveling overseas before.  AAA wasn't too much help, but they did print out for me a bunch of information.  I did some research online too.  All in all, I just decided to get on the plane and go for it.   I figured I knew I'd have to work for 3 full days and then I'd be on my own to look around for 3 full days.   I just decided to soak up the city and just do stuff.  I didn't make a big itinerary and I just had fun.   It was a very freeing experience.  

I got to travel in Business First on the plane ride there which was awesome.  Free wine, food, the whole nine yards.  Tons of movies and music and TV shows in a TV in front of me.  Tons of legroom.  And the seat I was in turned into a bed.  That was fantastic.  I did sleep a bit and the plane ride itself was very smooth.   10 hours or so later I was in London after departing LAX.  I just landed and followed the signs.  I was a bit nervous at Customs, but basically, not a big deal.  Got a stamp in my passport and then off to get my luggage.  Once I had my luggage I looked for a machine to get some train tickets since I wanted to try traveling by subway on the London Underground.  I got some cash from an ATM too.  Figured I wasn't 100% on using my credit card and if it would work everywhere so having some cash was a good idea.  Not too much though.  I checked with my bank before leaving the states to make sure that my ATM and my credit card would work.  They made some notes on my accounts and I was good to go.  I couldn't believe that AAA didn't exchange money anymore at their offices, so I just did it at the airport at any ATM.  Easy.  Here's my note/tip to make sure that everyone knows in advance before you embark on your European vacation.  The credit card machines in London/Paris have a chip in them and they aren't like ours in the states.  Even though your credit card works everywhere according to the bank, not all businesses will be able to accept them.  Europeans all have a PIN # that they enter when swiping their credit cards like at an ATM here, but I still had to sign for my charges.  I knew this in advance from asking people, but still I was a bit nervous using my card.  A couple of bars didn't know what to do with that and didn't take my card, but I had cash, so I was good.   Another good tip to know is that all transactions charge a foreign currency exchange fee.  I tried a few different ways of charging, because many businesses gave me the option of converting to dollars for my charge or just charging in British pounds.  I found when I got home that when they did the conversion to dollars it was more expensive for me and they still charged me a foreign currency fee.  Banks are vultures.   I recommend just charging in the foreign currency and let the bank convert it.  Exchange rate is better, but there's still fees.  

Anyway, got some cash at the ATM and proceeded to the Underground.  Got my Oyster card.  It's basically a debit card that you can use to tap in/out of train stations with.  I made one mistake but then I made it to my hotel no problems.  I checked in and was soo tired, but wanted to keep going since I knew I would have problems with the time change if I didn't stay awake.  It was a 9 hour difference between London and LA.  It was also pretty chilly so glad I brought my winter coat.   At night, it would get down to 35 degrees and it never really got above 60 degrees in the day while I was there.  Most days about 45-55 degrees.  

Work kept me busy and it was a great week of meetings.  Everyone at the office gave me tips and encouraged me to see things at night.  I did.  Every night I went out and looked around.  I just hopped on the Underground (The Tube) and saw what I could.  I found myself very fascinated with the architecture.  I was surprised by that, since I didn't think of myself as an architecture buff before, but the buildings there are so old and have such history, that I was transfixed.  I got a little freaked out by the people driving on the other side of the road, but I got used to it.  I didn't drive there ever though.  Took a cab a couple of times, but mostly rode the train.  I looked around and took lots of pictures.  Those first few nights, I went to Chelsea area, London Bridge Area/Knightsbridge, Kensington Gardens/Hyde Park.  There was tons and tons of stuff to do.  I think I could've stayed there for a month of more and just looked at other things.  I had some fun dinners.   I tried bangers & mash (sauage and potatoes), i had authentic english fish & chips (with mushy peas) and some fun beers at pubs.   Beware that London isn't an all nighter town.  I was surprised by this.  I almost missed dinner a few nights since a lot of places closed down by 8pm or 9pm.  Luckily I found places that served food until 10pm so I did eat late.  One night I had to eat at the hotel since that's all that was available.  

After all my work meetings, I decided to be very adventurous and head to Paris.  I boarded the train and 2 hours later I was there.  I took the Paris Metro system (more subways) and got around great.  I went to the Louvre - saw the Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo and other pieces of fantastic art.  After the Louvre - and a detour to the Louvre Apple Store to get some much needed wifi and a little power, I headed to the Jardin des Tuileries (Tuileries Gardens).   Sculptures and beautiful flowers everywhere.  Both London/Paris had tons of open garden/park type places available for public use.  Then I went and got to my hotel.  Teeny tiny place, but not bad.  I didn't spend much time there anyway.  After that, I headed back out in search of the Eiffel Tower.  I did try speaking some French while I was there - I was definitely not too good at it, but surprisingly some was coming back from high school and college.  I think had I been there longer, I would've gotten better at it.  I walked to Notre Dame cathedral (no hunchback) and then walked along the Seine River.  Paris truly is a romantic city.  But it definitely lived up to its stereotypes.  French people were  not as nice as London people.  Lots of motor bikes and smokers.  Tons of cafes too.  Anyway, I headed to the Champs Elysees.  Just gorgeous and basically a Rodeo Drive of shops.  It was getting dark when I hit Les Invalides.  I then proceeded to get a good view of the Eiffel Tower, but I needed to eat something and sit for awhile.  I earned tons of activity points that day, I actually walked for over 6 hours that day.   Anyway, I found a nice little french bistro by the Eiffel Tower called Bistro Saint Dominque.  Wonderful food and drank a whole bottle of wine.  I also had a nice little french cappuccino and pastry.  Just delicious and a wonderful meal.  Then I went to Eiffel Tower.  I was a bit mad that my phone/camera was running out of juice, but oh well.  I found some pictures of Eiffel Tower at night online anyway.  But it was just so massive and gorgeous to see in person.  I walked back to my hotel and in the Metro cavernous station, there were tons of street performers which I found interesting.  Lots of homeless too.  Beware of pickpockets everyone said, so I was careful.  I slept and woke up early so I could find the Arc De Triomphe and the Eiffel Tower in the light so I could get pictures.  It was a jam packed morning and missed breakfast, but I got a chocolate croissant at the train station just as I was boarding my Eurostar train back to London.  It was wonderful.  The french know how to do pastries.  Paris was a little dirtier than London I thought too, but much more romantic.  Too bad I wasn't there with a nice french woman, but oh well.  

Once I got back to London, I took the Tube to look at some of the historic and larger train stations.  Especially King's Cross like in Harry Potter.  Had a snack and got off at the Bank Tube stop.  Got out and looked around.  Just beautiful and since it was after 5pm, I ran into a lot of people outside of pubs partying.  It was cool.  Took tons of pictures then hopped back onto the Tube down to Imperial Wharf to try a Thai restaurant that someone had recommended to me called Blue Elephant.  It was another fantastic meal.  I loved it.  Headed back to the hotel (I would usually return by midnight) and enjoyed a pint before bed.  

The last day I got up and went to Trafalgar Square to take the Original London double decker Bus Tour.  It was great.  Hop on/off and look around.  They had audio commentary too to tell you where you were.  One of the buses was just headphone audio in my seat and one had a live tour guide.  Saw Piccadilly Circus, Covent Garden, St. Paul's Cathedral, and tons of other sites.  It rained pretty hard that day, so I ducked into a performance of Spamalot on the West End (tons of theatres there - like Broadway in NYC).  I missed the beginning, but I went in at intermission (interval in London).  It was great and I got the ticket for half price at the TKTS booth in the West End.  I capped off my night with a looksee at Big Ben, Parliament and Buckingham Palace.  I headed to dinner and wrapped it up early since my flight was in the AM (back at the hotel to pack up by 9pm).  I was told to be at the airport at least 2 - 3 hours early, so I made sure to do that.  

Woke up early, checked out and headed to the airport (Heathrow) via the Tube.  It's super convenient that you can grab a train directly from the airport.  LA needs that.  Anyway, since I got there early, I didn't see the gate assigned yet, so I hung out in the Airport lounge.  Fantastic.  Power, free wifi, free food, both hot & cold.  It was great.  I felt like a rockstar.   They didn't assign the gate until like a half hour before my flight which I thought was weird, but no standing around at the gate since I went right from the lounge to the gate to boarding the plane. 

The trip in general was unexpected, but awesome.  I hope I can figure out a way to do more international travel in the near future.  Some other tidbits.  I didn't enjoy the full English breakfast.  I tried it, but lots of gross stuff that I didn't want for breakfast. In addition to eggs and big sausages, there was mushrooms, big slice of tomato, blood sausage.  Stick with the eggs and english muffin & pastries.  Those were good.  Traveling by train was surprisingly easy and user friendly.  London was very kind to visitors in my opinion.  London has lots of people.  It's a big city.  It's expensive, but extremely fun.  They have great - I mean great - Thai/Indian food in my opinion.  International data rates are horrible.  Make sure to get a plan either while you're there or before on your phone.  You'll need it.  Paris has great food.  I could eat there for a month or more and just keep trying new things.  In general, I would love to go back to both cities.  

Enjoy my adventures by visiting the pictures page and check out all the photos.   I took tons.  I didn't upload all of them, but you'll get the idea.  Thanks for reading and hopefully I'll be able to write more again soon. 

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