London Calling

I often tell people I never expected to like London as much as I do.  Don’t get me wrong – I would never, ever live there – it’s too expensive, rushed, big, and dense.  But for a few days at a time, quietly sipped, it’s a wonderful retreat for a native English speaker.

For one, most of the museums are free.  Over eight or so visits I’ve gotten to see the great treasures of the National Gallery, the National Portrait Gallery, the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, the Tate Britain and the Tate Modern, the Natural History Museum, as well as had the chance to venture out to Greenwich to see the marvelous nautical museums out there.

Then there’s the food.  Just saying the word “spicy” is enough to make French people reach for their throats, pre-emptively coughing.  It’s not their fault.  There’s not any native spicy food in France.  Same for the cuisines in Germany and Switzerland.  But the British palette, early on stretched by colonial ambitions, can tolerate quite a bit of spice, and so you see many more Indian and Malay restaurants here, done using authentic spice profiles.  You can find those cuisines, and dozens more, for bargain prices.  There’s also the theatre.  As a native speaker of the language I appreciate all the nuance, humo(u)r, and wordplay without the need of a translator or intermediary.

In a way, London is where I go to remind myself what it feels like to freely breathe in my native language, whereas in France, my French reading comprehension has far outpaced my speaking speed, so while I scan through Le Figaro or Le Monde at my regular English reading speed and truly understand what is written, my speed in discussing issues spoken about between those pages, or any issues in general, is slower.  I’m always a bit more cautious and held back with witticisms, jokes, or the casual jump-in of a serious conversation in my new language.

As for getting to London, having flown in and out of Luton, Gatwick, and Heathrow from Paris, I’m a very big advocate of taking the Eurostar.  If you book 6-8 weeks in advance, you can routinely pay around 50€ each way, which is not only competitive with the lowest rates you can pay to fly, but it’s one of those rare instances in which taking a train is actually faster than taking a plane.  The Eurostar is 2 hours and 20 minutes, Gare du Nord to Saint Pancras, and is city-center to city-center, connected by the Metro and Tube, respectively.  Even the fastest trip from Gare du Nord out to CDG is going to take you at least 30 minutes (slightly longer to get out to Orly), then you need to get through security, and then you need to be there at least one hour before your flight.  By the time you have done all that, you could have already been in London, and you haven’t even left Paris yet.  So, if you want to take a few days’ trip to London, you can get there and back pretty quickly, and pretty affordably.

The question might be accommodation.  And that’s a fair point.  Over the years I’ve developed a really wonderful group of friends in London and if they are in town I can often crash at their places.  But if everyone is out of town, I can find a hostel (25-35€/night) or an airbnb/hotel (55-75€/night).  Just be prepared: in London they aren’t shy about renting out spaces that would be glorified closets in America.  You can get more space, of course, if you’re willing to pay for it.

You don’t need to regularly visit, as I do.  Just go once and see how you feel.  I definitely underestimated it when I first visited as a tourist, back in 2009.  Summer, with Wimbledon and sunshine everywhere, is a great time to give it your first try.

I took the picture from Westminster Bridge on the day after the Brexit Referendum, just some minutes after I had left College Green by Parliament, where I had been doing some short informal interviews with some MPs and MEPs on their reactions to the referendum result.  The article I wrote on it is here.

 

The US visit: tips and tricks

I’m just returning from my fourth visit to America after relocating to France, and I thought I might share some tips and strategies to help you when you make your flights back.

Consider flying from London.  The fares are simply much more aggressively priced out of there and I got a $600 USD roundtrip ticket from London to Los Angeles on just 120 days notice.  Outside of the ultra-low-cost carrier market, prices are always higher when you fly to a country that doesn’t speak the language of the country you’re flying from.  For example, Paris to Martinique (French-speaking to French-speaking): $450 USD when I was scouting those fares a couple months back.  Paris to Grand Cayman (French-speaking to English-speaking), just minutes further away?  $800 USD.  It would make sense to fly to Martinique and then hop a small flight to the Caymans if that was your destination (but why not just try Martinique?  Grand Cayman, Little Cayman, and Cayman Brac will be there for you next time 🙂 ).  The airlines are guessing (rightly) that you’re probably a tourist, not just visiting family, and hence feel they can charge you more.

The same applies here in Europe.  If you book far enough ahead you can get 60€ roundtrip tickets on Eurostar (no I’m not kidding) for Paris-London and then fly from London.  Or you can make a side trip to London out of it.  You’ll still be ahead based on your savings from not flying out of Paris.  The exact same flight I took from London had a connecting leg from Paris…for $300 USD more.

Realize that 3 flights are more expensive than 4 (but are also easier).  I’ve visited America as a leg of a visit to South America.  I’ve also done the additional internal roundtrip route.  The latter is definitely cheaper.  My parents live in California so my inbound and outbound flights were out of Los Angeles but I also spent a week in Kansas, which I flew to directly using Spirit Airlines, the only ultra-low-cost carrier (read: charges for water and carry-ons) in North America.  The $200 for that flight (Los Angeles-Kansas City-Los Angeles) plus the original $600 for the London-Los Angeles segment added up to $800, or roughly $400 cheaper than the London-Los Angeles-Kansas City-London route I had priced out at $1225 USD.  Of course the “savings” cost me 6 hours as I had to fly “back” to LA, away from Europe, and as I landed in LA to spend a few more days with my parents after visiting friends and family in Kansas I decided to do the easier 3 flight journey for my sister’s upcoming wedding in October.  After this most recent trip, I think the extra cost will definitely be worth it.

Consider flying Air New Zealand if they are on your route.  I was so pleased with my experience in coach of all places that I wrote about it the day after I landed!

Use Priceline for rental cars.  Name Your Price is still alive and well and I used it to get a car for $20/day USD in Los Angeles, with Avis.  If you want to know the hack, send me an email.

Keep some loose cash with your electrical adapters.  You won’t have to go to an ATM right away when you deplane, and you also won’t forget the adapters you need.

Carry a MiFi device.  T-Mobile has a $20/month plan that gives you 1 GB of data that rolls over what you haven’t used.  Since I’m only in the US once or twice a year, when I do show up, I have accrued 6 or more gigs over the months I’ve been gone, which I can then freely use.  I turn off my European data when the airplane door in Europe closes, turn this device on when we are wheels down in America, tether to it, and then basically use my phone as if I were in Europe.  The only difference is that when I want to make calls, I use Skype, which costs pennies per minute to call landlines.  You can buy the credit directly through the app.  The device has a one-time cost of about $80 USD.

What other tips do you all have to make visiting the States easier?  Please share them in the comments.

Photo was taken by me this month on the rocky Laguna Beach shoreline.  My amazing parents, celebrating 40 years of marriage this year.