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On the Road – London: A Run-Through (Literally) of Hyde Park Corner

On the Road – London: A Run-Through (Literally) of Hyde Park Corner

After visiting the WWII Royal Airforce Bomber Commander memorial, I crossed over to Hyde Park Corner and strolled around before heading to Hyde Park. Hyde Park Corner seems to be a home to memorials – lots of interesting sculptures to be admired. I’d definitely want to spend more time there if I am lucky enough to get back to London some day. I know I missed a lot of finer details in the sculptures during my own mini-marathon through Hyde Park Corner on my way to Hyde Park. I also rushed while taking pictures, so I likely missed some better angles. What can I say? Sunlight was dwindling, and I wanted to see as much as possible before heading into conference rooms for the next few days – haha.

The Southern Stand – New Zealand War Memorial – I didn’t venture close to these statues, however, with the benefit of hindsight, I wish I had. Each of the 16 cross-shaped bronze standards contains text, images and mini-sculptures to reflect the bond between New Zealand and the United Kingdom and images that reflect the relationship between the two nations. A New Zealand Defence Force newsletter commemorating the dedication of the statue beautifully explains its construction:

“Ten of the Memorial’s standards form an angled grid with a ‘leader’, which contains the dedication text and is the site for laying wreaths. Each standard is formed from two intersecting plates of bronze and, when seen from above and afar, the sculptures appear like a series of crosses hanging in the air. The other six standards are positioned to form the shape of the Southern Cross. At night their tops will be illuminated so that the crosses look like the southern cross indicating the compass direction south – pointing the way home for wandering Kiwis.”

Pretty cool.

Australian War Memorial – dedicated to to over 100,000 Australian service people who died in World War I and World War II. I found this memorial particularly beautiful and thoughtful – curved and semicircular, it wrapped around the far edge of the park like a hug. From afar, it simply looks like names of battles in which the Australians were involved, but as you approach, the true specialness of the design shows through: the names of the battles are created from the names of over 23,000 towns in which the soldiers were born. It was awesome.

Wellington Arch – built in the latter half of the 1820s, it was originally a gateway to the Palace Gardens as an acknowledgement of the Duke of Wellington’s victories over Napoleon. I was particularly interested in this arch and the accompanying Duke of Wellington statue – the street I grew up on in Philadelphia was Wellington Street. Such a strong bond / connection ;). Seriously though, when I saw the name, it immediately transported me to my childhood home and accompanying fond memories.

I also particularly liked the statue adorning the top of Wellington Arch: Peace Descending on the Chariot of War.

It was really stunning in person.

 

On the Road – London: Royal Air Force Bomber Command Memorial

On the Road – London: Royal Air Force Bomber Command Memorial

While on my mini-walking tour of the Buckingham Palace area, I walked through Green Park and happened upon the Royal Air Force Bomber Command Memorial. A newer memorial – dedicated on June 28, 2012, it is a lovely tribute to  over 55,000 British and ally aircrew.

I was taken by the fact that even today, just about 69 years after World War II ended, visitors had left flowers, prayer cards and little notes to honor service men for making the ultimate sacrifice for freedom. It reminded me of the kindness in the world. How thoughtful to bring a small token to leave in honor of these heroes! It made me think of my grandfather, a World War II veteran. And despite the fact that we was in the U.S. Navy, I pictured him standing among the sculpted airmen as I admired the statues. I thought about the courage he and so many service men around the world embodied. My heart swelled with pride, and I swallowed a lump in my throat and blinked back tears. For some reason, historical landmarks make me incredibly emotional. Always have.

 

London Calling: The Grosvenor Hotel

London Calling: The Grosvenor Hotel

While in London, I stayed at the lovely The Grosvenor Hotel. It’s situated right next door to the very busy Victoria Station (second only to Waterloo in terms of traffic). The hotel was built in the 1860s by the Victorian railway pioneers and was recently refurbished in 2012. (You can read more about the original build and restoration here if you are interested – I was 🙂 ).

The location was fantastic – it was an easy walk to Buckingham Palace, Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Parliament, and Hyde Park. I heard from some of my colleagues that you could hear the train calls (the station closes at 1 a.m.), but they didn’t find it too bothersome.

I didn’t have a ton of time to tour the property and take photos, but I did manage a few. To be honest, my pictures don’t do a ton of justice to the loveliness of the hotel – but I think you can see how special it was from the few shots I took.

P.S. I was especially tickled that the hotel rooms were called bedrooms. Much more inviting that way, right?

My Very American Moments in London

Truth be told, I feel like I only recovered from jet lag this past weekend. Crazy, right? I’ve been back for a week…but honestly, I didn’t really sleep when I was in London. Lucky for me, the early years of having babies who are only 16 (and some change) months apart laid a solid foundation for adaptable sleep patterns, right? Haha. Save for last night, I have been in bed by 9 p.m. at the latest every night since I got back. Today is the first day where I don’t feel like I need a nap in the middle of the afternoon. I am really only telling you this because I wish I had the energy to blog some of this stuff before now. 🙂

As I’ve covered here, I am not well-traveled internationally, so with that comes a healthy does of self-consciousness about ‘fitting in’. I already knew my accent would give me away the moment I opened my mouth (as it does here in Portland – haha!). But I didn’t really account for those ‘awkward American’ moments where I felt I was being pin-spotted and the entire country was looking upon me aghast. (Yes, yes – this is very dramatic, I know, but I mean it.)

Anyway, I arrived in London sleepless, but excited. And kinda shocked that despite the fact that there was no excuse for me NOT to sleep during the 14 – 15 hours I was on a plane, I only dozed off for small periods at best. No matter – I was an American gal in LONDON – something I’ve looked forward to for many, many years. But with my arrival came some of those awkward American gal moments that I am pretty sure could / would only happen to me. Read on, friends. 🙂

American gal moment #1: You have to turn on the electricity in your hotel room before anything that requires it will work.

Upon arriving, I really thought I was a moron as I stood in my room waiting for my bag to be delivered and couldn’t get any of the lights on. There were all sorts of buttons and switches and slots on the wall just off the entry, but none seemed to be the magic switch that turned the lights on. I was, however, extremely delighted by the fancy ‘Do Not Disturb’ / ‘Service Room Please’ switches that would light up a placard outside of my room to state my preferences if / when the electricity worked.

When the bellhop arrived, I was still in the dark (-ish…it was 3 p.m., so there was a decent amount of natural light coming through the window). Using my best attempt to be casual and cool, I mentioned that I didn’t think my room had electricity, and wondered if I should call the front desk for help. The very polite gentleman grinned and asked if I received two room keys. I said I had and he asked, “May I have one?” I made giant bug eyes as I smirked and said, “You want one of my room keys? I am married. And, we just met like two seconds ago.” (See? American. With a side of East Coast quick-wit.) Luckily, he was good-natured and cracked up, and said, “No, no, miss – sorry for the misunderstanding. I need one of your room keys to operate the electric.” He didn’t wait for me to hand over a key at this point, rather he gave me a Billy Elliot / Victoria Palace Theater promotional card and showed me where to insert it to turn the electricity on. He then told me I have to do this each time I enter and remove it each time I exit.

Aha! Pretty genius, actually. I am not sure of the reasons why you have to turn on the electricity, but it seems to be a good way to conserve, at the very least. This is probably also something that should have been explained when I checked in, but let’s take the lack of instruction to mean that I look like a savvy international traveler, shall we?

American gal moment #2: There was a short period of time where I questioned whether Londoners preferred cold showers because I couldn’t figure out the super fancy shower controls in my hotel room. 

Yep, my first shower was lukewarm at best. As I was shivering through this torture, and wondering why Kenny hadn’t warned me about this, I remembered my Grandmom Newman telling me (tall) tales about European women taking cold showers to “keep things firm”, so in the midst of my own cold shower, I started thinking that her (tall) tales weren’t actually tall at all. Perhaps an affinity for cold showers was indeed a cultural difference?! (Yes. For real. I had this conversation with myself. What can I say? I was delirious from lack of sleep and hypothermia at this point, so it made sense at the time.)

In fact, I was so convinced that cold showers might actually be a thing here  that I asked one of my friends / colleagues back home about it.

Naturally, she replied she didn’t remember having to take cold showers, but in a show of  what I can only assume was pity for her moronic colleague, she couched that with a statement along the lines of ‘but I don’t really like hot showers anyway, so maybe I didn’t really notice.’

This American gal spent about 15 minutes the next morning trying to find hot water. I eventually figured things out and enjoyed hot showers the rest of the week. I especially enjoyed that I thought this was a cultural difference instead of a simple user error. Totes American. Haha.

American gal moment #3: I am so accustomed to the cross-walk buttons not working in American cities, that I didn’t even try them in London.

And I definitely stood at my first cross walk way longer than I should have as a result. Someone finally came along and pushed the button and I was trotting across the street in seconds. Duh.

American gal moment #4: I had to ask my first cab driver to help me sort my local cash.

Americans are more bill-oriented than coin-oriented, so I didn’t realize that coins were pounds until my cabbie explained it to me. I just assumed that coins had smaller value and you couldn’t really use them for anything of real value. However, there are pound coins and two-pound coins in London – perfect for tips!

American gal moment #5: I had no idea where to get a forgotten item.

One of the charming things about London is that it seemed to be a series of small shops vs. the mega-brand stores we have here in America. However, if one forgets say….their hair brush, this makes it difficult to discern which shops might carry such items.

Since I had already embarrassed myself with one of my friends / colleagues back at home, I decided that I could ask my London-based friend / business partner where one could procure a hair brush. He graciously took me around town to secure one before we headed out to dinner that evening and then helped me select a good brand. I went British with my selection because, well, I figured if I was adding to my brush “collection”, why not go international?

American gal moment #6: I had no idea where to get cash. And how!

I stupidly figured 100 USD in cash would be fine for the week since I was on a business trip and would use my corporate card for most expenses. I am pretty much cash-free all the time, so this seemed reasonable. And it was a fine plan until I realized that black cabs don’t always take cards and they are crazy expensive. I used almost all of my cash on two cab rides to / from the office on Monday (my first full day there).

So, I needed cash AND a hair brush by the time dinner rolled around. Which means the poor fella who had to take me hair brush shopping also had to take me to get cash.

Naturally, my bank card didn’t work, which was simply fantastic. It was past operating hours in the US when this happened, so I would have to wait to call the bank until the morning. BUT – I needed cash that night for my cab ride home.

Yes. It happened. This American had to borrow cash from a local friend after I already made him take me hair brush shopping.

As he was throwing me in the cab (quickly, to get himself out of any other possible crazy requests I might have), I made some jokes along the lines of ‘Hey, thanks for dinner…and the hair brush…and the cash. Aren’t you glad I came to visit?” Hahaha. Oh my. Awkward American. He’s still speaking with me (and pleasantly), so I guess he didn’t mind too much. (Or it could be that we’re currently partnering on the largest event we produce every year and he has no choice. Haha.)

American gal moment #7: Tipping isn’t really a big thing in London.

But, because I am American, I am mentally programmed to tip for services. I was definitely a fan-favorite with servers, cabbies and bellhops by the time I left!

American gal moment #8: I walk on the wrong side of the sidewalk.

Which causes a lot of close / unwelcome contact with strangers. I mentioned to my hairbrush-shopping, bank-rolling friend that I felt like Londoners walk very close to each other and there wasn’t a ton of personal space to be had. I told him I was going to start walking down the street like this <picture me walking with elbows out to the side, even with my shoulders> (if you don’t know me, but are reading this, picture someone you do know doing that pose – haha). He quipped, “This isn’t America, man. This is an ISLAND – precious space to be had.” Hahahaha.

It wasn’t until the next afternoon that I realized I was actually walking on the right, like all Americans do. Muscle memory. Haha. Once I figured out that I should be on the left, all was right in my world. (See what I did there?) Sure, people still walk closely to one another, but in a normal ‘this is a crowded city’ kind of way vs. a full body contact kind of way.

All-in-all, nothing too embarrassing, right? Sure, sure a few laughs to be had, but I think I’d be welcomed back. 😉

 

My London Calling (Finally!)

Heading to London has been what feels like a lifelong dream for me. And it finally came true this week! Woo hoo!

As frequently as I travel for work (and it’s really not much compared to road-warrior standards), I never have to travel internationally. In fact the last time – and only time! – I traveled internationally was about 14 years ago when I went to Italy. At the time I worked as a creative project manager for the now defunct sporting goods arm of a fashion brand that was popular in the 80s. I was sent to headquarters to meet my colleague in Italy to plan international product photo shoots for the upcoming season. (You should interpret this as way too fancy for my mid-20s self. Because it was. I still look back on that job and can’t believe it was mine. Haha.) The office was located just outside of a small town that was within driving distance to Venice.

I have to say my first international travel experience was kind of crazy:

  • First of all, I had to book all of my business travel on my own credit card – say whaaaaaat? Can you imagine having to do that at 24? Frankly, I am still shocked I had a balance limit high enough to foot that bill. To put this into better perspective, I was engaged to be married and still living at home with my parents. As in sleeping in the same bed I slept in when Debbie Gibson was all the rage. Think white paneled walls, white glossy furniture with gold trim, teal rugs and a sweet white metal frame daybed. Pretty sure I had a Kirk Cameron poster hanging on my closet door. Growing Pains Kirk Cameron, not reborn Kirk Cameron. (Yes, I picked it all out by my 12-year-old self. In case that wasn’t obvious by the description.) All this sandwiched between my brothers’ room and my parents’ room. Not exactly a jet setter, you see.
  • Second of all, I would be traveling with two VPs  who were going to R&D and product development meetings. (I was going to design meetings.) I barely knew them outside of their sheer giddiness that the three of us were going to corporate headquarters. As I was basically a baby with a job at this stage, the significance of being sent to HQ for meetings was completely lost on me. I was, frankly, scared about traveling internationally as I’d never done it before. Despite not knowing my travel companions well, I took some comfort in the fact that I, at least, HAD travel companions. Which takes us to my next point….
  • …Since we were all going on our trip together, and we all booked our trip together, I figured we’d all be sitting together on the plane. Ah, so young, naive and the apparent proud owner of a utopian view of this particular work place. We weren’t sitting together. So on top of being scared to travel to Italy alone with two practical strangers, I now got to wave to them as they were nestled in their giant leather First Class seats as I trotted my way through to coach. Although, if I am honest, waving was actually more of a greeting than we usually exchanged in the office – hahaha. A few observations at this stage of my adventure:
    • Odd that they were booked in First and I was in coach, yea? I mean, there’s no difference in flight length for any of us. Maybe their legs need to stretch more because they are VPs? Made tons of sense and was not at all hierarchical. It also made me super happy.
    • They didn’t even have to pay for their own ticket! Suckers. Everyone knows your business trips are way more enjoyable when you get to pay for them yourselves. Haha.
    • I later checked with a friendly face in HR and they told me policy was that employees in my level could only fly in coach. I was welcome to upgrade, but I would only be reimbursed for coach. Well, that’s a kick in the pants, eh? Now I was struggling with inequality / fairness issues.
  • Finally, I felt scared. Very scared. It was literally only like my third business trip (one was to New York and the other was to Chicago, both exciting cities, but neither terribly far from home) and now, here I was about to fly halfway around the world with two guys I barely knew to a country where English wasn’t the first language. (If it was France, I definitely wouldn’t have been scared – I had two solid years of high school French classes under my belt – at the very least, I could introduce myself to people and ask how their day was. Italian? No shot.) (That was a joke. I probably would have been scared to go to France at that point of my career, too.)

I can still, to this day, picture Kenny’s face as I walked away in the terminal. Not being super-adventerous, but determined with a slight flair for selected over-dramatics when I feel I’ve been wronged , I spent the entire car ride from Philadelphia to Newark Airport talking myself out of this trip to the point where I felt my best option was to just quit this job so I wouldn’t have to go. This was after a month-long build up where I repeatedly played Jekyll and Hyde – vacillating between being excited and being scared – particularly when we realized I didn’t have a passport and had to rush one through – at my own expense, of course. I honestly could not wrap my head around why I had to spend my own money to do all these things for work / for an international company that definitely had enough money to fund this trip.  During this car ride, I realized I had no idea if I would ever get my money back for the plane ticket if I just didn’t get on the plane. With a wedding to plan, and a pricy plane ticket in hand, not getting reimbursed seemed like a bad idea. It also seemed like a bad move career-wise, but my 24-year-old self found this whole thing to be so egregious that I was completely disengaged.  Needless to say, I was so upset that I ended up making him upset for me. (Not really my best moments, to be honest.)

I met up with my colleagues in the terminal and said goodbye to Kenny and started walking away. At this point, we had our very own Hollywood moment: I was crying to myself as I walked down the terminal only to turn and see his face wrought with worry and his hands waving me back to him. Seeing that I was still crying, he called out that I should just come back home with him and we’d figure it all out. Sweet, right? For some reason, this gave me courage and the push I needed to get on the plane. (After I ran back to hug him one last time, of course.) Thinking back, I realize I didn’t want him to be disappointed in me for not taking the opportunity. I made it to Italy.

It was gorgeous, and generally, the trip was good while I was there. Yes, it was weird to take a day trip to Venice with travel companions who were practically strangers and have a lazy afternoon touring St. Mark’s Square and drinking prosecco. After realizing this was my first trip overseas, they took kindly to me – which I appreciated.  During the course of the week, I met many new colleagues and all seemed to settle into place, and I ended up enjoying my time there. (Read: I pretty much freaked myself out for no reason. Except that I still had to pay for everything myself! And had to fly coach because I was too far down the ladder. There was still that.)

One of my colleagues, who was based in Italy, thought it would be a good idea for me to spend an afternoon seeing the small town near the HQ office. So, she drove me there in her car after our meetings. I assumed she would be staying with me, but I was wrong. She pulled into the center of town and she told me she was going back to the office, but when I was ready to come back to take a taxi. I asked her how I would ask for one since…uh….everyone speaks Italian and I do not. She laughed me off and reassured me that someone in the shops will speak English and be able to help me. Was I being punked? I mean, I think her intentions were good, but when you boil it down – a stranger dropped me off in a strange town in the middle of a foreign country with no way for me to get back to where I was staying. Maybe I wasn’t being punked. As it turned out, it was more like a tourist version of Survivor: Small Town Italy.

Of course, my naive 24-year-old self thought her idea sounded reasonable, so I spent an hour or so walking in and out of shops in the center of town. I have to say, with the benefit of hindsight: cars seemed pretty absent from this whole scene and I hadn’t seen a taxi the whole time I was there. Hmmmm. I was soon ready to head back to the hotel, so I asked someone how I could get a taxi.

Picture a male Italian citizen of your choosing shrugging his shoulders and shaking his head “no”.

I repeated myself.

Now picture that same Italian citizen cocking his head to one side, smiling, holding his hand up (palms up – you know the pose) and still shaking his head “no”. He then said stuff in Italian to me. I thanked him and walked away. (Yes, I still thanked him. In English. Which he clearly doesn’t understand.)

So, you can repeat this scenario like four or five more times. I was kind of panicked after the first three folks couldn’t help me. I popped into a shop – same deal. Went next door – same deal again.  Finally, I spotted a public phone. YES! This was going to be my saving grace. I would simply call my colleague and have her come get me. But – I had no coins and no idea how to use the phone. And since no one I encountered by this point spoke English, I couldn’t change in some bills for coins. Or ask for help using the phone.

I was pretty scared at this point. The sun was getting lower in the sky and I knew this small town would be closing up for the night very soon. I regrouped and made a plan. I would simply go into each and every shop and ask each and every person I encountered for help.

I hit five or six more stores. Still nothing.

Finally – I saw it. A store for the parent company for which I worked! YESSSSSS! I went in and asked if they spoke English. “No, sorry, no English,” I imagine they said in Italian. The only word I was close to understanding was what seemed to be “English”.  I then handed them my business card. This immediately changed the tone – and they went into the back to get one of their male colleagues. He came out and I asked him if he spoke English. He smiled and told me “Not too much.” I simply stated, “Taxi?” in my most hopeful tone of voice. He shook his head and said, “Sorry?” and raised his hands. I mimicked driving while I said, “Taxi?” Still no.

Hot tears sprang into my eyes. I didn’t know what I was going to do. Pity filled his face. I just stood there because, really, where else did I have to go? Then I had an idea – I did a gesture to signal pen and paper. “Ah, si, si!” he said and grabbed both from the drawer.

Oh yea, I did it. I started a crazy game of Pictionary to get myself home.

I drew a picture of a good old fashioned taxi – complete with a checkerboard stripe because I figured that would be a distinguishing feature.

I drew a road leading to a building. I added some details to make the building seem hotel-ish.

I added the name of the hotel above my lovely primitive blueprint.

I handed it to him and repeated, “Taxi? Drive? Hotel?” and willed him to understand one of those words.

He looked at the drawing and raised his eyes. Then he smiled and said, “Si! Si! Si! Otel!” (I took “otel” to be his version of “hotel”.) I said yes and pointed to my drawing of the taxi, pointed to the phone, held a pretend phone up to my ear, then pointed to myself.

He finally understood. Finally!

I wanted to cry tears of happiness.

He picked up the phone and ordered me a taxi. And I was finally on my way back to the hotel a few minutes later.

The rest of the trip involved nothing quite as exciting as that adventure – you know the drill, lots of meetings, a tour of HQ and the campus, some dinners with senior-level US ex-pats and their families, dinner and a visit with some of our international sales  leaders, etc. While I wouldn’t say I was the winner of Survivor: Small Town Italy, I did, at least, survive my first international business trip, and I was proud of that.

But, you’ll notice, I hadn’t done it again. Until this week – 14 years later. I’ve traveled a lot between then and now, so I am more experienced. I am used to traveling solo. Still not 100% in love with the solo travel scene, but I am always meeting colleagues at my destinations, so I have some friendly faces to look forward to when I get there. However, this time, I wasn’t meeting them until Monday, so I had a whole afternoon to fill when I arrived. So I grabbed my camera and went out and walked around town for 3 and a half hours by myself – and I wasn’t scared at all. It was actually quite fun!

London is fantastic – it’s everything I always imagined it to be, and I can’t wait to come back. But it will definitely be a vacation next time.

 

And This Week’s Trip Starts with a Laugh…

And This Week’s Trip Starts with a Laugh…

If today’s liquid lunch is any indication of how this week’s business trip is going to go, well, color me amused, and kind of disgusted. (And, no, not that kind of liquid lunch, just a caffeine-laden calorie fest to hold me over four hours until I can grab some linner in Atlanta before my next leg.)

Seriously.

The only thing funnier than this picture was this:

The barista popped the top on, this popped out the top and whipped cream shrapnel hit her bangs. She looked at the drink, looked at her bangs, then looked at me and yelped, “Awwww, man.” But then she probably realized it was kind of funny and looked hilarious, so she slid it across the counter to me with a devilish smirk, secretly wishing me good luck and probably already making a mental list of friends to whom she was going to text about giving this lady at work today a pretty phallic-looking frappuccino.

Really, now.

Is there a delicate way to fix this? Do I wipe it off? Lick it? Insert a straw and try to get this ridiculousness to slink back into the cup? Ugh. None of these was a good option. Especially in public. I was going to be victim number two of whipped cream shrapnel no matter what I chose.

Two dudes in the Starbucks chuckled at my drink. Of course they did. It was slightly phallic. Slightly. And the fact that we were dealing in whipped cream here didn’t help matters.

This is a perfect pic for ‘caption this’. Have at it, folks!