Friday, May 27, 2011

London Layover

Turkish Airlines flies non-stop from Istanbul to Venice daily, just two-and-a-half hours and you’re there. Take a 20-minute bus ride to the dock in town, board a vaporetto for the short trip to your hotel, and the next day, all relaxed, you’re ready to embrace and be embraced by the Queen of the Adriatic–unless . . .   

. . . you are traveling around the world on a discount fare, as we are. In that case, you fly from Istanbul to London’s Heathrow, take the express train into Paddington Station, bunk overnight at the Kensington Close Hotel and Spa (close, indeed, was our tiny room, and expensive), take the express train the next day from Victoria Station to Gatwick, and fly off to Venice at 7:20 P.M.

The prospect of lugging our bags and ourselves through this obstacle course had made me grouchy for weeks, and as we waited in the long queue at Paddington for a taxi to the hotel, I indulged in some serious whinging, a fine Britishism that nails acute grumbling far better than such wan alternatives as complainingbleatinggrousing, and even grumbling itself.

All gloom lifted in the morning. It dawned cool and sunny, promising one of those crystalline spring days that London is famed for never tolerating. After a short walk along Kensington High Street, we passed through the blooms of Kensington Gardens and into the green pastures of Hyde Park. By 9 A.M. we were breakfasting on tea, croissants, Greek yogurt and strawberries at the Lido Café, which overlooks the Serpentine.

To gaze onto this swan-dotted lake, which stretches through the park like an elongated whale, was treat enough; to see swimmers knifing through the bracing water on this May morning, as if rehearsing for the Channel, was astonishing. Two or three were stroking within a rectangular perimeter of buoys off the bank, an area open to the general public in the summer. But at least a dozen more were swimming well outside this pool-like confine.

Morning bath in the Serpentine.

They were, we subsequently, learned, members of the Serpentine Swimming Club, which has access to the lake in the morning year-around. The club stages races every Saturday, and, since 1864, on Christmas Day. The winner of this frosty 100-yard crawl receives the Peter Pan Cup, donated by J.M. Barrie, possibly because he thought swimmers who braved the Serpentine in winter also were refusing to grow up.

Note to Michael Bloomberg. Dear Mr. Mayor: If you had been sitting with Diane and me at the Lido, I’m certain you would have been as excited as we were by the sight of all the vigorous swimmers. Perhaps you even would have exclaimed, “Now, why didn’t I think of that,” when we suggested that you turn a portion of the Central Park reservoir into a similar swimming center.

You’ve won my undying loyalty, and that of thousands of other cyclists, for beribboning the city with miles of new bike lanes. You’d gain the same adherence from the city’s swimmers if you opened that pristine bowl of water to the public, with a Reservoir Swimming Club sure to follow, and perhaps a New Year’s Day sprint for the Bloomberg Cup. You might also increase New York’s chances the next time the city bids to host the Olympics. The Serpentine will be the venue for the open water marathon and the swimming leg of the triathalon at the 2012 Olympics.

Our breakfast completed, despite the steady dive-bombing of starlings after our crumbs, we made our way to the Albert Memorial, the prince consort sparkling on high in what looked like freshly applied gold leaf. Just beyond, the Rose Garden burst with red, white and yellow blossoms as big as lawn bowls, with still more dripping from the canopy of the pergola that led to the Princess Diana Walk.

We came upon one bicycle docking station after another, as we had in the streets of Kensington. Take one of the dozen or more bikes and drop it at any other of the many stations around the city, the first half-hour free. After that it costs, but not much, as the many riders we saw on these sturdy two-wheelers attested, commuters and tourists both.

Private bikes whizzed by in even greater numbers, many of their riders suited and dashing to work, or already at it on their cell phones. As band music emanated from the HQ of the Household Guards, kids squealed and shouted at soccer and cricket, riders cantered their horses on the bridal path, and red-faced runners pushed toward their daily quota of miles.

Near an outdoor gym, where a woman pumped with great ardor on an elliptical machine, we came across one of the plaques in the park commemorating the Great Exhibition of 1851 and its Crystal Palace, which had celebrated  modern industrial technology and design and had risen right where we stood.

Note to Rahm Emanuel. Dear Mr. Mayor: I, too, am a Chicago boy, born and raised on the South Side, in the neighborhood of Hyde Park, which as a youth I assumed was not only unique but the center of the universe. I had no idea that there was a London green of the same name, much less a park that had been around, in one form or another, for roughly three centuries before my Hyde Park took form in the 1850s.

I did learn early on that the vast, becolumned Museum of Science and Industry a few blocks from my home was the sole exhibition hall salvaged from the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893, and that the Midway Plaisance, where I skated in the winter and played touch football in the fall, had been converted to greensward after the fair’s exhibitions were demolished–much as London’s Hyde Park had expanded after the Great Exhibition of 1851 came down.

I realize you are new on the job, Mr. Mayor, and that many pressing matters crowd in on you. Still, I do think a few plaques like those in London are called for, to mark Chicago’s wise decision more than a century ago to turn the exposition site into parkland, so that one day I could throw a Hail Mary pass to Bill Weaver that only missed his outstretched hands by eight feet or so.

As we took a breather on a bench, a man strained by, dripping with perspiration. He wore a heavy backpack, carried a weight in each hand and had tethered himself to an automobile tire, which dragged on the ground behind him with each plodding step. Maybe this was punishment for double parking, or some other traffic infraction; or perhaps he simply liked the symmetry of working on his spare tire with a spare tire.

Before we could come to any firm conclusion, we were distracted by the shouts of a drill instructor. He wore fatigue pants, a tight-fitting tee shirt, and produced the decibels of Sergeant Chariamonte, my basic training overlord at Fort Dix, in 1957. The Hyde Park taskmaster was barking at about fifteen men and women of varying shapes, sizes and ages as he put them through a series of military exercises. None involved tires, but the squats, bends, jumps and other demands were leaving his charges just as damp and drooping as our Michelin Man.

We were mystified by this scene, with its disparate platoon of out-of-shape recruits, until Diane did some sleuthing on the internet. The program, which began in Hyde Park twelve years ago, is designed to get civilians away from the telly and indoor gyms and into the parks for some regular training exercises. Called British Military Fitness, it was founded by Robin Cope, a highly decorated Army officer; its instructors are all, like him, ex-military, and the program has now expanded to more than 100 venues throughout the United Kingdom.

Note to Michelle Obama. Dear Mrs. Obama: This sounds like the perfect fit for your laudable campaign to get Americans off their fast-food diet and collective duff. Given our unemployment numbers, I suspect many ex-servicemen would welcome the chance to earn some extra dollars by trying to deflab a few of their fellow countrymen. I hope the idea appeals to you; if so, you’ll find background on the British Military Fitness program here.

On the train to Gatwick in the afternoon, I contemplated this post as visions of our three hours in Hyde Park happily replayed. This will be a good one, I thought, as we waited to put our gear through the security X-ray at the airport. Look at that, said Diane with a grin, pointing to a young man whose chest announced: “More people read this tee shirt than read your blog.”